- -

Lina tried to open her eyes, but she found that she was lying face-down on something soft that smelled of Xellos. Most likely, Xellos himself. She gathered the remaining strength and pushed up. Right, Xellos that was. And the living-room floor. And dawn.

She looked around to see the gone-out mandala pattern on the floor, partly erased by feet and knees. At the far wall Amelia seemed to be fast asleep. Right in front of her, spread out on the floor... well, had to be Zel. His skin was pale with pinkish spots that looked like sun-burns. That must have happened when his skin was changing... Lina shivered at the memory. Humans are very earthly creatures, after all. Even such a purely spiritual thing as reading emotions turned into co-living physical experiences when it was applied to humans. And all the emotions got lost in pain and sickness.

Though, maybe, not all of them. After some digging Lina managed to recall gratitude and hope that she felt during most part of the ritual. That was to Amelia for pain-killer spells. There was fear, too, when Amelia exhausted her powers so recklessly. And then the sweet feeling of life being poured in. Of health and joy and... Funny, it looked like Zel thought it was Amelia who took him through the final part of the transformation. Lina remembered very well how he felt that his inner eyes suddenly opened, how he saw Amelia in such a different way all at once...

Lina blushed from the effort of recalling and the fact that she was peeking into her friend's private emotions. She shouldn't be here when he comes to. Amelia will take care of him.

And Lina needed to take care of someone else, still motionless face-down on the floor. Her mind quickly supplied her with an image from the not so ancient past; Lina really hoped she wouldn't have to save his life once more. She turned him by the shoulder and pulled his upper body onto her lap, nervously stroking his forehead. Xellos was so light it felt like she covered her knees with a thick blanket; only he wasn't warm. Lina bent down to whisper his name into his ear, unwilling to wake the others yet. She was still dizzy and stiff from yesterday's activities and a night on the floor. Since Xellos gave no response, she put her arms under his and dragged him outside into the early morning sunlight.

"Xellos! Oi, Xellos!" she called, staring into his blank pale face. "Bloody hell." She giggled hysterically, realizing she had no idea what to do. She was on the edge of screaming for help, the only reason that kept her from doing so being that it was unlikely to find anyone in the neighbourhood who knew how to revive a high-level mazoku who had attempted healing... Most likely the locals would finish him off and throw her out of the city. She needed someone who could understand how much Xellos's well-being mattered to her, someone who would notice how sticky her shirt had become on the back from cold sweat. Her friends... two of them still unconscious, the other two nowhere near, probably fast asleep after an eventful night... And even if any of them was at her side right now, they wouldn't know what to do any better than she did. And they wouldn't care.

As wouldn't Filia or any other Dragons. Or healers, or priests. Lina was all alone in her misery, desperately hugging her demon's limp body, praying to L-sama for his life. She absently rubbed her nose only to find she was weeping. She felt broke and drained and she knew she couldn't for the love of Ceiphied repeat the ritual that initiated her relationship with Xellos. She sobbed and pecked his forehead and then his lips, leaving a wet trace and wishing the fairy-tales to come true. But they wouldn't, not for one little lost genius sorceress. She hugged him, sobbing loudly. It turned out Xellos had enough love in him to sooth Zelgadiss's pain, with all the hatred between them. How come Lina couldn't muster enough to wake up her precious treasure, her ancient guarding spirit?

She continued stroking him nervously, recollecting all the instances when he made her feel warm inside. His unsure expression when he tasted the strawberry from the hot-chocolate mug, his astonishment that she was eager to take the responsibility for him... Much good it did him in the end... It turned out, his peers had good reason to laugh at him, after all. He's got a mistress who forced him into healing and couldn't help him recover. Lina bit her lip in shame. She was, probably, less knowledged than his lowest-ranked subordinate. And she never even though to ask...

Something along this silent blameful speech made her pause and think back. Subordinate... Xellos had a faithful subordinate... What was he...

"LANTZ!" she screamed into the sky at the top of her lungs. "LAAAAAANTZ!!"

One, two, three ā€” and the miracle happened. He appeared. He looked surprised and opened his mouth to speak, but then halted, having taken Xellos into view.

"He's attempted healing!" she breathed out through sobs, tears blurring her vision. "What on Earth am I to do!!"

Lantz made an unintelligible sound, then quickly looked around to see people peeking out of their windows, disturbed by Lina's screams.

"This is no place for this," he murmured, squeezing Lina's shoulder with what seemed like iron fingers.

She was thrown into the Astral Plane, she recognized it from their journeys with Xellos. She saw (or rather just felt) his Astral body all around her, like before, only now it wasn't tightly wrapped to prevent her from damage, but spilt in space inanimately. The spot that was Lantz carrying them both seemed just a tiny speck on the vast surface of this ocean. Lina knew he was having a really hard time propelling them to such a far destination.

"Wait! Stop here!" she said, although it didn't come out as words, more like just some impulse. She received a return impulse with a clear question in it. She couldn't for the love of Xellos explain what she was up to, especially by weird means of communicating in the Astral Plane and to a mazoku whom she didn't know at all. She only had a vague idea that Xellos was more at home in the Astral Plane than in the Physical one, so if something was to be done, it was to be done here.

She did her damnedest to ignore the awkward surroundings and Lantz's suspicious attention and tried to concentrate as if for a major spell. She recalled the sensations from the time Xellos shifted her emotions-feeling ability from Gourry to Sylphiel, then to Amelia and, finally, Zel. The spectrum of emotions was different each time, yet there was something in common when the shifting occurred. Even here, in the world of auras and shadows, she felt dizzy as she forced her own Astral body to encompass Xellos's core and link to it, fiercely crushing into his inner space. What she felt after that she then described as 'when you're transfigured into a stone in the desert. Not just dead, but never having been alive, yet having seen myriads of others pass away...' At first she thought she completed one rite too many for the last week. But then she figured the dreadful feeling she's got was coming from Xellos. She also noticed he hurt all over. It didn't seem like he was going to die the next minute, yet, he showed no sign of so much as willing to recover.

Lina bent down (at least that was what she imagined she did) to his very core and slid inside along the link she had established earlier. She felt her surroundings throb a couple of times randomly, then gradually the pulsation grew to resonate her own heartbeat. To think she still had a heart in this state!

"Xellos!" she called softly, and this time the impulse radiated from her in every direction, and she felt him react to her for the first time today. Weekly, almost reluctantly, but still.

"Xellos," she took a deep breath of something that played the part of air around here. "Come back to me. I need you."

"So?" came the rustling reply, inaudible it made her shiver with his coldness. Right, it was her fault that he was so badly hurt. He was rescuing her friend whom he resented. She had to go all out to win his respect back.

"So I... I will grant you with all the power I have!"

She felt a sad chuckle on her back and thought her sweet turned into hoarfrost.

"Xellos, I will never force you to do anything you don't like!"

"No, you won't, if I stay here."

She noticed he was feeding on her despair and in some crazy way that gave her hope.

"I'm nothing without you!" she shouted, sinking lower in her angst. "I was never any good actually, and my sister was quite right that I shouldn't have any friends, because I only bring pain and death to them, even when I want to help!" She felt very real sobs shake her Astral body; Xellos's core shrank a little to encircle her closer, absorbing every bit of her humiliation. She went on. "You know, you were the only one who was nice to me, ever. The only one who truly cared. And this is how I thanked you! I should have idolized you for agreeing to stick with me at all, but instead I was arrogant enough to expect more! I was so desperate knowing that no one would ever want me as a woman... I know you'd never feel anything other than disgust to me, even if I told you I loved you, you'd just laugh at me, especially since you'd know at once it was true..."

The world turned upside down. Lina shook her head, not even trying to recollect what nonsense she just spoke to provide Xellos with the negative emotions essential to his recovery. Cautiously, she opened her eyes.

She was in Xellos's house, in the living-room, sitting on the carpet, her back against the sofa. She felt shaken and her cheeks were wet, but on the whole she was fine.

Two muffled voices were coming from the kitchen. One was talking very quickly and anxiously, the other interrupted every now and then with short questions. The sound of it filled her with joy as she recognized Xellos. She sighed with relief, but for some reason it came out as a moan, and the voices died down instantly. The next moment she was staring into Xellos's wide-open eyes.

A warm tide of concern and care washed over her as he came close, and then it grew hot with desire and passion and...

"Oh bloody hell," she managed weakly. And this man had the guts to tell her she wouldn't recognize his emotions at the first touch! Well, may be back then she wouldn't have, since he was doing a good job concealing his intensions. But now that he was holding her shoulders with fear and joy clearly written across his face, she could hardly believe there was a time when he didn't love her.

"Here," he said, pushing a cold glass into her hand. "Drink. You must be thirsty."

She drank without thinking, still floating in the ardent-hot stream of his love, its surface golden from the brightest sun she's ever seen. The cold water seemed boiling to her as she gulped it down hastily, as if her life depended on it.

"Lina, are you hurt? You look pale. What have you done to yourself? Lina, talk to me!"

"I'm fine," she murmured, annoyed. Wasn't he feeling her? Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Lantz who looked as if he had just shattered his mother's favourite vase. Lina snorted. They thought she was feeling bad. But she was feeling good! As good as ever!

"Can't you feel me?" she asked softly.

"No! You closed up completely. I can't break through your emotional shields!" he sounded hysterically.

"Oh," Lina was surprised. She didn't mean to close up. She furrowed her brow, trying hard to relax and smiled at the paradox. And then she saw Xellos's eyes widen even more so that now whites were everywhere around the irises. It must have meant he finally felt her.

They were staring at each other for several eternities until Xellos hoarsely whispered, "So it was true?" and kissed her without even giving her a chance to answer.

- -

They were walking hand-in-hand beneath the shadow of the orchard, bowing to low branches and carefully pushing away the vines like curtains in an oriental shop. It was a hot day of early June, and Lina could barely breath from the heat and the exotic flower aromas and the mesmerizing sensation of Xellos's love flowing into her and her own flowing out. Their manticore, still the size of a squirrel, was flapping clumsily around in pursue of a huge butterfly.

Lina buried her nose into Xellos's shoulder, trying to get away from all the smells but his.

"How come you smell of leaf-litter in early summer?" she exclaimed, suddenly remembering one windy night several weeks ago and the terrace floor paved with brown leaves.

"Ah. You must see it."

"See what?"

"Come on, here starts a path down the northern side of the hill."

The orchard turned into a park of oaks, ashes and blackthorn (those were, according to Xellos, the worshipped plants of the region), then into a pine-wood, and then, Lina had to cover her eyes with her hand as everything around her turned golden, blinding light radiating from every tree. She rubbed her eyes and finally managed to make out the weeping birches with leaves the colour of evening sunbeam. It smelled of autumn here, and the floor was covered with withered leaves like old copper coins. Xellos still pulled her ahead and soon she felt a salty breeze and they came out on a sea shore.

Xellos sat onto soft dry moss beneath a fat crooked birch and tapped his hand near him, suggesting Lina to join him.

"What is this place?"

"The locals call it The Ever-Fall Forest. The legend says there was a mountain-spirit who lived nearby, whom the villagers worshipped. During the long and snowy winters that are usual here they would sometimes bake breads and pack nuts and dried meat and take the offering to the nearest mountain plateau. And he would make sure the mountains held off winds in summer. And so it went for many generations until he happened to fall in love with a girl from the village. She used to come here to pick flowers, for this was the place where the most beautiful flowers of this land could all be found. So once he gathered a gigantic bunch of flowers and appeared before her and declared his love. But she wasn't listening, so much she was outraged by the way he tore the plants out of the ground, stumps of roots and crushed leaves sticking in all directions. She yelled at him for ruining the poor flowers, called him names and said she would never contribute to another offering. And then she left. The mountain spirit was so frustrated that he wanted to curse the forest so that no flowers ever bloomed in it again, but the soil here is so mighty and fruitful that it took all of his powers to complete the curse, and thus he died. So now it is always autumn here, nothing moves and nothing grows. The villagers are afraid to come here, but I like it. I like sad beauty."

"Dear me, Xellos," Lina breathed. "You know so many of those fantastic legends... I wish I could just sit here forever and listen to you telling them."

He pulled her closer.

"That's fine by me, if we're going to alternate the stories with some other activity," he smiled playfully.

"You simply have to pull me down from the clouds, don't you?" Lina growled.

"But darling, I've waited whole three years to kiss you! Have some sympathy! I understand you haven't yet so much as felt jealousy, but Iā€”"

"Actually, I have."

"Huh?"

"It took me some time to figure it out, but... Remember how my eyes and hands burned?"

"Yes..."

"Well, I didn't realize it back then, but now I know it was jealousy."

"Huh!? So self-destructive?"

"Well, jealousy is always self-destructive... But you'd better not give me any reason."

"Oh, pet..."

He lay down on his back and pulled her on top of him, hugging almost desperately. Lina laughed and blushed at his concern and kissed him long and cozy, speeding up the whirl of their mutual feelings. She pulled away to do her favorite thing ā€” kiss and bite him on the neck, so sweet and vulnerable. She couldn't decide if she liked it or not that there were no marks left on his skin afterwards. She licked the bitten spot, but Xellos wasn't letting her to get too excited ā€” he tickled her ribs and she squirmed, giggling. As she moved her lips up to his ear something cold came in her way. She drew back immediately and then snorted.

"No flowers, you said?"

"Hmm?" Xellos turned his head to see what she was looking at.

There, just a few inches high, fragile but firm, stood a tiny pale-violet crocus with a bright orange pistil.