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[[ ... Never let it show ... ]]

Just off the Ell coast...

He was dying, Ashton realized fuzzily. The water around him was so cold that he was aching, and as he sank into the water, he felt himself beginning to drift, a strange sensation of being tugged down that went beyond simply his body sinking in the water. His chest tightened as he tried to breathe out slowly; he dared not inhale to replace the breath escaping. He was still under the water, pieces of the ship falling around him like some sort of immense rain or hail. Fire raced over the surface above him, licking along every drop of fuel or oil it could taste, and he could hear screams that sounded far away, muffled in his ears.

He felt the weight on his back struggling, and he reached up a hand to soothe Gyoro. The red demon was fighting, unwilling to sink any further, despite the fact that they couldn't go up. Ashton wanted to laugh, but he controlled the impulse. He had never learned to swim.

His eyes closed, the salt water stinging them cruelly, and he realized that his chest was beginning to ache, to scream under the pressure of knowing what little air was left in his lungs was the last of it. He breathed out a bubble, then another, his hand clenching, then slowly relaxing. He wasn't going to make it. He knew that much. He reached out a hand toward the surface, idly wondering why he didn't just take a good deep breath. Cowardice, he supposed.

He did admit to feeling a little guilty though. Had Gyoro and Ururun realized what was going to happen to him, he was certain they would have chosen a different swordsman to possess, a better host for their needs. Ashton supposed that he should have warned them about his luck. It wasn't really fair to be possessed when you had such terrible luck. His fingers trailed over the hilt of the short sword at his hip, and he blew out a few more bubbles. The good luck charm he'd bought in Lacuer was gone. No wonder he was drowning.

Then he felt the water in front of him moving, felt someone grip his forearm, and he eased his eyes open, only to see a flare of a green travel robe and long blue hair. They were kicking both of them back up to the surface, and the moment his head broke through, Ashton started coughing, dragging in deep gulps of air that scorched his screaming chest. He shoved his hair back from his eyes, glancing up at his savior.

Dias was soaked, but he had thrown Ashton to hang over a large piece of board covered with Dias's huge teal cloak. Ashton wiped his face on one of the dry spots on the cloak, smoothing out his desperate gasps into slow breaths. Dias held onto it too, one arm still around Ashton's waist to make certain that he wouldn't slip off and back into the sea. Ururun laid his head on Dias's shoulder, gasping sharply as well. Gyoro fell limply over Ashton's head, but Ashton could feel that he was breathing, so he didn't worry too much. They were all exhausted, even with the adrenaline burning through his veins.

The heat of the sun beating down on him made him wince, and Dias glanced at him just enough to see the problem. Then he carefully eased the cloak out from under Ashton to throw it over both of them, shielding them from the afternoon sun. Dias glanced out from under the cloak just long to look for something, then he began to kick in the water. Ashton clung to the board, his eyes widening as they started to move, and for a moment, he was filled with a blind panic. Then that hand touched his waist again, and he swallowed, nodding sharply to his companion. He followed suit as best he could, trying to kick and keep them moving in the direction that Dias had started them off in.

It was painfully slow going, and by the time Ashton felt beach under his feet, his legs were swinging wildly between aching and numb. The water off of the Ell coast was freezing, and the only one not bothered by it was Ururun. Gyoro kept spitting sparks, although one angry glare from Dias and the dragon was doing it out from under the cloak instead. Dias never said a word as they dragged themselves onto the beach, and when Ashton fell, face-down in the sand, Dias left his cloak over him before disappearing.

Ashton must have dozed in and out, because he woke sharply to the sound of Dias coaxing Gyoro into lighting a fire. Fish were already skewered, and Gyoro looked at one longingly before he agreed to do Dias's bidding, breathing life into the small fire pit. Ashton sat up slowly, the cloak pooling down around his hips, and he watched Dias arranging the fish in the fire before falling down to sit in the sand.

For a moment, Ashton hesitated, and then he inched over to sit beside Dias, folding his knees up to set his chin on. Ururun rested his head on Dias's shoulder, and Ashton was surprised to see Dias reach up to touch the dragon lightly on the head. Several minutes crawled by, and finally, Ashton jumped when Dias spoke.

"Where did you pick these up?" He scratched lightly on Ururun's head, and the dragon made a low keening sound.

Ashton smiled then winced as his lips cracked. They were chapped from the salt and the wind and the awful conditions of the front lines. "In Salva," he finally managed, licking his bottom lip. "Went there to slay the dragon. Claude and Rena and Celine came up after me and tried to cheer me on." He scowled, and from Dias's slight smile, he knew that Dias understood. "Long story short, I got distracted, and Gyoro and Ururun took advantage of that and possessed me."

"Almost took that bounty," Dias admitted, and Gyoro growled softly. Ashton instinctively reached up to touch the red dragon, trying to comfort him as best he could.

"Yeah? Why didn't you?"

Dias poked at the fire, checking the fish as he did. "Got held up in Marze." He pulled one of the fish out and handed the stick to Ashton. "Gyoro's," he muttered, before checking the others.

Ashton tilted his head and held the stick so that Gyoro could eat, and he studied Dias curiously. "I was planning on going to the arms tournament," he finally admitted, blushing a little. "Got to go, but being possessed disqualified me."

Dias looked at him for a long moment, then handed him another stick. "Shame," he replied, and Ashton was almost sure that he actually meant that. "Ururun."

Making a face, Ashton stuck both sticks in the ground, letting the dragons eat off of them as he leaned forward a little. "Thank you," he whispered. He felt Dias tense beside him, and instead of saying more, he just rested his head on the tops of his knees. His cheek felt a little swollen, but it was probably from the fight before the ship was blown apart. Or hell, maybe it happened in the explosion. When he didn't say anything else, Dias handed him one more fish, and he blew on it slowly. Wouldn't do to burn his tongue on top of everything else.

"Why are you with them?" Dias didn't have to clarify that question. Ashton knew immediately what he was asking. He blushed a little.

"Claude and Rena and Celine promised to help me find a way of exorcising these guys without killing them." An affectionate pat on Gyoro's head, and Ashton shrugged. "Matter got pushed to the side in favor of the Sorcery Globe issue, you know? With the waves of monsters and everything."

Dias nodded slowly. "I understand," he murmured, reaching up to pick apart his own fish. Ashton smiled at him, ignoring the pain shooting through his lips, and started nibbling on his fish, peeling the meat off around the bones.

They ate in silence, Gyoro and Ururun licking all of the fish bones clean before tossing them back toward the water line. Full and finally unable to fight the exhaustion any longer, Ashton wrapped his arms around his legs and let his eyes close.

"We'll find it," Dias said softly, and Ashton's eyes opened to look at him. Dias hesitated, and then nodded. "The exorcism. We'll find it."

Ashton swallowed and stared at him wide-eyed, but before he could say anything, Dias shook his head. It wouldn't do to speak the fear that was beginning to bubble up. What if Claude and Rena and Celine couldn't keep their promise because they never made it to shore? Ashton shivered at the thought, and Ururun made a soft noise before nuzzling him.

[[ ... The pain I've grown to know ... ]]

North City in Energy Nede...

Dias stood, looking vacantly at the ceiling, his back to the wall near the door. His sword was not on his hip, but it was within reach, propped up against the chair nearby. He was listening to the splashing coming from behind the screen off to the side. Occasionally, he could see a dragon rear their head up, presumably attempting to get their faces out of Ashton's reach. To Dias's amusement, the youth would simply pull on their necks until they were low enough and wash them anyway. As Gyoro snorted a few sparks at the treatment, Dias sighed and reached up to unbuckle his gauntlets. They fell into the chair by his sword, followed by his gloves, and he pushed his sleeves up, carefully folding them so that they would stay.

The two of them had come a long way since that afternoon on the beach, when they'd waited, tense as a bowstring, for each of their companions to come dragging up. First Rena and Precis, then Bowman and Ernest, Opera, and finally Celine. Claude and Leon had met them in the refugee camp in Ell, both shaken but otherwise fine. Their assault on the Tower of Ell had gone off horribly- the worst part of it had easily been Ashton's face as he'd shakily placed a hand on the tower, whispering that it had once been a lovely city. There had been tears lurking there, and Dias had been shocked to see Ashton quickly wipe them away and press on. The youth was made of stronger stuff than he'd originally thought.

Now, it felt as though they'd been on this quest for a lifetime. They'd been sharing the inn rooms for weeks, first as the group adapted to the new planet they'd found themselves on, then as they got the paperwork in order for them to carry their weapons. They had fallen into routine, and one routine in particular had become almost nightly when Dias and Ashton had discovered that their room had running water. Such a thing was unheard of in Expel, and while in Nede they used the same wooden tubs that they had in Expel, they were filled by strange spouts in the wall.

"Dias?" Ashton's voice was quiet, almost tentative as he called for Dias, and Dias felt the slightest hint of a smile on his lips. Then he grabbed the sword and stalked over to the screen, carefully propping the sheathed blade against the wall before he looked over at his roommate.

Gyoro still had soap on his nose, but he was firmly refusing to let Ashton wipe it off, instead opting to rub it against the wall. Ururun made a chuffing noise at Gyoro's actions, one that Dias could only surmise passed as a laugh between the demons. Ashton sat in the small round tub, a cloth hanging between his fingers that he held out to Dias. Carefully, Dias took it from him, wrung it out, and walked around to stand then kneel at Ashton's back. Ashton leaned forward just a little, and Dias didn't have to see his face to know that he was blushing.

Out of all of their companions, only Dias actually had the nerve to do this for him, and Dias wasn't entirely sure it was a compliment. In many ways, Ashton was child-like, vulnerable, and Dias didn't think he'd ever stop being shocked at how the others behaved around the young swordsman. Most days, they seemed to forget that he was even with them. Dias drew a breath and gently began to wash Ashton's back, his fingertips tingling as he scrubbed lightly just below Ashton's shoulder blades.

Claude had quietly confessed that it was this point that 'freaked' him out: the strange mingling of scales and human flesh. The dragons that protruded so from Ashton's back were unnatural, and seeing the curse itself inscribed in red symbols around the base of each neck was more than just a little unnerving. The fact that it made whatever touched it tingle didn't help. Dias blew out his breath slowly, ignoring Ururun as he laid his head on top of Dias's and watched him.

The base of each dragon was different, and Dias was almost certain that Ururun was purring as the blue-haired man washed him. The blue dragon was cold to touch and lingering too long left an ache in Dias's fingers that he'd only had to endure once to learn his lesson. Ururun had no scales though, his skin slick, like an eel, with the light purple fan that lifted when he was agitated. Ashton had admitted that it was a strange sensation, feeling that fan lift where it joined to his own body.

Gyoro on the other hand was hot to the touch and if Dias wasn't completely efficient in his work, his fingers could easily swell and even blister. However, Dias had to be equally careful washing Gyoro; the dragon was covered in tiny, rock-hard scales that, if rubbed the wrong way, could take off skin. Dias had even seen Gyoro shred leather by rubbing a little too enthusiastically against it. Sharp bones stuck out of Gyoro's back, all the way down to Ashton's skin, and Dias carefully washed the bone, not wanting it to get infected where it was trapped. The skin looked a little red; Dias would have to medicate it after Ashton got out of his bath.

The curse symbols themselves were what made his fingers tingle, and as Dias braced himself to wash those too, he scowled as they began to bleed lightly. Water always opened them up. More than once, Dias had helped Ashton wash the blood out of his black robes after a day of travel through the rain. He would medicate them too, although it never helped. At the very least, Ashton said it made them less tender. Dias supposed that it was better than nothing, and when it came to curses being seared into flesh, he had to admit that he was out of his depth.

He gently started washing just under the entire cursed mess, and he heard Ashton make a soft noise and lean a little further forward. Dias smiled slightly, amused at how easy Ashton was to provoke and tease sounds out of. He glanced back at his work, his breath catching just a little as he touched the other swordsman's soft skin. He wasn't entirely certain how Ashton managed it, but the youth was an expert swordsman with soft skin. Like a girl's. It was something that Dias didn't let himself think about, instead choosing to lightly set the rag on Ashton's shoulder. It slid down into his lap, and Dias rocked back onto his heels before standing, dusting off his knees absently.

Gyoro watched him walk back around to pick up his sword and head around the screen. It wasn't until he retook his place by the door- sword in hand- that Dias began to breathe again, his eyes closing. No matter what happened, he was certain that the younger man's back would be eternally burned into his memory, even if Dias only saw glimpses of the rest of him. He heard Ashton splashing and climbing out of the tub, and Dias schooled his expression, looking back up at the ceiling. Ashton didn't need to see what Dias was thinking. It would have only confused the poor boy, and as hard as he was chasing Precis, Dias was certain that the last thing Ashton wanted was to know why Dias was so quick to give him the privacy he wanted.


[[ ... Cause with all these things we do ... ]]

Inevitably, Ashton found out. The fact that they had to bathe in the same room pretty much guaranteed that eventually, there would be no part of one another that they had not seen. It finally happened in Central City, of all places. There was no screen to hide the tub, and Ashton had flushed darkly when he realized it. He had stripped slowly, well aware that there was no reason to hide his body from Dias; it wasn't as though Ashton could wash his own back, after all.

He rushed his bath, set a little on edge by the fact that Dias didn't rush his part of it, and dressed as quickly as possible in the black pants and loose black shirt that he normally slept in. Dias stood there for several minutes, staring at the tub, the water rapidly cooling as he clearly weighed his options. Then he reached up to begin stripping off his clothes, and Ashton felt his breath catch in his throat.

The buckles were all undone first: belt, sword belt, and boots. Dias peeled the heavy green travel robe off, and for another minute, stood there, his fingers lingering over the laces to his white shirt. Ashton didn't really think that Dias would peel it off, until, suddenly, the shirt was on the ground. For the first time, Ashton saw Dias's torso bare, and as determined as he was not to look, curiosity got the better of him. When Dias's long hair spilled to one side, Ashton sneaked his first glance and found that he couldn't look away.

Ashton's eyes widened as he began to note the sheer number of scars over Dias's back, and when he turned to reach for a towel to take over to the small tub, Ashton felt some sort of low noise escape him. He couldn't stop himself as he crossed the room and reached out, his fingers tracing over the scar that split Dias's torso from left shoulder to his right hip. Ashton's fingers were shaking, but when he looked up at Dias, he watched the other man quickly avert his eyes, his jaw locking. Slowly, Ashton's fingers brushed against Dias's hip, and he dropped his hand, his breathing shallow.

"Dias?" he whispered, and when the other man grunted, Ashton swallowed. "What happened?" His brow was furrowed as he studied the scar, as his fingers lifted again to touch it. Dias caught his wrist, and Ashton's eyes widened further. Gyoro made a low growling noise, and Ururun reached out to brush against Dias's hand slightly. Dias's grip was tight enough to make Ashton wince, but the older man didn't even seem to notice.

Finally, he murmured gruffly, "Bandits." His free hand balled into a fist, and Ashton wasn't sure what exactly was possessing him, but he reached up to touch the side of Dias's face. The pads of his fingers slid over Dias's cheek to cup the back of his neck, pulling him down enough to touch their foreheads. Ashton's eyes slid closed.

He knew the story. Claude had whispered it to Celine who had been only too happy to share it with the rest of the group any moment that Dias wasn't around. He nodded slowly against Dias's forehead, moving just enough that Dias could feel the motion. He didn't try to offer his condolences though; he knew better than that. All that would do was anger Dias, remind him of how helpless he'd been. Instead, Ashton gently rubbed the back of Dias's neck.

It had been a few years ago- no one could agree on how many, and Rena wasn't saying- but Dias had been living at home in Arlia, Rena's hometown. Bandits had attacked his family's house, stealing everything worth taking, slaughtering Dias's parents and baby sister. Rena's best friend. They had laid Dias open, leaving him for dead as they made their escape. Rena had saved Dias's life, and somehow, Ashton wasn't sure that Dias wanted to thank her for that. He's spent the years since the attack wandering, learning sword skills and taking odd jobs to cover his travel expenses.

He was shocked when he felt Dias's grip on his wrist begin to ease up, and when Dias wrapped his arms around Ashton, the youth bit his bottom lip, not making a sound. Dias crushed him against that scarred torso, and Ashton let him, releasing his hold on the other man in favor of sliding his own arms around that narrow waist, letting his hands lay flat against Dias's back. For almost a full minute, they stood there, just drinking in the feeling of actually touching someone, of feeling that warmth and heat that radiated from one another, of feeling one another breathing.

"They killed everyone," Dias finally whispered, his voice low against Ashton's ear. Ashton stilled, his own breath hanging in his throat. He didn't know what to do; what to say. He shivered slightly as Dias continued, "I know they told you. But, I couldn't protect them, Ashton."

No amount of reassurances would ease that guilt. Ashton's eyes closed. He knew that all too well. Instead, he nodded slightly, letting Dias know that he understood. "You can't bring them back."

"No. ... Don't depend on me, Ashton."

A warning? Ashton lifted his head to look up at Dias, a very small smile on his lips. Dias drew a breath when he saw it, but before he could think that Ashton was amused at what had happened, Ashton hurriedly said, "I don't, Dias. I'm not helpless." A jerky nod from Dias assured him that Dias did get it, and Ashton pressed his fingers into his companion's back.

Slowly, Dias let him go, and Ashton followed suit, looking back up at the older swordsman. Dias didn't look angry. In fact, he looked... almost peaceful. Ashton smiled, but he didn't say anything. He didn't want to ruin that far-away look in Dias's face. Dias let his khaki pants drop, and he clambered in the tub. Blushing and quickly looking away, Ashton reached into his pack to pull a book out. It really wasn't his fault though, when he realized that he was using it to hide his glances over at his roommate. His blush still hadn't darkened when Dias got out, but he pointedly stared at the little novel all the same.

[[ ... I reach towards the sky ... ]]

Outside of the room, they spent little time with one another. Ashton tended to either escape with Celine and Chisato to examine jewelry- Celine and Ashton both were collecting a piece from each city they visited- or he spent the day attempting to convince Precis to look at him as something more than a simple big brother. Dias, on the other hand, preferred Ernest, Opera and Claude's company, even if the three of them seemed to have some sort of secret that they weren't sharing with the others. Dias personally figured that it had to do with Claude's disappearance in Ell, but he wasn't putting words into anyone's mouth. If it was any of his business, they would have mentioned it.

It seemed though, that the closer their group got to the Ten Wise Men, the more everyone tried to forget about what was going on. Rena and Claude were sneaking off every chance they got, while Precis seemed ridiculously preoccupied with trying to chase him down. And not even Ashton's natural good cheer could keep his disappointment at bay with day after day of hopeless flirtation that Precis didn't even recognize as such.

So, when Dias passed Precis tugging Claude toward something she'd seen in one of the stores, he thought nothing of it, but when he saw Ashton sitting alone at a table for two just outside of the Armlock cafe, he hesitated. There were two sundaes there on the table, but Ashton looked so forlorn that Dias was certain that he'd been stood up. He tilted his head, watching as Ashton stirred the melting ice cream, his head propped up on his other hand. Gyoro rubbed his head against Ashton's cheek, offering what little comfort he could. Ururun saw Dias though, and the dragon jerked his head over toward Ashton, his eyes glittering in the afternoon sun. Dias considered not moving a muscle or even walking away, but when he saw Ashton reaching up to rub at his own eyes, that sealed it.

He walked over to the table, falling into chair across from Ashton casually. The youth made a low noise and looked up at him, misery in those green eyes. "Dias," he offered by way of greeting.

Dias arched an eyebrow up at his companion before he picked up the sundae, inspecting it carefully. Clearly, the object of Ashton's gesture had been Precis. Only she and Dias liked things as sweet as chocolate sundaes, and Ashton had even remembered to put the extra sprinkles on top. He plucked the cherry off of the top and popped it in his mouth, not waiting for Ashton's permission. Precis was long gone for the day, and knowing her, Ashton wouldn't see her again until they regrouped the next morning to head back out.

"She bolted while you were in line." He said around the cherry before he pulled the stem out of his mouth, setting it on the napkin by the tall glass. Ashton nodded, sighing as he fell against the top of the table. Dias nodded slowly to himself as he reached for the other spoon.

"Told her to wait at the table while I got them," Ashton muttered, and Dias arched one eyebrow as he tasted the ice cream. "Said that it wouldn't take but just a minute. I stopped to get the sprinkles though... She was gone by the time I got out here."

Dias studied Ashton for a minute, spoon still in his mouth. He had to admit that the little cafe chairs weren't exactly the most comfortable things to sit in, so Precis jumping at the chance to bolt didn't surprise him. Then again, she expected Ashton to understand her fascination with Claude; expected him to forgive her. And he would the first that she smiled warmly up at him. It had happened too many times to count already.

Dias slowly pulled the spoon from his mouth, and he moved his sundae out of Ururun's reach without even thinking about it. "She spotted Claude."

Ashton glanced up at him, sighed, and rolled his head over a little to prop up on one of his arms. "Claude. Of course. It's always Claude."

"It's always Precis." Another bite, and Dias ignored the way Ashton's head snapped up, the flash of fire in those eyes. He stirred the ice cream, making certain to scrape the chocolate syrup from the bottom of the glass.

Ashton yielded first- was there ever any doubt that he would? He picked up his own spoon before he looked up at Dias. "Do you want this one? It's strawberry, but it's not as sweet-"

Dias lifted his eyes slowly to the youth across the table, a slight frown on his lips. "No," he replied shortly. He saw Ashton flinch at the tone, and he managed a small smile toward his companion, trying to soften his tone. "It's... I prefer sweet things," he finally said. He saw Ashton hide a smile behind his hand, and he was horrified to realize that he was beginning to feel a little heat in his face. Ashton was rubbing off on him. Determinedly, he dug into the sundae, ignoring the feeling.

"I never expected that," Ashton said quietly, studying him more intently than Dias would have liked. His own ice cream was forgotten, melting away in front of him. "You don't strike me as the type." He tilted his head a little, and his smile slowly faded from his eyes, although it remained on his lips. Dias stilled the weight of such a sad smile, and briefly, he wondered how it was that Ashton managed to make him feel so vulnerable when not even Rena could.

"There's plenty you don't know about me, Ashton," Dias replied, and Ashton nodded slowly at him. Truthfully, there was plenty that Dias didn't know about himself any more. It was as though he had become a completely different person after- the scar throbbed slightly, although Dias knew full well that it couldn't. He didn't feel much of anything through that much scar tissue.

Finally, Dias pushed the melted ice cream back toward Ashton, who toyed with the glass for a minute until Dias stood, fetched two straws from inside the cafe and handed one to the youth. Ashton flushed and looked down, stirring his sundae until it was a slushy mess, perfect for sipping through the straw.

Dias leaned back in the slightly-too-small chair, his legs stretched out under the table and crossed at the ankles. He could feel the weight of his sword against his hip and as he picked up his own ice cream, he felt the smallest of satisfied smiles on his lips. He never thought he'd be sitting, drinking melted sundaes with Ashton, but for at least a few minutes, he found that he could forget about everything. Chewing slowly on a mouthful of sprinkles and studying Ashton's flushed expression, he discovered that perhaps not everything in him was dead after all.

Somehow, he wasn't entirely comforted by that fact.

[[ ... I've said my goodbyes ... ]]

Krosse, after restoring Expel...

Ashton leaned against the counter, his back to the bartender as he surveyed the room. Everyone (except Leon, Precis and Rena) had a mug in hand, and some of them- read Bowman, Opera and Claude- were more than just a little into their celebrations. All three of them had linked arms and were singing some terribly off-key ditty that Ashton only understood a few words of. Rena was flushed pink with excitement and giggling nervously (was she sneaking sips out of Claude's mug?), chattering with Precis and Chisato. Noel was yawning but trying to smile indulgently through the motion as he and Ernest watched the singers, and Leon was sipping his carrot juice, not really looking at anyone.
He looked happy though, so Ashton didn't interrupt him, instead deciding that if Leon wanted to celebrate quietly, he should be allowed to.

Pushing off of the counter, Ashton turned up the last of his own ale, his eyes flicking up to the stairwell. They had all chipped in for this night, this one last night together as a group, and only one of them had already left. Dias had offered one of his rare smiles- it wasn't every day you got to save not only your own planet, but your galaxy- and joined in the first toast of the night. He had raised his small sake cup, downed it, and then walked up the stairs, presumably heading to bead early. Ashton had watched him go, fidgeting nervously with his own glass as he tried to decide.

He had to tell Dias, before they all went their separate ways the next morning. Everyone else had some sort of plan, some place to go. Everyone except for Ashton and Dias. Call him sentimental, but Ashton didn't want to walk away from the group yet. If all he could hold on to was Dias, so be it. Ashton twisted his fingers together for just a moment, then nodded to himself. He could do it.

After sharing rooms with Dias for the past month- had they really only been on Energy Nede for that long?- he had learned quite a bit about the other swordsman, and he already had his attack plan ready. He would offer to split the bounties or something, and Dias would study him for a moment, then shrug. "Do as you will," he would mutter, as he fell onto the bed, stretching out and folding his arms behind his head. His eyes would drift closed, he would shift just a little more, and then his breathing would even out; Ashton would have to resist the urge to reach out and brush those wild blue bangs from his face-

Ashton blushed darkly, suddenly glad that no one else was at the counter with him. He slapped a few Fol down for the drink, and then he bolted up the stairs, taking them two at a time. In spite of everything, he was nervous. It had taken him far longer than it should have to work up this courage. Even after everything they had all been through, he had shied from it, made excuses not to reveal his rapidly changing feelings. But when Aston had heard, when Dias said that he was going on his own... well, that had changed everything. It was as though the situation couldn't be better. It was perfect.

He stilled however, when he reached the door. Dias was predictable; he always shut and locked the door if he was in the room. However, the door stood slightly cracked, and Ashton hesitated before he pushed it open. It was bare. Empty. As though no one had ever been in there. He swallowed and walked in, looking for things that he knew wouldn't be there anymore: Dias's sword belt, the heavy pack he used, that massive teal cloak. Everything was gone.

He reached the window, and his hands slammed down on the windowsill. Something clattered to the floor, but he couldn't see it. Tears were in his eyes. He should have known. Dias wasn't waiting for the morning; it was why he'd joined them in the main sitting room for only one drink. Ashton had waited to follow him upstairs because he hadn't wanted to attract any more attention than necessary, but Dias must have slipped out shortly after he had held up his glass in the toast.

Gyoro nuzzled the side of Ashton's face, but the swordsman shoved the dragon away. Dias was gone, and the last thing that Ashton wanted in that moment, was to be comforted by a demon. It wasn't until the tears cleared that he could finally see what fell off of the windowsill: a ring. A child's ring, set with the smallest emerald that Ashton had ever seen as a centerpiece in jewelry.

[[ ...
My heart's always with you ... ]]

Four months later, in Linga...

Once, a lifetime ago, he'd planned on enrolling here, on studying and applying himself to become ... something. A very small smile curved his lips at the thought of staying, day in and day out, hunched over a pile of books. It was a life he could scarcely imagine. He couldn't even imagine what he would have looked like, his hands smooth of callouses, his hair cut shorter, perhaps even fashionably. He snorted just a little before he resumed scanning the room.

A flash of blue and red caught his attention, made him stop. He glanced sharply at the movement, the darts of color, and then headed over toward it curiously. He recognized that motion, the serpentine snapping and hissing that came from the small room off to the side. He leaned in the doorway, his eyes narrowing. An all too familiar figure was passed out, face-first in a book, his body barely even in the chair any more. Both of his dragons stopped their snapping movements to look up at Dias. The sunlight glinted off of their flesh and scale, almost blinding.

Ururun was the first to recover, and he reached out toward Dias, despite Gyoro's low warning growl. Dias considered for a moment, and then returned the reach, lightly scratching just behind the massive purple jewel that rested in the middle of Ururun's head. Gyoro growled again, and Ururun made a low whining noise before he moved back to nudge Ashton.

The youth wasn't wearing his sword belt, Dias noticed with a jerk, and his eyes narrowed as he really looked at Ashton. He was waking up slowly, rubbing at his eyes while he yawned. He was still wearing the black robes, still looked exactly the same. Dias considered his options for just a moment; there was enough time to slip out, to get away before Ashton really woke up enough to recognize him. Even though he bore news that Ashton would want to hear, for one terrible moment, Dias considered fleeing. Strange, how Ashton managed to provoke that desire in him.

Then those green eyes opened slowly, lifted to look up at him, and Dias knew he wasn't going anywhere. Ashton's eyes widened, and for a moment, he smiled brilliantly. Being on the receiving end of that smile was like watching the sun rise in the mornings; it was a small miracle in and of itself. Dias had never seen anyone look at him that way, so openly happy. Even Rena had her misgivings about seeing him; she loved him, but he brought bad memories and worse manners. He couldn't help but hurt her, and she was well aware of that fact. It was something Ashton hadn't learned.

Then the smile faded, and Dias was faced with an expression that he'd never seen directed at him by the youth: hurt. Maybe he had learned the lesson Dias seemed to inadvertently teach. Ashton looked down quickly, his face shuttering, Gyoro protectively hovering over him, the bottom of the dragon's jaw just resting on the top of Ashton's head.

"What are you doing here, Dias?"

"Bringing news," Dias finally said, his hand still lightly resting on Ururun's head. The dragon nuzzled for just another moment, and then when Gyoro growled again, Ururun sighed and moved back to set his head on Ashton's shoulder. Dias frowned slightly, certain that he was missing something. He'd never been particularly fond of Gyoro, but there had never been so much open tension between them. Certainly Gyoro had never disapproved of Ururun's apparent fascination with Dias.

"To Bowman?" Ashton's eyebrows furrowed as he looked up, slowly sitting straighter. Dias purposely put his hand on the pommel of his sword, resisting the urge to brush back that tangled brown mess from Ashton's face. Ashton reached up and placed a hand on the back of Gyoro's neck, and Dias found himself stilling, overcome with the sudden urge to peel Ashton's touch away from the red dragon. Gyoro looked entirely too self-satisfied.

Forcing himself to focus on Ashton and not on the dragon, Dias sighed. "No, Ashton. Not to Bowman."

"Well, there's certainly no one else here interested in what you have to say." Ashton pushed himself to his feet quickly, sweeping books up into his arms. "Best to move on. That's what the rest of us have done."

Waiting until Ashton moved past him, Dias reached out and caught the youth's arm quickly, his eyes narrowing. Gyoro snapped at him, but Dias was ready for it and caught the dragon with his free hand. Ignoring the squirming, snarling demon, Dias pulled Ashton close to him. "Has so much changed then, Ashton? We once-"

"Don't remind me of what 'we once' were." The anger in Ashton's voice was startling. "You walked out on me- on us. What did you expect?"

Dias released Ashton and Gyoro both, slowly, frowning. "What?" he asked, uncertain of where this was coming from. He had left the night before everyone else had, certainly, but he had done his duty, paid his part to their group. If he chose to set out just a few hours before they did, what difference did it make? Especially given what he'd been able to find-

"You left. You always do," Ashton hissed, and then he jerked his arm the rest of the way out of Dias's grip. Without waiting for a response, he stormed off, a cloud of black fabric and twin dragons.

For a heartbeat, Dias simply stood there, brow furrowed, staring after him. Then he cast a glance back to the one book left open on the table. Ashton, in his haste, had missed it. Dias picked it up gingerly, studying the cover before he thumbed through it. A book on exorcisms, complete with notes written in the margins. Ashton's handwriting? He looked back up, drumming his fingers along the book briefly before he headed out of the university.

He hated to admit it, but he couldn't leave things as they were between them. Out of all of them, Ashton had been the only one to never pry, to never judge him the way the others did. Rena was convinced that she wanted to play family with him, while Claude could never view him as anything except a rival for Rena's affection. Celine had disliked him the moment he told her that he didn't need their help defending Marze- he'd been right about that too- and Bowman just rubbed him the wrong way all over. He had never tried to get to know Chisato or Noel, and Precis was too damned young to have been with them in the first place. That went for Leon as well, but at least Leon had been useful. Opera had been too wrapped up in Ernest to notice anything else, and Ernest... well, if it wasn't ancient, it didn't catch his attention.

That left him with only Ashton (and Gyoro and Ururun by proxy, he supposed). He had something for Ashton, and he was damned if he was going to be turned aside so easily.

Dias caught up to Ashton in the open area just in front of the university, and as he grabbed Ashton's arm once more, he was shocked to see something wet glittering in the youth's eyes. Dias pulled him close, and Ashton resisted for only a moment before he collapsed against him, and Dias held him without thinking about it, without considering their position or where they were. He reached up and brushed Ashton's hair back, ignoring Gyoro's low warning growl.

"Ashton?" he asked- he knew his voice was too gruff; even he could hear that- and felt Ashton beginning to tremble in his arms. For another heartbeat, he stayed there, then he carefully gathered Ashton in his arms and headed back to the inn. If Ashton was going to break down, he deserved some privacy when he did it. Dias navigated the streets easily, stopping only once he'd gotten into the room and settled Ashton carefully on the narrow bed. He locked the door, and when he turned back to face his companion, Ashton had pulled his knees up to his chest, his face buried in them.

Dias didn't wait for anything else, just moved over to lean against the wall, facing Ashton, folding his arms over his chest and tilting his head curiously. "Did something happen after I left?" he asked lowly, feeling something beginning to build inside of him. Of all of his companions, Ashton had always been his favorite. He was cheerful without being obnoxious, he could handle himself in a fight, and even if he did talk a little much, it was only because he always had an audience to talk in front of. If something had happened and Dias hadn't been there to protect him...

Ashton made a low noise and Gyoro rubbed the top of his head against Ashton's cheek. Ururun rested his head on top of Ashton's, making a low whining sound. It apparently bolstered the youth's confidence, because Ashton finally whispered softly, "You left. I went up to see you, and you were gone."

Dias frowned at the words, at the tone that Ashton used. "Why were you going to see me?" When Ashton didn't answer, Dias pushed off of the wall. He smoothly caught Gyoro by the throat, just under the jawline, when the dragon snapped at him for getting too close, and he caught Ashton by the chin, forcing him to look up. Tears were still in those green eyes, and Dias hesitated, steeling himself to remain still, to not lean down any closer.

Ashton looked up at him, and for the briefest of moments, Dias wondered why Ashton's tears moved him in ways that Rena's had not. She had been like a little sister to him. Why then, were Ashton's tears so much more important to him? Was it the green? Cecille had green eyes.

Ashton made a little motion with his hand, motioning Dias closer to him, and Dias sighed faintly before he obliged. Another motion, and Dias frowned slightly before he inched closer, so close now that he could feel Ashton's slight, hiccuping breaths. Then Ashton leaned forward, closing the last space between them, touching their lips in the softest kiss that Dias had ever had. For just a moment, they stayed like that, then something crumbled inside, and Dias was pushing Ashton back, letting Gyoro go in favor of pushing that hand into Ashton's hair, pulling him closer. He deepened the kiss, ignoring Ashton's gasp into it.

His other hand slid along Ashton's jaw and down around the back of his neck, and he couldn't stop the low growl that escaped him at the feel of Ashton's arms wrapping around him. He didn't slow down, didn't let himself really think about his response; he just knew that it wasn't enough, not yet. Dias pushed the younger man back further, the hand in Ashton's hair moving down to catch one of those legs, to pull it up and stroke his fingers down Ashton's thigh-

A sharp pain from his scalp jerked him back from the kiss, and then he was growling, fighting with Gyoro for the mouthful of his hair that the dragon was refusing to relinquish. Ashton was gasping for breath, rolling over onto his side, not seeming to notice the fight between his dragon and Dias. Ururun finally helped by biting Gyoro's throat, forcing the red dragon to release Dias's hair. The swordsman scowled darkly, reaching up to smooth his hair back down, his eyes narrowing sharply at Gyoro's matching expression.

"D-Dias?"

The swordsman forced himself to look back at Ashton, and he swallowed thickly. Ashton was slowly sitting back up, his hair tousled, a soft blush on his face. His lips were slightly darker, and he was reaching one hand up to touch them, as though he needed proof that something had just happened. And something certainly had, although Dias wasn't letting himself linger on that thought.

His own hand slowly lowered from his hair, and Ashton reached for it quickly, capturing Dias's hand in between his own. "Dias... Why did you go?" Ashton swallowed- Dias watched the way the motion moved in his throat- and looked down, studying the hand that he was clearly holding hostage. For a moment, Dias considered simply pulling away and leaving the whole situation. He didn't have to be here, didn't have to take the time to try to fix someone who was so clearly broken. It wasn't as though he didn't have his own rips to mend, plenty of shards to pick up for himself.

But then he thought of Claude, of the way that Claude fought when he knew Rena was watching, of the smile that lit Claude's face when he saw Rena. Protecting someone clearly had been a worthwhile goal for him. It had been the only goal. Selfish as it was, Dias wanted that. He wanted to have even a sliver of the comfort he'd seen Claude derive from their quest.

"Why are you in Linga, Ashton?" Dias had to know. There was only one reason that he could think of that could keep Ashton in a town like Linga. The youth was full of such contradictions, having fled to this town, all the while, Dias swallowed, wearing the ring he'd left on the window sill. Clearly, he'd had it sized to fit, because that small band of silver wouldn't have ever made it over even one of Ashton's knuckles.

Ashton didn't look up, instead taking to tracing some line he had found on Dias's hand. Probably a scar, judging from the way that Dias couldn't feel the motion that he could see Ashton making. For a moment, Dias didn't think Ashton would answer, and then, Ashton whispered, "Not the reason you're thinking. Precis left to go to Earth with Claude, Rena, and Chisato." The youth looked so lost at the thought, that Dias actually found himself reaching out and pulling Ashton to him. Ashton held onto his hand with a grip so tight that Dias figured that he'd bruise even under all of the callouses. "Bowman explained my situation to the university and they agreed to let me use the library in exchange for some of the Symbology students studying my possession curse."

Dias felt something cold in his stomach. He'd seen the curse countless times- living on the road with Ashton for so long had ensured that. Even Dias admitted that it was unsettling to see, let alone get close to and really study. He found his free hand slowly trailing over the small of Ashton's back; careless. He purposely placed that hand against the bed, drawing a deep breath. It was dangerous to let himself get so attached to someone, particularly someone who was so wildly unpredictable.

"Does it bother you? Letting them see it." Dias didn't have to clarify more than that, and honestly, Ashton didn't even have to speak. The little shiver that ran down his back was all the answer Dias needed. He considered his options for a moment, but when Ashton tilted his head up to finally look at him, Dias knew that his course was set. He glanced toward the window; it was already dark out. He sighed faintly, and then gently shook Ashton. The day must have been too much for him coupled with the vehemence of his emotions, because Ashton was already beginning to doze.

"Ashton, where are you staying?"

"Don't wanna go back there." Ashton's voice was sleepy, mumbling the words into Dias's chest, where he kept rubbing his face. Dias wasn't about to admit it aloud, but he rather liked it. He let a very small smile cross his face, but when Gyoro snorted, it faded. He narrowed his eyes at the red dragon before he shook Ashton just slightly again.

"You're not. Where is it?" He was relentless when he needed to be, and eventually, he extracted the address from the youth. He left Ashton asleep in the middle of the bed, and he headed out after having found Ashton's key on a string around his neck. One of the dragons must have insisted on it, so that they could always find it. He was certain that Ashton's luck demanded that he lose it quite frequently.

[[ ... I won't question why so many have died ... ]]

Even by Dias's standards, the small flat was pretty bad. It needed maintenance that Ashton must not have been able to afford, and, knowing Ashton's luck, as soon as he fixed one thing, something else must have broken almost immediately. Dias stilled as he noticed something unusual: Ashton was still living out of his pack. Even in the inns they'd stayed at, Ashton was one to unpack. Dias had scolded him more than once for not being ready to leave at a moment's notice, for settling in too much. Ashton had always laughed and waved off the comments, but it seemed that the lesson had finally sunk in.

A thought, and then Dias carefully stripped the bed of its sheets and quilt, folded them, and packed them into the heavy canvas bag as well. He walked through the apartment, really looking, really seeing how much Ashton had changed over the course of the past year and a half. There was nothing there to indicate anything about the owner of the place, no personality splattered all over the walls or the floor, nothing. He sighed softly as he shouldered the bag.

It wasn't until he was on his way out that he saw them, propped up alone in the corner. They were well maintained, but clearly no longer in everyday use. What made Dias hesitate though, was not the actual swords themselves, as impressive as they were. It was the belt, the small strip of dark leather that he could remember sitting in Central City and working himself, while Ashton went through his sword routines in the park in front of him. Rena had teased him mercilessly over that sword belt, since it had taken him twice as long as she had spent on a similar one that Claude wore. To make matters worse, the belt Dias had almost finished didn't even fit him. The strip had been smaller than he thought.

He picked up the belt in one hand, his eyes narrowing as he studied it. He'd abandoned the thing in the park that day, finally giving in and dueling with Ashton instead. Ashton must have found it and finished it. Dias rubbed his fingers over the leather before he carefully picked it and the short swords up, locking the door on his way out.

Dias turned from the door, and he found himself staring, face to face with one of the companions that he'd never found any sort of common ground with. "Bowman," he said, his face composed very carefully. His presence startled the pharmacist, he could tell that much, but Bowman was good at keeping things to himself.

"Dias." The only indicator that anything was wrong at all was the grip that Bowman had on the covered plate in one hand. His knuckles were white. "What are you doing here? Is that Ashton's bag?"

"He's staying with me." Dias's tone booked no arguments. He casually reached out and took the plate with a slight nod. "From your wife? I'll make sure Ashton gets it." When Bowman moved to take it back, Dias allowed a very small smile to curve his lips. Bowman immediately stopped, knowing that smile, having patched people up after Dias got that smile. He hesitated and then dropped his hand with a scowl.

"You can't do this. Ashton is... he's not ready for this." Bowman's fist clenched, and Dias wondered for a moment if the pharmacist would hit him. He certainly looked ready to.

Dias shrugged slightly, shifting the pack's strap on his shoulder. He had to admit, it was heavier than he'd originally thought. "He's staying with me until we've exorcised his demons." With that, he brushed past Bowman, not caring what the pharmacist thought about it.

"Dias!"

The swordsman stopped but didn't turn around.

"If you hurt him..." Bowman's voice was low, the tone he used when he was threatening patients. Dias had been on the receiving end of that voice more than once, particularly since he wasn't the best of patients. "If you hurt him, Dias, I swear, I'll hurt you."

And there was the promise. Not something that Bowman couldn't deliver, nothing so dramatic and exaggerated as death, but a simple something that Bowman was assured he could manage. Dias nodded once, letting Bowman know that he heard him. He didn't like the pharmacist, but he respected him anyway. Then Dias walked away, the plate still in one hand.

By the time he got back, Ashton was sitting up in the bed, his knees drawn up to his chest once more. Dias wondered if Ashton realized how vulnerable he looked sitting like that, even with the dragons looming over him. He set the plate on the bed in front of Ashton, dropping the pack onto the floor near the bed. Ashton blushed softly as he looked at the food.

"Ninay?" Ashton's question was tentative, but Dias was sure he already knew the answer. He was asking as a conversation starter.

He indulged the youth, even as he reached down to open Ashton's bag, to dig out a fork. "Bowman delivered it. Is Ninay his wife's name?" He offered the utensil to Ashton, and as Ashton ate, he fished out the key and slid the string around Ururun's neck instead of Ashton's. The younger man didn't seem to notice, although Gyoro shot Dias a look that the swordsman didn't care to be on the receiving end of.

"Yeah. ... They had a baby a month or two ago. Did you know?" Ashton pushed the food around on the plate, and Dias inched away from him, needing some space between them. Ashton tended to make him do truly foolish things without realizing it.

"I hadn't heard yet."

Ashton nodded as he pushed the food around a little more. Unable to stand it- and cursing his lack of will around Ashton- Dias moved to perch lightly on the edge of the bed, taking the fork from Ashton in the same movement. He stabbed a few vegetables and offered them to Ashton, keeping his face perfectly composed as he did. Ashton hesitated, looked up at him, then caved and took the bite, chewing as slowly as he could.

"You have to eat some of this too. I'm not... I'm not really hungry." Ashton sighed a little, one of his shoulders lifting and falling in a slight motion. "Ninay always sends too much."

Dias deftly speared a bite and ate it, tempting Ashton with another one before he asked, "She cooks frequently then?"

Ashton was nodding before he realized it, chewing as he did. Dias glanced up at Gyoro and Ururun, who both looked longingly at the plate. His eyes narrowed, and he purposely coaxed Ashton into eating more before he abandoned the plate to their devices. Honestly, he was half-expecting to hear it crack and shatter as they dove into it, snapping and growling. To Ashton's credit, he didn't even seem to notice their antics.

"Dias," Ashton's voice was quiet, "what's the news?" Slowly, Ashton looked up at him, those green eyes piercing, trying to read him.

For a moment, Dias considered not telling him. It was a cruel idea, but one that he entertained briefly nonetheless. Then, he discarded it, and he salvaged the plate from the dragons. "I found it," he murmured, setting the dish on the nearest surface. He didn't look at Ashton, but he heard the swift intake of breath.

"F-found what?"

The hesitation almost undid him. Dias glanced back, and at the sight of Ashton, so fearful, so hopeful, sitting up on the bed, staring at Dias was almost too much. Dias needed more self-control. Instead of pushing Ashton back, he swallowed, and he clarified, "The exorcism you've been looking for." He moved the fork around the plate a few times before he abandoned it in favor of studying Ashton. "I have it."

Ashton was completely still, his eyes wide, his mouth slightly ajar, and even the dragons were staring at him. Ururun was the first to move, reaching out for him, and he slowly returned it, letting the palm of his hand lay against the jewel on Ururun's forehead. It was cool to the touch, which always made him uneasy, but then Ashton had captured his hand. Ashton pulled Dias down to him, until their faces were inches apart.

"Really?" The word was the barest of sounds, and Dias stiffened as he felt Ashton's fingers intertwining with his own. He was being held hostage by the slightest touch, unable to get away for fear of upsetting the other man further. For a heartbeat, he didn't move at all, and then he couldn't stand it any longer. Ashton was looking up at him, something glittering in those green eyes, and with his lips parted, the slight breathlessness was entirely too much.

Dias closed the distance between them, and, in less than a day, stole a second kiss from Ashton's mouth. Ashton was soft, pliant under him, and as the kiss deepened, Dias found himself wondering what the hell had ever taken him so long in doing this before. His free hand reached up to catch Gyoro before the dragon could bite him, and he pushed Ashton back just a little until he was flat against the headboard. Dias pinned Gyoro there under his hand, and he untangled his other hand from Ashton's fingers, reaching up to bury it into Ashton's hair.

He tugged slightly on the soft hair, pulling Ashton closer as he tasted the younger man, a low growl escaping him as Ashton kissed back. This time, when they broke apart, Dias was breathing harder than he would have liked, but Ashton was looking up at him, his eyes almost glazed over in a mixture of shock and ... something that Dias was well acquainted with. The proof of that other look was pressing against him, just as demanding as his own. But Gyoro was snarling and snapping and Dias wasn't entirely certain he would be capable of both subduing the dragon and pressing his advantage.

Instead, he stepped back and slowly removed his grip on the dragon, narrowing his eyes at Gyoro, who puffed a small bit of smoke in warning at him. Ashton reached up and lightly placed his hand over Gyoro's snout, looking down as the blush on his face slowly faded.

Ashton's mouth opened and closed twice before he seemed to find his voice. "W-where is it, Dias? The incantation?" He was still trembling, and Dias shot Gyoro another warning look before he reached out to put his hand lightly on the back of Ashton's neck. The trembling let up a little, and Dias eased up off of the bed.

He walked over to his pack- the thing was scarred, seams finally beginning to give. He was careful opening it, knowing that he needed to get a new one before much longer. From it, he pulled out a small scrap of paper. It wasn't the original (that was one of the walls inside of a remote cave), but he had copied the incantation faithfully, knowing that it was important. He held it out to Ashton, forcing the younger man to unfold off of the bed and cross the room to Dias's side. Gyoro growled unappreciatively, but Ururun rubbed his head against Dias's shoulder.

Ashton looked over the inscription, his lips moving as he silently reviewed the words, clearly practiced in reading such things by now. The mixture of disbelief and hope that was on his face made Dias's heart lurch, and for a moment, he understood the terrible pain that Ashton had been through. Out of all of their little group, Dias had been the only one to really know Ashton for Ashton. Everyone else had been more interested in knowing the dragons, which Dias both understood and resented. He was certain that Ashton felt much the same way.

"I could do this now," Ashton whispered quietly, his eyes still wide as he shivered, the paper making a soft rustling noise. Gyoro made a low whining noise, leaning forward to rub against Ashton's cheek, and Ashton reached up to touch the red dragon's head without thinking, his eyes on the words. "Right now. It's just a simple spell."

Dias nodded slowly. He was no Heraldic master; hell, he didn't even pretend to try to understand Ashton's own use of magic. The crests tattooed on the younger swordsman had always been a point of fascination for Dias, but he'd never asked, never pressed. If Ashton wanted him to know, he would have told him; Dias was certain of that. He didn't hesitate telling Dias about anything else.

"Outside of the room," he suddenly said, and when Ashton's brow furrowed and he looked up, Dias cleared his throat before responding again. "You need to do it outside somewhere. With space. Those things can get destructive."

"Right." Ashton blushed a little, the slightest of smiles touching his lips. "Right, they do. Outside then." But Ashton didn't move, and a very small smile touched Dias's lips.

"I had Leon look it over, Ashton," he admitted quietly. Ashton's gaze snapped over to him, the first time he'd looked away from the scrap of paper. Dias didn't think he needed to point out that this wasn't exactly his area of expertise.

Ashton hesitated for only a moment, and then he asked, "He thought it was safe?" As though Dias would have brought him an incantation that Leon didn't trust. Clearly, that thought occurred to Ashton, because he blushed darkly again and glanced away. "Right. Course he did." He looked back at the sheet, studying it intently, his lips moving just slightly, not quite saying the words Dias knew were on there. His brow furrowed slightly, and he looked back up at Dias. "Wait."

"What?" Dias frowned, not liking the expression on Ashton's face. Four months had finally yielded that incantation, and he didn't want to see it not be useful; not after everything he'd sacrificed to get the damn thing.

"I... I don't have an energy crystal, Dias." Ashton sighed before his arm dropped, the paper loosely held between his fingers. "I need one for this spell. It's the only material component."

For just a moment, the words hung between them, and then Dias grabbed his pack and cloak and headed for the door. It wasn't until he started twisting the handle that Ashton caught him, those green eyes wide with... something. Dias didn't even attempt to name the emotion in them. He was too far out of practice.

"Where are you going?" Ashton was frowning, his fingers wrapped around Dias's wrist in a loose bracelet. He could be shaken off; Dias wouldn't have any difficulty, and Ashton was probably well aware of it.

A heartbeat passed while Dias struggled, trying to figure out whether or not he actually had to say anything. But then the expression on Ashton's face from earlier- when Dias had first seen him after four months of being gone- floated in front of him. That horrified anger that had graced Ashton's features was something that Dias didn't want to see again, and clearly, his leaving had been the source of that anger.

Finally, he looked to the door, to the small brass handle that he was clinging to. Absently, he noticed that his knuckles were white around it. "The Hoffman Ruins," he said gruffly, and Ashton stepped back. Dias didn't wait to see his face. If Ashton decided that he would hate him for it, so be it. Dias had made the younger swordsman a promise, and he was going to uphold it, one way or another.

He schooled his face and twisted the handle, escaping into the rapidly setting sun. It was foolish to be leaving so late in the evening, but he had to admit, he wasn't strong enough to share the room with Ashton and not reach for the younger swordsman. He might have promised Ashton that he'd help him exorcise the dragons, but Dias had promised himself that he wouldn't press his affections on Ashton until they were gone. He wanted Ashton free of any influences before he admitted to anything.

Now, he knew that it had to be a foolish dream, one borne of desperation and of an inability to face himself. He hadn't wanted to press his suit out of fear that it wouldn't be returned. Now that he knew it might be- it was returned, it scared him more than anything else. He snorted slightly, slinging the cloak over his shoulders and gripping his pack in his left hand. By the time he stopped for the night- well away from Linga- his arm would ache, but it was his left, not his sword arm. He could deal with it. He always did.

[[ ... My prayers have made it through ... ]]

Ashton swallowed thickly, the spell almost forgotten in his hand as he watched Dias go. Ururun made a low noise and rubbed his head against Ashton's cheek, and Ashton instinctively reached up to touch the blue dragon, his eyes focused on the door. Dias hadn't even hesitated when Ashton told him that he needed the energy crystal. He just shrugged a little, got his things, and set off for the Hoffman Ruins, no questions asked. Had that been why Dias had left in the first place? To find the incantation that Ashton was holding?

Shaking, Ashton closed his eyes, drew a breath,and then ran out of the room, not even caring that he left the door open. Gyoro made a low growl, clearly disagreeing with his choice, but Ururun snapped at the red dragon, and Ashton felt the beginnings of a smile on his lips. At least someone trusted him. His judgment hadn't been compromised by the possession, after all, despite what everyone seemed to think.

He caught up to Dias and reached out for him, grasping the other man's arm tightly. For a moment, Ashton didn't think Dias would stop for him- and what sort of idiot was he, anyway? Charging off after Dias like that. He wasn't Rena after all. Then Dias looked over at him and stopped, sending Ashton crashing into him. He felt Dias's arms steady him, without seeming to even realize that he was doing it, and Ashton grabbed a handful of that cloak. He leaned against Dias for just a moment, his eyes closed, and then he glanced up cautiously.

Dias wasn't moving, but he wasn't exactly returning the embrace either. Ashton swallowed again; he'd forgotten how intimidating Dias really was in person. Somehow, he'd manage to soften the other man in his memories, convince himself that there were tender moments that now he was questioning. There was no doubt that there was something between them; if nothing else, the kisses proved that. But Dias stood so far from him, kept himself so distanced that it was almost impossible to reach him, and Ashton felt like a fool for trying.

"Don't go yet," he whispered as he stepped back, although he didn't relinquish his grip on the cloak. He knew Dias. The other man was likely to just shrug and stalk off anyway, calling over his shoulder for Ashton to follow him if he wished. Ashton, until this moment, had always done just that, rushing to grab his pack and charging after him, adjusting his sword belt as he caught up to the blue-haired man. He wouldn't do it again. He couldn't.

"You need the crystal."

Ashton closed his eyes at the sound of Dias's voice, gruff and low over his ear. Ururun made a low whining noise, and Gyoro snorted a little, clearly annoyed with Dias for whatever reason. Ashton ignored them both, instead, choosing to stare at the brass-colored clasp of Dias's cloak, since it was just below his eye level. "No," he said softly, his grip on the cloak tightening. He felt Dias go perfectly still, and he winced, knowing that it came out wrong. "I mean, yes, I need for the spell, but, Dias, I... I need to go with you."

Somehow, he found his nerve, and he tilted his head up just enough to look up at Dias. Ashton continued, "You can't keep rushing off to do this for me. It's my curse; it's my responsibility." He quickly looked away when Dias arched an eyebrow. He couldn't let anything stop him now. He'd needed to say it for far too long. "I've accepted what happened to me, Dias. I can't risk you getting hurt for me like this." When did his mouth get so dry? He licked his bottom lip, squeezing his free hand into a fist. "I can't lose you again," he whispered, feeling a little thrill running down his spine at the fact that he'd actually said it.

They stayed like that, the sunset on one side of them, the dusty little town of Linga on the other, until Ashton heard the soft thump of a bag hitting the hard-packed dirt. He didn't have time to look up before he felt Dias pulling him close, and he stumbled, then fell against the other swordsman, his eyes closing slightly. "D-Dias?"

He clung to Dias, only vaguely aware of the fact that he was doing so, his arms wrapping around Dias's waist, under the heavy fall of that teal cloak. His fingers buried themselves in Dias's green travel robe, and he didn't look up, not even when Dias gently shook him and murmured his name. He just buried his face in Dias's chest, rubbing his nose against the robe just under the clasp of the cloak.

"Ashton..."

He could feel Dias swallow, hear the other man's every breath as he clearly struggled with what to say. Not that Ashton could blame him. The poor man had been painted very neatly into a corner that he clearly didn't want to be in. Ashton burrowed a little closer, trying to memorize their position, to learn the feel of Dias's arms around him. The silence stretched between them.

"Ashton," Dias was speaking more softly, and Ashton felt a shiver trail down his back. "I leave; it's what I do." Violently, Ashton shook his head, but a hand in the small of his back made him stop. That's all it took, a warm open palm against his back- Ashton could feel the heat of it even through his robes. "I always come back, Ashton," Dias's lips were breathing his words right over Ashton's ear. "That's what this is for." Dias pulled one of Ashton's arms back and twisted the tiny ring around his finger. "It's a promise." Another tremble, and the slightest touch of those lips against the curve of his ear-

Gyoro made a low growling noise that Dias clearly ignored, and Ururun wrapped himself around Gyoro to keep the red dragon from doing anything violent.

Those lips parted and there was a hint of tongue against Ashton's ear, and Ashton shivered before he finally lifted his head to look up at Dias. He couldn't stop the dark flush on his face, so instead, he decided to swallow his pride. Cards were being laid, one at a time, and defenses were finally beginning to be stripped away. "Dias," he started softly, "I can't wait for you. I have to go with you. I can help." He felt his grip on Dias's clothes slowly easing up, and he drew back enough to stand on his own, dislodging Dias's arms from him.

"You'll need a weapon," Dias finally said, and Ashton's hands instinctively went to his hips. He'd stopped wearing the sword belt when he started frequenting the library. The dual short swords made it uncomfortable to sit, to constantly have to find somewhere to put them.

"We can go tomorrow, Dias," Ashton replied, and for a moment, he didn't think Dias would listen. Then he saw the older swordsman sag a little and nod. "Let's go back and get some sleep. We can leave in the morning." He swallowed, then reached out and took Dias's hand. He braced himself for Dias to pull it away, but when he didn't, Ashton pulled him back toward the room instead. At the very least, they had catching up to do.

[[ ... Cause with all these things we do ... ]]

The morning brought more than simply the time for them to leave. Ashton awoke to Dias holding the sword belt out to him, and as he rolled out of bed and took it from the other man, he felt a small shiver run down his back at the feel of their fingers brushing one another. He shook it off, dressed, and buckled the belt, cinching it to fit as Dias studied him. He blushed under the scrutiny but didn't say anything about it, knowing that it would only serve to amuse Dias rather than actually answer any questions.

The knock at the door had surprised them both, and Dias's hand flew to the sword at his hip as he crossed the room to the door. His left hand gripped the door handle for just a moment, then he threw it open, his right ready to draw. Bowman scowled at them both, and Ashton's blush darkened as he let go of the blades at his own hips.

"You are the most paranoid person on Expel," Bowman muttered, brushing past Dias to go to Ashton. He folded his arms in front of him, studying Ashton for several minutes before he leaned back. Dias made a low noise, but didn't rush the pharmacist, knowing that Bowman was doing this purely to get a reaction. Ashton hid a little grin at that thought.

"Well, Ashton, how are you feeling?" Bowman tilted his head as he reached for Gyoro, studying the demon's eyes. He snapped his fingers and Gyoro sulkily opened his mouth, breathing out a warning puff of smoke. Bowman rapped his knuckles over the red snout for that. "Better than you have been?"

"Dias found an incantation," Ashton said softly.

Bowman stilled, his hands releasing Gyoro. "What?"

Dias inclined his head slightly, a smirk playing over his lips. Ashton giggled nervously, knowing that sparks flew between Bowman and Dias, for whatever reason.

"It's why he disappeared." Ashton looked pointedly over toward Dias. The smirk faded, and Ashton watched the older swordsman swallow. "He didn't want to get my hopes up before he got his hands on it."

Bowman's fist clenched, and he held out his other hand. Ashton hesitated before gingerly placing the paper in it. "Be careful with it," he said, and Bowman gave him a look that Ashton decided meant, 'When am I not?' The pharmacist looked it over, his eyes narrowing before he handed it back.

"Do you think it will work, Ashton?"

Ashton fought to keep his hands steady, managing a smile up at his protector. "I'll give it a shot. It doesn't say anything about their deaths, which is more than I can say for most." He smoothed out the sheet, his eyes glazing over a little as he glanced at it. "Gyoro and Ururun think it's worth a shot," he added, seeing Bowman looking at the two dragons.

Bowman nodded slowly. "What do you need for it?"

"An energy crystal." Ashton wrinkled up his nose, then smiled again. "Dias and I are heading to the Hoffman Ruins today to get one." He ignored Bowman's frown and pushed himself up off of the bed, looking over toward Dias. "Speaking of, are you ready to go?"

Dias picked up his pack, holding Ashton's out to him. Ashton held it carefully, smiling warmly as he waved to Bowman. "I'll see you later, yeah?" He felt Dias's hand on his shoulder, and he looked up at the older swordsman with a little grin. "Unlike some people, I actually do write letters."

A scowl, and then Bowman sighed. "Well, I certainly can't stop you, Ashton. Be safe, won't you? No more fighting two-headed dragons without proper lucky charms, eh?" He smiled a little, but it was affectionate, and he reached out to ruffle Ashton's hair, ignoring the growl from Gyoro and the way Dias tensed. Ashton might have been a few inches taller than Bowman, but the pharmacist was his senior by several years, and he treated Ashton more like a little brother than anything. All of them were practically family after all; saving the galaxy had that effect on people.

Ashton glanced up at Dias. With a few notable exceptions, it seemed.

With that, they slipped out, leaving Bowman to gather the plate he'd sent over the night before. By the time they got on the road, Ashton found himself falling back into the traveling gait easily enough. In some ways, it was as though they had never been apart.

They were halfway to Lacuer before they met even a single person on the road, and the young man they did meet stopped short, staring up at Dias. "Master Dias?"

Dias frowned a little as he stepped around Ashton. His hand rested on the pommel of the sword, and the young man swallowed upon seeing that. Ashton laughed slightly.

"What can we do for you?" he asked quickly, before Dias could terrify the poor man any longer. Ashton's eyes flicked over the uniform the man wore, and then he nodded a little. "You're from Lacuer."

"A-ah, yes, sir. Master Leon sent me." The young man hesitated only a moment, then reached into the pouch on his belt and withdrew a small package. "Master Leon said that you left this, sir. I'm to deliver it to you. He... He also said, sir, that you should head to Linga's Sacred Grounds. He said that it had properties that would be beneficial to your cause." He approached Dias slowly, holding out the box. Dias took it and nodded slowly. The young man bowed, then darted back toward Lacuer, only glancing over his shoulder once.

Ashton grinned. It wasn't really that surprising, given the fact that Dias was still the reigning arms champion. The next tournament wouldn't be for a few more months, and everyone in Lacuer knew Dias on sight. Likewise, they would have known Claude as the almost-rookie-champion, had he stayed on Expel.

Dias ripped open the small box as they turned around and resumed walking. He made a low noise before he handed the box over to Ashton. Frowning, Ashton lifted a small crystal out of it, and then he felt the bottom of his stomach drop out.

"Dias?" he asked softly, and when he looked up, Dias nodded. "An energy crystal..?"

"Left over from the Lacuer Hope."

Ashton nodded his agreement, holding the tiny gem up to the sun, smiling as he watched it catch the light. He tucked it into the middle of his palm and glanced back at Dias. "He said the Sacred Grounds of Linga? Why, do you think?"

Dias shrugged, and they made the rest of the walk in silence. The sun climbed higher in the sky, and by the time they finally made it to the Sacred Grounds, it was well past the midday mark. They had eaten trail rations as they walked, a skill that Ashton had been forced to relearn, much to Dias's amusement.

"Where should I..?" Ashton looked around at the plant-covered boulders, clutching the crystal in one hand.

Dias glanced around them, then he touched Ashton's shoulder. Ashton looked, and Dias pointed out a patch of wide open grass, far enough off of the road to minimize any problems, but there was a buffer of rocks that would prevent anyone wandering down the road from seeing them right away. Ashton swallowed thickly as they made their way over there, his hand beginning to shake again.

His mouth was painfully dry as he carefully drew the circle into the ground, as instructed, and he stripped down to just his undershirt and his black pants, even kicking off his boots. He clutched the paper in one hand, feeling his trembling getting worse as he stepped into the circle.

"Ore of the skies, of the earth, of the seas," the words were ash on his tongue. "Blessed by the highest power, the divine nature that surrounds us." He shivered more violently, and he gripped the paper carefully, scared that he would tear it. "I present my cursed body; read the symbols engraved in my flesh."

His shirt fell to the ground, and he felt Gyoro and Ururun both stretching, both making the softest of noises as Ashton read off the incantation. Each of them had to say it, and they spoke in unison, Ashton's voice echoing with the low growls and keening cries of the dragons. The crystal in his hand began to grow hot, and Ashton shifted his grip on it, careful not to drop it.

"These symbols are my chains, my prison." Ashton locked gaze with Dias, who crouched down in the grass, watching. "Reverse them," how was his voice so steady? "Unravel the weave they have placed upon me." The paper rustled from the force of his shaking, but Ashton didn't need it any longer. It was as though he weren't making the movements any longer. He reached up with his free hand and drew a symbol quickly. He knew it was the symbol for renewal, not the one for purification, as so many incantations demanded. "Release me," he whispered, redrawing the symbol.

Gyoro rubbed against his cheek, while Ururun licked the side of his neck, and Ashton made a low moan as he finished the incantation. The sliver of energy crystal glittered brilliantly, impossibly hot to the touch, and Ashton set it on the ground, glancing up at Dias before he stepped on it, feeling it crack and shatter under his foot.

A blinding light filled his senses, and he was vaguely aware of an arching pain that shot through his limbs. Something lifted him, and he instinctively drew himself into a tight ball, screaming as he felt himself being ripped apart. Sickening cracks and snaps and strange slurping noises filled his ears, and he couldn't see, couldn't feel anything beyond the pain. Vaguely, he was aware of the taste of strawberries on his tongue, and for one brief moment, he remembered that day- sitting in the sunshine, drinking melted sundaes with a stoic swordsman- then it was gone, replaced by the taste of bile as he vomited. Not once, but over and over again, despite the fact that there was nothing left.

He felt his bones shifting and breaking and re-knitting under his skin, and he opened his eyes to see only that brilliant light. He heard both dragons squealing, screaming, their cries as desperate and unearthly as his own. Blindly, he reached for them, but found only a blistering wall. He felt the blisters bubble on his hand, and he jerked his hand back, cradling it too him as a low cry tore itself out of his throat. When the darkness finally consumed him, he was grateful. He couldn't stand it a moment longer.

[[ ... It don't matter when I'm coming home to you ... ]]

The light blinded Dias for a moment, but at the first scream, he threw himself toward Ashton, crashing against the outer edge of the circle. It was freezing against his skin, but when Ashton screamed again, Dias gritted his teeth and slammed his shoulder into it, unable to stand still. The light faded very slowly, just enough that Dias could see Ashton, curled up on the grass, his arms wrapped around his middle, his knees tucked up under his chin. His bones were snapping and moving under his skin, and both dragons were flopping about like a fish out of water.

Growling, Dias pounded on the edge of a clear wall that hadn't been there only moments before, and the screaming and begging filled his ears. Ashton was reaching for him, but he jerked his hand back the moment he touched the barrier, screeching.

"Please! Stop this!"

Dias stepped back, his eyes narrowing as he charged the barrier, a sickening crack and a blinding shot of pain telling him that he'd managed to break something. He ignored it, instead, taking another step back and charging it again, gritting his teeth against the sensation of the already broken bone crashing against the unyielding wall. The screams were no longer words, but he could hear something. A memory, one that he wasn't sure he could handle while watching Ashton and being unable to do anything.

"Kill the old man first."

"Please, no! Dias, make it stop!"

Another slam, and then the tears were rolling down Dias's face, and he couldn't stop them either. Ashton was beginning to seize up, his body alternating between drawing every muscle taught and going completely limp. His head hit the hard ground more than once, and Dias found himself sinking down to his knees, his hands still on the achingly cold barrier.

"N-no! Don't hurt her!" Dias reached for her, keeping Cecille behind him even as he tried to protect his mother. "Stop it!"

Blood already stained his shoes, and one of the bandits leered over him, tongue slowly trailing up the blade. "You're weak, boy. Stupid, weak, and unable to do a damn thing." The knife flashed, and Dias jerked Cecille to him, hiding her face in his chest. His eyes cut to the door, but he was outnumbered, out-armed, and on the other end of the house. Reaching the door was impossible.

His mother's screams filled his ears, and he choked, his hands smoothing over Cecille's hair. He couldn't keep any of them safe. The twisted man was laughing, the tip of his blade in his mouth again as he looked Dias over.

"Come on, boy. Take me, if you think you can."

He could feel the frostbite already beginning in his fingers, but he didn't dare move them. He just fell against the barrier, forced to watch, forced to listen as Ashton convulsed and both he and the dragons squealed. By the time it was all over, Dias was sobbing, unable to stop himself, unable to breathe. The barrier shimmered, then vanished, and he fell forward in the grass, one arm still reaching out for Ashton.

He dragged himself up slowly, crawling over to the younger man, reaching up with shaking fingertips to brush that dark tangle from Ashton's face. He was warm, and Dias shook him just enough to get a little moan out of him. Slowly, his shivers subsided, and he pulled Ashton to him, burying his face in the crook of the youth's shoulder.

"Ashton," he whispered, reaching up to touch the back of his companion's head. It wasn't until he did that, his hands brushing over Ashton's shoulder blades, that he realized anything at all had happened. His hand stopped, and he swallowed before he slid his fingers back down, his eyes widening as he realized that he felt human flesh through the holes in Ashton's shirt, not demon skin.

Pulling Ashton's unconscious form closer to himself, Dias glanced around the circle. Two more human bodies lay there, both curled up as tightly as Ashton was, their knees under their chins, arms wrapped around their legs. Neither of them were awake either. Dias slowly relaxed his grip on Ashton, his gaze narrowing on the other two bodies. Dias shook Ashton again, this time a little more forcefully.

Ashton made a low noise as his head rolled against Dias's chest, and those green eyes opened slowly. A slow blink, then another, and then Ashton was reaching up, placing a soft kiss to Dias's throat. Dias stilled at the motion, then pulled Ashton closer to him before he leaned down and placed a kiss of his own against Ashton's forehead. "Ashton," he murmured, and Ashton looked up at him, eyes half closed, before he suddenly tried to jump to his feet.

Dias prevented that, if only because it would have sent Ashton flying into Dias's jaw, and with something near his shoulder already broken from ramming into the spell wall, the older swordsman didn't feel like adding another injury to the pile. Instead, he pushed himself up to his feet and pulled Ashton up after him. Ashton hesitated, staring at the other two bodies in the circle. One of his arms folded back to brush the tips of his fingers against his shoulder-blade, looking for the two demons that had been there for what felt like forever.

They both stood there for a moment, catching their breath, touching one another on the arm lightly. Then Dias moved over to gather their cloaks. Dias knelt beside the closest body, realizing finally that it was completely bare. He pulled his own teal cloak over the young man, and he lingered only long enough to make certain that he was breathing. Then, as Ashton took over, brushing the wild red hair back out of the man's face, Dias picked up Ashton's purple cloak, and headed over to the second.

This one was as bare as the first, but Dias swallowed thickly as he realized there was one key difference. This one was smaller, decidedly feminine. A woman. Long, pale blue hair- almost as long as Dias's own- covered most of her, and Dias quickly threw the cloak over her, shielding the rest of her. He looked back over at Ashton curiously.

"Gyoro and Ururun?" the youth asked finally, a small smile on his lips. He crawled back to the center of the circle and fell in the grass, carefully avoiding the spot where he'd thrown up. Dias moved over to sit beside him, staring up at the sky. "How are we going to get back?"

Dias smiled slightly at the thought before he reached down and touched Ashton's hair. Sitting there in the grass, Ashton moving to lay his head on Dias's thigh as he lay on his back to look up at the sky, Dias realized that he couldn't remember the last time he'd been so ... content. He bent down to press a kiss to Ashton's lips, whispering against them, "Does it matter?"

The two of them would take care of it, no matter what happened. They always did.