Disclaimer: Okay, folks, I don't own the characters, not making money, etc. This is part five, the next-to-last installment of this fic. Part six will be the last, but it might be long. This section is also slightly longer than the others, and there are a few very lemony scenes in it. Consider yourself warned. Hope you enjoy, and reviews are greatly appreciated.

Absolution Part V
by the Prime Minister

Lina turned around and waved at her family one last time, trying not to let Lecia drag her down the road by the hand. Her parents and sister waved back at her, then her mother turned to her father and buried her face in his massive chest. Luna continued to wave, but her other hand wiped at her eyes, and Lina felt an answering burning behind her own eyeballs. Finally she could no longer stand it and turned away, instead fixing her eyes on the man that strode easily by her side. His dark eyes were focused on the road ahead, the wind whipping his glossy hair against his tanned cheeks. Their weeks traveling had exposed them to sun, and unlike her his skin had begun to brown slightly. His straight nose, sensitive mouth, and pointed chin were presented to her in profile as the sun shone down upon him, and her heart soared to know that she was with such a powerful, handsome, elegant man.

Xellos turned to her and studied her a moment before smiling slightly. "Yes?" he asked.

Lina blushed a little bit and glanced away for a moment. "Oh, nothing. I was just thinking how nice it is that you almost always keep your eyes open now."

His smile altered slightly with amusement, as if he knew what she had really been thinking. "When one has lived several thousand years, one learns a certain amount of elegance and gravity," he replied with a wink, and she knew that he had guessed exactly what she had been thinking.

She shook her head and looked at the road stretching before him. He had been human now for quite some time, and he was only just starting to return to the fruity-little-Monster attitude that had entertained her so in the past. She had noticed that he was far more sedate as a human, and she supposed that was only natural. After all, being human had a lot more weight and worry to it than being an immortal demon. Being a parent only made the situation even more serious. Still, she caught shimmers of mischief behind his bottomless eyes, and she hoped he wouldn't misbehave too badly once they got to Seyruun.

"How far is it?" Lecia asked suddenly, tugging on Lina's hand.

Lina looked at Xellos, watching the long, easy swinging of his legs as he walked, his staff keeping time with his step as his other arm cradled Gorran in a sitting position. He shrugged at her glance. "Probably a month at most," she replied after a bit of thought. "To tell you the truth, I'm not really sure. I never went straight to Seyruun from Zefeeria."

"I only ever teleported, so I'm afraid I'm not aware of the distance," Xellos added.

"Daaaa," Gorran sighed, patting at his father's arm.

Xellos chuckled and became absorbed in entertaining the baby, leaving her to answer all of Lecia's questions. "At any rate, Lecia, we know where we're going and we know when we'll get there."

Lecia considered this. "Seyruun is where your friends live, Mommy?"

"That's right."

"And you said they're nice?"

Lina nodded, thinking. "Princess Amelia is very nice, and I'm sure her father will just love you kids. He's a big old bear of a man, but he's actually pretty sweet. Amelia's husband, Prince Zelgadis, is actually very nice as well, but he's not as outgoing as Amelia is. I think you'll like him, he's a smart man, but you'll have to be patient."

"Why is he not like Amelia?" Lecia asked, eyes wide as she trotted next to Lina.

Lina took a deep breath. "Well, he's not completely human."

"You mean like Daddy? Like how Daddy wasn't always human?"

"Sort of. Only Daddy became human. It's the opposite with Zel. He was born a human, but then one of his relatives, who was a great sorcerer, turned him into a chimera."

"Whassat?"

"A chimera?"

"Yeah."

"It's something that's a mixture of other things. For example, Zelgadis is one-third human, one-third demon, and one-third golem."

"Does he look like a human?" Lecia asked, eyes wide.

"Sort of. His skin is different, though, and his hair is different. Oh, and his ears are pointed. But he's still built like a man. He's actually rather handsome."

She felt eyes upon her and turned her head to see Xellos smiling at her. "I didn't know you thought Zelgadis was attractive," he murmured.

Lina blushed. "I actually had a little crush on him for a while. Not only is he cute, but he's smart, strong, and dignified. Plus he has the whole mysterious-swordsman thing going on. That can be very attractive to a woman, much more so than a fruity little trickster routine."

Xellos raised his eyebrows. "Well, then," he said, pretending to be hurt. "I had best be careful you don't discard this fruity little trickster for a mysterious swordsman-prince," he joked.

Lecia suddenly gripped Lina's hand very hard. "Oh, no, Mommy, don't leave Daddy for the prince!" she said, eyes frightened. "I don't want you to be apart again!"

Lina laughed, feeling a little guilty for the way the turbulence in her relationship with Xellos had affected the little girl. "Don't worry," she said soothingly. "I'm not going to leave Daddy."

"Okay," Lecia replied, but she still looked doubtful.

Lina tried to think of something that would take the child's mind off of her and Xellos. "Oh, another thing you'll like about Seyruun is their ice cream."

"Do they have good ice cream there?" Lecia asked, eyes wide.

"The best in the whole wide world," Xellos told her, grinning.

Lina rolled her eyes. "It's Daddy's favorite, but he hasn't had any since he turned human. We'll have to make sure he doesn't eat so much he gets sick."

Lecia nodded emphatically. "He's not as good at eating as you," she agreed.

Lina couldn't help but laugh. "That's my girl," she mumbled, and told her stories about her first adventures with Amelia and Zel until they stopped for lunch.

As night fell she was happy that the lands that used to be inside the Monster's barrier were fairly densely populated. They only had to spend a few nights in the woods, and Gorran had taken to traveling quite well. Lecia was easy to entertain with stories, and Lina felt glad to be back in the lands she was so familiar with. It was nice that people still remembered her, too, for she had left her family now and then for a few hours to go track down bandits. They screamed and ran as soon as they saw her, and she was happy that Lina Inverse, the bandit killer, was still famous somewhere in the world.

Still, when they sat down at night, Lina would often feel an uncomfortable swirling of emotions inside her gut, and it made the journey slightly less pleasant than it should have been. She missed her parents and sisters, which surprised her, and found herself wondering when she would see them again. Xellos gently nudged her through the ring, and she realized that he wanted her to talk about it. They were only a few days from Seyruun, staying at an inn in a small village. They had taken one room, Lecia and Gorran curled up in their own cot, and Lina cuddled closer to Xellos in the darkness.

"I don't want to talk about it," she growled, feeling contrary.

He nuzzled her ear and kissed her. "You might feel better," he said. "Come on."

She sighed, considering, and then decided he was right. What could it hurt, after all? "I miss my folks," she said. "I even miss Luna. It's weird, because I was so scared to see them, but now that I'm not sure when I'll see them again, I really, really miss them."

"We'll see them again soon, I'm sure," he murmured. "If I could teleport us all there and back it would be much easier."

"No," she replied firmly. "I'm happy you can't teleport. If you could, it would mean you wouldn't be able to love me anymore, and I'd rather miss my family than have that happen. Besides, it's not like I won't see them again. It just might be longer than I'd like it to."

"See, you figured it out," he chuckled. "But that's not all that's bothering you."

"Nonsense," she said roughly, momentarily despising the connection they constantly shared through the rings. It wasn't an invasive awareness, but if one reached through it the other person's feelings were like an open book. It bothered her that Xellos could reach into her without detection. Although he didn't have many scruples, he did have enough respect for her to keep from prying most of the time, and she knew it.

"No, beloved, I know that something else is on your mind. Are you worried about what Amelia and Zelgadis will think when they see us together?"

"Zel always suspected something, anyway," she grumbled. Damn it, she hated it when he was right on the money.

He was silent for a moment, his deep, slow breathing the only sound in the quiet room. "Are you ashamed of me?" he asked softly.

Lina snorted. "Of course not, you great fool," she growled. "It's just.... Well, it's going to be a hassle to explain everything."

To her surprise, Xellos chuckled. "Oh, I can't wait to see the expressions on their faces when they see us together," he said wickedly. "I fear poor Mister Zelgadis will have a heart attack."

"Which is exactly what you're hoping for, right?"

His chuckle sounded again, deep and silky in the darkness. "That's a secret," he murmured, and they talked in low voices until she fell asleep.

They woke the next morning, ate breakfast, and were back on the road early. They walked for several more days, and Lina noticed that the closer they got to Seyruun, the more often Xellos stopped and looked around, a slight frown on his face. When she asked him about it, though, he'd just smile his trademark smile and shrug, driving her crazy. They were only about two days out, by her estimation, when Xellos suddenly handed Gorran to her and went to the edge of the road, face set in a scowl as he peered into the brush. Her magic sense tingled and she knew he was casting a spell. He stood at the side of the road for several more moments, then went to the other side, concentrating just as hard. His face seemed set in granite as he searched for something, and small tendrils of apprehension snaked down her spine. "What is it?" she asked.

He turned to her, the lines of concentration in his face fading. "Nothing, dearest," he said with his trademark smile.

She growled and jabbed at him through the rings, watching in satisfaction as his eyes widened. "I know it's not nothing," she said smugly.

"You're getting better, you know," he replied.

"I'm a quick learner. Now, come clean with me. Something's wrong."

Xellos opened his eyes and gazed at her levelly. "No, nothing's wrong. Not yet at least."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I'm not certain. The past week or so I've been feeling like something's following us, but I can't put my finger on it. There's nothing there, though," he said.

Lina narrowed her eyes and studied him for a moment from the other side of the road, still holding Lecia's hand and supporting Gorran on her hip. "Then there's nothing we can do yet," she replied. "You'll know when it gets too close, and by then you should know what it is. We can deal with it when that happens. No point worrying about it right now."

He smiled and nodded, but his gaze still searched the forest. "You're right, of course," he mumbled, then moved as if he was going to step off into the underbrush.

"Dada!" a small voice cried, piercing the stillness of the day.

Xellos' eyes widened and Lina nearly dropped her son. "What?" she asked, looking down at the little boy.

Gorran's tiny arms were outstretched, his face contorted with anxiety. "Dada!" he cried again, reaching for Xellos.

"Oh gods, he's talking!" Lina breathed. "Xellos, did you hear that?"

Xellos' face nearly split as he grinned, and he trotted over immediately, taking his son into his arms and holding the boy up to the sky. "Daddy's here, love!" he crowed. "Say it again!"

Gorran eyed his father suspiciously, then reached down and tried to grab some of Xellos' dark, glossy hair. "Dada!" he repeated.

"His first word!" Xellos announced, curling the child into his arms and covering his little head with kisses. "What a good boy!"

Gorran giggled and tried to smack Xellos' face with his palms.

Lecia grinned, the expression most definitely not innocent. Lina peered down at her daughter, eyes narrowed. "What?" she growled at her oldest child.

Lecia blinked at her mother but did not stop grinning. "Gorran's a good little brother," was all she would say.

Lina raised an eyebrow. "You've been trying to get him to say that ever since we left Grandma and Grandpa's, haven't you?" she said softly.

Lecia's grin widened. "That's a secret," she said in perfect imitation of her father.

Lina took a deep breath, ready to scold her daughter for being sneaky, then glanced at Xellos. His face was radiant as he laughed and danced around with his son, obviously thrilled to be Gorran's first word. Sighing, Lina looked down at Lecia and stroked her hair tenderly. "Good job," she murmured, and Lecia laughed, hugging her.

"I'm his first word!" Xellos chortled, displaying Gorran to her.

"Dada, Dada," the baby said dutifully, dark eyes fixed on Lina.

The child's words sent Xellos into another fit of mad giggling. "Come on," Lina said, towing Lecia after her as she continued down the road.

"But, Daddy," Lecia said, turning around and staring at where Xellos was capering in the middle of the road.

"He'll catch up when he comes to his senses," Lina said with a smile, and then continued on toward Seyruun.

A couple of days later the white walls of Seyruun stretched out before them. "What's that?" Lecia breathed, clinging to her mother's hand.

"That's Seyruun, kiddo," Lina said, feeling something inside her twist. It was all or nothing, she realized. Well, if Amelia and Zel rejected her for being with Xellos, she decided, then she didn't need them anyway.

"It's so big!" Lecia whispered, staring at the city in wonder.

"Yup," Lina replied, remembering that Lecia had never been in such a big city before. "We just have to go to the palace and see if Amelia and Zel will meet us."

"I don't see why they wouldn't, right, love?" Xellos added, tickling Gorran underneath the chin.

"Dada," Gorran replied.

Lina ground her teeth. "Couldn't you have taught him more than one word?" she asked her daughter, who smiled up at her innocently. Now that Gorran realized that the adults understood what he was saying, he talked all the damn time, and it was driving Lina nuts.

"You taught him that, Lecia?" Xellos asked.

Lecia paled a little bit, then nodded her head. "Yes, Daddy," she replied softly.

Xellos broke out in laughter, running a hand over her dark hair. "You're the best daughter in the world, did you know that?" he said. "Here, come hold my hand."

Lecia looked up at Lina, who nodded, and the little girl ran to her father. Lina wiped the child's palm-sweat off on her leggings. She took Xellos' staff and slung it over her shoulder, then started off, whistling, for Seyruun.

The city was even bigger than she remembered it. Then again, she hadn't been there for nearly what, six years? There were more people, more merchants, and more buildings, but the city was just as spotless as it had always been. It was incredible fun to be among all the hustle and bustle again, and the first place they stopped was at an ice cream parlor. Xellos and Lecia made twin kitty-smiles and gave Lina the thumbs-up. Xellos even let Gorran have a taste of his ice cream, and the baby squealed and laughed, reaching for more. "Now, now," Xellos chided, holding his ice cream out of reach. "We can't have your teeth rotting even before they all come in."

Gorran was fussy for a while after that, but by the time they reached the palace gates he had calmed. Lecia seemed absolutely floored by the sight of the palace, clinging to her father's hand and staying very close to him as they reached the armed guards. Xellos simply murmured comforting words to her, and Lina took the lead.

"Halt," one of the guards said, thrusting a spear in front of her and blocking her way. Her first instinct was to blast him to kingdom come, but she knew she would have to listen to a few hours' worth of Amelia's rants if she did that. "What business do you have in the palace?"

"I'm here to see Princess Amelia," she stated angrily, eyes blazing.

"Do you have an appointment?"

"I don't need an appointment," she snapped. "Amelia will see me, so go announce that I'm here."

The guard called a page over. "Very well, we will see if she will grant you admittance," he said. "Your name?"

"Lina Inverse," she stated coldly, watching with satisfaction as the man's eyes widened.

"THE Lina Inverse?" he breathed. "The bandit killer? The dragon spoo-"

"I'd stop there," Xellos advised from behind her.

"The one and only," Lina said testily. She had always hated that "spooker" crap, anyway. "Go tell her I'm here and I want to see her right away."

"Of course!" the guard breathed, turning to glare at the dumbstruck page. "Go, boy, and tell the Princess!" The boy scurried off as fast as his legs would carry him, calling out that Lina Inverse was at the gates, demanding to see the Princess. Soon a crowd had gathered at the gate, peering out at Lina, who stood with her arms crossed over her chest, glaring angrily at everyone who dared meet her stare.

A few minutes later the boy came racing back, out of breath. He sagged and put his hands on his knees, panting. "The Princess says to admit her and escort her to the throne room at once," he breathed.

The guard nodded and cleared the way for Lina, who stepped past him, nose in the air. Xellos followed with the children, only to be stopped a moment later. "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure if I can admit you," the guard said uncertainly.

"You had better let them in," Lina snapped. "They're my family."

Lecia beamed up at the guard. "My mommy's famous," she grinned.

"Well, I," the guard stammered, looking very confused.

"I'm an old friend of Amelia's, too," Xellos said with a slow smile. "Honestly, do we look very threatening?"

The guard looked absolutely sick for a moment, then sighed. "Fine, fine," he grumbled. "I have a feeling that Miss Inverse will give me more trouble than the Princess will."

"Damn straight," Lina snapped, gesturing for Xellos to follow her, and let them be led to the throne room.

"About damn time," Lina growled loudly as the great doors to the throne room were pushed open. A long red carpet ran from the doors to the throne, and the room was full of people. Two people sat in the thrones at the end, and Lina recognized them immediately. "Amelia?" she called, taking quick steps forward.

"Miss Lina?" Amelia said, jumping up from her seat and dashing down the carpet. "Oh, Miss Lina!"

Lina grunted as Amelia threw herself at her, catching the younger woman in a clumsy embrace. "Hey, Amelia," she said gently, smiling. "How are you doing?"

"Wonderfully!" Amelia cried, eyes shining as Lina held her out at arm's length. Her hair was just slightly longer than it had been the last time she had see the Princess, her cheeks just as rosy. Her abdomen, however, was slightly swollen, and Lina's eyes widened in amazement.

"Are you pregnant?" Lina breathed.

"With our fourth!" Amelia announced proudly, sweet face beaming.

"Welcome, Lina," a voice said, and she saw Zelgadis appear at Amelia's shoulder.

Lina pushed Amelia aside and embraced Zelgadis, caught up in the air of affection. Odd, but before she took up with Xellos, she never would have considered hugging Zelgadis. She supposed Xellos' cuddly ways were having an effect on her. Zelgadis' body was stiff against hers for a moment, then he relaxed and embraced her back. "How are you, Zel?" she asked, holding him at arms' length as well and studying him. He looked exactly the same as he had several years ago, the only difference being the softness she saw in his smile.

"Well," he replied. "I see Amelia told you we're expecting."

"Four kids, Zel?" Lina laughed. "You guys should be more careful!"

"We like children," Amelia protested. "None of them were accidents!"

"Children are wonderful," a silky voice said behind Lina, and she turned to see Xellos enter the room, Gorran in his arms and Lecia in tow. "Hello Mister Zelgadis, Miss Amelia," he said with a smile.

"Xellos?" Zelgadis said, voice bordering on anger. "What are you doing here?"

"And who are those children?" Amelia asked in dismay.

Xellos came even with Lina and pecked her on the cheek. "They're our little ones," he said proudly, his trademark smile even wider than usual.

"What?" Zelgadis bellowed, staring at Lina.

"Miss Lina, how?" Amelia asked, blinking rapidly.

Lina laughed nervously, scratching the back of her head. "Heh heh, well, Xellos is my husband, you see..."

"WHAT?" Zelgadis and Amelia said simultaneously. Amelia's eye began to twitch and a look of pure horror fell over Zel's face. He spluttered for a few moments, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted dead away. Amelia didn't notice, still staring at them, dumbfounded.

Xellos chuckled maniacally and Lina rolled her eyes, knowing that he was loving every single second. "Oh, these two never disappoint me," he said brightly.

"Great, just great," Lina murmured, then heard a commotion at the end of the room.

"What's going on here?" she heard a loud voice say.

Lina peered into the crowd to see a gigantic bear of a man moving toward them. She grinned and stood on tiptoe waving. "Hey, Prince Phil!" she called out, and the figure stopped and stared at her.

"Why, if it isn't Miss Lina!" he cried, rushing over to her. "How good to see you again!"

"You, too, Prince Phil!" she said. "Hey, this is my husband Xellos and our children, Lecia and Gorran."

Prince Phil smiled and said a gentle hello to the children, then eyed Xellos. "Don't I know you?" he said, frowning slightly.

"We've met before," Xellos said blandly, smiling.

"Uh, you might want to get Zel and Amelia to a room," Lina said. "They don't look so hot."

Phil saw his daughter standing, catatonic, and Zel's crumpled form on the floor. "Oh, dear," he murmured. "What happened?"

"I think they were surprised to see us," Xellos offered brightly.

"Uh, yeah, I don't think they knew I had kids," Lina added, laughing weakly.

Phil motioned over a few guards and had the two carefully picked up. It took four men to carry Zelgadis. "Take them to their suite," he ordered, watching as they were carried from the room.

"Happy?" she asked Xellos, who was grinning like crazy.

"Very," he replied with a giggle.

"Come on, let's follow," Lina said, and started after Phil.

It wasn't long before Zel and Amelia were revived and seated across a table from Lina, Xellos, and the children, Phil having gone back to the throne room to pick up where his daughter had left off. "Miss Lina," Amelia cried, eyebrows furrowed. "Why are you with Xellos?"

"Because we're married," Xellos chirped, bouncing Gorran in his lap.

"But, why are you married? And how could you possibly have children with him, since he's a...."

Zelgadis growled, interrupting her. His blue eyes bored into Xellos. "What did you do to Lina, you Monster?" he spat, hands clenched into fists.

Lina sighed and shook her head, watching as Xellos just sat there calmly. Zelgadis began his usual tirade about how awful Xellos was, and finally Lecia stepped in front of her father and slapped Zelgadis' knee. "Stop being mean to my daddy," she said with a scowl.

Zelgadis was obviously a bit taken aback by Lecia's actions, staring down at the little girl. "Monsters can't have children," he told her coldly.

"Daddy's a human," she informed him, voice equally cold as her dark eyes regarded him carefully. "Mommy turned him into one."

Zelgadis narrowed his eyes and sat back down, glaring at Xellos. "Is she telling the truth, Miss Lina?" Amelia asked, brow still laden with worry.

"Yeah, but it's a long story," Lina mumbled.

Amelia studied Xellos for a moment, then put her hand over Zel's. "Look, he has silver hairs," she whispered to her husband.

"Uh, I can hear you," Xellos said.

"It could be a trick," Zel hissed, still scowling.

Xellos smiled and opened his eyes, turning the full force of his human gaze on Zelgadis. "It's no trick," he said softly. "I'm as human, actually more human, than you are."

Zel's fists tightened and he growled low in his throat. "Why, you," he snarled.

"Dada!" Gorran called out suddenly.

Lecia wandered around Zel's chair, finally climbing up into his lap. Zel's eyes widened in surprise as the little girl put one hand on either side of his face and examined him. "You have pretty ears, too, just like Val," she finally declared. "And your hair isn't wire." She reached up and rubbed some of his lavender hair between her thumb and forefinger. "It's really tough, though. I bet it's hard to cut."

"Uh, yes," Zelgadis said.

"Your skin is nice a cool, even if it's hard," Lecia announced. "You must be nice to cuddle in the summertime, when it's hot."

"He is," Amelia replied, her face softening as she looked at the little girl. "Oh, Miss Lina, she's just darling."

"Thank you!" Xellos chirped.

Lina sighed and nodded. "Yeah, she takes after Xellos. She's a great kid."

"She's really beautiful, too," Amelia sighed. "Just look at that hair."

Xellos chuckled. "Lecia, what do you say when people give you compliments?"

Lecia looked at Amelia and smiled. "Thank you," she said brightly.

"You're welcome," Amelia replied. "Well, Mister Xellos, you always were very polite," she sighed.

"I want no part of this," Zel growled, although he sat very still while Lecia examined him, running her fingers over the dark, smooth, rocky protrusions along his chin and underneath his eye.

"Miss Amelia is very nice," Lecia murmured to him. "Mommy said you were nice too, but it took longer."

"Hey, stop bothering him," Lina said to her daughter, and Lecia climbed down with a sigh.

"He doesn't like Daddy," Lecia announced, crawling up into Lina's lap instead. "Does that mean he doesn't like me?"

"It better not," Lina growled, feeling suddenly protective of her family.

"Dada," Gorran interrupted again.

"That's his first word," Xellos declared proudly, beaming as if nothing was amiss.

Amelia's face softened and Lina could tell that her friend would eventually accept her relationship with Xellos. "He's very cute," Amelia murmured. "He looks just like you, Miss Lina. He even has your little moles. Beautiful eyes, too."

"Those would be Xellos' contribution," Lina said with a smile, tenderly reaching out to ruffle Gorran's hair. The baby giggled and tried to catch at her hands, but she drew away too quickly.

"His face is more like Daddy's, too," Lecia added. "He's going to grow up big and strong."

"She's so precocious!" Amelia sighed. "Oh, Lina!"

"Great," Zelgadis grumbled, arms folded over his chest.

Amelia put her hand on his knee and squeezed, the affection between them obvious. Lina thought that they seemed to have grown even closer since the last time she had visited them, when she had come here with Gourry. "Darling, why don't you go get the nurse and our children, so they can meet our brood?" Amelia asked gently.

"Just so long as I don't have to be in the same room as that," Zelgadis growled, throwing Xellos a murderous glance. He stood and stalked from the room, almost slamming the door behind him.

"My, my," Xellos murmured, fixing Amelia with his bottomless eyes. "He still dislikes me so, after all these years?"

"Oh, Mister Xellos, I can't tell you how happy it makes me that you finally turned from the path of evil!" Amelia said with a beatific smile, clasping her hands in front of her chest.

"Ah, did you even hear what I said?" he asked, raising an eyebrow and glancing at Lina, who shrugged.

"I always knew that you weren't all bad, that with the proper incentive you would abandon the darkness and embrace the light! I just didn't know that it would be Lina that led you to goodness! I'm so happy for you!"

"Er, I'm not really on the side of good, you know," Xellos said, raising a hand tentatively.

"The power of good conquers all!" Amelia continued, caught up in her own raving. "Not even the most powerful of Monsters can resist purity and beauty!"

"Well, it's true I always thought Lina was beautiful, even when I was a Monster," Xellos said uncertainly.

"Welcome to humanity!" Amelia cried passionately, eyes far away and cheeks rosy.

"Wow," Lina said, chuckling to herself. Xellos looked positively alarmed and disgusted, and she thought his reaction was just as fun as Zel's and Amelia's reactions had been. Oh, he might be human now, but Amelia's speeches still had the same draining effect.

"I've actually been human for a while," Xellos informed her. "Over two years now, almost three."

"Isn't it lovely to feel positive emotions?" Amelia swooned. "Isn't it wonderful to embrace life?"

Lecia turned in Lina's lap and tapped at her shoulder. "Mommy, is the princess crazy?" she whispered.

"Yes," Xellos answered her emphatically. "Yes, she is."

"Really?" the child breathed, amethyst eyes huge.

"Of course not," Lina said, a little more sharply than she had intended to. "She's just really into the whole love, goodness, and justice thing."

"Oh," Lecia replied, but her expression suggested that she was more inclined to believe her father.

Xellos seemed about to explain a couple of things when Zelgadis returned, three children and a nursemaid in tow. "Here they are," he announced gruffly. "This is Albert, Celdra, and Rodimus."

Lina gazed at the three children, the oldest boy just slightly older than Lecia. Their second child looked to be about four, then the youngest two. All three children had their parents' unfortunate hair, although were otherwise very attractive. "I see you named your kids after some old friends and relatives," she said softly, recognizing the name of Amelia's cousin and Zelgadis' soldier.

"It only seemed right," Zelgadis murmured, and reached down, gently stroking his eldest son's head in a moment of odd tenderness.

Lina nodded. "I think that's great," she replied, smiling at seeing Zelgadis gentle with his children. He obviously loved them, although she knew he wasn't the cuddly, doting father that Xellos was. Still, his children looked completely human, and for that she was relieved. "The last time I saw you, you were just a baby," Lina said to Albert. The boy looked up from underneath light brown bangs, his blue eyes examining her. There was something exceedingly serene about his gaze, and she knew he would never be a fighter like his parents. No, this child would most likely be a statesman, and a good one at that.

"This is Lina Inverse and her children, Lecia and Gorran," Zelgadis said, gesturing with a hand.

"Hello," all three children said in unison. The younger son said it a bit more loudly, though, and grinned afterward.

"I'm Xellos," Xellos said. "I'm Lina's husband and Gorran and Lecia's father. Pleased to meet you all."

The children looked at him, wide-eyed. Lina couldn't help but smirk. Xellos' natural playfulness made him a magnet for children. Lecia slid off her lap and went over to the eldest child, looking him right in the eyes. "You don't look like your daddy," she said, tilting her head.

The child blushed. "I look like my papa did when he was a boy," he replied.

Lecia looked at the other children. "They don't look like him, either."

"Lecia, that's not polite," Xellos said softly. "He's their father, I promise."

"Do the Prince and Princess love each other very much, Daddy?" Lecia asked.

Xellos looked Zelgadis straight in the eye. "Yes, yes they do. You know, Zelgadis gave up looking like a human forever just to save Amelia."

Lecia's eyes became huge. "Just like you killed your Monster friends to save Mommy!" she exclaimed.

"What?" Zelgadis asked sternly, scowling at the little girl.

Lecia raised her finger in a perfect imitation of Xellos. "Daddy loves Mommy very much, too," she whispered.

Zelgadis blushed and stiffened, glancing at Amelia. Amelia, for her part, looked like she was walking in a dream. "Why don't we move out to the terrace?" she said, beaming at Lina. "That way the children can play while we sit outside."

"Sounds good to me," Lina said, and helped Amelia herd everyone outside. They took their seats in wooden chairs covered with embroidered pads, shaded by trees and vines. The nursemaid was dismissed and Zelgadis told his children to play in the garden. The little ones shuffled off in a very orderly fashion, Lecia staring as they did so.

"Go play, Lecia," Xellos said softly.

"I don't wanna," she said, sticking a finger in the corner of her mouth. "Not unless you play, too."

"I don't think the children want to play with me," he replied gently.

Lecia's eyes turned huge and her lower lip began to quiver. "Please?" she asked, voice cracking.

Xellos sighed and shook his head. "I can never refuse when she does that," he murmured, then turned back to Lecia. "Very well," he replied.

"Yaaaay!" Lecia shouted, running back to the other children. "My daddy's gonna be the bear!"

"What?" the other children asked.

Lecia rolled her eyes. "The BEAR, silly! The bear chases us and we have to run away, or we'll become bears too!"

"Is this like tag?" Albert asked.

"Yeah, only once you get caught, you have to stay in the bear's cave until someone comes to rescue you. It's really fun. Daddy and my friend Val play it with me all the time. It'll be more fun with more people, though."

"Okay," Celdra said.

"And I'm the bear?" Xellos said, pretending to be dismayed as he wandered over to the children. He discarded his cloak and staff, cracking his knuckles. "How come I always have to be the bear, Lecia?"

"Because you're the best bear ever, Daddy!" Lecia squealed.

Xellos sighed and put his hands on his narrow hips, looking around. "Okay, I'll be the bear. The last person I catch, though, has to be the next bear."

"Okay," the children said in unison, Celdra explaining things to her little brother, Rodimus.

"My cave will be this bench," Xellos announced. "If I tag you, you have to come back to this bench and sit until someone comes and rescues you. If I catch them too, then you don't get to go free. Understand?"

"Yes!" the children shouted.

"Go!" Xellos cried, and the children scrambled, squealing. Xellos began to make roaring noises and chased after them, the giggles of the little ones nearly drowning him out.

"He's a great dad," Lina said to her friends, watching Xellos fondly.

"He better not hurt my children," Zel growled.

"Xellos probably likes your kids a lot better than he likes you," Lina snapped. "You leave him alone."

"I can't forgive him for everything he's done to us," Zelgadis spat.

Lina felt righteous fury fill her. She was often angry, but only rarely on someone else's behalf. "Oh, pull your head out of your ass,'" she growled. "He's more than atoned for what he did as a Monster. You wouldn't believe some of the things we've been through. Besides, if it wasn't for him you probably would have never come back to Seyruun or realized Amelia loved you. Sure, he's done some pretty rotten things, but you don't have anything to fear from him anymore."

Zelgadis snorted but didn't reply, looking away from her. Amelia sighed and shook her head. "Hearing you say it is one thing, Miss Lina, but I don't think Zelgadis will believe it until he sees it."

"I don't have to sit here and listen to this," Zel said sharply. "I'm happy to see you again, Lina, but I really wish you hadn't brought that thing along." With that he got up from the table and went into the garden, sitting on a remote bench and watching Xellos' every movement like a hawk.

"I'm sorry, Miss Lina," Amelia said sadly. "Zelgadis sometimes has a hard time letting go..."

"I know, and you don't need to apologize for him. He's a grown man and should be able to do it for himself," Lina replied angrily.

"Why did you marry Mister Xellos, though? I thought you loved Mister Gourry."

Lina took a deep breath, feeling the ghosts of old pain revisit her. They didn't hurt her like they used to, though, and while she would always love Gourry, she loved Xellos just as much and her children even more. "It's a long story," she muttered.

Amelia studied her for a moment, then made one of those sharp observations that always surprised her. Amelia's tirades on idealistic topics always made Lina forget how smart the princess really was. "You love him with all your heart, don't you?" she murmured.

Lina blushed but saw no reason to deny it. "I do, I'm afraid," she admitted. "Thing is, when I was gone from Gourry for those couple of years, I met up with Xellos. He was human then, too, and that's when I got pregnant with Lecia. I actually abandoned her with Filia and sought out Gourry. Xellos had been taken by the Greater Beast again, you see, and I didn't think I'd ever see him again. Things didn't work out that way, though, and a while back he killed a bunch of his own kind to protect me. That made him grossly unpopular, and he ended up fighting his own mistress. He lost, but I cut him free and turned him human again in the process. Then I got pregnant and we moved in with Filia again for a while. After Gorran was born we went to visit my folks in Zefeeria, then came here. Good enough?"

"For now," Amelia said softly, her eyes sliding past Lina and to the garden. Xellos had caught all the children, Lecia being last, of course, and now Lecia was the bear. The other children giggled and ran as she chased after them, roaring at the top of her lungs.

"That doesn't even sound like a bear," Lina grumbled, bouncing Gorran in her lap. She watched as Lecia veered away from chasing Albert and took off after Xellos, who was giggling just as hard as the children as he dashed away from his daughter.

"Oh, no!" he cried out, glossy hair flying every which way as he ran. "The bear's going to get me!"

"Raaaaar!" Lecia screamed, and jumped through the air, grabbing Xellos around the knees and taking him down. Instead of getting up, though, Xellos just lay still, eyes closed and body limp.

"Is he okay?" Amelia said, standing.

Lina chuckled. "Oh, yeah, just watch."

Lecia prodded her father a few times and got no response. Her little face contorted with worry. "Daddy? Are you okay?" she said quickly, tears behind her eyes. The other children came over and stared at him, Celdra poking his body with her toe. Xellos didn't move and all four children leaned in more closely, examining him.

"He's still breathing," Albert announced, patting Lecia on the back, and then Xellos sat up with a roar. The children screamed in terror and tried to flee, but his long arms moved swiftly and he soon had every single child in his embrace.

"Aaaa ha ha ha haaaa!" Xellos cackled, standing as the children giggled and squirmed. "I now have many, many children to eat!"

"No, Daddy, don't eat us!" Lecia giggled.

"We're too stringy to eat!" Albert chortled, face red with laughter.

"No, no!" Rodimus chortled, and Celdra just screamed with glee, kicking her legs.

"Yes!" Xellos cried, suddenly turning in a circle and hurling the children into the air. All of them screamed as they went sailing and Zelgadis was on his feet in a moment, body tense. Lina chuckled as she saw Xellos' fingers move, and suddenly the children were floating gently in the air above his head. He moved his hands in the air, and the children above him sailed in wide, gentle circles.

"Papa, we fly!" Rodimus giggled, waving at Zelgadis.

Zelgadis regarded Xellos with dark fury, an expression which only intensified when Xellos looked at him over his shoulder. "Oh, go sit down, Mister Zelgadis," he said with a smile. "Your children are more safe with me than anyone."

"It's true," Lina said to Amelia, who looked at her children floating in the air, shocked. "Xellos is even stronger than me, in most things. I still know a few spells that would kick his ass, but he's more powerful than anyone else on this planet."

"Well, they seem to be having fun," Amelia said with uncertainty.

"I can do it by myself!" Lecia cried, extricating herself from her father's spell and floating off on her own. She was wobbly at first, then sailed around the other children with ease.

"That's not fair!" Albert said, blue eyes regarding her with envy.

"Daddy taught me how," Lecia said with a grin, sticking out her tongue at him.

"Lecia, be nice," Xellos warned.

"Papa, how come you haven't taught me that?" Albert asked Zel.

"Because you're too young to know it," Zelgadis answered sharply. "Let them down this instant, Xellos."

"Papa, it's fun!" Rodimus said. "Go faster!"

"I don't want to get down," Celdra protested.

"They don't want to," Xellos repeated innocently.

"Let them down!" Zelgadis ordered.

Xellos shrugged and the children zoomed up into the air another twenty feet, then began to plummet as Xellos released the spell. They started to scream and Zelgadis paled, Amelia jumping out of her seat, when they came to an abrupt halt only two feet from the ground. They were gently righted and set on their feet, their faces flushed and eyes bright with excitement. Zelgadis cried aloud and rushed to his children, gathering them up in his arms and checking them for injury. Xellos simply chuckled and beckoned to Lecia, who floated down into his arms gracefully. Lina laughed and shook her head. Oh, Xellos was going to drive her friends crazy, but she really didn't care. It was too much fun to watch. "Was that fun?" Xellos asked the children.

"YES!" they all shouted, squirming out of their father's embrace.

"Let's do it again!" Albert said breathlessly.

"Again!" Rodimus repeated.

"Absolutely not," Zelgadis ordered.

"It's okay," Lecia whispered, sidling up to the two eldest children. "I'll teach you another fun spell. It's really easy."

"Okay," Albert whispered again, and Lina watched as the four children rushed off.

She was still chuckling when she glanced at Amelia, who was still pale. "Mister Xellos certainly is good with children, isn't he?" she said weakly, trying to smile.

"He's the best," Lina grinned.

Xellos watched the children scamper off. Lecia was a natural ringleader, just like her mother. In fact, the older the girl got, the more like Lina she became. Well, without the temper, of course. Lecia was much more manipulative and calm than Lina ever was. He noticed Lina grinning and he waved to her, smiling back. Amelia looked a bit ill, but she was still smiling as well, sort of.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?" he heard a voice hiss behind him, and he turned to see Zelgadis stalking towards him. Zelgadis was most certainly not smiling.

"Whatever do you mean, Mister Zelgadis?" Xellos said, seeing Lina take Amelia inside out of the corner of his eye. The women seemed like they were going to refill beverages and perhaps freshen up a bit. Summer was upon them, after all, and it was quite hot outside.

Xellos lurched as Zelgadis wrapped his fists in the collar of Xellos' yellow shirt, hauling him onto his toes even though the chimera was the smaller man. Xellos looked calmly down into the chimera's blazing blue eyes and waited. "Don't you ever mess with my children like that again," he snarled, lip curled back and revealing his sharp teeth.

Xellos didn't much care what Lina's friends thought. In fact, he had little use for them at all. Zelgadis was fun to antagonize, but was, at best, useless. All of Lina's friends were, in fact. They were playthings, nothing more, and that certainly hadn't changed since he had become human. Lecia, however, liked having other children for playmates, and having royalty as family friends might come in handy, so he would have to be careful not to anger Zelgadis too much. "I was simply playing with them," he explained brightly, pretending to be friendly. "I've been practicing magic for thousands of years, Mister Zelgadis. I have never lost control before, and I certainly don't intend to ever do so."

"Mistakes happen," Zel spat.

Xellos touched Zelgadis' hands with a minor spell, the stony fingers flexing and releasing his collar. He smoothed out the front of his shirt, then looked down upon Zel coldly. "I would never make a mistake with your children," he said softly. "I value my own too much. Besides, what would my beloved think if I let harm come to the little ones of her friends?"

Zelgadis narrowed his eyes until they were crackling blue slits. "Is something like you even capable of love?" he growled.

"I love her with all my heart and soul," Xellos replied calmly. "I am a human now, after all."

Zelgadis raised a brow and stared at him long and hard, and Xellos could almost hear what Zelgadis was thinking. The chimera had wanted to settle the score with him for a very, very long time but had always been afraid to do so. Zelgadis might have been uptight, but he was never stupid enough to challenge a Monster. Now, however, Xellos was fairly certain Zelgadis thought that, as a human, he was fair game. He almost had to chuckle at that; Zelgadis would be in for a very unpleasant surprise, were he to challenge Xellos to a duel.

It was so obvious a mistake that Xellos was actually disappointed when it came to pass. Was Lina the only truly unpredictable human being on the face of the planet? "You up for a little game?" Zelgadis asked, the corner of his mouth twitching as if he was trying very hard not to smile.

"You know I adore games," Xellos replied, feigning ignorance of Zelgadis' plan.

"I thought as much. Why don't you and I go over to my private practice grounds and have ourselves a little sparring session?"

Xellos pretended to consider for a moment, not wanting to seem to eager, then nodded slowly. Holding up a hand, he summoned his staff from where it leaned against the stone wall next to the table. The staff flew through the air and into his fingers, where he gripped it lightly and brought it down on the ground. "Sounds fine to me," he agreed. "Please, lead the way."

Zelgadis nodded, fingering the hilt of his sword, and Xellos realized that the chimera would settle for trying to wound him physically if magic didn't work. Of course, he thought to himself. Now that he was human, the sort of weapon Zelgadis wielded could actually harm him. A small smile twisted the corners of his mouth. Well, if the sword actually touched him, it could hurt him.

It only took them a few moments to walk through an iron gate in a high stone wall, the practice field of moderate size and scattered with wooden posts. Some seemed to have been newly replaced. "Very nice," Xellos commented, grinning as Zelgadis shot him a dirty look.

"Are you ready?" the chimera growled, drawing his sword and lowering his stance.

Interesting, he wasn't expecting Zelgadis to try a physical assault first. Well, no matter. He gripped his staff more tightly and noticed an odd gleam in Zel's eyes. Of course he was excited; he didn't think Xellos' wooden staff could hurt his stony skin. Oh well, just one more unpleasant surprise the lavender-haired man was in for. "I'm ready," he replied, silently casting a spell on his staff. Gorun Nova could have hurt Zelgadis, and so Xellos channeled a bit, quite a bit, actually, of Lord Ruby-Eye's power into the wood of his staff. Unlike conventional weapons, Xellos' staff had an astral presence, leftover from when the staff had actually been a part of his being. As such, his staff, when used properly, could also wound Zelgadis on the astral plane. It didn't matter whether Zel's skin was stone or not when it came to astral attacks.

Zelgadis wasted no time, charging at him with a yell. "Astral Vine!" he shouted, raising his blade above his head.

Xellos simply smiled, moving out of the way of the attack easily and rapping Zelgadis on the back of the head with the jewel in his staff. The chimera's attack had been serious and with the intent to wound. It really wouldn't surprise him at all if Zelgadis was actually trying to kill him. The chimera hated him so much that he wouldn't think about the consequences. Xellos, of course, knew that if Zel killed him and tried to pass it off as an accident, Lina would torch him so quickly he wouldn't have time to draw breath. If Lina didn't have it in her to avenge him, he knew Lecia would. Zelgadis would have to live the rest of his life in fear, wondering when Lecia Inverse would appear at the edge of his bed and end his life.

Zelgadis spun and swung at the same time, the tip of the sword catching Xellos' shirt as he dodged and tearing the fabric. "Go ahead, run away," Zel hissed between clenched teeth.

Xellos laughed, both out of amusement and the desire to drive Zelgadis even more insane with rage. "I simply intended to measure how far you were willing to go, my dear Mister Zelgadis, and even now I'm pondering what the consequences would be if I answered you in kind."

"Shut up," Zelgadis snarled, and moved forward with an elegant combination attack. Xellos blocked it at every turn with his staff, but he had to concentrate on doing so. Zelgadis really was a talented swordsman.

Talented or not, Xellos smirked as he saw frustration seize the man's face. Zelgadis had obviously expected his staff to be sliced and shattered like real wood, and yet it had held up to the Astral Vine unscathed. "This isn't a normal staff," Xellos said with a smile, jumping over Zelgadis in a graceful back flip, landing nimbly behind the chimera and rapping him again on the head with the jewel in his staff. "And I'm not a normal human."

"I'm not either," Zelgadis growled, attacking again. The assault had far more strength behind it, and he was actually hard-pressed to block it. The blade of the sword hit his staff with a dull thwack, then Zelgadis smiled and twisted his wrists. Xellos sighed as he watched his staff sail out of his hands, landing in the grass a few meters away. Zelgadis' smile widened and he pressed his advantage, thrusting his sword right at Xellos' ribcage.

Xellos shook his head in disappointment. He was good with his staff, true, but he was actually better at hand-to-hand combat. Moving out of the path of the strike, he turned his wrist and grabbed the handle of Zel's sword, twisting his body and wrist as he did so. In a split second he was standing alongside the chimera, and then he placed his other hand on Zel's elbow and wrenched up. Zel grunted as his body was pulled upward, and then Xellos dropped his weight, taking a deep step forward and bringing his hands in front of him. Zelgadis, wide-eyed, was carried along by the motion and flew through the air, hitting the ground with a grunt as he landed just inches from where Xellos' staff lay. "Are you almost finished?" Xellos asked, dusting off his gloved hands and fingering the hole in his shirt.

Zelgadis didn't bother searching for his sword, merely shouted with rage and screamed a spell, plunging his fingers into the dirt. Xellos raised an eyebrow as spikes of earth rose up on all sides of him, penning him in. "A Dug Haut?" Xellos said, bored. "How typical." Then he noticed that a strange fog was spilling forth between the pillars of stone. Chuckling, Xellos raised a finger and spun in a circle, slicing the daggers of stone in half with a smooth motion, and then raised his hand and cast a barrier. Sure enough, the smoke rolled off of his spell, and Zelgadis came out of nowhere, howling and with dagger drawn. Xellos watched dispassionately as Zel's body hit his barrier and bounced off, landing somewhere amidst the litter of the destroyed Dug Haut.

He stood in place, calmly awaiting the next attack. The wait wasn't long, and he could hear Zelgadis chanting something or another under his breath. Xellos made a great show of examining the fabric of his gloves, knowing that his nonchalance would drive Zelgadis crazy, and he was soon gratified. "You should focus on me!" Zel screamed, launching another spell. Xellos shrugged and let it hit him head-on, mildly surprised when he found himself encased in ice. He waited a few moments until Zelgadis stood in front of him, expression smug and arms crossed over his chest, then Xellos breathed his spell and the ice shattered in to a billion pieces, evaporating as they did so. Drops of warm water rained down on them, and Xellos brushed off his clothes. "You get one more try and then it's my turn," Xellos said with a small smile.

Zelgadis shouted inarticulately and cast a gigantic spell. Xellos actually had to prepare a defense, and was glad he had when he felt the full force of a very powerful Rah Tilt hit him head-on. He was very lucky that he had enchanted his staff with Lord Ruby-Eye's power, for he was able to draw on it from the astral plane as he set up his shield. He covered his eyes and held his breath as his hair flew in every direction in the wind created by the explosion. When the dust settled, however, he looked exactly as he had at the beginning of the duel. He watched in delight as Zelgadis' mouth fell open slightly and his eyes widened. Zelgadis' disbelief was almost tangible as the two men stared at one another, and then Xellos clicked his tongue and shook his head, folding his arms over his chest. "Silly boy," Xellos said softly, turning the full force of his cold, amethyst gaze on the chimera. "Real spells are cast like this."

Zel's eyes nearly popped out of his head as he was seized on the astral plane, the spell of binding forcing his body to go rigid, just as if he had been tied with steel ropes. He uttered a cry of pain and toppled to the ground, completely paralyzed. Xellos sighed and walked over to him, nudging his inert body with the toe of his boot. "I thought you were going to fight me," he said, tilting his head to the side. "Instead you're just lying there like a trussed pig."

"You...bastard..." Zel hissed, the spell so powerful that the chimera could barely move his lips.

Xellos reached down and pulled the other man up to sitting, crouching next to him. "Now do you see how futile this is, Mister Zelgadis?" he asked, suddenly bored. "I might be human, but nearly all my power has been left intact. Did you honestly expect to win?"

"I'll...get...you..." Zelgadis gurgled.

Xellos sighed and dropped him back onto the ground, dark eyes as cold as an arctic winter as he gazed at the fallen chimera. "For what? For events that transpired years ago?"

Zel's answer was an inarticulate growl.

"Listen," Xellos began, rubbing his heavy eyebrows. "I apologize for everything I've done to alarm you, all right? I honestly bear you no ill will, and for the sake of our families I ask you to try to mask your hostility towards me. I am sorry if the things I did to you hurt you permanently. Don't be alarmed, though; I'm not asking for your friendship. You see, I'm not your enemy any longer, out of respect and love for my wife, but I am not your friend, either. As long as you treat me and my family with respect you have nothing to worry about, but the moment you cross the line... Well, let's just say I have my ways to make you repent your actions."

"Are you threatening me?" Zelgadis hissed.

Xellos looked down at Zelgadis as if he was some sort of worm, exalting in his own power. "Foolish man," Xellos replied coldly. "You are the one who challenged and threatened me. I only defended myself, and you are not wounded. Do you think I am so uncreative that I would actually have to harm you to put you in your place?"

"You bastard."

Xellos raised an eyebrow. "Your pride does you no good," he muttered, shaking his head. "Lina intends on staying for a while, I think. I like you no better than you like me," he said slowly. "Still, I believe it is best that we put forth our best effort to get along. It will make this whole thing go much more quickly."

He looked at Zelgadis for a moment longer, waiting for an answer, and soon realized that none was forthcoming. Shrugging, he bent and retrieved his staff, then walked to the iron gate of the practice ground. As he exited he snapped his fingers, dissipating the spell that held Zelgadis. He was only a half-dozen paces away when he heard the chimera's frustrated howl. It put the most delicious smile on his face.

Xellos' good mood lasted all the way back to the terrace, where the children sat in a circle playing some sort of guessing game. Lina and Amelia had returned to their chairs, discussing something in a low voice, and they turned to him as he approached.

Lina, sharp as she was, immediately suspected something. "That damn fool," she growled. "Did you do something bad to him?"

"It depends on what you mean by bad," Xellos replied with a shrug, leaning down and taking Gorran from her. "He's completely unharmed, unless you count his pride."

"Crap," Lina sighed. "Is he going to make us miserable for our whole stay?"

Xellos nodded. "Most likely."

"Dammit, Xellos! Couldn't you have been nice to him just this once?" Lina said sharply, scowling at him.

"Dearest, he challenged me and lost. It is his hatred that fuels this bizarre feud, not mine. Miss Amelia, I apologized to your husband for all the grief I have caused him, and since that is obviously not enough, I do not know how to proceed."

Amelia's face seemed to age several years in the next moment, her dark blue eyes sliding half-shut. "I don't think there's anything you can do, Mister Xellos. Zelgadis just holds grudges, that's all there is to it."

"So you don't think it's Xellos' fault?" Lina asked, incredulous.

Amelia sighed and shook her head. "I know it isn't. I don't doubt that he provoked Zelgadis, but I know the blame doesn't lie with him alone. Zelgadis can overreact at times."

Xellos thought that the word "overreact" was a bit mild, but he held his tongue. "Well, Miss Amelia, if you can think of something I can do, some task I can perform, that would win his trust, please let me know."

"I will," she agreed, then forcibly brightened her expression. "Our children are getting along famously," she said cheerfully.

Xellos cooed at his son for a little while, making kissing faces at the baby as Gorran put his palms on Xellos' face, one on each cheek. Gorran then moved his hands around, stretching Xellos' face into a variety of bizarre expressions. "Lethia gess along wit evurone," he tried to say, but it was difficult with his mouth being contorted so by the baby's efforts. Gorran squealed in delight and Xellos let him play with his face until it began to hurt. He leaned forward, breaking the child's grip, and kissed Gorran on the end of his little nose. "Lecia," he called, walking over to where the children sat. "Will you play with Gorran for a little bit? Keep a close eye on him, though, and make sure he doesn't crawl into anything dangerous."

Lecia sighed but watched Gorran carefully as Xellos set him down in the grass. "Okay, Daddy," she said, reaching over and rolling Gorran to her. She laid him on his back and tickled his stomach, the baby's giggles rising into the air. Lecia winked at the other children and they all tickled Gorran gently. Xellos observed them for a few moments more until he was satisfied Gorran wouldn't be treated too roughly, then turned back to sit with the women.

"Is that a good idea, Mister Xellos, to leave the baby with them like that?" Amelia asked, worry on her face.

"Your son Albert seems like the gentle type, and I know Lecia would never hurt him," Xellos replied.

"I was thinking more along the lines of him wandering off and getting in trouble," Amelia said.

Xellos chuckled and looked at Lina, crossing one of his long legs over the other. "Oh, Lecia won't let him get too far. If anything comes up, she knows enough to protect him."

"Isn't she awfully young?"

"She's really sharp and really strong for her age," Lina explained. "She can already levitate all sorts of things, including herself and most definitely Gorran. She's also good at a couple of barrier spells and has a strange spell that makes anything explode, even if it's not flammable. Wonder where she learned that one," she said, raising an eyebrow at Xellos.

He grinned at her and began to whistle, the very picture of innocence. He was about to explain the spell to them when they heard heavy, booted steps coming up the walk. A smile spread over his face as he saw Zelgadis marching towards them. The chimera didn't say anything, but murderous intent was written all over his face.

"Damn it all, Xellos, what the hell did you do to him?" Lina growled, standing up and hauling him out of his chair.

"He kept on attacking me, so I bound him up," Xellos said mildly, but he saw the anger ignite in her eyes.

"You dumbass!" she snarled. "You should have at least defeated him in battle so that he could keep his pride!"

"I didn't want him to get hurt!" Xellos protested, then saw Lina wind up her arm. Oh dear, she was going to try to smack him. Well, they were among her old friends, so he wasn't entirely surprised that she was falling back on old habits. Unfortunately, being hit as a human being actually hurt, and so he wasn't inclined to let her do so to him. He easily blocked her open-handed strike and grabbed her wrist, pulling him to her so she didn't have the room to throw another punch. Her eyes crackled and blazed at him angrily, and he knew he was in for it if he didn't do something to distract her quickly. She really did look beautiful when she was angry, though, with her eyes alight and her cheeks flushed, her hair streaming out behind her like a fiery wind.... He wanted to partake of that beauty and folded her into an embrace, bending and kissing her on the mouth with ardor. She stiffened at first, obviously embarrassed, then relaxed and even made a soft little noise as he gently worked her jaw open and slid his tongue inside her mouth. Lina's arms snaked around his neck as she melted against him, and soon he forgot that the kiss was only supposed to be a diversion. The feel of her was all that existed for him until he heard children giggling.

"Ewww! Lecia, your parents are making out!" Albert's high voice squealed.

"What? They do that all the time," Lecia replied, and Xellos felt Lina chuckle against his lips.

"Whoops," he murmured as he released her. "I got a little carried away."

Lina blushed and looked away, the gesture oddly demure. "No, that's okay," she whispered.

Xellos glanced up to see Amelia's face beet red, her expression bland as if she was determined not to notice their display of affection. Zelgadis, however, was still there, and as soon as Lina was out of Xellos' reach, the chimera's hands shot out and grabbed Xellos by the front of the shirt. Xellos' head snapped back and forth as Zel shook him angrily. "How dare you!" he hissed, and Xellos saw something move out of the corner of his eye.

"Don't you be mean to my daddy, you big bully!" he heard Lecia shout, and Zelgadis turned to look at her, his grip loosening somewhat. Xellos could guess what was next and deftly moved out of the way, edging toward the table and casting a barrier spell. He watched as Lecia's face scrunched up in concentration, her lips barely moving, and suddenly she brought up a hand, fingers pointed towards Zelgadis. The chimera's eyes widened and then suddenly the stones beneath his feet burst into flame and exploded, rock shards sailing everywhere. The other children screamed and flinched, but none of the fragments touched them, for Lecia had also cast a barrier spell to protect herself and her playmates. In a few moments the smoke cleared and Xellos turned to Amelia with a grin.

"That would be the spell Lina was mentioning," he said proudly. "And she even cast a spell to protect your children. Isn't she just wonderful?"

Amelia looked at him as if she didn't understand the words that were coming out of his mouth, her eyes sliding past to stare at the spot where Zelgadis had stood. "Zelgadis?" she shouted, eyes hollow with worry, and then they saw Zel, sitting on his rear on the ground, holding his head.

"Ouch," he grumbled.

Xellos sighed and released his spell, walking down to the children and picking Lecia up in his arms. "I'm very glad that you want to protect me, little one, but I'm afraid that wasn't a very mature way to do so. You see, Mister Zelgadis wasn't actually attacking me. He was just showing his feelings in a rather immature fashion. Next time, if you want to act like a grown-up, you should talk about these things instead of resorting to violence." He carried her over to where Zelgadis sat and looked down at the chimera. "If he wasn't so strong, you could have really hurt him, Lecia," he reprimanded. "Now, what do you think you should say to Mister Zelgadis?"

Lecia stuck a finger in the corner of her mouth and looked down at the charred flagstones. "I'm sorry, Mister Zelgadis," she murmured.

"Okay, Lecia, I want you to honestly be sorry," Xellos said gently, but his voice was firm.

The little girl looked Zelgadis in the eye. "I'm sorry I tried to blow you up," she repeated, but with more conviction.

Zelgadis scowled at her and opened his mouth, but suddenly Amelia was at his side. "Now, darling, she's just a little girl trying to protect her father," she said softly.

"Fine," Zel said to Lecia. "No hard feelings."

"Yay!" Lecia squealed, fighting to free herself of her father's embrace. He released her and Lecia trotted up to Zelgadis, climbing into his lap so she could wrap her arms around his neck and squeeze him. She buried her face against his stony neck and giggled. Zelgadis blushed slightly and awkwardly patted Lecia's back. The little girl pecked him on the cheek, then dropped back to the ground and trotted off to be with the other children, where she was immediately assaulted with questions. Gorran crawled into her lap and played with her pigtails as soon as she sat down, and Xellos returned his attention back to the adults.

"She's pretty hard to resist, isn't she?" Lina said with a smile, coming over to stand next to Xellos.

"Yeah," Zelgadis replied grumpily, shoulders hunched.

Amelia helped her husband up. "Are you okay?" she asked, helping him to brush himself off. His clothes were rather tattered and smelled singed, but otherwise he didn't appear injured.

"I'm fine," he grunted. "She's very strong, though."

"Thanks," Lina said, her fingers tightening on Xellos' elbow.

"I'm not surprised, with you as her mother, Lina, and a Monster as the father."

Lina's face contorted in a scowl. "He was a human when she was conceived," she growled. "I don't know what it is with you, Zel. Xellos isn't the enemy anymore, so don't treat him like one. He's done some awful things in the past, just awful, and no one has more of a right to be angry at him then I do. I've forgiven him, though, and I'm happier for it. If you can't treat my chosen husband with a little respect, then I'm afraid we'll just have to leave now."

Xellos reached over to where Lina's hand rested on his arm and patted it tenderly. "Thank you, dearest," he murmured.

Her frown was turned on him next. "Don't thank me just yet," she snapped. "You might be my husband, but that doesn't give you the right to antagonize him, okay? Zelgadis deserves your respect, and as long as we're here you'll give it to him, do you understand?"

He was tempted to ask her "or else what," but he knew better. He could tell by the way she was standing that she was prepared to deny him anything and everything to get what she wanted. "Very well," he said quietly, turning to Zel. "Let's try this again, shall we?"

"Try what?"

"Mister Zelgadis, I am very sorry for toying with you in your search for the Claire Bible all those years go. I am sorry for putting that curse on Amelia and then delaying in my assistance. I am also sorry for helping to orchestrate that attack on Seyruun as well. You have my deepest apologies for all the wrongs you feel I have done to you."

"I don't care," Zelgadis replied angrily.

"Darling," Amelia urged, wrapping her arms around his left limb. "You don't have to forgive him just yet, but can't you at least try to be civil to him? I would really love to spend more time with Miss Lina and hear about her adventures the past few years, and as much as you hate him, I'm sure Mister Xellos knows lots of interesting things to help you in your research."

Zelgadis studied Xellos carefully, his lip pulled back in a snarl. Xellos shot a look at Lina, then realized his wife was completely serious. It seemed that the time for games was over. Oh well, there would be other people and other opportunities. Besides, he wanted Lecia to be able to play with her new friends. She seemed to be getting along with the other little ones just fine. Slowly he held out his hand to chimera, offering it in truce. "I'm not asking you to be my friend, or even to leave off being my enemy," he explained. "I only want a cease-fire, for the moment."

Zelgadis stood as still as the stones beneath his feet for a moment, then roughly took his hand and shook it. "Fine," he growled.

Xellos smiled as the tension drained out of Lina's face. "You know, Mister Zelgadis, I never disliked you. I always thought you were a decent sort of fellow. The only reason I antagonized you was because you always took things so seriously. Life is a lot more fun than you realize, I think, and I was just trying to help you come to that conclusion more quickly that you might have on your own."

"I'm not going to think life is fun when you're torturing the hell out of me," Zel growled.

Xellos clapped his hands, opening his eyes and smiling. "See, we're having a civilized conversation already! Wasn't that easy?"

"Xellos," Lina groaned, but Zelgadis just sighed and shook his head.

"I need coffee," he muttered, and walked off into the palace.

"He'll be right back after he changes into some new clothes and gets some coffee," Amelia explained, taking her seat again. Lina nodded and trudged after her. Xellos was about to follow when he heard Lecia make a sharp noise.

"Daddy!" she wailed. "Poopy diaper!"

"Oh, dear," Xellos sighed, going over to the children and picking up a red-faced Gorran. He patted Lecia on the head and thanked her for letting him know, then went to the table and asked Amelia for a place to change his son.

"Down the hall, through our sitting room, and to the right," she said, pointing.

"Thank you," he said, shouldering his leather bag and walking down the hall. He looked around as he made his way to the bathroom, admiring Amelia's taste. Unlike most palaces he had seen, her chambers were simply decorated, the wealth shown in the quality of fabrics and furnishings and not in the quantity. He reminded himself to compliment her when he returned, then found the bathroom. It only took him moments to clean and change Gorran, incinerating the offending diaper with a spell. The baby boy was much happier, wrapping his fists in Xellos' hair as they started back towards the terrace, and Xellos was so blinded by his son's playing that he almost knocked Zelgadis over. "Terribly sorry," he said, bowing slightly. Gorran giggled and cooed, almost as if trying to back up his father's words.

"Whatever," Zelgadis grumbled, then his eyes slid down to Xellos' hand. A slight frown crossed his face, then their eyes met. "That ring, is it gold?"

"No," Xellos replied. "It's amurium."

"Lina had one like that around her neck the last time we saw her."

"Now she wears it upon her hand as a wedding band," Xellos explained.

"So it WAS you who gave it to her. I always wondered. She would never talk about it, or who gave it to her, or what she did during the time she was away from Gourry."

"She tried very hard to forget those times," Xellos reflected, melancholy seeping into his voice.

"She did tell me it was amurium, though. I read and read but could never find anything on that particular metal."

It took Xellos a moment to realize that Zelgadis was actually making an effort to be friendly and was asking him questions. The chimera must really love his wife and value Lina's friendship to try and make temporary peace with someone he probably saw as his arch-nemesis, Xellos though. Xellos smiled gently and bounced Gorran to keep him happy, then accompanied Zelgadis back to the terrace. "It doesn't surprise me that you failed to find information on it," he replied. "It hasn't been worked with since the War of the Monster's Fall."

"Why? What's so special about it?"

"Amurium is a much harder metal than gold, and much more rare. It also possesses the unique ability to hold a spell and recast it indefinitely. It's sort of like the opposite of orihalcon, which seals spells. I assume you saw Scundabran, the blade that Mister Gourry now carries?"

"Yes, we helped set him on its trail," Zelgadis replied as they walked out into the shade.

"Did you notice the streaks that ran the length of the blade, ending at the jewel in the cross piece?"

"We thought they were gold."

"No, they're amurium. They lend the sword more magical properties."

"There were strange markings on the blade, also," Zelgadis said.

"Yes, runes," Xellos murmured.

"I couldn't read them, and I'm pretty good at reading the runes of most races," the chimera grumbled, and Xellos realized that Zelgadis might have actually forgotten about their feud at the moment, for the sake of knowledge. He didn't know why that surprised him. Lina was much the same way, able to put aside ill will in order to learn something new. No wonder the sorceress and shaman seemed to get along so well.

"They weren't normal literary runes," Xellos explained. "They're magic runes."

"I thought runes were only for ancient languages."

"They are, but these runes were for the ancient language of magic."

"There's a whole different magical system out there?"

Xellos nodded, wary. He still didn't want any of the mortals to get their hands on runic magic. It was far, far too dangerous for all involved. There was a reason people had stopped using it, after all. "Yes, but it has long been extinct," he said carefully.

"Dada!" Gorran giggled.

"Yes, yes," Xellos chuckled, stroking the boy's unruly copper curls.

"He looks just like his mother," Zelgadis said.

"He certainly does. I just hope he doesn't break as many hearts," Xellos said.

Zelgadis looked at him strangely as they sat down next to their wives at the table. "I want to hear more about these things," he muttered. "Perhaps tomorrow we could go for a ride."

"That's a lovely idea!" Amelia said. "I haven't been for a ride in ages!"

Zelgadis took her hand and shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "I don't want our new baby being jostled about inside you."

"Oh," Amelia sighed. "I'm not very far along. I'm certain there's still plenty of room in there."

"I'd rather not take that chance," Zel replied gently.

"I can watch Gorran while you guys go," Lina said, studying Xellos carefully.

"All right," Xellos sighed. "It sounds like a lovely time."

"We'll see," Zelgadis said, eyes cold but no longer hateful. "Amelia, Xellos here knows quite a bit about Scundabran. I didn't even know he had seen it."

Amelia's eyes widened. "Really, Mister Xellos? We just thought it was a story, until Gourry brought it back. How do you know about it?"

Xellos shifted a bit in his chair. He really didn't feel like revealing everything to these people. "Yeah, Xelly, how do you know so much about it?" Lina prodded, and he knew it was too late.

"I was in charge of leading the elf who wielded it away from his people," Xellos said calmly. "It was quite a weapon, though, and while I could handle it, I was needed elsewhere. My mistress decided I had better things to do than play with some mortal priest."

"They mentioned you in the legend," Amelia breathed.

Xellos shrugged. "I'm actually in quite a few of the ancient legends, if you look carefully enough," he said nonchalantly.

Lina's grin turned wolfish. "He knows all sorts of obscure things," she said proudly. "He's very handy to have around. It's like my own personal encyclopedia."

"Then why did you always carry around those guidebooks?" Zel asked sharply.

Xellos grinned and held up an index finger. "That's a secret!" he proclaimed, and dodged Lina's blow just in time. He took her hand as it sailed through the air and kissed the knuckles. "Now, now, dearest, you wouldn't want me to have to bring you up on charges of spousal abuse, would you?" he murmured. "Actually, I carried them around because it's sometimes rather difficult to keep up with the modern world. After all, not all of my missions took place in the world of mortals, and guidebooks were the best way to keep abreast of things."

"So it's not a secret," Lina grumbled.

Xellos smiled brightly. "Not in the least," he chirped. "I just like seeing the expression on your face when I say that. Of course, there are other facial expressions of yours I prefer," he said slyly.

Lina blushed scarlet and glanced away. Amelia chuckled and shook her head. She began to speak, but something fluttered at the edges of Xellos' awareness. He turned around in his chair and looked around the garden. The children were still playing nicely, relatively, and the area seemed otherwise peaceful and serene. A few gardeners moved at the fringes, trimming hedges and pulling weeks, but nothing seemed amiss. The tingle was still there in his magic-sense, though, and it bothered him.

"Well? Does that sound like something you'd be interested in?" Lina asked him, poking him with her elbow.

"Pardon?" Xellos asked, realizing that he had missed part of the conversation.

"Is everything all right, Mister Xellos?" Amelia asked with concern.

"Of course," Xellos replied with a smile, but he could see Lina regarding him with suspicion. "Could you please repeat what you were saying while I was distracted?"

"Amelia and Zel are having a ball tonight," Lina explained. "I guess it's a sort of farewell party for a visiting dignitary. They wanted to know if we wanted to go."

"Certainly!" Xellos replied, then saw that he had given the wrong answer by Lina's scowl.

"Excellent!" Amelia said, clapping her hands. "It will be so much fun! I'll go send for the tailor so he can find outfits for you right away!"

"There she goes," Zel muttered, watching Amelia scurry away in a rustling of skirts. "She likes to do things herself too much to be a typical princess."

"It's better that way," Lina sighed, then smacked Xellos lightly on the arm. "You know I don't like formal events!"

"I'm sorry," Xellos said. "I just thought it would be fun. After all, we rarely take time off from looking after the little ones, and we never go out. The children can stay with the nanny while we enjoy ourselves in the adult world."

Lina grunted, not looking persuaded.

"Besides," Xellos added, shifting gears, "I would love the opportunity to show off my new wife, the beautiful sorcery genius. Wouldn't it be entertaining to make an appearance, oh famous one?"

Lina preened slightly at his words, the flattery having had the desired effect. "I suppose I can handle wearing a dress for one night," she muttered, tossing her hair over her shoulder.

Zelgadis looked at him flatly. "You scare me," he mumbled.

"I try," Xellos replied sweetly.

"Here, let me show you to your rooms," he said, rising from his chair. "Children, come along."

"Yes, Papa," the kids replied in unison, immediately running to Zelgadis.

"You, too, Lecia," Xellos called.

"Awww, Daddy!" Lecia whined.

"Now," Lina added sternly, and Lecia trudged up the steps to the terrace.

"Don't pout, it's not polite," Xellos said, switching Gorran to one arm and holding Lecia's hand with the other. "You'll get to play with your new friends for a few more days."

"So we're staying the night?" Lecia asked, blinking up at her parents.

"Yup," Lina replied. "You and Gorran are going to stay in the nursery with the other kids."

"Slumber party!" Lecia squealed, tugging on Xellos' hand. Gorran giggled at his sister's cavorting and waggled his little chubby fingers in her direction.

Zelgadis led them out of the sitting rooms and into the nursery, where a nanny was straightening up toys. "Please bring out Rodimus' old crib and another bed for our friends' children," he ordered gently. "They'll be staying in here under your supervision.

Lecia tugged her way out of Xellos' grip and went over to the nanny, offering her hand. "I'm Lecia Inverse," she said, beaming up at the nanny. "My little brother and me are gonna stay here with you until we go home."

"Hello," the woman said, gently taking Lecia's hand, and Xellos was satisfied that the woman would look after his children with care.

"Here's my son, Gorran, and I am Xellos," Xellos announced, handing him over. "I'll be back to check on him periodically and to read stories to the children before they retire. You'll probably be seeing plenty of me."

"I'm Lina," Lina said. "Xellos is my husband."

The nanny's eyes went wide and her lips parted slightly. "Are you Lina Inverse?" she whispered.

Lina smiled smugly. "The one and only," she declared, hands on her hips.

"It's an honor to meet such a famous sorceress," the nanny said with a little bow.

"Then treat my kids well," Lina smirked.

"I most certainly will."

"Let's go," Lina ordered, and Xellos followed, noticing that Zelgadis rolled his eyes. Xellos, for his part, always found Lina's vanity amusing. All her airs were amusing, in fact.

They walked down a few hallways until Zelgadis threw open the doors to a gigantic bed chamber. "This is for guests of the royal family," he explained. "I guess you two count."

"Zel," Lina said, smacking the chimera on the chest. "We'd better count."

Zel smiled slightly and glanced down the hall. "Looks like Amelia found a tailor," he said, taking his leave. "We'll see you two in a few hours for supper."

"My favorite," Lina replied, rubbing her hands together.

"Until then," Xellos sighed, and ushered Lina into the room.

Before the ball there was a banquet, and although Lina tried to use her best manners, she found that the food was far too delicious to eat delicately. Xellos, seated at her left, just stared at her in disbelief as she shoveled away the food. "Miss Lina," Amelia said, glancing nervously down the table. "Aren't you finished yet?"

"You gonna eat that?" Lina asked Xellos, pointing to a beef cutlet on his plate.

"No, dearest," he murmured, sighing as she skewered it and stuffed it into her mouth.

"Lina, there are dignitaries at this table," Zelgadis said sternly.

"Do they know who I am?" Lina growled around a mouthful.

"I don't think so, not yet," Amelia replied.

"If they try to tell me how to eat they'll find out pretty damn quick," she mumbled around a forkful of potatoes.

"I think that sort of action might be detrimental to Seyruun's standing with other kingdoms," Xellos said gently. "Perhaps you could just stop now and we could get more food brought to our room later."

"Yes, that would be easy to do, Miss Lina," Amelia agreed, nodding vigorously.

"But I'm not full!"

"Well, are you still ravenous?" Xellos asked.

Lina paused, carefully feeling out her level of satiety. "Not quite," she replied thoughtfully.

"Then that's what we'll do," Xellos said, switching her plate out for a small wedge of chocolate cake, the dessert that everyone else had eaten fifteen minutes before.

"But what if I get hungry again?" Lina whined, looking longingly at her half-full plate.

"I'll ease some of that burden for you," Xellos said, taking a forkful of the cake and holding it up to her mouth. She leaned forward and took the cake off the fork, looking into his endless dark eyes as she did so. His amethyst gaze sparkled mischievously, and she couldn't help but smile around the fork. Damn, but he was handsome, and it was sort of fun to be fed by him in front of so many people. "There," he whispered, taking another bit of cake and feeding it to her.

"Careful you don't lose a finger," Zelgadis muttered.

"She won't bite me, not until I ask her, at least," Xellos replied quietly, his sculpted mouth twitching up at the corner. Lina accepted the bit of cake and chuckled inwardly as Zelgadis turned red at Xellos' implication. Soon the cake was gone and Lina sighed, looking longingly at her empty plate. Reaching out, she traced Xellos' soft lips with her thumb, craving to feel them upon hers as they parted beneath her touch. Xellos' pink tongue shot out of his mouth and caught her thumb, pulling it into his mouth and sucking on it. Lina shuddered and blushed, leaning forward slightly.

"We're still at the table," Zelgadis said sharply, and Lina pulled her hand back to her side, sneaking glances at Xellos, who sat back in his chair and made a gesture with a long-fingered hand. Zelgadis frowned at Lina. "You never used to do that sort of thing in public with Gourry," he muttered.

Lina stiffened slightly, but then felt Xellos' hand upon her thigh, his fingers gently kneading her flesh. "That's because the swordsman wasn't into sin," he purred, amethyst eyes glittering seductively. Lina felt her body yearn for his and cursed the effect he had on her. "Besides," he continued softly, "Lina and I have been lovers much longer than she and the swordsman ever were. I know her body as well as my own."

Lina shivered with need under his dark, compelling gaze, knowing that he was picturing every aspect of her body in his mind. Damn it, why did they have to go to the ball? Why couldn't they just sneak upstairs to their room?

"Thank goodness Daddy is keeping most of the dignitaries occupied," Amelia sighed.

Lina picked up her glass of wine and sipped from it, feeling the alcohol hit her stomach and make her body temperature rise. Xellos raised an eyebrow and shifted in his chair, and she wondered if he chose the pose on purpose. The way he was sitting accentuated his broad shoulders, slim waist, and the length of his slender limbs. "You won't be able to nurse Gorran tomorrow if you keep drinking," he said.

Lina shrugged and took another swallow. "He doesn't need it anymore, anyway," she said.

"You're probably right, but there's no doubt it's good for him. I was talking to your mother and she said that she breast fed you much longer than Luna, and that's why she thinks you're so much healthier."

"It'll be out of my system day after tomorrow and we can have another go at it then," Lina grumbled. "Missing a day of breast milk won't kill him."

"As you wish," Xellos said with a smile, and refilled her glass. She grinned back and refilled his as well.

"I hope you all enjoyed the meal," Philionel boomed from the end of the table. "Let us all move to the ballroom now and work off all that food!"

A cheer went up and people began to file out of the room, looking like a great flock of colored birds as they crowded together in their finery. Lina could see it all very well from where she sat at the high table, and she was amused at so many people putting on airs. Xellos must have known what she was thinking, for he chuckled as he pulled out her chair for her. "Not everyone was born with a grand fate like you were," he said softly. "Some people have to pander and beg for their station in life."

"True," she said with a sigh. "We can't all be beautiful sorcery geniuses."

Xellos laughed again and took her arm, filing in behind Amelia and Zelgadis. She smiled up at him and covered his hand with hers, reveling in the feeling of the warm, slightly rough skin of his palm. Zel looked very handsome in his tailored black suit, the white silk shirt and blue cravat setting off his eyes and unusual skin quite nicely. Amelia was also beautiful, dressed in a ball gown of light blue, the waistline high in order to accommodate the slight swell of her pregnancy. The gauzy sleeves were off-the-shoulder, and the blue silk bodice was embroidered with silver thread. The filmy fabric of the voluminous skirt trailed on the floor, and Lina had to be very careful not to step on it. Yes, Amelia and Zelgadis both looked very pretty and very dignified, but for some reason she thought it was Xellos that seemed like a prince. He walked beside her silently, his long stride graceful yet assertive, his bearing upright and regal. The somewhat sharp features of his face were presented to her in profile, and she suddenly wanted very much to be tracing those features with her hands. Everything about his face simply shouted flawlessness to her, with his straight nose and perfectly rounded nostrils, sensual mouth, and clear, blemishless skin. If she wasn't mistaken, his skin hadn't been assaulted by a razor once in his entire life, and yet he was perfectly-clean shaven. His flesh was as soft and smooth as her baby son's and just as flawless.

As they filed out onto the dance floor she patted at her hair, which had been piled on top of her head in an orderly riot of shining curls. It felt sort of strange to have her neck bare, but it also felt sort of nice and sensual. She also liked the way the wine-colored satin of the dress slid over her body, the cut form-fitting until about mid-thigh, where it flared away to allow her room to dance. Someone started to make a speech, it sounded like Phil, but she didn't hear a word of it. She was too busy looking at Xellos. He was wearing an odd cut of suit, the first time she had ever seen him wear such a style. The long coat had an abbreviated front, stopping just below his belt. It had tails running down the backs of his thighs, and he wore a vest underneath. Even his shirt and cravat were made of black silk, and he looked like some sort of dark royalty. The cut of the outfit was narrow, accentuating his slenderness without making him seem scrawny. His posture was impeccable and she sighed in contentment, pleased that she was with such a fine-looking specimen of manhood. He wasn't handsome and overtly masculine the way hulking Gourry had been; Xellos had a refinement and beauty about him that was difficult to match. The man at her side would never embarrass her in public, she just knew it. "You should be paying attention to what they're saying," he whispered to her with a smile, snapping her out of her reverie. "Zelgadis might quiz you later, the way he's glaring at us."

Lina snapped her head around, expecting to see Zel scowling at them, but instead he was smiling at Amelia, patting her hand gently. "You stinker," she growled softly.

Xellos chuckled and looked down at her from underneath long, thick, black eyelashes. His dark eyebrows arched slightly, their lines heavy but not enough to mar his good looks. "I have to keep you entertained somehow, lest you get rowdy," he murmured, squeezing her hand, and she noticed he hadn't donned his black silk gloves after dinner. The amurium ring glinted on his hand, the mark that he was married, that he was hers. Hopefully she wouldn't have to deal with stupid, overbearing women asking him to dance, like the sort that had been at that spring festival so many years ago.

Just as she thought about dancing the music began. A small ensemble was tucked away in a corner, and people began milling about with drinks. Xellos lifted a couple of glasses of champagne from a tray and handed her one with a flourish. "Are you trying to get me drunk?" she asked warily, but sipped at it anyway.

"Maybe just a little," he replied with a wink. "You dance better when your inhibitions have been lowered a bit."

Lina scowled and drained the glass with one gulp. "Do I, now," she said roughly, yanking the drink out of his hand and placing it on another tray passing by them. "Then let's dance now."

He grinned and let her tow him out into the middle of the floor. His strong arm encircled her waist and his free hand took hers, slowly leading her into the throng of dancing people. She smiled up at him, watching as his eyes licked down her neck and into the cleavage of her low-cut bodice. His gaze was like heat on her skin, and she thought again how she would rather be alone with him, upstairs. "I adore your dress," he said, voice a bit husky. "You look absolutely radiant, beloved."

"You do, too. You like the view, eh?"

His cheeks stained a faint pink, but he smiled. "The only way it could be improved is if some of the scaffolding was removed," he murmured, fingering the thin straps of her gown.

She leaned into him so that his fingers slipped all the way through the strap, gliding along her smooth shoulder. "In a bit," she smiled, feeling his warm body through the thin silk of her dress.

"You're right," he replied. "We should at least pretend we want to dance."

They were actually able to dance for a few hours, and although Lina was trying to regulate her alcohol intake, she still ended up a bit tipsy. She wasn't drunk, not by any means, but she was definitely feeling a bit less in control than usual. They had just finished a particularly spirited waltz when a slower song began. Xellos folded her into his embrace and gazed down at her tenderly, emotions burning in the depths of his dark eyes. Lina felt as if she was melting into him, the strong, gentle touch of his fingers making her body tremble with desire. Throwing convention to the wind, she decided that she wanted as much of him as she could get. His eyebrows raised slightly as she molded her body to his so that their entire lengths were pressed against one another, then let her hands slide from his shoulders and down his back. She lightly grazed the back of his suit, then deftly slid her hands under the tails of the jacket, giving his high, firm rear a gentle squeeze. Xellos' eyes widened and he thrust his hips forward a bit, making her smile. She removed one of her hands and moved it up to his throat, untying his cravat and stuffing it into his vest pocket. His neck now exposed, Lina stood on tiptoe and kissed his Adams apple, flicking it with the tip of her tongue.

A shudder ran the length of his body and she felt the fabric across the front of his pants tighten a bit. Feeling him react only made her burn with even greater need, and so she wrapped her leg around his, hitching up her skirt in order to do so. Xellos moaned, the sound so soft that even she could barely hear it, but she could feel his breath on her neck and saw his parted lips move ever so slightly. His strong, graceful hands cradled her passionately as he dipped her toward the ground, his movements fluid and slow. His hand gripped her slender thigh tightly, and she could see her desire echoed in his eyes.

Emboldened by drink, Lina put both her hands on the sides of his face and drew his head down to her, placing her burning lips to his. She was certain she heard him moan then, and his mouth completely yielded to hers. Her tongue slid into his mouth like a warm piece of candy and she let him suck on her, their jaws working in tandem. She tucked a lock of his thick, glossy hair behind his perfectly-formed ear and traced the clean line of his jaw, reveling in the overall smoothness of him.

"You're driving me mad," he rasped, breaking the kiss, and indeed his eyes were heavy with desire.

"Good," she murmured, and arched her back, teasing him.

"Lina," he breathed, supporting her back with one hand and running his other over the silk of her gown, his fingers hovering over her breast. Her nipples tented the fabric at the heat of his touch, and suddenly she snapped upright, nearly hitting him in the face as she did so.

People were staring, she realized, although many of them seemed more drunk than she. Well, whatever, she decided, and turned her back on Xellos, taking his hands and placing them on her hips. She spread her fingers across his knuckles and pressed his hands to her, slowly sliding them inward until the rested on her pelvis, just above the crux of her thighs. Xellos shuddered behind her as she slowly sank in his grip, bending at the knees until she was nearly on the ground. His hands grazed her nipples again and he moved his touch up her arms, keeping contact with her skin all the way to the wrist. Once there he pulled her up to standing again, his lips hot against the bare skin of her neck as his hands traveled down to grip her thighs. She grinned maliciously and tilted her head to the side, letting his mouth travel more of her throat and shoulder, and she slowly began to rub her rear against his groin. He gasped against the skin of her neck, his breathing becoming more heavy. "Come on," Lina ordered, taking him by the hand and nearly running out of the ballroom. She almost knocked several people over, but she was so blinded by passion that she barely noticed. The only thing in her mind was getting Xellos up to their room and out of his clothes, and because he was her husband and they were still newlyweds, no one would question it.

Xellos, however, came to a screeching halt in the middle of the corridor, pulling her against him in one fluid motion and shoving her up against the wall. His mouth was immediately on her neck and collarbones, his lips feverish and insistent, and he pulled the fabric of her skirt up to her thigh. His hand slipped under the silk and fingered the satin garters that held up her black stockings, then slipped up to the curve of her hipbone. His other hand moved up to her breast as he pinned her against the wall, thigh parting her legs. "Lina," he breathed against her flesh.

Lina reached down and tickled at his ribs, making him giggle foolishly and curl up on himself. "Not yet," she chortled, and smacked him on the rear with her open hand. His eyes flew wide open in surprise and she turned, taking flight down the hallway, looking over her shoulder to make sure he followed.

"Not fair!" Xellos called out, immediately giving chase. His eyes sparkled as he ran her down, trying to catch her in his arms as he came even with her. Lina ducked out of the way and twisted behind him, giving him a shove that almost sent him to the ground. He recovered his balance and redoubled his efforts, finally managing to catch her by the wrist as they reached their room. She used his own momentum against him, spinning him into the room and locking the door behind him, then shoved him roughly onto the bed. He landed on the mattress with a grunt, and she wasted no time, tearing off her stockings and using them to tie his wrists to the headboard before he could even blink.

He made a sharp noise of surprise as he found he could no longer move his wrists, and then Lina slowly removed her gown as he watched, sliding the fabric down her skin and letting her fingers trail across her flesh after it. Xellos made a sound from low in his throat, closing his eyes for a moment and swallowing. She grinned and winked, noticing how the fabric at the front of his trousers was strained. Leisurely undoing the garter belt that had once held up her stockings, she stepped out of her underwear and walked over to the side of the bed, close enough for him to feel her body heat but not enough to touch her. He groaned and strained against the stockings that held him, but her knots did not give way. She reached up and unpinned her hair, letting the fiery locks cascade down over her pale flesh, then straddled him. Slowly she undid the buttons of his vest and shirt, kissing his skin as it became available. Her hand wandered down to his trousers and ripped off his belt, discarding it on the floor. The bed shook as he once again struggled against his bonds, then growled deep in his chest. Lina smiled at him wickedly and let her fingers graze the stressed fabric at the front of his pants, laughing softly as a shudder ran the length of his long body. Starting at the notch between his collarbones, she drew a line of scorching kisses down the cut muscles of his chest and abdomen, dipping her tongue into his navel. He moaned and thrust his hips at her reflexively, and as she slowly drew circles around his well-defined stomach muscles she reached down and unzipped his pants. Sitting back on her knees, she traced a path from his navel to the dark hair between his legs, taking his organ in her hand. She caught his gaze and smiled again, then raised her pelvis and plunged herself down on him.

He cried out as she slid over him, driving his hips upward in a frenzy, and she gasped as she found herself struggling to match his pace. She steadied herself by placing her palms on his clenched stomach, riding him with abandon as he thrust madly inside of her. Soft grunts and moans issued forth from his chest, the wood of the headboard creaking as his arms pulled against it, and she felt the fires within her ignite within her so furiously that she thought her entire being would be consumed. Trying to think through the rapture ripping through her body, she opened up the magic of the rings and drove her passion and need straight into him. The sound he emitted was almost a scream as her emotions hit him full-force, and he bucked upwards so violently that she almost toppled from him. Instead she uttered a cry of her own and began to rock her hips in time with his, losing herself in their shared pleasure. Her threshold loomed and she surrendered to him, shattering as they came simultaneously. She convulsed and collapsed onto his bare, sweaty chest, gripping at his jacket as spasm after violent spasm wracked her body. Xellos relaxed slightly underneath her, his thrusts subsiding as he closed his eyes and panted. Lina wasn't sure how long they lay there like that, but finally Xellos tugged against his bonds enough to kiss her on the top of her head. "You didn't even take off my shoes," he murmured, obviously pretending to be offended.

Lina laughed and rolled off of him, delighting in feeling the slickness of their bodies against one another. She curled up against him and rested her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat return to its normal pace. "When I want you, I want you," she explained with a satisfied smile, her body feeling heavy and syrupy in its bliss.

Suddenly Xellos was free of his bonds, shrugging out of his shirt and jacket, his broad, muscular shoulders exposed. Lina gasped as she felt her wrists tied together above her head, and Xellos winked as he pulled his trousers off with one hand. "It's your turn, now," he murmured, taking a nipple in his mouth, and the whole process began all over again.

Xellos silently slipped from bed, knowing that Lina would be cranky if he woke her. She had been quite inebriated the night before, and while it had been fun, he didn't relish the thought of being present for her hangover. It still surprised him that she had come onto him that way right in the middle of the ballroom, but his own need had been impossible to ignore. In the end, it had been fun, and hopefully no one would remember it. He should have known better, but he had been a little tipsy himself.

He padded down to the bath chamber and quickly cleaned the smell of alcohol and lovemaking from his skin, even washing his hair. It was summertime, after all, and even his thick tresses dried quickly in the Seyruun heat. After dressing he quietly gathered his boots, momentarily contemplating taking his staff. No, he wouldn't need it, and it would just get in the way on the horse. He left the room and entered the antechamber, which was a cozy sitting room, and found a few breakfast items sitting on a side table. Helping himself to a few pastries and an apple, he munched as he walked down the winding corridors of the palace. The nursery was on his way, and so he stopped and saw his children for a few moments, listening to Lecia's angry protests that he had missed reading her a story the night before. Promises were made that such an awful oversight wouldn't happen again, and when he was certain his children were appeased, he set off toward the stables.

Zelgadis was already there, just finishing cinching up the saddle on a gigantic warhorse. The steed was just shy of being a draft horse, so tall and muscular it was, and Xellos realized it would have to be, to carry the slim swordsman's stony weight. "Good morning!" Xellos said brightly, walking over and patting the warhorse's neck. "How are you this fine day?"

Zelgadis glanced at him, then continued adjusting the horse's tack. "You were almost late," he growled.

"I apologize," Xellos replied, doing his best to look repentant. "I'm afraid there were some interesting antics when Lina and I returned to our room, and then when we attempted to bathe away the smell of the party, we ended up making quite a mess as aforesaid antics resumed. I think we were up half the night."

Zelgadis reddened a bit but did not look at him. "Lina was tanked last night," he grumbled. "I've never seen her like that. She's usually pretty modest."

"Desire does funny things to a person," Xellos grinned.

"She never did that sort of thing with Gourry."

"Excellent," Xellos said with a smile.

"You're strange."

"You don't have much room to talk, I'm afraid. You're the one asking someone you hate to go on a ride with you. Come clean with me, Mister Zelgadis. Why did you really ask me to come with you this morning? Don't tell me that you've actually forgiven me and want to be friends?"

Zel's blue eyes flickered over his face a moment, then he gestured over one of the stable hands. "Is Xellos' mount ready?" he asked gently, and the boy nodded, running and fetching a horse, which was already saddled and bridled. "Thanks," Zelgadis said, handing the reins to Xellos. "Here's your horse. Let's get going."

Xellos nodded and took the reins, leading the horse out of the stable behind Zelgadis. They walked the horses out into the paddock, then mounted up. It had been quite some time since Xellos had ridden, and it felt strange to be on a horse again. He had always preferred his own gait to that of an animal's, or even better, flight. "Is it because you're going to try and fight me again?" Xellos wondered aloud, truly mystified as to why Zelgadis would want to pretend to be friends.

"No," Zel replied sharply, clucking to his horse and moving forward.

Xellos followed suit and continued to ponder, not really paying attention to his mount as his horse followed Zelgadis. "Is it because you want to give Lina and Amelia time alone together?"

Zelgadis answered with silence.

Xellos raised an eyebrow. "Ah, so that's not it, either. Part of it, perhaps, but not the while story."

"Don't make me regret this so early on," Zelgadis growled.

Xellos sighed and blinked up into the sunlight. The lush trees and grasses waved in the wind as they rode past, and somewhere a bird was singing. It was a beautiful summer day, warm and peaceful as they rode along. Neither of them said a word for quite some time, a couple of hours and many miles passing before Xellos had an idea. "I know!" he finally declared.

Zelgadis looked back at him with annoyance. "What are you yapping about now?"

"You wanted to get me out of the house and away from your children! You're afraid that I'll hurt them or influence them in some way."

"You're nuts," Zel muttered, but his cheeks stained the faintest of pink.

"I'm right, aren't I?" Xellos crowed, chuckling so hard he had to grip the saddle. "You honestly think I would hurt your children!"

"Why is that funny?" Zelgadis snapped. "Or strange, for that matter. You used to be a Monster after all, and you had no regard for life whatsoever."

Xellos did his best to control his laughter, finally succeeding after a few moments. "Well, that used to be true, somewhat. I had no regard for lives that didn't amuse me. I still don't have any regard for such existences. However, I love my children and would do anything for them. Their lives are precious miracles, and I would rather slice off my own hands than see them come to harm. Since my children are friends with your children, and since Lina is friends with you and Miss Amelia, it would hurt them gravely if anything bad were to happen to any of you. Therefore, you have my protection by default, since my goal is to not let any of my beloved family members become upset."

Zelgadis twisted in his saddle and narrowed his eyes at Xellos. "And that's supposed to comfort me?"

"Yes," Xellos replied brightly. "That and the fact that I apologized for all the bad things I did to you."

"Small consolation," Zelgadis snorted, turning back to face forward.

"Come, now, Mister Zelgadis. I know you're a man of passion, but you're also a man of learning and breeding. You might as well face it; you're stuck with me. It's your choice as to whether or not you want to try and enjoy my company or simply suffer."

Zelgadis was silent for another fifteen minutes, and Xellos let his attention wander. He, after all, had pleasant things to think about, like his daughter's wet kisses and his son's loud giggle, or the way Lina's lithe, strong body felt beneath his hands when they made love the night before.

"Fine," Zelgadis said sharply, startling Xellos from his pleasant reverie. "Fine."

"Excellent!" Xellos declared, clapping his hands together and spooking his horse a bit. Zelgadis shot him a dirty look and he giggled, gently soothing his mount. "So, what do you want to talk about?"

"Runic magic," Zel announced. "Tell me all about it."

Xellos sighed. After seeing Lina's reaction to the books on runic magic, he was fairly certain that while she would demand to know all about it, she would most likely never put it to use. The runes were far too complicated and time-consuming for her tastes, and when they were completed the magical results just weren't fancy enough. He doubted that Lecia would be very interested in them, either. It was too early to tell if Gorran was the sort that would try to learn about the runes, but there was no doubt about Zelgadis. He would try it out, if he had the opportunity. Well, Zel would constantly pressure him until he caved in, and the only way to get him to not worry about it would be to kill him, a method which Xellos was quite certain Lina would frown upon. It seemed he really didn't have a choice, then.

"Very well," he agreed, "but I will not tell you how to construct any of the runes."

"What? Why not?"

"Because it's simply too dangerous," Xellos replied. "There's a reason runic magic faded from the world."

"But why is it dangerous? All magic is dangerous. Hell, Lina casts some of the most dangerous spells out there!"

"That's true, but her Nightmare magic has the power to affect the world. Runic magic can't act on such a grand scale, and it's just as easy to make a mistake as with Nightmare magic. However, if you made a mistake in drawing or chanting a rune, the whole world wouldn't be destroyed. You, on the other hand, would be torn apart piece by piece, on both the physical and astral plane. Not a single scrap of you would remain. You would, effectively, be completely erased from existence."

"How hard can it be?" Zelgadis sniffed. "People have been writing for thousands of years."

"If you put the slightest bump in one of the strokes, or your hand quivers even a bit, the rune goes out of control and consumes you. You know how sloppy people can get with their handwriting, and the runes are especially complicated."

"So what happened? Why did it disappear?"

"Because just about everyone who used it died from it, human and Monster alike. It's hard to keep an art alive when all the teachers and practitioners get torn to tiny shreds."

"I assume you know how to use it, and do, on occasion."

"Very, very rarely, and only when I am relaxed and have plenty of time to concentrate," Xellos replied. "There is simply too much risk involved, especially now that I have a family."

"Which is something that still mystifies me. She was perfectly happy with Gourry."

"I know," Xellos said, a bid of acid in his voice. "But she's happy with me now, too."

"I don't understand that, either."

Xellos grinned, feeling the conversation coming back to safe territory. "Why shouldn't she be? I'm handsome, have perfect manners, run the household so that she can focus on more important things, I dote on our children, feed her well, and fulfill her every sexual need and whim, which are considerable, I might add. What's not to be happy about? When I became human, she was able to tailor me to her lifestyle."

Zelgadis shuddered. "I don't even want to think about most of those things."

"Oh, come on. It's not like you and Amelia don't go at it like rabbits. You're the people with three children and one on the way. Besides, I catch you looking at her breasts quite often."

Zelgadis flushed and pursed his lips. "Shut up," he growled.

Xellos grinned. "Don't be ashamed!" he said brightly. "After all, I think about Lina that way all the time. She is the most incredible temptress, and quite flexible. Her breasts aren't as small as she'd have you believe, either, and her thighs are-"

"Shut up!" Zelgadis growled, hands twitching on the reins as if he wanted to shove his fingers in his ears.

"Why? It's perfectly natural to lust after one's mate, especially when her rear is so high and-" he began, stopping suddenly. His magic senses tingled faintly, and he noticed that the birds had gone completely quiet. He stopped his horse and glanced around, eyes narrowed as he peered into the bushes. The strange feeling had been coming over him on and off since they neared Seyruun, but never had he felt it like this.

"What is it?" Zel asked sharply, backing up his mount so that he was even with Xellos.

"Shh," Xellos hissed, listening. He could hear nothing except the breeze through the trees. He strained even harder and then he heard it- a low hum. He scowled and reached over to Zelgadis, grabbing him by the shirt and pulling him out of the saddle. Zel cried aloud in surprise, and Xellos used all his strength to haul Zel onto the horse in front of him. The chimera shouted as several arrows pierced his clothing and splintered on the stony skin of his chest.

"What the," Zel gasped. "Royal assassins?"

"They're not after you," Xellos hissed, jumping out of his saddle and taking cover behind his horse.

"How dare you use me as a shield!" Zel cried.

"You're not hurt, and those arrows could have killed me," Xellos said sharply, then jumped clear as his horse's body was riddled with arrows. It whinnied in pain and terror, and Zel tumbled from the animal as it staggered away in shock, blood pouring down its flanks. At the sound of its companion's distress, the warhorse uttered a sharp cry and galloped away through the woods.

"Dammit," Zel groaned, rubbing his head.

Xellos crowded closer to the chimera, eyes frantically scanning the trees. The arrows had the fletching of the royal guard of Seyruun, but no soldier in the palace would ever risk harming the prince. Something was wrong. "Be quiet," he whispered into Zel's ear, ready to use him as a shield again, if need be.

"What's going on?" Zel hissed, body tense underneath Xellos' hands.

Xellos plastered his customary smile on his face, the mask sliding easily into place. "You tell me. Those arrows are fletched with the royal guard's colors."

"They would never shoot me!" Zel protested, and Xellos stood abruptly, bringing Zelgadis with him and spinning. A rain of arrows came from the opposite direction, and Xellos swung Zelgadis in front of him, once again using the chimera's stony body to block the attack Zel made a sharp noise of surprise and covered his face with his hands, and as he bore the brunt of the assault, Xellos leapt away and rolled into the cover of the underbrush. He watched as Zelgadis took another round of arrows, trying to see into the trees. Judging by the sheer numbers of arrows, there were at least thirty assailants in the trees, and he had a hunch that more were on the way.

"Xellos!" Zelgadis warned, turning around as his blue eyes blazed, and then a group of swordsmen appeared out of nowhere, their booted feet pounding heavily on the dirt. Zelgadis quickly cast a spell, deflecting most of the blades, and Xellos wished he had his staff handy. He should have known better than to leave it behind, he realized as he watched the men attack Zelgadis. They were all dressed in the uniforms of Seyruun's royal guard, and he wondered why on earth they were so willingly attacking the prince. It was then that he noticed that their eyes seemed empty, their bodies somewhat stiff, and he knew immediately what was going on. He watched helplessly as Zelgadis cast an attack spell, wincing as one of the swordsmen was blown to pieces. The body did not bleed, but leaked thick, black liquid instead. Zelgadis immediately bent to examine the remains as the other soldiers retreated a few steps. Xellos had visions of Zelgadis' hands dissolving as he touched the mess. It didn't upset him in the least until he followed the vision to the point where Lina attempted to beat him senseless, then abandoned him for letting harm come to one of her friends.

Taking a deep breath, Xellos stood up from the bushes. "Don't touch that," he ordered, apparently surprising Zelgadis with his commanding tone.

Zelgadis was about to reply when Xellos heard something behind him and began to turn to face it, only to have an arrow lodge in his bicep. He grunted and tried to cast a barrier spell, but the arrows came too quickly. Damn it, if only he could still teleport! Another arrow caught him through the wrist, pinning him to the ground and taking away the use of his hand. Pain shot through the limb and traveled through his entire body, and he knew some of his hurt had been transmitted through the ring before he had an opportunity to shut off its magic.

"What's going on?" Zelgadis shouted, already running towards him, but it was too late. Xellos turned his head just in time to see a bolt of dark energy shoot out of the trees, and he was powerless to stop it as it pierced his shoulder, forcing him even more tightly to the ground. He clenched his teeth as he felt the magic begin to thicken his blood, poisoning him even as he searched for his attacker. It seemed they had finally found him.

"Warn Lina!" Xellos shouted to the chimera, using up most of his breath.

"I can't!" Zelgadis bellowed in reply. "There's too many of these damn soldiers."

"They're not alive! Just blow them up!"

"I know they're not alive!" Zelgadis snapped, dodging a blow neatly. "But every time I strike one down, another takes its place!"

"Drat," Xellos gasped, trying to stay conscious through the burning agony ripping his insides to shreds. He raised his uninjured right hand and waved it in the air, gathering all the power that remained in his body. He was mortal, true, but he still had most of his Monsterly powers. It was time to use some of the stronger tricks he knew. Taking as deep of a breath as he could manage with the pain that was dissolving his strength, he chanted the spell, pulling from the deepest dimension of the astral plane that he could. He felt the energy being sucked greedily from his body as the spell was completed, and a thundering tearing sound shook the ground around him. An unholy howl of glee split the air, and a gigantic black beast appeared out of nowhere, long, black jaws dripping with fluid. It howled again and was answered in kind as more and more of the beasts began to arrive.

"What the hell?" Zelgadis shouted, backing away, eyes huge.

"Attack!" Xellos yelled, feeling fiery pain lance through his chest as he did so. The beasts, now numbering at least twenty, immediately set about destroying the soldiers. One of the monsters screeched and clawed its way up a tree, dragging an archer to the ground and snapping his head off with one bite.

"What are those?" Zel asked over the din of the magical beasts.

Xellos knew he didn't have time to explain. He wasn't even certain he had much longer to live. "Warn Lina!" he screamed. "Tell her they found us!"

Zelgadis seemed as if he would hesitate, then dashed off through the woods with a nod of his head. Xellos closed his eyes and panted, desperately trying to cordon off the insidious spell that was trying to consume his astral body. If he didn't do something he would never see his family again, but at the same time he felt so weakened that he wasn't sure he was even capable of uttering another word.

"Not so mighty now, eh?" a smooth voice said, and Xellos narrowed his eyes as a ridiculously slim figure emerged from the darkness beneath the trees. The creature looked like a living shadow, with glowing yellow eyes and a crest of heatless fire running from the crown of its head to the end of its whiplike tail. Tattered black wings, four of them, protruded from its back, and there was no mouth that Xellos could see.

"You," he wheezed. "You...Gaav's..."

"That's right," the Monster chuckled. "I was Gaav's minion. When he took that pansy Valgaav under his wing, so to speak, I defected to Dynast's side."

"But... Dead..."

"Fool," the Monster replied. "The war didn't claim me, like it did nearly all of my master's other servants. I've been busy elsewhere, and since Dynast didn't see fit to tell anyone, I kept myself secret as well. When I returned to his side, however, he had a little assignment for me."

Xellos pursed his lips and closed his eyes, panting. Yes, he remembered the Monster. It seemed that his mistress and himself had overlooked some fairly important details. He wondered what else they had missed. Of course, none of it really mattered, since he would be dead shortly if he didn't do something. "I see," he rasped. "You... Followed..."

"I had to wait until that sorceress of yours wasn't around," the Monster explained, and its long muzzle contorted as if it was smiling. "You are more trouble, actually, but your arrogance makes you slightly easier to take unaware."

Xellos summoned his energy and forced himself to smile. "I... Miscalculated..."

The Monster came closer and lifted up a shadowy, taloned foot. "I've wanted to do something like this for so long," it hissed. "Every single time you smirked, just as you're doing now, lording over the rest of us... The Greater Beast should have never given you the power she did. Now, however, I get the opportunity to do what everyone else has dreamed of: I get to wipe that stupid smile off your face."

Xellos was about to try and utter a glib reply when the Monster brought its foot down on the black energy spike that was rammed through Xellos's shoulder. His eyes shot open wide with pain and a scream so violent left him that its passage nearly ravaged his lungs. The Monster cackled and repeated its action, little dark spots dancing in Xellos' vision as his body shattered with anguish. His wound, which had been cauterized by the energy bolt as it first passed through him, tore open, and his back became warm as his lifeblood leaked into the dirt.

"Not so mighty now, are you?" the Monster chuckled.

Xellos closed his eyes, trying to think. The magic beasts he had summoned had finished with their task, if the noises he was hearing was any indication. They sounded restless, and he could hear the brush cracking beneath their gigantic feet as they ambled away. It was a shame such beasts were so easily distracted. He could have used their help at the moment.

"I was talking to you!" his assailant shouted. "You'll listen when I'm talking to you!"

Xellos grunted and clenched his jaw as he was kicked in the head. Still pinned by arrows and the spike of energy, he felt his wounds open wider and the ground beneath him became even more slick. His hearing rang and he wondered if the tickling he felt below his ears was actually blood. "Lina... Will... Kill you," Xellos wheezed, every word feeling like fire in his throat.

"I will be long gone before she even knows what has happened. Why do you think I waited so long to attack?"

"It... was you," Xellos replied, then dissolved into a fit of coughing. He scowled as he felt sticky blood coat his teeth and tongue, a bit dribbling out of the corners of his mouth.

"Of course."

It became clear to him what had happened. It had indeed been the Monster that was setting off his magic sense, but the creature had avoided detection by possessing the bodies of humans it had slain and sent them to gather information. If the Monster had appeared itself, after all, Xellos would have sensed it and destroyed it at once. Damn it all, he was going to die because of his carelessness. Lina would definitely be able to defeat his murderer, but he still worried about her safety and that of his children. Oh, his lovely children. They were beautiful, intelligent, and impish. How he would hate to miss the havoc they would wreak on the world!

"Do...it..." he breathed, feeling his lips swell as his chest tightened in anticipation of death.

"With pleasure," the Monster chortled. "After all, your human suffering will be especially delicious."

The Monster once again ground the black energy spike further into Xellos' shoulder, and his body convulsed with pain. Laughter pierced his brain, and even through the horror of his agony, he was able to keep a smile plastered on his face. After all, he had weathered torture before. He had experienced the slow death of his body, he had been deconstructed piece by agonizing piece by his mistress and her minions. Yes, the Monster could break his body all it wanted, but nothing was comparable to the pain felt by the human heart. The futility of the Monster's actions tickled him, and laughter bubbled up from inside of him, blood flowing more freely from the corners of his mouth with the rapid contractions of his ribcage. His assailant's yellow eyes blazed with fury, and the creature redoubled its efforts. Xellos' laughter just grew louder.

"Why do you laugh?" the Monster bellowed, shadowy, snouted face contorted. "What amusement is there to be had in your own death?"

Xellos continued to chuckle.

The Monster reached down and gripped his arms with sharp, clawed fingers, shaking him. Xellos almost couldn't feel the renewed pain of his torn flesh, his body was already so rife with agony. Still he laughed. "Tell me!" the thing screeched.

Xellos coughed and moved his lips, but no sound came forth. The creature's face rumpled and it leaned down closer. Again he mouthed words, and again the Monster moved even nearer. When it was finally so close that his face was nearly touching its shadowy head, he managed to speak. "It's...a...secret..." he wheezed merrily.

The Monster snarled and jerked upward, moving away, when Xellos forced his mind into absolute clarity. An awful, deathly coldness settled in his amethyst eyes, and his good hand shot out, clutching his enemy's wrist. His fingers dug into the thing's wraithlike form, and he focused all his astral energy into the shape of a cone, his original body. New anguish slashed his nerves to ribbons, but he managed to maintain his concentration as the Monster screamed and writhed in his trap spell. It was helpless now, and with one swift strike he drove his focused astral form straight through the other's astral body. An ear-splitting shriek left the Monster as it died, collapsing on top of him, twitching. Seconds later it lay absolutely still, its magically-constructed body already breaking up on the physical plane. Xellos grunted and moved his good hand up to the black energy spike, trying to pull it out, but the moment he touched it his fingers were seared and numb. Damn, there was no way for him to touch it. If he didn't get it out, or at least neutralize it, he was done for. If he could just stop the magic then there was a good chance he could use his remaining power to cordon off the tainted flesh and keep himself alive. He had done it once before, after all. What could he use? Everything that touched the spike would just be eaten away.

Then he had an idea. He wriggled his pelvis as much as he could until the Monster's fading body shifted a bit, allowing Xellos to grab its hand. He only had enough time for one attempt, for in seconds the body would have completely retreated to its original plane. Folding his fingers in the Monster's claws, he wrapped them around the spike, his hand applying the pressure on the outside. There was a sizzling sound and the smell of burning, rotting flesh, and he clenched his teeth, grunting as the spike came loose. Black, foul blood poured out of the wound after it, and Xellos rested his head on the ground, trying to relax and to contain the taint at the same time. His body hurt so badly that he could barely think, but he was determined. The image of Lina came into his mind, her ruby-colored eyes snapping angrily at his carelessness, but the set of her mouth was worried. She would be angry at him, very angry at him, but he knew she wanted to see him again. Sweet dark lords, he wanted to see her, too. He would get through this. There had to be a way.

He worked for a few more moments, not daring to move his body. The amount of blood loss he had suffered made it difficult to concentrate, but still he tried. He wove spell after simple spell into his body, trying everything he could think of. Soon, however, he tired, and his last thought before losing consciousness was his hope that it would be enough.

Lina awoke with a great sigh, her body feeling liquid and silky after a full night of lovemaking. She had no idea how he did it, but Xellos seemed to fill every single part of her even without the rings. He gave her exactly what she wanted when she wanted it, and joining with him was bliss. She couldn't believe that she had thought him anything less than manly at one point in time.

Then Lina tried to roll over. Her head protested loudly as her stomach pitched, and she moaned, burying her head under the pillows. "Xellos," she groaned. "Water."

Silence met her ears and she clenched her jaw as she remembered that he had left early to go riding with Zel. Why did he have to leave her when she had a hangover? It was pretty stupid of her to have a hangover, anyway. She hadn't had THAT much to drink. Oh well, it was too late. She felt like crap.

Lina took a few moments to steel herself, then wobbled from the bed and into the bathroom. She washed her face and guzzled water from the tap, squeezing her eyes shut as she did so. Bathing quickly, she realized she wasn't quite as hungover as she thought she was. Dehydration was what caused her headache, and she felt better after a few more glasses of water. She dressed and made her way down to the nursery, where the nanny informed her that the princess had taken all the children out to the garden for brunch. Brunch sounded okay to Lina, whose stomach was still unsettled, and so she wandered around until she found Amelia and the children.

"Mommy!" Lecia cried, sliding from her chair and clamping on to her mother's legs.

"Hey," Lina said with a pained smile, stroking the child's hair. "How are you? Having fun?"

"Good, and yes!" Lecia announced, then dashed back to her seat, daintily resuming her eating.

"Good morning, Miss Lina!" Amelia chirped, Gorran balanced on her lap. "Did you sleep well?"

"When I slept," Lina replied without thinking.

Amelia gave her an odd look as she sat down. "But you two left the party so early," she said, brow furrowed.

Lina blushed. "Uh, yeah. We didn't sleep much, though."

"Oh," Amelia mumbled, looking embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."

"No problem," Lina grunted, gathering up a few slices of toast. Perhaps the bread would absorb some of the crappiness she felt in her stomach.

"Ma," Gorran said, waving his arms at Lina.

"Hi to you, too," Lina said with a smile, taking the baby from Amelia. She pulled up her shirt and popped a nipple into Gorran's mouth. "It's over if you bite me again."

"Mister Xellos certainly is...sensual...isn't he?" Amelia said.

"You don't know the half of it," she grumbled.

"I'm sure he would leave you be, if you asked him."

"Right, like I'm going to do something that dumb!" Lina chuckled, watching her son nurse.

A few moments passed and Lina grew a little uncomfortable under Amelia's scrutiny. The princess' deeply blue eyes studied her carefully, and then her pink lips parted in a smile. "That's how you got together, isn't it?" she giggled. "You couldn't keep your hands off of him."

"Hey, it goes both ways," Lina growled. "Besides, he's..."

"He's what?"

Lina's blush deepened. "He's really good. I didn't ever think it could be that way."

"It wouldn't be, if you didn't love him so much."

Lina scowled. "Don't get all mushy on me," she muttered. "It makes me sick."

"I think it's romantic!" Amelia sighed, clasping her hands. "Mister Xellos is so dark and dashing, and the way he dances..."

"That's MY husband you're talking about!" Lina protested.

"Oh, Zelgadis is a good dancer as well, but just not social."

"I have no pity for you. You married him."

"I adore him, and our children. But I think it's nice that you're so happy, and you do seem happy, if last night was any indication."

"Whatever," Lina grumbled, bowing her head and hiding her burning face in the curtains of her hair.

A few more moments of silence passed, Amelia fidgeting slightly with her hands. She sighed and looked away, but said nothing for quite some time. The children talked quietly at the other end of the table around mouthfuls of pancakes, and their chatter, combined with the sound of the wind through the trees, was actually quite soothing. Gorran finished nursing and wanted to be set down. Lina put him on the stones and let him cling to the table leg, standing. "I wish we could have gone with them," Amelia finally said.

"What you mean is you're worried about them getting along," Lina corrected, keeping a close eye on Gorran as he tried to keep his balance.

Amelia smiled. "I never could keep much from you. You always seem to know what everyone is thinking."

Lina shrugged. "Only because I pay attention. Anyway, I think they're probably fine."

Amelia's gaze suddenly hardened, and she took Lina's hand in hers. Amelia's palms were still slightly worn, not the satiny skin of a princess who had never done a day's work in her life. Lina had to give her friend credit; Amelia didn't mind getting her hands dirty, and more power to her because of it. "You know he's still evil, don't you?"

Lina pressed her lips into a tight line. "I stopped being able to define evil long ago. He was a Monster for most of Lecia's life, and yet he never once was awful to her. He was as gentle a father as I had ever seen. Explain to me how an incarnation of evil could do that sort of thing. The more I think about it, the more I think that Xellos' brand of 'evil' is more just a blatant disregard for life. That's not good, but I don't think it's something I should be worried about, either."

Amelia sighed. "I can see your point, but I think that anyone outside of your immediate family should worry about him. He's the same, Miss Lina. He's polite and friendly, but I know he would hurt people without giving it a second thought."

"But he would never hurt me. He killed his own people to save me, Amelia. Now he loves me."

"And I'm happy for it," Amelia said, finally dropping the subject. Lina was happy to see that the years had given Amelia wisdom to match her passion for justice. A flood of affection for the younger woman washed over her, and she realized she had missed her friend.

"You know, if I could ever pick a little sister for myself, I would choose you," Lina said, tentatively squeezing Amelia's hands.

Amelia's dark blue eyes brightened and she squeezed back. "I would have been honored," she whispered.

Lina smiled and was about to say something else when a horrible pain ripped through her shoulder, making her gasp and clutch at her chest. Her vision cut out as she toppled to the ground, clutching at the table for balance. "Miss Lina!" she heard Amelia cry, and suddenly hands were on her.

"Mommy!" Lecia called, and Gorran started to cry.

"Lecia, hold your brother," Lina tried to say, but her lips felt numb and cold, and she wasn't certain the words were actually leaving her throat.

"She's not hurt, Lecia," Amelia said, her voice puzzled. "Miss Lina, are you all right?"

Lina shuddered as the pain suddenly vanished, as if a window had shut. "No!" Lina shouted, springing to her feet. "NO!"

"What?" Amelia asked. "What is it?"

"Ma!" Gorran wailed, huge amethyst eyes clouding with tears.

Lina felt empty and frantic as panic shredded her insides. "Xellos!" she screamed, and took off at a run.

"Mommy, wait!" Lecia squeaked, trotting after her.

"No, stay here," Lina ordered, her head spinning with fear. Something had happened to him, she just knew it. When she tried to reach to him through the ring she had found him blocking her.

"But-"

"No arguments! You will stay here with Amelia and look after your brother!" Lina barked.

"Miss Lina, what-"

"I'm leaving, Amelia. Something's happened, and you're in no condition to help out. Watch the children," Lina announced, then took to the air with her most powerful Ray Wing, blocking out the protests being shouted at her from below.

"No, no, no," she muttered to herself over and over again, her loose clothes flapping in the wind as she sped over the treetops. Dammit, where had they gone riding? Xellos was blocking her so thoroughly that she couldn't even tell which direction he was in. Sweat beaded along her hairline with the effort of maintaining the spell at top speed while still searching for her husband. What was going on?

Something large and dark in the sky caught her attention, and as it drew nearer she readied a spell. Nothing but a Monster could be causing Xellos such trouble, and she certainly didn't want to be caught defenseless. Deciding that the best defense was a powerful offense, she switched directions and veered off towards the other flying figure. "Stop right there!" Lina screamed at the top of her lungs, a spell tingling at her fingertips.

"Lina!" she heard the dark figure answer, and as they sped toward one another she saw that it was Zelgadis. He was dirty and his clothes were torn, but otherwise he looked fine.

"Zel!" she gasped, reaching out and grabbing his tattered sleeve with a white-knuckled hand. "Where's Xellos?"

"Back there," he said, panting. "About five minutes behind me."

"Five minutes? What the hell happened?"

"Attacked," Zel answered, brushing his wiry hair out of his face. "Xellos is down."

"I knew it," Lina choked, fighting back all the horrifying emotions that were trying so desperately to conquer her. "A Monster?"

"I think so."

Lina swallowed. It seemed that their reprieve was over. She could only hope she wouldn't be too late. Perhaps if they went quickly she could at least be there for his last breath... No! She couldn't think like that! Xellos was strong, he would still be alive when she found him. She just had to believe that. "Come on," she snapped, taking off in the direction from which Xellos had come.

"Damn it," Zelgadis growled, looking at the ground, and Lina followed his gaze. Moving through the trees beneath them were gigantic dark beasts, long jaws dripping with fluid.

"What the hell are those?" Lina exclaimed, shocked to her core. The beasts looked dangerous and just intelligent enough to do horrible damage.

"Xellos summoned them to give me time to escape."

"And why didn't you just save him, Zel?"

"There wasn't time, and he told me to warn you. I'm pretty sure he didn't want you to go barreling straight into the battle."

"Like I have ever backed away from a fight," Lina growled. "If it was a Monster, why didn't you just Rah Tilt its ass?"

Zel's expression darkened. "I couldn't, not without hitting Xellos. He was hurt badly, Lina."

"Where is he?" she demanded, hating the cold hand of fear that was squeezing all the blood out of her heart. She didn't want to lose him, not now, not ever. The fact that he had summoned magical beasts to assist him worried her as well. Only Monsters and skilled sorcerers could accomplish such a feat. Her brain told her that he was mostly skilled sorcerer, but the tiny voice inside of her, the voice that had always guided her, was telling her otherwise. Regardless of anything else, performing such a summoning would have drained him almost completely. Her heart turned to lead as they flew on, her hope slowly dying within her as she was continually thwarted in her attempts to reach him through the rings.

Zelgadis was scanning the trees below, his flight path becoming wobbly. "There, I think," he replied, pointing at a clearing.

"Dammit," Lina choked, quickly landing and running along the path as fast as her legs would carry her. "Xellos!" she screamed, waiting to hear his smooth, bright voice on the wind.

"Xellos!" Zelgadis shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth. His icy blue eyes slid around the forest.

Lina was surprised, her eyes going slightly wide. Zel hated Xellos. Why was he trying so hard? She knew that Zelgadis would do anything to help her, but he seemed to be going the extra mile. "Zel," she began.

Zelgadis turned on her, his usually-stern expression melting for a moment. "Those children, Lina," he explained. "They're lovely, and they love their father. Xellos is a rotten bastard, but I know your children would always be sad if they lost him."

"I would, too," she replied.

"I try not to think about that. You should have been with Gourry. You were his sun and moon."

"But he can live without me. I might have been Gourry's world, but I'm Xellos' soul," she finished, a tad angry. "Xellos!"

Zelgadis scowled and looked around. "This way, I think."

"You think? What the hell were you doing while you were riding? Weren't you paying attention to the road at all?"

"Shut up," Zelgadis snapped.

Lina followed him as they crashed through the bushes, watching the dappled sunlight play across Zel's shiny, lavender hair. For a moment it was like old times, them searching for something with danger hovering on the edges of their senses, united in a cause. She missed those days. Xellos fulfilled her need for adventure and excitement, but now that they had a family, and her friends had families as well, never again would they roam the world together. Xellos was her best friend, now, and the thought of losing him made her sick.

Redoubling her efforts, she began to trot through the underbrush, looking for a clearing or signs of battle. Zelgadis, searching off to her left, suddenly stopped and stood completely still, the color draining from his face. "What is it?" she asked, dashing over to him, and was surprised when Zel's arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her to him.

"Don't, Lina," he whispered, his arms like steel bands around her as he forced her to face away from the clearing. "It's too late."

"Zel?" she asked, voice breaking, looking up into the eyes of her friend. His brow was furrowed and his mouth set, the entirety of his handsome face a mask of worry.

"I don't think you should look. We'll go back to the palace and send someone for him," he said calmly.

"NO!" Lina shouted. "You don't know he's dead. If he was dead, I would feel it!"

"Lina," Zelgadis said, voice and eyes gentle. His hand wandered up to the back of her head and stroked her hair, pushing her face into his chest. "You're one of my best friends," he continued. "I don't want to see you hurt. Please, just let me take you away from here."

"You can't protect me!" Lina cried, feeling hot tears sting the back of her eyes angrily. "No one has ever been able to protect me! Not Xellos, not you, and most definitely not Gourry!"

"Lina-" Zel said, gasping as she erupted from his embrace and nearly knocked him over as she shoved past him.

She only took a couple of steps before she stopped dead in her tracks. He was there, lying in the clearing. Black ash smeared his clothing in an odd patch, as if something had fallen on him and been burned away. His gloved hands were curled, palms skyward, and his head lolled to the side. His amethyst eyes were closed, his sculpted lips slightly parted, silky, dark hair obscuring part of his flawless face as it spread over his skin and the ground beneath him.

"Oh, gods," she choked, feeling a burning lump rise in her throat. Numerous arrows protruded from his thin, lithe body, but the most horrific weapon that had pierced him was a large black bolt that lay on the ground just inches from one of his limp hands. Blood blackened the dirt all around him, as if his entire body had been drained, and his skin was pale in the sunlight filtering down between the trees. As if the scene wasn't appalling enough, it almost looked as if his shoulder had been nearly torn from his body. The fabric of his shirt seemed to have melted into his skin, the flesh erupted and festering already. Blood covered his shoulder and part of his chest, black and sticky. Flies buzzed around the wound and purple flesh, and Lina's stomach nearly emptied its contents onto the ground then and there.

A tremor ran the length of her body and she felt a strangled cry leave her, her hands clutching at her throat, as if she could make herself breathe easier simply by touch. "Xellos," she rasped, falling to her knees in the leaves. Her fingers trembled as she crawled across the dirt to him, unable to see anything but his still form. As she neared him, the ground was wet and sticky with her husband's lifeblood, and she nearly recoiled and fled back to the safety of Zel's arms.

Suddenly her friend was there, his heavy, cool hand on her shoulder, his fingers gripping her through her cloak. "I'm sorry, Lina," he whispered.

"He can't be dead, he can't be dead," she murmured. "It was just a minor Monster, right?"

"I'm not certain," he replied sadly. "Probably."

"Xellos is stronger than that! He's smarter than that!" Lina cried, voice rising in pitch. She recognized the tingling, ravaging claws of hysteria inside of her, and she scrambled over to Xellos' side. Her hands shook as she reached out and cleared some of the silky strands of hair from his face. His skin was cold, very cold, and his lips were a bluish color. She traced his soft lips with her fingertips, her touch moving upwards and gently stroking the fragile, flawless skin of his eyelids. Frantic, she turned at looked at Zelgadis, who stood behind her with a sad expression on his face.

"I'm sorry," he whispered again, and spread his hands.

"No," Lina moaned, examining her fallen mate. The wound in his shoulder was even uglier close-up. His flesh had blistered and ulcerated, the skin bruised and slick with blood and ooze. A dark stink wafted up to her nostrils, and she realized immediately that the injury had been caused by poisoned magic. No wonder there were already threads of purple infection in the spiderwebbed veins in the translucent skin of Xellos' cold cheeks. The magic would have spread through him quickly, ravaging his body. It was a clever attack, and a powerful one. The Monster must have been charged with the weapon by its superiors.

"Come away," Zelgadis said gently from behind her. "There's nothing we can do."

"There's always something we can do!" she snapped, her sorrow replaced by frantic, empty anger, anger driven by fear. Could she really have lost him? "Xellos!" she shouted, reaching down and prying up his eyelids with her fingers. His pupils didn't contract with the light, the amethyst orbs simply staring sightlessly. "Dammit, he's cold," she muttered, busying herself by breaking off the shafts of the arrows.

"Lina," Zel protested, and she turned on him, eyes blazing.

"Dammit, help me!" she ordered. "Get that shirt off of him, and don't touch that black spike over there."

Zel took a deep breath and grunted, but he did as she asked, kicking the spike away with his boot. Kneeling, he waved away the flies and took the collar of Xellos's shirt in his hands, ripping it down the front and slowly peeling the blood-soaked fabric away. He hissed and turned his nose to the side as an awful stench wafted up from the wound in Xellos' shoulder, his lip curled in distaste. "This is bad," he growled.

Lina, in the meantime was checking for a pulse. Xellos' neck was swollen with infection, and his wrists were both damaged. She couldn't move his arms in order to check the artery tucked beneath his bicep, which really only left her a couple of options. "Move," she ordered Zelgadis, then spread Xellos' legs and crawled between them.

Zelgadis looked at her in horror. "What the hell are you doing?" he gasped.

Lina shot him a dirty look. "You pervert," she snapped. "I'm just checking for a pulse." She took her fingers and rammed them into his firm thigh, feeling and pressing until she was under the shelf of his muscle. "There!" she cried, able to feel a few heartbeats. From this angle she could see his chest just barely rising as well, and suddenly she could feel his magic, closing off the infection but rendering him in a bizarre state of suspended animation. "Xellos, I'm here," she called out, staring at his face for any sign of recognition, and was rewarded only with silence. She took a few breaths and felt her chest ice over as the heartbeats stopped. Watching with shock, she noticed that his ribs did not expand again. Horror and pain ripped through her, disbelief battering the inside of her mind. No, she had not come all this way just to witness his final breath. No, no, no, no....

"Lina!" Zelgadis said sharply, startling her. "What is it?"

"His heart stopped," she whispered.

Zel pressed his lips into a line. "He lost a lot of blood, and this wound..."

"I didn't come this far just to watch him die!" she shouted, gritting her teeth. "Dammit, Xellos, you live for me!"

"Lina-"

"Shut up! Do you hear me, Xellos?" she screamed, eyes blazing like pools of lava. "Your life and soul are mine, do you understand? You will NOT die until I say you can!"

"Lina," Zel tried again.

"Shut the hell up and help me!" she bellowed, not even noticing as tears began to course down her cheeks.

"What do I do?"

"Recovery!" Lina screamed, voice breaking, and white light erupted from underneath her hands. "Do it, Zel!"

"Recovery," he repeated, hissing as the skin around Xellos's shoulder wound began to fizz.

"Xellos, you come back to me this instant!" Lina shouted at the prone man. She sought out the magic of the rings and pulled at it, trying to get past whatever barriers Xellos had set up. She was hindered at every turn, and finally she screamed in frustration. "Dammit!" she howled. "You're not protecting me, you damn idiot, you're killing yourself!"

"What is it?" Zel asked, eyes shadowed in the light of his spell, but she couldn't spare the energy to answer him.

Instead Lina threw herself repeatedly at the magic of the rings, trying to work with the spell. Nothing worked, not even remotely. Sadness and pain began to fill her, desperation filling in the cracks she felt in her emotional armor. "No," she whispered, suddenly seizing his hand. She ripped his glove off of his icy fingers and pressed her palm to his, her ring digging into his skin as their fingers laced. "I've done things for you I swore I would never do, not even for the love of my life. I've had two of your children, and I even married you, for heaven's sake. You've touched parts of me I didn't even know existed, both with your evil and your love, and dammit, I am not going to let you go!"

She ignored the magic of the rings completely as she channeled herself into them, no longer trying to force the spell. Her soul poured out of her, and she no longer pushed, but pulled. Somewhere inside of her she felt something rip, and suddenly she was in darkness and cold. Lina looked around, afraid, but couldn't see Xellos or Zelgadis anywhere. "Xellos?" she called, her voice echoing about her, the sound returning hollow. "Hello?"

An oppressive silence met her ears. Nothing lived in this darkness, this void. It was worse than the absence of existence; it was the opposite of existence. It was the night that had never been dotted by stars; it was a sea that had never felt a tide. Her mind reeled with its immensity, its complete lack of life. The darkness crushed her and she could not see. It was worse than being struck blind, much worse. The cold of the void crushed her, and she knew her human mind and soul would not last long in such a place. Where was the light, the warmth? Where were the things that gave life? Still, within the darkness of nothingness, there was a power. It was a deep power, so cold it burned. The river of power was unfathomable, endless, and incomparable. It called to her, she wanted to touch it, to hold its dark strength in her hand, to be frozen alive by its burning strength. If she could grab it, harness it, nothing could stand in her way. She could seize it and turn it to her, make it obey her will, and she would rule the world, she would destroy the world, the universe, and return it to this seductive, chilling river of power. Her power. She would be a goddess, immortal, mighty and terrible in her beauty...

No. There wasn't just the darkness. She was blinded by its suffocating lack of light, but she could feel something. It fluttered just beyond the range of her senses. Her soul burned with agony as she tried to hearken after it, tried to find the warmth. Something was there, she knew it, but it was going from her quickly, moving so rapidly she couldn't even think fast enough to keep up with it. The river of dark power beckoned to her, called her back to its icy shores, surrounded her with its shroud, but the something called to her more, like a sound, lifting her instead of crushing her, drowning her. Was it a light? Was it a chance?

"Hello?" she tried again, but her voice was snatched away from her, and she knew that she was not only deaf and blind in this place, but mute as well. Her head started to hurt from trying to understand things far beyond her ken. She was not supposed to be in this place, she was not supposed to have seen this. If she couldn't move, speak, hear, or see, how would she ever find that warm something? Suddenly her heart hurt with desire, hurt with the pain of missing a part of herself, and she longed for it. Her need was an ache that flowed through every curve of her body, and she realized she was a creature of light. In the endless darkness, she was the only light.

"Xellos!" she called out, but her voice came out not as words, but as song. She didn't know the words, couldn't even hear her own music in a way her brain could understand, but she knew it was happening nonetheless. The darkness about her bucked and rolled, but she was no longer held in thrall by its sweet suffocation. Looking down at herself, at her newly-shining body, she realized that she didn't truly have physical form. She wasn't human, she wasn't a body, she just was. Was she Lina? Yes, and no. She was light, but she wasn't radiant, not yet. Tendrils of her reached out and about, grasping, searching against the darkness of the power that surrounded her, and she realized that while most of her was incapable of moving, of calling out, parts of her still could. The tendrils suddenly thrashed about with light and motion, pulling the darkness to her and slicing through it. She pulled it like a blanket about her, sending pieces of her out into the darkness to bring even more power back. It was like swimming, in an odd way, but also like running. Her song, the sound she was emitting, was not complete. It needed to resonate.

For a moment she felt bliss, in love with her own music and light, comforted in the blackness that surrounded her. She could just let go, stay here forever.... Then she saw amethyst eyes. She could remember feeling soft lips on the curve of her ear, whispering to her, could feel fingertips dancing lightly down her body with tenderness and reverence. She could hear laughter, singing, could see a smile curve upwards underneath eyes so deeply purple that her very soul ached, she wanted to badly to drown in those depths. Piece by piece she caught her own tendrils of light and collected them to her, suddenly realizing what she was and where she was. She was an extension of her soul, and she was searching for Xellos, to bring him back to her.

Her realization just increased the strength of her will. He was here, somewhere, in this blackness. As soon as she had the thought, she realized it wasn't entirely accurate. He was the blackness. The darkness, the unending power, was the Monster part of him. His evil and coldness shocked her to her very core. She had always known, had even felt it once, when he had shown her, but now she was alone. He was not there to guide her. Somewhere, however, was his human soul. All was retreating to the astral plane, his human soul getting ready to move into the beyond, to join eternity. His Monster soul was moving to rejoin something else, now that there was no physical body to contain it.

"No!" she shouted, and felt her light blaze more brightly. Her tendrils shot out of her at mind-numbing speeds, slicing the darkness as they traveled. "Xellos!" she called out, but not with her voice. She called to him with all the power of her soul. Her memories came to her in a rush and she sent them out with her light, searching, pulling them back to her. From somewhere she sensed a struggle, a warmth trying to combat the darkness. The blackness around her was no longer seductive. The dark was cruel, dangerous, and she had to fight it as she searched. All her senses were riveted on the struggle, and she exploded with pain as she reached out and ripped the darkness apart. A fragment of light, different from hers, winked at the edge of her awareness, and without thinking she flung herself at it. It was faint at first, but as she pulled it out of the darkness it became brighter. She was not seeing with her eyes, she realized, but with her heart. Its light started to blind her as she wrapped herself around it, and then the darkness began to shake as her own light began to fade. The other light was blinking out, dragging her down with it. She wasn't strong enough, it was too heavy, she was too tired to fight it.

"No," she moaned, her head exploding with yearning. This light, this fading light before her, she wanted to join with it, she wanted to be one with it. It felt as if it was a part of her already, and she needed it to be with her again. "You are mine," she said, and again it was not her voice that left her. The light in her embrace flickered and turned toward her, tentative. "Don't you understand?" she called. "You are mine, and I will not let you go!"

"Li..." she heard whispered, but it was not a sound. It was something that vibrated within her, its frequencies matching her own.

"Come back to me," she murmured, pouring all her energy into her light, trying to warm the frail flame before her. "You belong with me."

"Na...." came the answering breath.

"Xellos!" she sobbed, crushing it to her. "Please! Don't let go! Fight!"

She took a deep breath as her light began to become concentrated, the radiance turning into a figure. Looking down, she saw that her light had coalesced to mirror her physical body. She was naked, glowing with the power of her soul. Lina regarded her fingers and toes with awe, amazed at the details. It was definitely her, but she was a creature of light!

Her exultation was cut short as the light before her began to flicker and fade, breaking up and retreating into darkness. Desperation overtook her and she reached out her arms, catching it. "Come back to me," she murmured gently, pouring everything she was into her words, into her song. Let him feel it, her need for him, and let him follow it back to her soul.

The light suddenly grew stronger, and as she watched it contracted into a form. Toned, slender muscles, glowing with her power, slowly appeared in her arms. She knew those long, elegant fingers, that shallow navel, the ridges of those thighs. She even knew the arch of those feet and the curve of the neck, the fragile collarbones standing out as the head lolled to the side. The face was the last part to form, the features slowly appearing out of the radiance, and if she could have wept in that strange, dark place, she would have. The face's eyes fluttered open, colorless in the bright light that made up their bodies, and then he turned in her arms.

"I know you," he said. "I recognize you from the dawn of time."

The music of his speaking did not enter her mind through her ears, but through her heart. His frequencies resonated with hers, and she sighed in the ecstasy of belonging. "I came for you. Return with me," she replied, watching in satisfaction as his eyes widened.

"To what?" he whispered.

"To life. To our love."

"You are she, aren't you?"

"I am," she murmured, and their bodies merged together until they were one. They no longer had shape nor separation, but were instead one light burning in the darkness.

"Lina!" she heard someone scream, and she clawed her way towards the darkness as she felt herself being pulled. She feared for a moment that she would become separated from him, that they would become two once more. No separation occurred, however, and as she screamed, his light came with her.

Lina blinked her eyes, the daylight painful as she took a ragged breath. Zelgadis stood over her, slapping her face gently, his features pulled into a pinched expression of savage worry. "Ah," she groaned, her entire body feeling as if it had been dragged through broken glass.

"Lina!" Zelgadis repeated, sliding an arm underneath her and lifting her slightly. "Are you all right?"

"Xellos," she moaned, reaching feebly. Her eyes snapped all the way open and her strength returned to her in a rush as she roughly pushed Zelgadis away and scrambled to her knees. "Xellos!" she cried, gripping him and pulling his body to her. Her legs were immediately soaked with blood as his wounds reopened with the movement, and she thrust her hand under his bicep, feeling for his pulse. It was there, thank the gods, it was there! She wasn't certain what had just happened, but she wasn't about to question it. "Recovery," she said, pouring her power into her husband's body.

"Lina?" Zelgadis asked, kneeling in front of her. "What happened?"

"You tell me," she said, frowning in her concentration.

"One moment you were screaming his name, then you just keeled over on top of him. Your eyes were glassy and you stopped breathing. I pulled you off of him, started to call your name, and then you woke up."

Lina shook her head. She had been in the darkness much longer than that, hadn't she? Well, it didn't matter. She could hardly think straight because of the hope soaring through her chest, but her exultation was short-lived. "We have to get him back to Seyruun," she said firmly.

Zelgadis studied her for a moment, face neutral. "You're too tired. I am, too."

"We have to find a way!" she said sharply. "If we don't get him back there, he'll die!"

"But-"

"Amelia can heal him."

"She can't. She's pregnant."

"Then someone in Seyruun can, dammit!" Lina shouted. "Let's get the hell out of here!"

"But what about that evil spike," Zelgadis began.

"NOW!" Lina screamed. "Ray Wing!"

Zelgadis yelped and fell down as the three of them lifted into the air. The sphere of wind began to carry them over the trees, then Lina's strength began to run out. "I'll take over," Zel said, sweat running down the sides of his face as he used his power to reinforce their sphere.

"Hurry," she murmured, looking down at Xellos' face. He was still unconscious, but she could feel him breathing. She could feel his life.

"I can't do this much longer," Zel announced, and then the palace loomed.

"There!" Lina cried, her voice turning into a scream as Zelgadis gave out and the spell burst. They shouted as they plummeted downwards, the garden rushing up to meet them, and Lina clutched Xellos' body to hers. Other screams joined theirs, and Lina saw Amelia dashing toward where they were going to land. They had fallen from such a height that they were going to die for sure when they hit. Despair constricted Lina's heart and she shut her eyes, wrapping her body around Xellos', feeling his warm blood soak through her clothes, and then she heard a child's voice, screaming more loudly than the others. Not only that, but the child was screaming words, not inarticulate noises of terror. Lina clenched her teeth and braced herself for impact when suddenly they began to slow. They didn't stop completely, but they were falling slowly enough that they hit gently, Lina rolling with Xellos' body to absorb the impact. Zelgadis grunted and rolled close by, and Lina opened her eyes to see the blue sky above her.

"Zelgadis, are you all right?" she heard Amelia shout. "Miss Lina! Oh gods, Mister Xellos!"

"Daddy! Mommy!" Lecia cried, trotting over to them.

Lina looked at her daughter's strained face, stupefied. The child's face shone with sweat, her mouth open as she panted hard. "Get Prince Phil," Lina murmured, feeling her strength leaving her quickly. Her spells had been keeping Xellos alive, and if she lost consciousness without someone to take over for her, all their effort would have been for nothing. "He's the man who you think looks like a bear. Tell him Zelgadis and your mom and dad are hurt, and to send as many healers as he can spare."

"Okay," Lecia said with a nod. "Alfred, come with! We gotta go see your grandpa!"

"Miss Lina?" she heard someone say, cool fingers touching her forehead. "Are you okay?"

Lina focused briefly on Amelia, who was bending over her. "Save Xellos," she whispered, then joined her mate in unconsciousness.

Xellos was dead. He had passed quietly, without pain. Consciousness had never regained hold of him, and so when he departed, it was in the cradling arms of slumber. The wounds and their infections had conquered him, his vital processes shutting down one by one as he slowly and silently let slip his tentative grip on life. Or so he thought.

What made him think that he was deceased was the cessation of the burning, prickly pain in his body. After all, it had hurt so much and for so long that when it finally stopped, the only explanation he had for it was that he had finally given up and died. He sighed, thinking that his life had been too short. He would have given anything to rejoin his Lina and his children, the only things that made him feel human and truly alive. However, he doubted he would be so lucky. He suspected that when he opened his eyes, he would look upon the afterlife.

Steeling himself, he cracked open an eye and saw a shimmering mass of hair at his side. The woman's back was straight in posture, and her shoulders squared as she faced away from him. She was regal, proud, and strong, but there was an air of capriciousness and passion about her. He blinked his eyes, thinking that he was feeling awfully groggy for a dead man, and tried to get his blurry vision to focus on her. "Mother?" he asked weakly, trying to raise a hand but unable to do so. "Mother?" he begged.

"What?" the woman breathed, turning her delicate face towards him, and the eyes that looked upon him were not the endless black and gold of his mother's. Her hair was not golden, as he had first thought it to be, but was instead a tumble of fiery tresses. "You're awake!"

"Lina?" he asked, and suddenly pain flooded his awareness. So, he wasn't dead. Or, if he was, he was in hell, which wouldn't surprise him one bit. His head pounded, his shoulder throbbed, his wrist, other shoulder, and thigh burned, and he was willing to bet that at least one of his knees had been twisted.

"Thank the heavens!" Lina cried, suddenly scrambling onto him and throwing her arms around his neck. "You pulled through!"

"I did?" he asked clumsily, his lips feeling oddly heavy.

"Of course, you idiot," she growled, burying her face in his neck. She snuggled for a moment more, the sat up and batted him angrily on his good shoulder.

He yelped and looked at her in alarm. "What was that for?" he asked.

"That's for making me save your ass all the time!" she snapped. "Don't you realize this is something like the sixth time I've saved your life?"

He felt his customary smile break through all the numbness and pain and settle on his lips. "Why do you think I love you so much?" he said sweetly.

She growled and smacked him again, the motion sending a deep, reverberating pain throughout his entire being. He sighed with the hurt and relaxed into the bed, trying to discipline the pain away from his conscious thoughts. "Oh, sorry," Lina grumbled.

Xellos blinked up at the ceiling, letting his mind wander. It was daylight, that much he could tell, but he had no way of knowing how long he had been out, or what had happened. He dimly remembered the attack, the electric agony that had saturated his awareness as the black spike was driven through his shoulder, but then everything was a blank. Well, almost everything. He had felt cold as he shattered into fragments, had felt himself drifting through darkness, his own darkness, and just as he felt the tugging of the afterlife, he had felt her calling for him. It wasn't that he had heard her voice, but he had felt her need for him, her desire to have him with her, and he had struggled towards her. He desperately wanted to be with her, too, to be safe in her arms, head cradled against her breast. Lina would make everything all right, would take away the terrible cold and pain. Unfortunately, he was too weak and broken up into too many pieces to go to her. Then, suddenly, just as he was about to fade into darkness, she had appeared like a blazing goddess before him. She seized his fragments and willed them into shapes, putting them together and making him whole. He remembered looking down at his radiant body, shocked at his own grace and beauty, then had looked into her large, expressive eyes. Her gaze was only for him, and when she folded him into her arms, he had pressed himself against her and just kept on going. The next thing he knew they were no longer two, and as she returned to life, she had brought him with her. He remembered the pain as his heart began to beat again, and then it was the fuzzy darkness of sleep that filled his memories.

"I owe you more than I can hope to repay," he replied, leaning back and closing his eyes.

"Hmph," she grunted testily, but he felt her slender fingers entwine with his. "I suppose you did act like a good boy and followed me back here. That'll have to do, for now."

He took a deep breath. "I still hurt," he breathed.

Lina turned and he felt her cool touch on his forehead, smoothing away his heavy bangs. "I know," she murmured, and suddenly her awareness was there, inside of him. Of course she knew. She knew everything, he realized with horror. She knew just how barely human he actually was.

"Lina-"

"Hush," she interrupted. "It doesn't matter to me."

"But-"

"Shut up, Xellos," she growled, but her voice suggested she wasn't actually angry. "I'm still here, aren't I? I'm still your wife, your partner, your lover...."

"I'm yours completely and forever," he whispered.

"You were mine the moment I found you lying in that ditch all those years ago," she chuckled. "There's been no looking back since then, has there?"

"I love you," he breathed, then took a deep breath as sleep overtook him again.

Lina sat holding his hand for quite some time, gazing down at his sculpted features. His cheeks were a bit hollow, and his hair had quite a bit more silver in it than it had before, but other than that, he was unchanged. Well, mostly, since he had managed to grow quite a bit of stubble on his face. It was very strange for her to see such a beautiful, ageless face with the coarse, dark hair of manhood covering it. Whatever he did to keep himself so clean-shaven must not work when he was unconscious, she decided. She also decided to never let him grow a beard. His facial hair was just as shiny, thick, and dark as the hair on his head, but his skin was too fair, his features too fine and pretty to look good with any sort of beard or moustache. Curious, she bent down and kissed his warm, soft lips, the hair underneath his nose tickling her skin as she did so. She smiled and put her fingers to her mouth, amused but thinking that as soon as he was well enough to do so, she'd make sure he shaved himself clean once more. He actually looked sort of silly, the hair woefully out of place on his youthful countenance. She chuckled to herself as she gazed upon him. He only looked about twenty-six or twenty-seven years old, barely old enough to have a daughter that was as old as Lecia. Perhaps someday she would ask him how old he really was, in precise years. He was at least several thousand years old, and she smiled to think about how much knowledge still lay within his skull.

Running her hands through the scruff on his face, she heard the door open and shut quietly behind her. "How is he?" a low voice asked, and she turned to see Zelgadis standing stiffly near the entrance to the room.

"He woke up for a little while today," she said, tracing the defined ridge of his eyebrow. "He called me his mother."

Zelgadis' brow furrowed. "Mother? Do things like him even have mothers?"

"He could have meant Xellas," Lina replied. "Or maybe even the Lord of Nightmares. Anyway, he was sort of out of it."

Zelgadis grunted and sat down on the bed next to her, staring down at the sleeping man. "What the," he muttered, tentatively reaching forward and lightly touching Xellos' whiskers.

Lina chuckled. "It's just awful, isn't it? It's so dark, thick, and glossy. Looks pretty funny against his pale skin."

"Damn him, he's more human than I am," Zelgadis growled.

Lina remembered the aching black power she felt in his soul and pressed her lips into a line. "His body might be, Zel, but the rest of him isn't even remotely human. To tell you the truth, I can't wrap my mind around it."

Zelgadis sat silently for a few moments, then shifted his weight on the mattress. "You really love him, don't you, to follow him to death and back."

Lina's eyes hardened and she took Xellos' hand in hers, idly fingering the amurium ring he wore. "So much it scares me," she muttered. "I couldn't believe I loved Gourry so much, and then when I figured out I loved someone else just as passionately...."

"He still misses you."

"Who, Gourry?"

"Yeah. He lives on the other side of the city. You should stop by."

Lina abruptly pushed all thoughts of her time together with Gourry out of her head. She had been through all that before; it was behind her. "Maybe," she grunted. "Where are the kids?"

"Playing in the nursery. Your Lecia's quite the little ringleader. She reminds me of her mother."

"And Amelia?"

"Working."

"You two make a great couple," Lina murmured. "You're lucky to have her, and she's lucky to have you."

Zelgadis exhaled through his nose, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. "Lina, throughout all the years we've known one another, you're the only person I felt understood me. Not that you always had a whole lot of compassion for what I was going through, but at least you understood. It's awkward to say, but at one time I even had a little crush on you. I used to think I understood you, too, but now I'm not so sure. What possessed you to take up with Xellos?"

Lina sighed and looked at her friend, feeling a strange weight descend upon her shoulders. "I wanted his knowledge, that first time he became human. I was tired of all the Monsters pushing us around, Zel, and I saw in Xellos an opportunity to use one of their own kind against them. It very nearly worked, too. He taught me a lot. What I didn't count on, though, was caring about him."

"Well, he was the only person you never socked for touching you," Zel said thoughtfully. He reflected for a moment, then his eyes went wide. "You didn't, before he was, I mean, you know-"

"Before he was turned human? No, but I thought about it."

"But why? Gourry-"

"Was a beautiful, caring man. I know. But Xellos was his opposite in every way. Well, except for the tall part. Where Gourry was bulky, Xellos was lean, where Gourry was sweet, Xellos was passionate. It was like night and day, and I was curious. Living in that cabin didn't help. He was warm, and close, and demanded absolutely nothing from me.... I sorta fell right into it, and I couldn't forget him, even when I went back to Gourry. It was like I was being pulled in two directions at once."

Zelgadis scratched behind his ear and shook his head. "I've only ever loved Amelia. It was hard to love her, too. There were so many things to be afraid of, but Ame's never been scared of anything, really. That love and justice crap wouldn't let her back down."

"That's why she's so good for you," Lina said gently. "She knew in her heart everything you needed to learn."

Zelgadis chuckled. "Is that why Xellos loves you?"

"You mean, aside from the obvious?" she asked with a wink.

"Everyone has loved you at one point in time or another, among your male traveling companions."

"You said you didn't."

"Well, no, but I was still counting my crush."

"I liked you, too, Zel," Lina admitted. "You were strong, dark, and dashing, intelligent and ambitious in a way Gourry never could be. You have a better heart than Xellos, too. It's like I had choices a long time ago. I could plaster myself to you, and have us always racing for more powerful spells, more techniques, more knowledge. We would have pushed one another to greater and greater heights. We would have never wanted for challenge or intellectual stimulation, if we became a couple. But I think our ambitious natures would have clashed, and although there probably could have been passion, I don't think that there would have been a deep, abiding love."

"I would have killed you for your temper tantrums. You exhaust me, Lina."

"And I would have killed you for your moodiness."

"But you didn't have to compete with Gourry. He existed only for you. I'm sorry, I'm only trying to figure this out. I don't understand why you picked Xellos."

"Because of our kid, stupid," Lina said with a grin. "I felt sort responsible for her, you know?"

Zelgadis shook his head. "You know what I mean. This just seems totally bizarre to me, you know? Xellos is the enemy."

"No, he wasn't. He wasn't our ally, either. He's always just been...well, Xellos."

"So explain this to me."

Lina turned and looked upon the man she had chosen to spend her life with, the man whose heart and soul she had claimed. "With Gourry I would have been happy," she said softly. "I can still feel his big, warm arms around me, holding me gently. I would have had fluffy, happy days. We would have traveled the world over, and when the chips were down, he would have defended me to the death. With Xellos, on the other hand, I feel lust and passion, and there is excitement and danger. There's never a dull moment when he's around. He's clever, strong, wise, ardent, enthusiastic, and fun. I guess I just chose excitement over security. You know how I can be, and I don't regret my decision. I just hope that somewhere out there, maybe in another dimension or something, there's another me who is happy with Gourry and enjoying his simple, gentle brand of love. Gourry I flowed with, and with Xellos I burn. I might burn to a crisp, but the ride will have been more than worth it."

Zelgadis snorted. "You're crazy," he muttered.

Lina smiled and laughed, feeling oddly like the girl she had been when she, Zel, Amelia, and Gourry were on the road together. "Don't I know it!" she chortled. "But at least I have someone as crazy as I am to share my life with, you know?"

"Can you trust him? I mean, at one point in time he would have killed you without batting an eyelash."

"Yes," Lina said without hesitation. "I wouldn't advise that you trust him, or anyone else for that matter, but I know I can. I know that he would give everything to keep me and our children safe. I trust Xellos with all that I am. He demands nothing in return."

"I find that hard to believe."

"I did too, at first, but then I realized that Xellos has never been his own man. He was created in order to serve Xellas, and so when he was taken from her, he fell quite naturally to serving me. He's loyal to the bitter end."

"Hmph," Zel grumbled.

Lina studied her friend, wondering what he was after. Zelgadis was a bright man, and she valued his opinion. What was with all the questions, though? What was he searching for? "Why does this matter?"

Zelgadis took a deep breath. "I just want to make sure you're happy. And, as much as I hate to admit it, Xellos impressed me that day we were attacked. I know he doesn't care one whit for me and never will, and that doesn't matter. I don't care for him, either. But he seemed to be making an honest effort to befriend me, in his own fruitcake way. I know he wouldn't have done that on his own, so he had to have been doing it for you. I just couldn't believe it, especially from him."

Lina felt fondness for her friend well up inside of her. She had never made friends easily, but she cared deeply for Zelgadis and Amelia. "So what are you saying?" she asked, putting her hand on his forearm.

He smiled and shook his head. "Damn you, Lina," he muttered. "We all love you way too much. Just for you I'm considering trying to be real friends with this nutty little bastard husband of yours."

"You'll always be my friend, no matter what," Lina said affectionately. "But enough of this introspective crap. You know it's not my style."

Zelgadis smiled. "You're right, it's not. It's my style. So let's do something that IS your style. I do believe it's time for lunch."

"Lunch!" Lina declared, getting up and following Zelgadis. She made it through the door, then stopped and turned. "I'll catch up in a second," she said, and ducked back into the room. She crept back to the bedside and pushed aside Xellos' heavy bangs. "Sleep tight," she murmured, and kissed him on the forehead.

Xellos sighed and slowly came awake, the dawn filling his eyes as he looked out onto the tiled roofs of Seyruun. His hand was hot, sweaty, and being clutched tightly by a pair of small, strong hands, hands that wore a ring that matched his own. He smiled and watched Lina sleep, stretched out as she was on the mattress beside him. She must have fallen asleep while caring for him, for she was on top of the blankets and still fully dressed. Poor thing. The past few days must have been exhausting for her. Carefully he leaned over and kissed her on her soft cheek, satisfaction bubbling up inside of him as she smiled in her sleep and cuddled closer to him. "Xellos," she murmured.

"Beloved," he whispered so softly that he barely made any noise at all.

"You're awake."

His eyes widened fractionally. "I see you are, too," he replied, surprised that she was indeed conscious. He thought that her muttering was done at the fringes of slumber.

"It's hard to sleep when I'm worrying about you," she said quietly, her radiant eyes fluttering open and fixing him with a ruby stare.

"You needn't worry. I'm perfectly fine." He shifted as he spoke, realizing that he certainly wasn't fine as a million aches and pains assaulted his body. His wincing must have been obvious, for Lina immediately scowled and sat up.

"Dammit, Xellos, you're supposed to be taking it easy! Your body hasn't healed yet."

"I thought I remembered healers," he replied, looking up into her beautiful face.

"You do, but they couldn't do much. That wound in your shoulder was nasty. It would have taken a golden dragon's power and skill to heal it completely. As it is, the magicians were able to get the process started, but now you'll have to rely on your own power to finish the job."

Xellos fingered the bandages that swaddled his shoulder and chest. "Will it scar?" he asked. He had never had a scar before.

"It shouldn't," Lina replied. "They gave us some special salves to put on it."

"Good," Xellos muttered. "I do not want to be forever reminded of that day."

"Me, neither. I hate it when you scare me like that. I thought I had lost you."

He smiled and gingerly reached up, being very careful of his wounds, and put his hands on either side of her face. His fingers simply explored her features for a few moments, then he gently drew her face down to his and kissed her tenderly on the mouth. She sighed and leaned into him, giving him ample time to revel in the sweetness of her soft lips. Slowly he began to realize that something felt different, and as Lina sat up once more he reached his hand up to his face and rubbed it. "What in the," he grumbled.

"Welcome to adulthood!" Lina chuckled. "You have so little body hair that I'm surprised you can grow a beard like that!"

"What?" Xellos asked in alarm.

Lina continued to laugh and rummaged around, producing a hand mirror. He took it from her and examined his face, horrified and fascinated at the same time by the thick, dark hair he saw covering his face. "Heya, scruffy," she grinned.

"Oh, it's just awful!" he declared, shuddering at his own reflection. "I have to get it off immediately!"

"I dunno, I'm kinda used to it by now," Lina smiled.

"This simply will not do. I look like some ruffian."

"You're my little ruffian," she cooed, her face stretching in an impish grin.

"Lina, dearest, please let me be. I need to remedy this immediately."

"What are you going to do?"

"I am going to shave, thank you very much," he said firmly. "Please, bring me a razor and a basin. If you wouldn't mind, I would appreciate it if you held the mirror for me."

"I'm not your servant," she replied sharply.

"I know, dearest. Very well," he sighed. "Nurse? Nurse!"

Anger and alarm rippled over Lina's petite features. "Stoppit," she growled. "I'll do it, just shut the hell up."

"Thank you," he murmured, smiling like a milk-fed cat as he leaned back into the pillows. Lina arranged him so that he was propped up against the headboard, then brought him a small basin of water and a towel. She was gone for a few moments, eventually returning with a razor, holding the mirror for him as he shaved. He nicked himself several times, laughing it off. "I've only done this once or twice," he admitted.

Lina rolled her eyes. "Then how the hell do you stay clean-shaven all the time?"

He grinned, nearly taking the corner of his lip off with the razor. "That's a-"

"If you say it I'll slap you," she interrupted. "And watch it with that blade. I don't want to have to cast another healing spell on you."

"Actually, I just use magic to keep my face clear of this nasty, bristly hair. I do have several thousand years' experience in controlling my physical form, you know."

"Yeah, I know," she muttered, her luminous eyes following the motion of his good hand. "Hey, Xellos?"

"Yes, dearest?"

"You called me your mother the first time you woke up."

Xellos' hand froze in mid motion. He was surprised for a moment, then resumed his shaving. "Oh, did I?"

Lina narrowed her eyes. "Yeah, you did. And you reacted funny just now. Why?"

"I must have thought you were my mother," he sighed. It was odd that he would have said such a thing. Did Lina truly still carry such a strong residue with her?

"Who, Xellas?"

"No, the Lord of Nightmares, the mother and the end of everything."

"Why would you think I was her?"

Xellos took a deep breath, setting the razor on the edge of the basin. "Probably because I thought I was dead. You see, Monsters don't go the same place as humans go when they die. They either return right to the energy of the astral plane, or they go to be reassimilated by the Mother. It's usually only the higher-ups that go back to the Lord of Nightmares, though. Odd that I thought I saw her."

Lina fixed him with a level, serious stare. "What does it mean?"

He took in her lovely face, her hair falling in soft waves about her shoulders. "I don't know," he admitted, fingering his freshly-shaven cheeks.

"This frightens me, Xellos," she whispered. "I don't know what is going to happen next. What if they try to kill you again, or me? What about the kids?"

He moved the basin onto the side table with some difficulty, the weakened muscles in his arm straining. With his uninjured limb, he reached out and pulled her to him, resting her head against his good shoulder and stroking her hair. Her breath caressed the bare skin of his chest as she draped an arm and a leg over his body, and he smiled at their closeness. "Don't worry, beloved," he murmured. "I'll protect you."

"You can't even protect yourself."

Her words stung. "Yes, yes I can. I survived their trap, didn't I? No one else could have lived through that, not even you."

Lina grunted and pushed away from him. "I don't want to hear it. I don't want this danger."

He studied her carefully. "I thought you lived for excitement and adventure."

"I did, I do, but this is different. This is serious."

"Lina," he began, but stopped short as the door swung open.

"Miss Lina, I just thought you might like-" Amelia began as she swept into the room, then paused as she saw Xellos sitting up in bed. "Oh, my," she said, blushing and looking away.

Xellos frowned slightly as he looked at her. "Are you all right, Miss Amelia?"

"Oh, I'm fine, thank you, it's just..."

Lina shot the princess a full-blown Inverse scowl and stood, putting her hands on her hips. "What is it? Spit it out!"

"Well, Mister Xellos is much more...ah, fit...than he first seems."

Lina rolled her eyes numerous times and groaned. "You've never seen him without his shirt on, is what you mean."

"Er, yes.... He's not quite what I expected. You wear such baggy clothes, Mister Xellos..."

"Why does everyone say that?" Xellos grumbled. "You'd think I was some sort of stick-boy!"

"Hey, I was surprised too, the first time I saw you without your clothes on, and Amelia hasn't seen as many naked men as I have."

"And how many HAVE you seen?" Xellos asked, raising his eyebrow.

Lina shook her head. "Enough, trust me."

Amelia's face was absolutely crimson by that point in time, and she kept glancing out the window. "I'm terribly sorry," she stammered. "I just wanted to find out if you were interested in brunch."

"Brunch?!" Lina squealed. "Are you kidding me?"

Amelia grinned, obviously reacting. "Zelgadis said it was silly of me to even worry about asking you. Well, if you would like something, meet us out on the terrace. It's a lovely morning, although you can feel autumn in the air a little."

Lina looked at Xellos, eyes clouded with uncertainty as her desire to be near him went to war with her voracious appetite. "Just go," he chuckled. "I'll be fine without you for a while."

"Okay!" Lina said, and dashed out the door.

"We'll return shortly," Amelia said, bowing to him slightly, and he noticed that her eyes slid over his chest and tight abdomen. He knew he wasn't the most muscular or bulky of men, but he was also aware that he wasn't nearly as weak or as thin as most people expected. He caught her eye and winked, chuckling as Amelia turned the color of a beet and abruptly shut the doors behind her.

He had collected quite a few healers and nurses by the time Lina returned from her meal, gesturing gracefully with his good hand and simply oozing charm. Several women were perched on his bed, all watching him intently as he recounted his battle with the evil Monster. A few more young women stood by his bedside, checking his pulse, temperature, and status of his wounds. Most of them were giggling, and nearly all of them were blushing as he winked and doled out compliments like coins. They were eating out of his hands when Lina burst into the room, suddenly fixing a look of death upon his attendants. "Out," she commanded, glaring daggers as the young women quickly filed out. "He's spoken for."

Xellos watched the women flee with an amused smile, then turned his powers on Lina. "My, my, so possessive," he said smoothly.

"They're like some sorta hormonal hens," Lina growled, sitting on the edge of the bed next to him and fiddling with the covers.

"Maybe they just like what they see," he smiled.

"Who in their right mind would find you attractive?" Lina muttered, arranging pillows. "Besides, I'm sure you were encouraging them."

Xellos simply shrugged and leaned back into the pillows. "Who, indeed?" he chuckled, then watched Lina with a single open eye as she moved to pull the sheets closer to his body.

"Hey!" she said sharply, fixing him with a hard stare. "You're not wearing anything under here!"

"Oh, yes, that was quite a production," he replied, relishing the fact that her face was becoming flushed. "You see, they thought my pajama bottoms should be laundered, but none of them had the courage to strip me themselves, and I certainly didn't have the strength to do it myself."

"YOU LET THEM SEE YOU NAKED? DID THEY TOUCH YOU?" Lina bellowed, brandishing a fist.

Xellos chuckled. "I wouldn't have minded, but I had my darling wife to think of," he murmured with a satisfied smile. "You see, I have this awful, shrewish, jealous wife..."

Lina snarled and picked up one of the pillows, tossing it at his head. He was too weak to dodge, grunting when it hit him square in the face. The impact actually hurt, since any motion of his head also affected his injured shoulder. A groan escaped him and he collapsed into the pillows, pain shooting through his limbs. "Oh, I'm sorry!" Lina gasped, immediately scrambling up to him and tossing away the pillow, clearing away strands of hair from his face. "Are you all right?"

Xellos took a deep breath and gathered his senses. "Yes, I'll be fine," he said softly.

Lina's face rumpled with worry and her fingers left his hair to gently trace his features. He closed his eyes as her touch traveled across his eyelids, her fingertips caressing his eyebrows, cheekbones, chin, nose, and finally his lips. When he opened his eyes he saw her looking at him intently, her eyes devouring every aspect of his countenance. Something lurched inside of him as he gazed into her burning ruby eyes, his heart beating a little more quickly in his chest as her expression became soft. She slowly leaned forward, her breath gently warming his skin. He lowered his eyelids partway and raised his chin to her, lost in her nearness. Her lips grazed his, her movements tentative, and he followed her mouth in an attempt to catch her. "Are you really all right?" she asked, her skin lightly brushing against him.

"Yes," he murmured, and then she tenderly pressed her mouth to his. Her fingers wound in his hair and he sighed, leaning into her kiss and left breathless.

Lina kissed him lovingly for long moments, their mouths working together as their tongues entwined, and when she released him he felt warm and contented. "Damn you," she muttered, her eyes sparkling with a plethora of emotion.

"Why?" he asked, his voice barely a whisper as he reached out for her hand.

She took his healthy hand in between hers and gently played with his knuckles. Her skin was cool and smooth against his, and he watched the fluid motion of her fingers. "If I hadn't stayed with you, I wouldn't be in so much danger. Neither would you."

He gripped her hand firmly and looked her straight in the eye. "You chose passion and excitement over contentment and safety," he said quietly.

Lina's body stiffened and she slowly removed her hands. "I know," she replied, voice a bit sad, and abruptly left the room.

Xellos, not being able to do much more than sit, simply watched her go. For long moments he pondered her behavior, then admitted that he was forced to dismiss it. He knew what was causing her mood swings, most likely, and there was nothing he could do about it. She had made her bed a long time ago, years ago. She would simply have to share it with him.

He was still mulling things over in his mind when there was a harsh rap at the door. "Come in," Xellos called, watching in curiosity as Zelgadis strode into the room.

"How are you?" he asked gruffly, standing at the foot of the bed, hands on hips.

"Fine, thank you. You just missed my wife."

Zelgadis fixed him with a cold, blue stare. "I still don't like to hear you call her that," he grumbled. "I didn't come to see her, though."

Xellos raised his eyebrows and let his cheerful mask slip a bit. "Oh? And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

Zelgadis' jaw clenched. "I thought it would be polite to see how you were faring."

Xellos chuckled at the obvious lie. "Miss Amelia made you come, then."

Zel blushed slightly and Xellos knew he had discovered the truth. "Don't be absurd," he growled.

Xellos smiled. "And now you're wondering how I manage to ferret out all your secrets."

Zel's blush deepened. "Of course not. At any rate, is there anything I can get for you?"

Xellos looked at him earnestly. "Actually, yes. My children. Bring them to me."

"Your children?"

"I want to see them. I haven't seen them or touched them for some time, the way I understand it. I want to hold them."

"I don't-"

Xellos scowled. He was finished with Zelgadis' hate-caused obtuseness. "Because they haven't seen me in quite some time, and they're used to their father taking care of them, bathing them, feeding them, reading them stories...."

"The nanny is doing all that."

"She shouldn't be. I'm their father."

Zelgadis' eyes narrowed. "Fine," he grunted, crossing his arms over his chest. "Anything else?"

Xellos studied him a moment, then nodded carefully. "Actually, I want to know why you hate me so much."

"You mean aside from all the evil shit you pulled on us for years?"

Xellos nearly smiled at the venom in Zel's tone but was able to control himself. "Sure. I mean besides nearly betraying you, putting a curse on the woman you loved, trying to seduce your friend, getting said friend pregnant...."

Zel's blush had turned into a stain of anger across his cheeks. "Because you got better, far better than you deserved. I'm the one who started human, but now you're more human than I am. I hated you before, for always toying with us, for hurting us, but now, now...."

Xellos relaxed back against the pillows. "Your little ones are human."

"Human enough. They bear their marks."

Xellos raised an eyebrow at that. He would have liked to know more, but he knew better than to ask. "As always, the only person who doesn't see you as human is yourself, Mister Zelgadis. You're a father of four children, a loving husband, and a prince. What does humanity matter, if you have all that?"

Zelgadis glowered at him, then turned on his heel. "I'll get your children," he growled, and stalked out of the room.

Xellos sighed and closed his eyes, thinking that it might have been a bad idea to visit Seyruun. His thoughts were interrupted by the patter of feet after a while, and suddenly Lecia burst into the room, panting. "Daddy!" she squealed, running over to the bedside. "Oh, Daddy, are you okay? They wouldn't let us see you!"

Xellos chuckled and motioned for her to crawl up next to him. "I'm sorry, little one. I was hurt badly. I'm still not well, so please be careful."

Lecia carefully wrapped her arms around his midsection and burrowed against his bare chest. "Kay."

Zelgadis reentered a few moments later, Gorran perched in his arms. The baby made a little noise and rubbed his large, purple eyes, then turned his face towards the bed. "Hello, love," Xellos said quietly, reaching out his good hand to the boy.

"Dada," Gorran said, then broke out into peals of sparkling laughter.

"That's my boy," Xellos chirped, folding him against his chest. "Thank you, Mister Zelgadis."

"We missed you," Lecia mumbled. "We were scared."

"I'm sorry," Xellos repeated.

Gorran sat up on Xellos' abdomen and planted his chubby hands against his father's chest. "No," he said clearly, a little scowl on his face.

Xellos shot a glance at Lecia. "Does he know what he's saying?" he asked her.

Lecia laughed and reached up, tousling Gorran's hair. "He knows what he wants to say, but he's not good at it yet. He's just upset you got hurt. He's learning lots of new words."

"That's all right. I'm sorry, little love," he murmured, craning his neck to kiss the top of Gorran's rust-colored head.

"Yaaa, Dada," Gorran grumbled, then collapsed forward onto his father's chest and began to snuggle.

"Oh, are you tired?" Xellos cooed.

"I can be tired!" Lecia volunteered. "Let's take a nap together, like we used to!"

Xellos grinned at Zelgadis, who had been standing silently and watching the whole scene. The chimera's face was still set in distaste and anger, but the area around his eyes had softened. "Is that all right?" he asked.

"I don't see why not. I think there must be something wrong with my judgment, letting you be alone with impressionable minds unsupervised, but I'll leave you alone anyway."

"Thank you," Xellos murmured, holding his children as tightly as he could manage and chatting with them quietly until all of them dropped off to sleep.

Xellos was feeling better and was even able to move around, so long as he had a person or his staff to lean upon. He spent most of his time with his children, and Zel's children, in the garden, telling them history, teaching them harmless spells, and making up stories. Zelgadis was still chilly, but Amelia had warmed up to him considerably, mostly because he had cast an illusion spell that let her witness his wedding to Lina, even if it was from his point of view. Lina had become very embarrassed and grumpy when she watched the ceremony repeated, grumbling about how she looked like some sort of freak in the beautiful gown. Amelia, however, was impressed both with the magic and of Xellos' adoration of his wife, and as such had become much more friendly.

It was only a few days, however, before Zelgadis approached him with an icy twinkle in his eye. "It's about time you cleaned up your mess," the chimera said with a mirthless grin.

Xellos was hunched over, Gorran gripping his fingers as he tried to walk across the grass. "Oh? What did I do this time?"

Lina stomped over and fixed him with a scowl. "Don't you remember summoning those beasts when you were attacked?"

Xellos frowned and tried to think. "Vaguely, I suppose," he replied. "It was difficult to keep my concentration at the time."

"Well, we still have them."

Xellos looked from Lina to Zel until Gorran squealed angrily, wanting his father's attention again. "Er, why?" he asked, helping Gorran to take a few more steps.

"Because we couldn't get rid of them," Zel growled. "They're like nothing we've ever seen before."

"We tried Rah Tilts and everything short of the Ragna Blade on them," Lina added.

Xellos blinked at her. "Why didn't you try the Ragna Blade, then?" he asked.

Lina smacked him on top of the head. "Because it's sort of overkill, don't you think?"

"Not if you can't kill them without it," he replied.

"Xellos!" Lina cried, pushing up a sleeve and balling up her fist.

Xellos quickly made sure Gorran was safely on the ground, then held up his hands towards Lina in a placating gesture. "Fine, fine," he said. "I'll take care of it."

Zel nodded. "You had better believe it," he grunted. "This way."

"But, Gorran," Xellos said, turning to look at his son, whose face was turning red.

"Don't worry, Mister Xellos," Amelia called from her seat, waving. "I'll watch them!"

"I'll help Gorran walk, Daddy!" Lecia volunteered, breaking away from the other children and rushing over to her brother. The boy calmed a bit and grabbed his sister's fingers, and before long they were toddling along happily.

"Oh, all right," Xellos muttered, and followed Zel.

The three of them wandered out of the palace and into another building close by. It appeared to be some sort of barracks, if the weapons and armor hanging on the wall were any indication. A few soldiers milled about here and there, dressed only in their livery. He thought it a bit strange that Zel was leading him into the heart of their troops, but the looks on Zel's and Lina's faces deterred him from asking any questions. They were irritated, that was obvious, but they were also a bit worried and afraid. Their expressions were impassive, however, and that alone was cause for alarm on his part. Lina was actually at her most dangerous when she wasn't ranting or blowing things up.

To his surprise, Zelgadis lead them through a low door and into a dark stone chamber, in which four men leaned against the walls, heavily armed. At the end of a room was a heavy metal door, its surface so black with years that the torchlight seemed absorbed by it. Xellos wrinkled his nose at the smell of the smoke, wondering why they didn't simply use candles like everywhere else in the palace. Gradually he felt his magic-sense tingle, and he realized that a very subtle and very powerful spell was placed on the immense door. That was interesting.

The soldiers nodded to Zelgadis and Lina as they entered, obviously recognizing them. Zel nodded in return and made a few hand gestures. Xellos was intrigued by the fact that no one was speaking and raised his own voice to ask a question. When he uttered the words, however, no sound came out. Ah, that was doubly interesting. The room was simply saturated with complicated spells, it seemed. He leaned heavily on his staff, his injuries beginning to bother him again, and watched as Zelgadis and one of the guards each produced a key and walked over to the iron doors. Standing at separate locks set in the thick stone walls, each man turned his key and Xellos felt a pop. Something had given way. As he stood trying to sample the magic, Lina grabbed his hand and bodily hauled him through the door. Xellos twisted and tried to look back into the room, but Zelgadis was already shutting the door behind them. Lina gave him a sharp tug, and he nearly stumbled, instantly shifting his focus to staying on his feet. when he glanced up he saw a long, dark passageway stretching before them, and judging by the temperature of the air, it wound quite some way underground.

"So Seyruun DOES still have a dungeon," Xellos muttered to himself.

"Most people don't know that," Zel said, voice low. "Keep it a secret. You should be good at that, by now."

"My, my, Mister Zelgadis," Xellos replied archly. "Feeling a bit touchy today?"

"To you, I'm touchy every day," Zel growled, casting a light spell and leading them into the darkness.

"Does Miss Amelia know about this?" Xellos asked, looking around at the small, dark cells that lay on one side of the passage.

"She knows they exist, but she's never been in them," Lina supplied. "She doesn't use it."

Xellos glanced around, studying the blackened stone walls. "But you do, Mister Zelgadis?"

Zel's posture became even more stiff, if that was possible. "None of your business."

"Sensible construction, though," Xellos commented. "See, Lina dearest? The cells are only lined up on one side. That prevents an inmate from across the hall from holding a guard, soldier, or other such person captive while the opposite inmate attacks in one fashion or another."

"Great," Lina grumbled, eyes wide in the darkness, and Xellos could see that little goose bumps were starting to form on her neck.

Xellos raised an eyebrow at her reaction and kept his thoughts to himself, mulling things over until they passed a cell set apart from the rest. As they walked by, Xellos felt as if he had been stabbed, falling against the wall and staring. Old magic radiated from the cell, magic of hatred, anger, and death. It was so thick in the air that he could hardly breathe, the force coiling around him, grasping and clutching at his own power. He made a strangled gurgling noise, struggling for breath as he pressed a hand to his ribs, staring at the empty cell with horror.

"What's wrong?" Lina asked, pupils dilated in the dim light.

"That...cell," Xellos gasped.

Zel was at her side in a moment, his ice-blue eyes fixed on Xellos' face. "What is it?"

Xellos held up a trembling hand and clenched his teeth, forcing his body forward towards the spell. It was like trying to walk in a hurricane, but after a few moments his hands touched the bars and he quickly cast a barrier. He battled in silence for a tense second or two, then the opposing force was overwhelmed. His barrier snapped into place and he took a deep breath, the pressure finally off of his ribcage. "There," he panted, staggering to the wall beside the cell and taking deep breaths.

"What just happened?" Lina demanded, and he watched as her hands hovered, as if she wanted to touch him but didn't dare.

Xellos ignored her and leveled a cold gaze at Zelgadis. "You don't know who they used to keep down here, do you?"

Zel's nostrils flared slightly. "No, I don't," he replied quietly.

Xellos took another look at the empty cell. "Good," was all he would say. "Make sure those warding spells up top never fail."

"Xellos!" Lina protested, but he would not open his mouth. One of Dynast's underlings had died in that cell, he was certain of it. Unfortunately, because of the wards, the dark energy of the thing, its soul, he supposed, couldn't escape. It desperately sought to return to its master, and it had tried to steal his own power to do so. He could probably remember the thing's name, if he tried hard enough. It seemed that the dungeon was even older than the humans realized.

They walked for a long time in the dank, winding darkness, finally stopping at another heavy door. "Here," Zelgadis said, and he and Lina both set about undoing warding and barrier spells. Xellos stifled a yawn as he watched them work, wishing they'd just tear the spells out by the seams. Unfortunately, it seemed, the human body probably couldn't take the stress of such recklessness, and so he was forced to wait.

"Okay," Lina said, stepping behind him and shoving him toward the door. "You open it."

Xellos shot her a wry look over his shoulder. "I thought a good wife was supposed to protect her husband when he's injured and weak," he said with a smile.

"Shut up and go through the damn door," Lina spat, and he realized that she was afraid. His Lina was actually afraid.

Xellos sighed and turned the rusty handle, throwing all his weight into it as he slid the door aside. That was smart construction as well, that the door slid to the side instead of inward or outward. It was impossible to hide behind a sliding door. Xellos conjured a light spell into the jewel on his staff, blinking as a gigantic black room was illuminated. There were large iron rings on the wall at three different levels, as if made for foot, waist, and hand manacles, but no such chains still existed. Other than that, though, the room was empty. Well, not entirely empty. There stood a large pit in the center of the room, darker even than the blackness of its surroundings.

"In there," Zelgadis said, and Xellos slowly walked over to the pit. It was even deeper than it looked and much, much wider, and at the bottom crawled his magical beasts. There were roughly twenty of them, and their eyes flickered strangely in the wan light of his staff.

Xellos held out his hand and gingerly touched the plethora of spells cast over the pit. It had taken considerable strength to bind the creatures and bring them to the pit. No wonder Lina hadn't cast the Ragna Blade; she hadn't the strength to do it after such an ordeal. "I applaud your attempts," he said to the two humans, then shattered their spells with one of his own. The beasts in the pit immediately howled and produced gleaming claws, trying to scramble their way up the sides of the pit to get at him. After a minute or two of unsuccessful attempts, they began to assist one another, building a ladder of their own bodies so that one or two could escape. Oh, he had summoned such clever beasts!

"Just send them back and get it over with," Lina snapped, rubbing her arms and inching closer to Zelgadis.

"Yes, dearest," Xellos murmured, staring down at his beasts. Oh, they were magnificent creatures, with their jaws shining with toxic saliva and eyes glowing in the darkness. They had minds, these creatures, and they could probably feel and reason as well. Well, that opened up an opportunity for a type of fun he hadn't had an opportunity to experience for quite some time.

A chilly smile on his face, he waved a hand and set the monster that was climbing on fire. It uttered a shriek and fell to the ground, scraping against the sides of the pit to douse the flames. The smell of burned flesh wafted up to his nostrils and his smile widened. The angry howls of the beast's comrades increased, even more of them trying to scramble up the sides. "I summoned you," he said to them coldly, and by the glittering of their eyes he could tell they understood him. "I summoned you and I will destroy you any way I like."

The beasts called out again, and Xellos sent more fire raining down into the pit. Screams drifted up to him. He made a gesture with his hand and suddenly the rock at the sides of the pit began to transform, stony spikes appearing out of the walls. He chuckled and began to close his hand, the monsters scrambling over one another to avoid the advancing protrusions. Xellos couldn't believe that they were actually trying to run. Several creatures at the bottom were immediately impaled, twisting around pitifully on the spikes and screaming their pain, which only made Xellos laugh harder. Oh, he had forgotten how much fun this could be! "Whoopsie," Xellos said brightly. "That's not quite what I meant to do. Let me try again."

The brutes in the pit writhed and bellowed as he flicked his wrist to the side, a bright red light shooting upwards from the pit as several explosions occurred below. More screaming followed, and Xellos peered down to see the rocky spikes turn into lava, boiling the creatures alive. They howled and wailed their pain, and in the reddish light he could see Zelgadis and Lina edge closer to the pit to see what was happening. Well, let them watch. He was having too much fun to stop now.

Xellos snapped his fingers and the lava exploded, taking several of the creatures with it. Lina gasped and dodged, as did Zelgadis, as hunks of flesh and sprays of blood fell to the floor around them, and Xellos' chuckling had grown into full-blown laughter. He tried the trick with the spikes again, killing a couple more of the beasts. One, however, was more nimble than the rest, and as the others groaned and twisted on their killing spikes it scurried up their bodies and appeared at the edge of the pit, eyes fixed on Xellos with hatred. He chortled like mad and brought his staff down on the beast's clawed hand, the motion so strong that he felt the tip of the wood drive through flesh and bone and into the stone beneath. The beast howled as he leaned all his weight onto the staff, moving it around so that the wound spouted blood and tore. It tried to slash at him with its free hand, but he kicked it in its narrow head with a smirk.

"Xellos, stop," Lina cried from the opposite side of the pit, but he was too full of exhilaration to heed her. Bending down, he placed his gloved hand on the monster's forehead, pressing so hard that he nearly tore the skin.

"Here you are, death, as ordered," he laughed, his eyes opening so he could better observe the creature's demise. All the beasts had given off stupendous amounts of fear, pain, and rage. Their emotions were so strong, in fact, that he could feel them even with his dulled human senses. The beasts roared and tried to strike out, but Xellos chanted a quick spell and the thing fell to writhing as its skin bubbled. He stood up and smiled as it convulsed on the ground, its skin bursting in places as it shrieked with pain.

"Oh? Is that not fun?" Xellos cooed, his eyes glittering in the dim light. The beast made one last strike, and with a wave of his fingers it hit the stone with a grunt. He increased the pressure and heard the squelching of ruptured organs and the snapping of bones, and finally the skull exploded in a mass of flattened gore. The creature's body shuddered once and then lay still, fluids oozing from its corpse.

Xellos giggled and brushed off his hands, then clapped them together and let his eyes slide shut, his customary grin on his face. "Well, that was fun. Shall we be going?"

"Y-you monster," Zelgadis hissed, eyes wide and face pale with horror. Lina stood next to him, eyes flat and wounded.

Xellos tilted his head. "Ah, yes, that's idea," he said.

"How could you just kill them like that?" Zel growled. "They were living beings!"

Xellos shrugged, tugging on one of his gloves. "You asked me to get rid of them, and so I did."

"But you just murdered them, you despicable demon!" Zel cried, anger and fear flashing in his blue eyes.

Xellos had had quite enough of Zelgadis. "And you and Miss Lina are so very different?" he asked calmly, fixing them both with a cool amethyst stare. "How many times have you killed defenseless people, eh? How many lives have fallen victim to your outlandish spells? You two have killed many, many people, and Miss Lina has even killed on purpose. I imagine you have as well, Mister Zelgadis. Even that self-righteous, obsessive wife of yours has done her share of killing, and yet you have the gall to call me a murderer?"

"You scum!" Zelgadis snapped, rushing over to him and letting a fist fly. Xellos moved deftly out of the way, swinging his staff with one hand and catching Zelgadis behind the knees.

"You'll have to do better than that, chimera," Xellos said coldly, when Zelgadis lashed out behind him with a foot. His booted heel connected with Xellos, reopening a wound and making him lean heavily on his staff.

"Like that, you mean?" Zel growled.

"Something like that, yes," Xellos said softly, eyes gleaming, and readied his staff. He had just about enough of the chimera's insolence, and he had the power to end it all right then and there.

"Stop it!" Lina shouted, throwing herself in between them. She faced Xellos with a hard scowl, her eyes narrowed. "You two stop this right now."

"Dearest, let's leave this tedious place," Xellos said, standing slowly and with dignity. "I fail to see the use you have for these wretched people. Wash your hands of them and let's away."

"Zelgadis, that was really stupid," Lina spat. "You saw how powerful he is. He just...dismantled...creatures we couldn't touch without using our strongest spells. You can't just take on a guy like him."

"Lina, he's evil," Zelgadis intoned, eyes glaring daggers at Xellos. "He hasn't changed and never will."

"I know what he is," Lina replied cryptically. "But that doesn't give you the right to hurt my husband."

"Excellent, my dear," Xellos said with an inclination of his head. "Wise and well-spoken, as always. Now, let us get out of here."

"And you," Lina hissed, her eyes suddenly ablaze. "I don't even want to hear you speak."

Xellos raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?"

"How DARE you attack one of my best friends?" she shrieked. "Zelgadis is one of the most important people on this planet to me, so how dare you hurt him?"

"But, dearest," he began, but an angry wave of her hand cut him short.

"No! You've done nothing but antagonize him and hurt him since you two met, and I'm tired of it. Dammit, Xellos, you might be my husband, but I can do without you, and I will if you insist on hurting my friends!"

Xellos scowled slightly. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying make friends with Zelgadis or I'll leave you!"

"Lina, that's not necessary," Zel said, picking himself up and brushing off his clothes. "I wouldn't want to-"

"You shut up, too!" Lina bellowed. "Enough of your bull shit! Yeah, Xellos is mostly demon still, yeah, he's an evil bastard, but he's the father of my kids and he loves us! He's also one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent people you'll ever meet, so get rid of that goddamn chip on your shoulder, or so help me, I'll never speak to you again." She spun back to Xellos and fixed him with her worst glare. "And that goes for either of you!"

Xellos pressed his lips into a tight line and watched as Lina stomped out the door. It was preposterous, that he would make friends with a mortal. Lina was different, Lina was a genius and powerful beyond belief. Plus, with her volatile and passionate personality, life was never dull. Lina was fun, and Xellos lived for fun. He felt the same way about his children. Everyone else, however, could only be secondary amusement when compared to Lina, and he really had no use for them. Still, Lina had threatened to leave him, and he knew she would carry out her words, regardless of whether or not she spoke them in anger.

"Dammit," Zelgadis growled. "I can't believe it. She'll disown us all."

Xellos fixed Zelgadis with a flat stare. "Why should you care? She's not your wife."

"I care because she's one of my best friends, dammit!" Zel shouted. "Oh, I can NOT believe this is happening. I can't believe I'm going to lose one of my most valued friendships because of you!"

Xellos studied him and carefully turned over the situation in his mind. It appeared that there was only one way to win, and that was to do as Lina said. Of course. Lina, irritatingly enough, was usually right. Well, she didn't say he had to make friends with Zelgadis right away. Sighing, he stared down into the pit. "I apologize for disturbing you," Xellos said. "It has been a while since I was able to exercise my...power..."

"Shut up," Zel grumbled, heading for the door.

Xellos cast him a glance and then looked back down into the pit. "Mister Zelgadis?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.

Zel whirled. "What the hell do you want now?" he snapped.

"Where's the last beast?"

Zel's eyes widened and his face drained of all color. "Shit," he hissed, and dashed out the door.

Xellos easily outpaced Zelgadis as they ran through the corridors, his long stride giving him an advantage even against Zel's brau demon-enhanced speed. It was only moments before they caught up with Lina, Xellos grabbing her hand and dragging her along as they passed. "What?" she gasped.

"Xellos said one was missing," Zel said quickly, and they barreled through the heavy door at the entrance to the dungeon.

"Stay behind and lock up," Xellos ordered Lina.

"What?" she cried. "But I-"

"There are worse things down there than what I killed today," Xellos said sharply. "You have the strength to do this. Mister Zelgadis."

Zel nodded and tossed Lina his key, then followed Xellos as they dashed out of the room. "What the hell was that?" he panted.

"Lina...has to stay safe," Xellos said, feeling his breath burn in his lungs. "The beast...probably linked to the others. Knows I killed them. Will recognize my scent, kill my family."

"See what your evil breeds?"

Xellos shot him a cold look. "Doesn't your behavior do the same thing?"

Zel clamped his mouth shut and followed silently.

As they neared the garden, Xellos could hear screaming. Soldiers were dying, that much was obvious. Damn it all, they might be too late!

"Hurry!" Xellos shouted, bursting through the doors and into the sunlight.

"No!" Zelgadis cried, appearing beside him, and the two were dumbfounded for a moment as they stared at the scene. The stones and grass were slick with the blood of slain soldiers, the ground littered with broken bodies. A dark, hulking shape lumbered around the grass, howling and slashing with long claws. Amelia was huddled against one of the walls, the children gathered around her legs and Gorran in her arms.

"Oh no," Xellos breathed, feeling panic rip through him. Were his children hurt?

Zelgadis turned to Xellos, wrenching fear in his eyes. "Amelia can't use magic!" he exclaimed, voice breaking.

Xellos paled, then nodded. Damn the mortals, how could they have missed capturing a beast like this? "Go!" he cried, dashing towards the creature.

Zelgadis moved to the side, preparing a spell, and Xellos confronted it head-on. He brought up his staff and charged it with what energy he could spare, sending bolts of magic at the thing's feet. It roared and lumbered a few steps away, trying to bat at Xellos' attacks with a clawed hand, then charged forward. Xellos stepped out of the way and used the butt of his staff to stab it in the direction he wanted it to go, then whirled and readied himself for another attack. It rushed him again, but he was ready for it and moved out of the way as Zel cast his spell. It was a Gaav Flare, a powerful one, but it had no effect on the magical creature. Zel tossed a few more spells its way while Xellos looked for an opening, then the chimera charged.

"No!" Xellos called, seeing Lina burst onto the patio.

"Dammit!" she shouted just as Zelgadis was batted away. He flew through the air, his body arched, and there was a sickening thwack as his head struck a marble urn, cracking it. Lina growled and ran towards the beast, evading Xellos' hands as he tried to grab her.

"Stop!" he yelled, but she did not listen.

"Ragna Blade!" she bellowed, and the dark energy came to life in her hands. The spell was strong, more than strong enough to kill the thing, but the beast was faster. Still screaming, Lina leapt in the air, raising the blade over her head before bringing it down toward the creature with all her might. Xellos held his breath as the thing growled and moved out of the way, dirt exploding into the air as her spell bit into the ground. Snarling, Lina freed her blade and slashed horizontally, but again the creature was too quick, grasping a tree branch with a long limb and swinging out of the way to land behind her. Whirling, Lina stabbed one more time, the Nightmare energy crackling in her hands as she panted, her attack weaker than the first. She missed once more, and Xellos felt his insides turn cold as the spell took its toll on his lifemate. Lina's face contorted in a frustrated scowl and she charged in a final attempt, coughing blood and collapsing as she crumpled to the ground. The beast, howling with glee, rounded on her and flexed its claws, its jaws dripping as it sent a brutal slash in her direction. Lina simply stared at the attack, eyes glazed, and Xellos' stomach sank as he realized she was too exhausted to react and defend herself. Fear gripping his heart with icy talons, Xellos grunted and cast a time manipulation spell, catching the blow with his staff a split second before it connected with Lina. She rolled to the side, panting. "Xellos," she breathed.

"See to your friend," he said firmly, not taking his eyes off of the slavering beast. He took a step forward, but the wound Zelgadis had reopened chose that moment to send searing agony up his body, and he collapsed onto the ground.

"Daddy!" he heard Lecia scream, and then the beast was in motion, loping towards his daughter.

"NO!" Xellos bellowed, scrambling to his feet, the fabric of his gloves strained over his knuckles.

Lecia scowled at the monster and opened her hands, and even from his distance he could tell she was trying to recite a spell. The creature closed in before she could finish, however, and Zelgadis' young son, Alfred, suddenly moved in the way. Xellos watched in horror as the beast's claws moved to shred the little boy, and he found the strength within him to hurry. Steeling himself, he threw his staff with all his might, knocking the creature's hand aside before it could harm the child. The beast roared with pain and simply slapped the youngsters out of the way, focusing its attention on the wailing Gorran. Xellos watched helplessly as the beast's nostrils flared, and he knew it had caught his scent on his son. It lumbered toward Amelia, who immediately turned and ran with the child. The creature followed her as Xellos hastened to collect his staff. By the time he had recovered it, however, the thing had Amelia backed into the corner. He limped over as quickly as he could, each step sending sharp needles of pain through his body, and he felt wetness from his reopened wound course down his skin and soak his shirt.

"You won't take this child!" Amelia shouted, stowing him in a bush behind her and whirling to face the magical beast. "Life is precious and cannot be destroyed by evil such as yours!"

"Get out of there!" Xellos bellowed, but the princess' eyes glittered with courage and determination.

"I might fall," Amelia continued, lowering into a fighting stance, "but this child will live on! Such is the way of love and justice!"

"No! Amelia!" he heard Zel scream behind him, but the voice cracked. He didn't have to turn around to know that Zel was in bad shape.

"Damn," Xellos muttered, forcing his injured body to move faster. He put on an extra burst of speed and dashed to the princess, knocking her out of the way as the beast struck. A shriek ripped from his throat as he felt the monster's hand rip through the wound in his shoulder, passing all the way through his body and into the stone wall behind him.

"Xellos!" Lina shouted, but his view of her was blocked by the hulking beast in front of him.

"You have me," Xellos grunted weakly, his injured arm gripping the creature's wrist where it entered his body. The beast's face stretched in a grin, pointed teeth glistening with saliva in the sunlight. "However, can you handle me?"

The beast's eyes widened as dark tendrils of energy suddenly billowed from Xellos' body. It was difficult, but he found his Monster's power hovering at the edges of his awareness and tapped into it. With his free hand he raised his staff, the dark energy flowing from his body into the jewel as well as wrapping around the creature's wrist. Using all his concentration, he took the black, festering magic from his wound and forced it into his attacker's arm, grunting with the effort and pain.

"Mister Xellos!" he heard Amelia scream, and he hoped she wouldn't watch as he drove the head of his staff, dark energy and all, into the beast's mouth. He screamed with agony as he released the power, the monster's head exploding in a rain of gore. The taloned hand through his shoulder went limp and seconds later they both crashed to the ground. He felt his vision blur but fought to stay conscious, blinking rapidly.

"Mister Xellos, you saved my life!" Amelia whispered, suddenly appearing in his field of vision.

"You were going to save my son," he murmured. "Please...children..."

"Yes," she said with a nod. "I'll fetch healers."

"Yes," he echoed, and then closed his eyes.

When he came to, the first thing he realized was that his head hurt. It hurt a lot. The second thing he noticed was that the rest of him didn't. He felt remarkably healthy and fit. "Whaaa?" he muttered, blinking into the warm, syrupy light of evening.

"You look like hell," a masculine voice said, and he forced his eyes to focus on the slim figure leaning against the window.

Xellos sat up and rubbed his head. "Well, I feel pretty much the same way," he started to chuckle, then stopped when it hurt.

There was silence for a moment, then an intake of breath. "Don't expect me to thank you for saving her. It's your fault this all happened anyway."

Xellos looked at Zelgadis expressionlessly. "I didn't do it to hear your thanks," he explained simply.

Zelgadis studied him quietly. "I know. So, thank you."

Xellos smiled. "I thought you said you weren't going to thank me," he replied.

"I said that you shouldn't expect me to, not that I wouldn't," Zelgadis smirked.

"Ah, you're devious, I see."

"You always underestimated me," Zelgadis grumbled.

Xellos started to laugh, then was forced to stop again by the throbbing in his head. "Actually, it's quite the contrary. Out of all of you, you were always the one I could rely on to rise to the occasion. Well, Lina always rose higher, but she's a special case."

Zel grunted. "I don't understand," he murmured.

Xellos cocked his head. "What?"

"Why she loves you. She does, though."

"I love her."

Zel seemed to consider that. "As much as I hate to, I believe you. Of course, it's easy to understand why you love her. I just didn't think someone like you could love."

"I couldn't, but as soon as I was capable of it, I really didn't have much choice."

Zel nodded and stood without making a sound for several more moments. "I hate being in your debt."

"Why would you be in my debt?"

"You saved Amelia. Twice. Of course, the first time was canceled out because you were the one that caused her harm, but this time it counts. She's my whole world, and I don't know what I would do if something happened to her."

"She's grown up to be a strong woman," Xellos commented, leaning back into the pillows.

"Yes," Zel said softly.

It was Xellos' turn to be quiet, mulling things over. "Mister Zelgadis, I think Lina was right."

"Eh?"

"I think we should try to get along."

Zelgadis sniffed. "Well, we'll see. I owe you, I guess."

"I guess," Xellos winked. "Oh, and tell Amelia thank you."

"Yeah, she had those healers on you pretty quick. I guess they were able to finish the job this time, too."

Xellos grinned. "Yes, I transferred the remnants of that nasty spell onto the beast."

Zelgadis looked interested. "Oh? How did you do that?"

Xellos smiled and raised a finger. "That's a-"

"Okay, okay, I get it. You're not going to tell me."

"Sorry!" Xellos said brightly.

Zelgadis pushed away from the wall. "Lina will be in after supper," he said, and left the room.

Xellos leaned back against the pillows and sighed, listening to the door click shut. Interesting thing, humanity. First love, now friendship. Well, trying to be friends could be fun, he decided, and opted to nap until Lina arrived.

She arrived almost immediately after supper, then helped him to bathe. It was nice to sleep with her once again, feeling her petite body curled against his as he held her. Her hair smelled like spices and enchanted him, and he had lovely dreams that night. When he awoke the next morning, however, she was gone. He asked after her and found that she had retreated to the library. Deciding that he had spent too much time away from his family, he went to the nursery to visit his children, only to be told by Lecia that she was busy playing with her new friends, and she would see him later. He picked up Gorran and began to wander through the residential wing of the palace, pointing things out to his son and trying to teach him new words. The boy, however, was more interested in plucking at Xellos' hair, and so after a while Xellos simply gave up.

His wanderings took him down an odd staircase, one that was spiral in design. He followed it down until he reached a large wooden door, which he opened without thinking. Mild surprise washed over him as he was confronted with an incredible array of beakers and flasks. Most of the room was covered in elaborate scientific setups, the glass and colored fluids sparkling in the light.

"Who's there?" a voice said from somewhere in the glassware jungle.

"Me," Xellos replied with a smile. "Is this your secret lab, Mister Zelgadis?"

"Just Zelgadis," the chimera grunted, appearing from behind one of the tables. "What do you want?"

"I was just wandering with Gorran and we ended up here. No, no, love, don't touch anything. You don't want to break Mister Zelgadis' things."

"Just Zelgadis, I said."

"Oh, sorry. So, what are you working on?"

"Take a wild guess."

Xellos sighed and watched as Zel began to tend to various apparatuses, checking fluid levels and temperatures. Should he tell him? Well, wasn't this whole friendship thing supposed to be about honesty? "Still looking for your cure, eh?" Xellos murmured, walking around the lab and admiring its cleanliness.

"Of course."

"Amelia doesn't care. I'm sure your children don't, either."

"It isn't for them."

"I could make you look like you would have, but it would just be an illusion."

Zel poked his head from around a large beaker. "And how long would that last? Just long enough for you to get out of town?"

Xellos shook his head. "I'm not kidding. It would be permanent. If anyone touched you, though, they would know. Otherwise, not even mirrors would give you away."

"Oh, right," Zel snorted, disappearing from view.

"I'm perfectly serious," Xellos protested, following him. "Hold still."

"What are you doing?" Zel asked as Xellos pulled up Zel's shirt and painstakingly drew the runes on his chest. He took his time and was very careful not to make a mistake, and when the final stroke was made, the magic activated. Zelgadis gasped as he was engulfed by the runic spell, and after a few moments Xellos broke out in a grin.

"Well?" Xellos chuckled. "Aren't you even curious?"

Zelgadis pressed his lips into a line and shut his eyes as Gorran giggled and clapped in delight. Xellos smiled and patted the baby's back, swaying slowly from side to side as he studied Zelgadis. The chimera opened his eyes and looked down at his hands, his pink hands. "Oh, gods," he whispered.

Xellos' smile widened into a grin. "Hold on a moment," Xellos said, reaching into his ever-present leather satchel and rooting around for a moment. He eventually pulled out a hand mirror and handed it to the young man. "Here."

Zel's hands shook as he reached out and took the mirror, his eyes wide. "Oh, gods," he croaked again, and a tear rolled down his rosy cheek. His fingers traced his reflection in the mirror, and Xellos knew that Zelgadis was seeing what he saw. The man that stood before him no longer had skin of stone, but the creamy, healthy skin of a human. Soft, brown hair framed Zelgadis' sharp features, and gone were the pointy ears. The eyes remained the same, however, and tears were silently flowing from them.

"That's what you would look like, if you were fully human," Xellos explained. "Your eldest, Alfred, actually resembles you quite a bit."

Zelgadis was speechless. He simply stared into the mirror for long moments, then sighed and shut his eyes. Without a word he returned the mirror to Xellos, then turned his back on him. Several minutes passed before he moved or spoke again. "I-I don't know what to say," he murmured.

"You don't need to say anything," Xellos replied, slowly prying Gorran's fingers from a flask the child had somehow appropriated. "That's what you would look like. Whenever your children or Amelia touched you, though, they'd feel your stony skin and pointed ears. I guess it depends on what you define as humanity. Is being human the way you look, or the way you feel?"

"I don't know," Zel muttered.

Xellos slowly smiled and shook his head. "How long have you been human, in your heart? How many years have you longed for human things?"

"I've always wanted human things."

Xellos chuckled. "Of course you have. That's because you've always been human. I think you started to accept that when you admitted your feelings for Amelia to yourself."

"But I'm not human!" Zelgadis cried, turning around abruptly, cheeks still wet with tears. "I don't look human! I'm a chimera!"

Xellos' smile dropped from his face and he leveled the full power of his cool, amethyst gaze at the other man. "Would you call me human?" he asked Zelgadis. "I've looked like a human far longer than you have. People have always accepted my appearance as human. Now I even have two human children. Am I not human?"

Zelgadis blinked, the dark eyebrows of his new appearance drawing together. "I suppose you're human," he said haltingly.

Xellos nodded. "I am," he replied. "But you are more human than I am. You always have been. The humans on this planet are a varied species. Their skin colors, hair colors, eye colors, shapes, sizes, abilities, everything are different. If you look so very different, why can you not still be human? Your wife, children, and kingdom accept you as such. Why can't you?"

Zelgadis stared at him. "But, I want to look-" he began.

"It doesn't matter what you look like," Xellos said with a shake of his head, his glossy locks swinging to and fro as Gorran giggled and trying to catch some of the silver-streaked strands. "Now you look human, too, but do you feel more human? Are you more human?"

"I-I don't know," he sighed, running a hand through his hair and closing his eyes.

"That should be your first clue," Xellos said, then reached forward and traced a new series of runes, breaking the spell. Once again the chimera Zelgadis appeared before him, his blue skin glistening with tears and his lavender hair falling around his face. "You know, if you had found your cure many years ago, such as from the Claire Bible, you wouldn't have lived this long. You wouldn't have been able to protect the people you cared about, you wouldn't have the strength you do now. Certainly, you paid a heavy price for that power, and yet you found respect, family, and love anyway. I just hope you think about that. Your body and soul might not be fully human, but your heart is, and that is an incredible, invaluable gift. Take it from someone who knows," he said softly, an eyebrow raised. He watched Zel silently for a few more minutes, then Gorran began to get fussy. Of course, the child was probably tired. It was time for his nap, after all. He nodded once to Zel, then excused himself, leaving the chimera to face his demons alone.

"That's the best I can do towards friendship, beloved," he murmured to himself as he walked down the halls, making his way to the nursery. Gorran continued to fuss and Xellos gently held the red, curly head against his shoulder, stroking the baby's back. By the time they reached the nursery Gorran was already drifting off, and so Xellos put him down and wandered to the play room.

"Daddy!" Lecia squealed, abandoning the other three children and dashing over to him, locking her arms around his legs.

"Hello, little one," he cooed, picking her up and giving her a squeeze. "How are you doing?"

"Fine!" she squealed, kissing him on the cheek. "I'm having fun!"

Xellos looked down at the other children, who were staring at him. It seemed that they were involved in some sort of pretend adventure and Lecia, of course, was the leader. Ah, the girl was becoming a ringleader, just like her mother. "Do you want to come with me to see Mommy?" he asked, setting her down.

She trotted back to the other children and shook her head. "I'm busy playing, Daddy," she said with a slight frown. "Come back later."

Xellos chuckled and sighed. His little girl was growing up quickly, it seemed. At least she was making friends. He had worried, at first, that her upbringing alone among Monsters would have affected her social skills, but apparently Lina's blood had rendered his fears null and void. "Have fun, then," he said brightly, going over and stroking her hair, then decided to find his wife.

It wasn't difficult, actually, to find Lina. She was in the palace's private library, where many rare books were stored. Of course, the rarest books on white magic were in the temple libraries, but Lina wouldn't be too terribly interested in those. Hopefully she was researching a way to refine her spells. If the Monsters were slowly regaining their strength, his family would certainly need all the help they could get. He stole into the library silently, the room seeming completely deserted at first glance. The numerous stacks were silent as dim light filtered into the room. The inner curtains at the windows were drawn, and candles were the main source of illumination. It actually gave the room a cozy, intimate feel, and it didn't take him long to locate his wife.

He rounded one of the stacks, still treading silently, to see Lina hunched over a table, scowling at a large book as she furiously scribbled notes on a loose sheet of paper. Her red hair shone like polished copper in the candlelight and dim light from the windows, the tresses curling about her shoulders in soft waves. He crept over to her shoulder undetected, so engrossed in the book she was, and he carefully leaned over. "Beloved," he whispered, warm breath teasing the skin of her ear.

Lina let loose a shriek and nearly head-butted him as she stood up. He danced away a few steps as she sprang from her chair and produced a dagger out of nowhere, her glistening eyes scanning the room. She spotted him and scowled, immediately regaining her composure and sheathing the dagger as he giggled. "Xellos!" she spat. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Xellos' giggles were nearly out of control as he hunched over, holding his stomach. "Oh, nothing!" he said. "You always have the most delicious reactions!"

"Dammit," she growled, putting a hand over her eyes. "You little fruitcake."

"Not so little, sometimes," he replied playfully, sweeping across the distance between them to hold her in his arms.

"Sometimes," she admitted, a smile tugging at the corner of her red lips. "How are you feeling?"

"Well, thank you. And you? Any luck?"

"Some," she sighed. "I really think we'll have to make a trip back to Moleccia and see what we can turn up."

"If that's what your heart desires," he said, and kissed her tenderly on the mouth.

"Yeah," she replied as soon as the kiss was broken. She exhaled and closed her eyes, resting her head on his chest and melting into him.

"Are you tired?" he asked, burying his face in her unruly hair.

"I think I just miss you," she muttered into his shirt. "We've been traveling so much, and the kids need so much, and then there's danger and you get hurt. Then we have to wait until you get better, and the whole time I just sort of feel on the sidelines, waiting for something to happen again. I don't like it, Xellos. I like to be in control."

"I know," he said in return. "Would you like me to help you take your mind off of things?"

"Like you could," she grumbled.

"Don't underestimate me," he murmured.

"Oh, right, don't underestimate the guy that got his ass kicked several times in the past few weeks."

"I'm serious," he replied, and turned around, pressing her against a bookshelf.

"Hey, don't get rough with me," she snapped.

"You may change your mind," he said softly, pressing his mouth to hers. She squeaked, but she kissed him back just the same. Soon his hands were in her shirt, fondling her favorite places as his tongue drew lines up and down her neck. She moaned and writhed against him, her hands running down his back to grip his rear. Panting, he reached down and undid his pants. Lina struggled with her own clothes, and he pulled her leg out of one of her pant legs, his cloak hiding most of their nudity. Lina uttered a great sigh as he pushed into her, and soon they were entangled with abandon. It seemed eons since he had last made love to her, but their feelings flowed through their bodies and their rings with the same ease they had become accustomed to. Lina moaned and clutched at the shelves behind her, knocking several books to the ground, and Xellos frowned slightly as he heard footsteps drawing near. A couple of shapes appeared for a moment at the edges of his vision, but it was difficult to concentrate past what he was feeling with Lina. There was a sharp gasp and the footsteps scurried away. He glanced at Lina, but her head was thrown back in ecstasy. She hadn't noticed a thing, he was sure of it, and then he let out a grunt as she tumbled over her limit. He continued until he was sated, then embraced her with all his might, losing himself in the scent and feel of her. They leaned weakly against the bookshelf for quite some time, clinging to one another, then Lina sighed and kissed him on the end of the nose.

"Help me research," she said softly.

"As you wish," he smiled, and kissed her.

The next couple of days passed in much the same fashion, with Xellos playing with the children in the mornings, helping Lina read through books in the afternoon, and socializing with Amelia and Zelgadis in the evenings. He was feeling much, much better, and it was almost as if the whole Monster-and-magical-beasts incident had never happened. Often, however, he would catch Zelgadis studying him quietly, and so he wasn't surprised when Zelgadis called him aside one evening while the women chatted about white magic barriers versus black magic barriers. "Is there something I can do for you?" Xellos asked as Zelgadis lead him out onto the terrace. They stared into the night sky, which was dotted with innumerable stars.

"How did you do that spell?" Zel asked. "Why did it work like that?"

"What spell?"

"The one that made me look human."

Xellos considered. He still didn't want to disclose too much about runic magic. Well, it wasn't like Zelgadis could force it out of him, after all. "I drew a series of runes. As long as they remained on your body, the spell would stay in effect."

"But how? Why do those work when chanted spells wouldn't? And why don't more people use runic magic?"

"Ah, I'll answer your last question first. It's because no one knows how anymore. It's too dangerous, like I explained before. Besides, runic magic doesn't do the same sorts of things that other forms of magic do. You see, you can't do fire spells, explosion spells, or any of that sort of things with runes. Runes are more like states-of-being spells. You can hide things, seal things, change things, or protect things with them, but you have to be able to write the runes on something, with a few exceptions, which can be traced in the air. Runic magic isn't very flashy, and really isn't useful enough to be worth the danger."

"That's how you were able to alter my appearance, then?"

"Yes, I just used a combination of rune spells. You liked the way it worked?"

Zelgadis sighed and was silent, his head tilted back to look at the stars. "I still don't trust you," he said slowly. "But I don't really hate you anymore. I guess when someone has been around as long as you have, they pick up a bit of knowledge about life. I know Amelia would have a fit if I show up looking like someone else. She loves me for me. Besides, I've been this way for so long that it's who I really am, now."

"You're better than most humans, you know. You're stronger, faster, more durable, and yet you still have a human heart."

"I know," Zelgadis grumbled.

"And you look exotic!" Xellos chirped.

Zelgadis groaned. "You're never going to change, are you?"

Xellos laughed. "No! And you aren't, either. Well, I just figured that I've been this way for several thousand years, so it's too late to try and change anything now. You're only what, twenty-eight?"

"Yes."

"You're still a baby," Xellos giggled.

"I'm not going to live to be several thousand years old, like you," Zelgadis muttered. "Nor would I want to. Besides, you actually look younger than I do, except for all those gray hairs."

"There isn't much I can do about those. I think Lina likes them, though. They make me look distinguished."

"Lina likes you anyway, although I have no idea why," Zel said with a smile.

"It's because I treat her like gold, bend to her every whim, tend to the more mundane details of her life, and yet give her all the passion and excitement she can handle!" he chortled.

"You nutcase," Zel growled, but his expression was soft.

Xellos grinned and leaned on the marble railing. "Look at us," he said merrily. "Outside, talking like a couple of man-friends. Now, hopefully, Lina won't leave me."

"I don't think she'd leave you anyway," Zel said.

"I'd like to believe so," Xellos admitted. "Still, while I don't think very highly of humanity in general, I enjoy your company. You're smart, powerful, and extremely entertaining. Out of all Lina's friends, you're the most fun."

"You just think I'm fun to tease," Zel growled. "Just remember, though, that if you're not nice to me from now on, I'll sic Amelia on you. She's calmed down a bit after having all the kids, but she can still spout love and justice with the best of them."

Xellos shuddered. "That's just awful," he moaned. "Very well, I'll be good from this point forward."

Zelgadis nodded, a wry smile on his face. He was silent a while, then turned his head toward Xellos and locked him in a blue gaze. "We'll never be close friends, and I'll never trust you," he said slowly. "But I think you, in some twisted way, actually understand what I've been through, more so than any other person."

Xellos sobered immediately. "You're right. I know what it is to fight for one's humanity," he said solemnly. "I'm just human enough to not be able to hold that against you."

Zel nodded. "Now, what were the runes you used to make that illusion? Not that I'll use them, mind you, but I'm curious..."

"That's a secret!" Xellos said gaily, and danced lightly out of the way of Zelgadis' punch, laughing all the way back inside.

Lina had had enough of studying. She had come to Seyruun to see her friends, after all, not be buried for hours in books. "Dammit, where are they?" Lina growled as she stalked down the hallways of her friends' private quarters.

"I have no idea," Xellos said, striding easily at her side.

"I want to go to the market, and I want them to come with me!" she spat, eyes scanning the hallways.

"Perhaps you should have notified them earlier, then," he replied. "After all, they are very busy people and-"

Xellos was cut short as she smacked him on the shoulder. "Shut up," she growled. "We gotta find them and then get the kids."

"Of course, dear," Xellos grinned, and Lina shook her head. Dammit, she wished she was more immune to his charm. It seemed some days like the only thing that saved her was her violent streak, otherwise she'd be putty in his hands. Why did he have to look so damn cute all the time, anyway? It just wasn't natural. Then again, neither was he.

"Damn it all," she hissed under her breath.

They walked along in relative silence for a while, although Xellos did slip his hand over hers. He was very affectionate, and although it had really bothered her at first, she was getting used to it. Actually, it felt pretty good. She liked to touch him and be touched by him, and it was nice to feel so doted upon. It didn't hurt that everyone knew he adored her, anyway. It kept the other women away, which was good. Lina didn't like the attention that her tall, charming, attractive husband received whenever they went out. She was sorely tempted to blow such simpering, spineless, clingy women away with a Dragon Slave, but ultimately that wouldn't solve the problem. It was less of an annoyance now that Xellos wore a wedding ring, but it still happened on occasion.

She was lost in her thoughts when Xellos suddenly pulled up short. They were alone in the hallway, since the guards only were stationed at the entrances and exits to the private quarters of the royal family. Lina looked at him, puzzled, but he put a finger to his lips, signaling her to be quiet. A scowl settled on her face as she watched him creep over to one of the heavy curtains. As he neared the drapes she noticed that the fabric was moving, and that she could faintly hear soft noises coming from the other side. Xellos turned to her in a grin, and she thought that the children were hiding behind the curtains, playing some sort of game. She shook her head, telling him to ignore it, when his grin widened and he wrapped both hands in the curtain, pulling it aside with a flourish.

A shriek filled the air, and Lina wasn't entirely certain it wasn't hers. She felt her whole body turn to stone with embarrassment as her friends were revealed, obviously engaged in an intimate act. Xellos' laughter soared above all as he clapped his hands and cavorted to the side. She couldn't really see anything, since Zel's cape pretty much covered everything, but Amelia's legs were bare, and that told her all she needed to know. Well, that and the fact that Zel's pants were around his ankles. "Xellos!" she growled, and tore the curtain out of his hands, her friends disappearing from sight.

Xellos was still giggling, his whole body shaking with the violence of his mirth. "Oh, goodness!" he laughed. "Miss Amelia, Mister Zelgadis, we'll meet you in the nursery when you've composed yourselves. Dearest Lina wants you two to accompany us into town."

"Fine!" she heard Zelgadis snap. "Just go away!"

"Come on," Lina hissed, grabbing Xellos by his sleeve and towing him down the hallway.

When they were out of earshot and Lina's embarrassment had receded enough for her to think clearly, she turned on Xellos in fury. "What the hell were you thinking?" she shouted, taking him by the collar and shaking him.

"I didn't know what they were doing, honestly!" he cried as his head snapped back and forth. "I thought it might be the little ones!"

Lina didn't admit that she had thought the same thing. "Well, it wasn't, was it?" she bellowed. "Don't you ever think before you do things?"

"Yes!" he replied as best he could while being shaken. "I just didn't expect to see that! It doesn't seem in keeping with their personalities, does it?"

"No," Lina agreed, releasing him and shoving him to the floor with a hand. He landed with a grunt in a sitting position, his lower lip protruding a little bit as he pouted. "I wonder what they were doing there? Amelia's more wild than she lets on, I'm sure, but Zel's so private..."

"I really don't think it merits pondering," Xellos said, standing up and brushing himself off. "After all, we make love anywhere and anytime we feel like it."

"That's because you're crazy and have no self-control," she muttered.

"You never seem to complain," he said archly, eyes sliding open a bit.

"Yeah, well..." she grumbled, feeling the blood rise to her cheeks once more.

"In fact, I dare say you enjoy yourself, my little fiery goddess," he chuckled, suddenly pressing himself to her and running his hands down her back to grip her rear. He leaned down to kiss her, but before he could she smacked him on the shoulder, pushing him away.

"You're impossible," she snapped, but was more angry at her body for responding than his attentions.

Xellos shrugged. "Later, then," he said with a wink. "Shall we collect our brood?"

"Yeah, if they want to come with," Lina said with a sigh, and grabbed him the shirtsleeve, dragging him down the hall.

Lecia did not want to accompany them, being engrossed as she was in her game with the other children, but Gorran had no choice. "You'll come with us and you'll like it," Lina said as she picked him up off of the floor. Gorran whined for a bit, but she began to rock him and kiss him on his face, and so he quieted. After a while he became heavy, and so she gave him to Xellos, who was already in the process of being tied up by the children.

"Aww, Mommy," Lecia moaned as Lina forced Xellos to take the baby. "Daddy was playing with us!"

"I need his help more," she said. "You'll just have to tie up someone else."

Lecia turned to the nanny, eyes twinkling dangerously. "Okay," she said, suddenly gesturing to the other children.

"No, not her," Lina snapped. "Tie up one of your friends."

Lecia obviously had a new idea. "Tie me up, and then I'll try to escape!" she declared, and suddenly a new game was born.

Xellos had Gorran on his lap and was bouncing him on his knees, the baby whooping and giggling. Lina smiled and sat in a chair, watching the whole scene. It was quite some time before Amelia and Zelgadis appeared the room, both looking carefully groomed. Their faces were very, very red, and they seemed uncomfortable, but no one said a thing. Xellos might have, but Lina shot him such a look of death that he promptly shut his mouth and paid even more attention to his son. Well, Xellos might have been an evil bastard, but at least he was trainable, Lina thought. "Ready?" she asked her friends, who were dressed in plain clothing so as to not stand out in a crowd. Zelgadis even had on a hood to hide his unique features, since the populace would recognize him as their prince.

"Yes," Zel said sharply. "Let's just go and get this over with."

"Right," Amelia agreed, and they both hurried from the room.

They snuck out of the palace and walked through town. The market wasn't far from the palace, but to Lina it seemed an incredibly long walk. Zelgadis and Amelia wouldn't meet their eyes, their cheeks flaming still, and Zelgadis wouldn't speak at all. Of course, Xellos had somehow herded Zelgadis into walking with him at the head of their little procession. He was prattling at the embarrassed prince at that very moment, his words coming out of his sculpted mouth in a stream. Lina thought that Xellos didn't even care whether or not Zel was actually even listening to him, but his constant stream of sound did give her the proper cover to talk to Amelia.

Lina turned to her friend and cleared her throat. "Hey, Amelia, I'm sorry we, uh, discovered you," she said tentatively.

"Oh, I know it was an accident," Amelia mumbled, briefly meeting Lina's eyes with her big blue ones. "It's all right. I'm just very, very embarrassed. You see, we've never been witnessed in such an intimate moment before."

"That's okay," Lina replied. "I know you and Zel love one another very much, and I'm really, really sorry."

Amelia, whose cheeks were still red, simply nodded.

Lina felt uneasy, but she knew she had to ask. "Um, if it's not prying, what the hell possessed you two to do that in the hallway? I mean, I thought you and Zel were pretty private..."

Amelia's blush deepened. "Ah, it's my fault, actually, and I need to apologize to you, too."

Lina frowned. "What for?"

"We saw you and Mister Xellos in the library."

Lina didn't understand. "Yeah, he helps me do research there every day."

"No, we saw you two, ah, entangled," Amelia muttered, her face so red it was beginning to resemble a beet.

Lina's eyes widened and she felt her own blush of mortification take over her face. "You saw us?" she croaked, embarrassed from the tips of her toes to the roots of her hair.

"Yes," Amelia admitted, eyes focused on the ground. "We didn't mean to, but we came to ask you a question and saw you pressed against the bookcase. We left right away, but I think Mister Xellos saw us."

Lina felt fury at her husband well up inside of her and push her shame aside. "Oh he did, did he?" she growled, flexing her fists as she glared at the back of the man walking in front of her.

"Maybe. Anyway, we left immediately, but it made me think."

"What?"

"Yes, Miss Lina. I was thinking that even though I felt very guilty and embarrassed to see you two like that, it was very nice that Mister Xellos loves you and wants you enough to want to be with you whenever and however he can. I mean, it's nice to be alone in bed together at night, but sometimes there's something to be said for spontaneity..."

"You needed extra excitement, or what?" Lina snapped.

"Well, Mister Zelgadis is an excellent lover, but sometimes we're both so busy, or the children need so much attention, and I've been having so many babies in a row..."

"And?"

"Well, I thought it would be nice if Zelgadis noticed me and wanted me at other times. I wanted him to let me know that he still wanted me, even though I'm starting to show."

Lina sighed. It was all very clear to her now. "Don't feel bad, Amelia. It is exciting to, er, do it in different places, as well as whenever you feel like it. You guys were just following your inclinations, and that's fine. Besides," she said with an evil grin, "that was more than fair payback for you guys spying on us!"

"Yes, I suppose it was," Amelia said with a weak smile.

"Okay!" Lina declared. "And hey, at least Zel loves you enough to even try it, right? You know how uptight he is. He must think the world of you to put aside his inhibitions like that."

"You're right," Amelia replied, her smile becoming a little brighter.

Lina grinned and nodded, catching strains of the conversation up ahead of them. If she wasn't mistaken, Xellos was actually trying to give Zel pointers. Well, hopefully those two would get things worked out as well. "Let's just put this whole thing behind us and forget it ever happened, okay?" Lina asked.

"Okay," Amelia agreed, and suddenly all was right with the world again.

They made it to market and it wasn't long before Lina was towing Xellos around by the wrist, pointing at all the things she wanted him to buy for her. "Miss Lina, don't you think that's a little much?" Amelia asked her once or twice. Lina, of course, just told her to shut up.

"She does this all the time, Miss Amelia," Xellos said with a sigh. "And Lecia's the same way." Gorran, who was in his arms, reached out toward a fuzzy toy and began to make moaning sounds. "And the boy seems to be leaning in the same direction," he added with a long-suffering look at his son.

"Shut up!" Lina repeated. "Hey, look at this!"

"Lovely," Zelgadis growled. "Why don't you just buy the whole damn shop and get it over with."

"Maybe I should," Lina declared, looking hungrily at the glittering wares.

"Ah, no, please," Xellos said, a note of pleading in his voice, and then Gorran started to get fussy. "Oh, look at that! Gorran's starting to get upset. I think we should go back out in the sunlight before he starts to cry."

Lina grudgingly agreed, wondering if Xellos had made the child upset on purpose just to get out of buying things for her. She was still glaring at him as they walked down the street, a few women stopping him and cooing at his darling baby. A few of them cleared out once they realized his wife was standing right by him, and Lina started to get angry and jealous of the attention he was receiving.

"Don't worry, Miss Lina," Amelia was saying, patting her arm. "Mister Xellos loves only you. He is awfully handsome and charming, though, and your son is just adorable."

"Whatever," Lina snorted, turning away and gazing off down the street. There was a fruit vendor a few doors down, and her heart turned to ice as she saw the clientele. The fruits looked fresh and delicious and standing in front of the shop was a tall, muscular man. No, it couldn't be, it just couldn't. She took a few steps toward him despite her better judgment, her heart going haywire in her chest as the rest of her body became cold and numb. It had been years, and yet as she saw the man it all seemed like yesterday.

The tall man turned toward her, sweeping blonde hair out of his eyes, his mouth dropping open when he saw her. "Lina?" he breathed, the fruit he was holding dropping from his hand.

Oh, why was her chest hurting so much? Why was it so hard to breathe? "Gourry?" she asked, her tongue feeling as if it were made of ice as she spoke his name.

He left the booth and dashed toward her, his eyes glistening, and suddenly he was right before her, his gigantic frame filling her vision. Her head swirled with emotion, and suddenly she didn't know where she was, what she was doing. She only knew the man she had always loved was standing right before her, bending and touching her face with his large, rough fingers, his lips moving. "Oh, gods, Lina, it's really you!"

Lina moved to throw her arms around his neck, all the old feelings welling up inside of her, when suddenly she felt a sharp pain shatter her brain. Her hand throbbed with the angry, icy pain, and she suddenly realized it wasn't her own emotions she was experiencing. The emotions were coming from Xellos through her ring.

She thought her heart would split in two as she stared at Gourry's ruggedly-handsome face. He looked like some sort of sun god, standing in front of her so strong and golden, and then Xellos was at her side. She glanced up into his sharp, beautiful features, his deeply amethyst eyes staring down at her with unreadable emotion. She tried to reach out to him through the rings, but suddenly the connection between them slammed shut and he looked away. Hurt swirled up inside of her, and she returned her gaze to Gourry. "Uh, hi," she said awkwardly, edging toward Xellos. It hurt just to look at Gourry, to see the open emotions on his face, to remember what she had left behind. "What are you doing here?"

Gourry smiled at her, the expression full of warmth, tenderness, and light, and then his eyes slid past her. "Oh, hi, Zel! Hi, Amelia!" His smile wavered a bit when he saw Xellos, then returned in full force. "Hi, Xellos."

"Greetings, Mister Gourry," Xellos said with an inclination of his glossy head.

"Mister Gourry!" Amelia cried. "It has been too long!"

"How are you doing?" Zel asked, shaking the larger man's hand.

Gourry surveyed the group, Xellos the only person tall enough to look him straight in the eye. "I'm doing fine, thanks," he said, putting his large hands on his hips.

"Gourry, dear, who are you talking to?" someone said from behind him, and Lina noticed his smile fall a little bit as he glanced at her.

"It's the old gang," he replied over his shoulder.

"Oh, Miss Lina!" a woman said, appearing from behind Gourry's massive body.

"Sylphiel!" Lina gasped. She hadn't seen the woman in years, since before the Darkstar incident. "How are you doing?"

Sylphiel smiled, her green eyes sparkling. "Wonderfully!" she replied. "How are you?"

"Good, thanks," Lina said, her gaze sliding over to Gourry. The tall blonde looked a little sick. In fact, he looked like she felt. Just one more shred of proof, she believed, that the two of them would be linked in some way forever.

"Oh, Mister Zelgadis, Miss Amelia! You're here, too!" Sylphiel exclaimed, running over and taking Amelia's hands. "You're expecting again, are you?"

Amelia grinned. "Yes, I am. It's good to see you again! I haven't seen you since Amaida's baptism."

"Speaking of which, where are the kids?" Zel asked, peering around from underneath his hood.

"Oh, they're at the stall over there," Gourry said, pointing a thumb at the fruit vendor behind him.

Sylphiel smiled graciously at everyone while Gourry turned around and started to shout. Lina wanted to reach out and touch his shining golden mane, wanted to feel his hair between her fingers. It was pulled back in a ponytail, and his bangs were trimmed a bit better, but otherwise he looked the same. Well, there were a few fine lines around his eyes. He was over thirty, after all. His shoulders and arms were still just as powerful, however, and his blue eyes still just as sparkling. "I'm Sylphiel," she heard the woman say, bringing her attention to what was going on.

Lina turned to see her addressing Xellos. The tall, lean man regarded her carefully for a moment, his refined features seeming carved out of marble, then he broke into a smile and took her pale hand, kissing the knuckles. "I'm Xellos Metallium," he murmured, releasing her hand. "A pleasure."

Sylphiel's green eyes went wide and she blushed, holding her hand to her breast. "Pleased to meet you," she breathed, then turned to stare at Lina. She swiveled to gaze at Xellos for several long moments, then she scurried to Lina's side. "Oh, Miss Lina, wherever did you meet him?" she whispered. "I don't think I've ever met such an elegant man! He's so charming, and he's so tall! He's almost as tall as dear Gourry! He's so beautiful, and those unusual eyes... His hair's so pretty!"

Lina clenched her jaw, tempted to tell Sylphiel who he really was. Xellos shot her an aloof look, cradling Gorran, who was clutching a new toy. "He's a great cook, too," Lina growled, the whole situation making her nauseated. What was Sylphiel doing with her Gourry?

"You're so lucky!" Sylphiel gushed, clasping her hands together.

"You wanna trade?" Lina grumbled, then shuddered as Xellos directed a glacial glance at her.

Sylphiel giggled and waved away Lina's comment. "Oh, who is the darling little boy?" she cooed, going over to Gorran. Xellos smiled with his usual warmth, and only Lina could still detect the coldness in his eyes.

"This is my son, Gorran," he explained. "Gorran, say hi to Miss Sylphiel."

"Bah," Gorran growled, engrossed in his toy.

"Gorran, please say hi to Miss Sylphiel."

The little boy glared at his father, then turned his head to the woman. "Hi," he grunted, then went back to his toy.

"Oh, he's so precious!" Sylphiel cried, touching the child's rusty locks. "How old is he?"

"About 8 months," Xellos smiled.

"And he's so smart!" Sylphiel exclaimed.

Lina turned away from the spectacle to see Gourry regarding her solemnly, emotion flickering in the sapphire depths of his eyes. She couldn't bear his glance, she just couldn't, and so she looked away. Her gaze rested on Amelia and Zel, who were both looking at her with a mixture of empathy and confusion. She wanted to tell them that she'd be all right when suddenly four little girls appeared around Gourry. "Papa," they said at intervals as they chattered away. The oldest looked to be a bit younger than Lecia and looked almost exactly like Sylphiel. The other two resembled Sylphiel slightly, but there was another influence on their appearance. The youngest child, who looked about two years old, had golden hair pulled into pigtails and Sylphiel's green eyes. There was no mistaking who the father was, and Lina felt as if she had been shot in the heart with a Freeze Arrow. Her reaction was so violent that she actually clutched at her chest and couldn't breathe, causing Amelia to grip her shoulders firmly.

"Miss Lina, are you all right?" she whispered.

"I'll be fine," Lina croaked, fighting back tears.

"We can get you out of here, if you need us to," Zel murmured, also drawing near.

"No, I'd like to stay for a bit longer," she breathed.

"So, Mister Gourry, let me present you with my son, Gorran," Xellos said, stepping over to Gourry. His movements were quick and smooth, as if he was a cat stalking his prey.

Gourry smiled at Xellos and stuck a finger out at the little boy. Gorran looked up at him, then at the approaching finger, then batted the offending digit aside. "Wow, he's really quick!" Gourry spluttered. "He's got great reflexes! Cute kid, too."

"Thank you," Xellos purred, but his eyes were as hard as stone.

Gourry cleared his throat and shifted his weight, looking slightly uncomfortable. "Uh, where's the little girl? She's gotta be pretty big by now."

"Oh, she's growing like a vine," Xellos said smoothly. "She's back at the palace, playing with her newfound friends."

"Oh," Gourry said.

Xellos' smile widened. "Are those girls your daughters?" he asked lightly.

Lina silently cursed him. She didn't wan to know the details of Gourry's life. They would hurt her too much. "Ah, sorta," Gourry said, reaching up and scratching his head as Sylphiel herded the girls. "The oldest three are Sylphiel's from her first marriage."

"Oh, what happened?" Xellos said, voice sounding innocent.

Lina grated her teeth. Damn him, damn him, damn him. Gourry was no match for Xellos' manipulations. "He died in an accident," Gourry said softly. "He was an apothecary and was run over in the street while making a delivery. Sylphiel wasn't around to save him."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Xellos replied gently, but his gaze was slowly turning predatory. Lina scowled at him, trying to signal him to stop. She was actually surprised he was letting everyone see the look in his eyes. He was generally more cautious than that. Xellos must be extremely upset to make such a mistake.

"Well, it was a few years ago," Gourry sighed.

"And the youngest? Who's her father?"

Gourry blushed, then shot a glance at Lina. The blood drained from his face and he resolutely fixed his gaze on Xellos. "I am," he said, voice strained.

"Oh-ho," Xellos grinned, reaching out and clutching Gourry's hand, moving it around until the glinting of a ring could clearly be seen. "I see, you married Miss Sylphiel," he said with a smile.

"Yeah," Gourry said sullenly.

"How fortunate," Xellos smirked, and Lina went cold as he shot her a glance. Xellos turned his own hand over so that Gourry held it, the amurium gleaming dully in the sunlight. "I'm married, too."

"You're married?" Gourry replied, face still pale.

"Yes," Xellos crooned, drawing out the word. "I asked Lina and she consented, simple as that."

"Lina said she'd never get married," Gourry said quickly, shooting her a hurt look. "She said that kids can come by accident, but marriage is deliberate."

"And my dearest was correct," Xellos replied sweetly. "She must have wanted to wait until she found the right man."

"Or because it was good for the children. Having married parents is easier for the children," Gourry said desperately, his eyes pleading with Lina.

"She did it because she wanted to be my wife," Xellos said, dropping his voice and smiling maliciously. "She did it because she loves me."

Lina wanted to scream. She couldn't stand it any more. If this continued she would shatter into a million pieces. The pressure was even starting to build in her head, manifesting itself as a stabbing pain behind her eyes. "Gourry, Sylphiel, why don't you come over for dinner this evening," Zelgadis said quickly.

"Stop by at seven?" Amelia added, looping her arm through Lina's.

"Ah, sure," Gourry said, looking bewildered as Amelia and Zel whisked Lina away.

"Lovely to meet you and your girls, Miss Sylphiel," Xellos said with a grin and a wink, making Sylphiel giggle. "I look forward to this evening, Mister Gourry."

I'll bet you do, Lina thought, and let her friends lead her away.

Lina felt her stomach churn all afternoon. She was just sick with confliction emotions. It was true that she loved Xellos, but it was also true that she loved Gourry. Seeing him again brought up all the old pain. Damn it, why did it have to be this way? Xellos, oddly enough, had not been talkative at all on the way back, instead cooing and coddling Gorran, who loved the attention. Zelgadis, of all people, had tried to make conversation with the tall man, but Xellos had either answered in monosyllables or not at all. He treated his son like gold, however, even holding him up triumphantly on occasion. Damn him, what was wrong with him?

Speaking of which, what was wrong with her? She was no longer in love with Gourry, although she loved him still. Knowing that he had married Sylphiel, however, hurt her. She knew it shouldn't, but it did. Not only had he married her, but he had a baby with her as well. Did he love Sylphiel? Did he love Sylphiel more than he loved her?

The moment she had the thought she knew it wasn't true. She had seen the hurt in Gourry's eyes when Xellos had mercilessly flaunted his marriage to Lina. Damn that Monster bastard. No, she didn't even have that excuse anymore. It was even worse because Xellos had manipulated Sylphiel instantly into adoring him, therefore ensuring that Gourry had no one in which to confide his feelings. Gourry would have to suffer through his pain alone and all thanks to her husband, to the man she had married. The man she loved.

"Dinnertime," she heard someone say from the doorway, and looked up to see Xellos standing there. He was wearing tailored clothing, every feature of his physique accentuated. Xellos tended to be somewhat androgynous, but the person who stood in her room was definitely masculine. His posture was straight and refined, the thin fabric of his shirt clinging to him ever so slightly to suggest at the lean muscle beneath. Broad shoulders filled out the shirt, and the pants were snug across his narrow hips. The pants, too, were cut close to his frame, showing off his tight, high rear and his long, hard thighs, but instead of making him look stick-like, they made him look strong. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to his elbows, revealing his toned forearms and lending a casual look to his well-designed attire, and the fabric was unbuttoned slightly lower than was customary, hinting at the cleft of his pectoral muscles and revealing his pronounced Adams apple. He put his hands on his hips and regarded her distantly, his expression devoid of tenderness. She couldn't recall him ever having looked at her that way before and suddenly she didn't want him to. She wanted the stunning specimen before her to burn for her like he usually did, to see passion in his gaze. Lina was about to ask herself where the Xellos she knew was, then remembered that he was as multifaceted as a person could get. She would never truly know him.

He cocked his head at her, eyes still aloof, and silky strands of dark hair clung to his thin, flawless cheek. His sculpted lips were parted slightly, revealing his white, straight teeth. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail, for the most part, and he exuded casual elegance. "Well?" he asked. "Aren't you hungry?"

"No," she admitted, matching his cold gaze with her own stony stare.

Xellos shrugged, the tendons in his neck flexing in time with his shoulders. "You're expected, I'm afraid," he said without pity. Then he extended his hand, the hand that bore the amurium ring, which gleamed slightly in the dim light of the room. She glanced down at her own hand, her own wedding ring, and the bond that had once set her free from worry now felt like a lead weight upon her thin shoulders.

"Fine," she said, and reluctantly took his hand.

She was so lost in thought that he was already seating her before she realized exactly where she was. Xellos slid into a chair beside her and leaned back, face unreadable as he quickly surveyed the room. He was seated directly across from Sylphiel, who beamed at him. Xellos smiled back, but Lina could see that the smile didn't reach his eyes. Amelia and Zel were at opposite ends of the table, leaving her to sit across from Gourry. He looked into her eyes for a moment, then looked away with what appeared to be shame. She wanted so badly to reach across the table and take his hand. She wanted to tell him it was okay, that she couldn't hold it against him. As much as she hated to admit it, Sylphiel was the perfect person to ease the wounds in Gourry's heart and take care of him for the rest of his life. The other woman would give him what he wanted, or thought he wanted, and would love him to the end of her days. Lina could have never promised him any of that.

Zelgadis and Amelia carefully controlled the conversation while Xellos charmed the skirt off of Sylphiel. Soon she was giggling and blushing like a schoolgirl, when suddenly Xellos started in on Amelia as well. Lina sighed and steeled herself, then took a deep breath as Amelia, too, began to fall for Xellos' smooth demeanor. Dinner was served and conversation became more sparse, the topics still fairly light. Lina didn't say much, merely picking at her food while Gourry did the same. Even though there was only a couple of feet between them, Lina felt as if there was vast chasm separating them. She knew him, knew him intimately, and yet they were also strangers. Part of it was that she didn't know anything about his current life, but what the rest of the reason was, she couldn't tell. All she knew for certain was that she was miserable with it, and she knew Gourry felt the same way.

A few moments later she wished she had been paying closer attention to the conversation. Zelgadis had stepped up as the moderator as plates were pushed away to make room for dessert, Xellos putting an arm behind her chair. "Here, dearest," he murmured, taking a forkful of cake and offering it to her. He leaned in close, the utensil hovering in front of her mouth, and she looked him straight in the eye. Her courage nearly failed her as she looked into those impassive amethyst depths. The passion and adoration she usually saw there was completely gone, and she realized she had never seen his eyes look blank before. The fork still hung in the air before her lips, and she suddenly realized it was a test. She stared at him for long moments, then opened her mouth and let him slip the cake inside. He followed it up with a rather inappropriate kiss to the soft spot below her ear and behind her jaw, making her blush and stiffen as a little thrill ran the length of her. Xellos laughed lightly, although his eyes were still expressionless, and leaned back in his chair once more, his hand resting on her thigh. Gourry narrowed his eyes across the table from her, obviously recognizing that something was amiss, and Xellos glared right back. His grip on Lina's thigh tightened and he suddenly leaned forward, engaged in conversation with Sylphiel. She tittered, laughed, and blushed, and suddenly Lina caught the woman's green eyes traveling down Xellos' graceful neck and to the parts of his revealed chest. Sudden jealousy ripped through her and she glanced at Gourry, seeing his handsome face darken as well as he looked at his wife. Sylphiel, for her part, was still obviously taken with Gourry, but she was looking at Xellos like a man, not like someone else's husband.

"So, only girls, eh?" Xellos said, and Lina felt her heart stop beating as Gourry stiffened.

"Yes," Sylphiel said. "We were going to try for a son, but I'm afraid I shouldn't have anymore children. Amaida's birth was rather difficult."

"It's unfortunate that no one was there to take the pain from you," Xellos said, voice full of sympathy, then he glanced at Lina as if to remind her that no one could do for her what he could.

"Well, we still have our girls," Gourry said quickly. "They're well-behaved and I'm sure they'll be great workers someday."

"It's unfortunate that there will be no one to carry on your name, though," Xellos sighed.

"There are other men in Gourry's family," Lina said defensively. "And I didn't take your name, anyway."

"Nor would I ever have asked you to do such a thing," Xellos replied smoothly. "You're my wife, not my possession."

Lina pursed her lips and glared at him.

"So, how are your students?" Zelgadis asked Gourry.

Gourry visibly brightened, obviously happy to be moving away from family matters. "Oh, great!" he said. "There's lots of them now, and I'm teaching full-time. Some of the guys from the barracks stop by now and then for some sparring, and the kids really like to watch them."

"I'm sure," Lina said. "I think you'd be a great teacher, Gourry."

"Thanks, Lina," he replied. "That means a lot to me."

Lina nodded, blushing. She wished she would have said more nice things to him when they were still together, when she still had the chance. His handsome face was even more beautiful when he was smiling at her words.

Gourry's eyes locked with hers and held her gaze, and suddenly she wanted to crawl across the table into his arms and cry. Xellos' grip tightened on her once more, but she couldn't tear her eyes away from Gourry. So many things were left unspoken and unresolved between them, and she would give anything to make things right.

Xellos' fingers dug into her skin once more and she looked at him again. For a moment she thought she saw raw fear in his eyes, then it disappeared. The amethysts set in his face were dark and flat. So, he wasn't going to share with her. Well, she was going to be a better person than that. She had withheld too many things from Gourry and look what had happened. Xellos was her husband and would be with her for the rest of her life. She wasn't about to make the same mistake with him. Taking a deep breath, she looked into his eyes and opened herself up, letting her grief surface. She studied his handsome face for some time, then he closed his eyes and looked away, expression unreadable. When she turned back to Gourry his face was an open book of heartbreak.

"Anyone for coffee?" Amelia asked tentatively.

Zel pushed his chair away from the table and shook his head. "No, I think that Gourry and Sylphiel should probably take their children home before it gets too late."

"Of course," Amelia said immediately. "I lost track of time."

Lina mentally congratulated Zel for his quick cover, then stood. "I'm tired, too. We'll be in Seyruun for a little while longer, though, and I'd like to see you again."

"Why don't you two bring your family over on the way out of town?" Sylphiel asked. "We'd love to spend a little more time with you."

Lina looked at Xellos, waiting. It was his turn to pass a test. He stood slowly and looked down at her, then he smiled, a real smile, full of affection. "Certainly," he told Sylphiel. "We'll send word when we're on our way. It will most likely be a few days."

"Oh, that's fine," Gourry interjected. "It'll take us a little bit to get ready for company, anyway."

"I'll see you out," Zelgadis said, ushering Sylphiel and Gourry from the room. Gourry shot her a long, sorrowful glance, then was gone.

Xellos bowed to Amelia. "Thank you for your hospitality. I apologize if I made things difficult this evening. Please convey my feelings to Mister Zelgadis as well."

Amelia nodded and took his hand, drawing him close. She whispered something in his ear that Lina couldn't hear, then released him. "I'll do that. Good night," she said, and whisked from the room.

As soon as she was gone, Lina turned to her husband. "What did she say?"

Xellos actually smiled. "She told me that if I was going to be awful to you, justice would find a way to punish me," he replied.

Lina couldn't help but smile as well. "That sounds like Amelia, all right," she muttered.

Xellos studied her for a moment, the awkwardness between them almost tangible. "You look very tired," he commented.

"You dumbass," she growled, smacking his arm. She couldn't stand his sudden tenderness. It was actually easier when he was cold. "You're supposed to tell me how beautiful I am."

Xellos nodded, but he remained serious. He took her hand and led her out of the room. He strode down the corridor, nearly dragging her with him, then threw open the doors to their room.

"We didn't say good night to the kids," she said roughly, confused and a little wary. He had been acting very strangely all day, and since he had sealed off the rings, she had no idea what was going through his head.

"Lina," he replied thickly, shutting the doors behind him violently. He had a strange gleam in his eyes, one she had never seen before, and she took a step back as his shoulders flexed.

"Yeah?" she asked carefully, not taking her eyes from him. This was a side of Xellos she had never seen before, and she didn't know where it was going.

Without a word he violently discarded his shirt, his toned muscles flexing and bulging as he closed the distance between them. She gasped at his strength as he gripped her around the waist, pulling her to him roughly. He looked down at her sternly, frowning and mouth set, his eyes burning into hers. Lina felt just slightly frightened. She didn't think he would hurt her, but he had never been so rough with her before. His fingers wrapped around her wrist and held her in place while his other hand tore the shirt from her body. A cry escaped her as her nipples pressed into his bare chest and suddenly he took her mouth in a brutal kiss.

"What are you doing?" she said breathlessly, looking up into his eyes as her heart began to thunder away in her chest. The amethyst orbs seemed on fire as he stared down at her, and she swallowed hard as her body began to tingle.

"I want you," he snarled. "You are mine."

"What?" she squeaked as he took her mouth again in a bruising kiss.

"You are mine," he hissed again, pulling her closer for emphasis. His grip on her was not painful, but he had her pinned in such a way that she couldn't move.

"I'm nobody's," she said angrily, not understanding what was happening. She was upset by his words, but the novelty of his suddenly bestial desire was actually exciting her. Xellos was passionate, yes, but he had never acted this way before.

"You gave yourself to me," he replied sternly. "You are mine and no other's."

"Xellos," she began to say, but he kissed her again, forcing her jaw open and thrusting his tongue into her mouth. She battled with him for a moment, but he would not be deterred, and she eventually gave into his fierce kiss.

A sudden thrill traveled up and down her body as he broke away and scowled down at her, his eyes almost darkened to black as they burned into her. Without a word he tore her clothes from her body and picked her up, tossing her carelessly on the bed. She grunted as she bounced on the mattress, mouth open in surprise as he ripped off his own clothes and pounced on her. She was forced to exhale violently as his weight crushed her to the bed, his hands gripping her wrists and forcing them above her head. She frowned and struggled out of instinct, battling him. His strength was superior, though, and he wouldn't be thwarted. "You are MY wife," he growled, and she cried out as he forcefully parted her thighs and rammed into her.

She moaned his name as he stretched her hands even further above her head, rendering her immobile. There was nothing she could do as he slammed his body against hers, his mouth hot as he ravaged her nipples. "Let me go," she gasped, her muscles aching from strain, and he released his grip on her.

"I love you, Lina," he rasped against her neck. "I love you like no other man is capable of."

She couldn't even form a response as she clung to him, quickly losing control. He had never been so aggressive before, and she found that it excited her. Her nails dug tracks in his back as she lost herself with him, struggling for air as his teeth clamped down on her shoulder. His soft, rhythmic noises increased and he moaned, the strangely vulnerable sound at odds with his forceful lovemaking. She cried aloud and came sloppily, staring at the ceiling as he groaned and collapsed. Long moments passed, his weight pinning her to the mattress, and she could feel sweat trickling down the side of her face. What in hell had just happened? Closing her eyes and panting, she felt the syrupy spasms subside and disappear altogether, their bodies slick with perspiration. She ran her fingertips along his back, startled to feel a different kind of wetness, and she raised her hand, looking at it past his shoulder. Her fingers were red with blood. Xellos lay across her like a blanket, unmoving except for the heaving of his ribcage. His face was buried in the pillows next to her and so she could not read his expression. She let her hand drop back to the covers and studied the ceiling once more, wondering. Xellos had never behaved like that before, never. He had never once claimed her in such a fashion, and their lovemaking had never been so raw and powerful. She shuddered just to think of it.

It seemed like an eternity before Xellos moved, and even then he simply took a deep breath. His body was still inside of hers, filling her space, but it only seemed right. She turned her head, trying to read his mood, but only lost her face in his thick hair. "I'm sorry," he whispered into the pillow beside her.

"For what?" she murmured, tentatively reaching up a hand and stroking his glossy tresses.

He shrank away from her touch. "For being so brutal. For possessing you."

Lina's heart skipped a beat and sadness filled her. Why were they suddenly so out of control? "I let you," she said softly. "I liked it."

"I know I don't own you. I should have treated you with more respect. I'm sorry."

Lina didn't know how to respond. "I forgive you," she replied, lifting what hair she could gather and sweeping it out of the way. "Now, do it right."

Xellos pushed himself up and stared down at her, amethyst eyes glistening. "Lina," he breathed, lips parted as he studied her every feature.

Lina pulled him down into a kiss, kneading his mouth for a while before drawing more kisses down his neck. He sighed and shuddered, and then was moving within her again. It was much more tender the second time, and slowly she felt their connection through the rings reopen. It was obvious that he was being very selective with the feelings he was sending toward her, though, but she let him have his privacy. Some things were better talked about, anyway. They finished and clung to one another for quite some time, their bodies cooling, and then they retired to the bathing chamber. Xellos started to draw the bath as she leaned against the doorjamb, watching the clean, muscular lines of his naked body as he moved. He turned his back to her and she gasped as she saw the raw, bloody lines she had scraped into his flesh, and as she touched them he winced. "I'm sorry," she said.

"I deserved it," he muttered, turning away.

"Stop it," she ordered, turning him around and casting a recovery spell. By the time she was finished the bath was ready, and the two of them eased into the large, cast-iron tub. It was a slightly tight fit, but she was actually glad to be so close to him. She scrubbed his back, arms, and chest and let him do the same to her, then took him in her arms and reclined against the back of the tub. Xellos sighed and leaned against her, his head resting on her breast. Lina stuck her legs out on either side of him and rested her ankles on his bent knees. There was an awkward silence. She wasn't ready to talk about Gourry and knew he wasn't either, but they had to do something to clear the air.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, closing his eyes as she deftly wiped his hair out of his face. She waited for a few moments, knowing he would continue. "I should have comported myself in a better fashion this evening. I'm sorry if I caused you distress or discomfort."

She considered his words for some time. "Apology accepted."

Xellos shifted his weight. "I'm jealous, beloved," he finally admitted. "It wasn't something I was capable of before, but I feel it now. I hate to think that you might leave me for the sake of an old love. It drives me absolutely insane."

Xellos was jealous? "It's you I married," she explained. "That's something I swore I'd never do, regardless of circumstance. Don't you get it? I love you, and that's not going to change."

"But, you felt-"

"Hush. That's in the past. The only thing that could ever force me to leave you would be death, and I don't plan on dying anytime soon. You have my heart and soul, Xellos. What more could you possibly want?"

Xellos was silent for several minutes. "Absolutely nothing," he murmured. "I'm sorry. I'll try to do better in the future."

Lina nodded and kissed the crown of his head, gazing at the myriad silver hairs that shimmered in his dark tresses. "Good enough, for now," she murmured.

"For now," Xellos agreed.