Skin of Stone Part 1
Why do they follow? Why do I allow them to follow?
Zelgadis placed his fork on his plate, then fastidiously wiped his mouth with his napkin. Sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms, he studied his unwanted companions. To his left, Lina Inverse, self-styled sorceress supreme, was bent low over the circular, wooden table in the inn’s common room eating with her typical voracious gusto. It was a good thing her long, red hair was held back by her black headband, else she’d most likely inhale that as well. Lina could be insufferable at times, self confident almost to the point of arrogance, yet he had to admit, albeit unwillingly, that her high opinion of herself was based more upon fact than fantasy. She could be of infinite use to him, if he could tolerate her presence long enough.
Across from Zelgadis sat Amelia, self-styled ‘Hammer of Justice’. Shoulder length, sable hair falling in her eyes, his youngest companion ate as if she were competing in a race with Lina. Though the petite brunette’s posturing as she engaged in her never-ending pursuit of ‘justice’ tried his patience to the breaking point, Amelia, too, could be of use to him in his quest. Besides being a rather accomplished sorceress, in spite of her youth, she was a princess of Seyruun, and could easily gain him access to that city-state’s vast libraries.
Finally, to Zelgadis’ right sat Gourry Gabriev, a superb swordsman and self-styled… well, self-styled nothing, really. The bearer of the Sword of Light, which was able to transform its user’s will into pure power, made no claims, yet didn’t have to as his skill and his strength of will spoke for him. The tall, lean man had set his sword aside for the time being, his hip-length golden hair tucked behind him, his long bangs, as ever, obscuring his right eye and nearly dragging in his plate as he inhaled his food as quickly as the girls. Though he could be ignorant and uncommonly dense at times, these lacks were balanced by his expertise with a blade, his intuitive grasp of tactics and strategy, the force of his convictions, and his guileless heart.
Zelgadis could use all three of these people, yet, if he allowed them to accompany him, would their usefulness outweigh the inconvenience of their presence, the violation of his privacy, and, especially in Gourry’s case, the disruption of his peace of mind?
Why do they want to follow me? Why do they offer their help?
At the moment, Zelgadis’ dinner mates were so focused on their meals it was as if he didn’t even exist.
Their present attitude was very much at odds with the frustrated, yet eager, way they had pursued him when he’d tried to leave them on the road early that morning. Lina’s exasperated words floated back to him, echoing above the clatter of the eating utensils,
“Geez! He always has to take off on his own! Hey! Wait up a sec, Zel!”
Why had he slowed his steps, allowing them to fall into place around him? Why had he allowed Lina to take the lead? Why had he followed them to this inn? It was ridiculous.
Zelgadis had his own course to follow, his own purpose, and it was doubtful that any of his companions knew, much less cared, just what that purpose was. He didn’t need them. He didn’t need their aid, nor did he want it… did he?
No. All of these people were distractions, and the last thing he needed was for anything or anyone to distract him. Dropping his napkin back on the table, Zelgadis pushed his chair back in preparation of rising. He had to go. His time was precious, and he’d already wasted enough of it. It was galling that he’d been gullible enough to believe Moros, ruler of Zoana, and his daughter Martina when they had promised him that the Book of Zoana was part of the Claire Bible, and that he could find the information he sought in it if only he would protect them. It was even more vexing to think that he suffered less from gullibility and more from… desperation.
Well, perhaps he was somewhat desperate, yet the fact still remained that he had come too far to give up now. It would be absurd to believe that continuing in Lina Inverse’s company would not result in him losing his focus and any chance of success, for the girl was chaos incarnate and trouble dogged her steps. It would be best to end this now.
“Look,” Zelgadis began, “I suppose I should thank you for exposing Zoana’s deceit, thus sparing me the trial of serving those wretches when it would have come to naught, but I don’t understand why any of you are still here. I told you that I must find the Claire Bible myself. I made it perfectly clear that this is my own personal problem. I do not need anyone following me and criticizing me, nor do I need to become sidetracked due to your involvement.”
Zelgadis rolled his eyes in annoyance as the pace at which his companions shoveled food into their mouths never slowed a whit. Standing, he rested his fists on the table and practically growled, “Are you even listening to me?”
At last Zelgadis got a response, yet neither Lina nor Amelia bothered to do him the courtesy of swallowing before attempting to speak. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, biting back the scathing insults his anger was urging him to hurl at them, and instead snarled, “Listen, either eat or talk!”
Like the brief hover of a raptor before it stoops down on its prey, the hesitation of the forks before they descended once more to the plates was infinitesimal. Zelgadis sagged back into his chair, resting his forehead in his hand, frustration and despair mingling with his anger.
Wondering why he was even bothering, he muttered, “Let me rephrase that. Will you please stop eating and talk?” After draining her mug to clear her mouth, Lina banged it down, then leaned so far over the table that she could clearly see Zelgadis’ right eye even through the thick blue hair which fell over it.
Smiling sweetly, she repeated into her friend’s widening blue-green orbs, “What I said was, just because you say don’t follow me doesn’t mean we’re going to say sure, whatever, like we’re strangers or something!”
Startled, Zelgadis quickly leaned away from Lina. The woman went from one extreme to the next as easily as a fish swam through water. One moment she can’t be bothered to acknowledge his existence, the next she practically climbs in his lap.
“You’re being so distant, Mr. Zelgadis, and after we’re all finally re-united like this, too! We’ll do whatever we can to help!”
Distant? Why should that surprise Amelia so much? He was always distant, and with good cause.
Disgusted, Zelgadis turned sideways in his chair and dropped his head back into his hand so that he didn’t have to look at the Seyruun princess or the asinine victory sign she flashed at him from across the table. What useless platitudes! He’d have to admit that he was both gullible and desperate if he were to believe that they truly wanted to help him. Their motivation must be pity, and he needed pity about as much as he needed distractions.
“You all just consider me your personal side-show freak!”
“Oh, it’s not like that, Zel. Right Amelia?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah right. Of course not, Miss Lina!”
Oh, yeah right. Of course not! The smirk that accompanied Lina’s comment made Zelgadis more certain than ever that the fiery sorceress had a hidden reason for wishing to aid him, though he wasn’t quite ready to make a guess as to what it was. On the other hand, it was entirely possible that Amelia had simply adopted him as her pet charity project.
Gourry simply remained silent, a fact for which he was obscurely thankful, for it would be intolerable, painful even, if the swordsman were to begin spouting the same half-hearted, not to be believed reassurances as the girls. Zelgadis stole a glance from beneath his hand only to see Gourry nodding his head in agreement, his one visible blue eye wide and compassionate. Compassion? Highly unlikely. It was more likely that Gourry was agreeing with Lina simply because he always seemed to agree with Lina. If he was wrong, and it was compassion, then it was misplaced.
Resentment simmering, Zelgadis opened his mouth to tell them all just where they could stick their denials, their pity, and their promises of aid, but found himself saying instead, “Very well. I just ask that you stay out of my way. Please understand, I’m risking everything to find the Claire Bible.”
“Uh, what’s the Claire Bible?”
Zelgadis started, involuntarily glancing over his shoulder at the unexpected question. Gourry’s head was cocked, his forehead wrinkled in what looked like honest bewilderment, not mockery.
He shouldn’t be surprised that the blond was clueless, but he still was. Eyes closing, he turned away as he softly explained, “The Claire Bible is a mysterious book which is supposedly from another world entirely, and is reported to contain the deepest secrets of sorcery.”
“Oh! And just exactly what do you want to do with this book once you find it?”
Zelgadis felt his eyes widen in disbelief. How could Amelia possibly know so little of him after all the time they had spent traveling and fighting together? And she wanted to help him? It was almost laughable. He was grateful when Lina spared him the effort of explaining.
“Now, listen Amelia. Zel wants to use the spells in the Claire Bible to change himself from a chimera back into a normal human.”
“Huh? You still want to do that? But you look so cool now!”
Cool? How could anyone believe that being a chimera was cool!?!
Zelgadis was equal parts blue demon, rock golem, and human, and looked every bit as monstrous as that combination sounded. Cool, indeed! Give her blue, wire-like hair, pointed ears, and rocky clusters that afflicted his hard, blue-green skin like a pox and see how she liked it! But, the diminutive brunette was sincere, and in her own clumsy way was trying to make him feel better, so Zelgadis reined in his anger, bared his teeth in what he supposed could be mistaken for a smile if one were being generous, and managed to grate, “Well, I don’t like it!”
“But, why, Mr. Zelgadis? Even if you do look like a freak, our friendship is eternal!”
“Eternal friendship?” Zelgadis echoed faintly.
“Look, Amelia, if he says he hates it, then he hates it! Saying right to his face how he has skin like rock and hair like wire is not exactly the height of subtlety, you know.”
“I never said that much, Miss Lina. Besides, you should never judge people by appearances.”
“Enough!” Zelgadis snarled.
As his companions all turned to stare at him, he opened his mouth to defend himself, to rebuke them for daring to say such things, but closed it again, the words dying unspoken. How could he refute Lina’s description? It was accurate enough. He was an unnatural being, an aberration created with sorcery. He knew it, they knew it, and any denial on his part would have no basis in reality. Shaking his head, defeated, he dropped his gaze and murmured, “I’m going to bed.”
Zelgadis rose and stalked to the stairs which led up to the inn’s guest chambers. He’d had all that he could take for one night. Vision blurring, he stumbled the slightest bit on the first step, but quickly recovered and made his escape.
Ah hell! As Lina and Amelia rose and wandered over to the stairs to gaze after the departed Zelgadis, Gourry leaned back in his chair, frowning intently.
Why hadn’t he said something? He should have said something to put an end to Lina’s teasing before it had gone so far. He hadn’t, he just hadn’t thought of it at the time, and now it was too late, for Zelgadis was already hurt and angry.
Sighing, he pushed away from the table and joined his female companions at the foot of the stairs.
“Nice going, guys.” Gourry tried, but couldn’t quite succeed in keeping the admonishment from his tone. Lina simply ignored him, letting his comment brush right past her without ruffling her in the slightest. Amelia, on the other hand, picked up on his tone of voice, and gazed up at him with wide eyes, a fair amount of shame beginning to mix with her previous confusion.
“Hm, think we teased him a little too much, Amelia?” Lina grinned, then poked her smaller companion in the shoulder for added emphasis.
“Huh? I didn’t know we were teasing him!”
“Really, Amelia, sometimes you can be just as dense as Gourry here!”
Gourry ignored Lina’s caustic remark, just as he usually did. He was well aware of his faults; he was well aware that he wasn’t the most intelligent person to walk the face of the world, but in this case, who were the dense ones? Perhaps Amelia could be excused for her actions. The young Seyruun Princess wasn’t stupid, but she was unbelievably tactless. She had as much trouble discerning which situations required care, discretion, and a light touch as she did with those requiring justice. Lina’s behavior, on the other hand, was inexcusable. Gourry was certain that she had known exactly what she was doing. Lina had deliberately teased a man who didn’t take teasing well to begin with, let alone when that teasing was about his ‘condition’. Zelgadis was extremely self-conscious about his appearance.
Why? Gourry wasn’t exactly sure. Though a chimera, the other man was striking. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his summer-sky blue hair and turquoise skin, Zelgadis was quite handsome.
To Gourry, he was appealing in a way that no mere human could be. Gourry suspected that Zelgadis had found it very difficult to sit and eat with them in public; that he must have been very uncomfortable. In her own slightly twisted way, perhaps Lina had been attempting to put Zelgadis at ease, to cheer him up, for Gourry knew that she did care about him, but she definitely should have chosen another tactic.
Hands on her hips, Lina shook her head, her long hair twisting about her shoulders.
“Well, he’ll get over it and be better in the morning.” Turning away, she moved back towards their table, adding over her shoulder, “C’mon, guys, the food’s getting cold.”
“Oh, Mr. Zelgadis.”
There was a sort of sad, helpless quality about Amelia’s voice that reflected the emotions that were churning in Gourry’s own breast. He almost asked her how they could fix the situation, but the only sound to escape him as his youngest companion turned away to follow Lina was a sigh. It was doubtful that something as fragile as Zelgadis’ self-image could withstand the mauling it would be subjected to by any scheme concocted by the ‘Hammer of Justice’. So, what could he do?
Gourry hesitated, still staring up the stairs, but finally turned back to face the common room. It would be best to do nothing. It didn’t take a genius to realize that Zelgadis would not welcome any comfort he had to offer, especially when the kind he wanted to offer involved taking the smaller man in his arms and cuddling him until some of the hurt went away.
Shaking his head, Gourry took his place at the table. His appetite fled, he watched Lina and Amelia eat while he pushed his remaining food around on his plate with his fork. Zelgadis was like a bird of prey with a wounded wing; too stubborn to admit that he was hurting, too proud to ask for help.
Like that fierce bird, the other man would lash out at anyone who offered their aid, and with his strength, his speed, his sword, and his shamanistic sorcery, Zelgadis had claws far, far sharper and more dangerous than any raptor.
Knowing all that, Gourry couldn’t explain why he was so drawn to someone so untouchable. It confused him, and there was no one he could ask to help him sort his emotions out. Amelia would either completely flip out and begin pronouncing that same gender pairings were unjust or something equally ridiculous, or she’d go all sparkly-eyed and immediately begin planning a wedding.
Most likely it’d be the first, since Gourry suspected that the Seyruun princess had something of a crush on Zelgadis herself. Lina would probably just call him stupid. Again. She’d likely laugh at him, and then try to stick him back into that awful dress she and Amelia had used to disguise him back when they’d been fugitives with a bounty on their heads.
Gourry looked up from fiddling with his food to find Lina staring at him, and quickly shoved a bite of meat into his mouth. He chewed, trying to smile all the while, and nearly choked himself, but he must have been successful in reassuring her, for she returned his smile and went back to her own meal.
When Lina turned to speak with Amelia, Gourry quickly scraped the remnants of his food into his napkin, then sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. He had to think. He had to decide just how he felt about Zelgadis, and what, if anything, he should do about it.
Outside of Atlas city, Zelgadis had left them for the first time, and though Gourry had missed him he understood the chimera’s reasoning.
“I’m sorry to say that now we must part ways. I’m afraid it would be quite dangerous for a man such as myself to be seen in a city so large.” The voice whispered through his mind, easily overpowering the clamor of the busy common room for all its softness.
That time, the feel of Zel’s hand on his shoulder, the tiny quirk of his lips, and the chimera’s small wave as he’d turned and walked away had remained with Gourry as a fond, oft thought of, memory as he and Lina tried to clear their names after being outlawed.
After many trials, Gourry, Lina, and Amelia had found the sorceress that had placed the price on their heads, yet that had not ended their troubles. Overmatched and surrounded by the sorceress, the bounty hunter she had hired, and the many clones of the sorcerer she controlled, they had been prepared to go down fighting, taking as many of their enemies with them as possible.
That is, until Zelgadis’ return had evened the odds. The crystal tinkling of broken glass as it fell from the remains of the window the chimera had used to enter the sorceress’ mansion accompanied the screams of the clones as they were eliminated by his sword and spells.
Zelgadis had left them for the second time after they finally defeated all the bad guys, but this time, Gourry had more than missed him. Being separated had been… disturbing; he’d been unable to stop thinking of the chimera.
By day, any smile had the potential of changing into that rare stretch of the other man’s lips, any laugh of mutating into Zelgadis’ rich, deep chuckle. Nighttime embellished his memories of the few times his friend had actually touched him. A fleeting squeeze on his shoulder, strong arms closing about him as he was levitated to safety, transformed into the sensuous slide of his flesh against Zelgadis’ as they pleasured each other.
Each night, he would rouse from sleep, shuddering with the aftershocks of release. Each night, he would close his eyes again, preferring the sweet torture of his dreams to the empty, aching loneliness of his reality. Gourry smiled to himself. He was being foolish. It didn’t matter why he was drawn to Zelgadis. He could not deny the depth of his reaction to his friend; seeing him once more had only reinforced its power.
All he needed to consider was whether or not to act. He knew he had to be careful whatever he did. He wasn’t so stupid that he didn’t realize approaching the touchy, sensitive shaman he desired could be perilous.
On to Part Two or Back to Skin of Stone or Back to the Thorned Roses or Back to the Secret Garden?
The girls’ animated voices fading, Gourry turned his head so he could see the staircase Zelgadis had so recently ascended. He had time yet, so he could be patient. For now, just being with him again would be enough. For a time, perhaps, but he feared that the longer Zelgadis journeyed with them, the less satisfying that would be.