Careful...quietly now, Sheena...
The old warning rang through my mind as I slipped away from the camp, being careful to avoid detection by the night watch – Zelos. No wonder it was so easy to leave. He never paid attention, despite multiple warnings by Raine to watch closely for anything out of the ordinary. I shook my head, a smile stealing onto my lips without permission. I banished it. None of that tonight. It's never gonna happen.
Once I had walked out of earshot, I relaxed. I still walked quietly, though. It was second nature for any ninja to attract as little attention as possible. Even here in the middle of the woods, more a home to me than anywhere else, I was careful and uneasy. After all, the Papal Knights were now following us. It was stupid of me to walk alone in the Goracchia woods in the middle of the night, but...I needed the peace.
The huge trees were comforting to me, despite the monsters that hid near them. I sighed quietly. How said that I, future chief of Mizuho, would be so uncomfortable near even my allies that I could not sleep. How sad that I needed the silence of a dangerous forest to be calm. I was not fit to lead a village. The waving branches seemed to be whispering Orochi's admonitions in my ear, those words I'd forever been forgetting in ninja training. I'd always been the one who'd drop my cards to punch someone who'd made me angry.
Be quiet and calm. Don't show your weaknesses. Those words hadn't made an impression for years. But once Kuchinawa had shown me how to sneak out of my house and into the woods, I'd had a place to practice in solitude, and I'd improved immediately, constantly reminding myself to be silent and not disturb the silence of the woods.
I stopped for a moment at a giant boulder. I placed my hand on the cold, smooth surface and closed my eyes. I could think of nothing but the time I had come here, to this very rock, with Orochi. He had stopped at this rock and explained to me how, despite my failure to...he'd told me that no matter what, as long as this boulder stood, he'd care about me. He'd been an older brother to me, and he'd been the only one who could cheer me up during my depression after...well, whenever. He'd never blamed me for his parents' deaths. He'd been kind to me when others shunned me, become closer when others backed away. I allowed myself a small smile, ignoring the tear that slid down my cheek at the thought of the cruelty of the villagers.
I eventually came to the river I'd been searching for. The water made a soft whispering sound as gently rolled over and around rocks in the center of the stream. I closed my eyes again, wondering how much time I could spend here before having to return.
I gave up trying to discern the time and opened my eyes. I crouched down and dipped my hand into the cool water. It was refreshing, for the forest was uncomfortably warm. I glanced around me. No threats, no people, no animals...I shrugged, stood, and dove into the water, despite my clothing. The water didn't have much of a current in this particular area, and I swam around for a while, the mindless activity soothing me. I dove and resurfaced several times, swimming up the river a ways, then back to where I'd come in. I twisted around rocks, never hitting one. Finally, though, I grew cold and swam to a large, flat rock overhanging the river and pulled myself onto it. I lay flat on my back, wishing I'd brought a blanket. I stared at the leaves above, a sudden longing to see the stars overpowering me. I stood up, stretched, and walked over to a promising tree with low branches. Mentally judging the nearest branch, I leapt for it and snatched it. Lifting myself higher, I reached the next branch. In this fashion, I climbed as high as I could without breaking a branch and pushed aside the foliage.
I gasped. The view was breathtaking. The millions of bright stars against the black velvet of the sky were unbelievable. I could do nothing for a moment but stare. I felt so insignificant compared to the beauty and majesty of the night sky. The moon – called Sylvarant, ironically – was full, huge and bright to my eyes. I filled my mind with the sight of it, unable to pull my gaze away. I started picking out constellations, searching for the familiar pictures in the sky. I recalled Raine telling me once that in Sylvarant, constellations weren't made up stars, but the spaces in between them. I snorted, shaking my head, distracted for a moment from my searching. They were weird over there.
Then I lost my balance.
I screamed, waving my arms wildly to try and grasp the branches flying by. Corrine flew about me wildly.
Orochi and Kuchinawa would be so disappointed, I thought randomly. I died from a fall.
I saw the green and pink ground beneath me and shut my eyes, ready for the impact, but it never came. Wait...Green and pink?
"Saved ya, didn't I!" a voice muttered in my ear. I gasped in disbelief, staring at Zelos's face, inches away from mine.
"Zelos! You're...you're supposed to be on watch!" I said, casting about for a reason as to why he was here.
"Not even a thank you?" he gasped in mock anger. "I'm hurt, Sheena!"
"Seriously! The others will—"
"Oh, relax. Lloyd woke up and offered to take over for the rest of the night. It's been quite a while since you snuck away, my voluptuous hunny." he said playfully.
"I'm not your hunny! Wait...you knew I left? But you didn't...why didn't you...how long?" I stammered.
"Of course I saw you leave! I was on watch, wasn't I? I didn't say anything because you obviously wanted some peace. And it's been a couple of hours. But I guess that's okay, since it got me here!" he winked hugely, and I realized I was still in his arms.
"Get – get off me, you idiot!" I shouted, jumping away from him.
"Oh, that's not nice!" he joked, but I thought I caught something in his eyes just before he looked away. Hurt? Nah, I must of been imagining things, I decided.
"Yeah, well, what are you doing here, anyway?" I asked again.
"I figured it'd been a while since you disappeared, and you might want some company. Hey, why are you all wet?" he asked, suddenly noticing my damp clothes.
"Oh...I was swimming." I muttered, embarrassed.
"You swim?" he said incredulously.
"Of course! Don't you?" I said, just as amazed.
"Well, yeah! I've been swimming since I was a kid!"
"Me, too. All ninjas swim, I guess...it's something I love to do. But I never would have guessed that the Chosen would swim...you're too, well..." my voice trailed off, as I couldn't figure out how to tactfully end my sentence, and I didn't want to anger him when he was being this normal. Only one comment so far, plus his 'hunny' thing, but that was just Zelos.
"Too fancy? Too perverted? Too stupid?" he supplied bitterly.
"No! Just, well, you're a city boy! Where'd you learn to swim?"
"Indoor pool. I've never actually swum in a river."
"Are you serious?? Come on, then, jump in!" I said, forgetting for a moment who I was with and diving into the water.
Zelos hesitated. "I...I dunno, Sheena..."
"Come on, hurry!" I shouted. I was jacked up all of a sudden. I could only guess it was from my near-death experience coupled with lack of sleep taking over.
I ducked under the water, resurfacing just in time to see a red blur fly by. Then he hit the water, and a huge wave splashed me.
"Hey!" I shouted, and as he surfaced, I splashed him back. He shook his wet hair out of his eyes and grinned. I was confused at his lack of revenge. Then he ducked under again.
"Zelos?" I called, treading water. Then a hand closed around my ankle and pulled me under. I gasped in air just in time to get a thorough dunking. After a moment, he released me and I stuck my head above water. I sucked in air and swam over to him to dunk him. He chuckled and swam away. A chase ensued, each of us trying to dunk the other without getting pushed under ourselves. We both got pushed under a fair number of times.
Then it all changed...I turned around to find myself in his arms. He looked as surprised as I did, so I didn't think he'd planned it out. What threw me off balance was the rush of emotions I felt...a mixture of embarrassment, pleasure, and fear overwhelmed me. I realized he'd removed his pink over robe and black vest before jumping in. How had I missed that?
He shyly began to back away, then changed his mind and squeezed me tight. "Just in case..." he murmured as I was pulled against the lithe muscles of his chest, and surprisingly, I didn't mind. Unable to stop myself, I hugged him back, tentatively leaning my head against his chest. He laid his cheek against my wet hair, and then I felt him kiss the top of my head softly.
"Sheena...do you really hate me?" he whispered, suddenly a frightened little boy.
"Do you really only like me for my body?" I returned, but inside, I was as frightened as he seemed to be.
"No, I...like you because you're strong, and you're brave, and you're beautiful, and funny, and smart...the list never ends..." he said quietly, with the air of someone admitting a long-kept secret.
"Wow...thank you..." I said, embarrassed suddenly. "And, Zelos...no."
"You mean you don't hate me? But you're always, I don't know..." he muttered, letting me go and clambering onto the flat rock I'd been sitting on earlier.
"I always thought I was just another 'hunny' to you. That's how you treated me." I told him, pulling myself up beside him.
"That's because I thought you hated me."
"I only did for a while cause you peeked at me in the shower."
"Natural curiosity –"
"Towards the unknown, I know..." I finished, unable to keep a glare off my face.
"But you know...I really came cause I heard you crying. I was only 14. That was before I was..." He gestured to himself, at a loss for words.
"I was not crying!"
"Were too. Then I showed up, saw you in the shower, and you chucked a bar of soap at me!"
"Well, a teenage boy showed up, and the Chosen, no less, I was 12 years old, a stranger in a strange place...what'd you expect?"
"Not a naked girl!"
I smacked him good-naturedly and grinning. He shoved me playfully, and I returned the favor. He let it go, and hesitantly snaked an arm around my waist. When I leaned my head against his shoulder, I heard him smile in relief, and I laughed quietly. We sat there for a moment when suddenly he suddenly stood up and pulled me off the rock. He pulled on his vest and robe, seeming oddly gentle with the pink robe, as if something fragile was hidden in it. I wished he'd leave it off. I mentally smacked myself and looked away, but he grabbed my hand and dragged me towards the entrance of the forest. After a moment, I regained my balance and ran along beside him. It predictably turned into a race as we sprinted to the edge of the forest.
We reached the entrance and burst out, breathing hard. For the second time in a few hours, I sucked in breath at a beautiful sight.
"Do you like it?" he asked softly. Unable to speak yet, I nodded. He curled his larger hand around me, and I leaned into his side again. He turned to me and brushed my wet hair away from my face, his hand on my cheek. His intense eyes burned into mine for a short time, searching for something. I opened my mouth to speak, but his free hand covered it.
"Forgive me..." he whispered.
"There's nothing to forgive." I said, puzzled, but he grimaced.
"There will be." he said, then turned away again and looked at the beautiful sky. I nestled into his side yet again, and this time he let me.
The sunrise painted beautiful pinks and reds and oranges across the horizon. I looked up at it wistfully. "It's beautiful..."
"I know." his words were right in my ear, and I turned. He tucked a long-stemmed white rose behind my ear, though no thorns pricked me. "For you. It's perfect."
"How did you...?" I could not understand how he'd gotten it.
"A magician never reveals his secrets." He grinned, but he seemed unsure of himself. I smiled back.
Abruptly, he stood. "We'd better get back." I looked at the sky one last time, but the beauty was nearly gone, soon to be replaced by the usual blue, with a few clouds. How is it that something so beautiful can last for such a short time? I wondered.
Zelos and I walked back to the camp, which was set up only a short way away. He smiled at me, but laid down as if to sleep, despite Lloyd's curious look at our soaked clothes. The others were still sleeping. I looked back at Zelos. His shoulders were shaking, as if with sobs, but I told myself he couldn't be crying, for nothing had happened to sadden him. But sometimes nothing has to happen to make people sad. Sometimes all it takes is a memory... But I banished the thought.
I laid down on my side. I turned over, and sat up immediately. How did he...Did he keep it in his vest And when did he remove the thorns, if that's what it's from? That takes so much time, and you get pricked a lot, too...Still, how else? Why would he do that for me? I can't be worth that, he can't like me that much! But it's the only way...
At the edge of the forest sat a bush, blossoming with white roses.