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Beneath the Portrait

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While the Sorcerer’s Guild in Zefiel City was a beautiful work of architecture, Zel found that for once in his life he was more interested in staring at the people bustling about than the building. No matter how harshly he chastised himself for it he found he could not stop. He knew he was being silly. Just because he briefly saw a young woman who bore a striking resemblance to some people he used to know in this city several years ago didn’t mean he would see her again.

Not to mention the people he had fought beside so many decades ago.

Slowly he made his way to the front desk, running into no tall blondes nor petite brunettes along the way. The clerk was a middle aged, harried looking man who briefly glanced at him when he approached. “How can I help you?” he asked as he pushed a stack of papers around his desk.

“I’m here to see Minerva the Blue.” Zel explained.

“And you are?”

“Zelgadis the Grey.” He said. It had taken some time, but he’d finally adjusted to having a color status.

“Zar…what?”

Zel shook his head. While he had gotten rid of his cursed body, he still had to contend with the unusual name his parents had bestowed on him and the people too stupid to get it right. With as much patience as he could muster he spelt it out, adding once he had finished, “I’m here to lecture about the process of separating chimeras.”

That caught the clerk’s attention, “Oh! You’re the one! Your paper has caused quite the stir. I plan to attend myself.”

Zel was still unsure how to respond to the enthusiasm that publishing the process on how to separate chimeras had created. Since becoming human again and going public, he had achieved a celebrity status unusual among researchers. Soon guilds from other cities were offering room, board, and traveling expenses for him to give a lecture and a demonstration, so that now rather than traveling from place to place looking for a cure and avoiding the public eye, he was traveling from place to place and giving speeches to packed crowds.

Fortunately the clerk saved Zel the trouble of having to respond by calling for a page. “Go ahead and have a seat.” He instructed.

“Thanks,” Zel said, wondering briefly if he should inquire about Lina, but before he could someone else had approached the desk.

Feeling silly, Zel took a seat, watching people as they came and went, feeling unusually anxious. When he received the invitation to speak at the Zefiel City Sorcerer’s Guild he wasn’t sure about taking it, for fear of not finding his friends happily settled in the area. That Lina hadn’t personally reached out and invited him worried him, leading him to conclude that it was not their daughter that he briefly ran into a few years ago.

Still, he reasoned, there might be other reasons that she may not have extended a personal invitation. And as the time passed, the more curious he became. If only to put the questions to rest, he accepted. And now he waited anxiously, wondering if he might see them at any moment. Perhaps when he met Minerva the Blue he could ask about Lina?

The page returned and addressed him, “Zelgadis the Grey? Follow me.”

Zel followed the page through the corridors, admiring the craftsmanship and care that had been taken to build the guild as he kept an eye out for people wandering around the corridors. It was getting late and already most people seemed to have left for the day, but there were still enough people coming through to warrant attention. The page took him into the library, which was no surprise. In her letter Minerva the Blue had identified herself as the Head Librarian of the Zefiel City Sorcerer’s Guild.

The page led him into an office behind the circulation desk, and then further through some ornate doors. He knocked and then opened the door, and Zel’s eyes widened as he got a good look at the woman sitting behind the desk. A woman who looked remarkably like the one that he had run into several years ago, right after he had been cured.

She was tall and wore sky blue robes and her long blonde hair pinned up. But while her bearing was more regal than the woman he had run into, she looked so much like Gourry Gabriev that the only thing he could conclude was that even if she wasn’t the woman he had run into, she was definitely descended from him. “Zelgadis the Grey.” The page announced as she stood to her full, remarkable height. “Minerva the Blue.”

“Just Min,” she said, extending a hand which he briefly shook as the page left and she indicated that he take a seat. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. I’ve heard so much about you.”

He sat down as his brain struggled to process just what she had said as he wondered how to ask about her parentage. “You have?”

Min smiled, “Mom likes to tell stories.”

Feeling that he would come off an idiot either way, he asked, “Do I know your mother?”

“She says you do.” Min replied as she sipped her tea, “Mom and her stories, sometimes they seem so hard to believe, but there’s so much evidence that backs her. And in any case, she talked about teaming up with you to defeat Shabranigdu even before you became a household name in the wizarding world. When your paper about separating chimeras hit the press it was evidence that there really was a chimera man named Zelgadis. If that part of her story was true, why not the part about Shabranigdu?”

“How are your parents doing?” Zel asked quietly as he relaxed. So he wasn’t imagining things. Lina and Gourry had settled here and put down roots, evidently producing at least one successful child. The knowledge was heartening. After all of the terrible things he had seen in his life, it was nice to know that happy endings did exist.

But before any more could be said, the doors shot open with a bang and a familiar, petite brunette dressed in pink robes strode into the room, followed by another tall, blonde woman. “Sorry, Min, got held up, we’d better get the kids rounded up and to dinner before, oh, I didn’t know you had company.”

“It’s okay, Mom. It’s an old friend of yours, Zelgadis the Grey. He came to speak about separating chimeras.”

Lina’s eyes widened as she paled, not the reaction that Zel was anticipating. “Zel?” she said shakily, and was it his imagination, or was there a hint of fright in her eyes? It vanished quickly as she recovered behind a mask of polite neutrality, “How’ve you been?”

“Good.” He said.

She looked him over, “Being human suits you.”

“Thanks. And pink suits you.”

Lina blushed as she folded her arms over her pink robes and Min and the woman who was obviously her sister giggled, “Dammit, Minerva, this is why I told you not to invite him! Now my dirty little secret is out! I’ll have to hang you out to dry when we get home!”

“Come on now Lina. Pink suites you, really! Helps keep you looking young.” He said, unable to suppress his amusement as he wondered if Lina really had pleaded with her daughter to avoid inviting him for fear of him learning about her color status.

She glared at him, “You know, I always did want another go at you with my powers at full strength.”

He shook his head, “I’ll stop, you’d win. My magical capacity was greatly reduced when I was cured, lower even than what it was before I became a chimera. They had to pull a few strings to get me a color status because I can’t even perform a fireball anymore. Ironically now that I have one I’m not much of a sorcerer anymore.”

“Really? That’s fascinating. What other side effects have you experienced since you were cured?” Min asked as her sister groaned.

“If you three are going to get nerdy, then can we at least grab some food? It’s almost dinner time.”

Lina clapped her on the back, and Zel studied her. She could easily have been Min’s twin, but definitely less polished. She looked like she lived on the road and screamed Black Magic User. And he was fairly sure that she was not the one he had run into several years ago. The one he had run into looked ready to pick a quarrel with the world, while the woman in the room looked as though she just wanted to be left alone. He wondered just how many daughters Lina and Gourry had had, “Attie’s right. No time to warn Julie to set another plate, but you are having dinner with my family, Zel. And you’ll be staying with us.”

“Sounds good.” Zel said, feeling relieved at Lina’s gesture of hospitality even as he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was forced as Min went to her desk and gathered some items.

“Well, it looks like you’ve met Min, and this is Attie.” Lina said, introducing her other daughter as Min indicated that she was ready to leave. “You’re lucky to meet her.” Lina said as they exited Min’s office and she locked it. “She travels often and isn’t home much.”

“Sounds like her parents.” Zel said. “How is Gourry?”

“What makes you think he’s their father?” Lina replied and they walked down the path that would lead them out of the guild.

“No use denying it, Lina. Those two look just like him.”

Lina chuckled, “At least they got my brains. Well, all but Attie.”

Zel glanced at Attie, who shrugged nonchalantly, “If she calls you an idiot it just means she loves you all the more.” She explained a Min nodded in agreement.

“Anyway,” Lina continued as they left the guild, “Gourry is doing well. He took over my parents’ store. Attie runs the supply lines. He’s starting to slow down a little though.”

A strange look passed over her face before she continued, “He’s starting to teach Attie the ropes. Keep the business in the family.”

“And it looks like you’ve been keeping busy with the guild.”

She nodded, “Research mostly.”

“And you’re the head librarian.” He said to Min.

“I found that there are too many things that are fascinating about magic to confine my interest to a tiny branch. This way I get to keep tabs on all of the research going on in differing fields.”

Lina patted her arm affectionately as they walked through the city streets. As always, despite her often harsh words just how deeply she cared for those around her leaked through her actions. Swiftly they moved into a residential area. “How many…” Zel started to ask, but was interrupted by the shrieking of a group of children who had been playing on a playground by a school and were now running towards them.

Four children to be precise, and Zel’s eyes widened in surprise as they suddenly swarmed the three women with shouts of “mom”, “grandma” and “Aunt Attie!”

“Okay, settle down!” Lina exclaimed as she grabbed the hand of a small girl, who looked at Lina and proclaimed, “I’m hungry!”

“We’ll be home soon.” Lina said as Min got the three boys under control.

“I must say, Gourry’s genetic influence is strong.” Zel commented, “Are all four yours?” he asked Min.

“No, just the boys.” She explained, as she pointed to the oldest who appeared to be about nine or ten, “This is Orion, that one is Henry.” She said, indicating the middle one who could not have been older than seven. “And my baby, Wally.”

Wally, who looked to be about five, scrunched his face, “I’m not a baby mom!”

Min smiled as she stroked his golden curls, “Boys, this is Mr. Zelgadis. He used to go on adventures with your grandparents.”

“Hi!” they said.

Zel smiled, a feeling of warmth coming over him. After years of children running away screaming from him if they caught a glimpse of his appearance, being able to talk to them without being treated like a monster was something he never felt that he would get used to, even if he wasn’t sure how to interact with them. It was one of the best things about being fully human again. “Is she yours?” he asked Attie, indicating the girl who was walking hand in hand with Lina and appeared to be Wally’s age.

He wasn’t sure what was so funny about what he had said, but everyone was laughing.

“How is it you always phrase it?” Min said as she put a hand on her sister’s back as Attie stiffened. “’I don’t have time for men, let alone children.’ I’ve yet to see Attie give a man the time of day, let alone some time at night.”

Lina put her arm around the little girl’s shoulder, “This is Pomona, my youngest.”

Zel’s eyes widened, “H-how many more do you have?”

Lina scrunched up her face in concentration, “Thirty-one? Thirty-three? I lose count.”

“Stop it, Mom!” Pomona said with the sternness that only a five-year old could muster, “There’s only one more.”

“I know that. But I like seeing the look on Zel’s face.” Lina explained, “Looks like Pomona is going to keep me honest. The only one you’ve yet to meet is Dianna, my oldest. She should be at the house, unless she got called away.”

Zel stared at Pomona, mystified at how Lina and Gourry had managed to have a child younger than their grandchildren, but decided not to pry as the children started running ahead, eventually veering from the street and into the lawn of a handsome cottage.

“This is my house.” Min explained, “The clan here gathers to eat. We have a very good cook, Julie.”

Min indeed seemed to have done well for herself. The grounds were well maintained and the house looked very comfortable. When they entered he realized it was even larger than he would have suspected just seeing it from the front, and rather well furnished.

From down the hallway he could hear the shouts of children enthusiastically greeting their grandfather. Soon Zel could see Gourry wrestling with them, his hair now white, his expression as gentle as ever. “Kids, now be careful with your grandfather.” Lina said warningly.

“I’m fine, Lina.” He said as Henry and Wally dangled off his back while Pomona had wrapped her arms around his waist as he gave her a big bear hug. Then he looked at Zel. “Were we expecting company?”

Lina sighed at his manners, “We are now. Do you remember Zelgadis?”

“How could I forget him?” Gourry asked, “So, are you a friend of Zel’s?”

Lina groaned, “This is Zel. Remember, I told you he found his cure?”

His blue eyes widened, and Zel laughed, “Good to see you haven’t changed.”

“Has anyone told Julie to set another plate at the table?” an irritated voice asked, and Zel turned to find another Gourry clone behind him. “Extra company when she’s not expecting it upsets her so.”

“I’ll go, Di.” Min said quietly.

Dianna walked in and stared at Zel unabashedly, causing him to blush awkwardly. “So you’re the callous chimera. Tell me, did my mother really take down Shabranigdu, or has she been stringing us along for years?”

In an instant Zel became convinced that she was the one he had bumped in to a few years ago. “The stories are true. I saw her defeat Shabranigdu with my own eyes.”

Dianna smiled appraisingly, “Good to know. I’m Dianna, and I am looking forward to hearing you speak.”

“Thanks.” He said, and then noting her robes, “Are you a healer?”

“Yes, and I focus on midwifery.” She explained, “And Mrs. Root is due to pop any moment now. I’m hoping I can make it through dinner without being called away, I am hungry!”

Min returned, “My husband won’t be joining us, I’m afraid, he’s tied up at work, but Julie says dinner is ready so we’d best make our way to the dining room.”

As the group poured out of the living room, Zel was held back by Gourry, who whispered, “Don’t take Di personally. She’s going through a bad spot right now.” He lowered his voice even more, “Her divorce was finalized yesterday.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Zel said, even as he found that he didn’t mean it. He felt himself intrigued by Dianna, and while many would have found her brisk manner off putting he was oddly attracted to it. He watched as Gourry took a seat beside Lina and pulled her to him for a brief kiss on the head before he started to load up his plate, and the mental image of finding his former comrades in arms his in-laws flashed before his mind, along with the terrifying possibility of Lina becoming his mother-in-law.

Zel took a seat and resolved to keep his distance. Unfortunately he found himself seated beside Dianna, and fielding her rather intelligent questions about his adventures with her parents. In some ways it was odd and baffling. Back when he fought beside her parents, Dianna had not even been born, nor had Lina and Gourry even been romantically involved at that point. Hell, both of them had been younger then than Dianna was now. But he had aged so slowly in his cursed body that for all intents and purposes he appeared to be her age, even as his life experience vastly outpaced hers.

Pursuing her romantically would be ludicrous he told himself as the children excused themselves from the table and ran off to some other part of the house to play as the adults got up and made to move into the sitting room.

“Is something wrong, Attie?” Min asked, noting that Attie had not eaten much of her food.

“I had a large lunch.” She explained as she sat on a very plush chair.

“I never ate as well as I did when I was on the road constantly.” Lina suddenly reminisced.

Gourry laughed, “I remember the food bills!”

“No you don’t.” She snarled as she raised a hand to punch him, but he pulled her to him so that they ended up resting together companionably on the love seat. Zel was suddenly hit with a feeling of overpowering want for what Lina and Gourry had. For decades he had forsaken people for his cure. And now that he had his cure he had no one to share his life with. Try as he might the ghost of what he could have had with Amelia had been hard to shake. But now for the first time his interest was seriously peaked in another woman, and he found himself summoning all of his restraint to keep his mind off Dianna.

Besides, he told himself, it had taken decades for Lina and Gourry to build the family that they had. It wasn’t as if he could wish it into existence for himself. It would take time, granted, it would never happen if he didn’t start pursuing a relationship with someone.

He stole another glance at Dianna. If he pursued a woman closer to his age it would look awkward because she would appear to be several decades older than him. And she would likely be past childbearing age. The more he thought about it the more it made sense to pursue someone younger, even if the age gap might make things awkward at times. They could grow old together and still have the possibility of having a family. In that case, why not Dianna?

But did Dianna even want a family? Strange, he noted, she didn’t appear to have children of her own. Unless they were with her ex-husband. Oh, he had so many questions he wanted to ask her away from the eyes and ears of her parents! He struggled to find an excuse to be with her alone to ask her to dinner when someone knocked on the door, and soon a butler (Min really had done well for herself!) came in to tell Dianna that Mrs. Root had gone into labor and she was needed immediately.

“Perfect timing.” Dianna said as she set her drink on the table, “I just need to get my stuff.”

Dianna went off into the house as Min asked him if he wanted more tea as the sound of children playing rang through the home. Zel wondered if he should offer to walk Dianna to Mrs. Root’s, but he would have no way of figuring out how to get to Lina and Gourry’s home.

“So, where all have your travels taken you, Zel?” Lina asked.

“Oh…” Zel was broken off by the sounds of a masculine voice booming from the hallway, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh no.” Min said as she got up, followed by her parents and Attie, “Drake!”

“Just gathering my stuff, it’s not a problem, is it?” he could hear Dianna snapping back down the hallway.

Zel wasn’t sure what exactly to do, but curiosity got the better of him and he got up to follow them. It didn’t take long for them to reach what looked to be a playroom. The four children were frozen in position as they watched the adults. The man was rather official looking, and Zel had the feeling that he was elected to some important office, and he was looking at Dianna with hatred, and she returned his malice in kind.

“You know you’re not to be alone with the children!” the man continued.

“Drake,” Min said calmly, putting herself between him and Dianna, “She’s leaving on a housecall, she was just gathering her stuff.”

“What’s she doing leaving her stuff in the playroom in the first place?” Drake pointed out.

Min bit her lip as she folded her arms across her stomach and looked at Dianna questioningly. To his surprise a quick scan told Zel that her parents and Attie were looking at her just as admonishingly. Dianna huffed in aggravation as she grabbed her bag, “I don’t have time for a game of twenty fucking questions. Don’t wait up for me.”

And she barreled out of the house before anyone else could say anything, taking a good deal of the tension with her. Pomona walked up to Gourry and he reached down to pick her up, “You okay?” he asked.

She nodded as she lay her head on his shoulder and Lina patted her back, “It’s getting late.”

“Yeah, we’d best get this one to bed.” He agreed.

“You okay, boys?” Drake asked, his demeanor softening, but Zel couldn’t shake the feeling of dislike for him. His behavior was completely uncalled for.

“We’re fine.” Orion said, “She didn’t do anything.”

Drake patted him on the head. “I’m sorry to surprise you, Min, I took the back way in and found her in the room alone with them and…”

Min patted him on the arm, “Drake, we have a guest. This is Zelgadis the Grey. And this is my husband, Drake Cecil, Chief Advisor to the Eternal Queen.”

Zel’s eyebrows shot up. Min had indeed done well for herself he figured as he reluctantly shook his hand. “Welcome.” Drake said, “And while you’re here her majesty desperately welcomes an audience with you. We’ve heard so much about your work.”

“Thank you.” Zel said as he tried to keep the stiffness from his voice as he pulled his hand away as soon as he could, unable to shake his dislike of the man.

Drake smiled awkwardly, “I’m sorry about the outburst.”

“We have to be going actually.” Gourry said. “Sorry to have to rush when you just got in.”

Gourry seemed as calm and friendly as always, which baffled Zel further. Drake had been horribly rude to Dianna!

“I apologize for being so late. These negotiations are going to be the death of me!” Drake said, “Anyway, boys, say goodbye.”

Zel watched as the family went for a round of hugs and kisses, baffled by the complete lack of acrimony any of them felt towards Drake. Zel was glad when he finally left the house with Lina, Gourry, Attie and Pomona. No one said anything for a few awkward moments until Attie addressed Pomona, “Since Mr. Zelgadis will be staying here tonight, I’ll get to have a slumber party with you.”

Pomona lit up, “Really! Cool, but don’t hog all of the covers.”

“I’m sorry to force you out of your room.” Zel said.

Attie shrugged, “I had to share with Min growing up. I’ve never gotten used to having my own room.”

Pomona asked Attie another question, and Zel walked a little up ahead to join Lina and Gourry. “What was that about there?”

Gourry looked at Lina, his worried expression a contrast to her blank one. “Dianna has spells.” Lina finally explained.

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning that she can’t be alone with children.”

Zel felt his temper prick. “The spells can’t be too bad if she holds down a job.”

Gourry folded his arms across his chest as a grimace of pain briefly flashed across his features while Lina stroked his hair. Finally she said quietly, “Look, I noticed the way you were looking at Di during dinner. And don’t even think about it with her. And I’m telling you this as your friend, not her mother.”

Zel flushed and felt his temper flare as she shook her head, “If it were Attie I would be okay with it. A little befuddled, but okay with it. But don’t get involved with Di. She’ll only bring you misery.”