“Why am I always at war with myself? Why have I told,
as if upon compulsion, what I knew all along I ought to have withheld?
Why am I making a friend of this woman beside me,
in spite of the whispers against her I hear in my heart?”
~Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Chapter 6. Negative Attention.
It was the next day and they’d been traveling in relative silence for hours. After what had happened yesterday Xellos pretty much expected that. What threw him off was the kind of silence.
It wasn’t angry silence. Lord knows, he’d be fine with angry silence. He’d expected angry silence. At this point, hell, he’d embrace it. Anything was better than this… dead silence.
She wasn’t talking to him. Again, this wasn’t really anything new on the surface of it. But generally people at least go so far as to say: “I hate you! I’m never talking to you again!” Then, of course, they’ll only break this sacred vow of silence if they think of something insulting to say to you or to respond to something insulting you’ve said to them. “Not talking” to someone can make quite a lot of noise, actually.
But this time it wasn’t like that. She would say things, but they were basically things like: “which path should we take?” or “I’m thirsty. I need to stop at this spring”. Beyond that she had nothing to say to him.
Again, not an angry silence… more like… she was done expending any kind of feeling, good or bad on this entire expedition. It wasn’t worth getting upset or angry. He wasn’t worth wasting perfectly good words on.
Now, Xellos was completely unaware that for a very brief period of time he’d been weaseling his way into her good books, but it was perfectly clear to him now that he’d left her bad books a long time ago and the books he was now inhabiting were in a dumpster behind a library because nobody wanted them.
It was just... against the natural order of things, that’s what it was. Filia wasn’t supposed to be aloof and unflappable. She was supposed to be a sulky parcel of unexploded rage wearing a stupid hat. At least to him. Well, now the stupid hat was gone and so was everything else apparently.
It was starting to get on his nerves. So he decided to fix it.
“So Filia,” he began, trying out tack number 1: Indiscriminate Insults, “I suppose this must be normal for dragons, who so readily enjoy the excesses of life, but you might consider toning it down a little. You know I nearly dropped you last night.”
Now, calling a woman fat is basically like lighting the fuse on a bomb. Once it’s done you can’t take it back. In fact, the only option available ought to be to run away very fast because that bomb is going to go off and somebody is going to get killed—it’ll probably be you.
“Hmm,” the back of her head said. She hadn’t bothered to turn around or slow her pace several steps in front of him.
“Hmm” was no good. “Hmph!” would have been acceptable, but all “Hmm” said was: I heard what you said so there’s no need to repeat it, but I have no response to offer.
Perhaps needling wouldn’t do the trick. Perhaps something a little more… unexpected was required.
He waited awhile and then said, “How’s your leg?”
“Hmm?” she asked, perhaps considering this her new all-purpose manner of responding to him.
“You seemed to be in a fair amount of pain yesterday,” he said in the best imitation of concern he could muster at the moment. “Are you alright now?”
She didn’t even have the decency to turn around a give him a suspicious look. She didn’t narrow her eyes and say, “Why do you want to know?” She didn’t look perplexed that he was asking about her health. She didn’t turn around.
“I healed it. It’s fine,” she said without emotion.
Alright, that’s it, he thought. If being randomly considerate doesn’t get any reaction out of her than things really are bad. And it’s all so stupid too.
“If you didn’t expect me to kill those dragons it’s your own fault for being so naïve,” he said, deciding on the direct approach since he was out of indirect ones. “You know that I killed thousands of dragons in the War of the Monster’s Fall, so an extra two should hardly make a difference. That’s what we monsters do, Filia, in case you hadn’t noticed. You have no right to expect any different of me or to be upset by this.”
This time Filia had turned around to listen, perhaps because Xellos was just possibly… eh, losing his cool a little. Filia, however, hadn’t lost her’s. “I know that and I’m not upset,” she said distantly.
That was the conclusion she’d come to as well, actually. There wasn’t any point in getting angry at Xellos about this. She’d been mad at first, but mostly mad at herself for not expecting it, for thinking it could be different. There was nothing to be gained in getting emotionally invested now. The whole reason for this trip was a colossal mistake so better to just get on with it and get it fixed. Just because they were (unfortunately and mistakenly) married didn’t mean Xellos had to matter to her. She realized that, even before this whole confusing mess, she’d let him matter to her far too much. Otherwise she wouldn’t have gotten so angry at him all the time. Better to just… take herself out of it as much as possible. To do anything else would be a waste of energy and a waste of time.
“What if I told you,” he said slowly, as though trying out the words. “That I was sorry?”
She let her jaded shell block out any surprise, any suspicion of motive and just said, “I wouldn’t believe you.”
“Then you’re not as stupid as you look,” Xellos shot back, a little nastier then he might normally have been, but not being told to shut up once in an entire day can make a man desperate.
Filia gave him a look. Not a sharp look… more of an “are we done here?” look before turning back to the road and starting to walk again.
“What if I told you I was sorry you found out?”
Filia stopped. Oh no.
The terrible thing, she thought grimly, is that I do believe that. And that makes a difference. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does.
This is really bothering him, she finally allowed herself to note. Her bitter side suggested that it was because he was so used to being able to get her angry and siphon off the negative emotions, that he was going through some kind of withdrawal. But it was overruled. He was… unhappy that she was ignoring him. And that meant something. She wasn’t sure what it meant, but it was something.
Anyway… she had something she had to say too, and if she kept up this ice queen demeanor she’d never get a chance to say it.
“Xellos…” she began, slowly turning to face him.
He looked curiously at her as she took a deep breath to say her piece. Whatever it was seemed to be weighing heavily on her mind.
“Golden dragons,” she began slowly and deliberately, “are meant to be heavier than humans. It’s both normal and healthy. Perhaps if you didn’t have such spindly arms you wouldn’t have had any trouble carrying me. Perhaps instead of me ‘toning it down a little’, maybe you should tone it up a little.”
She smiled triumphantly. She was proud of that little bit of word play, and biting it back for all this time had been quite difficult.
Xellos stared. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected out of her, but a comeback, and a very late one at that, wasn’t it. She didn’t appear to be done quite yet either.
“And,” she added, “My hat wasn’t ugly. It was my favorite hat and when this mess is over you’re going to replace it since it’s your fault it got lost.”
Xellos wondered with some amusement whether he was going to get a response to every comment he’d ever made to her that she hadn’t been able to think of an immediate comeback for at the time.
“And,” she said, continuing in her laundry list of retorts, “if you’d been paying the slightest bit of attention you would’ve seen me healing my leg back at that river we passed this morning so don’t even pretend to be worried.”
A comeback for his nice comment too? He’d hit the jackpot and he wasn’t entirely sure how.
“And,” she said, winding down toward the end of the rant, “And there’s something I’ve been wanting to say to you all day and now I’m going to say it.”
“I’m sure you will,” he said, with a sour little smile.
She took a deep breath once more and let it out: “Shut up, Xellos.”
The natural order of things has been restored.
Perhaps they’d gone just a little bit farther than restoring the natural order of things. The fact was, the woods echoed with their hurled insults and all in all petty bickering. They’d never fought this much in the entire trip, but it was certainly a relief compared to the silence of earlier that day. Maybe they were just making up for lost time.
But if they kept up at the pace they were going, it was almost certain that they’d run out of substantive things to say to one another and end up making snide comments about each other’s shoes, or something equally silly. It was, therefore, lucky that they were interrupted by an impromptu dragon attack.
They were forced to cut their current argument short as Xellos dealt with the creature. It had been an old argument anyway, but a classic well worth repeating. Filia put forth the claim that at least she didn’t mindlessly follow the orders of some fragment of a dark lord covered in ice in the mountains. This was a perfectly fair statement as she did not, in fact, do that. Xellos did. So she pretty much had him there.
Xellos easily dispatched with the flying lizard, but this time tactfully chose not to kill it. So, apparently, some progress had been made. He looked down at the unconscious creature and back up at Filia. Half-time was over. The game begins once more.
“Between all these attacks and that band of mercenaries it really seems as if the dragons are throwing everything they have at you,” he said, as they began walking down the road once more. He smiled and turned his head to the side. “It’s almost as if they’ve been waiting all along for you to mess up.”
Filia scowled at him and clenched her fists.
From a certain perspective it might have seemed that… well, that they made up or something back there. Filia did not consider this to be the case. It wasn’t that she’d gone so far as to forgive him. No. She had made a concession. But all she’d allowed herself was the luxury of hating him again instead of feeling nothing.
It wasn’t even necessarily for him, she thought. When you get right down to it, it’s just not good for your mental health to keep your comebacks inside. That’s got to cause ulcers or something.
“Well, I could say the same thing about you,” she shot back.
“Aren’t you supposed to be a really high level monster?” she asked, drawing on her limited knowledge of him. “You’d think that would make you really important to the monster race. Yet, one little mistake and they all want you dead. They don’t even want to find out if there was a misunderstanding! I guess I shouldn’t expect loyalty among monsters,” she said, crossing her arms, “but it’s obvious that you’re not exactly popular either.”
Xellos glared at her. Somehow this game wasn’t fun anymore.
“Do you think I’m supposed to be?” he asked coldly.
What Filia thought was never made clear as yet another interloper forced her to settle the score of the day in a different way. It looked like a bird made of shadows. It walked upright and hissed its way through the trees clinging to the scenery and bending with the angles of the trees.
“Not another one,” Filia groaned.
“The last one was a dragon,” Xellos reminded. “You know, one of yours.”
“You know what I mean,” Filia griped bad-naturedly. She sighed and took out her mace.
The black bird screamed at her. The squawk was so sharp, so cruel, so predatory, that mice for three miles around lost control of their bowels just hearing it.
No one wants to talk, Filia found herself thinking angrily at the thing. Not the monsters, not the dragons. Maybe if we could all just sit down and get a few things straight we could work this mess out. But it was foolish to the extreme to even think that. The only mess that dragons and monsters seemed eager to work out between them involved bloody battlefields.
She swung her mace lightly in her hand and took a crack at the monster’s skull, quickly pulling back before the thing could attempt to crush her head in its massive, vaporous beak.
No matter what she said to Xellos, she was quite aware that the monster race seemed to be taking their little… indiscretion less seriously than the dragons. At least at the moment. She was thankful for this, because she really didn’t think she could handle much more. It pained her to see Xellos so easily deal with her own race. It actually seemed like the hardest thing for him was avoiding killing them. She wasn’t really a fighter and she dreaded each new conflict with a monster. But they did have a deal.
The bird lashed out with its talons and she was just barely able to keep out of its reach. Unfortunately it seemed like the thing had intended her to dodge all along as it shot a beam of black plasma out of its mouth directly at her, engulfing her entire body.
It didn’t burn. It didn’t bruise. It didn’t cut. It just felt like her entire body was dying. It felt as though everything had stopped. Blood spun pointlessly in crowded veins, lungs filled with only stale air could not find release, and her heart didn’t beat. It felt like it would never beat again.
And then the black energy let go of her, sending her crashing to the ground. But her heart was beating again. Slowly.
She gritted her teeth and tried to force her brain into lifting her body. She felt like lying on the ground and whimpering for awhile. She felt like crawling off into a hole in the ground until the pain stopped. She felt like waving a little white flag, for all the good it would do.
But she couldn’t do that. She knew that Xellos was right behind her. Far enough away to avoid the attentions of the monster assassin, who had really come to deal with him, but close enough to watch her every move. So she had to get up.
She used her mace liked a crutch to lift her half-way off the ground. Her limbs were still half-convinced that they were paralyzed, so this took some doing. But there was no time for half-measures. The thing was leaning over her, ready to make the killing strike and move on to its real target.
There is no way I’m going to be pecked to death, Filia decided. Her eyes shone gold as she let out one shrill blast of laser breath. It was the only shot she’d get, but it was one the monster didn’t expect from its wounded prey, and it had everything she had in it.
It hit dead on, showering the area in a rain of shadowy monster-bird bits. Which was gross, but still victory.
She slumped down to the ground. She knew that the astral attack’s effects would lessen shortly and then her nervous system would be back in business. But at the moment she felt pretty terrible.
Xellos walked up to her. She looked up into his face. He was frowning.
“What?” she demanded angrily. She’d beat the thing, alright? She wasn’t in the mood to listen to any complaints or smart comments.
“You’re going to get yourself killed that way,” he said.
“I’m doing the best I can,” she said, in her own defense. She was still in pain, but she wasn’t going to have this conversation laid out on the ground, so she stood up shakily. “Not all of us are cut out for this kind of thing.”
“I’m not talking about that,” Xellos said. “You could’ve beaten that thing at any time if you’d only been smart about it.”
She gave him a black look as she fought to keep her balance. So we’re back to this, huh? “Stupid Filia. She doesn’t even know how to fight.” Well, she’d had just about enough of it.
“If you’re not going to do anything other than make vague criticisms, then don’t say anything at all,” she snapped. “I beat it, so just leave me alone.”
Xellos rolled his eyes in the universal sign for “I am being forced to deal with a petulant child”. What he said was: “If you’d used your laser breath from the beginning instead of wasting time with that mace, then it would’ve been over quickly and you wouldn’t be barely able to stand now.”
Filia was aware that she was swaying slightly and did her best to correct this. “I like my mace,” she said defensively. “I’ve used it for years, and I’m good at it. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“If you’d just stop and think for a moment you’d realize how useless it is,” he said, realizing they weren’t going to get anywhere unless he hit her over the head with it, metaphorically speaking. “Monsters have astral bodies. You know this. You can’t hurt a monster with something like that.”
Filia swung the hand holding the mace forward so it was waving unsteadily in front of his face. “Can’t I?” she asked.
She knew it was a stupid gesture as soon as she’d done it. But she’d been mad and really wasn’t thinking. Now she was forced to endure that face. His eyes were swiveling to follow her vain attempts to hold the club steady. He had that smile. She hated that smile. It was the one he always had whenever she was particularly mad at him. It said: See, Filia? This is you. This is what you’re really like when you’re honest with yourself.
“Only my feelings,” he said, like the whole thing was a great big joke.
She lowered the mace slowly and turned her face away. “You have no feelings,” she responded.
She hated herself for not believing it.