The Man of My Nightmares.
"I am so sorry about this, Miss Filia," Amelia confessed in a shrill whisper too quiet for even the guests seated at the nearby table to hear, let alone anyone else in the crowded ballroom.
Filia smiled fixedly, aware that every guest in the room had their eyes on the princess. It was all so bizarre. Here was Amelia on her big day—wearing a dress that probably cost more than Filia's house—all grace and royal dignity; here she was, the absolute apple of the eye of Seyruun's celebrating residents; here she was, finally married to Zelgadis after much feet-dragging and excuses on his part. This was the happiest day of her life. And yet, she felt the need to deliver a sincere apology for making the kind of hard decisions that any reception planner must inevitably make.
Filia glanced from Amelia to Zelgadis, dressed up in his military best and with a thin, ceremonial sword tucked at his side, so unlike his usual broadsword. He was letting Amelia take care of the heavy-duty meeting-and-greeting of the wedding guests while his eyes shot back and forth suspiciously across the room—still more in the mindset of a guard than a groom.
"He was probably going to show up anyway and I had to put him somewhere," Amelia was explaining in her ear.
Filia eyes were drawn magnetically to Xellos, still standing at her side after getting up from his chair to receive the greetings of the bride and groom. He was grinning, damn him. Of course he was grinning.
"There are a lot of really important people here today," Amelia continued wretchedly. "I just thought… maybe if I sat you two at the same table that he'd be too focused on you to cause trouble with anyone else."
Filia's stomach still boiled with wrathful acid from the discovery—the indignity as the usher directed her to her assigned table and she found Xellos sitting there in that faux-innocent manner of his. A card sat on his place setting with his name in a flourishing script—the place right next to it had a similar card with her own name.
And she'd thought it had to be some kind of mistake. Or that perhaps Xellos had moved the place settings himself. Amelia wouldn't have purposefully tried to torture her by seating her next to Xellos. That's what she'd told herself… but…
"Sorry…" Amelia finished, drawing back from her with an unrelentingly pitiful look. It must've been hard to look so pathetic in a skirt that nearly tripled her size, but she managed it.
Filia strove to speak, remembering first to unclench her teeth. "It's… it's fine," she finally said, breaking into an uneasy smile. "You shouldn't worry about that anyway. I mean… today's about you."
Amelia let out a massive sigh of relief before tipping her silk-enshrined form forward to hug the former priestess. "I knew you'd understand!" she cried.
Filia kept her smile in place as Amelia greeted the rest of the people at their table—second cousins twice removed or other such obscure relatives that no one could keep track of, but who got invited to big family events anyway. As soon as Amelia drifted away toward the next table, to attend to her other guests, Filia's smile immediately dropped. She turned to Xellos, silently broadcasting her displeasure.
"What?" he asked, giving his attention to her after gesturing with one last wave to Amelia and Zelgadis.
"Must you ruin all blessed occasions?" she asked him coldly.
He sat down in his chair, flaring out the tails on his suit jacket as he did so. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said. "I haven't ruined anything at all. I'm just trying to enjoy my Chicken Kiev in peace."
Filia sat down at his side with a disbelieving, "A likely story!"
Despite his claim, Xellos's attention was focused much more heavily on Filia than on the breaded chicken dish sitting on his plate. He tapped his fork against the table a few times, a thoughtful look on his face. "I think I know where all this bitterness of yours is coming from," he finally concluded, arching an eyebrow at her. "What do they say? 'Always a bridesmaid, never a bride?'"
Filia clucked her tongue in exasperation. "That's… that's not even… Well, look, I'm not even a bridesmaid so that doesn't apply."
"Oh really?" Xellos asked, slightly taken aback. "I assumed you were. That mockery of fuchsia and ribbons you're wearing looked like the sort of dress a bride who wanted to guarantee she wasn't competing for attention with any of the wedding party would assign."
Filia glowered, straightening out the wrinkles on an overly puffed sleeve as she did so. There's being evil and then there's just being catty. "I'll have you know, I made this dress myself."
Xellos picked up a glass of wine, staring into the liquid as he swilled it around. "That explains a great deal."
She swiveled around in her chair to face him in full, ignoring the cooling meal on her dish. "Well, why don't you explain to me how you don't even know who's in the wedding party? I didn't know spies were so unobservant."
He made a little "Pfft" sound before taking a drink of his wine. "The logical explanation would be that I didn't attend the wedding."
Filia was stuck for a moment. It made sense. She hadn't seen him at the wedding, but assumed he'd be observing from a distance. "So… you showed up at the reception, but not the wedding?" she asked skeptically.
Xellos shrugged. "In my experience, receptions are much more rewarding to attend than weddings." He cast his glance upwards in reflection for a moment. "I think it has something to do with an open bar and the promise of cake."
"So you're just here to mooch!" she concluded, not bothering to keep her voice down. "I bet you weren't even invited."
"There was a place already prepared for me when I arrived," he argued. "I think that implies an invitation."
"Ha!" she returned. "Forcing people to plan around your gate-crashing isn't the same as being invited. It couldn't be clearer that you're completely unwanted here!"
He chewed a bite of his chicken thoughtfully. "That is both harsh and unfair," he said after a moment. "But I'll overlook it since it is clear that your aggression is born out of fear of becoming an old maid."
She let out a scoffing noise. "You're out of your mind," she informed him.
Perhaps she would've elaborated, but a cough from the other half of the table turned both their gazes away from each other. "Umm… excuse me?" one of their table mates cut in—a woman with slightly greying hair and a ridiculous hat. Filia couldn't read the woman's name tag from her angle, but it seemed to be quite lengthy. "I don't mean to interrupt," she said, turning toward Xellos with the corners of her mouth drawn down in concern, "but I was wondering… you're not one of those dastardly men who show up at weddings they're not invited to for the sole purpose of taking advantage of the desperation of single women are you?"
Xellos stared at her, momentarily unable to respond. "Um… no," he finally said. "No, I'm not."
The woman across the table dropped her judgmental gaze and stared instead into her soup. "Oh," was all she said. She sounded somewhat disappointed.
Filia realized that her jaw had fallen open at some point in the course of this exchange and attempted, with some difficulty, to correct it. "Is…" she began, not quite sure how to continue as she gave Xellos a horrified look. "Is that one of the 'rewards' of wedding receptions?"
Xellos gave her a weary look. "If it was, Filia, ask yourself this," he responded in a withering tone, "do you think I'd be sitting with you?"
Before Filia could answer, a chiming rang out from the head table. She craned her neck around to see the wedding party, having concluded their exhausting meet-and-greet, back in their seats. There were familiar faces—Amelia and Zelgadis of course, along with Lina and Gourry who seemed to have had their patience tested by forgoing food to act in their roles as maid of honor and best man. They already had forks and knives in hand and were glaring at the figure sitting on one side of Amelia, who had interrupted their chow-down before it even began.
King Philionel was tapping at his wine glass with a spoon to command everyone's attention. He seemed to have pulled himself together a great deal since the wedding, when Filia had last seen him. It was quite a sight to see a man that big and self-assured weeping as though he'd never run out of tears. But it was a proud sort of crying. Filia was sure that, after all Seyruun had been through in the last year, that the new King was relieved to trade the mournful tears shed after the death of his father, King Eldoran, for the joyous tears at the marriage of his youngest daughter.
There were other faces there that Filia did not recognize—members of the royal family, perhaps. There was an old woman with grey haired piled up high on her head, holding a handbag and wearing a look of displeasure. Her hat had a taxidermy starling perched on top of it which was… an odd choice for wedding attire. Next to her sat a rail thin, tiny old man who seemed to be enjoying the proceedings much more than his seat-mate. Closer to the center of the table and the bride and groom, sat a very tall woman who was in the process of downing a mug of beer. Despite the fact that the wedding party couldn't have been seated at the table for very long, she already had quite a few empty glasses in front of her. She slammed the empty mug down on the table and motioned to a waiter for another one, pawing at her bridesmaid dress all the while as though not used to wearing so much clothing.
"People of Seyruun," the King began, a broad smile on his face. "Loved ones, distinguished guests, today we celebrate the union of my dear daughter Amelia and—"
"Oh, it's just a toast," Xellos murmured, drawing Filia's attention away from the King. He put his spoon back on the table. "I thought we were going to peer pressure the bride and groom into kissing."
"What?" Filia whispered, raising an eyebrow at him.
"Hmm?" Xellos turned to look at her. "…Ah, that's right, you probably haven't been to too many human weddings. It's just a silly little tradition. Guests will clink their glasses in order to get the bride and groom to kiss."
"That's… strange," Filia commented, stealing a glance at Zelgadis. He already seemed uncomfortable with these proceedings, being goaded into a public display of affection probably wouldn't have helped.
Xellos opened one eye and looked at her lazily. "Strange? I suppose. Don't dragons have any such traditions?" he asked. "I'd assume so. You're such a highly ritual-driven people after all."
"Well, we don't have any rituals like that," Filia responded, taken aback. "Nothing to make anyone kiss in public. That doesn't even happen at the weddings themselves."
"Of course not," Xellos responded patiently. "Such a spontaneous show of warmth and fondness would be far too scandalous for your uptight, reptilian sensibilities to process. No, I just meant," he went on, talking over Filia's attempt to register her umbrage at his less than respectful attitude toward dragon sensibilities, "I wanted to know what sort of wedding traditions you dragons keep." He held up a gloved finger to make his point. "This may surprise you, Filia, but, for one reason or another, I've never been invited to a dragon wedding."
"One reason or another?!" Filia screeched as silently as she could, knowing that they were drawing annoyed looks from guests who were trying to focus on Phil's toast. "You know exactly what the reason is!"
"…May their future together, and as leaders of Seyruun, be bright," Philionel finished, lifting his glass high and taking a drink.
Filia reached out for her glass at the last minute and took a furious swig which she nearly choked on. She was doing it. She was letting Xellos distract her from properly enjoying the reception.
"Yes, well," Xellos began again, talking through the cheers from the guests after he finished taking a drink, "with that in mind, I'm not exactly likely to be a guest of honor at those sorts of affairs. I thought perhaps you could enlighten me. What characterizes a dragon wedding?"
Filia was silent for a moment. She folded her hands in her lap while their tablemates dug into their dinner before it got too cold. "…Fire," she finally said.
"Fire?" he repeated as the orchestra started playing soft, digestion-aiding nothings from the corner stage.
"Yes," she confirmed. "It's…" She absentmindedly smeared the mashed potatoes on her plate into a circle shape. "There's a large ring of kindling they set out where the ceremony takes place. Most of it's the usual sort of thing… wood, rope, sweet smelling grasses, but there's usually something a little extra. The bride and groom each choose a personal item of theirs—a piece of clothing, an article of furniture, a document—something that symbolizes their lives before they were together."
"And then they burn it," Xellos concluded, pressing his napkin against his upper lip. "Rather dramatic, but then again, I suppose we are talking about golden dragons."
"It's not just that," Filia cut in, choosing not to comment on the perceived melodrama of her people. "When they set the kindling ablaze, all the guests flap their wings to make the flames grow higher and higher—until it's just a column of fire. The bride and groom fly into the center of it from above and that's where they say their vows."
"I'm assuming this is more a tradition of the Fire Dragon King's followers, than of the golden dragons as a whole," Xellos commented, taking another bite of his meal. His eyebrows drew together slightly, perplexed. "Still… that's an awfully hellish setting for a wedding."
Filia went for a drink of wine and rolled her eyes. "You wouldn't get it," she said. "Of course a monster would only think that fire is for destroying things. Dragons understand fire. Fire warms houses, hatches eggs, melts ice. And that's not even mentioning our fine tradition of smithing."
She chewed thoughtfully on a piece of chicken. "Anyway, the idea of fire being dangerous and violent is part of the point. It's… well, it's a trial by fire, I guess you could say. Flying into that swirling mass of flame is frightening, even a little bit risky. But that danger is supposed to cement the union between the bride and the groom. They've passed through the fire—they've overcome that to be together."
Xellos sat back in his chair as the strains of violins played. "I already mentioned the dragon race's love of theatrics, but I suppose I didn't even know the half of it. But…" he began, cupping his chin in his hand. "I suppose I can somewhat see the logic of how living through a catastrophic situation with someone might strengthen your bond with them."
He looked at her, as though wondering if she had any thoughts on the matter. She appeared not to. Instead, she put another forkful of mashed potatoes into her mouth and stared ahead at the two women sitting across from them—trying to embroil themselves in a private conversation and ignore the sporadic interactions on the other side of the table.
"And would you have anything like this?" Xellos pushed on, after it was clear that she wasn't going to comment. "A wedding reception? Some kind of feast?"
She cleared her throat. "No, nothing like that," she answered. "In fact, usually the newly married couple goes off on their own right after the wedding ceremony is completed."
"To?" Xellos asked.
"Traditionally?" she clarified, specifically not looking directly at him. "To gather nesting materials."
"…Ah," he surmised, a small, knowing smile on his face. "Honeymoon."
She nearly dropped her fork. "It's not…" she began, "It's not really about that." She straightened up in her chair, looking upwards imperiously. "It's an ancient tradition that began when dragon settlements were more scattered. New couples had to set up households in caves or forests. Now, for dragons that make the temple their home, the trip is really more about giving the couple some time on their own."
"Exactly as I said," he said, his smile not at all dimmed. "What do you think they want time on their own for?" He shook his head. "I know the dragon race likes to put business before pleasure, but when the business is reproduction… well…"
She grimaced, a slight blush on her face. "The dragon race doesn't… we don't really…"
"What, ever?" he interrupted her, a mock-aghast look on his face as he leaned in to force eye-contact.
"You don't understand," she snapped. "It takes a lot of resources to feed dragon young, and the temple only has limited space. And anyway, dragons live much longer than, say, humans, so they're not as concerned with… replacing themselves. So there's a need to be…" she struggled for the word, "…careful."
Xellos leaned back in his chair, giving back some of the personal space he'd stolen. "I see," he said. "How very austere."
She hesitated before making a response. Generally speaking, her default policy was to disagree with Xellos. This was almost always the right and true thing to do. However, in this case… "Going to a human wedding, where there's such a sense of… celebration," she began wistfully, "I have to admit, that by comparison, my people treat the occasion with much more… solemnity." She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her pointed ear. "It's almost like there's a sense of loss about it."
"Did you ever think you'd do it?" Xellos asked, his question rushing out as though it had been lined up long before she stopped speaking.
"What?" she asked, giving him a wide-eyed look.
"Marry," he said. "Burn a symbol of your youth and innocence, fly through the circle of flame, take part in an ancient breeding ritual that your society has nearly rendered pointless."
She was stuck for a response for a moment. It all sounded so bleak when he put it that way. "I… I suppose in the back of my mind I thought I would," she admitted, thinking back. "But it was never really a priority."
He nodded wisely, reaching toward his plate for a bread roll. "I'm sure that makes the fact that you can't anymore much less disappointing," he remarked, breaking the roll in half.
Her forehead creased as she turned over his pronouncement. "Why do you keep saying that?" she asked. She wasn't exactly bursting with the desire for matrimony, but his continued poking at the subject was starting to get annoying.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said, taking a bite of bread. "I just sort of assumed that after your very dramatic and principled exit from the society of your people, that you weren't currently shopping around for a new temple in which to serve."
When he put it like that… "Well, of course not," she said stiffly.
"That eliminates your primary chance for companionship on that level," he opined. He grazed the tip of his index finger thoughtfully against his chin. "I suppose, though, we should never say never," he added. "There's always the lively and controversial world of interspecies marriage to consider. There's your sort of 'adoptive' people—the humans. And you get along quite well with beastmen, I've noticed."
"I hope you're not suggesting that I marry Jillas," Filia returned coldly.
"You'll hurt his feelings with talk like that, Filia," Xellos replied, a pleased smile on his face. "No, I think the humans are worthy of the most consideration here. You are, after all, taking human form and living primarily amongst humans. There's a degree to which you can fall into their mindset and thus relate to them—you have many human friends. But…" he went on, as though they'd approached the knotty part of the issue, "…ultimately, the relationship could only go so far before certain incompatibilities might become obvious. Possibly insurmountable ones."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "…What are you talking about?"
"Well, as you and I well know, Filia, though you are able to nearly perfectly imitate human form," he coughed here and added: "most of the time" in a mumble, "you still retain many of the attributes of your true, dragon form—such as weight, strength and stamina." He raised an eyebrow at her. "That might be a little… much for the average human to take."
She hadn't quite arrived at his point yet, but was close enough to dislike where this was going.
He sighed magnanimously. "Either you'd have to be a much more restrained lover than I assume you to be or…" He tut-tut-tutted with his tongue a couple of times. "Let's just say, crushed pelvises are a possible hazard a human suitor of yours would have to contend with."
"How dare you! You… You REPULSIVE, VULGAR BEAST!"
Smack. Her chair hit the floor and the reality of the many, many other people in the room hit Filia. They gawked at her, mouths agape at the red-faced, visibly shaking woman standing before the table. She was huffing and puffing and looked one moment from blowing the house down. Filia tore her gaze from Xellos (who was incidentally looking very proud of his workmanship) to the head table where Amelia was wearing a "No please! No! Not here! Not now!" expression.
Slowly, and under a great deal of pressure, Filia leaned down and righted her chair. Aware of the gaze of hundreds of people upon her, and none more prominent than the two ladies at her own table who were already trying to edge their way toward another group, she sat back down. She took several deep breaths, staring only at her hands—still clenched in shuddering fists.
"Ummm… everyone please try to finish up your meals quickly," Amelia tried from the head table. Her voice was higher than usual and to Filia it sounded as though it was coming from the other end of a long tunnel. "They're going to be bringing the cake out soon."
It took a few minutes, but the crowd grudgingly resumed its chatter—though not without stealing several intrigued or appalled looks at the dragon girl sitting at a table not too far away from the royal family.
As Filia gradually got her breathing under control and managed to persuade her fists to unclench, she took a moment to give herself a bit of a mental pep talk—perhaps even a congratulations. Granted, that outburst didn't exactly look good. But the fact of the matter was that only a few years ago a comment like that from Xellos would've almost certainly goaded her into transforming. She was getting better at resisting—better at keeping her human appearance intact regardless of what her wildly running emotions.
"The tail might be a bit of a problem as well," Xellos said in a tone that might've been described as gentle if it wasn't so obvious how much fun he was having.
Filia looked down and, sure enough, there was a golden-scaled tail poking out from under her skirt. She quickly slid it under the table and decided that she was still doing pretty well, self-control-wise, because she hadn't 1. Transformed fully; or 2. Beat Xellos over the head with a silver platter.
She took another deep breath. "You are," she began, but had to pause to take a minute to ensure that she stayed under control, "the vilest creature I have ever met in my life."
"Charming, as ever," Xellos responded, not at all impressed by her more focused rage. "But did it ever cross your mind that I'm doing you a service by making you aware of uncomfortable truths?"
She said nothing, but she did not look like a woman who felt she had been provided excellent service.
"These are things you should probably consider if you ever intend to find the so-called 'man of your dreams,'" Xellos informed her, an ironic smile in place.
Filia snorted. "Well, I've already found the man of my nightmares," she grumbled.
Xellos chuckled. "Those weren't nightmares," he informed her.
"…And, you know, perhaps I'm not a bad choice," he added, after a moment's thought. "You wouldn't have the same problems with me that you might have with others outside your own race. I'm much more… ah, durable than your average man. And I can't say I mind the tail at all."
Her face contorted in disgust. "Don't you even pretend to take that idea seriously," she warned him.
"But it's more than that," he went on, ignoring her comment. "I don't think either of us knows anyone else even half as well as we know each other. And that must count for something, regardless of whether your dreams of me are good or bad."
Filia opened her mouth to respond. His every comment had been catching her off-guard, but this one did so for a different reason. His previous comments had almost seemed like he was betting with himself as to how far he could push her—how much he could offend those uptight, reptilian sensibilities that he accused her of having. Perhaps it was just in contrast to those comments that that last one seemed so different.
She was spared replying, though, by the announcement that the cake had arrived—a lush, multilayered thing with columns of frosting in white and pale pink. Candied flowers ran down its sides like an overflowing fountain of botanical saccharinity. Filia watched as it was rolled—carefully—up to the princess and the new prince on a cart. Zelgadis stood up and was handed a knife by the chef. The action felt rehearsed, maybe because of the stiffness in Zelgadis's manner (though he can hardly help that). Amelia followed behind him, placing a hand over his. When she looked into his eyes, some of the nervous aggression seemed to fade from them—some of the anger at this perfunctory ritual that was required of him in order to have the things he needed and wanted in life—some of the fear at the privacy of their tender moment being invaded. With that attitude, they reached upward and, together, cut the first slice of cake. Everyone in the room broke out into applause.
And that moment hurt a little—the simple sweetness of it all. The idea of this matrimonial world being blockaded had never really occurred to Filia before that day. It wasn't something that entered her daily thoughts—her desires or her priorities. Perhaps there was some small tendril of expectation in the back of her mind—a leftover from her childhood—but it was barely acknowledged. If it had snuck to the forefront of her mind then she probably would've come to terms with it as unlikely in her situation—and she would've done so on her own. It was Xellos's smug flaunting of the idea that she couldn't ever have this which had made her itch at the thought—to want to have something that he said she couldn't. But even that she could've gotten beyond with time. It was just one of Xellos's taunts after all. But seeing a moment like that between Zelgadis and Amelia, who had overcome so many difficulties to be together… The companionship that they shared fell off them like fumes, leaving her with a contact-high of affection. She couldn't experience something like that without feeling a little lonely… especially when grappling with the concept of "never."
Xellos watched her face as this feeling passed through her. "I suppose you could always try to catch the bouquet," he suggested. "The woman who catches it is supposedly the next one to get married. Since the odds are against you, why not appeal to superstition?"
"What's the point?" Filia asked dully, resting her elbows on the table and letting her head fall into the cradle of her hands.
He tilted his head to the side. "Oh, Filia," he said quietly, "have I destroyed all sense of romance in you?"
"Shouldn't you be proud?" she asked sourly.
"Not particularly, no."
She lifted her head out of her hands, sitting up straight as she stared at the dance floor beyond her, where, very soon, the bride and groom would have their first dance. It was safe to say, that being a bride was almost certainly not in her future. That was alright, really. It wasn't a necessity. But… she could dance. She could still dance. And damn it, she would dance.
It just came down to finding the right partner. She gave a sigh of inevitability and turned to look at Xellos, who was being passed his promised cake by a waiter. Xellos. The evil, obnoxious, no-good, very-bad, durable and tail-tolerating speaker of uncomfortable truths who she knew better than anyone else and who knew her better than anyone else. The man of her nightmares indeed. But, if you wanted to get technical about it, nightmares still counted as dreams.
As for Xellos, he wasn't much thinking about dancing or about cake. It occurred to him that a bouquet would not be the only flying object up for grabs by the time this reception was over. It would not be difficult, he realized, to guarantee that he would be the one to snatch up the flung garter belt before any of the bachelors waiting to be unconfirmed could make the catch.
Of course, Xellos had little use for a token that would proclaim him the next man in attendance to be a groom. Marriage was a concern of the mortal races and certainly not any of his business.
…On the other hand… he knew a woman who could always use another garter belt.