"Under the Mask"

I'm struggling to balance four trays on each arm (that's eight in all, for the math geniuses out there), and the damn things are stacked three feet high with food. I can't possibly imagine who besides Lina Inverse could eat this much in under a month, but then again, I've pretty much lived on coffee since I became a chimera. Even wearing the glamour disguise spell I found a couple years back in an old faerie book, my physical functions (or lack thereof) are the same as ever.

God, I'm glad I didn't find the real cure for my curse. To be as weak as a human and living this difficult life is practically unthinkable. An unexpected emotion, but whatever. I look human as long as I keep the spell up; and that's good enough for me. Maybe when I find a place I can settle down, I'll give the cure idea another go, but for now I'm actually almost content this way.

Well, except for having to wear this damn miniskirt. To think, cross-dressing again even after that disaster in Femille. This stuff completely ruins my dark and brooding image. I'm supposed to be the heartless loner of a magic-using swordsman, not the goofy sidekick in stiletto heels and tights.

But noooo, stupid town just has to be harassed by a particularly infamous gang of bandits with particularly large prices on their heads. And stupid Zelgadis just has to go broke as soon as he gets here. So now I've been staking out said gang's best-known hangout for six months as a "waitress", hoping to grab one or two of them- and I'm still barely able to afford my nightly stay.

Maybe I should've just gone with Lina's favorite fundraiser- kill the nearest bad guys and clean out their secret lair. But I just had to do it my way, didn't I?

I sigh at the thought of her. It's been literally years since I've seen the old group, and I miss them. I still have Amelia's old pentacle bracelet in my pocket, even though the ribbon's practically threadbare. But I miss all of them. Lina, Gourry, Amelia, Filia- hell, even that bastard Xellos.

. . . okay, especially that bastard Xellos.

Stupid mazoku. Couldn't have been ugly, or a traitor, or secretly fucking the Ruby-Eyed, or anything like that. Couldn't have been truly insane; couldn't have been boring. That would have been too easy to resist. Too easy to really hate . . .

"LULU!" my boss bellows suddenly from the counter. "I think table eight wants their food some time before the next mazoku war, girl!"

"Yah, yah, I'm goin', old man!" I shout back, internally cringing. 'Lulu'. Honestly. I must've been high to actually write that on my application. Or at least in an unusually ironic mood.


I get over to the aforementioned table eight as fast as I can without being buried in food and slam the plates down with relief, instantly switching into "happy-mode".

"Hi, I'm Lulu, and I'll be your new server!" I chirp brightly, then silently add: seeing as Meiko-chan quit as soon as she heard your order.

"Thank you very much, Lulu-san," the nearest patron says sweetly as the others attack the food. I automatically give her the once-over. Ceipheed's eyes, she's absolutely gorgeous. Long, raven hair and dark blue eyes, curves like you wouldn't believe, and elegant, simple- but obviously expensive- traveling clothes. The only off things are her shamanist bracelets- for some reason, they don't match. One is white and silver, the other-

-perfectly identical to the one in my left pocket. My heart stops.

It can't be. It can't.

But it is. Amelia wil tesla Seyruun is sitting right in front of me, seven years older than I last saw her and beautiful enough to raise the dead to revolution. And beside her sits a little girl with dark hair and midnight blue eyes, no more than five years old.

Amelia . . . here! And with a child! Then her companions-

I look to them, almost against my will, and then marvel that I didn't know them instantly. A blonde swordsman and fiery-haired woman with gaudy jewelry ravage their plates, an embarrassed little girl with a braid of liquid gold and ruby red eyes sitting between them. To their right, a familiar, elegant blonde woman rests, looking vastly put-upon. A green-haired boy sits next to her, eating at a speed to rival even the redhead's.

Gourry. Lina. A child who could only be theirs. Filia. And the boy . . . He must be Valgarv- or is it Valteria now?

It doesn't matter. I can't speak to them- it's been too long. All the same, even as I quickly withdraw to the other side of the room, I can't help wishing Xellos had come with them. Just so I could catch a glimpse of him again.

And then I see him at the bar, smiling benignly as ever. His hair is longer now; pulled back into a ponytail that almost reaches his waist, and it's scruffier than it used to be. He's still got that damned staff, too.

But he's beautiful. Oh, gods, so beautiful. I'd forgotten so much about him. About them. The way his eyebrows raised ever so slightly when things really started to get interesting. The way Amelia looked when she laughed. The way his body moved beneath his clothes. Lina's brilliant ruby eyes. His pale skin. Filia's shining hair. His soft lips. Gourry's reassuring presence. His intoxicating one . . .

I snap out of it when I realize that he's looking back at me.

Oh, fuck.

"Ah, h'llo," I greet him weakly. "Do you need anything, sir?"

He smiles, those half-moon eyes never opening for an instant. "That," he replies, "is a secret."

My heart sinks into my shoes and I try desperately to ignore it. I want to help him. Want to kiss him. Want him to leave but stay forever too. I hate being dismissed so easily. Like I'm nothing. But I am, aren't I? Especially to someone as perfect as him.

Xellos cocks his head curiously. "You are a very emotional person," he remarks after a moment. "You should be more careful about who you offer your heart to. I didn't even realize humans could fall in love so quickly."

I hadn't realized before- I've forgotten how to hide my emotions. It wasn't necessary any longer after I left the group. Heat rushes to my face but I answer smoothly: "The only love I want is from someone who can see past my skin and find my heart at first glance."

Xellos regards me thoughtfully. "Perhaps I stand corrected," he confesses after a moment. "Be that as it may, I am still far from an appropriate choice for your affections."

I shrug at him and smile a little. "You're better than a lot of people I could think of," I say, tipping my head towards the rowdier patrons in the back, several of them from the bandit gang I've been after, though none with a particularly impressive price on his head. A couple of them dragged one of the other waitresses upstairs last week and tried to rape her. I threw them through a third-story window.

"I doubt that," Xellos replies calmly. "If you were with one of them, at least you would know what they wanted."

"That's not always a blessing," I point out dryly, and he smirks.

"I wouldn't think so." Xellos pauses for a moment and looks outside. The sun has just set, and the sky is a rich, pale shade of neon blue. "I was in love once too," he comments wistfully. "I never told the person how I felt, though, and he went away."

Xellos? Love? And I heard that "he", too. Somehow the three words just don't seem to mesh in my mind. Gods know if they ever had, I think I'd have hit on him years ago.

"The person that I loved," Xellos continued slowly, "was always running off after quests and treasures; but he always came back in the end. So while I missed him, I never really worried about him. But one time, he went away . . . and he's still gone. I don't even know what happened to him. Whether he died, or whether he just decided that there was nothing worth coming back for."

I'd have come back, if I'd had a chance at Xellos.

"He never liked me anyway," Xellos suddenly says ruefully. "Thought I was a fruitcake . . . though I suppose he was right about that. At least he never led me on, like some people would've done. Though honestly, I don't think he even realized how I felt. If he had, he would've hated me even more. There was just never a chance for us."

This sounds so suspiciously like . . . It couldn't be.

I look at him thoughtfully for a moment, briefly feeling out his tired old emotions. I may be only one-third demon, but I do possess a few of their more useful skills.

"I think I do know what you want," I decide at last.

"Oh?" His smile widens slightly, and I'd like to think I've amused him. "What, pray tell? After all, I've already told you so much."

I smile back. "The answer to this riddle," I reply easily. I am so bullshitting my way through this . . . "What is the opposite of love?"

"Hate," Xellos answers automatically.

"No, no," I say scoldingly, my eyes dancing. "You're thinking like a human, silly."

Now I really have his attention. "And what are you thinking like?" he inquires.

"That's a secret," I answer lightly. "But the answer is easy. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference."

Xellos's eyes fly open and he stares at me through slitted pupils. I don't bother to fake flinching; he'd be able to sense that my surprise wasn't real anyway.

"HEY, WAITRESS!" Lina yells from the other side of the room. "WHAT'S A GIRL GOT TO DO TO GET A LITTLE ATTENTION AROUND HERE?!"

"Try taking off your shirt!" I call back without looking away from Xellos. "If you think anyone would want to look, that is!"

"Why you-!" Lina flushes bright red and glares at me. Ah, just like the good old days. "You're lucky I don't fireball you!"

"Oh, is it that time of the month already?" I ask innocently. "I'm sorry."

Lina gets the Creeping Evil Death Look and Xellos scootches to the side just out of the line of fire. I snicker automatically and barely duck in time to avoid the chair Lina throws at me. "Source of all power . . ." she begins a dangerous voice.

"Mo-OM!" wails the strawberry-blond girl. "Not again!"

"Lina-san, this is the only inn for miles!" Amelia says desperately. "If you get us thrown out now, we'll have nowhere to sleep!"

"I don't care!" Lina yells. "I'm gonna kill her!"

"Think of the children!" Filia scolds. "What kind of an example are you setting for them?" Valgarv looks distinctly pained, and starts mouthing along as Filia makes a speech about proper decorum that would put Amelia's most-impassioned justice rants to shame. Lina and Amelia's daughters "listen" attentively as Xellos flicks a spitball at Filia's face and Mace-sama comes out to play.

"Please don't scuff the floor, Filia-san," I request, calmly sidestepping Filia's awesome backhand. "It's my turn to mop tonight."

"I'll be careful, Lulu-san," she promises sourly. "DIE, MAZOKU TRASH!"

Odd, I think she may have been lying.

"Don't hurt him too badly; I want to play with him later too!" I put in brightly as Filia chases Xellos right out the entranceway. Darn, and I was having fun too. "Byeee, Xel-chan, Filia-san!" I call after them, waving.

"I'd apologize for their behavior, Lulu-san, but you don't seem to mind," Amelia says dryly.

"Oh, I've gotten better about that sort of thing the past few years," I reply casually. "I like your bracelets, by the way."

"They don't match," Lina's daughter points out bluntly.

"Stupid! Mommy's best friend's got the other one!" Amelia's daughter snaps.

"Who's stupid?!" the first girl growls, clenching her fist.

"Mei!" Lina threatens at the same time Amelia says: "Sayura!" The children shut up, but keep glaring at each other.

Valgarv looks disgusted. "Can't you two get along for more than thirty seconds?" he demands.

"Not with her!" Mei and Sayura yell in unison.

Meanwhile, I reach into my pocket and pull out the mate to Amelia's bracelet. No matter how long it's been, I can't just let them leave without telling them who I am.

"Excuse me," I interrupt calmly. "I need to talk to you, Amelia."

"Is something wrong, Lulu-san?" she asks, puzzled by my suddenly serious tone. Then she sees the bracelet. "Impossible," she chokes. "He can't be . . ."

I never could get the bloodstains out of that ribbon.

"No one's dead, Amelia," I tell her with a sigh.

"But- how did you get that?" Amelia asks faintly.

Lina suddenly tenses up. "We never told you Amelia's name. Or Filia's," she says suspiciously. "Haven't even said them since we got here." Gourry's sword is in his hand instantly and Valgarv's hair bristles sharply.

"Who are you?" Lina demands, even as Amelia pushes the children behind her and starts to mouth a shielding spell.

I glance around the inn's restaurant. Every single patron is staring at us. "Maybe we could discuss this outside?" I suggest mildly. "Less property damage, knowing you."

"But I don't know you," Lina says darkly. "So let's stay right here, hm?"

"Okay, whatever," I relent, and then wince. "I am so gonna get fired for this."

And I break the glamour spell that I've been wearing constantly for the past six months.

For a moment, the entire room just stares at me.

"Zel . . . gadis-san?" Amelia croaks finally.

"Hi," I greet her ruefully. "Miss me?"

She screams.

"Amelia!" I shout. "Calm down!"

"But you- you're him- I mean, he's you- I mean-!" Amelia babbles as the children look at her bemusedly.


"Not the whole freaking time," I reply calmly. "Just the last few months."

"WHY?!" she shrieks.

"Well, you see those guys in the back there?" I point helpfully. "I'm broke, and they're wanted. Bandits, y'see. I was hoping to collect the reward on them, but . . ."

"Bandits?!" Lina's face lights up. "Really, Zel?!"

"Very successful ones too, judging by the ever-increasing 'dead or alive' bounty on their heads," I lie cheerfully. Lina looks like she's in heaven.

"Evil-doers!" Amelia cries, whirling on the bandits. "Repent or face the light of justice!"

"Or Lina Inverse's fireballs," I add slyly, crossing my arms and smirking as I recast my guise of Lulu. "Whichever comes first."

"L-Lina Inverse?" the nearest bandit squeaks. The criminals around here are intimately familiar with the persona of "Lina Inverse"- mostly because I've been playing vigilante while wearing her face so I can pay my rent. Add that to the usual rumors and . . .

"Boom," Mei intones, a truly frightening look coming into her childish eyes as behind her, her mother charges up a familiar spell. The bandits simultaneously panic; all of them run for it- as if they really could escape.

"Dragon Slave," Lina says simply.

And the most perfectly focused spell I've ever seen flares from Lina's hand, consuming the bandits instantly without even nicking the floor. I applaud politely in the ensuing silence

Lina just sighs. "I overdid it again," she says exasperatedly, looking at their unrecognizable corpses. "Now we can't get the money."

"Could be worse," Amelia points out with a sigh of her own. "After all, a few years ago, the inn would've gone up too." The patrons visibly flinch at that.

Xellos reappears suddenly over Gourry's shoulder, and chirps: "Hello, everyone! Seen Filia-san about?"

"NANAGOMI!" Filia shrieks, storming back into the inn, tail jutting straight out.

One of the waitresses- Eimi - screams and drops her tray. "Mazoku! It's a Mazoku!"

"Ryuzoku," I correct calmly. "This is Filia ul de Copt. Filia, this is Eimi-chan."

"Hello, Eimi-san," Filia bites out, glaring at Xellos and brandishing her mace again. "DIE, BASTARD!"

Valgarv looks wistful. "Why can't Mom be this cool all the time?" he complains to no one in particular.

"That's what I always ask!" Xellos pipes up. "She's so much more fun this way!"

"Yeah!" Valgarv grins at him and Filia bristles.

"DON'T ENCOURAGE HIM!" she screams.

Eimi-chan whimpers and hides behind me. "Lulu-chaaan . . ." she wails under her breath. "These people are insane . . ."

"It's okay, Eimi," I reassure her with a faint smile.

"But Lulu-chan, that's a dragon!" Anzu wails from behind the bar. She's somewhat better educated than the average villager, but I'm still rather impressed that she can tell a dragon from a mazoku.

"Could be worse!" Xellos says brightly. "She could really be a mazoku!"

"A mazoku like you, you mean?" I shoot back at him.

"Maybe!" he laughs, temporarily phasing out and reappearing at my side. Eimi screams again.

"LULU!" she shrieks. "Why don't you banish it like the last ones that came into town?!"

"The others were low-level mazoku," I explain. "Xellos, however, is a kick-ass trickster priest general. Plus he's hot."

"Why, thank you, Lulu-san!" Xellos cries.

Filia looks horrified. "Lulu-san, he's a servant of the Greater Beast!" she protests.

"Stop teasing them!" Amelia scolds me, though she's laughing behind her hands. "You really are heartless!"

I just grin. "Amelia! How kind you are, even after all these years!" I gush, slinging an arm around her shoulder. I'm slightly annoyed to find that I have to stand on tiptoes to do it, but Lina probably wishes Amelia weren't quite so tall and busty herself so at least I'm not alone.

"Wait- do we know you?" Filia narrows her eyes at me in inspection.

"Yup!" I confirm brightly. "Bet 'cha can't figure out who I aaam, though."

Xellos scrutinizes me, smiling through his closed eyes, and I meet his gaze with a smile of my own as Eimi edges away nervously. After a moment, he cocks his head slightly and says, "I can see your heart," very softly. "I'm sorry it took more than a glance."

And then he kisses me, deeply and with passion, pressing me back against the table. I'm so shocked that I lose my balance and narrowly miss landing on Lina's plate.

Lina, none too pleased with the risk to her meal, fireballs him off me and growls, "Watch it, Xellos!"

"Ow," Xellos sighs contentedly from the floor, then grins up at me. "I can see up your skirt, by the way." I glare down at him, then bend over and grab the scruff of his turtleneck and lift him right off his feet.

"Oh!" Filia and Eimi gasp in surprise.

"That is so cool!" Mei cries, grinning at me. "You have got to teach me how you did that!"

"Thank you, but I have no interest in making a chimera out of a five year-old," I reply dryly, dropping my disguise again and for good.

"ZELGADIS?!" Filia squawks, practically falling over.

"Zel-chan!" Xellos croons, hugging me around the waist. "You look positively stunning in that skirt, darling!"

"Yeek!" Eimi squeals, her eyes suddenly starry.

"Ooo . . ." Anzu covers her own eyes and blushes. "It's like seeing every shounen ai doujinshi I've ever read come true," she murmurs, half to herself.

"Let's make it a yaoi, Zel-kun!" Xellos cries brightly, literally sweeping me off my feet and into his arms, bridal- style.

"Yay!" the other waitresses cheer in unison, suddenly looking very excited.

"What's a yaoi, Mommy?" Sayura asks Amelia in confusion, tugging on her skirt.

Amelia blushes. "Um . . ."

"We'll show her, Ame-chan!" Xellos volunteers gleefully.

"DON'T YOU DARE, XELLOS!" Lina yells, already charging up another fireball.

I smile and nuzzle up to Xellos a bit. It's as crazy as old times right off the bat, and I'm happier than I've been in years. Real friends . . . that's what we are. Only real friends can pick up like nothing's changed after seven years of separation.


How nice it is . . . to be loved.