It had rained earlier, but thankfully the weather had taken pity on trick-or-treaters of Seyruun and decided not to pelt them with cold, wet projectiles after the sun went down. Filia was regretting wearing open-toed shoes. She shivered and slipped on the damp lawn, laboring not to lose her balance while carrying Val.
It was cumbersome to search while carrying him, but he had a nasty tendency of wandering off if she took her eyes off him. She juggled him and the red hand-flare they'd all been given, wishing she had a pocket for it. The dress she'd chosen for her costume had been designed to be sparkly, not functional.
The flares had been Lina's idea for if one of them wound up getting ambushed by something—whether it was obviously a foe or disguised as a friend. Of course, most of them could've used magic, but since Gourry and Phil would need some kind of signaling devise anyway, the flares were the best choice.
…Not that Phil seemed in great danger of getting separated from the group. The palace guards were all around him, watching for any sign of attack. Of course, their job was made somewhat more difficult by the fact that the person they were trying to guard kept blustering ahead of them.
"I can carry him, you know," Xellos pointed out from behind her, as she regained her balance. "Or you could just let Gravos or Jillas do it."
"No," Filia said firmly. "I know that I'm who I say I am. So I'll do it."
She half wished Xellos would've just stayed back at the castle. After all, he wasn't really a member of this search party. He wasn't really helping. He was just tagging along. And if that's how he wanted it, then he might as well have just stayed where he was and eaten the rest of the cupcakes while they were busy.
"Oh? So you really think some low-ranking monster could've gotten to me?" he asked.
"Probably not," Filia was forced to admit.
"And Jillas and Gravos?" Xellos asked, gesturing to some distance off where Gravos was peeking into a bush and Jillas was behind him, poised to attack anything that was hiding. The little foxman had found his discarded wooden leg on the ground and was holding it like a bat.
"I don't think there really is an imposter in the group," Filia said after some hesitation. "But I'd still rather play it safe."
She took a step forward and nearly slipped out of her shoes. "Oh!" she moaned, biting back not a temple approved pseudo-swear, but a bona fide forbidden word. She gave up and kicked off her shoes. Walking on the wet grass wasn't any picnic, but it was better than slipping and sliding in soaked, high-heeled sandals.
Behind her, Xellos picked them up. They were really rather tacky things, with rhinestones pasted onto every available surface (except for where the rhinestones had conspicuously fallen off), but yet they were, to any seven-year-old girl or any seven-year-old at heart, slippers fit for a princess. …Except perhaps Amelia, who was actually a princess, yet seemed to favor mint-green boots.
"What makes you think that?" Xellos asked, holding the shoes awkwardly.
"Bunny!" Val pointed from Filia's arms as a rodent shot out from under a brush and nearly gave Gravos and Jillas heart attacks.
"It's just… well, I kind of agree with Miss Lina," Filia explained. "Not that Jillas isn't very important to us," she added as a qualifier, "but I don't see why any monster would go after him unless it was either a random attack or it just wanted to take the place of anyone and get in the building. If a monster was already posing as one of us, I don't see why he'd bother getting Jillas out of the way."
"Or perhaps there's no appearance-copying monster at all, and Gravos is just secretly capable of time travel," Xellos suggested, embodying the opposite of helpfulness. "I don't think the 'Gravos as Time Lord' possibility has been properly investigated."
"And besides that," Filia said sharply, ignoring his remarks entirely, "Mister Gourry was right. If one of us was an imposter, there's no way we wouldn't be able to tell."
"Mister Gourry only vouched for Miss Lina," Xellos reminded her. "And Jillas has already proven he can be fooled by someone who looks like Gravos."
"Only for a minute," Filia protested, poking her head into the gardens to see if any ghoulish figure was lurking by the pumpkins. "Then he figured out something was wrong. That's why he was able to escape."
"He only figured it out after he was attacked," Xellos replied. "And even if it only works for a minute—that might be all it needs. Look at the others," Xellos said, gesturing with Filia's silver slippers to the rest of their group.
Phil was flanked by guards and checking along the castle wall. Gravos and Jillas were off chasing the rabbit from earlier in case it proved to be a demon in disguise. Lina and Gourry were poking around some of the larger puddles left by the rain. Amelia and Zelgadis were the farthest out, searching through the trees where the castle grounds touched the forest.
"Bonds of familiarity, affection and friendship—that's what's being played upon here. And those bonds can be difficult to break. They know there could be some imposter among them. They went through all that talk about how splitting up into duos is a very bad idea. And yet, this is the way they've drifted unconsciously," he finished.
Filia shivered and blamed it on her bare feet. She and Xellos too had drifted together unconsciously. Or… perhaps quite consciously on his part. But you couldn't say their bond was based on affection or friendship. Familiarity? Certainly. But the kind that bred contempt.
"You might think you could tell the difference," Xellos commented. "That even if the face, personality and memories of a person were the same, you'd know if the soul was different. You'd just sense that something was wrong. But it's that kind of confidence that this grift requires to work even after the scheme is discovered." He smiled in the moonlight. "And even if you could tell that something wasn't right—it might be hard for you to fully strike back against an enemy who looks like someone dear to you."
Filia brushed her hair out of her eyes with the flare and held Val closer. It certainly wasn't as though he was the one that was frightened. She was sure that if he had his way that he'd be off chasing rabbits with Jillas and Gravos. But she couldn't let him out of her sight.
Filia ears pricked up as she heard squelching footsteps behind her. "What are you all doing out here?" a familiar voice asked incredulously.
They turned to see Zelgadis, looking at them as though they'd all gone crazy.
"What do you mean, what are we doing out here?" Prince Phil asked, elbowing past his entourage to where Zel was standing. "We're you paying any attention? You gotta keep sharp! There's a monster on the loose!"
"Wait… weren't you further up with Miss Amelia?" Filia asked, feeling her skin tighten into goose bumps.
Zelgadis screwed up his face at them. "Further up? I just got here."
"He must be the imposter!" an overenthusiastic guard deduced.
"Let's get him!" another one cried, as they lunged at him.
"Hold on a minute," Zelgadis said, raising his voice as he dodged them. "What imposter? Are any of you going to start making sense anytime soon?"
Lina and Gourry jogged up to the rest of the group. "Did someone say you found the imposter?" Lina asked, as she reached them. "…Zel, where'd your costume go?"
"What costume?" Zelgadis asked, annoyance near the breaking point. "I was never wearing any costume!"
"…But the other Mister Zelgadis was," Filia said in a hushed voice, her eyes meeting Prince Phil's.
"Oh no…" Miss Lina whispered.
"Amelia!" Phil shouted, breaking free of his guard and running toward the forest edge as fast as his feet could carry him. Amelia had disappeared beyond the tree-line—and so had whatever accompanied her there.
Phil, Lina, Gourry, Zelgadis and Filia, still holding Val in her arms, ran ahead of the guards through the forest. There were no screams to signal where Amelia had gotten to—no tell tale rescue flare to guide them. Phil stopped abruptly as they reached a clearing—the rest of them barely able to look up as they caught their breath and clutched stitches in their sides.
Amelia lay there fallen against the tree, her flare dropped uselessly on the ground. Her eyes were closed and her body wrapped in a cocoon of white, silky thread—like an oversized spider's snack. Standing over her was…
It wasn't quite another Amelia yet. There were her features—mostly etched in correctly, though there were places the look was definitely off, such as the ears and the chin. But it was still quite recognizable if a bit blurred. It was even wearing the super hero costume she'd chosen for that evening. Where it really didn't look right, though, was the color. There was still a tinge of grey-blue to her—of brown in her clothing. It was as though it hadn't quite finished the transformation from faux-Zelgadis to faux-Amelia.
Phil and Zelgadis didn't seem to notice the fact that they both shouted "Amelia!" at the same time. Phil rushed at the facsimile of his daughter. "What have you done to her?" he demanded.
The not-Amelia gave him a look that Amelia would never give—sharp, calculating, almost feral. It lifted up its arm and the flesh of it seemed to split, as though each finger had been ripped downward into a separate section. The strips of skin writhed in the air before stretching abruptly toward them. Gourry ducked just as it was about to strike his face—leaving a hole in the tree behind him. The not-Amelia raised its mouth to the sky and roared.
"Phil! Don't!" Lina warned as Phil raced forward, fist raised.
"Anyone who would dare to steal my beloved daughter and slander her by taking her form," Phil yelled, dodging the strikes from the sharpened rods of flesh the monster was raining down on him, "must face the Pacifist Crush!"
His fist landed its hit, but seemed to go beyond even what he intended. The unfinished face split into two parts, surrounding his hand. The skin melted away and a circle of giant teeth was revealed. The prince let out a cry as the ring of fangs tightened around his hand.
"Prince Philionel!" his guards called, having just reached the clearing.
"Stand back," Lina warned them. "This is way more than you guys can handle."
Zelgadis—the real one, that is—ran forward, his sword as red as if it had been lying in a forge. His sliced at the throat of the ersatz-Amelia, his magically-infused blade cutting easily through his foe.
Phil shook off the decapitated thing which now only barely resembled a human face. Zelgadis swept past the thing and over to the unconscious Amelia, lightly tapping at her face in the hope that it would rouse her. "Amelia? Amelia?!" he tried.
Filia had hastened to cover Val's eyes and wished she had an extra hand to cover her own. Instead she was just left to stare at the quasi-human shape in front of her. Its skin was discolored and molten, its arms shredded into unnumbered tentacles, now hanging motionless at its sides. Its head had been cut away, leaving no blood, but only a flesh colored seam at the neck. Its head was gone, but yet it still stood.
"Don't look now, guys," Lina said, bracing herself, "but I don't think that thing's dead yet!"
As if on cue, the headless neck elongated—ribbed, accordion-like. From out of it burst two half-formed faces—miniature, distorted like melted wax figures, but yet still recognizable as the faces of Gravos and Zelgadis. It seemed to have lost all focus on maintaining its disguise, as its midsection devolved into a flesh-colored puddle of jelly. The tentacles were still there though—it raised them and struck once more.
"Light come forth!" Gourry cried, leaping forward with his sword out. The magical blade buzzed and whizzed as it sliced off the tips of the tentacles before they could reach any of their targets.
"My, my. It's losing a lot of parts," Xellos commented from behind them, having only just made his presence known. "This will leave quite a mess."
Filia whipped around to give him a horrified look. His tone of benign interest was completely at odds with her desire to throw up as the sliced ends of the tentacles bled a clear and corrosive liquid into the ground that smelled like boiled puss.
"I wanna see! I wanna see!" Val shouted, trying to peek through his mother's hand.
"Trust me—you really don't!" Filia shouted back.
"Elmekia Flame!" Filia heard Lina shout. She turned around to see Lina lobbing a spell at the horrible creature. A column of white flame surrounded it. It let out a primal wail, so high pitched that Filia very nearly took her hand off of her son's eyes to cover her sensitive ears from the blast. Red-streaked tentacles billow futilely from the fire as the hot white flames ate away at its astral body.
When the flames died down, there was nothing left—just a scorch mark. Lina's second for the evening. Lina and Gourry stared at the ashen circle; Phil and Zelgadis glanced at it, but were far more absorbed trying to rouse Amelia; Filia hung her head and finally removed her hand from over her protesting son's eyes.
"Well," Xellos said, walking forward and surveying the remains. "This certainly makes clean-up a lot easier than I'd expected it would be."
"I'm so sorry everyone," Amelia lamented, back at the castle and holding the towel she'd used to wipe away the sticky silk cocoon. "I should've stayed with the group, but Mister Zelgadis… that is, the fake Mister Zelgadis said that he saw something in the trees, so I followed and before I knew it…"
"Well, that does pretty much settle it that that thing was after Phil," Lina asserted, standing beside her and nodding. "It pretended to be Zel right from the start and figured it could replace Amelia later… then it'd be easy to get Phil."
"I'm sorry you all had to go through this because of a plot against me," Phil said, putting his large hand on his daughter's shoulder.
"How come it was Zel in the first place?" Gourry asked, scratching at his chin with the handle of his soup ladle. "Did you like, fight that thing on your way here or something?" he asked Zelgadis.
"No," Zelgadis answered. "I was traveling here when I got caught in a landslide. I thought a tunnel below the road had just caved in, but now…" He glanced at Amelia. "Now I think I was delayed on purposed."
"Makes sense that it'd go after you," Lina concluded. "You're the only one traveling here alone besides Xellos. And anyway, it probably figured it could use you to get to Amelia pretty easily."
"I should've been able to tell the difference," Amelia said, picking at the woven loops on the towel ruefully. "I can't believe I let it trick me into thinking…"
"What was it… doing anyway?" Zelgadis asked, somewhat anxiously. "I mean, while it was pretending to be me."
Lina shrugged. "It just acted really grouchy and we were all completely fooled into thinking it was you."
"That's pretty much how it went," Xellos agreed cheerfully.
Admittedly Zelgadis did look rather grouchy at that remark.
"I'm just glad this whole thing is over," Filia said with a sigh of relief.
"Yes, but… this was supposed to be a fun Halloween party and now Halloween's almost over," Amelia said, looking at the ticking clock up on the wall. "We didn't even get to carve pumpkins…"
"But I wanted to carve a jack-'-lantern!" Val complained, his mouth smeared with frosting from the remnants of the cupcakes. "I was gonna do one of Xellos 'cuz his face'd be easy to drawl."
Filia sighed and refused to look at the squinty, smiling face next to her.
"Well, that would be scary," Lina said, working in a dig that Filia wished she'd thought of.
"Look on the bright side," Phil pointed out, "you all intended to stay for a few days, right? Well, it's not as though fall is suddenly over just because Halloween is. We can still carve pumpkins and go on hayrides and bob for apples tomorrow. How about that?"
"You're right, Daddy," Amelia said, looking up and brightening. "You'll all stay, right?"
"Sure," Lina said, "but pass on the bobbing for apples."
There was the sound of clomping footsteps as Gravos and Jillas pushed their way through the courtyard entrance to the hall. "Everyone! We caught the monster!" Jillas announced, holding up a rather fat and spooked looking rabbit in his gloved hands.
There was a long pause as everyone stared at him.
Finally Gravos, having taken the temperature of the room, whacked Jillas on the back of the head, causing him to lose his grip on the rabbit, which bounded away in horror. "I told ya it wasn't some stupid bunny rabbit!"
As much as the rooms in the palace were an upgrade to her regular digs, there was no doubt in Filia's mind that she would've traded them in an instant for her own room and bed. She closed the door to the guest room behind her, unable to shake the feeling of unease being suddenly alone had brought her. When there was an imposter in their midst, staying with the group meant safety. Now the imposter was gone, but that notion that vulnerability could be battled with numbers was still there.
Of course, her feeling of loneliness didn't last for very long, and once it was banished she wished it hadn't.
"Now, I thought for sure you'd have Val in with you tonight," Xellos said, his back to her as he looked out through the window. He'd opened the velvet curtains, making the moon, somehow larger tonight than Filia had ever seen it, visible. "After the scare you had earlier, why wouldn't you keep him close to you?"
"What are you doing here?" Filia demanded. He was still wearing his costume too, and all Filia wanted to do was get out of hers. Of course, she couldn't do that if he insisted on hanging around.
"Asking a question," he answered simply, without turning around.
She walked further into the room, her lips pursed as she tried to glare a hole in the back of his head. "If you must know, I offered, but he said no." She blew her bangs out of her face. "He says he's a big boy and that he's not scared."
"Well, him being scared was never the issue, was it?" Xellos said, turning his head so that she could see half of his signature smile. "You just need someone around you so that you can put up a strong front."
She didn't answer. It was strange what moonlight could do in a dark room. It seemed to catch the very edges of him—a sleek circle around his bangs, a silver outline around the tip of his nose and on his cheek. You wouldn't think starlight could be so bright until you saw it in the darkness.
He turned around in full and held up his hands in a put-upon gesture. "…I suppose you could consider me that someone."
She made a sound that she intended to turn into a pithy comeback, but unfortunately it didn't even turn into words. She just hoped her scoff got the message across.
"No?" Xellos asked, stepping closer to her. "Well, at the very least I didn't want to go to the trouble of wearing this vampire costume and not get to bite you."
"Not that again!" Filia exclaimed. "I thought I told you to keep your nasty lips away from me!"
"But aren't vampires supposed to suck the blood of virgins?" Xellos asked, strolling slowly and deliberately around her.
"So find some other virgin!" Filia retorted, turning so he couldn't get behind her. Goodness knew it shouldn't have been a difficult search in their party. …At least… Filia was pretty sure it wouldn't be. It was getting harder to say these days.
At first he said nothing. He disappeared, melting into the darkened room in a smoky haze. Filia looked around, only to feel him reappear behind her, an arm snaked around her, snug and over her ribs. "You're the only one for me," he whispered in her ear.
Filia struggled for a reply. It was hard to think with him brushing the edge of his lip across her neck. Though she could swear it wasn't just that. He was holding her so tight that he was putting pressure on her lungs. That's why she was feeling lightheaded. It wasn't for any… other reasons.
"You… you know you're not a real vampire, right?" she managed to get out, more out of exasperation than anything.
"Of course I know that," he said lightly. "Haven't you ever heard of role-playing?" And that's when she felt the fangs—not biting into her, but just sort of grazing her skin as he kissed her neck.
She opened her mouth to say something—more to protest at how tight he was holding her than the presence of his filthy monster lips on her virtuous dragon neck—but couldn't form anything coherent. She felt at a loss for air—dizzy as her vision bristled around the edges.
There was a knock at the door—a sort of brisk tap-tap-I'm-coming-in-whether-you-answer-or-not knock. The door squeaked open and a shadowed figure bounded in. "Oh Filia, you forgot your—" the figure began, but then paused, taking in the scene. "…shoes," he finished, lowering the sparkling, rhinestone sandals.
"Xe—?" Filia began in confusion, trying to turn around.
The Xellos that had been kissing her neck abruptly stopped what it was doing upon seeing the figure in the door before vanishing into the astral side without a word.
"Oooh dear," the figure in the door intoned, stepping forward in the moonlight to reveal Xellos's features. He was smiling, as per usual, but his eyebrows were drawn together.
"Xellos?" Filia repeated, doubling over as she clutched her side, breathing heavily. "Who… what… what is going on here?!"
"You know, I thought it was a bit odd that the head disappeared," Xellos mused, his smile still rather bitter as he recalled the fight from earlier. "Mister Zelgadis cut it off and Prince Philionel tossed it away, but I don't remember anyone ever finding it. If I had to guess, I'd suppose it crawled off to cause some more mischief."
"So that was…?" Filia began, the awful truth hitting her. She held her palms over each cheek, scrunching up her face and trying to will away the previous moment.
"Yes," Xellos confirmed. "And you seemed to be getting pretty friendly with it," he added, giving her a look that seemed to say "I'm not going to judge you but… oh, who am I kidding? I'm judging you. I'm judging you hard."
"Of course," Xellos went on as Filia began wishing she could sandpaper off the skin on her neck where the thing had touched her, "this does throw a bit of a wrench in the idea of Prince Philionel being this demon's target. You're hardly a good choice to incapacitate and replace if that's what he wanted."
Filia's ears pricked up, her revulsion momentarily forgotten. "Then who is he after?"
Xellos held up his forefinger. "Prince Philionel is not the only person in this party of strategic significance. Now, we know he came to this party in the form of Mister Zelgadis, but he quickly tried to ditch this disguise since he found it unsuited to his goals. First he went after Jillas—a rather odd choice considering that he could've captured and replaced any of the others who went off alone. In any case, he failed. Next he tried to take the place of Miss Amelia, which we can attribute largely to an act of desperation since he had been discovered and needed a new form with which to hide. …And then, when we thought he'd been destroyed, he attempted to knock out and replace you. So who among are party is valuable and easily accessible both to you and Jillas?"
"Oh… oh no," Filia whispered. She didn't remember deciding to move, only that before she knew it she must've pushed past Xellos and out into the hall, running as fast as she could possibly go.
She cursed herself as she ran along the passage to the room Val was staying in. How could she have been so stupid? Of course the last ancient dragon in existence was a likely target, but she'd just let the Phil thing blindside her. What would've happened if the real Xellos hadn't come along and that thing had suffocated her and taken her place? Would it have gone to Val's room and spirited him away into the night? Or would it simply have waited until morning and left with Val normally, so that none of the others would even realize he'd been kidnapped?
A jolt of terror shot down her spine when she reached his room. The door lay open and the bed had been disturbed, but there was no sign of Val until…
"Mommy, I have a twin!"
There, standing hand in hand, just below the window were two plump little boys, decked out in an ill-suited witch costume with a flash of unbrushed, aqua hair. Filia stared from one set of bright, amber eyes to the other, completely at a loss.
"She's not your Mommy, she's mine!" the one on the left complained.
"If we're twins, she's both our Mommy," the one on the right reasoned uncertainly. "…But she's more my Mommy," he decided eventually.
Filia reached down on impulse for her mace, but found nothing. All she had was her dinky not-so-magic wand. She pointed it forward anyway, trying to make it look intimidating. "Get away from my Val!" she ordered, her wand swaying back and forth between them.
"But I am Val!" they both chorused.
Filia stared from one to the other, finally honing in on the one on the left. Yes… her signals were confused but she definitely felt that… well, it was different from how it had been in the dark room when there had been no ready reference for comparison, at the end of a long day when romance didn't sound quite so insane in the full moon's light. Now… now they were side by side. Now there was a choice. And suddenly amidst the almost perfect sameness, every tiny difference felt… uncanny—the modulation in the voice, the movement of the face, the way it stood. Yes… it was nearly perfect, but nearly perfect isn't perfect.
She turned her prop wand on the one on the left. "It's you," she said coldly. "I know it's you. Show yourself!"
"What are you talking about, Mommy?" the cherubic little figure asked.
"Mommy, is something wrong?" the one on the right asked.
"Look, you're not fooling me," Filia shouted, her voice breaking. "So just hurry up and transform so I can… so I can…" It hit her. Xellos was right. She knew the little creature to her left wasn't Val. She knew it was the same slimy, loathsome beast they thought they'd destroyed in the forest. But she couldn't strike it. Not while it looked like him.
And it knew she couldn't. "Mommy, are you mad at me?" it asked meekly.
"I don't know about her, but I have to say I'm at least a little peeved," came a voice from behind them.
Filia turned to see Xellos appear in a silhouette of purple sparkles. Peeved? Yes. He'd looked that way since he'd walked in on…
"Is that the one?" Xellos asked, pointing to the figure on the left.
Filia nodded mutely.
"W-wait! I am Val!" the figure on the left asserted, eyes wide. "Don't you believe me?" it asked, addressing Xellos.
"No," he said simply. "I believe her." He snapped his fingers and the figure was engulfed in black flame.
Filia rushed over to get Val out of the way as the figure on the left roared. Its arms elongated as it flailed, losing their definition and turning into just one of many tentacles that sprung from the beast. Its roar grew higher pitched, turning into a scream as the fire ate into it. Its face shrunk into something that could never be mistaken for human, emitting a final cry before it disintegrated.
"Normally I wouldn't get involved," Xellos commented, studying his gloved fingers. "But I can't say I particularly cared for the… ah, let's call it copyright infringement."
It was well after three in the morning before Filia could actually retire back to her bedroom. It had taken awhile to explain the goings on to Val—that his new shape-shifting friend hadn't really been a friend at all. For all her complicated explanations, what it came down to with Val was simply, "So he was a bad monster?" A bad monster. Some day she'd have to explain to him that they were all bad, that there really wasn't such a thing as a good monster. It was a tough sell these days, with Xellos around.
After all that, getting Val to bed was even more of a trouble—particularly since it was interspersed with people waking up and wanting an explanation for the commotion. Eventually, though, Val had fallen fast asleep, the events of the evening were explained to the rest of their party, they'd all changed out of their ridiculous costumes, and the palace troops stuck their chests out to go on manly patrols through the grounds now that the danger was well and over.
All was taken care of now except…
"You made quite a big deal out of the fact that you could tell the difference between an imposter and the real thing," Xellos commented, appearing by the vanity in the corner of the room. "And you managed to do so with Val. So, tell me, why couldn't you do the same for me?"
Filia sighed. "I don't know… I guess it was just… dark, that's all. I wasn't expecting it either. And, you know, with Val I was looking at the real thing and the fake one at the same time."
"Dark, hmm?" Xellos hummed, rather unimpressed with this excuse. "It must've been quite adept at replicating my famous charm if it could fool you even in the dark. Not figuring out it was Mister Zelgadis is one thing, but you know me better, Filia."
"It acted smug and insinuating if that's really your definition of charm," Filia countered, but she couldn't put much bite in it. She was surprised too. Surprised that that thing had tricked her, and more surprised that the real one seemed particularly… annoyed that she'd been tricked.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and decided to give an inch on this one. "I… I suppose it might also be that… maybe I sort of… didn't really want to question it."
He surveyed her carefully, and then sat down on the edge of the bed next to her. "Sort of a… 'Xellos is kissing me and that's a little odd, but I'm not going to complain about it in case he stops' kind of thing?"
"Well… not exactly," Filia said, turning her blushing face away from him. "But… I… I just didn't want it to turn out to be that gross copy-monster kissing me," she finished lamely. "I'd rather it was you. That's at least slightly less disgusting."
Xellos turned this over in his mind. "That might be a compliment from you," he decided. "So… I guess this isn't your way of saying you'd like neck-kissing on a more regular basis in the future?"
"No!" she responded.
"Ah. So more of a special occasion sort of thing, then?" he put forth sagely.
She groaned and let her head fall into her hands.
"Cheer up, Filia," he said, clapping her on the back and grinning. "Everything turned out alright in the end; it's not as though the fact that you completely and utterly fell for my imposter's seduction attempt ended up dooming you or your family after all."
"Thanks a lot," she retorted through her hands. "That doesn't exactly make me feel better."
"You know, if anything, I'm the one who should be upset about this," Xellos asserted. "After all, this situation was the most unfair to me."
She very slowly lifted her head and stared at him, mouth hanging open and nose wrinkled. "Unfair to you?" she repeated incredulously.
"Of course," he said, tapping his fingers thoughtfully against his leg. "I suppose," he began after some thought, "that we must endeavor to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again."
"Oh, and what exactly do you suggest I do?" Filia asked, teeth clenched. "Never go to costume parties without checking first to see if shape shifting monsters were invited?"
"That would be silly," Xellos answered. "Shape shifting monsters are party-crashers. No, what you need to do is make sure you can identify the real me beyond a shadow of a doubt. For that, you'll need to get to know me better than you already do."
She winced. "I don't even like what I already know. I don't want to see more. And anyway," she added, "how am I supposed to do that when you're always keeping secrets?"
Xellos cupped his chin in his hand. "You make a good point," he allowed, "but I think we can work around that. So," he said, looking at her brightly, "we'll begin your crash course in all that is Xellos tomorrow. Are you looking forward to it?"
"I'd almost rather get kissed by that copy-monster again," Filia answered grimly.
Xellos decided to take that "almost" as a "yes." "Excellent," he said.
And what exactly would a Xellos-related study course look like? Filia couldn't help but wonder. Surely there would be some quizzing. "Which is my favorite color: lavender or lilac?" or something like that. Perhaps he'd use some illusion spells to create multiple versions of himself. Something like "One of these Xelloses is not like the others." Multiple Xelloses. It was a troubling thought.
But yet, there was a way in which she could understand his desire to be known unmistakably. She wasn't just frustrated and vaguely grossed out that she'd allowed an imposter to momentarily trick her… there was guilt there too. It was the same guilt that Amelia had felt for not being about to realize Zelgadis was the fake. It was the same guilt Filia would've felt to the extreme if she couldn't tell the different between her real son and a pretender. She and Xellos were… familiar, even if only contemptuously familiar. She should've known better. She knew she should've known better.
There was a low knock on the door and for one stomach-toppling moment Filia was afraid that a Xellos would be at the door again—that this masquerade had more layers to be revealed—but it was just Val, barely tall enough to reach up and open the door. He walked in and looked wide-eyed at the two of them, his witch costume finally shed in favor of blue and white striped pajamas.
"Are you okay, Val?" she asked, standing up. "Can't sleep?"
He shuffled up to her. "I had a bad dream," he confessed, rubbing his eyes. "Can I sleep with you tonight?"
"I'm not surprised after everything that happened," Filia said. "Of course you can."
It was a bit of a relief to have him there in the room with her. Xellos… well, the fake Xellos had been right about the fact that it helped to have someone around to make her brave. With Val, she could be brave in his place—for Xellos she could at least pretend to be brave in front of him; and that pretending tended to make her feel braver in general. For the purposes of being brave this evening… well, she was really only going to allow one of them in her bed and it wasn't going to be Xellos.
…Speaking of Xellos… as Val climbed up into the bed and pulled the covers over himself, she shot Xellos a look that tried to communicate something along the lines of: "You. Out. Now."
But he didn't seem to get the message. "Did you have a bad dream too?" Val asked Xellos.
"Oh yes," Xellos said, ignoring Filia's don't-you-dare glare. "Yes I did. But now your mother won't let me stay with her for the night."
"Aww, Mommy why?" Val asked, turning his over-large eyes on Filia who was murdering Xellos in her mind. "If he's scared, can't he stay with us?"
"He's a big boy, Val," Filia said, stabbing her eyes into Xellos's smiling face. "He can deal with it on his own."
"I suppose she's right," Xellos allowed with a thankfully fangless grin. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
Val crawled forward to the foot of the bed and wrapped his arms around Xellos's neck. "'Night," he said before heading back under the covers.
It was at moments like that where Filia thought she should have a word with Val about getting too close to Xellos. But after the events of the evening… well, she couldn't find the will to do so. Her reasons had something to do with pots and kettles and their relative levels of blackness.
"Sleep tight, Filia," he said, opening one eye in a little reverse wink before he teleported away.
Val was looking between the disappearing Xellos and his mother, his arms folded neatly over the plush comforter. "Does this mean Xellos doesn't sleep under your bed?" he asked, as though an established truth was being questioned.
"What?" Filia asked, caught off-guard. "Where would you ever get an idea like that?"
"Well… you said Xellos is a monster… an' Macy Colsen says monsters hide under beds," Val concluded.
Filia rubbed her forehead ruefully. "No… no he doesn't do that. And don't repeat that to him," she added. "I don't want him getting any ideas," she muttered.
"Anyway," she said, leaning over and kissing her son's forehead. "Let's keep the questions on hold tonight. It's way past both our bedtimes."
"'Kay," Val agreed with a yawn.
Filia climbed under the covers and reached over to dim the lamp. It had been quite a costume party in more ways than one, but she was glad they could all put it behind them now. They could still carve jack-o-lanterns the next day and take a few hayrides—maybe even jump into piles of leaves if they all remembered to check themselves for ticks afterwards. Halloween was over, but there was still autumn left to enjoy and she intended to make the most of it. Heck, maybe even the full-immersion Xellos lessons wouldn't be so bad—at least compared to everything else that had happened.
"G'night, Mommy," Val murmured as she hugged him close under the warm covers.
"Good night, Val," Filia answered.
…One thing was for sure: she was glad the time for wearing costumes was over. Without a doubt, it was better to be who they really were.