Disclaimer: If somebody wants to sell them to me, I make this killer pound cake...

Warnings: Post-series, preslash--meaning male creatures with not-entirely- resolved-ST. Only not boys, because boys are young, and not men either, because men are, well, flesh-colored and breathing.

OOC warning: I think Xellos is channeling Xander. Or possibly Spike. Or possibly the entire cast of Buffy. But he was having fun, and I hated to spoil it. This story is brought to you by the letters L, O, and N, and by the number x.

Notes: Hey, will somebody tell the greenhorn what the ffnetiquette is for responding to reviews for one-offs? Reciprocal reviews? Email? I thought maybe an additional 'chapter,' but now the administration's put the kabosh on that. Help! People say nice things; where do I thank them?

Speaking of which, special thanks to Xellas for taking a look at this, especially while under the weather. Everybody send her tea and cookies.

o^o o^o o^o o^o o^o o^o

Shaken, Not Slurped

by Nightfall

o^o o^o o^o o^o o^o o^o

It wasn't that he despaired of finding his cure, exactly, or that it had become less important. It was just that the inn had been snowed in for nearly a week, and he was tired of skulking around the common room with his hood up, and he kept asking himself what the bloody hell he'd been thinking when he'd taken off on his own in the middle of winter.

Obviously, he'd been trying to get away from Certain People. And what a testimonial to the state of favor in which he was clearly held by the gods, because that was just working out so well, wasn't it. It wasn't as though the very person he'd been trying to avoid had just appeared out of nowhere in the middle of his room, oh no. It was official. Life hated him.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded, trying not to be obvious about pulling the blankets up to his chin. But Xellos didn't even bother to answer, just looked at him. Or rather, didn't look at him. His eyes stayed closed, but they were clearly being rolled in a chimerical direction. "No, wait," he griped. "Let me guess. It's a secret."

The quip earned him a wide, bright grin, a lifted finger, and a chirpy, "Bingo!" Losing interest in him, the mazoku looked around--or at least rotated--and made a dubious moue. "What a cozy little place, Zel-chan," he burbled though his teeth.

"Do *not* call me Zel-chan,' he growled for what had to be at least the ninety-sixth time this month alone.

Xellos ignored him, as usual. "The walls look a little thin, though," he said critically, tapping lightly at one of them with a pearly-gloved finger as though no one had spoken at all. Zel hoped he got dust all over it. And splinters. Unless the twisted little swish would enjoy them, in which case not. "I suppose with your ears you can hear just everything your neighbors get up to," he suggested with a lazy hip-roll and a lascivious drawl, but his eyes were open and intent, and his fingers made a spidery, skittering gesture.

Slowly, warily, knowing he probably shouldn't cooperate, Zel jerked his chin at the roach family in the corner and the spider living behind the torch. He was moderately surprised when Xellos opened his two hands and zapped the pests with terrifyingly precise bursts of purple-black not- light, but not so much as when the priest fished a piece of green chalk out of his shoulder bag and methodically warded the room.

"Excuse me," he prodded irritably.

To his eternal shock, he actually got an answer, in the form of a curt, "Dynast-sama."

"Uses bugs to spy?" he scoffed.

"No, spiders," Xellos returned, unperturbed, squirming out of his cloak. "Phibrizzo-sama used insects. His staff still do, probably."

"Xellos, what's going on?" he growled, covering fear with suspicion.

"Why, just what it looks like!" Xellos beamed, folding the cloak and setting it primly on the desk. "A little sleepover, Zel-chan, just the two of us. I hope you don't mind."

"I certainly do mind! And don't call me chan."

"Oh, well then," the mazoku cooed sympathetically as he squirmed out of his shirt, "in that case, I feel for you, Zel-chan, I really do."

"I *told* you," he began wearily, and stopped as the shirt got folded. Staring at the newly exposed back with its surprisingly broad shoulders, he ventured, "Those look like whip lashes."

Xellos shot him a puzzled look, craned ineffectually at his back, shrugged, and pulled a nightshirt out of nowhere. It had puppies and crescent moons on it, and in about half a minute it had created a new record on Zel's list of tricks mazoku pull to look unthreatening. "Okay."

"It's just--I always thought you'd be..." he trailed off. Xellos turned curiously to possibly look at him, and he lamely finished, "I always thought you'd be perfect."

"Perfect what?" Xellos asked with interest, flopping down on the bed to shuck shapeless pants off of long legs, and it wasn't that the pest was out of shape, but shouldn't somebody who was called a general have more muscle? "Shove over."

"Hey!"

The blankets were stripped back, and they were both shivering, and Xellos had a hand and one knee on the mattress. "Zel-kun," he said reasonably, his ever-present suggestion of a smile turning a shade exasperated, "I'm cold. You're cold. Nobody's going anywhere until morning. This is not the time to let personal animosity get in the way of a heat source, ne?"

"Oh, yeah? What makes you think no one's leaving?" The mazoku could weasel around pretending to be respectful and accommodating all he wanted. Zel wasn't falling for it.

Xellos doled out a moment of silence to highlight this foolishness. "You don't think, do you," he sighed patiently, "that you can make me leave?"

"Possibly not," he admitted, hating it, "but look, this is me going away." He reached over to the dresser for his travelling costume, not wanting to traipse downstairs in the inn's pajamas. They were the same relatively dignified dark green with stars you could find in inns from here to Mosquite, but they didn't have a hood. There was still an empty room on the third floor. It'd be colder, but he was, after all, a rock, and he could always sleep in his cloak.

"Oh, I don't think you will," Xellos laughed lightly, and Zel threw him a challenging look. "What about pride? Stubbornness? Machismo? Carnal self-indulgence? Not wanting your old travelling companion to get intimately acquainted with cold and slimy things with no imagination when you break the seal?"

"Try a little farther out in left field," Zel suggested, amused in spite of himself and thoroughly charmed by the image. "The guy in the stands with the popcorn bucket still has a chance at that fly ball."

"Can't have that," Xellos clucked. "Then how about the expense of paying for two rooms? Or the ignominy of having to explain you want your room switched because of the really adorable thumbsucking chibi monster in puppy jams?"

"You suck your thumb?" Zel snorted.

"I will if I have to," Xellos warned him grimly, then spoiled the effect by sweetly leering, "Or would you rather I sucked yours?"

"I didn't actually invite you in, you know," Zel grumbled for the record, scooting over. Well, scrambling away, really, but it had the effect of opening up one side of the bed.

"How fortunate for me, then, not to be a vampire!" Xellos trilled, and dove in. The illusion of drifting feathers floating up in a cannonball cloud around him was, in Zel's opinion, quite unnecessary.

Zel scooted farther away. "You have to tell me what's going on," he insisted. "You're in my *bed.*"

"Well, technically," Xellos corrected him with a cute little frown, "since it's only rented, it isn't actually yours, Zel-chan."

"Xellos!" He flipped over to get in the demon's face, and was rewarded by a rare dilating of slitted pupils. He hoped it was fear, but knew he was kidding himself.

"Just a little border scrape," Xellos said airily. "The Lords have a tiff and we lesser immortals scurry for cover."

'A tiff," he repeated skeptically.

"They're so playful," Xellos sighed, lying back woefully against the headboard.

"They," he snickered, relaxing cautiously. "That's rich, coming from you."

"At least I know what table manners are for. What were you brooding about when I came in, Zel-chan?"

"*Stop* it!"

"Well?"

"I wasn't brooding," he insisted, miffed.

"Sulking, then.'

"I was *not*!"

"You were frowning."

"After you showed up, yes."

"When I showed up. Before the moment of shocked double-take and dismayed astonishment."

"I was just bored, that's all," he said, alarmed. Xellos had slithered onto his belly and was inching towards him with a terrifying tell-uncle-all- about-it look.

The avuncular look went sniffy. "Your own fault if you were, Zel-chan. They're having a delightful carouse downstairs."

"I know," he said forbiddingly. "I can hear them."

"Well? If you're so bored, why not go join in?"

"I can't," he said witheringly.

"Why not?" This time it was Zel's turn to measure out the caustic silence. "You wouldn't think twice--well, not more than twice, anyway--about it if Lina-san were here. Do you have to have the Dramatta to hide behind before you can even have a little fun?"

After a moment, when Zel had removed his elbow from the middle of his face, Xellos touched his nose gingerly and remarked, "Oh, my, that *was* witty. Taking lessons at the Ul Copt school of suave repartee, are we? 'You may have a point but I have a pointy club'?"

Zel glared. "You know, you said you knew what manners are for. Insulting your host isn't very polite."

"I'm only honest, Zel-chan. That's why Lina-san and I get along so well," he smiled happily. "She knows who she is."

Zel snorted again. "What, a beautiful young sorcery genius?"

"Well, isn't she?" When no answer to this was forthcoming, Xellos smiled and rolled closer again. "And a ruthless vigilante, and an impatient brat with body-image issues, a slug phobia and a very reasonable fear of a powerful person who knows her intimately and isn't, in the end, on her side. She knows all this. She may not admit it to you, but she admits it to herself."

After a moment, Zel said, "I can see you're patiently waiting for me to ask you what you think I'm not admitting. You can go stuff yourself."

Xellos blinked at him, commented, "That was easy," and dove under the covers.

A struggle ensued.

"Do you even know how to resist a cheap joke?" Zel panted when he was on-- no! No! *Bad* gutter mind!--when he was in control of the situation again. Xellos rattled his wrists thoughtfully, testing Zel's grip, and grinned. "Never mind, stupid question."

"Now, now, Zel-chan, you know there's no such thing! Just inadequate research," he said with a dark meaning Zel couldn't interpret.

"Should you be channing me when I've got you like this?" Zel drawled.

"I wouldn't make an issue of it if I were you," he was dryly advised. "I don't *have* to be generous."

"Generous," Zel repeated dubiously. That had probably been a hint to back off, but he wasn't one to let go of an advantage before he had to.

"I'm extremely generous!" Xellos insisted, making a wounded face. "I'm even generous enough to give out good advice free of charge. You ought to show some gratitude, Zel-chan."

"As though I would really listen to advice from a demon," Zel sighed and rolled back towards the window, something in him growing suddenly tired. It was starting to look like a long night.

Xellos looked mournful and wronged. "Nobody ever listens to me," he said sadly. "Not Halciform, not Gaav-sama or Phibrizzo-sama, not *Rezo,*" he finished archly with a pointed squint.

Zel twitched. "Not Filia?" he suggested in order to poke back.

Behind the slitted lids, Xellos was eyeballing him in puzzlement. "Filia- san listened to me. I showed her what the Elders were like, and she paid enough attention to divorce herself from them in time to save herself. I know she'd never admit I was right, but she still listened, and that's the important thing. I don't expect showers of confetti and praise--although," he mock-pouted, "you'd think she could at least keep some ice cream around..."

He had to try not to smile. "You should consider yourself lucky she doesn't squish you like a bug and slam her teapot down your throat."

"Oh, she does," Xellos assured him, then frowned and shook his head. "Only then she gets all miffed when I tell her she's being kinky!"

After a minute, Zel unfroze. "This is more about your, er, social life than I really wanted to know," he said carefully, letting go and retreating to his side of the bed.

Xellos shot him an irritated look. "Really, Zel-chan, I'm not a cradle- robber," he sniffed. "She won't be anything like a grownup for another couple of hundred years, at least. Although having Val-kun around might speed the process up a little, I suppose."

"I suppose you gave him good advice, too," he sighed.

"Well, I tell everybody not to mess with Lina-san," Xellos shrugged elaborately. "It's not my fault if nobody can stop squinting in bemusement at her chest long enough to pay attention to the twitchy eyebrow and the snarly Dragon Slave."

"You do?"

"Of course! I don't want to end up as part of an endangered species. I tell everybody about the importance of table manners, too, but they don't listen to me about that, either."

"Table manners," he sighed.

Xellos nodded vigorously. "Table manners are very important. If you don't take more than your food can stand, and you don't eat messily with screaming carnage like a barbarian, you get invited back! Or at least, not fended off with blazing pitchforks and Elemekia lances."

"Table manners," Zel repeated, feeling ill. "Oh."

"Well, we can't help it, Zel-usagi-chan, if our nutritional requirements don't include carbohydrates and vitamin C," Xellos said with an irritable little cheerful-pout. Zel twitched. The next time someone called him a rabbit, he was seriously going to introduce a large carrot to whichever of their orifices looked most convenient. "Now, are you going to listen to me, or are you going to end up an eight foot tall purple-headed man so single-mindedly obsessed with the search for a cure that you crumble under the force of your inner demon and treat your adoring blue-eyed grandchildren like guinea pigs?"

After a moment and a blink, Zel growled, "I hate you."

"But I adore *you,* Zel-chan," Xellos beamed, and turned it into a smirk. "Especially with a nice cream sauce."

Zel slumped. "What I want to know is," he told the ceiling, "when did my life turn into the kind of puppet-show where large children in the back of the audience throw things and scream wisecracks?"

"When you decided that your personal mantra ought to be 'I wanna be straaaaawng,'" Xellos fluted, posing like a damsel and then puffing himself up and flexing his scrawny arms. Were they usually that way, or was it another (particularly insulting) illusion?

Either way, it only took one glance before Zel burst out laughing. When Xellos was looking irked enough, he gasped, "P-p-puppies!"

"Zelgadis-san," Xellos said gravely, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but I can see an intervention is in order. Coffee before bedtime is the sign of an *addict.*"

"Oh, right," he said, still snickering. "Like a place this size this far north would even stock any."

"I know about those bootflasks, you sly, bellbottomed, devilish rogue, you," Xellos insinuated, with a jocular elbow.

"They are not bellbottoms," he returned, indignant. "They're *flarelegs.*"

"I wasn't talking about your pants, Zel-chan," Xellos smiled innocently.

Zel choked. "All right," he groaned, plastering a hand over his eyes. "I give up. I can't take it anymore, spare me, I cry mercy. Impart to me the ageless wisdom of the, er, ages. O wiseass elder."

Dubiously, Xellos considered. "I suppose your banter's improving," he conceded. "A little. Marks off for profanity."

"Ah, another mock-Zelgadis day. This must be like an unbirthday for you, right?"

"I'm just looking out for your interests, Zel-chan," he laughed. "Anyone who wants to stay around Lina-san for any length of time needs good banter to avoid the scorn and withering shame of being labeled a Cliche Man."

"Fine. I'll work on it. Are you going to enlighten me or not?"

"I'm going to tell you something." The words were carefully weighted and examined for judgement before Xellos let them out, his smile fading to its baseline disinterested good spirits. "Enlightenment is up to you."

"Is that it?" Zel asked after a moment.

"No of course--no, wait," Xellos frowned. "Actually, yes."

"Typical," he muttered, and settled in to go to sleep. "Why don't you just tell me it's a secret and get it over with?"

But a strong hand clamped on to his arm, and flipped him over so hard a spring drove into his shoulderblade with a horrible scraping sound, and suddenly the only things in his astonished sight were two cold, pale eyes boring into him. "It doesn't matter what you're born--or even what you're made. It means nothing to who you'll become. Only what you tell yourself you are. Believe you're a freak and you'll be one until the trolls suck the spongy marrow from your splintered bones."

"Vivid imagery," Zel said faintly, when he had his breath back. There was no crystal gleam to those eyes, only a velvet gloss, but they were diamond iris-petals dappled with lilac, and at their center was a dark whirlwind, and behind the steel all he could see was concern.

"Well," that smoke and wind voice said softly, from so close to him that he couldn't see his lips move, "I haven't eaten all day."

"This is the part," Zel observed wisely, his own eyes widening in alarm, "where I scream and run away."

"Did I neglect to mention that cold and slimy things with no imagination are notoriously bad at discriminating between targets? I don't think you want to meet them at this time of night any more than I do, Zel-chan."

"You mean," he said, mustering sarcasm, "better the devil I know?"

"Than the multiple devils with tentacles?" Xellos smiled warmly into his eyes.

"Better the devil I know," he agreed hastily. That hard hand on his shoulder had relaxed and slid down to the curve by his neck, and he was becoming increasingly aware of the heat looming all along his side. "But let me remind you one more time that I'm your host right now."

"But a hospitable host feeds his guests," his 'guest' insinuated, spooning closer and sliding that hand farther down, toying with his clavicle.

Closer than he would have preferred to a squeak, Zel hastily said, "You should be aware that if it looks like I'm going to die either way, I might prefer to take you with me."

"I don't need you to die," Xellos murmured, settling in to his side and gazing musingly at his buttons. "I'm not starving. All I need you to be is... uncomfortable."

It was a long, long silence, where Zel's conscious mind was completely blotted out by a long string of completely involuntary terrified curses, and his subconscious drooled quietly in the background.

Then Xellos drew back, and smiled brightly. "Just like that!" he chirped, and dropped a light, friendly kiss on the pebbled ridge that Zel had instead of an eyebrow. He turned over, snuggling back close and warm against Zel's side through the thin cotton, and yawned. "Good night, Zel- kun, and thanks for your hospitality. I'll cover breakfast."

It was with great effort that Zel managed to pare his response down to a simple, quiet, "I really, really hate you."

"Good thing, too," Xellos said sleepily, reaching a warm hand back to caress his hip comfortingly, then found his and squeezed. "I hate to think what you'd let me do to you if you didn't."

"Yeah," he echoed. He was miserable and bereft and someone was in bed with him, sleek and hot against him with supple fingers wound through his stony paw. "Good thing."

[end]