.X.

It was sunset when Zelos slipped away from the group, evading Raine's questioning gaze with a careless shrug and a smile that was both playful and suggestive. She shook her head ruefully as he stepped past her, unable to hide the twitching of her own lips, and his smile grew as he moved out into the warm glow of the fading daylight. He was still for a moment, breathing deep the air that was somehow different here in the midst of forest and mountain than it was in the confines of the city. Behind him voices rose, carrying clearly from within the building; listening intently he could discern that Lloyd was indignantly defending himself against an accusation made by Genis. With a quiet, amused snort Zelos stepped onto the worn dirt path and began to walk.

He wanted to clear his head. Too much had happened in such a short time; he'd gone from being idolized as the Chosen to being wanted as a traitor and criminal. And while he'd always figured that being Chosen would lead to disaster sooner or later, he hadn't really bargained on something of this magnitude. He'd been, in the span of only a few days, all over Tethe'alla, to places he'd always thought he'd one day like to visit—and now here he was, in the middle of Mizuho, which he was one location he was absolutely certain he would never see. Not that it wasn't pleasant; the scenery alone was breathtaking, for the village was surrounded by thick forest, and rising up to the north and east were the blue shadowed mountains. Scenery alone wasn't enough to merit another visit back here, though; the inhabitants of Mizuho, were, in his humble opinion, rather subdued. Even as he thought this he caught sight of a woman making her way down the path towards him. As she neared he flashed her a smile meant to dazzle and said a short greeting, but the woman—and this close he could see she was rather comely—merely averted her gaze and hurried past him. Zelos halted and half turned to watch her leave, amending his earlier thought.

The inhabitants of Mizuho were subdued, tight-lipped, and no fun at all.

He sighed before turning back around and continuing down the path. Daylight was continuing to fade, bathing the small village in the warm glow of the setting sun. As he walked he watched his elongated shadow gliding alongside him, finding himself mired in solemn thoughts and not enjoying it in the least. Truth told, Zelos Wilder was a man torn—there were too many sides to this struggle he found himself currently embroiled in, but he had to choose one, and the impending decision weighed heavily on him. Most decisions in his life—especially those of the utmost importance—had been made for him; such was the path of the Chosen. And while he'd craved something else, anything else, what he found himself now faced with was not what he'd wanted …

Was it?

He made a sound then in self-deprecation, hating the uncertainties and the fact that they bothered him so. Life was life—live it, enjoy it, take what you could from it; such was the way he'd used to think. But now …

The path was drawing near the borders of the forest, and the thick shadows of the trees were splayed out along the ground, seemingly reaching for him. It had grown almost silent, here on the outskirts of the village; whatever wildlife was harboured in the trees made only gentle sounds, accompanying the slow yet steady encroach of dusk. He stopped, wanting to continue but knowing he should return to the others and join in the planning process. Not that it mattered—whichever course they chose would lead him inexorably closer to that ultimatum he hoped fervently to avoid. He was in the process of turning to return to the village when he heard it, and though the sound was whisper soft and muffled, he still knew it for what it was—someone crying.

He became still, eyes carefully roaming the scenery before him. His eyes had passed over her three times before he actually realized she was there, for her body, folded tightly in on itself, was almost unrecognizable. It was the glimpse of color as she shifted that alerted him to her identity, the deep purple almost immediately lost to the growing shadows of the trees rising over her. For long moments Zelos remained where he was, watching as Sheena gave in to her grief, to the pain of losing Corrine. He had told Lloyd earlier that the best thing to do for her was not to mope, not to walk on eggshells around her, but now faced with this he couldn't very well stroll up to her and inquire about the weather. He could have beat a hasty retreat back to the village and pretended never to have seen her here, pretended never to have known just how much the death of the summon spirit had wounded her. But then he heard her catch her breath on a sob, and with a sigh he was moving again.

She heard him when he came within ten paces, raising her head to see who it was that approached but quickly ducking it again to hide the evidence of her misery. He hesitated only a moment before saying loudly, "So here's where you are. Everyone's been worried."

She averted her face as he came to stand before her, wiping ineffectually with one hand at the moisture on her cheeks. It was a moment before she spoke, and when she did her voice was thick, "I'll go back soon."

"You know, I never really had a full appreciation for the outdoors before," Zelos continued in a casual, conversational tone that completely belied how awkward he was beginning to feel. He'd never been particularly good around tears. "Mizuho isn't at all what I expected. What with all the secrecy and such I kind of thought you'd all be living underground or in caves or something."

Sheena made a rude noise; Zelos moved to a tree facing her and slid easily to the ground with the trunk at his back. He continued cheerfully, as though she weren't glaring at him through eyes made bleary from tears, "Might have to come back and visit." He fluttered one in the air. "You know, when all this stuff is over."

"Zelos."

He moved his gaze from the ground in front of him to her face. "Yes?" He inquired.

"Can you please go away?"

Her voice wavered badly with the last word, and though she swiftly drew her knees to her chest and buried her face in them he saw fresh tears spill over. He let out his breath in a long, soundless sigh before getting to his feet and crossing the short distance between them. He looked down on her and noted how her entire body was tense, how she was waiting for him to walk right back down the path he'd come from so that she could return to her isolated misery. She was expecting an answer, and so he gave her one.

"No." He said.

She shifted so that she could see him, craning her head back to look at him. "Why?" She demanded, and her voice was choked. She shook her head fiercely then, saying, "Please just go, Zelos. Leave me alone. I don't want you here."

"Shut up, Sheena," he said quietly, and stunned she did just that. He continued calmly, "I'm here, and whether you like it or not I do understand some of what you're feeling. You're not the only person in the world to have lost someone."

She stared at him wide-eyed and speechless, and he quickly knelt in front of her. "Look, just take what I'm offering, okay?"

Bewilderment was written all across her face, and he sighed before reaching out and wrapping his arms around her. She tensed as he'd predicted she would, and even pulled back as he drew nearer. He didn't let her go and they tussled for a moment before he wound up leaning against another tree with the dark haired girl half cradled—albeit unwilling—in his lap. He locked his hands together so that she couldn't break free, but she retaliated by swiftly jabbing at him with her elbow. His breath exploded from him, but when he could speak again he wheezed, "Most women want to fall into my lap."

She made a small sound that could have been angry or amused, but then her body, straining against his hold, abruptly collapsed. She began to weep, great shuddering sobs racking her frame, and it was only an instant before he drew her close. She didn't recoil, instead turning her face into his chest while one hand fisted in the fabric of his shirt. Her other hand she held tight against her, and he knew then what lay curled within her fingers—Corrine's bell. He felt her tears seep through the cloth, felt the moisture against his own skin and was reminded then of just how much it did hurt to lose somebody you loved. He held her until her tears subsided, and he held her when she began to speak in a broken whisper of her regrets, of what she could have done but didn't that could have prevented this loss. And when she began to cry again he laid his cheek against the mussed softness of her hair and remembered when, once upon a time, he had been held like this the day his mother died.

It was late when she finally disentangled herself from him, and even in the darkness he knew she would be blushing. She murmured a thank you and he nodded, getting to his feet slowly as she began to walk quickly down the path. When he started back towards the village a short time later he knew something, however slight, had changed between himself and Sheena; though they may not have really liked each other, they had reached a certain understanding through her loss and indirectly through his own.

The next morning they left Mizuho early, gathering at the gateway to the village as the sun crested the horizon. Sheena greeted them all carefully, face composed as to not reveal both what she was feeling and the enormity of those feelings. The others acted as she did, speaking in measured tones, saying things slowly and cautiously as though acting such would make things more bearable. Zelos knew better, and so did she, but he was surprised as they began to leave when he felt her hand lightly on his arm. He turned his head, a curious question on his lips, but she shook her head, smiled, and slipped nimbly past him.

He stared after her a moment, but when he started to follow there was a smile on his face as well.

.X.