A/N: Here it is- the final chapter of Runaway. 9,100 words.
At first, kissing the Professor had been intimidating. She hadn't known what to do with her hands, first of all, and she had always been afraid someone might burst into the room like that first time. By the end of the first week, though, a lot of her initial nervousness with being with Raine had vanished. Sheena was comfortable with it all now, comfortable with Raine. Raine understood her desire for privacy, keeping the public displays of affection at a minimum.
Raine drew back, one hand to her lip as she sat up on the bed, raising one eyebrow at Sheena. She sighed, looking disgruntled, and picked up her traveling coat where it had been discarded on the floor near the bed.
Oops. Maybe she got a little too comfortable.
"You know I don't like it when you bite," Raine muttered, her cheeks pink and her eyes glowing faintly in the semi-darkness of the room. "First Aid," she said, the warm winds flipping her hair about as she healed herself.
Sheena crossed her arms defensively, feeling her face heat up. "You bite me and you don't mind," she said, but her argument came out weak. She tried not to feel guilty. Why should she feel guilty? No reason at all. Oh crap, she actually bled. ...No reason at all.
Raine tugged Sheena's ear sharply, but her smile let Sheena know she was only teasing. "Do as I say," she said, dropping the coat again so she could wrap her arms tightly around the other girl, running her hands along the endless silky black hair. She enjoyed it when Sheena let her hair down, to run her fingers through it or let it slide through her hands like water. She turned her head, closing her eyes and letting the soft, flowery smell of Sheena fill her senses. "...Not as I do."
"Sounds like someone has a master/slave fetish."
"What, I didn't tell you that?"
Sheena took a moment to try and guess whether she was joking or not. In the end, she decided not to try at all. Raine gathered her coat up again, slipping it over her head as she scooted off the bed, flipping the lights back on. Sheena hopped off after her, quickly leaping up after the Professor and draping her arms around her neck. "Hey, is it time for you to leave already?" she asked, feeling the knots of worry in her stomach. This morning, Genis and Raine had decided it was time to go to Meltokio- to visit Kloitz.
"Are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" Sheena continued, softer. Seeing as how she was already there, she also took the opportunity to nip at Raine's ear.
Raine took a pencil from one of her endless pockets and bopped Sheena on the top of her head. "No biting!" she said. "And it's not that I mind, it's just..."
Tok tok tok tok!
Sheena groaned as she heard the familiar, insistent knocking at the door. "Genis."
Raine smiled apologetically. "Sorry."
Tok tok tok tok! The knocking became more insistent. If you don't open the door I'll kick it down, the knocking said. "I'll let the poor boy in..." She leaned closer, sneaking an arm around Sheena's waist. "But you might want to put on a bra, dear."
Sheena flushed and escaped from Raine's grasp, rushing to the bathroom to get dressed. She came back a few moments later, trying to put up her hair with the new hairpin she had bought a few days ago, against the protests of both Raine and Zelos that it looked better down. "And who's fault would that be?" Sheena said. "You're the one who took it off...Come on in, Genis!" She said the last part loud enough for the other half-elf to hear through the door.
He stepped inside, opening the door with a little hesitation since he didn't want to see anything that might permanently damage his retinas. Thankfully, by that point the articles of clothing on the floor were the two women's shoes. "Hey, Sis," he said to Raine, relaxing once he was sure they wouldn't start to suddenly lip-lock in front of him. "Are we going or what?"
"Yes," she said, reaching out to intertwine her fingers with Sheena's, squeezing tightly before letting go. Sheena nodded, hugging Raine tightly and giving her a lingering kiss on the lips before Raine reluctantly broke away and walked down the hallway, down the stairs, out the door.
"No wonder I saw her being so clingy to you today," Zelos drawled from beside her. She jumped, her heart beating faster. She had been so busy wallowing in her own misery she had let her ninja training slip and Zelos had easily caught her off guard. "Where's she going?"
"Please tell me you haven't been here this whole time," Sheena said, slapping her hands to her face.
"...Maybe," he said. "I might have been outside your room watching you two, I might have been downstairs talking with the brat!"
"If you value your life..." Sheena started, reaching out to grab the front of his shirt while flipping out her cards with one hand, pressing the edges dangerously close to his throat.
Zelos paused, considering his options. "I was talking to the brat."
"...Good boy." She leaned against the doorframe, putting her cards away.
"And you're being unusually violent. Miss her already?"
"Maybe... kinda..." she said, knowing he'd know if she was lying. "Is that weird?" She asked him, staring out at the staircase, as if hoping to see a cloud of silver hair ascending. "I've never really been in a.. relationship before, so I really don't know what to do."
"It's easy!" Zelos said. She gave him a look, and he elaborated. "Well.. my kind of relationships are easy. Real relationships are all full of fights and broken china." He hung his head. "Or at least it was that way with Pandora. I tried the whole fidelity thing with her, didn't work out too well. So now she's threatening to spread rumors that I raped her if I don't marry her, just to spite me. Honestly!"
"So that's how that happened," Sheena marveled at that bit of information. She nervously rubbed her hands together, feeling cold from a sudden draft as the inn door opened. She knew at once it wasn't Raine, though, because of the tell-tale giggles of Colette. She smiled faintly at that, still feeling better whenever Colette was around even though Raine was currently her first priority.
She was tackled by a blur of flying blond hair and pink wings. Completely forgetting the stairs, Colette had simply zoomed up with her wings, grabbing the ninja and lifting her into the air. "Sheena!" she said. "Sheena, come see! You've got to see them! Ohmigosh Sheena, they're so beautiful! Come on! Come on come on come on!"
"I can't move if you don't-"
"Ayah!" Colette squealed, holding her tightly and carrying her down the stairs, her wings flapping almost as fast as Sheena's heart.
"Colette, calm down or you're gonna kill us!"
"Sorry!" Colette said, grinning hugely but not letting her go. Instead, she zoomed around in circles, still squealing from joy. "Sheena, they're wonderful! Wonderful!"
"Colette!" Colette finally got the picture and tried to relax, hovering down near the floor. Sheena hopped out of her arms, smoothing her hair. 'Now... what's wonderful?" she asked the tiny angel, who bobbed up and down in the air in excitement.
"I. Love. Lloyd. So much," Colette said, clenching her fists and eyes shut, looking fit to burst. "He bought... and I get to name them... oh just come see them!" Not waiting for a response, she dragged Sheena out the front door to where Ken, Kratos, and Lloyd were waiting outside. Ken and Lloyd sat in the snow, laughing loudly over something, while Kratos watched on in amusement. The seraphim had changed out of his armor, something Sheena never recall him doing before. In a white dress shirt and black slacks, he looked much too young to be anyone's father. When he noticed her watching him he quickly lost his smile and took on a cool demeanor, simply nodding in her direction by way of greeting. Colette flew past her to join Lloyd and Ken on the snow, reaching down to pick something up and raising it high above her head, the perfect picture of innocence. Now Sheena could see what all the fuss was about.
Puppies. Three of them. Colette brought the one she was holding, a warm ball of fluffy red fur, up to Sheena. She grinned, cuddling the puppy as it licked her face ecstatically.
"Hehe!" Colette giggled. "I'm thinking of naming that one Zelos, because he doesn't like any of the guys to hold him!"
"Better be careful. With that name, he'll be jinxed and you'll have a big litter full of puppies and angry neighbors to deal with." Sheena nuzzled her nose against the puppy's, noting that the eyes were blue as well. He did look like a Zelos, what with his huge puppy-grin and red fur. He licked her nose. He liked to kiss her, too. "How about Chibi Zel? Or Zelly-chan?"
"Hmm?" Colette smiled, but her eyes showed a hint of confusion.
Sheena shrugged. "Heh, don't mind me. I'm just thinking of ways to cute it up."
Colette looked down at the puppy, one hand held to her chin as she tilted her head thoughtfully, examining the puppy. "Zelly-chan.." she said slowly. "Can we just call him Zelly?"
"He's your dog, Colette."
"Oh, but.." Colette hugged her tightly. "I want your opinion too, Sheena!"
"Well, my opinion is there can only be one Magnificent Zelos Wilder!" Zelos said, walking out of the inn to pick up the puppy by the scruff of its neck, glaring at wide eyes as blue as his own. "I'm not going to have competition for the ladies, you got that?" The puppy wriggled, yipping loudly at the indignity of being held in such a way.
"He complains a lot like you, too," Sheena noted.
"I don't complain!"
"Anyway, don't hold Zelly like that, doofus. Can't you see you're frightening him? There, there..." Sheena scooped up the puppy, cradling it like a baby and scratching it gently on its belly with her nails. "You're nicer than your namesake, aren't you?"
Zelly yipped a few times, as if to say, "Yes, I completely agree, Sheena."
Drawn by the sound of laughter and barking, a crowd of girls had come to see the puppies. "Oh, he's so cute!" said one, stroking Zelly's muzzle. "Is he yours?"
Zelos watched for a moment, his mouth agape, before smoothly swooping in and snatching the puppy from Sheena's hands. "Actually," he said, smiling down at the young lady, "He's mine."
"Chosen One!" the girl blushed. "I- I didn't know you liked dogs!"
Kratos, Ken, Lloyd, Colette, and Sheena all had the same reaction. They lowered their heads in defeat and sighed, sweat dropping.
"I don't," he admitted, rubbing Zelly behind his ear. "But this one, he looks like me, doesn't he? And when I found him here in the snow, well, I couldn't just leave him..."
"Well, they do say pets look like their owners!" The girl giggled, nervous and excited at actually talking to such a handsome man. She reached out to hold Zelly, but then stopped short, staring at someone over behind Zelos, near the inn door. Her eyes widened slightly, blush intensifying. Zelos, confused, turned to see who could be attracting more attention than him and his new babe-magnet, Zelly.
Yuan stood in the doorway, very conscious of the stares. He coughed, shaking his loose, flowing blue hair over his shoulders and walking to Kratos. "I can't believe you're out of your armor," he said, ignoring the girl. Kratos made a small noise, shrugging gently as he watched his son and future daughter-in-law frolic with the puppies.
"I can't believe you're wearing a dress," Zelos drawled, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Yuan's head snapped in his direction, aqua eyes burning with an intense light. "It's a robe," he hissed, reaching for the sword that wasn't there. He was, in fact, wearing a loose, kimono-like robe. Now that his Cruxis Crystal had begun to mend itself, he couldn't feel the cold anymore and wasn't bothered by the thin protection silk provided from the snow. He walked barefoot, as well.
"Heh, think whatever you want, buddy," Zelos said. "We all know that you're a Clo-"
Yuan closed the distance between them, grabbing the Chosen's fiery red hair. "Don't you dare," he said. "Don't you dare!"
"Big words for a Closet Homo!" Zelos howled gleefully, little Zelly yipping a few times, his barks sounding eerily like laughter. Mocking laughter.
"You're going to die!"
"Wha hah hah!"
"Why you little-!"
Zelly was unceremoniously tossed away. Sheena lunged, catching the puppy before he fell on the snow- not that the soft powdery substance would have damaged him much, anyway. Soon, Zelos and Yuan were in the middle of their daily fight to the death, punching and kicking as they both tried to reach for Zelos's sword, the only weapon on hand.
"Today is the day I'll shut your mouth forever, Idiot Chosen!" Yuan knocked his hand against Zelos's head, grabbing at his hair and yanking hard enough to make tears spring to the Chosen's eyes.
"Aaaah!" He wailed, beating his fists against Yuan's chest. "Closet Homo! Closet Homo!"
"Will you two knock it off?" Lloyd demanded, angrily dragging the two seraphim apart. They bristled like angry cats, the wings erupting from their backs.
"You know how us humans are Homo Sapiens?" Zelos kept on. "I don't think anyone's thought of a fancy name for your kind yet, so why don't I just call you Homo Seraphim?"
"I'll- I'll kill you!"
"I said knock it off!" Lloyd unfurled his own wings, far outshining theirs as his Cruxis Crystal shone, brighter than the sun reflecting off the snow banks. Yuan and Zelos steamed silently until Kratos took Yuan by the back of his robe and physically dragged him through the snow into the inn. Zelos was left with his fan girls and his new babe-magnet, Zelly the puppy, to comfort him.
"Well..." Colette said after a moment, her cheerful nature irrepressible. She took the puppy again to cuddle it under her chin. "Lloyd? I've decided this little guy here is going to be name Zelly. Isn't that cute?"
"Yeah, isn't it cute?" Zelos echoed. He bounced back to life as if the fight had never happened, wrapping Colette and Zelly in a huge hug. "He's the coolest dog who ever lived. He's a total chick magnet, like me, and he has red hair, like me, and the girls love him, like me!" If he noted that being a chick magnet and having the girls love him was the same thing, he gave no indication.
Lloyd was silent, watching Zelly get comfortable in Colette's arms. "You two do realize," he said after a long moment of thought, "That the red one is a girl, right?"
"He's a what?"
Meanwhile, Kratos had slammed the inn door shut behind him. "You've been too emotional ever since your Crystal broke," Kratos said, depositing the fuming seraphim on a chair in the lounge. He stood before Yuan with his arms crossed, a disapproving frown present on his face.
"Yeah, well, when your emotions suddenly start to come back after four thousand years you'd be killing Chosen's, too."
Kratos sighed and went to his room.
Raine made her way down the dungeon stairs, passing Genis as he came from the other direction. He had recently bought a set of elbow-length black gloves to cover up the reminder of the death spell that had failed. From the clenched, pained look on his face, she knew his meeting hadn't gone well. Bracing herself, she found the cell where Kloitz was located.
"Ah!" he said, sitting up in his prison bunk and grinning hugely. "Surely, ah surely, they did not find thee madly defying our King's commandments, and so prisoner bring thee here?"
"Stop the theatrics."
"OK," he agreed quickly, holding the stump of his arm with his remaining hand. "I noticed when I woke up someone had healed me... before wrenching my Cruxis Crystal from my skin as soon as a proper Key Crest was made. You're the only one I know of who knows such complicated spells." He looked down at his right leg, which was in a cast, and sighed. Melancholy. "So now you can't do it again."
Raine drew closer to the cell bars, resting her forehead against the iron as she tried to get a better look. "When did that happen?" she asked him.
"Oh, the guards didn't like my smart mouth," Kloitz said, cheerily enough. "But enough chit-chat, my love. What brings you and your charming brother here today?"
"He's your brother, too," she reminded him.
"What brings my loving and caring family here today?" he repeated, fixing his error.
"I wanted to ask you a few questions about our family," she said. "And I wanted to try and see if I couldn't get better arrangements for you. If you'd stop antagonizing everyone, they'd treat you better here."
Kloitz's eyes blazed with their own fearsome light for a moment. "If it weren't for you and your charming friends," he said, his voice low and menacing. "I would have been treated like a God."
Raine shook her head sadly. "What, did you intend to take over the world before we foiled your plans?"
"Oh no," he said, "Oh no, no, no. It goes back much farther than that, my dear sister." He lifted up one finger, to stop her from asking more questions. "It started almost three years ago when you first accompanied that pathetic Chosen on her Journey of Regeneration, when you went against your own kind and decimated the Palmacosta Ranch!" He stopped for a moment, to quell his shaking. Clenching his eyes shut and glancing away, he continued. "If I had been there that day, with Magnius, you would have struck me down without a second thought! You wouldn't have even known that you had killed your own brother!"
"But..." Raine leaned closer against the bars. "But you were in Tethe'alla this whole time, Kloitz. Weren't you?"
Kloitz smirked. "Most of the time," he corrected her.
"...I don't understand," she said, but deep inside her she had begun to link together missing information.
"Each of the Desian Grand Cardinals was a half-elf," he said. "They could live for thousands of years- longer than even a regular elf. Magnius was already past his first thousand when he found me. He knew that he couldn't keep going forever. He was a stupid, reckless, ruthless, mindless killing machine, but he was smart enough to see that, and to see me when everyone else saw a sickly baby." Kloitz's eyes shone brighter and he gripped at the sheets on his bed. "He was like my father."
Raine bumped her head against the bars, the pain feeling dull as she felt her mind be replaced with a swamp. Magnius, she thought, horrified and chilled to very bones. My baby brother was raised by that murderer. Oh, Kloitz. Oh, my brother...
"But of course, I soon realized I was smarter than Magnius. I learned to read on my own, and how to use more than just fire magic like he did. I went to the other heirs- because each of the Cardinals had one, you see. Except Kvar, he was always a fool. I had them teach me of water, and air, and earth. And then I would go home and Magnius would teach me how to kill with my body, with and without weapons. All kinds of weapons, Raine."
Please, stop. She wanted to say, but didn't want to let him know how much this unnerved her. Instead, she asked, "Are all of the heirs dead except you?"
"I think Rodyle's is still alive, somewhere," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "But Matias was always a failure and a weakling. Even after the experiments that were supposed to enhance aggression were performed, that runt just couldn't stop being so..." Kloitz shook his head, disgusted. "You tore Cruxis up from the ground. You tore my footing out from under me. I was going to be the leader of the Cardinals..." He stopped, and grinned. "Oh yeah, but you wanted to know about our family, didn't you?"
Raine slowly nodded.
"Well, your father was a human and your mother was an elf. He got her knocked up and you came along. That's all I can tell you." With that, he collapsed onto his bunk. "I gave Genis the opportunity because he's my brother and I love him, but let me assure you, darling, you are not in any way my sister, and you never have been, and you never will be. Genis had you. I had Magnius. Guess who became family with whom? It's all a lie. Sheena and all those other heroes are more like family than I ever will be, so you should get used to that now." He closed his eyes, turning in his bed so that his back was facing her. "...Leave me."
"Oooh, but I can't decide their names!" Colette whined. "It's so difficult. There are just so many names, like Pooky and Minnie and Buddy and Waffle!"
"Waffle?" Sheena echoed.
"Waffle!" Colette agreed. She held up the second puppy, a male one. They knew for certain this time, because they had checked before another embarrassing mistake like earlier. Luckily, "Zelly" was suitably feminine enough that Colette decided to keep it that way. "Doesn't this one look like a waffle?"
Sheena craned her neck, squinting her eyes as if that would help her see the puppy's inner Waffle. She held the last puppy, a solid black female with a splotch of white on her chest. "I'm sorry, but how on earth does he look like a waffle?"
"'Cause his fur is gold, like a waffle, duh."
"Oh." Sheena sat in the snow with Ken, perhaps for the first time realizing that all of them were barely into their twenties. Being here, acting like children, it made her forget that she had saved the world. Well, except for Zelos, but he wouldn't mature now matter how old he got. He was busy making snow angels while Lloyd wrestled with Zelly. The black puppy in her arms made a small whiny, grumbly noise, wriggling out of her grasp to waddle away, sniffing and exploring the area.
"Don't you think the gold one looks like Colette, though?" Lloyd said, lying on his belly in the snow as Zelly climbed over him, sticking a foot in his eye as she tried to perch on top of his head for a better view of the world. "I mean, with the fur and all. Too bad there aren't nine puppies or we could have just named them all after us."
Zelos, in the middle of his fifth snow angel, sat up and grinned. "I think it looks like Lloyd!" he said. "Its got these big brown stupid eyes, but you know it's just the friendliest thing ever."
"Yeah- hey wait, what do you mean 'stupid'?" Lloyd demanded.
"How about you just mix their names up?" Ken suggested, stroking the black pup as it came back to him.
Lloyd looked up from grabbing Zelos by the front of his shirt and bringing him nose-to-nose with himself, a handful of snow ready in his free hand. "Huh?" he asked.
"Since it has qualities from both of you," Ken explained, "Why not take small parts of your name to make one name?"
"I think I get it!" Colette said excitedly. "You mean like Lolette! Or Cloyd."
"Colette and Lloyd... Lloyd and Colette... ColetteLloyd...Colloyd.." Sheena murmured to herself, closing her eyes to think. They shot open, her face shining as she thought of a name. "I've got it!" she said. "Name the puppy Colloy!"
"That's a stupid name," Zelos said, loudly. Lloyd shoved the fistful of snow in his mouth, grinning evilly.
"What do you think, Colette?" Lloyd asked his fiancée. "Colloy sound good?"
"Yeah, I like it!" Colette said, squeezing Colloy. "I really like it. Do you like it, Colloy?" Colloy barked happily. "Good boy!"
"OK, so we've got Zelly for the red one and Colloy for the gold one and..." Lloyd looked around him. "And... Where did the black female go?"
"Why don't you name this beast 'Sheena'?" a male voice suggested from behind him. Lloyd turned to see a dark skinned Mizuho man holding the black puppy by the scruff of her neck. The puppy growled, her teeth snapping as she tried to get free from her captive. A dark, steady flow of blood streamed from several bites already on the man's hand. "Because they both seem to hate me just as much."
Sheena got to her feet at once, her face pale. "Urashima-san," she said evenly. "What brings you here?"
"Urashima" carelessly tossed the puppy on the ground. The hapless creature rolled around in the snow for a moment, giving of long, frightened barks and yelps before running off with her tail between her legs. Colette looked from the stranger to the retreating black puppy before taking off after the dog, quickly returning with the puppy safely shivering in her arms.
"Excuse me," she said, her mouth quivering as she tried her hardest to keep a stern face and not cry. "But you have no right to mistreat my dog that way."
"Shut up," he said, yanking off his bloody glove with his teeth. "I could do worse to you."
Lloyd got up, and at his full height was a good five inches taller than the man. "I think you want to leave now," he said, his face hard. Zelos patted the snow off of his pink silks, getting up to rest an arm on Lloyd's shoulder and glare down at the ninja as well, tapping his naked sword against the tip of his boot.
"I don't think I could stand being near a man who insults women," the Ex-Chosen of Tethe'alla added, the edge of his mouth twisting up in a humorless smile.
"This is between me and the Chief," Urashima said, his voice neutral. "Foreigners have no business with those of Mizuho."
Sheena stepped in before things got out of hand, grabbing the ninja and dragging him a good distance away from the others, her cheeks aflame. Once they were out of earshot, she let him go and shoved him roughly. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded. Far from being intimidated, the man grabbed her by the arm and brought her close, snarling into her face.
"For ten years I had to suffer knowing you were going to be Chief, and when you finally do get appointed you run away to make snow angels in Flanoir!" he hissed before shoving her back. Gentleman, he was not. "I think it's about time you grew up and faced the responsibilities of being a proper Chief."
Sheena bristled, crouching into a fighting position as she readied her cards, eyes blazing. "And just what do you intend to do?"
He leapt back a few feet, whipping out an identical set of cards. "What do you think, foreign girl? I'm taking back what should have been mine from the start!" He rushed forward, snapping out. "Life Seal!"
Sheena bent over backwards to dodge the attack. Then she grabbed his arm and letting his own momentum help her yank him forward to toss him over her shoulder. He landed face-first into the snow, cursing up a storm as he got up, wiping the frigid white powder off of his face. "Take off that damned Ex-sphere!" he yelled at her. "The only reason you ever beat me is because of that! It's a crutch for your handicap- being a woman!" He stomped one foot down angrily. "You've got a millennia of evolution shaping you to be the way you are- small, petite, and physically weak! "
"Urashima-san, that's like me complaining that the only reason you cut me is because you have a knife, and you never cut me before you had the knife." She sighed, rubbing her temple. "The Ex-sphere is a tool, and I use it. It gives me an advantage over you, and I use it. So suck it up and get over the fact that Grandpa chose me over you."
"Grandfather doted over you out of pity!" Urashima screamed, a small black bruise forming on his cheek from where he had collided with the ground. "If you hadn't showed up, I... I would..." He seemed unable to finish his sentence, actually shaking with pent-up rage. "I'll kill you here where you stand, and then let them say I don't deserve it!"
"You don't!" Sheena snapped. "You were exiled- and for a good reason! As far as Mizuho is concerned, you don't exist anymore, Haruko."
"Don't you dare call me by my first name like we're friends!"
Haruko jerked to a halt, in the middle of charging at Sheena, his expression clearly torn as a pre-teen girl came running from the direction of the church. She bowled into him, clutching him tightly. "Nee-san, you didn't hurt her, did you? Nee-san, please don't do this anymore. Please, let's just go home."
"Maybe that would be best for all of us," Sheena agreed, softly. "And, as Chief, you know I could call off the exile on you and your sister, Urashima-san." She put away her enchanted cards, warily watching for some sort of reaction from him. "Or, you could fight me again and, as Chief, I have every right to kill an Exile."
Sheena heard a wavering, watery growl next to her foot and looked down in surprise to see the black pup standing next to her, hackles raised as she snarled at Haruko. "What do you say?"
Haruko closed his eyes for a moment before gently shoving his sister aside, flipping out his deck of cards. "I say we settle this now!"
Sheena nudged the pup away with the toe of her shoe. "Fine then. It seems my fate to be hated by idiotic men! Let's do this!"
"Thanks for the coffee, Pandora," Genis said, stretching lazily once he got outside, adjusting his scarf to cover his nose from the biting winds. It was well past fall now, and in the very beginning of winter. "And thanks for..." He shrugged. "Well, you know."
"Kloitz was- Kloitz is a dangerous criminal," she said, looking comfortably elegant in mink fur. "My family was merely doing its duty. Uncle Max was, of course, a bit too eager to do his duty, but that's not unusual. After all, he has to make sure no one forgets the name 'Max H. Kynes'." She sighed, trying not to shiver at a sudden burst of particularly cold wind. "But speaking of family, where is your sister?"
"She wanted to be alone," Genis said. "I probably shouldn't have taken her here..." He glared at the cobblestones, kicking at it angrily with one boot. "Or I should have at least let her bring Sheena. Damn, but I'm an idiot sometimes."
Pandora nodded in agreement. "It seems to me you overestimate her. You would do well to remember that she's not invincible."
"...Yeah," he said slowly. "Yeah, I think you're right this time."
"I'm not right all the time?"
It took him a moment to realize she was teasing him. "Hey, you're not invincible either," he reminded her. "I could kick your butt with my magic. Then you'll see I'm not wasting my talents."
Pandora chuckled, once. "Come back here when you want to talk," she said. "It's... nice to have another half-elf."
"Yep," he said. "I know of another guy, he's nice too. His name is Harley, he lives in-" he was forced to stop as Pandora placed a finger against his lips.
"I'm not done," she said, smiling.
"You know, aren't noblewomen supposed to be kind and gracious and not complete control-freaky bitches?"
"If you ever decide that you want to put your incredible potential to good use, come see me," she said, ignoring his words. "If you're willing to get bruised and beaten, I will teach you the art of the sword, or of the staff."
"I'll see you all right. On the floor with a big crack in your skull!"
"And we'll work on your insults, while we're at it."
"Whatever." He rolled his eyes, making sure she could see the obvious insult. "Control-Freak."
"Pfft." Her eyebrows arched up slightly in a gesture of amusement and disdain. She turned around to walk back inside her house, calling loudly over her shoulder. "Commoner."
"Hey, at least I'm nice to people!" he yelled at the closed door.
She didn't answer.
"Freaking females," Genis grumbled to himself, running off to find his sister. Instead, he found Yuan.
If Yuan hadn't attracted attention in the small resort-town of Flanoir, he certainly was attracting it in Meltokio. Barefoot, with his hair loose and flying majestically in the winds, he looked like an unearthly specter from some other world, drifting through the streets in his shining white robe. It didn't take him long to find what he was looking for- a six-foot silver haired figure in navy blue.
"Oy, brat!" he said, catching up to Genis and reaching up to give him a painful yank on his ear. "Come with me."
"Huh?" Genis absent-mindedly slapped the seraphim's hand away. "Have you been eating paint again, Yuan?"
"Har har har," Yuan said. "Kratos sent me, pestilence. Colette and Lloyd are getting married tomorrow, and are waiting for no man. Or half-elf."
"Excuse yourself! Your idiot friends are so bursting with love they decided they couldn't wait. I hope you have a suit, because you're not borrowing any of my robes." Yuan exhaled sharply, tucking a stray strand of aqua hair behind his ear. "Personally, I think Lloyd must have just knocked her up and doesn't want to have something like that besmirch his reputation as a good boy and a hero. So chop, chop. Move your stumps, we're getting out of here before Kratos starts to get mad."
"Hey, I'm not going to Flanoir until I find my sister," Genis said, glaring down at him.
"I didn't say we were going to Flanoir now," Yuan explained tersely. "I said we're going now. To somewhere in this damned city where I can talk with you privately. Now come on." Without waiting for a response, he swept past the half-elf, down the stairs and to his right towards one of the cheaper inns in the city. Cursing, Genis followed him. Apparently he had already rented a room, because he was already up the stairs when Genis walked through the front door.
"All right," Genis said, tired as he closed the room door behind him. "What's this about?"
Yuan hesitated for a moment, his usual brisk and rude aura cracking for a moment. Just as Genis felt that he was just going to dismiss whatever it was he had brought Genis here for, he slowly reaching into the sleeve of his robes and pulled out a gently pulsing object. Kloitz's Cruxis Crystal- actually, it was Mithos's Crystal, but he had never actually worn it- was lying in the palm of his hand. Again with that cool, and yet almost uncertain expression, he stretched out his arm to Genis, offering the faintly glowing crystal.
"Do you want to be an angel?" he asked him.
Raine jumped slightly, her heart pounding as she whirled around. Maybe going down a dark alley at sunset in the middle of Meltokio had not been the best idea. This route might have been shorter, but she had forgotten that Meltokio had gotten dangerous of late. She watched the figure emerge from the shadows, gripping her staff tightly as she tried to remember the basic self-defense she was forced to use when there was no time for magic. But what type of mugger knew her name?
"Sheena?" Raine blinked a few times at the ninja, before smiling in delight and surprise. "What are you-ooh!" Raine almost dropped her staff as Sheena lunged forward, almost knocking the Professor to the ground, kissing her hard on the mouth. But soon she had stopped, instead resting her forehead on Raine's shoulder, shivering with suppressed sobs. Raine held her, feeling the erratic, frightened beat of her heart. "Sheena... Sheena, what happened?" Raine peeled the ninja off of her, holding her at an arm's length. "You're bleeding!"
"No..." Sheena said, shaking her head. "No, it's fine. It's not my blood."
"But what happened?" Raine repeated.
"I was attacked," Sheena mumbled, not looking Raine in the eyes. "Challenged my right to be Chief. Before I came it was his, cause he's my cousin, you know. I must have killed him. I dunno. I left before I could see."
They stood face to face, their cards locked together. "If I let you win," Sheena hissed under her breath, "Would you let me live?"
Haruko's fiery anger wilted for a moment in his confusion. "What?"
"Pretend you killed me," she urged. "Take the title and say you killed me. But let me live."
He only grinned. "You are a coward!" he crowed, breaking the lock and slashing wildly. "Pyre Seal! Pyre Seal!"
"But..." Raine was at a loss for words. "But are you all right?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "No, no, no..." Her grip on Raine slackened, her eyelids fluttering as she winced in pain, putting a hand over her abdomen. "I never..."
"Sheena!" Raine placed a glowing hand over the wound. "You are hurt! Stand still while- Goddess, who did this to you? First Aid!"
"Already told you...Freaking moron cousin attacked me in Flanoir," Sheena said, not thinking clearly, but realizing that she was making Raine worry. "Oh Goddess, Raine. It's all right... I don't think he hurt me that bad... I just need to.. to sleep and then I'll be fine..."
"It's a wonder you didn't collapse from blood loss, you fool!" Raine snapped, letting her anger save her from having to deal with the weaker emotion of anxiety. "Come on, I'll- Sheena!" Sheena had fainted, her face pale and pained as she crumpled into a pathetic heap at Raine's feet, the blood beginning to flow freely on the mucky alley street. "Sheena! Sheena, wake up!"
"Damn, but he is persistent," Zelos said, holding the black pup. Somehow in the fierce battle that had just taken place, the pup had gotten in the way and had one of Haruko's cards slice her paw open.
"She," Colette reminded him as she wrapped a bandage around the creature's paw. The pup yelped unhappily at the sting of antiseptic, but stopped when Colette gave her a small peck on the nose and let her loose to limp around the lobby floor. Her littermates yowled and yipped excitedly, rushing up to her with ecstatic tail-wagging and excessive face-licking. She growled at them, snapping until they left her alone to curl up next to the fireplace. They slunk around with their tails between their legs for a few moments before promptly forgetting what had made them upset. They began to wrestle on the floor, giving off excited little yips of happiness. Colette turned, nervously smiling at the small Mizuho girl.
"Are you feeling ok- uh... What was your name again?"
"...Kyoko," Kyoko said.
"Well..." Colette tried her best to smile. "You'll be happy to know your brother is fine. He's lucky the doctor here in Flanoir is so great." She sat down next to the girl, placing a steaming mug of hot chocolate in front of her. Kyoko watched it with dark Mizuho eyes, as if the mug might sprout legs and jump at her at any moment. Zelly wobbled up on her unstable puppy-legs, yapping at Kyoko until she picked her up. Zelly settled down in the girl's lap, sighing contentedly.
"That's strange. When I do that, I get slapped."
"Shut it, Zelos," Lloyd sighed.
"Ah!" Colette suddenly jumped up, a huge grin on her face. "I've got it!"
"What's the matter Chose- Colette?" Kratos asked from his place leaning against the wall, far from the flickering lights of the fire.
She turned to them with bright, excited eyes. "Percy! I'm naming the black one Percy."
"I think that's a boy name," Lloyd said, smiling.
"No no, but it's short for "Persistence"! Get it?"
Lloyd scratched his head, watching the pup snooze next to the fire. "Percy," he said. "I like it."
"Now they all have names!" Colette said, jumping up to kiss him. He held her up by her waist, spinning around before placing her back on her feet. "This is the best present you've given me," she said, squeezing him tightly. "But how are we going to fit them all on the Rheiards? I took a look at Zelly's paws. She's going to be huge someday. I mean, look at her. She can barely walk with those things."
"Well... we don't." At her confused look, he continued. "I mean, we've been kind of rushing the whole Ex-sphere quest, haven't we? But that was because we were planning to get married as soon as we were done. But now that we've decided we're going to get that done, there's no reason to rush." He blushed, suddenly. "I- I mean... well, I don't want the adventure to end too soon. So we're taking Noishe and the puppies and we're going to finish the rest on foot and by boat."
Colette was silent, pondering it carefully.
"Do you mind?" he asked, starting to get worried. "I mean, I know there are things you want now- like a house or something. To stay in one place for the rest of our lives. But... we've got plenty of time for that, right?" He took her hands, squeezing them gently. "And once we're done with this, we're done. But we have our whole lives for this, and right now I want to make this final journey last."
Colette grinned. "I love that idea," she said, kissing him again.
Zelos made an annoying, siren-like noise. "Woooooo!" He said, flipping one hand effeminately and taking on a high-pitched, female voice. "Lloyd Irving, I had no idea you could be so ro-maaaaaaan-tic! Isn't that just the kee-yooooooo-test speech you've ever heeeeearrd!" He nudged Kratos in the ribs, hard. "Well? Your son is quite the catch! It's like something out of a romance novel! Get a room, you two kids! Oh ho ho ho ho!"
"Zelos..." Kratos started slowly, his eyes shut because he couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't knock Zelos's teeth in if he had to see that obnoxious grin one more time.
Zelos got the hint. He raised both his clenched fist into the air, screaming, "I will never surrender!" before zooming out of the inn at top speed. Zelly leapt off of Kyoko's lap, barking frantically as she followed her namesake out onto the snow. Kyoko couldn't help herself. She giggled, trying hard to hide it as she stared hard at the floor.
"Heh!" Ken, who had been keeping a close eye on her, smiled. "Urashima-chan, do you want to stay here with us while your brother recovers, or do you want to go to Mizuho? You must have more family there."
"Oh." Kyoko lost her smile, looking at her feet. "I'm exiled because I followed my brother when... he was exiled."
"Something tells me that won't be true for long," Lloyd said. "Sheena's a great girl, and I'm sure she'll be an excellent Chief." He beamed, proudly, and moved to ruffle Kyoko's hair.
Sheena groaned. It took her a moment to come to her senses, but when she did she was on full alert. She sat up in the comfortable inn bed, her heart pounding as she tried to make sense of where she was. Soft hands gently pushed her back down, wiping the sweat from her forhead with a damp cloth. "Don't move around too much," Raine advised her. "I sealed up your wounds and repaired the damaged muscle," Raine said, her voice faint and weary. "But you should rest while I.. replenish all the lost blood."
Sheena, being stubborn, forced herself to sit up anyway. Raine knelt next to her bed, her face paler than usual. She raised up her hands to heal the ninja again, but she stopped her. "You look terrible, don't waste any more mana on me. I'm fine. Heal yourself."
Raine smiled thinly. "I'm afraid my own spells don't work very well on my body."
"Then I'll get you some apple gels," Sheena said decisively, getting out of bed only to stumble to the floor. How much blood had she lost? She crawled back into the bed, not sure whether to be sheepish or furious. "...Ugh," she said, settling for a good dosage of self-loathing. "Looks like neither of us are going anywhere for a while."
Raine perched on the edge of the bed, rubbing her eyes. "I'm sorry," Sheena said, impulsively. "You're..."
"Fine," Raine finished for her. "I'm absolutely fine. You forget, I used to heal the entire party when they had wounds like yours." She kicked off her boots, too tired to do anything else as she settled down next to Sheena. And it was true- The dark shadows under her eyes had clear up, and her inquisitive lilac eyes were once more boring into hers, seeking answers. "But you're not. Here- Heal!" She held Sheena's face with both hands, her thumbs gently massaging Sheena's temples, her fingers running through the black silk until they reached the hair pin, letting her hair fall free.
"Any excuse," Sheena mumbled.
Raine smiled. "What? I like your hair..." she leaned forward. At the last second, Sheena stiffened and turned her head away so Raine's lips met her cheek. Raine paused, lowering her head to rest her forehead against Sheena's neck, silent. "Are you all right?" she asked after a few moments of this. She lifted her head to try again, but Sheena scooted away, holding the Professor back at arm's length.
"Uhm, Raine..." Sheena said. "I wanted to talk to you about this later but... after Har- after my cousin came to me, I realized something. Raine, I..." She smiled, or tried to smile, pressing her forehead against Raine's. Her dark eyes weren't smiling.
"Raine," she whispered, "This can't work."
Raine was silent, trying to pry the answers from Sheena's eyes. She failed. "This, meaning our relationship?" she finally asked.
"Relationship? No, we don't have a relationship. What we have is a fantasy." Sheena drew back, her face lifeless. "You used to have a cold way of seeing the world, Raine. Try using that again and analyzing us. Two women? A human and a half-elf, at that? It's..." she shook her head. "It's not possible."
"And why not?" Raine said, sharper than she intended. "...It is possible," she said, softer this time.
Sheena grabbed the hair pin from Raine, busily re-doing her hair as she tried to think of what to say next. "Mizuho needs a Chief," she said. "The past few weeks, I've been completely ignoring those duties. I'm engaged to Orochi, too. I'm... taken."
"Oh, please!" Raine clenched the bed sheets angrily. "You can't seriously mean that you're going to accept the proposal?"
"I already accepted it," Sheena corrected her. "And I'm going to go through with it. Lloyd's idea of a world without sacrifices is great- but there are all kinds of sacrifices." She stood up, feeling her strength returning. Raine had done a good job. The sadness in her smile was gone. Now there was only steel. "My grandmother made the same choice, because she knew what was best. What should I do, Raine- satisfy my confused longings or protect my village and do my duty? I already tried running away once, and I'm not going to do it anymore!" Her resolve cracked at the last sentence and she found herself yelling.
"I love you," Raine said.
Sheena couldn't even look at her, her bangs creating shadows over her eyes as she glanced away. "I'm sorry," she said. "But I don't feel the same way."
"You're a terrible liar," Raine said, coldly. She stood up, grabbing Sheena by the shoulders as she tried to leave. "Look at me," she demanded. "And don't tell me this isn't because you're afraid. You're afraid of what they'll say- afraid that now that you've earned the respect of the whole village that they'll just turn around and shun you again. You don't care about that idiotic title. You just care about yourself. You're selfish."
Don't leave me.
"Please..." Sheena shook her head. "It was better when we were friends."
But how could we ever go back now that we know how much more we could be?
Never. You're mine. I'm selfish too.
"Then we won't be friends at all. I'm leaving." Sheena turned away, breaking free of Raine's grasp only to have the Professor bound out in front of her, blocking the door way.
She took Sheena's hand with both of hers, not breaking their gaze as she folded Sheena's fingers to create a fist. Bringing the fist up against her cheek, she said, "Hit me." She pressed the fist harder against her cheek, her eyes dry and hard. "If you're going to break all the ties between us, hit me. Make me hate you, make it so I never want you again."
Sheena's heart stopped beating. "No," she breathed. "No. No way."
"Do it," she hissed. "You're not leaving until you hit me. Then I'll toss you out the door, good riddance, farewell, goodbye. So do it. Show some of that Mizuho steel you foolish ninjas pride yourself on. You can hide your emotions in a small glass box and never open them again." Raine closed her eyes shut, her grip almost painful on Sheena's fist. "So please, just do it."
"I can't. You're my friend. My best friend."
"No!" Sheena wrenched away, cradling her arm close to her chest as if afraid it might act on its own. Small, lonely tears streaked down her face. Slowly. Not a stream. Just raindrops.
With her arms wrapped around Sheena's shoulders, Raine was almost at peace holding her tightly, not letting go. "Please don't lie anymore,"' Raine said into her ear. "Tell me how you really feel, and we can go to Mizuho together."
"I can't," Sheena said. "It's all so, so wrong."
"No it isn't."
Sheena made a noise somewhere between a sob and a laugh. "Do you always have to argue with me?"
"There is nothing to argue about because I am always right." Raine kissed her on the base of her neck, her eyelashes tickling the sensitive skin. "You simply refuse to acknowledge that fact." Her arms weren't so tight anymore, her fingertips skimming over dark purple silk. Sheena tried to speak, but Raine pressed her fingers against the ninja's lips. "You don't have to say a word," she said. "It's going to be a lie anyway. Your body speaks plainly enough. It doesn't lie to me."
"Raine, I- we- and you don't understand- and... and we.. and- no!" Sheena shook her clouded head, turning around so they were face to face. She grabbed Raine's hands, which had started to work on her large pink bow. "No," she said, slower. "I said no, Raine. And I mean it."
"You don't have to say a word," Raine promised, entwining her fingers with Sheena's. "You can leave any time you want. All you need to do..." she raised up their hands against her cheek again, in a loving caress rather than an urge to shed blood. "...Is hit me. When you hit me you can go. But not until then." Raine's eyes had begun to glow again, daring her, taunting her. Hit me, hate me. Kiss me, love me. They danced around in Sheena's head, a mocking chorus. Hit me, hate me. Hit me, hate me. Sheena, Sheena, Sheena. I love you.
"Shh," Raine said. They had their arms around each others waists. Sheena tried to speak again, so Raine simply kissed her, the inside of her mouth tasting soft and sweet. "Shhh," Raine managed to say again, inhaling sharply when Sheena's nails dug into the back of her neck. "Not a word."
Kloitz drummed his remaning fingers on the wall next to him, sighing impatiently. "Come on out," he said. "You can't hide that ugly mug from me for long." The half-elf sat up on his bed, yawning with boredom as Kuchinawa melted from the shadows of the cell. "Do you have it?" he asked, sounding only marginally interested in what the shinobi had to say.
Kuchinawa wordlessly held out a flask of nameless liquid, amber in color.
"And?" Kloitz pressed. "Come now, tell your master everything, like a good servant."
"Year-long effect," Kuchinawa said, reluctant. "Any more would be suicide. Complete suicide. It's painful enough when you have it for months, but a year? ...Shinobi magic is better."
"But not as convincing," Kloitz reminded him. "We want a complete illusion. Complete. No one can know, no one can suspect. And in a year..." He chuckled, fondly brushing his hand against Kuchinawa's cheek. He grinned when he saw the ninja flinch, beetle black eyes swirling with dark emotions. "In a year, then the fun begins, huh? Now..." He grabbed the liquid, popping open the cap and downing it, grimacing like a man taking long shots of whiskey. Then he put a finger into his mouth, biting it ruthlessly until it bled and shoving it into Kuchinawa's face. "Drink, servant. Your master commands you."
Kuchinawa hesitated, quivering slightly.
"Drink it," Kloitz growled. "Or I'll kill you." Not wating for a response, he shoved the bleeding finger into Kuchinawa's mouth. The ninja retched, stumbling backwards with a hand to his mouth. Since the lower half of his mask was off, one could clearly see the expression of utter revulsion crossing his features. Kloitz smiled.
"And then," he said, watching Kuchinawa writhe on the floor in agony. The magic had begun to take affect. "Then, then the fun begins."
He started to laugh.