AN: I'd forgotten that in "What Might Have Been", Phil and Naga had died and I'd made Amelia queen, so I have corrected the continuity from here on out.
Luna desperately wanted to get a sense of whether Charlie's human side was stronger than Shabranigdu's Mazoku one. Yet every time the boy woke up he threw such a fuss that Luna had to render him unconscious again so she could continue to travel with him. Luna was not used to bearing resentments, but as she hoisted the child on her back, she seemed to be burdened down with them. She must have done a good job of hiding it, though, if the sweet smiles bestowed upon them by random strangers they passed and comments of how traveling wears out even the most energetic of little boys were anything to go by.
When the sun reached its zenith, Luna set Charlie down and started rummaging through her hastily packed lunch sack. Eventually she was going to have to keep the boy awake long enough for him to eat, but she had a suspicion that Charlie would not make that easy. Given that Dianna had to struggle to trust her over the voice of her passenger telling her not to, Luna had no doubt that Shabranigdu would do everything in his power to influence Charlie to run from her. And given that she had kidnapped Charlie, it gave her a disadvantage with him she had not had with Dianna.
As Luna fumbled with the sack she heard the crunch of a foot on a stick, and turned to find that Charlie had gotten up and was running. "Damn." Luna spat as she got up and charged after him.
Just when Luna thought her luck couldn't get any worse, a Mazoku appeared in front of Charlie. Charlie screamed as turned to run back around to her as Luna unsheathed her sword, but the Mazoku grabbed his arm and started to pull him to the astral plane. Luna jumped and swiped, severing the Mazoku's arm, causing him to let go of Charlie as another Mazoku appeared. Luna put one hand protectively around Charlie as the first Mazoku retreated back to the astral plane. Luna stared down the second one, "Do you really want to try it?" she asked.
The other Mazoku sneered and retreated. Luna sighed. As the attack subsided, Luna was troubled by the ease with which she had defended herself and Charlie. She would have thought they would have tried harder. And while she knew better than to sneer at favors, she wondered if she was being led into a trap. For now, though, there was little she could do about it as she turned to consider Charlie. "Are you going to stay with me without a fuss now?"
The boy nodded, and thankfully it appeared as though the prospect of going with the Mazokus was scarier than being with her. "Yes."
"They are why I have to do this. Trust me, this is not my idea of fun. I'll be glad when I can drop you on your parents' doorstep."
"When can I go home?" he asked.
"As soon as this is over." Luna said, as she cheered at least at the thought of finally being able to test him, "In the meantime, let's eat."
"Don't you worry, we'll take good care of them." Amelia said as she sat with Lina on the couch in Min's apartments as Pomona and Luke got settled into the guest room.
Lina smiled wryly, "Do you ever stop worrying about your sons?"
Amelia patted her on the arm, "You have bigger things to worry about. Look, I know just the family to apprentice Pomona to. There's an apothecary who can help her, and Mr. Gourry. She's an older, married woman who has two sons."
"How old?" Lina asked warily.
"Well I guess she's in her fifties…"
"No, the boys." Lina said.
Amelia laughed, "Huh?"
Lina shook her head, "Pomona's so boy crazy I'm afraid she'll wind up pregnant before she's fifteen."
"Oh," Amelia said, "Well, while I can offer the best protection from Mazokus, I'm afraid there's not much I can do to protect against stupid romantic decisions and heart break."
"We're doomed." Lina said dryly, though she smiled a little bit wistfully, "Just check in with her. It's hard to develop feelings for someone when your mother isn't there to talk to. And I least I made that choice for it to be that way."
"I didn't have that choice, and I will check in on her," Amelia promised, "And we'll keep a close eye on Luke and Stella. They'll have bodyguard and they'll stay in the palace, it's likely the safest place for them."
Lina nodded as she reflected that the palace tended to be a magnet for intrigue and assassins. While it had gotten better under Amelia's reign, Lina could not stop worrying that she was leaving her children in a lion's den. But where else could they leave them? Amelia smiled wistfully, "I wish I could go with you."
"What's stopping you?" Lina asked, "We need every strong person we can muster."
"My duties for one." Amelia said, "Besides. I think I would just complicate things further with Zel and Attie. I don't want to be the other woman."
"Last I heard from Attie, nothing is going on between them." Lina said.
"That's a lie." Amelia stated knowingly.
Lina chuckled a bit, "Well, I guess you must feel good about our odds if you're going to let being the other women keep you out of the thick of things."
"Justice will triumph." Amelia said confidently as Gourry emerged from the guest room with Min, Attie, Pomona and Luke.
"It's getting to be that time." Gourry said.
Amelia stood up, noticing how tired the family looked and reflected that the kids were likely to crash as soon as everyone left, "I'll give you some time to say goodbye."
"Thank you." Lina said.
Amelia left and walked to her own quarters where Sylphiel was seated with Zelgadis in her office. "Stella is settled in the west wing. She has a guard put on her. I don't think it will be needed, but we can't be too cautious." Zelgadis explained as Amelia walked in.
Amelia sat down beside Sylphiel as a silence descended upon the group for a moment. Then Amelia said, "Who would have thought we'd end up here?"
"Well, when Lina is involved, nothing is predictable." Zelgadis said.
"That's not quite true." Sylphiel snapped, and then she looked a little chastened.
"Huh?" Amelia said.
"I'm sorry. I knew they were going to end up together. Still, it was a bit of a shock meeting Attie."
"Are you going to be okay traveling with them?" Zelgadis asked, and Amelia could read his tone of how they didn't need interpersonal drama distracting everyone from their mission.
"I'm an adult. I can handle it. Besides, it was a long time ago. I've moved on for the most part." Sylphiel said. "It's just that seeing their children made me wonder what if, but that's starting to fade now."
"I guess I can understand that." Zelgadis said as he stared at the floor as his demeanor softened, remembering his own thoughts of what if when he first laid eyes on Amelia's sons.
"Everyone ready?" Min asked briskly as she strode into the office, followed by the rest of her family.
"Yes," Zelgadis said as everyone stood up, "The sooner we get on the road, the better."
Lina walked ahead with Attie and Min while Sylphiel walked a little behind them as she observed them thoughtfully. Meanwhile, Zelgadis studied Gourry, whose face would turn from calm to stormy in seconds depending on whether his wife or one of his daughters was watching. He'd first noticed Gourry's ability to project ease and confidence waver back in the days when Gaav had tried to kill Lina. The carefree demeanor he'd work so hard to craft around Lina would falter when she wasn't watching. Back in those days she would have to be in a different room, though.
"I take it you're not happy with this plan." Zelgadis said quietly.
"Well, I don't like leaving Luke and Pomona here." Gourry admitted, "But it's safer. I mean, they'd likely be in more danger with Lina and me right now."
"You and Lina would have your hands full keeping yourselves alive and protecting them." Zelgadis commented.
Gourry smiled wryly, "Especially now that I've got Lina, Min and Attie to keep tabs on. I mean when Lina and I traveled when we were young it was just her, and just keeping her safe was a handful. And she could take care of herself! Luke and Pomona can't hold their own in a fight. And now that I'm so much older there's Min and Attie as well. It's too much with Pomona and Luke. It's for the best. I just don't like that it is for the best."
"Hey," Zelgadis said quietly, "Let me watch Attie's back. And knowing Lina, the two of you together will protect Min."
Gourry looked at him, and Zelgadis looked away. "What's going on between you and Attie?"
A hint of awkwardness rose through him. Back when they were fighting together Zelgadis never would had thought that one day he would fall in love with Gourry's daughter. It was a delicate situation between wanting to preserve their friendship and knowing what Attie meant to Gourry. "I want to settle down, have kids. Attie doesn't. So nothing."
"It doesn't sound like there's nothing." Gourry replied.
Zelgadis sighed, "The feelings are there. But Attie won't even discuss it anymore. I mean, I thought as she got older she would change her mind, it's not as though she has a lot of time left for these things. But she hasn't and I can't get her to."
"Well, they have to give up a lot more than we do to settle down and have a family." Gourry pointed out, and then he smiled a little, "Back in the days I wasn't sure Lina would ever settle down. But she did."
"And young." Zelgadis pointed out. "Very young."
"Having children would have been a big thing to give up." Gourry mused, "I would have done it in a heartbeat if it was what I had to do to be with Lina. Lina became my family, and either we would grow our family or we wouldn't. What mattered was that I had made a commitment to her."
"What are you saying?" Zelgadis asked as he felt the heat rush to his face and the defensiveness flair.
"I'm just talking about making a commitment to Lina." Gourry said, "Attie told me once that she wants what me and Lina have for herself one day but didn't think she would ever have it. She's seen how these things go wrong and how much it hurts. Dianna and Kenneth wanted children, and not being able to tore them apart. So she has high standards."
"Are you saying I'm not doing enough to show commitment? Because what else is wanting to settle down and have children?" Zelgadis asked.
"Commitment is being with the woman you love no matter where you end up. It means being together whether you live on the road or off it." Gourry explained, "Look, you chose your cure over Amelia. I don't think even Amelia faults you for that. Your quality of life was such that you needed to find your cure. I guess now you have to decide if being with Attie is more important than having children or not."
"Are you saying I don't love her enough?" Zelgadis asked.
"It's not about that. People can love each other deeply without being committed to each other." Gourry said, "It's about if you're going to choose her and make that commitment to choose her every day."
Zelgadis shook his head as he looked up ahead at Attie, who wore a serious expression as she talked with Min. Gourry smiled, "Look, you can scoff, but Lina and I have forty years of marriage under our belt. And it's been a happy marriage, even with the tragedy we suffered."
Zelgadis folded his arms across his chest as he started to think about what the swordsman was saying, "I…I can't argue with that."
Xellos wore the weight of the complicated situation he found himself in. Forty years ago they had seen the resurrection of Shabringdu, only to lose another 7th because his rebirth had divided loyalties among the Mazoku race. That, and Luke Shabranigdu had wanted to be destroyed. While Xellos knew that Nigel Shabranigdu did not have a death wish, gathering four people with shards of Shabranigdu in their souls and the Demon Lord of the North together would essentially mean five different masters for the Mazoku to serve. And having just two masters was devastating enough for their race.
And while we're fighting amongst ourselves, Ceiphied's followers just have to sit back and watch us destroy ourselves, Xellos mused, Clever move, separating Lord Shabranigdu into seven pieces. And very, very bad for us.
Xellos opened his eyes, and hoped that what he did next would not be the first of many moves that would start the fracture of the Mazoku race, leading to their demise. And then he left the astral plane and materialized in the human world. Quietly he walked up to the woman who, despite her years, could still boast a thick mane of crimson hair as she tended to the plants in her greenhouse. "Is that you, Xellos?" she asked as she turned to look at him.
"Yes, my lord." He said as he bowed as Rubia let her aura show. As usual waves of sadness emanated from her. Yet there was never that urge for destruction that he sensed from the other humans cursed with Shabranigdu. It was a strange contradiction that worried him.
"What's the latest?" she asked as she returned to watering the plants.
"The spell was successfully discovered, and we are currently looking for the other hosts. Nigel is on his way to Atlas City. And he has ordered me to eliminate Lina Inverse within a week."
Rubia smiled sadly, "It must happen, yet not within a week. These things take time. I have no doubt she will make her way here. She trusts me. I will take care of extinguishing her life. You are to leave Lina Inverse alone."
"Do not underestimate her." Xellos cautioned as he felt an unusual sense of freedom overtake him. One seventh of Shabranigdu had ordered him to kill Lina. Another seventh had told him not to. Which one to follow? With a jolt of euphoria, he realized that for the first time in his life he had a choice. And then fear rushed in as he realized how dangerous this power of choice was, especially if each Mazoku was granted the same power. How would they ever return the world to chaos if they were fighting amongst themselves?
"I've seen her in action." Rubia said, "I know to be careful and thorough. Nigel is young and arrogant. I will keep him in check."
"When can I tell Nigel about you?" Xellos asked.
"When he gets to Atlas City." Rubia said, "He's not going to like confronting that this was not his idea and he is not the ring leader. Don't worry. I will help him make peace with it."
"Yes, my lord." Xellos said as the sense of unease grew within him as he wondered if getting Nigel to make peace with it would even be possible. "They have found another seventh in Zefiel City. A child, naturally. We are working to secure him into our custody."
"Excellent." Rubia said, "So that leaves one more to track down."
She set her watering can down and walked over to him and patted him gently on the arm before she moved her hand up to stroke his cheek. He did his best not to blanch. Such displays were counter to what is meant to be a Mazoku. The human element was indeed corrupting, and seeing how merging a human and Mazoku soul turned out differently with each host was jarring. No true Mazoku would ever dare show another such warmth. Once again, his suspicions rose even as she smiled at him, "Well done Beastmaster. Find the last shard and report back to me when you do. You have my every confidence."
Xellos moved back to the astral plane and started to move to seek Greater Beast before setting out on his mission. None of how this was falling into place was setting well with him. And he needed her guidance.