Author's Note: Hello all, just a few notes. Although there are some pairings I'm a bit partial to, this fic here is gen, although if you want to read into it, go ahead.
Secondly, this might seem unfair to some characters (particularly Sheena) near the beginning, but don't get me wrong, Sheena's one of my favorite characters. I was trying to work from a bitter and immature view point.
So, when you're done, if you wouldn't mind popping in a comment or two... Were some parts awkward or difficult to understand? Did some parts seem contradictory?
Sheena anxiously watched Lloyd and the others taste her curry. It was her first time cooking her trademark dish for the others, and even though she shouldn't be worrying about something so trivial as food on this dangerous journey, she couldn't help it. It was the first dish Sheena had learned to cook when she was around four and she was determined to make it her best ever since she had made Orochi try some at the tender age of five, who promptly vomited it back up.
Lloyd chewed pensively, then brightened. "It's really good, Sheena! You should make it more often!" He turned back to his plate and started scarfing it down as fast as he could.
"Really?" asked Sheena hopefully.
Genis sighed in a mix of amusement and exasperation. "You say that about anything edible, Lloyd!" The half-elf cautiously forked some into his mouth. He instantly smiled. "Well, Lloyd's right, Sheena! This is really good! Can you teach me the recipe?"
The summoner smiled in relief. "Of course, Genis."
The others threw in their compliments.
"The spiciness isn't overpowering and makes it quite a pleasant meal, Sheena."
"You have a lot of talent as a cook; my compliments."
"Hmm, I like it! Maybe I could make it even spicier! No, perhaps sweeter would be more appealing..."
"It was really good, Sheena! I hope you make it again soon!" Colette was definitely the cheeriest out of Sheena's critics.
"Don't get too excited, Colette."
"Right, Professor Sage."
Raine clucked. "I've told you all before, you may call me Raine."
Colette and Genis giggled while Lloyd looked bemusedly at their professor. The red clad boy looked down at his plate and pouted; all of his curry had mysteriously vanished.
"Can I have some more, Sheena? Pleeease?" begged Lloyd. Sheena chuckled at his childishness.
As Sheena spooned more heaping spoonfuls of the spicy dish onto Lloyd's plate, she noticed Zelos wasn't eating. He was pushing it around with his fork and was staring moodily into the designs he was making.
"Do- Do you not like it, Zelos?" Sheena asked hesitatingly.
Zelos' face and mood seemed to shoot up like fireworks at Altamira.
"Of course I like it, hunny!" he exclaimed with his usual grin, "You made it, of course!"
"...," Regal stared thoughtfully at Zelos, "But I didn't see you eating."
Zelos waved away his words. "You weren't watching! Of course I ate it! I know all my voluptuous hunny's secrets, like that this is her best dish! It would be a crime not to eat it!"
Regal looked at him a little disbelievingly before turning back to his own plate.
Sheena gave him a suspicious look before asking if anyone wanted seconds. Zelos grimaced. No one was looking. They couldn't see him scrape a little curry into the fire. Zelos felt ill. He couldn't eat this stuff.
After dinner, Genis tricked Lloyd into doing the dishes.
"Boy, Sheena, that was great!" The half-elf boy sighed contentedly. He scraped what little was left into the fire, then handed his dishes to Sheena.
"Cooks do the dishes, remember?" Genis said to Sheena. Her face fell a little while Genis hid a chuckle. Raine glanced at Genis in a little confusion and she also gave her plate to Sheena. Genis waited until Lloyd was looking at Sheena in a certain amount of sympathy.
Genis struck. "Hey, Sheena, don't look so down. You did such a great job, I'll do the dishes tonight."
Lloyd shot up indignantly.
"Hey, I liked it, too! I'll do the dishes!" he said with no little enthusiasm.
"Oh, no, Lloyd, I volunteered first," argued Genis, "Just let me do it."
Lloyd was adamant: "Genis! I'm gonna do the dishes!" Genis threw his hands up in apparent exasperation.
Lloyd triumphantly grabbed the plates from Sheena and went to get water. As soon as he was gone, Sheena and Colette burst into giggles. Genis flushed, pleased with his success in getting Sheena out of dish duty. Zelos took this opportunity to excuse himself.
"Hey, uh, guys? I'm feeling a bit tired, so I'll go to bed." He sheepishly scratched the back of his neck. "Sorry, I couldn't finish, Sheena. It was really good. Lloyd can have the rest if he wants."
Carefully he put his plate down, and luckily there was a substantial amount missing, making it appear like he had eaten some of it. Sheena's only response was an absent wave, and paying close attention to Colette and Presea's conversation about if four-leafed clovers actually made you luckier or not. Colette was convinced without a doubt that they made you luckier than your wildest dreams could think of. Presea was a little more skeptical. In a few words, nobody was paying attention.
Zelos mouth twisted, before forcing it back to his cheerful grin. He waved to everyone and turned into the guys' tent. Zelos hoped that no one had seen his few seconds of temper, or else they might start digging. But if they did, then... maybe...
Zelos shook his head. Thinking too much. Not the best thing for him in his current job. Warriors and Chosens didn't have much room to second-guess themselves. Especially the ones who were gonna save the world.
Tethe'alla's Chosen had a dry laugh at himself. He was going to save the world? Nice thought, but not realistic. Although, his lovely hunnies might love him even more, if that were possible. Zelos grinned lecherously. Maybe even cold, unattainable Sheena might fall into his arms, proclaiming her eternal love forever and ever. Zelos entertained himself with thoughts along these lines before crawling into the sleeping bag.
Before he closed his eyes though, Lloyd excused himself from the group to go to bed. Sheena, along with all the others wished him a good and safe sleep. The contrast was impossible to miss. Zelos growled under his breath and his hands clenched until they shook.
Lloyd cheerfully returned the "good nights" and walked into the tent. Obliviously, he asked in a quieter voice if Zelos were still awake.
"Yeah," Zelos' voice was hushed. If it were any louder, it would be obvious that he was pissed off.
"Cool," grinned Lloyd. "Night, Zelos."
"Night," echoed Zelos, barely audible.
There was a long pause, but Zelos didn't hear Lloyd begin snoring. Maybe he had a lot on his mind. Strange for a boy who brushed most things off quickly, but not improbable.
"Hey, uh, Zelos?" whispered Lloyd. The talk around the fire ensured that Lloyd and Zelos were having a private conversation. Zelos grunted.
"Zelos..," started Lloyd, "you're, uh, my friend, right?" Zelos grunted again; it might have been affirmed as a yes. Lloyd took it that way, anyway.
"Like, my best friend? I mean, Genis is my best friend, too, but I can have more than one, right?"
The redhead's shoulders slumped. He really wasn't expecting a declaration where Lloyd announced that he considered him one of his closest friends. Zelos swore. In his head, of course. Even Lloyd knew enough to know that swearing meant Zelos didn't return the feelings.
"I mean, you say the same, right?" continued Lloyd. Zelos swore again. These people believing every word that same out of his mouth...
"Zelos? You haven't said anything."
The Chosen jumped. "Oh, uh, yeah, of course, Lloyd. Sorry, I'm just a little tired."
Lloyd took it at face value. "Oh, right. Sorry, Zelos, you can go to sleep now." Long after Lloyd began snoring and the others came into the tent, Zelos was awake, staring at the cloth roof. This was a bad night for thinking.
Zelos was refreshed in the morning, just like every morning. It was a funny gift that Zelos had; no matter how much sleep he had (or didn't have), he was always wide-awake in the morning. He stretched and folded his sleeping bag before heading out of the tent for breakfast. Like usual, he was out of the tent before Lloyd (everyone was) but he was always after Genis and Regal. Regal was trained, like Zelos himself and so both got themselves up early. Genis... well, the half-elf probably didn't need much sleep. Maybe it was a side effect of the elf blood. He'd have to ask Raine.
Genis was cooking and Regal was watching the boy's technique for cooking sausages. Zelos smirked at the sight. Cooks stuck together. Then he remembered last night's meal and scowled at the thought of Sheena joining the crew.
But before the two males around the fire could catch sight of it, Zelos smoothed his face like so many times before. It was amazing: Zelos could feel his chirpy facade almost become his real self. He might have to see a therapist. He was having trouble keeping his two personas separate. He was forgetting that one was an act. A very good act that he very much enjoyed playing, but still an act.
Being so chirpy, Zelos did in fact chirp a good morning to the cooks. Regal looked up and nodded, while Genis murmured something incoherent keeping a close eye on trying to now balance cooking sausages and eggs. It was small moments like these that Zelos thought he might be mistaken about how this group felt about him. But then he remembered that they had never even noticed once! Not once! In both sides of Zelos, he had to fight the anger from showing.
Sheena arrived as the first female from their tent. It was between her or Raine to show up first, which didn't surprise Zelos either. Same thing as Regal and Genis. Trained to get up early or elf blood.
Unlike Zelos, Sheena looked exhausted. She must've stayed awake for awhile last night. Perhaps she'd had a nightmare.
The summoner sat in an unoccupied spot around the campfire and stared right into it. Chirpy Zelos was amused. That was some sleep she had lost. Darker Zelos sniffed. What she deserved. Zelos groaned and held his head in his hands. His personal shoulder angel and devil, talking in his head.
For whatever Chirpy Zelos said, though, Zelos had chosen long ago what voice he'd listen to, and for the most part, it wasn't the nice one. The side he'd dubbed Dark Zelos was actually pretty justified, however pessimistic. He'd learned long ago that being pessimistic made you right, nine and a half times out of ten.
The rest of the morning passed quickly and without incident. Zelos was surprised at how bitter he was about last night. Even for Dark Zelos, times like those easily brushed off his shoulders like leaves in the wind. Zelos wondered what had made him hold onto this so much more than anything else, more than anything before that. He resolved to figure it out, so he could throw it away like everything before.
When they made a quick stop for lunch, Zelos volunteered to get the water from the stream they were parallel to. Colette beamed at his offering, while the others were relatively uncaring. It was a small thing, after all.
As Zelos swung the large bucket over his shoulder, he had to admit a large amount of respect for Colette. She made a point to be pleased with everything. And to be innocent. Although she was probably innocent and oblivious without trying. Zelos gave an honest smile at the thought. Someone so unlike him, so innocent, and yet still surviving in this harsh world.
Maybe, Zelos supposed, maybe you didn't need to be harsh to be strong. Even Lloyd was harsh in his way, but Colette was accepting of anybody and everybody. She'd give him a second chance without a thought.
A large laugh rippled through the camp he had left behind. It completely destroyed the good mood Zelos had been working up. He grit his teeth and kept walking. Another joke he wasn't privy to, something he might even have been the butt of. No matter how much he tried, Sheena was unwilling to give him the time of day, much less the respect to treat him seriously in front of the only people Zelos might've considered his friends.
Zelos thought again of the people at camp and nearly punched a nearby tree. To try and work off his rage, he began muttering under his breath. But it didn't help. All Zelos' thoughts were tainted with anger and resentment against those people. All it was doing was bringing him closer to the boiling point (and closer to hitting those unfortunate trees).
Zelos realized he had stopped, so he took off storming towards the river he could hear now. He tried to think of Colette again and that mollified him a bit. Her and Lloyd, so accepting. They'd try to make friends of Yggdrasil himself, no doubt about it. Zelos found himself envying them and having a rare moment of affection. They considered themselves his friends (best friend, even!) and that amused Zelos enough to take him nearly out of his bitterness.
He reached the river and easily filled the bucket with water. He turned and headed back to camp with the hypocrites were waiting.
"Zelos!" Raine said, "What took you so long?" Zelos grinned and waved.
"Oh, nothing. Just lost in thoughts, you know?"
Genis snorted. "Right. Okay, hand it over."
Zelos narrowed his eyes as he gave the bucket to Genis. "Watch your tone, brat."
"I'm not a brat, idiot!"
"Ooh, the brat has fangs today! Much like everyday, I might add..."
Raine slapped them both over the head. "Quiet, both of you."
"Ouch! What has brought this punishment on our heads, ultra-cool beauty?"
Regal and Presea both were looking amused, in a reserved kind of way, while Lloyd and Colette were both laughing. Sheena had hidden a grin behind a hand. It was one of the better moments of the trip. Zelos was glad for it. He rubbed his head where the Professor had hit him and whined some more. Most of it was nothing they hadn't all heard before, so as usual, it was ignored.
After that, lunch passed without incident and everyone picked up their things to keep traveling. And Zelos was left in his dark thoughts once again.
That night was neither good nor bad. For Zelos, at least. For most of the others, it was slightly different – darker. They were in the middle of an affair labeled Kratos. The topic had crept upon them like shadows during the journey, and it had taken them a few sentences to realize who Lloyd was talking about (he being the one to bring it up). Lloyd had fallen to his state of guilt when he thought of the man he'd thought of as a mentor.
"I can't believe it," muttered Lloyd, who was blaming himself for reasons nobody else could comprehend. "Even now, I just -" He cut himself off, wincing.
Colette put a hand on his shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, Lloyd."
Genis snorted, albeit a bit subdued. "It's stupid to blame yourself for a spy, Lloyd. You weren't the only one he fooled, you know?"
"Tricking you is easy, brat," Zelos slipped in loftily. Well, if his role here was to be ridiculed, might as well play the part. Now, just to wait for...
"Shut up, idiot!" snarled Sheena, "We weren't hurt by his betrayal for you to joke about it!"
And there it was.
Zelos placatingly raised his hands. "Geez, you'd think I'd have just publicly slandered you. I would've seen right through him right away!"
In a manner unusual of her, Raine stared into the cook fire gloomily. "Tough words," she said quietly. At her quiet retort, Zelos winced. Tough words was right.
This group was made to suffer. The hurt when they found out that they were betrayed not once, but twice. Tethe'alla's Chosen smiled bitterly. Justification for how they'd treated him. They hadn't noticed at all. For now, that was a good thing.
But the part of Zelos that wasn't a spy for the Renegades and Cruxis stung every time it happened. More than stung; it burned him. And it happened every day. Every time he didn't eat breakfast, lunch or supper. Every time he was awake later than everyone else and up earlier than everyone else because he never slept. And soon, they wouldn't notice how he wouldn't flinch every time he was clumsy and got a flesh wound that bled everywhere because he could heal himself and could take care of himself. They never thought that he'd appreciate someone stepping in his fight for him or having Raine healing him for a change.
And on their journey, every single time Lloyd and Colette were their regular, cheery and unbelievably selfless selves, Zelos had to hold back tears because of the shame of how bad he was. Forget any pounding Sheena could give him; the guilt was bad enough. Zelos reflected with disgust how human nature made it so guilt could outperform resentment anytime.
Barring the guilt, there was only two incidents Zelos had looked at the kunoichi without resentment. The first was when they first met. The younger Chosen had been both excited to meet a new girl he could win over and anxious over meeting a ninja for the first time. I mean, come on, she was a ninja! How could he not be a little wary?
The second was when Corrine had died. The grief that surrounded Sheena like a tangible cloak had brought Zelos back to the facts of her life. The failed summoning, her few friends, the toughness and anger she had culminated as a shield to protect her against life's cruelty and the people that came with it, of course...
But after Sheena was over it, Zelos found no more pity for her. Life had dealt her cards and she was playing fine. Looking for strength, a way out, just like him. Self-preservation, that was the name of the game. In the same way, Zelos rejected and loathed pity, Zelos gave no pity to those like him. If they didn't survive, too bad. He had.
Perhaps it was the topic of traitors that set Zelos on edge that night. He'd also been thinking about his guilt a lot more these past few days, especially with Lloyd and Colette being more despicably altruistic than usual. It was enough to make a man break, really. Zelos smirked. Luckily I'm not so much a man anymore. More like a freak, really. With those wings, anybody'd think so.
"I hate traitors!" growled Sheena.
Lloyd's fist almost broke his plate. "Kratos! That..." He struggled to find a word, but settled for grinding his teeth in rage. Colette sadly rested her hand on his and looked at their hands on top of one another.
"Traitor," murmured Regal simply. That was the only real word. Somehow, Regal's voice managed to calm Lloyd. The shoulders clad in red slumped.
"Yeah," breathed Lloyd, "Traitor."
Presea spoke up. "Traitors... are ones who pretend to be one's comrades... and betray a bond...?"
"A bond between friends, a bond between siblings... A bond that will hurt the other person when it breaks. A bond... between teacher and student."
Zelos put a friendly arm around Lloyd's shoulders. "Hey, man, it's alright now, isn't it?" Lloyd tensed, and threw the redhead's arm almost roughly.
"Not until he gives me reasons," Lloyd said harshly. Colette was a little upset with Lloyd's reaction to Zelos' attempt to cheer him up.
"Lloyd! Zelos is only trying to help!" she said.
"Aw, thanks, my little angel!" Zelos beamed. Colette started to shyly smile back when Raine sniffed at Zelos' absurd nicknames.
Sheena sighed. "In his own little way, yes." She shook her head. "Thank you, I guess."
"No prob, hunny!"
Then, Zelos sighed in an exasperated manner. "Now can we switch topics to something a little less depressing? All this talk of traitors is making my stomach turn."
Regal smiled in that serene manner of his. "Of course."
So, the rest of that conversation was averted.
"Stupid plant," mumbled Lloyd as he dragged his feet on the ground. Raine was not patient with him.
"Lloyd Irving, if you do not hurry up, we are going to leave you behind!"
"Hurry up, Lloyd!" hissed Genis.
"I'm coming...," sighed Lloyd. Everyone else ignored Lloyd's childishness and kept walking.
They were in the Latheon Gorge, looking for the Mana Leaf Herb (and needing it before that old Storyteller would say anything). Zelos grumbled inwardly that he probably already knew everything she was going to tell them, but didn't say anything out loud.
The irritation between members of the group faded as Lloyd came back and got his head more in the situation, and a sort of calm enveloped everyone. Zelos didn't feel particularly inspired to watch the scenery, so instead, he chose to watch Colette watch the scenery. Colette was as bubbly as ever, gushing over rocks and trees and flowers that caught her eye. Zelos was tempted to be chivalrous and pick her an amango, but shut that thought down when he realized that Raine and Sheena would get indignant at his 'attempted seduction' of an innocent girl, to say nothing of Lloyd's jealousy. It was really a pity that they thought so low of him (though it was probably true). Zelos scoffed. He'd never dream of picking up Colette; as satisfying as it might be, it'd hurt the entire party.
It was then that the Chosen of Tethe'alla realized that he cared about the members of this group – and didn't like it a bit. Every person in this group, he knew, would sacrifice themselves for him and the group. Zelos froze. Would he do the same?
Would he sacrifice himself for Genis? The little brat who merely wanted to be accepted by the world and in turn live peacefully? For Raine? The still young half-elf whose past was riddled with bitterness, and yet she still managed to find passion and happiness in learning and teaching? What about Sheena... The kunoichi had lost much and was lucky enough to have a grandfather back. Even Regal and Presea had become more human to him – quiet people who didn't demand to have their voices heard, despite their lot in life. For these people, would Zelos put himself in death's eye?
For Lloyd and Colette...? They were the only ones who truly stuck to their purpose, and were pure in their intentions. They were forgiving, caring and had a suicidal tendency to throw forgiveness to their enemies. For them?
Everyone was horrified when Altessa almost died the night Mithos "visited". Raine was especially unsure about Altessa's situation, which worried everyone else.
"We've got to go to Flanoir," declared Sheena firmly, "The best doctor in the world's there. He can save Altessa."
"Alright, then!" exclaimed Lloyd, "Let's go!" And so the party got on their Rheairds and started the flight to Flanoir.
Zelos lay on his bed, memorizing the ceiling tiles. His mind was blank of thoughts, and paying only vague attention to the snow falling softly outside of the window. He couldn't concentrate. Every time he tried to remember a conversation or contemplate how this was going to turn out, the thought slipped away. He slowly turned his head to stare at the snow.
Unlike most times when he saw the snow, he didn't feel a grimace twist his face. This snow was... peaceful. This snow wasn't out to bring up painful memories.
Somehow, the redhead knew that this night was a turning point. Tonight, he had to choose loyalties. It was do-or-die and the decision would be irreversible. As if that stray thought opened the floodgate, the Chosen's thoughts started whirling.
Zelos thought of the group. He thought about Lloyd and Colette. He thought about Sheena. He thought about Genis and Raine, Presea and Regal. He thought about Kratos and Cruxis. He thought about Yuan and the Renegades. He thought about Yggdrasil and Martel. He thought about Seles.
He thought for hours, wondering what life would be like without them, pondering the worth of the world, mulling over what his own life was worth in the grand scheme of things.
He lay in his room for a very long time, into the small hours of the night, and did nothing but think. He was tired, honestly soul and bone tired. He was sick of having to choose between the right way and the easy way.
Eventually he fell asleep. He slept only a few hours, his body automatically waking him up at around seven o'clock. Unusually grim, he started his day slowly, ignoring the bright torchlight trying to peek in cheerfully. The flame was just trying to be contrary. Stupid torches.
Zelos tried to push down his anxiety but it only made him want to vomit every time. The nerves wouldn't stop swirling. He thought maybe breakfast would calm him down some, but lost the nerve to go ask for something when he saw that nobody else was up and eating.
So Zelos went to go practice sword katas in the courtyard in front of the inn. It wasn't something he did very often, despite Lloyd's insisting that constant practice was the only way to improve. He knew it was lazy, but the only real practice he got was fighting monsters and sparring with members of the group. No one commented on it, but besides the few fancy tricks he knew, his form was ridiculously sloppy.
The main thing about his katas was the sword's movement and his feet. His style used a slashing motion and lots of moving around. Zelos put all of his concentration into perfecting his movements, instead of letting his mind wander. The sun rose a little higher. An hour passed. Nothing entered his mind but the motion of his sword and body. Another hour. And Zelos, sweating and catching his breath, sheathed his sword. He turned around to re-enter the inn and see about getting some breakfast, but discovered he had an audience.
The young half-elf watched him with serious eyes. A little uncomfortable, Zelos shifted and tried to think of something sarcastic and witty to say, but couldn't. He was too drained to bother. Genis wasn't embarrassed at all, just quietly watched the swordsman. Zelos stopped fidgeting and started walking again. Genis moved slightly to block his path.
"It's a big day today," the boy stated.
"Don't I know it," muttered Zelos, and tried to push past. Genis kept blocking him and somehow didn't seem annoying about it.
"We, uh, haven't got along so well, have we?" started Genis, now him being the one to fidget. Zelos stopped and crossed his arms.
"Yeah, I guess so, brat."
Genis bristled a little, but let it slide. "Zelos, I just wanted to tell you that I'm really glad you've been with us. Everything's been really hard on Colette and she likes having you around. You might not have been able to tell, but even a failed attempt to lighten the mood is really nice."
Zelos was a little stunned but brushed it off as quickly as he could. "Er, well, thanks, b- Genis."
"You too, y'idiot." The nickname was affectionate. "Lloyd was happy to see you training so hard." And with that, Genis turned on his heel and walked away to the kitchens of the inn. Zelos stared at his feet for a few minutes and then followed the boy.
Everyone was eating when he got there. Instead of the usual neutral gazes and perhaps the unimpressed stare, everyone was looking at him with some form of admiration. It was a little unnerving, admiration not being something he was used to getting from this group.
"Uh, what's up?" Zelos laughed a little.
Lloyd was enthusiastic. "We saw you practicing earlier! It was good to see you moving outside of the battlefield, Zelos."
"Well, no problem, I guess. Did, uh, everyone see me?"
Zelos sat down and reached for a large piece of toast, ignoring Genis, Sheena, and the others sneak surreptitious glances at him. He quickly ate his fill and finished up at around the same time as Sheena. Together, they got up from the table and walked upstairs. Zelos assumed that she was there for the same reason as him, to get his things packed and ready, but the kunoichi had something a little different planned. She cornered him pretty quickly.
"Zelos, I wanted to talk to you," she declared. Zelos turned, and feeling a bit pert, told her to talk away. Sheena gave him a small glare, but that subsided to a quietly respectful look.
"Zelos, well, uh, it meant a lot to see you taking this so seriously. Training this morning, I mean. It's kind of like you just realized what we're getting into here."
"You could say that," said Zelos noncommittally.
"I'm being serious!"
"I am, too."
Sheena sighed, and crossed her arms. "Well, I just wanted to let you know. It might scare us a little to see another reminder of how important this is, but on the other hand, seeing you practicing when you never do is... well, encouraging."
Zelos was quiet. Sheena started to get a little nervous.
"Er, well, I just wanted to tell you that."
Zelos stared at her, then nodded. "Alright, Sheena."
The kunoichi lost her nerve and went down to be with the others. Zelos watched her go, then walked over to the window where the sun wasn't even at its zenith. He sighed deeply and gazed at nothing, deep in thought.
"Hey, Zelos? Can I really trust you?"
"What are you saying? Of course you can trust me!"