by Rose Thorne

Disclaimer: Slayers is owned by a bunch of folks who aren't me. I'm borrowing them for my perverse pleasure, much as Xellos borrows emotions for his.

Chapter Thirty Four

The terrain on their off-the-path route was less than cooperative. They had trekked into rough territory, dotted with ravines and hidden crevasses. Lina knew this route was likely slower than the road, but at least this way they could avoid undue attention.

The way grew more treacherous as shadows lengthened in the late afternoon. Zel seemed to get the worst of it. More than once, his weight broke through ice, trapping his foot in a hole until he got enough leverage to pull himself out. Amelia had managed to skid into a snowbank, but her being a klutz wasn't exactly surprising.

Raywing would've been faster, but Lina and Zel agreed that spending that energy was too risky, especially if they came under attack. Since these sorcerers could track their movements, anything was possible.

Evening came too soon, and she doubted they'd find a decent place to camp. Lina was starting to wonder if they'd have to truly rough it when the ground rumbled. It shifted beneath Zel's feet, then crumbled, and he disappeared into a hole.

Lina's heart leapt in her throat, concerned immediately that this could be another attack. Gourry reached the edge first.

"Zel, you okay down there? Oh, good catch, Xellos!"

Xellos was holding Zel flush against him, having stopped his free-fall. They were barely visible in the weak light streaming into the hole.

Surprisingly, instead of pulling away from the Mazoku like Lina had expected, Zel cast Lighting.

The cavern illuminated, revealing a relatively flat floor forty feet below. It narrowed and stretched off in either direction, implying a potential system of caves.

"This might be a good place to camp," Amelia murmured. "It's nice and sheltered."

Forty feet below, Zel and Xellos were conversing, and Lina figured it was about the same thing. Her attention was drawn to Zel's body language, the way he shied away a bit. Just like he'd done when they'd gotten back from lunch.

Lina frowned. Something had happened during lunch. What, she had no clue. She knew well enough that Xellos had… feelings for Zel-something she was still having difficulty wrapping her mind around. And Xellos had never been shy about teasing the shaman. Really, she just hoped he wasn't being a moron.

She didn't exactly trust that was the case. This was Xellos, after all. And Zel was, to say the least, not good at dealing with his own emotions.

But no spells had been thrown, so there was at least that.

Zel Raywinged back up to them.

"We staying the night here?" she asked before he could speak.

"It seems like the best stopping point we'll come across. Better than trying to sleep out here."

The wind had picked up in the last hour, and Lina had no doubt it would be howling before too long. At least it didn't seem to be the prelude to another storm, but these hills would be a windswept wasteland overnight.

"Happy accident, I guess, that you found this cavern." She grinned when he rolled his eyes.

By the time they got to the cavern floor, Xellos had started a roaring fire that cast dancing shadows against the roof and into the shadows. The cavern was lucky in more than one way-if they were hiding from bounty hunters, it'd be hard to justify a fire out in the open, Lina realized. Here it wouldn't cast much light above and the darkening sky would hide the smoke. Out there, they'd have few ways to keep warm.

Or, more importantly, to cook a decent dinner. Lina could hear the faint sound of rushing water echoing from another part of the cave, too.

She turned to Zel expectantly. "So, what's for dinner?"

He raised a stone eyebrow. "Don't ask me. Before it gets too dark, Gourry and I are sparring. And I'm fine with my provisions, anyway."

Lina scowled. "But you won't say no to someone else's cooking, huh?"

That got another brief smile, one to acknowledge that as truth. Zel had never been one to smile, or express emotion much at all, in the first place. But those smiles had gotten rarer than ever with what was going on.

She wasn't about to mess with him, so instead she turned to Amelia and fixed her with puppy-dog eyes. The princess's sigh was all Lina needed to know dinner was handled-and since Amelia had started improving with her cooking it would at least be edible.

Not that she was lazy; someone needed to keep attentive for a possible attack, and she wanted to go through her equipment. Lina had been deep in thought as they hiked, wondering if there was a way to make it harder for these bastards to keep tracking and targeting Zel.

So when she removed her cloak, she pulled the sacks she kept attached to it off to spread on the floor of the cavern, making small piles of the various components as she unpacked it all. She hadn't taken the time to organize it all in a while, so it took longer than it usually did. Even given the amount she had, Lina wished she'd thought to loot the bodies of the mercenaries that had attacked them-there was no telling what goodies they'd had on them.

Metal against metal caught her attention, and she watched for a moment as Zel and Gourry sparred. Watching them was always interesting; both of them were so skilled it was like watching a show. It wasn't one she got to see often.

Lina wasn't the only one watching, she realized. Seated nearby, Xellos was as well, his eyes open and weirdly human-looking. At first she worried there was magic about, but she didn't sense any.

"Being a creepy stalker?" she asked lightly.

The Mazoku's eyes closed, a foppish grin sliding into place, and she suddenly realized there'd been a hint of something else in his expression before. A sort of longing.

Her world kept getting weirder and weirder.

"I suppose I could watch you sort your loot, Lina-san, but their swordplay is far more entertaining."

"Well, I'd recommend you help with dinner, but I'd rather it be edible," she drawled. "In any case, I'm trying to figure out if I have anything that could… I guess make it harder for them to find Zel."

That got Xellos' attention. "That is an interesting idea."

"Well, yeah. I try to come up with those."

He moved closer, scanning her neat piles. "The nature of the spells, from your exploration before, was largely shamanism mixed with white magic. Divine is spirit shamanism, is it not?"

Lina nodded, ticking through the different ingredients she had that might be useful to counter such a spell. Distressingly, if the Divine spell was using the focus of Zel's skin, as seemed to be the case, she wasn't sure a counter existed. When Amelia used Divine, she often wasn't using an... object like that.

Ugh, she hated that they'd done that to Zel. It was just sickening.

"Perhaps Zelgadis-san would be better versed, given his magical focus is shamanism," Xellos murmured finally.

She realized he was watching the sparring again, and glanced up herself in time to see both Gourry and Zel straighten, finished. The chimera looked less unhappy, by a few shades anyway. Lina was starting to get why he was so gloomy, so often, and especially now.

"You're too hard on yourself," Gourry said. "You're not out of practice at all!"

That got another brief, but sincere, smile from Zel, and Lina was glad to see it. If they could take out the jerks targeting him, maybe it'd make that expression less fleeting. And, in the meantime, if they could find a way to help him feel less vulnerable, less tracked and hunted, maybe that'd ease his unhappiness a bit.

But conversation about that could wait until after dinner, the scent of which was permeating all corners of the cave and making her stomach growl.

When Lina shared her ideas with Zel, after a dinner that had been little more than edible thanks to her sloughing off the responsibility on Amelia, he couldn't help but be touched that she was willing to use her bandit loot for him. She was usually pretty stingy, so for her to have spread everything out for his perusal, even the expensive and rare components, meant a lot to him.

Unfortunately, he couldn't think of a way to counter a Divine when the focus was a stone stolen from his skin; it'd be practically impossible to block.

He shook his head, sorry to see the hope that had been on Amelia's face fall. "I don't think there would be any spell that could counter Divine. Given the power that's been displayed, Protect, even with what's here, wouldn't do a lot. Maybe make the area fuzzier by a mile or so, but not enough to be worthwhile."

The only other option he could think of involved Rune Breaker, with him sitting in the middle of a pentagram. And staying stationary wasn't an option.

Lina bit her lip, deep in thought and considering the limited options.

"What about if we used Vu Vraimer with the same focal material? Send them in multiple directions?"

Zel couldn't quite repress a shudder, and his stomach roiled. The idea was logically sound, but sickening in what would be necessary to put it into play. After everything, he wasn't sure he could handle that, even if at the hands of his friends to protect him.

Gourry and Amelia didn't seem to understand the implications, but Xellos… a weird, almost horrified expression crossed the Mazoku's face fleetingly. He wasn't sure what to make of that.

He forced himself to look Lina directly in the eyes. "And how would we get that focal material, Lina?"

She blanched, looking away, a dawning horror on her face.

Zel knew immediately she hadn't thought the idea through, hadn't realized it'd mean harvesting him for components. But that knowledge didn't help ease the agitation rushing through him.

He didn't trust his voice, and instead he shook his head and got to his feet to move to the other side of the fire. He briefly considered the blankets Xellos had pulled from wherever he kept stashing them-some sort of pocket universe or whatever. But he felt the need to move, to get away. So instead the shaman grabbed the canteen from his pack and headed off in search of the stream he could hear in one direction in the cave system they'd dropped into.

The darkness as he moved away from the fire wasn't an issue with his enhanced vision. Zel focused on moving, his strides long, trying to fight his rising gorge. His stone skin felt heavy, oppressive. He would have preferred going outside rather than be stuck in these stone caves, but the wind had risen in the hour or so since they'd entered the cave. At least the cave wound a bit, taking the fire out of sight and giving him the illusion of privacy.

He made it to the small stream running through a part of the cave before he lost the fight against his stomach and it rejected everything he'd eaten.

Zel moved further up the stream to lean against the cave wall, letting himself slide down to sit, resting the side of his head against the cool stone. The chill helped, permeating his skin in a way that made its weight less claustrophobic. The near-panic that had made movement necessary eased, leaving him exhausted.

He knew he wouldn't be alone long; solitude was dangerous under the circumstances. But the shaman was surprised to hear footsteps, as based on recent trends he'd expected Xellos. The gait, he recognized, was Lina's, and the darkness lifted as she got closer, a Lighting spell slowly illuminating his surroundings. Zel closed his eyes, preferring darkness. Even with stone eyelids, the light permeated a bit.

Lina's approach hesitated, and he knew she'd found where he'd been sick. She didn't stop, and eventually she sat behind him, leaning slightly against his back before softly dismissing the spell, letting the shadow of the cave envelop them.

She was silent for a while, just a quiet, warm pressure behind him. Her companionable presence soothed the tumult of Zel's emotions further.

"I'm sorry," Lina whispered, finally. "I didn't mean- I just… I want to do something. To get them to stop. To protect you."

He knew how difficult it was for her to discuss emotions like this, to apologize instead of putting on a coarse front of bravado. But she was willing to try for him.

It took Zel a moment to find his voice. "I know."

The awkward silence that followed was cloying, uncomfortable.

"You speak your thoughts to sort through them, to determine the best options. You were… spit balling ideas." She so often came up with brilliant ones that way. "I know it wasn't meant maliciously."

She huddled a bit closer, leaning her head against his shoulder. "I hate this. You're one of my closest friends and I can't… I can't do anything."

Lina sounded closer to tears than he could ever remember; her willingness to be this open was touching. Neither of them were very good in expressing emotions, and when she did, it was usually accompanied by violence. Most often Dragon Slave.

He leaned back slightly. "I know. But you're here. You came looking for me, and you didn't have to."

"Of course I did! I'd never leave you in danger like that. And you'd do the same for me. You have."

Her voice was thick, and Zelgadis knew how dangerously close she was to tears. If she cried… well, he wasn't holding it together well himself. And neither of them could afford that now, in the midst of danger.

"Thanks, Lina. You're the bratty little sister I never knew I wanted."

"Jerk," she snorted, smacking his shoulder lightly. But he could sense that her distress had eased, which was the whole goal. She hooked an arm around his torso in an awkward sort of hug. "We'll get through this. We'll stop them."

Zel didn't think they'd have an easy time of it, but he nodded, relaxing. A tension he hadn't known he was feeling began to ease. Slowly, her warmth and the soft sound of her breath lulled him toward sleep.

He was almost dozing when Lina used him as a brace to stand. "C'mon, Zel. It's better to fall asleep by the fire. With blankets. I dunno if you can get sick again like you did, but..."

Zelgadis wasn't certain either and didn't particularly want to find out. He didn't need the space from the others like he had, and he was more than ready to call it a night. He filled his canteen before letting her lead the way back with a Lighting spell.

Camp had been set up, a space cleared and smoothed with such precision Zel knew it had to have been Xellos' doing. Amelia didn't have that sort of control; she would've wound up creating a pit accidentally. Blankets had been spread to buffer the cold of the stone floor, with others arranged, complete with pillows, made up to resemble four futons. Three side by side, a third above the others. Gourry had claimed the far side of the row, Amelia the one perpendicular. Lina's cloak was draped on the close side of the row. The Mazoku himself was seated near the fire, near the foot of the arrangement.

After a moment, Zel realized what they'd done: created a sort of barrier, each of them surrounding him as though protecting. A physical representation of intent.

Even though it was only a symbol, it was enough to ease the rest of his tension, at least for the moment. The danger would still be there in the morning. But his friends had his back.

Second chapter in a shortish period of time, so yay! I hope I'm back on track writing this.

If you have a moment, please comment and let me know you're reading and what you think. Thanks!