Title: Mental Holiday

Author: SMB814

Rating: T

Warnings: Zelos being Zelos (i.e. mild language, adult themes, innuendo, etc.)

Category: Character Study, Friendship/Romance, Drama

Pairing: Zelos/Sheena (a.k.a. Sheelos - if you don't like it, don't read it)

Spoilers: Spoilers for the entire first game.

Time Frame: Takes place after the first game and ventures off into an alternate universe that doesn't include the events of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. This is the first story in a seven-part series called the Whatever Will Be series. It's necessary to read this story before reading the other six stories in the series, but you do not have to read the following stories to 'complete' this one. This story stands alone as it is. (The seven stories in the Whatever Will Be series are, in order, Mental Holiday, Trust Building 101, Exceptions to the Rules, Crossing the Line, The Experiment, Guardian Knight, and Worth It.)

Summary: "I'm sorry. The Chosen One is currently taking a mental holiday. Please leave a message and he'll get back to you in the morning."

Disclaimer: Alas, Tales of Symphonia and all its lovely characters don't belong to me. They belong to Namco-Bandai Games. I'm just borrowing them and not making any money off them, and I promise I'll return them unharmed (and probably happier than they ever were before) when I'm done playing with them. Any characters you don't recognize from the game belong to me (even though I would be very happy to give certain ones away).

Author's Notes: Yes, this is ridiculously long for what it is. Deal with it. Besides, it's all Zelos's fault for being such a chatterbox and for having walls stronger than the vault at Fort Knox that I had to knock down before any of this would work. My first fic for Tales of Symphonia, so hopefully the characters are at least semi-recognizable. And Zelos, I owe you a giant cookie for being so fascinating that you've done the impossible by single-handedly resurrecting my long-dormant writing muse. This is my apology for ignoring and killing you during my first playthrough of the game simply because I'd been on a Kratos kick at the time. Trust me, it's never happening again. Not betaed, so any mistakes or typos you find are entirely my fault.

Feedback: Feedback is love and fodder for future fics.

History: General plotting began July 2008; completed December 2008. Extremely slight revisions made in January 2010 and December 2010 (one or two corrections, a few formatting changes, a few name changes, and additional series information added).

"I can't believe Sheila wore lilac earrings with a lavender dress. And then accessorizing with an orchid purse? That is so utterly wrong."

Zelos managed to restrain his eye roll until he was spinning the girl he was dancing with - now, what was her name? Betty? Becky? Bella? Watch it be Matilda - away from him, then he plastered on his normal, good-humored smile as he pulled her back to him. Or at least he thought it was his normal smile. He wasn't entirely sure at the moment because his brain had gone into hibernation from all this tedious conversation. Scratch that, this wasn't a conversation; it was brain-numbing droning from an aristocrat trying to put others down to make herself look better. All that energy being wasted on something so negative...

Normally, he could handle these conversations easily. Right now, though, he was having trouble resisting the urge to tell her, in no uncertain terms, how sick he was of her nattering. The worst part wasn't enduring the three-minute conversation that accompanied the dance, though; no, the worst part was that he wasn't sure why he was having such trouble keeping his not-so-polite thoughts to himself. He'd attended so many of these social events that he'd lost count years ago, and they'd always been a breeze to endure and were occasionally even enjoyable - especially his female admirers' unwavering attention - but this was the first one where he felt out of place, like he was floundering and frantically grasping for something that wasn't there to save him from drowning. Usually he could respond to inane comments like hers suavely - "Well, at least she's making a statement" - and steer the conversation onto something less offensive, but it wasn't happening this time. No, instead he found himself wondering who the hell Sheila was, a thought that quickly turned to Sheena because of their similar names, and with that, his eyes wandered toward the ninja, who was currently dancing with Lloyd along a far wall, rather than focusing on the girl he was dancing with.

Maybe he was just out of practice dealing with this brainless drivel. Sure, the regeneration journey with Lloyd and the gang had been filled with trivial conversations, many stupid in nature (thanks predominantly to the naïveté of Lloyd and Colette, who seemed to exist on a different wavelength of their own making), but even those were far more enjoyable than this. Some were downright fun, some were silly, but others were somber, reflecting the seriousness of the situations they'd faced, and deep and insightful in nature. They weren't put-everyone-down fests like it always was with these aristocrats; no, Lloyd had made it clear that race and status didn't matter to him and that he chose his friends based on who they were, not on where they fell on the social ladder. That was why, at this celebration hosted by the King a week after the Great Seed's revival, Lloyd and the gang were associating solely with themselves, with people who shared their ideological viewpoints, and not with these aristocrats who didn't care what had happened so long as they were invited to the dinner party.

Zelos sighed and pulled his gaze from Sheena and Lloyd as the dance neared its conclusion. He didn't want to be here at this party, dancing with this nameless girl. He'd just spent the past week playing messenger for the King, ferrying letters to Tethe'allan cities and explaining what had happened during their journey, and he was tired. On the bright side, he wouldn't be the Chosen for much longer - thankfully, after hearing Yggdrasill's true purpose behind instituting the position, the King agreed they'd have to change that, although until that happened, all the power and associated benefits were staying with him, and many of them would probably stay with him for life because of his breadth of experience and knowledge about Tethe'alla, religion, and politics - but the full implication of that change hadn't sunk in yet. And deep down, the knowledge that his goal of removing that blasted title from his name was now visible on the horizon was probably another reason why he was having such difficulty maintaining the act everyone expected from him and why he was finding the women and conversation intolerable and would have preferred to celebrate privately with Lloyd and Sheena and the others - or, better yet, he would have preferred to spend the night alone, finally thinking through everything that had happened. While thinking may not be his favorite activity - "Whatever will be, will be" wasn't his mantra for no reason, and dwelling on things he couldn't change was unproductive, depressing, and threatened to mess him up permanently - right then he was itching to do just that.

But he couldn't yet. His hunnies expected certain things from him, and if he didn't dance and flirt with them all before the end of the night, they would wonder what was wrong and start talking amongst themselves, and, well, he couldn't lose his fan club until he knew what he wanted and whether or not their presence was still a part of his mental picture for his future.

"Chosen One, are you even listening to me?"

Zelos blinked. Uh oh. Those were never good words to hear. Damn, he must have zoned out. It was hard not to when all you heard was, "Blah, blah, hideous earrings, blah, blah, tacky dress, blah, blah, frumpy shoes." "Of course I am, hunny cakes."

"Then why are you not answering my question?"

Question? Damn, she'd asked him something? Normally he was so attuned to hearing women's voices rising, indicating a question, that he never missed them, even if he blocked out everything else they said. And, worse, he had no idea what she'd asked...and he was apparently drawing a blank as to how to smooth things over with her tonight. "And what question was that again?"

Even he cringed at that, and, unsurprisingly, the girl stopped dancing, dropped his hands, and gaped at him. "You weren't listening to me, were you?" She huffed, turned, and walked away, but not before throwing a, "Then I guess you won't be seeing me later tonight either, will you?" at him over her shoulder.

Whoops. She was gone before he could think of how to soothe her anger, and Zelos blinked again, dazed. Not good. Not that he would have seen her later anyway, but she didn't know that. At least the dance was over now anyway so no one was paying any attention to her dismissal of him. He sighed, deciding to shrug it off and blame it on his exhaustion from the past few weeks, and settled back into his normal routine of figuring out which hunny to dance with next.

For a moment, he eyed the group of girls standing nearby, all giggling and preening while watching him, as if that alone could make him ask them next - fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Betty/Becky/Bella/Matilda hadn't gone over to them and told them to avoid him - but the prospect of dancing with them, just to maintain his reputation and so they could brag about being seen with the 'Chosen,' all while listening to their ramblings about nothing, felt hollow, and he couldn't get his feet to take him toward them. Keeping up the façade and pretending to want to dance with all these women who were only interested in him because he was the Chosen should be easy - he'd certainly been doing it long enough - but that night it just wasn't working, mainly because, damn it, he didn't want to, and really, nothing said he had to anymore except a tradition he himself had started years ago...one he might soon drop depending on certain decisions he'd make once he was officially no longer Tethe'alla's Chosen.

With another sigh, Zelos's gaze drifted around the room as the orchestra readied for the next song, and yet again, his gaze fell on Sheena. Damn, she looked gorgeous tonight. He'd liked that dress at the last dinner party, when the King had honored him for rescuing Princess Hilda, and he liked it again now, and especially that she, too, had apparently been so busy the past week that she hadn't had time to find a new one. The dark mauve coloring, her toned body, her sleek ebony hair, the minimalist yet elegant fabric, her creamy skin, the soft curves of her bare neck and shoulders and everything else...oh, what he'd give for a dance with her. While she might hate him and constantly smack him, at least she was real, and her conversations didn't consist of belittling her competition with ridiculously petty accusations. Locating his typical Chosen One mask, he slipped it on, beamed a cocky smile, and headed toward her. Asking her to dance was probably futile, but it was still worth risking a nasty right hook in case she was feeling generous tonight.

Before he could reach her, though, a cute blonde with darling dimples and wearing waitress attire suddenly appeared between him and his destination, carrying a tray on which sat a single glass of champagne. "Chosen One, I have your champagne."

Instantly, his determination was derailed. The cocky smile vanished as he eyed the glass, then the girl's pretty smile. It was always her, and she was the only waitress he would accept a drink from; that was his deal with the kitchen's head chef. For once, he considered rejecting it - because really, why was he still adhering to such precaution when it wasn't necessary anymore? Hadn't he promised himself he'd rethink habits like this once he achieved his ultimate goal? - but he quickly realized he wasn't ready to take that step. Doing so involved too much of an unknown, and he wasn't willing to take that particular risk yet. No, the potential ramifications...he had to think those through before he completely discarded all precaution.

His gaze darted over the girl's shoulder at Sheena, and without warning, the figurative mask slipped from his face and crashed into the ground, cracking in half. Lloyd was asking her for another dance. While Zelos knew it was nothing serious between them, despite Sheena's not-so-subtle crush on Lloyd, since Lloyd had made it clear his heart belonged to Colette, and Lloyd was just making the rounds since Colette was talking nearby with Regal and Raine, even that knowledge couldn't stop his sudden, but common, flare of jealousy. The worst part, though - the part that had hit him like a blow to the gut and knocked the mask from his face - was Sheena's smile as she accepted Lloyd's invitation. She had never pretended to like these parties, nor had she ever smiled at them before, and yet when she was with someone she sincerely liked, the smile that graced her face was sublime - and oh so sincere. There were no pretensions with Sheena, no masks. Everyone knew when she liked something and when she didn't. She never pretended to be someone she wasn't to save face, like he regularly did. While Zelos knew he could always wait for the next dance and try again to ask her or simply cut in and steal her away from Lloyd, he was concerned, too, that even if she accepted, it would hurt just a little too much to not receive the same beautiful, sincere smile she'd just given Lloyd. And right then, in his already atypical, contemplative state, with the happy-go-lucky guy so difficult to summon, he doubted he could handle that subtle rejection unless he had a surefire backup plan.

No wonder he hated having her here at these functions. For some reason he could never think or act normally when she was nearby.

Unsmiling, Zelos accepted the champagne with a simple, "Thanks," which elicited a puzzled look from the waitress; normally, he flirted with her or made a pass at her, and she must be surprised he hadn't this time. Heck, a part of him was surprised he hadn't, either. With the mask now apparently broken in half, though, nothing was happening like normal. He slowly turned and walked away, taking a sip of his drink and heading past the hunnies still watching him and giggling. He slowed, eyeing them as they blushed coyly and waved at him, but seeing them made him feel even emptier, and he couldn't even summon a smile for them. And why? Because as much as he loved the female ogling and attention, he was no longer sure how much he really, truly did - at least not for the reasons they flocked to him.

Yes, something was definitely wrong tonight. He was supposed to be smiling, flirting, sweeping them all off their feet and whispering sweet nothings in their ears. Instead, he just wandered past them toward the banquet table to try to find something to interest his appetite. The urge to leave the party, alone, was nearly unbearable; he felt restless. He wanted to go think everything through now that he finally could, even if his mind kept insisting he had to resist that urge and stay here. This, after all, wasn't the right time for that; he could do that tomorrow. Or maybe he'd go to the bridge after the party; that always helped him shake this questionable mood from his system.

All efforts at resistance failed for good, though, as his angelic senses picked up the conversation of the hunnies he'd just passed. "What's with him tonight?" "I don't know, but did you see how upset Betsy was before?" "He's been acting so strangely ever since he traveled with that group of dirty peasants." "My friend Sally at the castle says she heard he won't be the Chosen for much longer." "I bet it's all that filthy ninja's fault. She's been hanging around the Chosen for weeks. I mean, have you seen how she treats him? What a hag, trying to get his attention like that! I wish she'd just go away; how many times have we told her to? But does she listen? No, of course not! I can't stand that bitch!"

Upon hearing that last one, Zelos finally realized just how serious his problem that night was because it took all his restraint not to grab that girl, drag her over to Sheena, make her repeat her words, and let Sheena have her way with her - something he never, never would have let himself even entertain the notion of doing before because of how self-destructive and un-Chosen-like it was. That was when the terrifying truth finally hit him like a sledgehammer: for some as-of-yet unknown reason, the Chosen One had now completely vacated the premises, and Zelos Wilder couldn't step into his shoes until he knew exactly what he wanted, not only with these women but for himself. Until he figured that out, he couldn't be here, because the damage control required if he stuck around any longer...no, actually, no amount of damage control could repair what he would break tonight if he didn't get away from these hunnies immediately. He needed to retreat until he either figured out what the hell he really wanted, formulated a new Grand Master Plan now that his last one was obsolete, or glued his mask back together again so no one saw him like this.

He reached for his breast pocket and sighed, relieved, as he felt a key there; thankfully, he'd had the foresight to grab it before leaving his mansion. He smiled at everyone he passed, although how many of those smiles came across naturally, he didn't want to know, and headed toward a back door that the serving staff used to enter without anyone noticing. He casually snuck out and headed down the hallway, ignoring the cacophonous kitchen to his left, and to another door at the far end before climbing up a deserted flight of stairs.

The majority of his adult life, Zelos had always had one single goal: to be free of the damned title of 'Chosen.' Everything he'd done had been according to his Grand Master Plan, which focused on achieving that end. Now it had finally happened - and not a moment too soon considering his utter exhaustion of being someone he wasn't, manipulating everything around him to fit his plan, and carrying out the responsibilities he'd never wanted but had been forced to accept. It wasn't official yet, but he would soon be the 'Ex-Chosen,' and once upon a time, when he'd first started formulating those plans, he had promised himself he would do certain things when it happened. Now, finally, it was time to revisit those things and develop a new Grand Master Plan, one where he claimed the life he'd never had. After how certain things had played out, he knew he'd have to face a lot of regrets - he'd already felt it starting upon seeing Sheena earlier, an ache he'd frequently felt before but had never let himself really feel - but it had to be done. Maybe he could even build ways into that plan to make up for those regrets...and make it up to her, because she deserved it, and because that was probably the only way to alleviate this damn ache in his chest that he'd tried for years to ignore or eradicate altogether.

It was time, because for the first time in his life, freedom was waiting for him on the horizon. The door on his gilded cage was open. He hadn't stepped outside yet, but as soon as he knew where he was going, he would, and he would never look back. And right then, knowing it was inevitable was good enough for him.

Reaching 'his' spot, Zelos locked the door behind him, headed out to the spacious, private balcony, and sighed in relief at reaching his sanctuary of solitude. After all, only he had a key - a special arrangement he'd made with the reception hall's owner years ago under pretense of having a place to bring a 'special girl.' He looked up at the cloudless night sky and its blanket of a thousand stars and full moon, relaxing. Now this was a world he could finally begin to enjoy now that it was no longer conspiring to kill him or keep him trapped in his cage. Finally at peace, without having to worry about anyone catching him with his guard down, he settled in, alone, to start contemplating his new Grand Master Plan, one that didn't include constant ruses or acting solely out of habit, and one where he could find out who he really was - and who he really wanted to be.


After an hour of the party, Sheena's patience level with its stupidity, waste, and formalities had reached rock bottom, and she had taken instead to wandering around the outlying areas of the reception hall, needing to escape the irritating nobles who didn't attempt to hide their disdain for ninjas and, therefore, her. She hadn't explored this place at the last party, and it was habit to scout out where everything was located, just in case - a habit resulting from being a ninja, always looking out for possible danger, needing to know where all available exits were, and wanting to be aware of any place where people could be trapped should, oh, say, the mansion catch fire or be attacked. Besides, after spending a week in Mizuho, she needed some alone time.

Oh, who was she kidding? She wasn't doing this because she was pissed at the noblemen and their vain party; she was pissed because Zelos had disappeared from the ballroom. Sure, he had the right to run off with some floozy whenever he wanted to, but she still felt...disappointed...in his choices - not out of jealousy, she told herself, but because she had thought she'd seen something in him during their journey that indicated there was more to him than she'd always thought. He'd certainly expressed enough hatred over his title at the Tower of Salvation, even admitting he'd been running from it his entire life and had worked with Cruxis solely to give it to Seles, who he deemed a better candidate for the role. Sheena had never seen that side of him before, and she thought maybe vocalizing that hatred had been a turning point for him. Maybe after that, she'd thought, she would see something different in him, something more than she'd ever given him credit for before. Maybe he wasn't who she'd always thought he was. Maybe things between them would change. Maybe he would change. Even she had admitted after his betrayal that she should have paid him more attention, dug a little deeper beneath the surface, and seen through his lies and his lighthearted, carefree, arrogant, joking exterior before it was too late.

And for as pissed as she'd been when he'd saved her and rejoined their group, she'd kept that in mind and had vowed she'd start digging deeper and noticing those things she never had before. She wasn't sure why - and she doubted she could put up with his stupid but inevitable innuendo, sexual advances, and taunting long enough to find out - but she was intrigued enough to at least try. She'd never had a chance to discuss his betrayal with him - he'd been moody afterwards, and subsequent events had occurred so quickly that no opportunity to do so had arisen, and after that they'd split up to deal with the new world - but it nagged at her. She was curious, and with her ninja, information-gathering senses and instincts, she figured trying to determine the truth was worth at least some effort.

But then he pulled this little disappearing act, proving nothing had changed and he was still a perverted womanizer who happily ran off with unknown floozies every chance he got. And if he didn't have to attend the party, then why should she? At least he liked these things and lived for the attention they garnered him; she could barely tolerate them. So now she was pissed and had forced herself to leave the ballroom to try to cool down. And her two dances with Lloyd had been so nice, too - cute, sweet, naïve, idealistic, but definitely untouchable Lloyd.

So she'd taken it upon herself to scout the place out and hope she didn't run into the Idiot Chosen with his hunny-of-the-moment draped all over him. Everything there looked the same, though - expensive and gaudy - and she was quickly tiring of her exploration. She much preferred the simpler Mizuho style. Apparently this was what rich people did, though; they had to spend their money somehow, and how better than by showing off? Talk about a waste when people were suffering in poverty only half a mile away. Hopefully that would change with the merging of the two worlds. At least, for all his faults, Zelos was supportive of people outside his rank. Even if he lost his title, he still had the King's ear and could encourage revolution of the social ranks. Heck, Sheena was still surprised by how Zelos had treated that lost boy and his mother in Sybak. Then, she'd barely believed his kindness, but now...it just reinforced the nagging thought that maybe there was more to him than met the eye - even if it currently wasn't looking likely.

She was turning down another branch of the mansion when she spotted it out a grand, golden-rimmed window - a bright red splash on a nearby balcony, the color unmistakable. Her face reddened and she cursed softly; damn, it was him. At least he wasn't looking her direction. In fact, he was probably so focused on his female companion that...Sheena did a double take. No one else was out on the balcony with him. He was alone, a glass of champagne in hand, staring at the moon, leaning on his forearms against the railing. Instantly, her curiosity was piqued. She watched him a moment, making sure no half-naked woman was joining him from the adjacent room. What she was seeing wasn't like him at all. Zelos wasn't one to shun a party with plenty of his 'hunnies' attending, especially one held partially in his honor, and spend time with only a glass of champagne and his thoughts for company.

The longer she waited, though, the more convinced she became that he wasn't waiting for a woman; even after a few minutes, he still hadn't looked behind him as if expecting someone. Instead, he released his long, fiery hair from its loose braid and ran a hand through it, a simple action that indicated he wasn't planning on rejoining the party. Finally, Sheena concluded it really was just him. She was thoroughly puzzled, and intrigued, and suddenly she wanted to go join him. She'd only seen him thoughtful like this once or twice before, the last time being after he'd reclaimed his Cruxis Crystal from Seles, and she wondered if maybe that time she could get some real conversation out of him; after all, he had no excuse to wax poetic about all the 'hunnies' he missed in Meltokio when he could be dancing with them downstairs right now. She was concerned that he was okay and not plotting another awful betrayal - this really wasn't like him - and while she expected he'd drop his somberness the second he saw her, a part of her was willing to take the chance in case she was wrong. She wanted to be wrong.

Decision made, Sheena crept down the hallway, mentally calculating which room led to the proper balcony. Finally satisfied she'd located the right door, she tried it...but it was locked. She cursed softly. What the hell? Why had he locked the door? One thing was sure, though: she was even more intrigued now than before. She could pick locks...should she? Nah, she didn't have a bobby pin handy, but she'd definitely put that on her list of traveling items for the future. Hmm, what about the next door over...? That door proved to be unlocked, so she crossed the room and stepped out onto the balcony. Zelos still didn't acknowledge her presence, though...was he that lost in thought? Reaching the end of the other balcony, she climbed up on the railing, then jumped over to 'his' balcony and gracefully set down on it.

She'd just started walking toward him when he finally spoke. "Sheena."

While he still hadn't turned to look at her, clearly he'd heard her. Good, at least he wasn't completely oblivious to everything going on around him. "I was wondering where you'd ended up," she said. "This...isn't where I expected to find you."

Zelos grinned but still didn't turn to her. "Aw, was my voluptuous banshee worried about me? I'm flattered."

Sheena huffed and shook her head, tempted to either leave or smack him. He always used that same line or something similar whenever she expressed concern for him or was being serious with him. Since she'd worked so hard to reach him, though, for a reason she was quickly losing sight of thanks to his obnoxious nickname for her, she settled for grumbling, "Idiot Chosen."

"I'm sorry. The Chosen One is currently taking a mental holiday. Please leave a message and he'll get back to you in the morning."

He had said that so seriously, with no trace of sarcasm or humor in his voice, that Sheena was taken aback. "What? Then who am I talking to?"

"Someone who is not the Chosen."

She...didn't know how to respond to that. Talk about odd - and his flat tone was even odder. She would think he was joking again except for that tone. Rather than dwelling on that, though, she opted instead to poke a little fun at him in hopes of getting some information from him to explain this befuddling turn of events. "Then if you're not the Chosen tonight...does that mean you won't hit on me or grope me or do anything else inappropriate?"

Zelos finally looked at her, smirking, but, curiously, that smirk wasn't as lecherous as usual. "Do you want me to?"

Sheena rolled her eyes. Did he really have to ask? "Of course not, you idiot."

"Didn't think so." Instantly, his smirk vanished and he looked away again. "Nah, seriously, that shouldn't be a problem. I don't foresee that particular idiot showing up tonight; as far as I can tell, he's vacated the premises. Can't make any promises about tomorrow when he gets back from his holiday, but tonight you're in luck."

...Huh. Had Zelos Wilder really just passed by a prime opportunity to hit on her and make her feel like one of his hunnies? Maybe something really was wrong with him. This wasn't like him at all...but then, Sheena wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth when this seemed to be the opportunity she'd wanted. Now that she'd gotten it, though, she found it a little...unnerving. She was so accustomed to acting one way around him - on the defensive against his constant barrage of innuendo and jabs at her - that she wasn't sure how to respond when he wasn't acting like that. She suddenly got the impression she didn't know this man.

"O...kay." Maybe she should try a different, more straightforward subject? "So how did you know it was me?" He glanced at her, brows furrowed in confusion. "You said my name when I was still a good distance away."

And just like that, his smirk returned. "You may have ninja senses, hunny, but I've got angel senses. I heard you rattling the door a minute ago and then talking to yourself when you found it locked."

"Oh." Right. Of course. She still had trouble remembering he now had the same angelic senses Colette and Kratos did - but she didn't want to think about that right then, either. There were too many disturbing aspects involved with that. "Speaking of which, why was the door locked?"

A single red eyebrow crept upward. "Why is a door normally locked?"

Well, duh. "To keep people out."

"Give the lady a prize."

Sheena blinked blankly. Was he really confirming that? Zelos, someone who regularly boasted about how much women loved him and how much he loved women? "So you want me to leave?"

Zelos sighed and cast another glance at her, the eyebrow still arched. "You, my dear? After all the trouble you went through jumping across balconies to get here?" He looked back at the sky. "Nah. You can stay if you'd like. Just be forewarned I'm not really feeling like myself right now."

She chuckled. "No kidding. I could've told you that the moment I noticed you out here drinking alone."

Uh oh. His smirk was back. That always meant dangerous waters lay ahead. "Who said I'm drinking alone?"

This whole conversation just kept confusing her more and more. Now what did he mean? Sheena was getting sick of being caught off guard by him like this. "Well, let's see. You're drinking alcohol, no one else is here, and you locked the door to keep others out so, therefore, you're drinking alone."

For the first time since she'd joined him there, Zelos observed her closely, his blue eyes intense and scrutinizing. Instinct told her to smack him for staring at her...but, oddly, he wasn't looking at her lecherously, nor was he staring at the part of her, south of her face, that normally attracted his interest. Heck, he hadn't even hit on her yet - although the dreaded 'banshee' nickname was bad enough. In fact, to her surprise, he almost appeared to be seriously debating something. She looked away, flushed and embarrassed by the intensity of his gaze.

"Am I?" he whispered. Suddenly, he lifted his glass to her. "Take a sip."

Sheena's cheeks grew even warmer. "Wh...what?"

"The chef prepared this special for me. Take a sip."

He sounded like a parent instructing a child, and her irritation and suspicion naturally rose at the tone. "Wh...why? What did you do to it?"

"Nothing," he said with a wry grin. "C'mon, hunny, trust me on this. Unless you to take a sip, you won't believe me when I say what it is."

"You mean it's not champagne?" What, had she entered an alternate dimension? This made no sense. Zelos Wilder was not supposed to be acting like this. "What did you put in it?"

"You'll just have to try it and see, won't you?" he countered.

Sheena eyed him warily, confused by his persistence. She waited for the smirk to appear that indicated his latest game with her, but for once it never came. She didn't understand, but after a moment spent contemplating his strange mood, she hesitantly took the glass and lifted it to her nose. She didn't smell anything objectionable, but with Zelos, she couldn't be too careful. "If you poisoned or drugged this..."

Zelos rolled his eyes, snatched back the glass, and took a drink before handing it back to her. "There. See? Not poisoned or drugged. Now take a sip." His face softened. "Please?"

Sheena's confusion flared further. Where was the normal, juvenile humor flickering in his eyes to indicate he would soon burst out with something stupid like, "Oh, yeah, and I spit in it so that means we've 'kissed' by sharing saliva!"? Why instead was his expression still surprisingly soft yet somber? And...why did she think she detected a hint of frustration and impatience in his eyes? When Zelos still didn't play his cards, she shook her head and sighed, wondering when she'd started thinking like him. Finally, she took a tentative sip...and then blinked blankly. "What the...?"

He smirked again, albeit with surprisingly minimal obnoxiousness, and took back his glass. "See, told ya you wouldn't believe it without trying it yourself."

She tasted the liquid in her mouth, searching for its flavor, but still found nothing. "This is...this is water!"

"Water with some bubbles and special coloring so it resembles champagne, to be precise," he stated. "Hence why I can't be drinking alone right now since this isn't alcohol."

For a moment, Sheena was speechless. "Wait, are you saying you don't drink alcohol at all?"

"Oh, sweet Martel, no," he replied as if the very thought was distasteful. "I drink alcohol - just not at any social events. Usually it's only when I'm alone in my mansion."

She was stunned. This, too, made no sense; the puzzle pieces refused to fit together. Nothing in the way he was currently acting matched her mental image of this guy, one she'd held nearly as long as she'd known him - which was a long time. She gaped at him, fumbling for a response, but he just cocked an eyebrow as if granting her permission to ask the question. Given the circumstances, she couldn't resist. "And why is that?"

Zelos eyed her closely another moment, but finally he looked away and took another sip of his 'champagne.' "Heh. Wouldn't you like to know?"

Of course he wouldn't just answer her question. He had to turn this into a cat-and-mouse game. She should have known. "Yes, actually I would. As long as it doesn't turn into a bizarre, perverted story, of course. Or an excuse for you to grope me."

He peered at her from the corner of his eye, his voice unusually soft. "Told you already, hun, that guy's currently out on vacation. If I can't find him - and believe me, I've tried - even you can't."

Wow. His mood seriously was bizarre tonight, wasn't it? He almost felt unrecognizable - and really, maybe that was why he'd come out here alone. Maybe he truly didn't want to be a philanderer and womanizer for once. Ever since his betrayal at the Tower, overall he'd been surprisingly somber, and Sheena's curiosity was now ensnared. She wanted to see where this conversation went and take advantage of the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see beneath the shell she'd only recently realized existed.

"You didn't answer the question," she pressed.

He sighed. "And which one was that, my dear?"

His ability to get distracted was impressive - and very, very frustrating. Sheena rolled her eyes but bit her tongue. "Why don't you drink alcohol in public?"

"Oh, right." He fell silent again and shot her another sharp, calculating look before finally speaking. "Well, I guess you could say there are two main reasons for that." Sheena waited as another long silence followed. While she wanted to smack him to get him moving - patience, unfortunately, wasn't her strongest point - she resisted the urge, mainly thanks to his encouragingly contemplative mood and his insistence that he wouldn't try anything stupid with her tonight. "One." He motioned at the building behind them. "Truth is...I hate these things. They're long, boring, gaudy, and fake, fake, fake. The people, the power plays, the social maneuverings, the required social etiquette...everything is completely, obnoxiously fake. The attention and the women...well, I can't really complain there, but everyone's obsession with my title gets...tiring. And the conversation is...well, it's shallow, pathetic, and petty. However, these things become infinitely more entertaining when everyone gets tipsy or outright drunk on the champagne and starts acting like idiots, and believe me, that entertainment factor is multiplied by a thousand when you're sober and can fully enjoy the show."

Even with her lack of experience at these things, Sheena couldn't disagree about their boringness, tediousness, and fakeness. She was just surprised he thought that way. Playboys like him usually threw themselves wholeheartedly into these situations; they loved being the life of the party - she'd already seen him do so himself - and that generally included imbibing plenty of alcohol. "Huh. If you hate them that much, I'd think you'd want to be drunk to make them more enjoyable."

"Heh. I probably would except for my second reason behind staying sober."

"And what's that?"

Zelos looked at her, a crafty, devious glint in his eyes, but Sheena thought she detected uncertainty there, too. She wasn't sure where this was going, but his hesitation and reluctance, as if telling her this was excruciatingly difficult, were encouraging. "Alcohol loosens lips."

The "Eh?" was out of her mouth before she realized what he'd meant. He was saying alcohol made women more...pliable...and he wanted to be sober to take advantage of that. Instantly, disgust overwhelmed her confusion. "Oh. I should've known."

He grinned. "Now, now, hunny. Now whose mind is in the gutter?" Sheena's face flared, and she looked away, embarrassed. Before she could blame him for corrupting her into taking everything he said in a sexual manner, though, he continued. "No, let's just say...I have secrets I wouldn't want to accidentally reveal simply by having a drink or two and letting my guard down."

Instantly, all thoughts of self defense vanished, and she turned back to him, incredulity mixing with her curiosity. "Secrets? You don't drink in public because you're afraid of spilling your secrets?"

"I wouldn't say 'afraid,'" Zelos said carefully. "More like being...prudent. Especially since sharing certain ones wouldn't fit into my Grand Master Plan."

Sheena didn't know what to question first, his 'secrets' or his 'Grand Master Plan.' Both could prove equally fascinating, but chances were she'd only be able to ask about one. Ah, the heck with it. She wanted to know about his 'secrets.' "Just how many secrets do you have?"

All traces of his smile vanished, and his voice softened. "More than I can count, babe. More than I can count."

She blinked at him, waiting for him to elaborate, but he never did. "For example...?"

"Heh. Wouldn't you like to know?"

Her eyes widened at his dismissal, but she didn't doubt him about that for an instant, not after she'd just recently begun seeing this other, hidden side of him. Could this actually be her chance to get something real from him? It seemed possible - and suddenly, Sheena realized just what he'd meant that the Chosen One was taking a 'mental holiday.' She wasn't talking to Zelos Wilder, the Chosen; she was talking to Zelos Wilder, the man. For the first time she could remember, he had revealed an opening into that hidden piece of himself, and Sheena would be damned if she missed this opportunity to try delving a little deeper. Maybe he wouldn't even hit on her when she started getting too close...because she thought was starting to see, to understand, the truth behind it. Whenever that happened, he always did something stupid to distract her - and because of her embarrassment and discomfort, she always took the bait and left him alone.

Well, not this time. Sheena would not be distracted this time, no matter what he tried. She was a ninja, damn it. She could control her temper and pry out the truth, especially when he already had so many walls down. She refused to let him push her buttons and drive her away before she'd gotten something significant from him. She refused! "Yes, actually I would."

He met her gaze, his blue eyes once again narrowed and scrutinizing. "Secrets are secrets for a reason, babe. Generally that means they're things people don't want to share."

She shrugged. No. Logic would not deter her. She looked him in the eye, hoping to convey her determination. "So? I want to hear what kind of secrets are apparently so important to you that you'd do whatever it took to keep them hidden."

An eyebrow inched upward slightly but he made no other move. "Nice try, but no."

His words said one thing, but his tone wasn't saying "End of Discussion" yet. Sheena still saw plenty of room to try...and a part of her actually wondered if he wanted her to keep going and was dangling this carrot before her in hopes she'd bite. She wasn't sure about that yet, but she wasn't ready to dismiss the possibility yet, either. "Oh, come on, Zelos. Just one? You've got me curious now!"

"Heh." Zelos looked down at her through eyes that were mere slits. "Y'know, now would normally be when the Chosen One would start hitting on you."

...If only the Chosen One was anywhere to be found, Sheena almost heard him add. That alone confirmed her recent revelation about the connection between his innuendo and his defense mechanisms. But damn it, she wanted to know now - being from Mizuho, she was an information-gatherer by nature, after all - and, surprisingly, he still hadn't actually started hitting on her like he'd admitted the Chosen would. It was unsettling to not know what was coming from him next, to not see the person she knew and expected whenever she'd attempted a serious conversation with him, but its unexpectedness just multiplied her boldness and determination tenfold.

"Please? Anything you say will stay with me. I promise." She lifted her hand, smiling faintly. "If I'm lying, I'll swallow a thousand needles."

His eyes narrowed even further, and that, too, confirmed her hunch. Zelos was measuring her, testing her. She could see it. He may not want to do this, but Sheena still believed she could persuade him; it was clear, after all, that he hadn't completely dismissed the possibility yet. And really, maybe a part of him wanted her to; maybe he was looking for her to convince him it was safe. "If I've kept these secrets to myself for so long, why would I consider telling you now?"

Her smile broadened. That was exactly what she'd thought. Zelos wanted her to give him a reason to take her up on this offer to listen. "Because I already know a few of your well-kept secrets?" she suggested, even as more reasons quickly inundated her. "Because I now know, despite how you always acted, that you hated being the Chosen? Because I know you spent most of your life running from your responsibilities? Because I know you wish Seles had been given the title instead? Because I now know that there's something more to you than the shallow, carefree, selfish, arrogant joker and pervert you usually act like? Because..." She swallowed, her smile vanishing. "Because despite everything you did to us, I'm still your friend, and I want to get to know the real Zelos Wilder, the man hiding beneath the act, now that I know he exists?"

For a long moment, Zelos observed her, and Sheena held his gaze, silently encouraging him, coaxing him, to lower his walls and let her in. He needed to know she meant that, that while she'd bought the act for years, she didn't anymore, and she never completely would again. His reactions to her now were proving that, that something significant laid beneath the surface that he'd always hidden before but that was now itching to come out and be known. She watched him, seeing the turmoil raging in his eyes. He still seemed hesitant to give in, but Sheena wanted to think there was something hopeful there, too, and that tiny flicker of hope convinced her she'd made the right decision to press and would fight until she'd uncovered the truth.

Finally, Zelos looked away, chuckling. "Heh. And here I'd hoped you'd been so focused on your own issues at the Tower of Salvation and in Welgaia that you hadn't caught all that."

She blushed as the memories resurfaced - it had only been a week ago, and besides, both incidents had been permanently etched into her mind - and she turned away again. "Well, I was. But not so much that I missed what you were going through, too."

He sighed. "Figures." After a moment, he turned to her, his gaze suddenly playful. "Okay, fine. You really want to know one of my secrets?"

Her hopes rose despite her wariness of his obnoxious expression. Was he really going to tell her? "Of course I do. I meant everything I just said."

His smirk returned. "Then it's gonna cost you."

Instantly, her anger returned at his implication, as did the urge to smack him. The way he was eyeing her as if he wanted to eat her alive hit the nerve she'd been trying to avoid in her attempt to get something real from him. Damn it, hadn't he promised not to touch that nerve tonight? Sheena had to take a deep breath and remind herself she'd determined not to let him get to her. No, she would press on...even if he made doing so nearly impossible sometimes. She huffed, looked away, and rolled her eyes, but she resisted threatening to leave - although she would threaten him with bodily harm if necessary because, damn it, he really was an idiot.

"I should've known," she muttered.

From the corner of her eye, she saw his smirk broaden. "C'mon, hunny, you didn't really think I'd give away these secrets for free, did you?"

Sheena glared at him, her anger multiplying at the infuriating sparkle in his eye. Even though the Chosen was taking a so-called 'mental holiday,' some things apparently never changed. Maybe this was just who Zelos Wilder really was - and if so, then she didn't like it. "Quit calling me 'hunny,'" she snapped, bitterness overwhelming her restraint. "And so, what? Let me guess, you want me to sleep with you, right? Well, forget it. I'm not that interested."

His eyebrows rose. "My, my. Your mind really is in the gutter tonight, isn't it? While I certainly wouldn't turn that down if you were offering, that's not quite what I had in mind."

Her eyes narrowed. As miffed as she still was, that placated her a little. "And just how much do you want, Zelos? Five hundred gald? A thousand?"

Zelos sighed, but his smirk remained. "Oh, my dear, sweet, voluptuous, ninja hunny. And what in Tethe'alla makes you think I want money? I've got plenty already, thanks."

"For the umpteenth time, I am not your hunny!" Jizou, hadn't she just told him, only half a minute ago, not to call her that? Did he ever listen to her? Surprising even herself, though, Sheena did resist smacking him again. That unexpected restraint helped calm her just enough that she didn't sound like she was screaming, even if she continued glaring at him. "Then if you don't want money, what do you want?"

He turned and leaned back against the railing, still watching her closely. "Well, let's see here. It has to be something I want that you'd never give me otherwise..."

Agh! Dealing with this man was like dealing with a single-minded mosquito, constantly buzzing about, looking for any exposed skin so it could suck her blood - one that refused to die no matter how many times she smacked it. "I already said I refuse to have sex with you, you pervert!"

He poked her nose, his smirk broadening. "And I already said I wouldn't ask for that, my dear banshee."

No, he hadn't, not that directly - but again Sheena bit her tongue, mollified by his reassurance. She still wanted to strangle him, though, and to vent her frustration, she batted his hand away from her face. Even when not trying to irritate her, he still irritated her. How could he do that? Why did she let him push these buttons she hadn't known she had until she'd met him? Maybe she should just turn around and leave; after all, he'd never invited her to his solitary water-drinking party. Hell, he'd even locked the door to keep people out. But he hadn't chased her away yet, either, and even though he was irritating her, per his norm, he still hadn't actually hit on her...she didn't know what to make of that. Despite his usual jocularity, Zelos wasn't fully himself, and perhaps because of that, she didn't feel completely uncomfortable being alone with him like she normally did. She really did want to learn more about him, too, to break through his walls and see what he was hiding. Damn her curiosity, and damn Yggdrasill for showing her glimpses of that other side of him, a side she hadn't known existed before but that now taunted her. No, she wanted to see this through; if he was right, she may never get this opening again. She couldn't waste it, and if that meant enduring whatever stupidity he threw at her to break past it, then she would.

She folded her arms to her chest. "Okay, then, name your price."

"My price, huh? Let's see..." He eyed her a moment, then grinned craftily. "I will tell you one of my deepest, darkest secrets in exchange for...one dance."

Her eyes widened, and her face flushed. "One...dance?" Oh, wait, she got it. A 'dance' must be another ridiculous euphemism for...something else she'd already denied him. Twice. "Oh, a dance," she grumbled, glaring at him again. "Is that what you're calling it now?"

Zelos rolled his eyes. "While normally I would be turned on by the way your mind is apparently geared tonight, babe, when I say one dance, I mean one dance. Y'know, what those stuffy folks in there claim to be doing." He motioned back at the mansion.

Sheena's lips parted. Was he serious? "That is your price?"

His grin returned. "That's my price."

She stared at him blankly. "A dance."

The grin broadened. "You and me, one dance."

That...was the most illogical price for a secret this supposedly 'big' that she'd ever heard. Although really, in some twisted way, it did fit him... "Why a dance?"

He shrugged as if his reasoning was obvious. "'Cause I know I'm perhaps your least favorite person alive, and I'm curious to see just how curious you truly are to hear this. Besides, I figure if I'm handing you some prime blackmail material on myself, you have to give me some blackmail material in return." He grinned again as she rolled her eyes. "So what do you say? Do we have a deal?"

Sheena looked away, her face still uncomfortably warm, at both his implication that she didn't like him - which was true, and yet it...wasn't - and at his blunt reasoning, to see how much she wanted this. Her gut said no, absolutely not, she refused to accept this deal. His words said one thing, but this was Zelos she was dealing with. He was a notorious flirt and lecherous pervert, even if he wasn't currently acting that way. No, Zelos couldn't keep his hands to himself if his life depended on it. She would be groped and completely felt-up by the end of the dance; she would feel disgusting and she'd be disgusted at herself for agreeing to something so stupid. Was it worth it for a single secret from him?

Of course, if he told her something meaningful, like what she'd learned about him in Welgaia, and he kept his hands to himself...she could possibly endure a single dance. He certainly was handsome, charming, and dashing enough when he wanted to be; she would be lying to say she'd never appreciated his physique during their journey. If it weren't for the obnoxious, arrogant, lecherous attitude, she could actually understand why so many women swooned over him. And that gorgeous red hair...she quickly cut off that thought, instructing herself to focus. If he behaved...no, a dance wouldn't be the worst, especially considering how 'cheap' his price really was. Three to five minutes with him in exchange for something potentially enlightening. Heck, it might even help her understand him better. Wasn't that exactly what she'd wanted? But that hinged on two specific conditions: if he behaved, and if the secret he shared with her was worth it.

Suddenly, a devious idea hit her. It was something he himself would do and so she felt justified in doing it herself. How he would react...well, there was only one way to find out. Decision made, Sheena turned and eyed him sharply. "Okay, but only under two conditions."

His eyebrows flew upward, and he let out a laugh. "Oho, you're negotiating now?"

Impressing even herself, Sheena ignored that and merely pointed at him. "One, you keep your hands to yourself other than what the dance requires. If you do anything even remotely inappropriate, the deal is off and I get to break every one of your fingers."

"Heheheh," he chuckled. "There's my Violent Demonic Banshee."

She smacked his arm. Of all his stupid nicknames for her, he just had to keep using that one, didn't he? "Quit calling me that."

"I'll quit calling you that once you quit smacking and/or threatening me with physical harm."

"And I'll quit smacking and/or threatening you with physical harm when you actually start behaving like a civilized human being!"

Zelos grinned and pointed right back at her. "And I could remind you that I am the one who's a part of high society and you are the ninja from Mizuho, but I suspect you'd smack me again, so I'll keep my mouth shut...hey, ow!"

Sheena couldn't resist, but that time she softened the smack with a smile. At least he recognized when he was getting himself into trouble. Sometimes. "Just shut up, you idiot, and listen, okay?" He pouted but didn't say anything. Good. Maybe he was learning. "And two."

His eyebrows flew upward again. "Oh, are you still negotiating?"

...Or maybe he wasn't learning. She lifted her fist. "Don't make me smack you again!"

He chuckled, throwing his hands upward in a show of innocence that would have been far more effective if he hadn't still been smirking at her. "Then by all means, hunny, continue."

She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to ignore this latest 'hunny' for fear they'd just keep talking in circles if she didn't, and pointed at him again. "Two. The secret you tell me has to be significant, and it can't be something I already know."

His smirk vanished and his eyes narrowed at her. "Define 'significant.'"

"Something like...like that you hated being the Chosen. And it can't be something stupid, like that...that you once slept with five women at once." Her face wrinkled in disgust. She couldn't believe she'd even planted that suggestion in his mind. "Ugh, I don't even want to think about that."

"Heheheh...jealous much?" Sheena raised her fist at him - damn it, couldn't he drop the stupid act for five minutes? - and he lifted his hands protectively. "Whoa, whoa, I'm only kidding. And Sheena, I really had no idea that your mind dwelled so much in the gutter like this." He grinned, the mischievous, lecherous twinkle back in his eyes. "I like it."

To her dismay, Sheena felt herself blushing again. "That's only because I was forced to hang around you the past few months, you pervert! Now, do we have a deal or not?"

Zelos lifted his head, looking down his nose at her, and folded his arms to his chest. "Hmm. One more question first."

She rolled her eyes. 'Yes' or 'No' would be too simple for him, wouldn't it? "Yes?"

"Who gets to decide if what I tell you counts as 'significant'?"

Well, duh. "I do."

"So I don't get my dance until you get your secret."

She nodded. Seemed fair to her. "Yup."

He looked away, and Sheena thought she heard him sigh but it was so soft she wasn't sure. She watched him as he considered it a minute, but then he nodded curtly before looking back at her, his blue eyes intense and piercing again. "Fine. Deal."

She returned his nod and did her best not to think about what she'd just agreed to for fear she'd smack herself for giving him what he wanted. Remember, Sheena, she told herself, a dance only lasts a few minutes. No biggie. If you're lucky, the secret you get in return will be worth it. Even Zelos admitted this could be great blackmail material for them both. Granted, she would rather only she had blackmail material on him, but she would live. Or she would use the Mizuho Information Network to dig something up on him. "Deal."

They fell silent a moment while Zelos watched the sky, and she eyed him curiously, waiting. Without warning, his lips curled upward. "Well, see, this one time these five women suddenly tackled me out of the blue, and...ow!"

Sheena smacked his arm, hard, utterly disgusted at both him for his stupidity and perverseness and at herself for being gullible enough to believe he'd been serious that the nefarious Chosen wouldn't be making an appearance tonight. Damn it, he always did this to her, and she hated it. Whenever she thought she was getting somewhere with him, he'd throw in a stupid sexual comment or poke fun at her. "Agh, you are impossible!"

His eyes widened and he lifted his hands defensively, laughing. "Whoa, whoa! It's a joke, hun! I'm only kidding!" She smacked him again, wanting to wipe that horrid, smug, amused smirk off his face, even as she realized this idiot truly wasn't worth her effort. No, she should just turn and walk away and give up the futile notion of ever getting anything real from him because constantly being furious at him like this couldn't possibly be good for her health. It wasn't like she ever needed to see him again. She could completely disown him now that they'd saved the world; that would certainly be the wisest, healthiest choice. "Hey, it was your idea!"

She smacked his arm again, hard enough to bruise. "Don't blame me for your idiocy, you pervert!"

Zelos continued chuckling as he watched her fume, and he caught her fist before she could slug him again. She tried to yank her hand free, but he held it firmly - and with his Cruxis Crystal, she didn't stand a chance against his strength. Damn it, why did he always play games with her like this? "Sorry, sorry, I couldn't help myself," he said, thankfully toning down his laughter.

Her blood was boiling; Sheena could feel it. She tried again to yank her hand free, and that time he let her go. Folding her arms to her chest, she gritted her teeth, barely restraining herself from unleashing another barrage of punches and permanently injuring him. Constantly being caught off guard by him was humiliating. Well, she'd learned her lesson. She would never repeat that mistake. On the bright side, at least the dance was now a moot point since he'd just broken his end of the deal.

She turned away, her arms still folded tightly to her chest, embracing her anger, disappointment, and disgust. "I should've known. You can't even be serious for five minutes, can you?" She shot him a murderous glare.

To her surprise, Zelos immediately stopped laughing and his grin became cold and almost challenging as he met her glare, all traces of humor now gone. "If that's what you sincerely believe, then there's no reason for us to continue this conversation."

And just like that, it hit her. Zelos was giving them both an out. She'd been the one pushing to unbury his 'secrets,' and he was escorting her to an exit by providing a legitimate reason for her to turn and walk away. It was merely his damned defense mechanisms at work again, perhaps a final attempt to resurrect his walls...and really, she realized, his attempt hadn't even been that good since he had just repeated what she'd said earlier rather than weaving some grandiose tale of his sexual misadventures. Given that, she'd be damned if she gave up without a fight, not when she was so close. Heck, they even had a deal in place.

Sheena took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down, and exhaled slowly before shooting him another glare. "Fine. I'm listening." She pointed sharply at him. "But no more funny stuff."

His remaining grin faded into nothingness, and his eyes...she could see something lurking there, but what? It definitely wasn't humor, despite his words; in fact, his tone actually betrayed a sincere threat laced with no lightness or jocularity. "Be careful what you wish for, babe. You might just get it. And you might not like what you get."

Her glare faltered, taken aback by his sincerity, and her heart pounded faster. He was truly warning her what might happen if she held her ground and dug. But he was procrastinating, too, and that was gaining no favors with her nearly exhausted patience. Was he really planning on telling her something real or was their banter just going to continue for an hour? And despite her surprise at his threat, she was still mad about his last joke.

She gritted her teeth and looked away, shaking her head disgustedly. "I swear, Zelos, why am I even bothering with this?"

Sheena could feel him continue watching her, but she didn't look at him because she wasn't asking him that; she was asking herself that, testing herself to see whether she really wanted to continue this game he'd started that wasn't getting them anywhere. Unsurprisingly, Zelos turned, leaned on one hand on the railing, and threw that right back at her. "Yes, why are you bothering with this, really?"

She met his scrutinizing gaze. He was giving her every opportunity to back out, and she'd already admitted this was pointless because he just kept procrastinating. Getting anything real out of him, after all, was like pulling teeth from a screaming six-year-old - something she'd already done in Mizuho, and it wasn't fun. Heck, she'd had the bite marks for a week to prove it. So that was the question. Why was she doing this? And the answer was out of her mouth before she could consider why it had become such a compulsion for her and why she refused to let it drop now like she always had before. "Because I'm curious."

Zelos held her gaze, but he had no smile on his face, leaving him looking very cold and calculating again. He was making sure she really wanted this. And that was the thing - she did. In fact, she wanted it more now than she had before. The way he was dragging his feet...it indicated something truly significant was hiding behind this, that once he completely lowered his guard, nothing would ever be the same again. She wasn't sure what awaited her on the other side, and according to him, she 'might not like it,' but really, what did she have to lose? "You know what they say, dearest. Curiosity killed the cat."

Sheena unflinchingly returned his gaze, arching a smug eyebrow. "Then it's a good thing I'm a ninja, not a cat, huh?"

He cracked a wry grin. "No, you're a tigress with a perpetual thirst for my blood," he muttered, but then his grin vanished and both his face and his voice softened. With a sigh, he turned to lean on the railing, looking out at the night sky. "And for the record, my little joke before was meant to buy myself some time to figure out which secret to share. So if you're really serious about this, be patient and give me a minute." His sudden honesty surprised her, and she nodded faintly, watching his gaze venture down to his glass. Her eyes narrowed as he observed it, absently swirling its contents, unsmiling. Something about him was striking her, but she couldn't pinpoint what. He almost seemed nervous and...uncomfortable? Before she could consider that, though, he smirked again half-heartedly. "Heh. Now I almost wish I had real champagne."

She blinked as his meaning registered: he wanted it because it would loosen his tongue. And without warning, Sheena realized that whatever Zelos was considering telling her, it was hard for him. Maybe he really was serious about this. The thought excited her, even as she wondered just what 'secret' could be this difficult to reveal. She softened, her earlier anger abating. "If you want, I could go get you some. I remember seeing some next door."

He chuckled. "No, that's all right, I'll live," he said, then gave her a faint smile. "But thanks for the offer, babe."

She took a step closer as he returned his attention to his glass, playing with it. He was becoming fidgety, which confirmed her hunch about how difficult this was for him. And suddenly, she wondered if whatever he was about to tell her, he had ever told anybody before. That thought, too, excited her. "Listen, Zelos, you know you can trust me, right? Whatever you say will stay with me."

He half grinned. "I'm not worried about you keeping my secrets, Sheena." His eyebrows rose expectantly. "You already said you'd swallow a thousand needles if you told someone."

She nodded curtly. "And I still mean that."

He returned her nod and looked away, his grin falling. "Actually, I'm more concerned that you'll believe anything I say in the first place."

Really? "Give me a shot. I'd like to think I'm pretty good at deciphering the truth. I am a ninja, after all, and we're nothing if not perceptive."

"Maybe. But that never stopped you from missing the truth before."

Guilt tugged at her, and her face grew warmer. The worst part of that was that he was right. Before the Tower of Salvation, she had dismissed all the signals that something was wrong with him because discerning the truth past all his innuendo and teasing was simply too uncomfortable. Dismissing him as an idiot was easier - and maybe that was exactly what he'd wanted to do, divert her attention from the truth. But after his betrayal...no, Sheena refused to let him fool her again like that. At least not for long, and definitely not at the expense of discovering the truth.

"No, you're right, it didn't." Mirroring his stance, she leaned against the rail on her elbows, a little closer to him than she normally would to tell him she wouldn't run, no matter what he threw at her. "But I know what to look for now. You won't get things past me as easily anymore."

"Lucky me." Zelos sighed, then peered at her from the corner of his eye. "Look, whatever I might say, do me a favor and agree now that you won't pity me. I don't want it, and I won't accept it. My choices are, and always have been, my choices, no one else's. If you try it, I will walk away from this."

Her eyes widened. Just what was he planning to tell her? She quickly nodded, though, because while it surprised her, she could understand it, too. She felt the same way about her own past. "Okay. No pity."

He returned her nod. "And whatever I may say, don't expect me to ever repeat it. I'll only say this once, and tomorrow I will deny this conversation ever happened." Abruptly, he looked directly at her, his face set. "Those are my conditions."

That time her nod was more tentative, but if he'd let her set her own conditions before, then he was entitled to do the same. "All right."

"Good." Satisfied, Zelos turned away, his eyes falling, but then he sighed again and looked up at the sky. "Ah, what the hell," he whispered, more to himself than to her. "It's not like I have a whole lot left to lose anymore anyway." Suddenly, he cleared his throat. "So. Remember when I betrayed you guys at the Tower of Salvation?"

Instinctively, Sheena stiffened. It was a bad memory even now that she knew he had ultimately been on their side. He'd played them all for the fool, and his words at the time had been harsh - even if he'd only said them to gain Pronyma's trust. He'd betrayed their trust so badly, and it had hurt, deeply. She despised traitors more than anything, and that time, having it be him...she'd come pretty close to hating him for it. Even now, not knowing if he'd ever do something like that again...while she may have never trusted him with his hands, she had trusted him with her life. Battling beside him for so long had built that kind of trust. They watched each others' backs. And then he'd done that to them. She'd believed him then, too, that he really had sided with Cruxis. And then the idiot had saved her... Even then, though, she'd felt the vice on her heart only begin lifting after he'd set her down on solid ground, she'd smacked him hard several times, and he'd hurriedly explained his plan and told her how to find Mithos and help Lloyd save Colette. And for the first time seeing his brilliant, fiery, orange wings, an inevitable byproduct of being the Chosen...it had knocked the wind from her sails by distracting her and making her wonder when he'd gotten them, if he'd had them before their journey or only after retrieving his Cruxis Crystal from Seles, and what other angel side effects he'd endured - or would yet endure - as his crystal grew in power. And had Altessa made him an appropriate key crest so it wouldn't harm him as it had Colette? Oh, how she hoped so.

But she was getting distracted again. She nodded, remembering his question. "Of course I do."

He watched her another moment before looking away again; hopefully he hadn't noticed her momentary lapse into weakness at the memory. "The truth is, I didn't decide who to side with until a minute before I went off with Pronyma." Sheena's head snapped sharply at him, but he just let out a soft, almost self-deprecating laugh. "Betraying you guys wasn't as easy of a decision as I'd expected it to be. When Cruxis first approached me and asked me to hand them Colette, the only person I knew who was involved in the affair was you, and you'd been sent to kill her. So of course I agreed, especially when Mithos promised to make Seles the Chosen instead of me. But then we traveled together, and I got to know everyone, and I realized that what Lloyd was trying to do would get me what I wanted, too, and they accepted me even though I made no real effort to be their friend...and yet I couldn't back out of my deal with Mithos without being killed myself, and leaking information to the Renegades got me real information about Mithos's plans in return, so I couldn't back out there, either..." He shook his head. "Everything was a jumbled mess. All I knew was that I wanted to get rid of that damned title. No matter which side won, that would be the end result. But if I threw my loyalty to the wrong side..."

Ah, right. Hearing his uncertainty over a decision that was so obvious to her was disturbing, but she saw what he was getting at. She'd actually had to make the same choice when the King had asked her to assassinate Colette in exchange for improved relations with Mizuho. "You'd be labeled a traitor and be killed, never achieving your end."

Zelos nodded. "Exactly. So I played all three sides as long as I could. I mean, I'm nothing if not an opportunist, right?" He chuckled softly, but Sheena didn't join him. True or not, she found nothing humorous in that - and really, based on its half-heartedness, neither did he. "But when Mithos finally revealed himself as Yggdrasill, and Kratos asked me to get the aionis for Lloyd, and Lloyd decided it was time to attack Cruxis, I knew I had to make my choice, and that meant betraying somebody. Trying to figure out who was most likely to win, though..." He sighed. "Everything told me to side with Cruxis. Y'know, get the problem remedied right at the top. And you have to admit, they had the firepower and numbers and history behind them to make them Most Likely Candidate To Succeed. Sure, I wasn't thrilled with the whole twisted 'World of Lifeless Beings' Mithos had stuck in his head, and I preferred Lloyd's vision of a world with no discrimination or segregation, and to top it off, I actually liked Lloyd and all you guys, but if Cruxis was destined to win, then what could I do to swing the balance of power? But the thought of betraying you guys...I could never get comfortable with it."

Sheena smiled faintly. While she had trouble believing he'd ever considered truly betraying them, she already knew how this story ended. He had sided with them, and they had won because of him, and he had gotten what he wanted for himself in the process. "Well, I'm glad to hear you're not a completely calloused, selfish, manipulative bastard."

"Your vote of confidence in me is oh-so-inspiring, my dear banshee," he said, shooting her a brief but wry grin. "But making that choice was...well, it was probably the most difficult decision I've ever made. I kept envisioning every possible scenario, where things could go wrong and what potential problems could arise that would wreck my plans. What happened if I sided with you guys but I couldn't get my hands on the aionis? What if Cruxis killed Colette before I could stop it? What if those traps killed you guys before I could save you, assuming Pronyma let me out of her sight long enough to help you? Siding with Mithos was the most straightforward answer because there were far fewer chances for things to go wrong. And, to be honest, I think I'd pretty much decided to side with them. Like I said, I side with the winning team. That's always been my philosophy in life, and it's always served me well, and at that point, it looked like only they stood any chance of winning. I mean, eight people, no matter how determined and stubborn you guys were, against Yggdrasill himself and his thousands of angel minions?"

"But obviously you still had your doubts." She refused to think too hard about his reasoning for fear she'd end up smacking him again for his stupidity and selfishness, something that was definitely inappropriate given the fact that he actually was being honest for a change. "And ultimately, you chose correctly since we were the winning team."

He nodded again. "Maybe, but hindsight's 20-20. Nothing is clear when you're living in the moment. I knew better than to get attached to any of you, and doing so should have been easy for me when I'd been aiming for that all along. But then as we were leaving Flanoir that morning, Lloyd told me he trusted me, despite everything I'd done to make him not trust me short of telling him I was a triple agent, and he's so earnest that I believed him, and I started having second thoughts. By the time Kratos contacted me later on to ask for my decision, the pendulum had shifted. I told him I'd do it, even though I still doubted I could make it happen considering everything that could go wrong. When we reached the Tower, though...well, the pendulum had shifted again. I wasn't sure I could go through with it. I didn't want to sacrifice what I thought was my only surefire chance to be rid of the title if Yggdrasill killed Lloyd, which was a definite possibility, but I didn't want to betray you guys to do it, either. So I did the only thing I could: I flipped a coin and let it decide for me."

Without warning, a memory struck her, and Sheena couldn't help smiling. "Wait...I remember that. You were playing with that coin just outside the Tower."

Zelos grinned at her. "Thought you might. Hard to forget someone getting five orbs in a row, right?"

She chuckled. At the time, she'd had no idea there was actual meaning behind that beyond his just being bored and killing time, but she remembered her awe as he'd repeatedly flipped it and it landed the same every time. Even Genis and Regal had expressed their surprise at the likelihood, which led to a heated discussion about odds, with Presea rattling off numerous statistics for them, until Raine had smacked Genis and told them to focus. "So orbs meant you were siding with us?"

The grin vanished. "Nope. Crowns meant I was siding with you guys. Orbs meant I was siding with Cruxis."

Her face fell. "Oh."

"Yeah," he agreed. "After the first one came up, I decided to go with two out of three. Then, at the next one, three out of five, until next I knew, I had five orbs and no crowns. I mean, really, what are the odds of that? But anyway, so fate seemed to be telling me, in no uncertain terms, who to side with, and since I'd given fate permission to decide, I went with it. Whatever will be, will be."

Wow. He really had come close to betraying them all for good, hadn't he? But still, the end result spoke for itself. They wouldn't be standing there if it didn't, and that was why, while she was still pissed that he'd betrayed them at all, she'd grudgingly forgiven him and not argued when he'd rejoined them. "So what changed your mind?"

Zelos flashed her a brief grin. "Oddly enough, you guys did, and you didn't even realize it. Colette trusted me without question, which isn't saying much since she trusts everyone, but it was still something. Lloyd reiterated, again, that he still trusted me, even after I'd betrayed you guys. And you...you said..." He looked down at his glass awkwardly, almost shyly. "Well, you said what you said. And for perhaps the only time in my life, I said, screw fate."

Sheena blushed and looked away, unsure how to respond. She hadn't even realized what she'd said at the time until afterwards, that beneath the pervert, she'd never doubted he was a good person, but she'd definitely meant it. If that had helped influence his decision at all, then she didn't regret it. Apparently even words said carelessly and in anger could impact the outcome of something.

"Against all odds, you guys truly trusted me. I...I'd never had that before. I'd given up long ago ever believing I'd have real friends, that the people around me only cared about my title, but Lloyd and the rest of you were different. You were so...real. And believe me, I've lived around nobles enough to see what's real and what's not. And so, even though I'd promised myself long ago that I'd never put my faith in anyone but myself, that time I did. I had to trust you guys to follow through, that you were strong enough to win, and I'd do my part. And you were." Zelos swirled his half-full glass, watching it closely. "Heh. At that point, I never could've gone through with really siding with Cruxis anyway. I've always been good at conveniently ignoring guilt, but I never could've lived with myself after that. That's why the alternative..."

Her eyes narrowed as his voice trailed off. "What was your alternative? If you'd sided with Cruxis, not us?" He shot her an awkward smile, but then quickly looked away again. "Zelos?"

He released a low sigh. "I would've stayed behind after Pronyma left and stopped you guys from following her."

Sheena stared at him, his words initially refusing to register, but once they had, her lips parted in shock and horror. "You would've fought us?"

"Yep. I would've fought you."

No. She couldn't accept that. "By yourself."

Zelos nodded but still didn't look at her. "By myself."

She gaped at him. She wasn't hearing this. She wasn't. "You're not serious, right? Please tell me you're joking."

He chuckled softly. "'Fraid not, hun. That was my plan."

No. She couldn't accept it. She couldn't. She needed to hear him say this was merely another one of his bad jokes. "Zelos...you would have died! You never would have won! Lloyd would have killed you! You saw what he did single-handedly to Kratos! Kratos couldn't even fight again after that!"

He nodded curtly. "I know that. I knew that then, too, but I guess I thought I at least had a slim chance. I mean, I did have my Cruxis Crystal by then, right?" He laughed half-heartedly and finally looked at her again, but Sheena could only gape at him, and any lingering smile on his face instantly vanished. "Don't look at me like that, Sheena. You're right, I would have died. But tell me, in the grand scheme of things, would it really have mattered?" She blinked at him again, so stunned by his words and his utter seriousness that she couldn't respond. He sighed again before quickly continuing. "My entire life has been worthless, a giant, cosmic joke. Everyone wants a piece of me, not because of me, but because of who I am, because of that damned title. Nobody has ever cared what I wanted. I'm the only one who's ever looked out for me; I'm the only one I could ever trust to look out for me. And you know what? At that point, I was just tired of it all, of being pulled in every direction when someone needed something from the Chosen. I wanted it to end, and if the only way to get it was death, then death it was."

Urgency and fear overwhelmed her, and Sheena grabbed his arm tightly. No. She needed to hear him say he wasn't serious and that nothing like that would ever happen again. "You don't...Zelos, tell me you don't still believe that!"

"Of course not," he said. "I don't regret choosing the side I did. It worked, and the end result is still the same, only better since the title itself will be abolished, meaning Seles won't be stuck with it either. She may have wanted it, and I would've happily given it to her, but I never would've wanted her to suffer because of it."

Well, that was good, but still...Sheena still couldn't believe what he was saying. All that time he'd had a death wish? Had he really been suffering that badly? The very thought of this narcissistic, happy-go-lucky jokester wanting to die and especially that no one knew it, not even his closest friends, twisted at her heart. How could they have missed it? How could she have missed it? "But I thought you refused to side with the losing team because doing so meant your death. How was this any different?"

Zelos gave her a sad smile. "Like I said, babe, if I had truly betrayed you guys, I never could've lived with myself. I would've fought you to prove a point, and I would've been relieved when it was over. Even though I never did anything to deserve your trust, I still wanted it. And if I hadn't had it...well, it would've proven a point about how worthless and unwanted I really was. In some ways, it would've been easier if you hadn't trusted and believed in me. But you did. And I'm grateful for it, because now...now I get to live the life I always wanted."

Sheena swallowed hard as relief crept through her, and she finally released his arm, satisfied. Good. She had no idea how she could have changed his mind if he still had a death wish or if she didn't sense his sincere relief of having a future worth looking forward to. "And you know you have friends now, right? Real friends, who couldn't care less about your title?"

He offered her another smile, and that time it appeared sincere and relaxed. "Yeah. I know that now."

"And you know that no matter how much you annoy us - me - sometimes, you're not worthless, right?" she pressed. "That just because Tethe'alla never needed its Chosen to fulfill his role doesn't mean we don't all value you and are glad you're alive?"

His eyes drifted over her face, his smile fading. "Yeah. I know that, too."

After a moment, they both looked away, and Sheena took advantage of the silence to process everything. From the corner of her eye, she looked at his chest where his Cruxis Crystal was embedded, hidden beneath his formal clothes, and then closed her eyes. He would have really done it. He would have attacked them. And he never would have won, even with his angel powers strengthening him. They would have killed him. He would have been lying there, bloody and dying, right before her eyes...her gut twisted painfully. She couldn't handle that mental image. What if she had landed the final blow? She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to push the image away as nausea suddenly struck, but it kept returning - and she realized that even though events hadn't played out like that, the horrible image of something that had been a minute away from happening would haunt her for a long, long time. If only a few things had happened differently, if only Lloyd hadn't said what he'd said, if only she hadn't said what she'd said...

"A lot of people would've been sad, you know," she said, struggling to keep her voice steady. "Not just me- I mean, Lloyd and the rest of us."

She blushed at her slip, but Zelos didn't seem to notice it. "I wish I could agree with that, but I can't. I can still think of plenty of people who would've been delighted I was gone."

...What? He, Mr. Look-At-Me, Mr. Popularity, Mr. I-Am-All-That, didn't really believe that, did he? "What about Sebastian? Your 'hunnies'? The royal family? What about Seles and the rest of your family?"

He shook his head. "Sebastian...I'll give you that one. He's always been like family to me, probably even more than my real family ever was. But my hunnies?" A scornful, disgusted laugh escaped his lips. "Oh, they'd mourn me for a week and then find some other rich, powerful hunk to drool over. The royal family? I'm nothing but a threat to them because of my power. I'm untouchable, and they know it and resent it. Don't let their throwing me a party tell you otherwise; they just want to be on my good side so I'll side with them if necessary. They tolerate and listen to me because they have to, but they don't like me, and the same can be said about the Church and every other noble in Meltokio - not that I can really blame them. It's not like I've tried to change their minds about me. And Seles and the rest of my family? Don't even get me started on them."

To Sheena's confusion, she thought he almost looked mad as he fell silent and turned to observe the night sky. His expression was so atypical that it held her fascinated. She waited for him to expound on that, but even after a minute he hadn't said anything, and eventually curiosity got the better of her. "What about your family? Seles might irritate me, but I do know she cares about you. And I'm sure if your parents were alive, your death would've upset them, too."

Zelos laughed disgustedly. "Yeah, right. That's funny, Sheena."

She blinked at him. "Why is it funny? I wasn't joking." He shook his head but didn't answer. "Zelos?"

He sighed, but his tension and barely restrained anger still lingered as his eyes lifted to the moon. "Sorry, babe, but my family history isn't included in this secret. That's a completely different one. And I think I've more than earned my dance already, don't you?"

Sheena blushed at the reminder of why he was doing this: to get a dance with her. She had to admit, though, that what he'd just told her far exceeded her expectations. And really, in that regard, he had a point. "Well, yeah, but...I'd still like to hear more."

Zelos turned and observed her again through narrowed eyes, her blush deepening when she realized he still bore no smile on his face. Seeing him like this, so scrutinizing and serious, was unnerving. After what she'd just learned, though...well, she couldn't leave it hanging without at least trying to get more from him. She wanted to know now...but the quickness and thoroughness with which he'd clammed up made it clear he really didn't want to talk about this subject.

And suddenly, an idea hit her. She wasn't sure it was a good one, but it did seem appropriate. Sheena looked away, feeling his eyes continue watching her. She couldn't believe she was inviting this, but if it worked... Her fingers trailed over the metal railing. "Out of curiosity, how much would that secret cost me?"

She glanced back at him in time to see him smirk; just as she'd figured, he was considering it now that he had incentive. He still took longer to respond than she expected - she'd expected him to jump on the chance to get even more from her - but that just indicated that he really didn't want to discuss this...something that just made her want to poke further. She could almost see his mental gears turning as he searched for something worth enduring this apparent discomfort.

Finally, he leaned closer to her. "I would say...that one will cost more than the last one."

Uh oh. Sheena met his eyes, startlingly blue even in the pale moonlight, but she refused to be distracted by his insinuations. "How much?"

His smirk broadened. "Well, let's see here. That particular secret will cost you...oh, let's say...one date."

Sheena cringed and looked away, her face flushing further. One dance? No problem, especially after what she'd just learned about him. That secret had been worth it, and she would willingly pay up. But one date? A dance lasted minutes. A date lasted hours. And obviously this date wouldn't happen tonight because it was already too late to do anything, which meant it would be not with this man, Zelos Wilder, but with the Idiot Chosen, seeing as Zelos had already promised he'd be back from his 'mental holiday' by morning. And a date with the Idiot Chosen...well, that guaranteed groping and leering galore and pranks and inappropriate jokes - basically the opposite of their current conversation. The thought of enduring that for hours...well, it couldn't be worse than their journey together, right? Although with no one else around to curtail his wandering eyes and hands, it could be. But the way he'd clammed up about his family seemed to indicate something lurked behind there that might just be worth it. Should she try it? Was it worth several hours of annoyance and discomfort? Judging from his last 'secret,' yes, it would be. And really, what she'd already learned about him...well, she already knew his act was flashier than she'd thought. The real Zelos was more somber and serious - and, shockingly, insecure - than she'd ever imagined. And if she could somehow lure out this guy past the Idiot Chosen façade...the thought of a single date with him wasn't as unappealing as she'd expected.

But she would worry about what the future held when the time arose. Focus on the secret you'll get, not on the cost, she instructed herself. "Fine. Deal. One date. But my earlier conditions still apply. Nothing inappropriate, and the secret has to be significant."

He nodded curtly. "Deal. And my earlier conditions still apply, too."

No pity, and no expecting him to ever acknowledge this again. She could handle that. "Fine."

Zelos looked away, released a low sigh, and fell silent again. That time she knew to curtail her impatience, though; she could already see this was hard for him, and she didn't want to lose him or draw out his procrastinating, perverted defense mechanisms again by pushing. He would tell her eventually - she didn't doubt that - and finally, he took a deep breath and began. "All right. Well, you already know my parents are dead, right?"

Everyone in Tethe'alla knew that. "Right?"

"Well, did you ever hear how they died?"

Sheena bit her lip, searching her memory. She and Zelos had known each other for years, having often run into each other in Meltokio and Sybak, some encounters decent and others...not so much - years later, she still wanted to strangle him for that shower incident - and thus they had eventually became friends. In fact, at the start, they'd actually been pretty good friends. She'd liked him well enough - he'd only been a few years older than her and had always been nice, polite, charming, and helpful - and he'd been one of the only friends she, a not-so-well-liked ninja from Mizuho, had in those two towns. Then the shower thing happened, though, and not long after that he'd grown progressively obnoxious, egotistical, rude, and crude and had started poking fun at everything about her until one day she realized she couldn't stand him anymore. She had no idea why he'd changed or what she'd done to cause it - since his attitude hadn't changed toward everyone else, she'd had no choice but to take it personally, leaving her feeling even more miserable, alone, and insecure than before she'd met him - and without understanding it, she hadn't known how to fix it, especially when every effort she'd made had just resulted in Zelos throwing another insult her way.

Ultimately, she'd had no choice but to write him off as a self-centered, arrogant, childish, perverted jerk - a choice that had hurt all the more because they had once been good friends. Their fallout had always grated on her nerves, and those feelings of hurt and resentment had just gotten worse during their journey with Lloyd when she'd seen, yet again, that Zelos singled her out for his ridiculous games. Sure, he occasionally flirted with Colette and Raine, but he almost seemed fixated on her and on making her feel stupid and like a sexual object. She knew she wasn't helping matters by always taking the bait, getting mad at him, and giving him the attention he craved, but damn it, the hurt and anger when it came to him, especially after losing his friendship like that, made him impossible to ignore. Losing a friend always hurt, especially when she'd never really had any growing up, and it had hurt doubly when the reason behind it remained unknown. Had she upset him somehow? Had he simply changed overnight into someone she didn't recognize? Or had she done something stupid to deserve his mocking? She wanted an explanation, and she'd never be satisfied until she received one, even if finding a way to ask him directly had so far proven impossible. She repeatedly told herself he was just an idiot and, therefore, wasn't worth worrying over, but that hadn't stopped her heart from aching every time he'd poked fun at her. Even now, years later, Sheena missed that old friend dearly; no matter what she did, it seemed, that wound refused to heal. In fact, that was probably why she always felt so vulnerable around him, leaving her wide open to his attacks - and why she still jumped every time she saw an inkling of the old him peeking through, trying to see if that friend was still buried in him somewhere or if it was just a fluke, even though time had taught her that doing so would get her nowhere.

But regardless of their rift and her lingering feelings of hurt and resentment from it, no, she didn't remember Zelos ever confiding in her about what happened to his parents back when they'd been good friends. "No, I never heard the details beyond that they were both murdered."

"Didn't think so." He sighed, then cleared his throat. "Well, my father was the Chosen, and he was tortured and killed when I was five by some fanatical Church of Martel haters. They were eventually caught and executed, but not before he'd died. I wish I could say that bothered me, but other than the warning it served of what could happen to me if I wasn't careful, it didn't. Before that, I'd only met him a grand total of one time, at some ceremony to introduce me as Tethe'alla's next Chosen. I remember not understanding what a 'father' was or why I should care about him other than knowing he was supposed to be 'important' in my life, so when I met him that night, I didn't know what to expect. It was actually kind of scary, and nothing he did changed that. All I remember was this man with my red hair and blue eyes looking down at me with this cold, blank face, and when the Pope introduced me to him, all he said was, 'Oh.' Not 'Hey, kid, how're you doing?' or 'Nice to meet you,' or even an acknowledgement that I was his son; just 'Oh.' I just clung to my mother's leg - who, mind you, kept trying to shoo me away because she hated it when I touched her - until he walked away. He died two months later."

Sheena blinked at him. He was serious about that; his barely concealed anger and disappointment attested as much. "Why would he treat you like that?"

"Well, obviously, I can't ask him to know for sure, but I can hazard a guess," Zelos replied. "One, no one wants to get attached to a child who, should Sylvarant's Chosen have succeeded and Tethe'alla's status changed, was doomed to die. I'm guessing that's one reason why my mother never bothered much with me, either. And in his defense, the Chosen was forbidden to ever live with his 'official' children anyway, although 'illegitimate' children were fair game; if a natural disaster struck or someone attacked him, the Church couldn't risk having the entire lineage be killed at once. He just took that a step farther and wanted no contact with me whatsoever. But two, and probably the main reason, my parents never wanted me to be born. They only got married because the Church forced them to to preserve the mana lineage. In fact, my old man loved another woman - Seles's half-elf mother - enough to have a kid with her. And if you were in that position, which child would you favor?" Zelos glanced at her, but Sheena could only watch him wide-eyed. "Don't worry, I won't make you answer that. And I know my mother felt the same because she never missed an opportunity to make me feel unwanted and like a nuisance. I suspect she had another lover, too. The Church ripped her from her home, dumped her in Meltokio, and forced her to reproduce with my father to carry out 'Martel's wishes,' hence my unwanted existence in their lives."

Sheena had never seen him this sardonic before, and that startled her as deeply as his words horrified her. She was starting to understand his earlier warning that she 'might not like' what she got if he was truly serious with her. For a moment, she almost wanted the lighthearted, idiotic, childish Zelos back, not this bitter, hurt man who barely resembled the man she'd always known. "I...I refuse to believe that, Zelos. No mother could hate their own child."

His eyebrows rose, but his face bore no trace of humor. "You want to bet on that, babe? Because I guarantee you mine did. She was miserable, being trapped raising a child she never wanted, and she blamed that misery on me."

No. She wouldn't accept that. "You can't possibly know that."

He released another disgusted laugh. "Actually, I can. Just wait; you'll see. So a year or two later, it was the first snowfall I'd ever seen in Meltokio - and we're not just talking a light dusting, but Flanoir-like quantities. I was so excited that I dragged my mother out to build a snowman. She didn't want to go - kept fussing with her hair and complaining about the cold and saying there was a reason noblewomen stayed inside whenever it snowed - but I insisted. And believe me, I could be stubborn as hell as a kid."

She couldn't help a small smile from forming on her lips. "I guess some things never change, huh?"

She'd hoped that might lighten his mood a little, but he remained lost in the memory and just nodded absently at her comment. "Guess not. So anyway, I was making this snowman when suddenly this flash came from behind some trees. The snowman fell apart, and the falling snow turned red...blood red." Sheena swallowed as he paused, observing his glass and swirling his not-champagne, but she didn't say anything. "My father's mistress decided she wanted Seles to be the Chosen, not me, and so she attacked me, trying to kill me...only she missed and hit my mother instead. And as my mother fell dying, she...she grabbed my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said..."

His voice trailed off, the look in his eyes frighteningly intense, and Sheena scooted a little closer to him. "Zelos?"

He lifted his eyes back to the sky. "She said, 'You should never have been born.' She spent her last moments of life cursing my existence." Zelos suddenly smirked as he noticed Sheena gaping at him, her mind futilely trying to process that. "Like I said, babe, she hated me and blamed me for her misery, and she was never afraid to tell me that."

Sheena blinked at him, floored and speechless and utterly horrified. As if watching his mother die wasn't bad enough, her final words had been that? She didn't want to believe it...and yet she couldn't not believe it either, not when Zelos looked back at his glass, his smirk giving way to very obvious, very real pain. No, not even Zelos would ever joke about that, and especially not right then. But her mind couldn't comprehend how anyone could be so cruel to anyone, let alone her own son. Sheena had always thought his mother had looked pleasant enough in her portrait in his mansion, albeit a little cold, but now...loathing and disgust seeped into her. And what Zelos must have gone through, undoubtedly a typical, impressionable child at the time who only wanted love and acceptance, and then being rejected like that by his own mother, for reasons he would never understand...

"Great Jizou," she whispered. "That's...how could...how could anyone do that to an innocent child? To their own child? Zelos, I can't even imagine what you..."

Zelos shook his head sharply, but he didn't look at her. "You promised no pity, remember? I don't want it, Sheena. It happened. It's done. I can't change it. She died because of me, because of my existence, and that's just how it is."

"But none of that was your fault! You didn't ask to be born. None of us did. And you did nothing to cause it." She gasped as another horrible thought struck her. "Please tell me you don't still blame yourself for..."

The intensity in his eyes as they snapped to hers silenced her. "Do you still blame yourself for what happened to Mizuho when you first met Volt?"

She quickly looked away, her cheeks growing warm. "I...of course I do, but..."

"...But you now know you couldn't have stopped it, right?" he finished for her. "That you never could've understood an ancient language that everyone had forgotten, including your fellow ninjas, until Raine interpreted him for you?"

Sheena sighed. They weren't supposed to be talking about her and her own tragic past, but then, she understood what he was saying. "Yeah, I know that now."

"And you've accepted it, right?"

She nodded reluctantly. That was one of many things she'd learned during their journey - that sometimes bad things just happened, and sometimes others chose to step in and save you, no matter the cost, because of how deeply they cared about you and believed in you. Corrine was proof of that. In a sense, Zelos was, too, since he'd saved her life at the Otherworldly Gate even though, at the time, she'd nearly hated him for it - and even though he'd been with Cruxis at the time and they'd probably frowned severely upon his actions. While Sheena would always hold herself responsible for so many dying because of her, she wanted to think she'd begun making up for it by helping reunite the worlds and by agreeing to one day lead Mizuho as its chief. "It's a part of my past, and I won't let it drag me down or try to run from it anymore, if that's what you mean."

Zelos nodded curtly. "Same here. For a long time, I believed her - that I was worthless, that I shouldn't exist, that I'd caused her death. It's taken time, but I think I'm starting to move past that. Lloyd convinced me I wasn't completely worthless, that I deserved to live, that he valued my life. You guys all did. My mother resented me, but I didn't do anything to cause that. She hated me before I was even conceived. That's just how it was, and nothing I did could have changed that. And while I'm not sure I'll ever completely put that behind me, I'm at least in a better place with it, because for awhile there, I sure wasn't."

It hit her. "That's why you wanted to die," she stated.

"One of many reasons, yep," he said. "That, and because I knew Seles couldn't stand me after the Church executed her mother for the murder and imprisoned her in that abbey, and because she always wanted to be the Chosen instead of me. My death would've given her what she wanted."

Sheena looked at him incredulously. "But she never would've wanted you to die for that to happen."

He swallowed hard and looked down at his glass. "Yeah. I know that now, too."

Good. At least they'd worked out that much. But still, while the siblings had reached an understanding after that coliseum fiasco, his sister was clearly still a sore subject for him. Maybe it was time to change tactics a little? "So that's why you always hated Flanoir, isn't it? Because of the snow?" He looked at her in mild surprise, and she smiled knowingly. "What, didn't think I noticed how tense you became and how you'd hide in your room instead of flirting with all the female residents? Well, I did."

Zelos grinned. "Heh. You're more perceptive than I thought."

Sheena shrugged that off because, really, it wasn't important. At least she'd diverted his focus from his sister. "Well, I'm just glad you've realized your life does have meaning, regardless of your parents' highly biased and questionable opinions."

"So am I, but it certainly took a long time to reach that point," he said, his grin falling. "I don't remember this myself, but Sebastian once told me I didn't talk for three months after my mother's death."

Her eyes widened. What? This chatterbox hadn't talked for three months as a child? She hadn't known that. But really... "Well, given the circumstances, I can't say I'm surprised. In fact, I'm more surprised you started talking again at all."

"Well, my silence probably would've lasted longer except the Pope caught wind of it and decided, with my old man dead by that point, they couldn't have the Chosen acting like that, so he sent a bishop to...take care of it."

Sheena blinked as he fell silent again. Huh? "'Take care of it'?"

Zelos sighed wearily. "The bishop told me no one wanted a Chosen who was always depressed; I had to suck it up and act cheerful, even if I didn't feel like that. It was all about my public image and giving the people what they wanted. No one wants to feel bad for their 'savior'; they want someone who's eager to sacrifice their life to save everyone else's because they're just that selfless. Admitting I didn't want to die for Tethe'alla would've been, in his words, 'a cardinal sin.' The Chosen was an idol, a mythical figure, a beacon of hope, and making others feel bad for me by being depressed over the crap in my life...well, the Church couldn't allow that. He didn't care if I was depressed when I was out of the public eye, but Heaven forbid I show even an ounce of sadness when others were around. So basically, whenever he saw me brooding out in public, he'd smack me with his staff to snap me out of it. Hard." Zelos released a self-deprecating laugh. "Heh. You would've been proud."

Sheena gaped at him, feeling like she'd swallowed a lead weight. Did he really view her like that, equating her smacking him to such a horrible childhood experience? Talk about conflicting messages; the bishop had smacked him to make him less serious and more cheerful and carefree, and she'd smacked him to make him more serious and less cheerful and carefree. So why the hell did Zelos keep agitating her so much when he knew how she'd react? "No, I wouldn't have!" she countered, her voice rising beyond her control. "Not when it came to physical abuse of a child, and especially not when it was because that child was just displaying basic human emotions! That's...that's inhuman! It's inexcusable!"

Zelos, however, just shrugged nonchalantly. "Maybe, but that's how it was. Anyway, that got me talking again pretty quickly. And honestly, after awhile I found he was right. People really did like me better when I acted happy and carefree and silly, whereas they avoided me like the plague when I felt sad because they didn't know how to act around me. When I was in a good mood, they flocked to me, especially the girls whose mothers wanted them to become friends with me in hopes I'd one day 'court' them. And if you were a child who didn't want to be treated like a doomed, despised freak of nature, which would you have picked? Being cheerful all the time, whether you felt it or not, or being depressed over something you couldn't control?"

Sheena swallowed hard as the pieces of his complex personality began fitting together. That was why he always acted so silly and wore the idiotic mask - not just because the Church told him to, but because he liked the results better. Any impressionable child with barely anything left in his life would choose that route. And everyone around him had just bought the act because they'd never cared enough to see the truth; they hadn't wanted to feel sorry for their 'savior' by finding out what was real and what was the mask. Oh, Zelos.

Knowing he didn't want pity, though - not that she pitied him, but Sheena wasn't sure how to distinguish her empathy as an outsider desiring acceptance from the pity it would have sounded like - she just nodded faintly. "But you were never truly happy, were you? Even if that's how it looked?"

He shook his head. "Not really, although I was eventually able to get over that, at least to an extent. Sebastian told me something once when I was young, and it always stuck with me. He said we can't choose or change our past, but we can choose our present, we can change our future, and we can control our reactions to everything that happens. That became one of my main philosophies in life. I hated being sad and depressed, but I liked being happy, and I realized that life, especially mine since I could've been killed at any moment, was too short to always be miserable. I wanted to enjoy everything I could of it. I didn't want to dwell on everything bad that happened. That doesn't help anyone - not others, not myself. I wanted to be happy. Things might happen outside my control, but I could always control whether I was happy. Whatever will be, will be. Y'know, take the good wherever you can get it, and ignore the bad when you can't change it. An easy life is the best life; don't work for what you can get for free; use whatever's necessary to accomplish your ends and be happy; etcetera, etcetera. So I made the choice to get what I could from those around me, and that meant controlling the view people had of me and making them underestimate me. If I had to conveniently forget about all that other crap and adopt the 'Chosen One' persona to make that happen, then so be it."

Those philosophies were something she had known about him for years. And really, Sheena hated to admit it, but his carefree happiness was something she'd actually envied at times; she could never adopt that mindset herself. It made sense, too, given what she now knew about him. All his life, Zelos had lived with a death threat hanging over his head, so it was only natural that he should learn to seize the moment for all he could get from it. No, she wasn't sure she could blame him for becoming who he had anymore. "That certainly explains your constant attitude. But what about you?"

His brows furrowed slightly. "What do you mean?"

"I mean..." She wasn't sure what she meant. But seeing him like this told her that his decision wasn't nearly as clear cut as it sounded. "Are you happy with that? I mean, really, truly happy?"

Zelos turned away and released another low sigh. "Sometimes. Sometimes I can forget all the crap and convince myself I'm the happy-go-lucky guy who doesn't have a care in the world, the one everyone adores, the greatest Chosen to ever walk Tethe'alla. But other times...it's tiring being a jokester all the time, always being happy, never having a serious conversation, and meticulously controlling everyone's image of me. It's tiring always giving the public what it wants and expects from me. I try not to think about my mother's dying words or the fact that I'm a worthless Chosen or that I can never make it all up to Seles, but there are times I can't stop it from happening anyway."

Sheena looked away, his words touching some strong nerves within her and tugging at her heartstrings. "You're always alone, even when others are with you. No family, no friends who know who you really are or what you're going through, no one to be close to..."

"Y'know, you're treading dangerously close to the pity line, babe." She looked sharply at him, her eyes widening in sudden panic, but she relaxed a little upon seeing his faint, albeit teasing, smile. After a moment, though, he sighed and turned away again. "But I suppose of anyone, you'd be most likely to understand how that feels, so I'll let it go this time."

Oh, thank goodness. Not only was she glad he hadn't threatened to leave, but also that he realized how their pasts paralleled each other's in many ways - and that they'd both felt alone and unwanted before they'd met Lloyd. After all, she did understand how it felt, and she wouldn't wish that on anyone, even him. The difference between them was in how they had handled it. Zelos had been forced to pick himself up and move on; Sheena never had so she'd stayed stuck in the past. And really, in his ability to do that, she admired him. He may never have thoroughly accepted it, and deep down he'd always suffered for it and had felt far more insecure than he'd ever let on, but he'd still moved on and had been happy sometimes. He'd taken the bad, made it as good for himself as possible, and didn't let it get him down. Chosens really were just human beings forced to live up to everyone's expectations, weren't they? Even Colette had always put up such a tough façade, professing to be happy to sacrifice her life for Sylvarant, while underneath she was terrified of the cost demanded of her. Thank Heavens that twisted system was now done away with for good, for both Colette and Zelos's sakes.

All his life, Sheena realized, Zelos had kept everyone at arm's length because he couldn't trust them to accept him, the man hiding beneath the act. He hadn't believed anyone would like him if they knew who he really was. And before this, no one had cared enough to dig, to see past the superficial act. No wonder he'd hated being the Chosen so much, to the point of siding with Cruxis to escape it. The title was a birthright, not something he'd chosen for himself; his parents hadn't wanted him and had apparently never failed to emphasize that; and everyone else, especially the Church and the royal family, had either shunned him or felt threatened by him because of the power he wielded. He existed only to serve two purposes: to give the people hope, and then to die for them. And the ridiculous attitude he'd adopted to cope with everything, to control the only thing he could - how others viewed him, by making them underestimate him so they never saw the scared man hiding beneath the act - actually made sense now. Not only had the Church forced him to act that way to give the public what they wanted, but he'd chosen it for himself, to protect himself from further hurt and rejection.

The fact that he had at least chosen a few aspects of his life and adopted the philosophies he had gave Sheena just enough comfort to curtail the tears she felt building in her eyes. Never again would she see Zelos the same way. Her eyes were now open. Beneath the act, he was far different than the idiot she'd believed him to be. He was insecure but far more intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive than she'd ever thought possible. He was real, not the showy, larger-than-life, narcissistic womanizer he'd always pretended to be in an effort to prevent people from pitying or feeling bad for him. For the first time since he'd started acting like a perverted jerk toward her, she could see someone who was real, someone she was comfortable with. She turned to watch him while he observed the night sky, lost in thought and in a sorrow he'd carried for years but had always hidden, and Sheena couldn't help admiring his profile, the wild red hair blowing free in the breeze and the handsome face now marred by too much sadness and seriousness. For the first time ever, Sheena almost thought she'd even be able to tolerate his usual, idle self now that she knew what the act really was; in fact, to her surprise, she almost wanted to see him laughing and teasing her again, smiling and sincerely having fun, if it meant not seeing him like this. And the fact that he'd just shared all this with her...her cheeks flushed and she looked away, uncomfortable with the emotions that thought elicited.

"You've never told anyone this before, have you?" she whispered, to which Zelos merely shook his head.

Part of her wanted to ask why he was telling her now, why he was finally sharing his real self with someone, but another part was afraid to hear what made her so special. Was it just because of their deal? If so, she was getting the better end of the bargain; Zelos had now lost an image he could never reclaim with her, all in exchange for what? A date and a dance? But this was Zelos; he wouldn't have told her if he really hadn't wanted to - and if he hadn't truly trusted her to keep his secrets - no matter what price she'd paid. Maybe he was tired of keeping everything locked inside and wanted to tell someone. At least she was a friend - and she actually had seen past the act and convinced him she wanted to know the truth. And she did; as uncomfortable as it made her, she wouldn't trade what she'd just learned about him for anything, because now maybe he knew someone cared and wouldn't turn their back on him just because they'd seen the real him. Maybe now he could start letting others in.

But for some reason something here still didn't ring true for her. "So wait, you've never even told any of your hunnies about all this?" she asked.

"My hunnies? Tell them any of this?"The laugh that escaped him was bitter and disgusted - which surprised her even more than his answer did. "That's another joke, Sheena."

She tried, but she just couldn't understand his scorn. "Why? They certainly care enough about you. You must have told even one about this."

Zelos looked up at the moon, his face set. "No. I didn't."

After the last time, Sheena could recognize the signs: Zelos was clamming up and growing bitter, meaning she'd touched on something he didn't want to discuss. She waited another moment, hoping he'd volunteer an explanation, but his grim, disgusted, almost angry expression made it clear he wasn't going to. His reaction, though...here again, she realized, there must be something worth knowing. After everything else she'd just learned, was it possible that, too, was merely an act? And suddenly, her heart was pounding. She wanted to know the truth about this, desperately. If tomorrow he was really going to deny this conversation ever happened, then tonight might be the only opportunity she ever had to pursue this. While she dreaded hearing about his notorious affairs with all his floozies, the last two secrets had been so eye-opening that she expected this would be, too. And if she was wrong...well, then she was wrong. She'd better move fast to catch him before he pulled away completely, though, because she could see him doing just that, and probably soon.

Sheena slid closer to him, but, surprisingly, he didn't seem to notice. "So how much would that secret cost me?"

That finally snapped him from his daze, and he looked at her, surprised, maybe even alarmed. "Eh?"

"How much would that secret cost me?" she repeated. "The story behind you and women?"

His eyebrows rose further, as if he couldn't believe she was asking that - and, honestly, she couldn't believe she was, either. But she reminded herself again that after hearing his previous revelations, she'd more likely be surprised than disgusted by this 'secret.' "You really...?"

She nodded. "Yeah, I do."

For the first time in minutes, Zelos cracked a grin. "Well, well. I never thought I'd hear that from you."

She shrugged, still uncomfortable with this but unwilling to give up on it yet, either. "What can I say? I'm curious."

"And apparently feeling rather generous about paying for that curiosity tonight."

His words were whispered, albeit teasing, but Sheena looked away again when she felt her blush return. "You didn't answer the question."

"Heh, you just took me by surprise, that's all." He paused, his brows furrowing. "Which question was I supposed to be answering again?"

She rolled her eyes and forced herself not to question whether she'd made the right choice to press this. "How much for this particular secret?"

"Oh, right. Well, let's see. You already owe me a dance and a date, and a secret of this magnitude requires even more appropriate compensation, so..." She shot him a warning glare, and he quickly raised his hands. "No sex. I got that message loud and clear the first time. Promise." Sheena relaxed but still looked away as he watched her closely. "One kiss."

Her head snapped back toward him. "Wh...what?"

The corner of his lip tugged upward, but his eyes were narrowed and scrutinizing. "You heard me."

Sheena could feel her face flare. "A kiss."

Zelos nodded curtly. "Yep."

"Just one."

"Just one."

Sheena squeezed her eyes shut. His secret in exchange for a single kiss. Would this really, truly be worth it? She already despised the subject matter - his sex life with those infuriating floozies - and then he asks for a kiss... And just like that, the answer hit her. Yes, it was. Her eyes flew open and she nodded, refusing to let herself over think her decision. "Deal." She didn't bother re-emphasizing their conditions; they both knew they still stood.

To her surprise, instead of teasing her about what she'd just agreed to, Zelos actually sighed as if in reluctant acceptance. "All right. Deal."

She pointed sharply at him. "But this better be damned good."

"Heh. We'll see." He looked down at his glass before taking another sip, and that time Sheena gave him the moment of silence to gather his thoughts. Looking back, it was no surprise he'd had trouble broaching the last few secrets, and if this one was anything like those, then he deserved the moment to brace himself for the approaching storm. He would get there eventually, and as expected, he soon looked up at the sky and nodded, more to himself than to her. "I've never had a woman in my bed."

Her eyebrows flew upward at his apparent implication that he'd never had sex, but her surprise quickly faded at how carefully he'd worded that...and then it transformed into disappointment. That was his big secret? "Oh, so you've always gone elsewhere for that." She tried to curb her sarcasm and disdain, but even she could hear it dripping from her voice.

He watched her carefully a moment before nodding. "Yeah. Both times."

Now that got her attention. Sheena looked at him, stunned. Like his previous secrets, her mind couldn't wrap itself around that. "Only...?"

"Yep. That's it." He looked back at his glass. "I was 16, and these two sisters who claimed to be the princess's new attendants - must've been in their 20s - were all over me at a party. They kept fawning over me and saying how gorgeous I was, and next I knew, I was being dragged out to...well, I'm sure you don't want to hear all the details."

Ugh. Sheena was already cringing - and she was grateful Zelos recognized that. "No, definitely not."

"Didn't think so," he murmured. "Anyway, they'd snuck me some alcohol and were pretty good looking, at least while I was drunk, so I went with them. Basically, they used me for some fun one night, although it's not like I really minded at the time since they taught me a lot. And for a teenage boy, it was a dream come true. I'm sure that's where all the rumors about me started, because those two were anything but shy." He shrugged. "'Course, I only met up with them once more after that before they were chased out of Meltokio for seducing teenage noblemen and then burglarizing their mansions while the parents were away. I'm not sure if they were ever arrested, but one day they were just gone. I never saw them again."

Sheena stared at him when he fell silent. That sounded like what she'd expect from him, but still... "Are you saying that was it?"

Zelos nodded. "That was it. They didn't steal anything from me, though, so I'm guessing I was just another conquest before they moved on to some other poor sap."

He was probably right about that - women like that would probably just be thrilled to seduce the Chosen - but they had definitely stolen something from him. "And yet, after that...are you saying you didn't continue down that road and sleep with every woman you met? Because you sure made everyone think you had - me included."

"Heh. Yeah, I did, didn't I?" he said, but oddly, he didn't look at her. "Truth was, it was all talk, babe, just another part of my Grand Master Plan. Y'know, create that carefree, Casanova image of the Chosen, make the women fall for me, and lead them on. And while I can't deny I adore women and love the flirting and attention...it just didn't feel right, I guess. I take that back, physically it felt great, but waking up the next morning knowing I'd been used like that..." Zelos sighed. "That part wasn't so great. And yes, I probably would've continued down that road except for what happened soon after. Sure, that night opened my eyes to how much women wanted to 'be' with the Chosen, but it was never about me; it was solely for the bragging rights, and sometimes for...other reasons...too."

Sheena blinked at his hesitation. "'Other reasons'?"

He glanced at her but quickly looked away again, a frown marring his handsome face. "There was this one girl, Shirley, a week or two after those two chicks left. She was cute, and I'd always flirted with her, but one night at a party she got drunk and draped herself all over me. One thing led to another, and..."

It took all Sheena's restraint not to groan in disgust and cover her ears. "Ugh. Zelos, I really don't want to hear this."

He shrugged. "There's nothing to hear. We fooled around a little, but she fell asleep before the main event, and I was sober enough to realize I couldn't take advantage of her with a clear conscience, so I didn't. Nothing happened."

Her eyes narrowed, and she looked sharply at him. Huh? "So...what does this girl have to do with anything?"

She was surprised to see his frown had deepened and he was watching his glass intently again, as if it was utterly fascinating. And again Sheena could recognize the signs: something disturbing and difficult for him to talk about was coming. After taking another sip of his not-champagne, Zelos cleared his throat and looked up, distantly observing the sky. "A month later, she waltzed into my mansion, announced she was pregnant, and claimed I was the father."

...What? She was missing something here. "But I thought you said..."

He quickly nodded. "Nothing happened. The kid wasn't mine. I'm a hundred percent certain about that. I knew her accusation wasn't true, and I tried to tell her that, but she insisted, and then she started listing off her demands. She wanted me to support her, marry her, be the kid's father...basically, she wanted to use my power, money, and position as the Chosen for her own gain. When I told her no, absolutely not, because I knew for fact the kid wasn't mine, she threatened to blackmail me and tell everyone about my 'bastard child' to get what she wanted."

Sheena's lips parted. Oh. "And with your reputation already starting, everyone would've believed it."

"In a heartbeat, especially since I had no concrete proof to the opposite," he said. "They would've thought I was the one lying, not some poor, knocked-up girl. That was when I realized I didn't want to be a father, not yet, and definitely not to some kid I had with a woman I didn't love, because even if I wasn't that kid's father, if she hadn't fallen asleep that night...it could've been mine, and I could've been forced to raise it as my own. My family history was bad enough that the last thing I wanted was to repeat that with a family of my own. And the responsibilities...heh, as if I didn't already hate the ones that were forced on me, then to throw in the responsibilities of being a father, something else to prevent me from living the fun, easy life I really wanted? Absolutely not. I was only 16, and while my life was already a mess and could've ended at any minute, the risks involved weren't worth a moment of fleeting, empty pleasure. I may be a risk taker and enjoy pushing my luck, but even I have my limits, and risking putting another kid through what I had been through...I refused to do that. No kid deserves to suffer for their parents' mistakes and indiscretions. That was when I stopped publicly drinking alcohol, not only for the reasons I mentioned before, but because I always wanted to know what I was doing so I never accidentally reached that point with a woman again. I didn't want to lose control and end up with a boatload of regrets. So I vowed then and there to never let things reach that point again. Women may say they adore me, but it isn't me they adore; they only adore my money, power, and title, and clearly some would use whatever means necessary to get it. And that was one promise to myself that I've kept."

It took Sheena a moment to realize she was still gaping at him, but she was so fascinated and horrified that she couldn't stop. "And so you haven't...even though..."

Zelos shook his head with surprising certainty. "Nope. Not a one since then. I refuse to be used like that. Oh, don't get me wrong, the flirting is a fun and flattering diversion when I'm bored, and those women are useful in oh so many ways, so I use them, and things occasionally get out of hand when the woman is especially bold and demanding, but it's never serious, and it's never gone that far again. I'm positive about that. And it's not going to. I can't take that chance, not only for my own sake, but for -"

His voice abruptly cut off, and Sheena's eyes narrowed. Huh? "But for...the woman's sake?" she ventured. He nodded faintly, albeit, she noted, he couldn't look at her. His reaction seemed to indicate there was more to this story than he'd told. Feeling bold, Sheena decided to take a stab at her hunch. "What happened to that girl who claimed her baby was yours?" He stiffened, and she recognized, with empty satisfaction, that she'd nailed it. "Zelos? What happened to her?"

He took another sip of his not-champagne and cleared his throat. "She started spreading her rumors. When the Church caught wind of it, though, they decided they couldn't have another 'bastard' child of the Chosen running around, with its mother wreaking havoc like Seles's had, so they sent her away, to some boondock village I'd never heard of before. Because of the village's primitive nature and its lack of proper medical facilities, though, she..." He sighed. "She and the baby died during childbirth. I didn't even find out about it until months later; every time I'd ask what happened to her, no one would talk about it. And when I finally learned the truth..." He squeezed his eyes shut and his head sank downward. Sheena's heart went out to him, despite her horror; clearly, the incident had scarred him, deeply. "My actions cost her her life. It was just another reminder of how my existence caused tragedies everywhere I went." His eyes opened again. "I didn't want her using me, but I didn't want her dying for it, either. I mean, what if that kid really had been mine? What if I had taken advantage of her that night? What if she hadn't fallen asleep? The Church would've done the same thing to her regardless of who the kid's real father was, and she still would've died because of me. No, I refused to let anything like that ever happen again. I couldn't take that chance."

Oh, Zelos. Sheena bit her tongue, though, not wanting him to think she was pitying him, because he was right; that was his choice, and he had to live with the repercussions. At least he'd taken responsibility after that and prevented the issue from ever arising again. And yet... "And yet you flirt with and hit on every girl you meet. Aren't you taking that chance every time you do that? What if a girl takes you up on the offer?"

Zelos shook his head sharply. "It doesn't happen. I'm very careful about that. I may lead them on and let everyone believe the rumors, but it's never more than that. It's one of the few safe, fun outlets I have - and besides, I have to admit to liking the attention and knowing I can affect others like that. At least someone professes to like me, even if their reasoning is shallow." He shrugged. "Really, it's just a game to make every woman I meet blush, and I keep it up because it helps maintain my image of a carefree, happy, Tethe'alla-loving Chosen. And it's so easy to do." He suddenly looked at her and smirked. "I mean, how much do you want to bet those hunnies in the ballroom are all talking amongst themselves right now, wondering where I ran off to and who's the lucky girl I'm making out with?"

Her eyes widened - oh, right, even she'd thought he was doing that before she'd found him here - but she refused to consider that those floozies might be thinking she and he were currently...ahem. "Wait, is that why you were out here? To get them gossiping about you?"

"Heh. That's just the bonus." Zelos sighed again and turned back to his drink, his face quickly growing somber again. "Nah, I was actually out here formulating a new Grand Master Plan now that I've achieved the last one of getting rid of that damned title. Knowing it's feeding the rumors further and solidifying my image is just the icing on the cake."

Sheena blinked at him. For the life of her, she couldn't understand his reasoning, especially when it was questionable how happy the act and reputation really made him. "But do you really need to maintain that image anymore?"

"Probably not, but I'm not willing to discard everything I've spent years building until I'm sure what my next move is. If I decide that image could still be useful, why wreck it yet? I mean, you're an information-gatherer; even you have to admit using my charms is an easy, inconspicuous way to get information. All I have to do is smile at most girls and they're handing me gifts and answering any questions I have." He shrugged. "Besides, it's habit now. That'll just take time to break - assuming I decide to do it at all."

She watched him closely, her confusion at his nonchalance multiplying. "But how do you expect to ever get close to anyone if you always keep them at arm's length and never let them see the real you?"

"I haven't thought that far ahead yet." He flashed her a sly grin. "You kind of interrupted me before I got to that part."

That time Sheena couldn't restrain the soft laugh that burst out of her. That truly was what he'd been doing before: thinking about the future while the rumor mill swirled around him. But still...what a lonely life. "So you've never really let anyone get close to you, have you?"

Instantly, his grin vanished and he looked back at his glass. "I couldn't. Emotional attachment would've just been cruel before this."

...Huh? "Why?"

"Because, technically speaking, I'm engaged to some chick living in a village north of the Gaorrachia Forest."

Okay, that took her by surprise - but even more surprising was the skip her heart made at that. Firmly ignoring it, though, Sheena instead gaped at him a moment, struggling to regain her composure. "What?" she squeaked, then quickly cleared her throat and tried again. "You're engaged?"

Zelos sighed and shook his head. "I said, 'technically speaking.' The truth is I've never actually met her, and I've been engaged to her since the day I was born because the Church decided her mana signature would be the best suited to continue a pure mana lineage. And up until we got rid of Yggdrasill, I would've eventually been forced to marry her and have a kid with her to preserve the bloodline, just like my parents were."

Zelos was engaged to be married. Sheena could only continue gaping at him in shock. "I...I had no idea."

He flashed her a wry grin. "Yeah, most people don't - including my hunnies - but I certainly do. And that's why..."

"That's why what?" she pressed as his voice trailed off, his grin vanishing.

His eyes darted at her, but he quickly looked back at his glass. "That's why I never let myself truly fall for a girl and why I never let any girl truly fall for me. Letting that happen would risk history repeating itself like it did for my old man. I love women too much to hurt anyone like that, being married to one I didn't love but having a mistress on the side. Everyone suffers there. It's not fair to the girl I'm engaged to, to the mistress, or to any kids I might have. Believe me, I know firsthand the problems it causes."

...Oh. How could she respond to that? Never in a million years would she have thought that Zelos Wilder would head off potential problems like that or that his reasoning would be so...selfless. He was literally inviting loneliness by keeping everyone at a distance from the real him and flirting with every girl he met to cover the truth, all to prevent a repeat of his own painful past from hurting anyone else. With every new thing she learned, her opinion of him was improving. A lot. He was far more self-aware than she'd ever thought possible...and Sheena was stunned to realize how much she liked what she was seeing. He wasn't nearly the egotistical, arrogant, idiotic womanizer she'd always believed him to be. No, he was a real man with real feelings who, buried far beneath the act, didn't want to hurt others like he'd been hurt.

After a moment, she swallowed hard and returned to playing absently with the metal railing, tracing abstract patterns there. "And if someone does start getting too close?"

His head sank downward. "If I sense I'm starting to feel too much for someone - or vice versa, for that matter - I do what I have to do to stop it. I push them away. I make them hate me. I cut it off before it goes too far. If someone's taking things too seriously, I'll either betray them somehow or 'forget' about them, whatever it takes to make them write me off as an idiot and leave. It's better than betraying them by marrying another woman or devastating them when I was summoned off to sacrifice my life for Tethe'alla."

"So it would still hurt them, but it would be less painful than the alternative," she clarified, scarcely able to believe her ears.


Sheena watched him, sensing his discomfort and, she almost thought, sadness. It quickly became obvious to her that the woman wasn't the only one hurt by his doing that, though. Even if he was sure it had to be done, Zelos definitely wasn't happy about it, either. And without warning, the realization hit her. Was it possible? It would go against everything she'd ever known about him, and yet his regretful body language seemed to be implying that. And while she didn't want to scrape open wounds that may have never fully healed, she suddenly needed to know the answer to this, and this was likely her only opportunity to find out.

"So...have you ever actually felt something for someone?" she asked, her face growing warm at asking a question so personal. "I mean, have you ever had serious feelings for someone?"

And again, his body's sudden rigidness answered her question for her, as did how he looked even further away from her. A part of her suddenly regretted making him so uncomfortable, even while the other part desperately wanted to know what could make him react so extremely and leave him so quiet, so...shy. Finally, though, guilt won out, and Sheena reluctantly decided to retract the question - that really wasn't any of her business, and he clearly wasn't comfortable discussing feelings like those - but before she could, he whispered, so softly that she barely heard it, "Once."

Sheena quickly shut her mouth, startled by his willingness to tell her even that much. In an instant, curiosity won out over the guilt. If he didn't want her to know more than that, then he wouldn't tell her more. Until then, though, she would push until he told her, in no uncertain terms, to stop. "What happened?"

Zelos still couldn't look at her, she noted curiously, his eyes instead remaining firmly downcast. "When I realized what was happening, I did what I had to do before she could reciprocate my feelings. I pushed her away. I made her hate me."

She slid a little closer to him, surprised to realize how little space now remained between them. When had she closed the gap between them that much? Part of her wanted to touch him, to comfort him, but she didn't when he stiffened further at her nearness. Shying away from any woman's touch was so unlike him that she barely recognized this man anymore. "You loved her," she stated in amazement, even though his actions already made his answer clear.

After a moment, Zelos sighed wearily. "I don't know. Maybe. Probably. I didn't think so at the time, and it's not like I really understood what love was back then, but now, looking back...yeah, I did."

Sheena couldn't help the smile that lit her face, even if Zelos never turned to see it. The very thought of it, that this 'lecherous pervert,' as she'd always believed him to be, was ever sincerely in love, that he was even capable of real love...it was unbelievable. Unbelievable, and yet she didn't doubt it for a second. His body language attested to his sincerity. The pain he obviously still felt, though...it tugged at her heartstrings in a way she'd never expected to feel toward him. And just like that, her smile vanished. If he hadn't been the Chosen, then that never would have happened. No, he would probably already be married to a woman he adored and would have a family of his own. He never would have had to push this mysterious woman away. Talk about an unfair life.

"And what about now?" she asked gently. "Do you still feel that way for her?"

He swallowed hard and hesitated a long moment before nodding. "I guess some feelings never truly die, huh?" He cracked a wry yet wistful smile, but still, Sheena noted, he didn't look at her. "And here I thought it should've been easy to curtail those feelings knowing I pushed her away so well that she loathed everything about me. I mean, it is pretty illogical and masochistic to love someone who can't stand you."

Maybe. But if Sheena had learned one thing in life, it was that feelings rarely submitted themselves to the rules of logic. No, they did whatever the hell they wanted to do, not what they should be doing. Case in point: despite all the stupid, occasionally even cruel, things Zelos had ever done to her, she'd never truly been able to hate him. She'd wanted to hate him for becoming someone she didn't like when they were just forming their friendship, and yet when they'd been thrown back together again on Lloyd's journey and Zelos had constantly teased and annoyed her, she still never had. And if she'd had to kill him at the Tower of Salvation...yes, she realized, embarrassed, she would have cried for him, for the friendship they should have had but never did...and for the man who had sacrificed his life because of his exhaustion and disillusionment with it and his inability to escape his ghosts and his chains. And now, learning the truth about the real Zelos, about who he'd always been and who he should have been had fate dealt him a better hand...well, Sheena didn't want to think too hard about how she felt about him now. But she did know that seeing him like this, still loving a woman from his past even though he would probably never be able to undo what he'd done because of how much he'd cared for her, left her feeling empty and wistful. And that, too, she didn't want to consider too hard right now. No, she refused to analyze or expose that part of her when she wasn't currently in the spotlight.

She cleared her throat, forcing her mind back on topic. "Do you still see her around?"

His nod was so faint that Sheena barely noticed it. "Yeah."

"Well, maybe that's the problem, that you've never gotten away from her," she suggested.

He cracked a tiny smile. "Maybe."

She motioned back at the mansion, not really wanting to hear his answer and yet unable to resist asking. "Was she here tonight?" Zelos still didn't look at her, and she found his sudden shyness striking since normally he couldn't not look at her. That time, though, he merely nodded again, making the lead weight sitting in her stomach that she refused to acknowledge sink even lower. "Does she know?"


Not only was he speaking in one-word answers, but he still couldn't look at her, and his face was growing...red? Wait a minute, was Zelos Wilder actually blushing? He was really serious about this, wasn't he? Sheena quickly brushed aside an annoying tug of jealousy for this mysterious woman, though, because right then she should not be thinking thoughts like that. But she also dismissed the urge to tease him for handing her such ridiculously powerful blackmail material on himself because she knew if she were to push him in a direction he refused to go, she would lose all trust he had for her, and even if she may have once believed he deserved to be teased and tormented like that, the truth was she could never do that to him and still respect herself in the morning. Idiot or not, he clearly didn't trust many people, and being betrayed by one he did, one he'd now shared so much truth with...she couldn't do that to him. No, seeing him this unhappy...she didn't like it. And regardless of her potential feelings of jealousy for that nameless woman he still harbored feelings for, Sheena wanted to reassure him that if she had given him another chance, then maybe this other woman would, too.

"Well, what about now that you're not the Chosen?" she asked. "Those rules you imposed on yourself don't apply anymore, do they?"

For the first time since they'd ventured onto this subject, Zelos looked at her, his blue eyes sharp, searching...maybe even hopeful. He watched her a moment before sighing and looking away again. "No, probably not, at least not once my engagement's called off for good. But I'm not sure I can ever make it up to her. I...I was a pretty big jerk to her. I doubt she'd even give me a chance to apologize or believe me if I did. And honestly, after maintaining the act so long, I'm not even sure I trust myself to behave enough to fix things with her. The Chosen One persona is so engrained in me now that it's hard to separate from myself - once-in-a-blue-moon mental holidays like this excluded, of course."

And again, his blatant insecurity was striking compared to what she'd always seen from him before. Normally he would be boasting, "Oh, of course I can win back the love of any hunny!" But now...he wasn't even sure he could trust himself to do that? This humility and uncertainty he was displaying...they were so foreign. "I think you can." He looked at her again, his eyebrows rising, and Sheena smiled. "Well, you're being honest with me now, right?"

The eyebrows crept up even higher. "You actually believe me about all this."

He seemed truly surprised by that. "Is there any reason why I shouldn't?" she countered.

He held her gaze again, searching her eyes for something Sheena hoped he'd find - because she found what she hoped to see in his eyes: no trace of deception, joke, or exaggeration in them, nor anything else to discredit everything he'd just told her. Finally, he chuckled softly and turned away. "No. I just never thought you, of all people, would."

She shrugged and, for the first time in longer than she could remember, initiated physical contact with him in a way not involving pain by nudging his arm with her elbow, unable to hide her smile. "Well, I have to admit I'm not sure how a few things worked considering your 'Grand Master Plan.' I mean, you did sneak into the shower that one time to peek at me."

Zelos beamed her a surprisingly non-lecherous grin. "Look, I know how that seemed at the time, but the truth is, it was an accident. I didn't know you were there...and besides, I barely saw anything anyway." Suddenly, his grin grew devious, in a far more familiar way than she liked - but for once, Sheena was almost glad to see that, even now, mental holiday or not, Zelos was still the same person she'd always known. Almost. "But you can't blame me for liking the little bit I saw, can you?"

Sheena couldn't help herself; her response was as much a reflex for her as his flirting with every woman he met was for him. She smacked his arm, making him laugh softly, but even then she still couldn't restrain her grin. "You're still a pervert, you know."

"Yeah, I know. What can I say? I'm a guy. I guess some things will always be a part of me." He looked down at her, his smile softening. "But I promise you, that wasn't intentional. Just because I let you believe that doesn't make it true."

She nodded; he really didn't seem to be lying about that. "And what about all those nights you snuck into Meltokio through the sewers? Are you saying you weren't actually meeting up with women?"

That time his smile vanished completely. "Nope. Not women. In fact, I usually did that to avoid women, especially when they were being clingy and I was feeling weak-willed and couldn't trust myself not to let things go too far, or when I was having trouble maintaining the act. Or they were times when I just wanted to be alone to think." He shrugged. "It didn't hurt that it started even more rumors when my hunnies couldn't find me."

She should have figured, given everything else he'd told her. "Where did you actually go?"

His blue eyes were decidedly measuring as he looked her over again, as if he was unsure whether or not to tell her - something Sheena found odd given everything else he'd already told her - but again, after a moment, he sighed and nodded. "I have a little spot up on the Grand Tethe'alla Bridge where I like to go."

That surprised her; the bridge was close to Meltokio, but not that close. "Why there?"

His gaze snapped to her face again, still frighteningly serious. "Because it reminded me that no matter how trapped I felt in my life, I always had a choice."

Huh? "A choice?"

"A choice whether I wanted to live or die. If I ever really, truly wanted to give it all up and escape that damned gilded cage I was forced to live in, I could have done so there by jumping. And every time I decided that while I didn't want to live the life they were giving me, yes, I still wanted to live." He offered her half a smile. "That's where I started scheming to get rid of my title. It took years, and I had to take advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, but I finally got what I wanted."

She nudged his arm again. "For your sake, Zelos, I'm glad you did. At least now you can live a life you actually want."

"I sure hope so," he whispered, turning back to the moon, the smile still lingering on his lips.

Sheena eyed him as he finished his not-champagne and set the glass down on the railing between them. "And what do you actually want for your life?"

Zelos breathed in deeply, then slowly released it, thinking that over. "Honestly? I'm not sure yet. I want to fix this twisted world, get rid of the segregation and discrimination, clean up the Church...but those are a whole lot of responsibilities I'm not sure I'm ready to accept yet, and I don't want to run from my responsibilities anymore. I want a real family, though - that much I do know. I know I want to reconnect with my sister. A voluptuous, beautiful, sexy girlfriend would be nice, but even more than that, I want love - real love, not the shallow, fleeting 'love' my hunnies give me. I want friends I don't have to manipulate to get to like me, who accept me for me. I want to be taken seriously, not like a never-ending joke, but I still want to have fun and be happy, too. I want to be able to say 'no' to things I don't want to do and say 'yes' to things I do want to do instead of being forced to comply with all my obligations. I want to be treated like I'm normal, not some untouchable savior figure. I want to be able to walk around Meltokio and not have to worry about making sure the mask is always in place. I mean, I already know I'll never be able to fully drop it since it's so engrained in me after wearing it so long, and part of me will probably always believe that bishop's warnings that no one will ever like the real me, but I'd like to at least occasionally be myself." He shrugged. "Basically, I guess I want everything I've always been denied in life."

Sheena gave him a soft smile. Wow. Before that night, she never would have believed any of that, but now? "You deserve it, Zelos. I sincerely hope you get it all one day."

Zelos met and held her gaze, and she was amazed when he mirrored her smile, his entire face lighting with a heartwarming radiance that stunned her. She wasn't sure how long the moment lasted - and the way he was looking at her, as if he was seeing her for the first time and was admiring everything he saw, made her blush - but neither looked away. Normally at that point he would be trying to reclaim his lost pride by acting stupid and making it look like he'd been joking about everything he'd just said, even if he wasn't, but Sheena hoped that time he wouldn't because this was a sweet moment she wanted to remember, untainted, forever: the moment she realized how much she liked this man, that she felt safe and comfortable with him, that the kind, polite, charming young man she'd once been friends with still existed in him beneath the act, and that she could trust him to carry out his promises because he trusted her to carry out hers. And for a moment as his head dipped closer to hers, she actually wondered if he would make her pay up now and kiss her, a thought that made her blush deepen and her heart pound faster, but without warning - and, surprisingly enough, to her own disappointment - he suddenly looked away and sighed, his beautiful smile vanishing. He stood like that another moment, but then pushed himself away from the railing.

"Anyway, babe, I'm sorry to ruin this lovely moment by running out on you, but I'm exhausted," he said. "There's a reason I don't think or talk about this stuff more than I have to; it's just too depressing and draining. So I'm heading out for the night."

Her brows furrowed as he beamed her a crooked smile. Wait...he was leaving? Granted, his exhaustion was understandable - that was probably one of the more difficult conversations he'd ever had, especially if he'd never told anyone some of that before - but still...Sheena wasn't ready for the night to end yet. And in a sense, it truly was premature, because as much as she wanted to believe he'd shared all that because he wanted to, he hadn't volunteered it all for nothing. No, he'd shared that in exchange for a few things she was no longer completely opposed to paying him.

"Wait a minute, Zelos," she said, turning to face him, her blush returning as she realized what she was inviting - and perhaps in anticipation of it, too. "I still owe you a few things."

Instantly, his half-smile vanished, and for a moment he just watched her closely, almost...sadly?...before shaking his head. "No, Sheena, you don't."

Her eyes widened. No, he couldn't have just said what her ears insisted he'd said. "But...that was the deal. You share your secrets, and I..."

"Sheena," Zelos cut her off. He took a step closer, directly into her personal space, and looked down at her, holding her gaze with alarming intensity. "You. Owe. Me. Nothing." Sheena blinked at him stupidly, her lips parting, and once again her mind was unable to wrap itself around his words. "Being completely honest with you for maybe the first time in my life is my way of apologizing for all the crap I've put you through and thanking you for listening tonight and for always being you...and for believing in someone as worthless and idiotic and annoying and messed up as me. The truth is, I still owe you...well, I owe you far more than I can ever repay. But I hope this at least counts as a start." To her shock, he touched her face, so tenderly that any objections she had were stunned into silence. His fingers trailed down her cheek, making her heart pound wildly and stealing her breath away, his eyes once again taking in every line of her face. Without warning, he beamed her one last soft smile, then he turned and walked away, leaving her frozen in place as her mind floundered for air, trying to comprehend his words and his uncharacteristic refusal to collect on her debt.

"Oh, and one last thing," he suddenly said, stopping at the balcony door and turning toward her again. Quiet as a mouse, he walked back to stand behind her, gently touched her bare shoulder, and leaned forward as if to kiss her exposed neck, her eyes sliding shut and a shiver traveling down her spine as his warm breath grazed her ear. "Of all the women I've ever met, you're the only one I regret pushing away."

And then he was gone, leaving her already floundering mind shutting itself down out of sheer shock and confusion before it could make another attempt to grasp what had just happened. By the time her brain rebooted and could put the pieces together - oh, great Jizou, had he really just identified her as that one and only woman he'd said he ever loved, the one he admitted he still did? - and she realized she was standing there like an idiot, alone, and that she needed to do something, namely turn and whisper his name to stop him, he was long gone.

Her ninja reflexes finally kicked in, and without stopping to think things through, Sheena raced out to the hallway. Not seeing him anywhere, she immediately headed for the ballroom, praying she remembered the route. A minute later, she burst into it and cursed as she realized she was on the second floor, not in the main hallway. She peered down into the crowded room and immediately spotted him, his red hair impossible to miss. She blinked, absorbing the scene: he was near the main door, talking to Lloyd, who just shrugged as if to say, "Suit yourself, man." Zelos then turned and looked directly at her, as if he'd known she would be there, and then bowed his head, giving her the same sincere, charming smile she'd seen mere minutes ago. Then he was gone, heading out the main door. Not wasting another second, Sheena hurried to the stairs and headed down to the door, deftly maneuvering her way through the crowd toward Lloyd. Once there, she stopped before him, panting, and grabbed his arm.

Lloyd's eyes widened in surprise. "Oh! Hey, Sheena..."

Sheena, however, didn't let him finish. "Did he say where he's going?"

Lloyd blinked blankly. "Uh, who?"

"Zelos." She breathed in deeply, trying to calm her racing heart.

To his credit, Lloyd apparently wasn't quite as blind as he sometimes acted, for his eyes narrowed. "What? Wait, your face is all red. And...are you out of breath?"

She couldn't deal with this nonsense right now. "Lloyd, where is he?"

He sighed in exasperation. "Okay, what did he do this time? Was he groping you or hitting on you again? Because I tell ya, one of these days that guy is really gonna get himself in trouble..."

"Wh...what are you...?" His assumptions took her aback and threw her off track until she realized he was mistaking her franticness to find Zelos as anger and a need to smack sense into him. "N...no. It's not that. I just...where did he go? Please, Lloyd, I need to find him."

His eyes widened. "I dunno. He just said he was leaving, that he had to go meet up with some chick. You know him. I guess some things never change, huh?"

For a moment, Sheena froze and just stared at Lloyd without replying, her heart still racing, and it was only then that she realized what a number Zelos had just done on her, because for the first time ever, she wasn't even remotely mad about his stupid, perverse claim to be meeting up with some floozy. No, after what just happened, after what he'd just shown her, she was positive that he wasn't really meeting up with some random girl - and if he was, it was in no way what he'd insinuated it was. After all, every girl he'd be meeting up with was already safely ensconced in this ballroom, gossiping and waiting for him to pick them up, undoubtedly not even realizing he wasn't there anymore.

She swallowed hard, took another deep breath, and nodded. "Thanks, Lloyd."

Before Sheena could dart for the door, though, Lloyd grabbed her arm to stop her. "Hey, Sheena, you sure you're okay? Zelos didn't do anything to you, did he?"

Yes, he had. He most definitely had. And it was only as the words nearly burst out of her that she realized exactly what it was. That idiot. That damned idiot. She could almost hear his voice in her mind saying, "Always leave them wanting more" - and that was exactly what he'd done. By lowering his walls and being honest with her, he had effectively knocked down all the emotional walls she'd ever erected against him, protecting herself from being hurt by him again, and as a result, she'd just fallen for him, hard, and needed to find him because she now wanted more. Much, much more. She wasn't sure yet what she wanted to say to him, or what she wanted to do...heck, she wasn't even sure how this would work, or if a relationship with him was what she really wanted, or if she accepted or was comfortable with these realizations yet, or if she should be taking the time to let the emotions cool so she could think everything through first, but the truth was she'd never felt so alive before. Her heart was pounding; blood raced through her veins. The future, which already held so much potential with the worlds reunited, had just become that much brighter. That kind, sweet, charming friend she'd thought she'd lost years ago it turned out had never really left her side and cared about her, a poor, disgraced, hot-tempered outsider, far more than she'd ever dared to imagine; the damned idiot had just pushed her away to protect them both from what would have been a devastating future had their circumstances not just finally, drastically, changed.

She met Lloyd's eyes, unable to keep from smiling as everything sank in. But Lloyd didn't need to know any of that, and besides, she was wasting precious time by letting Zelos get further away from her. Instead of answering him, therefore, she just repeated her earlier, "Thanks, Lloyd," before pulling away and racing outside.

Upon reaching the street, Sheena slowed to look around, but he was nowhere to be seen. His mansion was nearby, though, so that was the first place to check. Besides, he'd said he was exhausted so it made sense he'd go home. She hurried toward his mansion, her heart racing, and only hesitated a moment before knocking on the door. After a moment it opened, revealing Zelos's butler.

"Good evening, ma'am. May I help you?"

Sheena peered past him, searching for Zelos in the background, but not seeing him, she turned her attention back to the butler. "Sebastian, hi. I'm looking for Zelos. Has he come back here yet?"

The butler's face betrayed no emotion as he replied, "I am sorry, ma'am. He was attending a dinner party tonight and will most likely not return until late evening."

Her face fell. What? He wasn't here? "Yeah, I know. I was there, too, and he just left. I thought he was coming back here."

"Unfortunately, he has not returned yet. If he left the party early, he did not retreat here."

"...Oh." He...he wasn't really meeting up with some floozy, was he? No. Sheena didn't doubt that he'd told her the truth about that before, and she refused to start thinking that way now. He deserved the benefit of the doubt this time. He just...took a detour going home. Maybe he had to clear his head like she really should be clearing hers. She looked at the street, hoping to see him heading home, but it was deserted since everyone was attending the party so she turned back to Sebastian. "Listen, Sebastian, can I wait here for him? I really need to talk to him."

Sebastian's sigh was nearly imperceptible but decidedly long-suffering. "I apologize, ma'am, but Lord Zelos asks that visitors not be allowed entry when he is unavailable to entertain them. I will, however, inform him that you called. May I have a name to give him?"

...Oh. Her heart, which had just been on such a high, sank further. Where else might he have gone? Wait...that spot he mentioned up on the bridge, maybe? But it was night, and while that in and of itself wasn't a problem, the bridge was quite a distance away and she didn't know where his 'spot' was - the bridge was huge, after all, and if it was on one of the lower rafters, she'd never find him, especially in the dark. Heck, she didn't even know for sure that he'd gone there. No, looking for him there probably wasn't wise. She would rather have waited here for him, but that, unfortunately, looked unlikely...

She started when Sebastian coughed politely to regain her attention, and only then did she remember he'd asked for her name. "Oh, sorry. Sheena."

"Sheena. Very well, miss. When he returns, I will be sure to let him know of your-" His voice abruptly cut off, and he looked directly at her. "One moment. Is your last name perchance Fujibayashi?"

Her eyes widened slightly. "Y...yes, actually, it is."

Sebastian, surprisingly, relaxed and quickly stepped aside. "I apologize, Miss Sheena. I did not recognize you in your present attire. Please, come inside. You may wait for Master Zelos here."

She eyed him, stunned by his sudden change, but not willing to second guess it, she stepped inside. "Thank you."

"I should have recognized you; you were one of Sir Bud's companions. Please, make yourself at home. May I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Something to eat?"

Sheena bit back her grin at his unshakable name for Lloyd; Lloyd was always so flustered whenever Sebastian called him that. But why his sudden change of heart? "Um, no, I'm good - wait, actually, do you have any green tea?" With the way her heart was pounding, she could really use something soothing right now.

He bowed his head. "Of course. One moment; I will return with your tea shortly."


She took a deep, shuddering breath as she seated herself on the couch. The room itself was so warm and homey, what with the fire Sebastian had going. For the first time, though, Sheena was seeing it all differently - that time as the 'gilded cage' Zelos had called it. Everything may be luxurious and comfortable, but it still symbolized the unwanted, showy life he was forced to live. It was his solely because of who he was, the family he hadn't chosen to be born into. And that portrait of his mother...during the regeneration journey, Sheena had always thought it odd that whenever they'd stopped here, he'd always spent so much time staring at it. Now she understood his fixation with it all too well. In fact, Sheena could no longer look at it for long without wanting to strangle the woman for everything she'd put her son through, so it was a relief when Sebastian returned with her tea.

"Here you go, miss."

"Thank you. Hey, Sebastian, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

Sheena took a sip of her tea; man, this stuff was perfect. She remembered this from when she and Zelos had been friends years ago; Sebastian had brewed it for her once back then, too. "Before...you weren't going to let me in until you heard my name."

Sebastian bowed his head. "That is correct, Miss Sheena. Master Zelos has given me specific instructions to never let his female admirers enter when he is unavailable. However, he made it clear that if a woman matching your name and description ever called, I was to grant you entry and give you anything you needed, regardless of his availability. You are the only woman to which he granted such special privilege."

She was blushing again; she could feel it. "How long ago was that?"

"I do not remember the exact date, but several years have passed since then, miss."

Oh, Zelos. She'd had no idea. She'd been so pissed at him after he'd sabotaged their friendship that she'd never stopped by just to say 'hi.' Sheena smiled, her blush deepening, which she tried to hide by taking another sip of her tea. After a moment, she motioned at the nearby painting. "And that's his mother, huh?"

Sebastian sighed. "Yes. That is Mylene Wilder. A beautiful woman, truly."

Beautiful, yes. But her coldness and cruelty toward her only son were unmatched. The painter had captured it perfectly; now that she was looking closer at it, Sheena could see it in the woman's eyes. "Sebastian, is it true Zelos didn't speak for three months after she died?"

His eyebrows rose curiously. "Yes, that is true. Am I to understand he confided in you about that, miss?"

"Just tonight, yeah. He said he didn't remember it himself but that you told him about it."

Sebastian nodded sadly. "He was such a happy child when he was young, too, despite his mother's unfortunate aloofness. This was especially true when his sister visited for he greatly enjoyed spending time with her. Watching him suffer so after his mother's death, when his sister was sent away permanently, was difficult. He did not often let it show, but it was clear how deeply it had affected him. Such a tragedy."

"Yes, it was," she murmured, her gaze returning to the painting. That just further confirmed what she already knew - and it further confirmed that Zelos had been telling her the truth earlier. She'd never doubted that, but the external confirmation was still a comfort. And the fact that Zelos didn't let women enter his home when he wasn't there and yet he made an exception for her, and so long ago, too...Sheena couldn't help smiling again.

Sebastian shifted. "Will that be all, miss?"

She started, having forgotten he was still there. "Oh! Yes. Thank you, Sebastian."

He bowed his head. "Of course. If you require anything else, please do not hesitate to ask. I will be in the kitchen."

Sheena watched him leave, then she settled in on the couch with her tea, watching the fireplace, letting her mind drift over everything that had just happened and what the future would bring next, and waiting for her host to return so they could continue the conversation they'd had all night but that now, it turned out, had only just begun.

Sheena awoke to a distant door closing, and noting a ray of light streaking down on her from a nearby window, she closed and rubbed her eyes before prying them open again. Wait...where was she? She looked around, disoriented, until she realized she was inside Zelos's mansion, in a bedroom...in a...wait a minute, how had she gotten into bed? She bolted upright, clutching a plush ivory blanket to her chest, her heart racing as her mind struggled to determine what had happened. She remembered the party, the long, insightful conversation with Zelos, and then coming here...she must have fallen asleep while waiting for him, but she certainly didn't remember going to bed or changing into these...comfortable...sleep...clothes? She looked up and found her dress hanging on a nearby dresser, but how had it gotten there? Suddenly, she started again as a soft knock sounded on the door.

"Um...just a minute..." Not having time to change nor clothes besides her dress to change into, she grabbed a nearby robe that appeared to have been laid out for her, slipped it on, and quickly pulled it shut. "Okay."

The door cracked open, and Sebastian's head appeared on the other side. Seeing her standing in the robe, though, he immediately pulled back and closed the door to a modest crack so he couldn't see her. "My apologies, miss. I did not mean to wake you." He stuck his arm inside; in his hand he held her usual traveling clothes. "The master asked me to retrieve these for you from the hotel and see that you received them."

Her heart pounding, still startled from waking so abruptly, Sheena just blinked blankly at his arm. "Zelos..." And just like that, it hit her what had undoubtedly happened. Ugh, she should have known he couldn't resist seeing her naked again. But after last night...could she really jump to that conclusion without being certain?

"Do not worry, Miss Sheena," Sebastian said as she accepted the clothes from him. "He carried you upstairs last night and asked one of the maids to change you into more comfortable sleeping attire."

Her eyes widened. How had Sebastian known she was thinking that? Zelos never mentioned his butler was telepathic - although, Sheena absently supposed, one would almost have to be to understand what his 'master' wanted and was thinking most of the time. "Oh. Um...thank you, Sebastian." She set the clothes on her bed, relaxing now that she knew Zelos hadn't taken advantage of her unconsciousness to do anything perverted - and suddenly her desperate desire to see him again returned. "Um, where...where is he?"

"I am afraid he is not here, miss. However, he asked that I give you this." Sebastian's arm shot into the room again, handing her an envelope with her name on it. "He also asked that I make you breakfast, so that will be ready in half an hour."

Sheena blinked as she took the letter from him, staring at it nervously. Now what was that idiot up to? "Thanks. I'll be down soon." She listened to Sebastian descend the stairs, waiting until his footsteps had died away, then she took a deep breath and opened the letter.



Sorry again about running off on you last night. I had some thinking to do and some arrangements to make. It certainly wasn't because of the company, because I can think of no one I would rather spend my time with.

Well, actually, one other person comes close. As we were talking, I realized I had neglected to visit my sister since the tree's revival. Things between us might still be awkward, but I decided I need to start remedying that. That's actually pretty high up on my brand spankin' new Grand Master Plan, right under "Find a way to apologize to Sheena for all the crap I put her through." That was as far as I'd gotten on it before you joined me. I just never dreamed the opportunity to do so would ever arise, and certainly not so soon. You really are an amazing woman.

Anyway, I'm going to be gone for awhile. Now that the worlds are reunited, I've decided to take a trip with Seles to find out where everything ended up and show her around. She's never spent much time outside the abbey, and I...well, I'd like to start making up for lost time with her. Besides, just yesterday the King mentioned he wants me to start recharting the combined worlds and making notes about the population for future censuses, so I figure I'm better off just getting that job done. Y'know, kill two birds with one stone.

So I don't know when I'll be back. I thought about waking you and telling you this in person, but I was afraid I'd never be able to leave if I did. Your beauty tends to be...distracting...at times.

Gotta run. Seles is expecting me by sunrise.

Love ya, babe.


P.S. Make yourself comfortable in the mansion whenever you'd like and for however long you'd like. Feel free to be as demanding as you'd like, too. Bizarre requests are even better. Sebastian needs someone to take care of while I'm gone or he'll go crazy with boredom and longing from missing me. That, or he'll throw a giant party and wreck the place. You know how nutty those butlers can get when left to their own devices.

P.P.S. Don't tell him I said that.

P.P.P.S. Yes. I meant it.


Sheena let out a soft laugh amidst the suddenly overwhelming sense of disappointment, even as the final postscript brought a tear to her eye that she quickly brushed away. That idiot. That damned, damned idiot.

She read the letter again, then folded it up, pulled on her clothes, and slipped it into her pocket. Then she tied up her hair and headed downstairs to breakfast.

It was a good thing she had a lot of work to do in Mizuho because otherwise she would really, really miss him.

Scratch that. She was going to miss him anyway.


After being away for a little over three weeks, Zelos was glad to finally be home again, even if, an hour after his return, he was having trouble figuring out what he should be doing beyond merely mulling about his bedroom, unpacking and settling back in. The trip had been great; it had been wonderful to finally spend time with Seles now that she could leave the abbey - and the delight on her face when he'd told her that had made his year even more than eliminating Cruxis and all need for a Chosen had - and, thankfully, their understanding with each other had grown significantly. He still wasn't always sure how to act around her, but to his relief, she seemed to feel the same around him. Patching everything up between them would take far more than just three weeks, but he was pleased with the start they'd made. In fact, he'd even promised to drop in on her in a few days to say 'hi,' and he was already planning on getting her out of the abbey permanently and into a new home - maybe even his mansion so he could look after her, at least until he found her a place of her own.

Still searching for something to do, his gaze landed on the stack of notes and maps detailing his findings on the worlds' joining that were sitting on his desk waiting to be catalogued, and he quickly decided - eh, maybe tomorrow. He needed time to prepare his report to the King anyway, and right then he should just enjoy his ability to have some quiet time to himself again. While Seles was a wonderful, intelligent person, she was also rather high-maintenance at times, and their vacation hadn't been entirely tension-free while they'd started ironing out the kinks in their relationship. Not, of course, that she'd probably found him to be much better than he'd found her. At least now they had all the time in the world to work on that.

Finally deciding on taking a nap until dinner, which was only an hour or so away, Zelos had just flopped down on his much-missed, beloved bed when a distant knock sounded on the mansion's front door. His eyes flew open as he listened to Sebastian open the door and speak with the person, definitely a woman...aw, damn, he thought he'd snuck back into Meltokio without his hunnies noticing. He groaned and covered his eyes with his arm. At least Sebastian would know not to...crap, he'd forgotten to tell Sebastian not to let anyone know he was back yet. He just hadn't had his regular back-home chat with his butler yet to find out how everything was going because Sebastian had immediately excused himself upon Zelos's return to start making dinner. So much for taking that nap.

Zelos sighed, resigning himself to waiting for the inevitable call summoning him to greet his visitor. At least after three weeks, the mask was back; not only could he easily summon it again, but his mood hadn't suffered any more lapses like the one that night at the party. On the bright side, good had come from that night anyway and he'd managed to knock one major thing off his to-do list, something he suspected he would've procrastinated doing for the rest of his life if the opportunity hadn't arisen when it had. At least, he hoped good had come from it. That seemed to be the case when he'd found Sheena asleep on his couch when he'd returned from the bridge, but then, without talking to her, he wasn't sure how good that had really been, and he was afraid to get his hopes up too high. Why had she been there, really? To smack him again? Or maybe just to verify that what he'd said was true?

He buried his face in his hands and groaned. He never should have left so much unfinished business hanging between them for so long, but he'd just been so flustered at everything he'd told her - how had she gotten him to let down his guard with her that much, anyway? He'd never been that forthcoming with anyone before, and he'd certainly never planned to tell her all of that - that he wasn't sure he could have handled it at the time if she had rejected him for good. He'd been too emotionally vulnerable in too many ways that night to take that risk. And he really had started arranging his trip with Seles before he'd discovered her in his mansion, so he hadn't lied about that. But even now, after all that time had passed, Zelos still had no idea how to act toward her anymore. He knew he'd have to see her eventually, and he truly wanted to see her, but...the thought of doing so scared the hell out of him.

He'd said too much. He should have left their conversation as it was; he never should have succumbed to the impulse to speak those final, damning words to her, even if they were true. That single sentence had changed everything between them, forever. Sheena might not be the sharpest woman in the world - he still couldn't believe she hadn't figured out Regal's identity even after all the not-so-subtle hints - but she was certainly smart enough to put that together, and her shocked expression when he'd seen her in the ballroom right before he'd left had confirmed that she had. It was too late now, though; he could never take those words back. He'd had an especially weak moment resulting from being the recipient of her beautiful, sincere smile, the one he'd never let himself hope to see but that was now permanently burned in his mind, and it had seared all sense of logic and let his heart run rampant. And while he tried to ease his nervousness by repeating his mantra, "Whatever will be, will be," he also thought he should be developing a contingency plan in case he had to enforce some serious damage control over that colossal slip. It was just unfortunate that traveling with Seles hadn't helped him develop any good solutions - probably because, also permanently etched in his mind, was his memory of Sheena's peacefully sleeping form resting securely in his arms as he'd carried her up the stairs to a spare bedroom. Too bad all the times Seles had kicked him for daydreaming hadn't kicked that particular memory right on out of him.

Damn it, why did Sheena have to be such a kind, understanding, lovely woman? Why couldn't she have gone on hitting him, calling him names, and refusing to believe in an idiotic Chosen like him instead of making him fall for her all over again as she had? That, he realized, was how she'd gotten him to let his guard down so much: by refusing to leave even when he'd tried to push her away, and then by pressing until he'd given in. She'd detected his moment of weakness and had gone straight for the jugular. Life would be so much easier and less confusing if he'd never met her - although that would mean sacrificing some of the only truly good moments he'd ever had in life...

His eyes flew open as Sebastian knocked on his door and pushed it open. Oh, damn, he'd forgotten about his 'visitor.' "Master Zelos, a woman is here to see you."

Ugh. Whatever happened to having time to one's self without some fan girls insisting on fawning over you? Man, he never thought he'd be thinking this, but sometimes it really sucked to be irresistible to women. He really hoped that would change once that damned title was removed for good. "Tell her I'm busy and will stop by to see her later."

"I do not believe you wish to do that."

...Huh? Since when did Sebastian make assumptions like that? Zelos made a mental note to talk to him about that later. "Sorry, Sebastian, but I believe I do." His eyes popped open. "Why? It's not Seles, is it?"

"It is not."

He closed his eyes and threw his arm across his face again. "Didn't think so."

"Rather, it is Miss Sheena Fujibayashi."

Oh, crap. Oh...crap. Zelos bolted upright, his eyes wide as he stared at his butler. No. He hadn't just heard that correctly. "Tell me you're joking."

"I would never do such a thing, sir," Sebastian replied. "She has been here every day since you left, always at this time, waiting for your return."

"She what?" Oh, crap. "You didn't mention that when I got home!"

"I have not had an opportunity to do so yet, sir. She informed me that you gave her permission to stop by under any circumstances."

"Yeah, I know what I told her," he mumbled. This was so not happening. He'd only been home for an hour, for crying out loud! Go away for three weeks and the entire world changed on you. "I just didn't actually expect her to."

"She seems quite intent on speaking with you."

"Apparently." Zelos sat quietly on his bed for a minute, his mind racing and stomach churning nervously. Crap, crap, crap. He wasn't ready for this conversation yet. Sheena would skin him alive, and he didn't know how to act toward her or what to say to her anymore. And if she'd been here every day, looking for him...her persistence was astounding. And very, very frightening.

"You do realize that the longer you make her wait, the more likely you will be to upset her, sir."

Zelos bit back a groan. He'd done something to make Sebastian hate him, apparently. The damned butler, the closest thing he had to a father, was sending him to his death. Pushing him toward it, in fact. Was Sheena threatening him and so now he was returning the favor? Because he'd had to entertain the banshee for three weeks? It had to be, because wouldn't Sebastian have warned him to be expecting her before this otherwise?


Oh, right. "Yeah. Um, tell her I'll be down in a minute." Zelos waited until Sebastian had bowed his head and left before he finally stood, his voice lowering to a mumble. "Too bad all my shields are being cleaned and polished right now. I'll probably need one to deflect the never-ending barrage of punches I'll be subjected to by a crazed, bloodthirsty banshee."

He quickly peeked into the mirror and fixed his hair, then, once satisfied, he took a deep breath, fighting to calm his nerves. He had no reason to be nervous, right? This was just Sheena. He'd say something stupid, she'd get pissed at him, smack him a few times, and leave. That was the standard routine between them. Just pretend everything is normal, he told himself. You have the mask back, so use it.

Right. He could do this. He always had before; he could now, too. Sliding the mask on, Zelos plastered the typical, cocky, self-assured grin on his face and headed out the door.

She was standing downstairs at the window, watching the street, her face blank and unreadable. His heart skipped a beat - damn, he had missed seeing her every day - and he fought back another wave of nervousness as he again floundered for what to say. Damn it, he should not feel like a teenage boy going out on his first date with a gorgeous girl he'd been crushing on for years...but he did. And it was his own damned fault for letting that conversation get so far out of hand and for letting himself get so caught up in the moment and in her atypical willingness to listen and push past his defenses that he'd spilled countless secrets he'd never intended anyone to know. Now, for the very first time, he was meeting someone who had seen the real him. And not just any 'someone' - her.

No wonder this was scaring the hell out of him.

She still hadn't noticed him, or if she had, she wasn't acknowledging it, for she never turned toward him, not even when he reached the top step - and without seeing her face, Zelos still couldn't gauge the reaction he would get from her. Y'know, you're not helping me decide what route to take with you right now, Sheena, he silently told her. Should he act as if that night had never happened? He was undoubtedly hoping against hope that she'd ever feel even remotely the same for him as she now knew he felt for her, especially when he didn't deserve it, so acting nonchalant would probably be the most likely option to keep his sanity intact.

Okay, fine. The mask it was. He could adjust if necessary. Really. "Well, well! If it isn't my voluptuous ninja hunny here to welcome me back. I knew you couldn't stay away from my beautiful visage and masculine sexiness for too long. Good to see you again too, hun!" Sheena finally turned from the window and eyed him closely as he descended the stairs, but he could see it brewing in her eyes: the anger he'd expected. His heart plummeted, even as his grin broadened. She watched him until he reached the first floor, quickly - and visibly - reaching critical level, before, swift as a fox, she sprang forward, grabbed his arms, slammed him against the wall, and pinned him there. "Whoa!" he exclaimed. "I was expecting a hug, not that."

"Hunny?" she seethed. "After everything you did, you still have the gall to lump me in with all your floozies?"

His eyes widened further and his grin faded as he looked down at her face, mere inches from his own, and swallowed nervously. "Note to self: Sheena really doesn't like being called 'hunny,'" he murmured. "Um...Beloved Banshee?"

Her eyes narrowed, her hands tightened painfully on his arms, and suddenly Zelos was starting to fear for his life. "You're going to want to rethink that very, very carefully."

From the corner of his eye, he noted Sebastian standing in the kitchen doorway, watching with what Zelos couldn't believe was a smirk on his face. "Addendum to earlier note: she hates 'banshee,' too," he said to himself before giving her a timid but hopeful smile. "Um...babe?"

She was breathing heavily, her brown eyes flaring, and not for the first time, Zelos wondered how someone so much smaller than him could be so very, very strong and intimidating. "Sebastian, can you give us a minute alone, please?" she suddenly asked.

Sebastian bowed his head. "Of course, ma'am."

Panic mode instantly kicked in. "Ah, wait a minute, Sebastian," Zelos said. "You're not going anywhere. If she's going to kill me, I want a witness here to see it."

"Ignore that order, Sebastian," Sheena countered.

"Very well, ma'am."

Zelos's eyes widened further and he gaped at his butler. "I'm telling you, Sebastian, if you leave, I'll cut your pay in half for a month!"

"No, sir, I do not believe you will." His face was expressionless, but Zelos could still see the humor twinkling in his eyes before he turned and left, closing the door behind him.

"Traitor!" Zelos turned his glare to Sheena. "You formed a summons pact with my butler while I was gone, didn't you?" Her eyes narrowed further and her hands gripped his arms even tighter, and he laughed it off nervously. "Never mind, don't answer that." He took a deep breath, his heart pounding, before offering her another awkward smile. "So, ah, Sheena, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

She leaned closer...and damn, he shouldn't be enjoying this so much, feeling her body press against his, when she was seconds away from killing him. He always had, though, which would explain all the fist-shaped bruises on his face while keeping her at arm's length when he should have just left her alone completely. "Tell the Chosen One to go take another mental holiday," she demanded.

Instantly, his smile vanished. Uh oh. Not good. Warning bells were ringing in his head. "Y'know, babe, that guy really does have a mind of his own. I mean, you make it sound so easy, like I can just push a button and poof! Chosen persona on, Chosen persona off, but..."

"Make it be that easy," she cut him off. "I want to talk to Zelos, not the Idiot Chosen."

Oh, crap. "Sheena..."

"No. If I don't get to talk to the real Zelos Wilder in the next thirty seconds, I'm walking out this door and never looking back."

Zelos met her gaze for a long moment, his heart racing. She was serious. He doubted his poor, beat-up heart could handle it, letting his real self face the rejection he was now sure was coming based on the anger and frustration she was displaying toward him, but he also realized she would follow through on that threat unless he complied. And he...he couldn't have that, either. He would go lick his wounds later, alone, as he always did, but to have her write him off completely...damn, he should've kept his big mouth shut that night. He didn't really regret it, and actually, it had felt pretty good at the time to share all that crap with someone who wasn't judging him, but now...it had apparently doomed him to a life of misery.

"You're an evil, evil woman," he said, then he sighed, closed his eyes, and nodded. A little incentive - or, in this case, a lot - was a powerful thing. "Fine. Done."

He opened his eyes as she relaxed her grasp on his arms, relieved to see her face soften a little. Her intense gaze, though, searching his face, was still nerve-wracking enough to keep him on edge and make his gut twist. "I'm only going to ask this once, Zelos," she said. "What you said that night at the party...was it true?"

Nervousness got the better of him, and with an overly cheerful laugh, the words burst out of him before he could think them through. "Of course it's..." Zelos finally caught himself before he could deny everything with the word 'not' when he saw her face sink in disappointment. That was when it hit him: this was it, the moment of truth. He couldn't go back after this. Whatever he said right now would make or break everything. If he denied it all, she would swear him off as an idiot, and he would completely undo his apology to her. Even if she felt nothing for him, she would never forgive him for pulling such a huge lie over her, even if this would be the actual lie, and she would certainly never trust him again. He didn't want that, either, because now that he could live his life how he wanted to, he still wanted her to be a part of it somehow, even if only as distant friends and bickering partners. And before he could change his mind, he closed his eyes, bolstering his nerves, then opened them and met her gaze, decision made. "Of course it's true."

Sheena swallowed hard, still searching his face, but for what he couldn't tell yet. "All of it?"

Zelos nodded. He had already damned himself that night by being so honest; might as well seal the deal. "Every word."

Not feeling confident or strong enough to see her reaction, he looked away uncomfortably. It felt like he had just signed his life away, and now he could only wait for the inevitable hysterical laughter and firm rejection. What he received, however, was definitely not what he expected.

Without warning, Sheena lifted herself up on her toes and kissed him, catching him completely by surprise. With one hand she grasped his neck, holding his head to hers, and he quickly pushed aside his shock that Sheena was voluntarily kissing him and sank into it, kissing her back, overwhelmed by her passion. His arm, now freed, immediately lifted so he could cup her face, holding her to him, his thumb playing over her cheek. From her hesitation and uncertainty, she was obviously inexperienced when it came to kissing, but that didn't stop him from feeling lightheaded and giddy, like his heart was about to burst, as he savored the taste of her mouth and felt her soft, warm lips pressed to his, nipping them...oh, sweet Martel, he was addicted already and never wanted this to end...

Upon hearing her moan softly into his mouth, though, and realizing how much he craved hearing that sound again and again, Zelos suddenly regained his senses, recognizing exactly what was happening. As much as he wanted to keep kissing her forever and it killed him to realize the truth about this, he couldn't accept it, either. "Mmm...Sheena, stop," he mumbled against her lips, then forced himself away from her with a low groan, already missing the warm, incredible sensations she'd sent racing through him. "Wow." Zelos cleared his throat and breathed in deeply, barely able to believe he'd just stopped her - and clearly she couldn't believe it either, for she just watched him with stunned brown eyes and licked her lips in a way his brain deciphered as, while immensely alluring and seductive, also decidedly nervous. He waited a moment for his racing heart and mind to slow down enough for him to formulate coherent words, his gaze drifting back to her full, kiss-swollen lips, wanting only to go back to kissing her. But he couldn't, not yet. "I can't believe I'm saying this, and I suspect I'm going to seriously regret it in a minute, but...I told you already, you don't owe me anything for that."

Her lip tugged upward so cutely, so shyly, as she looked down and released a soft, nervous laugh, her face flushed and her hand drifting down from his neck to rest lightly against his chest, that his resolve not to kiss her again nearly collapsed. "I know. That wasn't because I owed you anything, Zelos."

He blinked at her stupidly, his mind refusing to grasp that. "Then what...?"

"That was because I wanted to...to thank you for trusting me enough to tell me everything you did that night." Sheena met his eyes again, and Zelos let his hands slide down to her hips, holding her to him...not that she was making any effort to leave, much to his mushed-brain's inability to comprehend.

"...Oh." Zelos didn't find himself speechless often, but at that moment he couldn't have responded even if his life depended on it.

She bit her lip...and man, did he want to kiss her again. "I know that wasn't easy for you, and I just...thank you."

He watched her, surprised - Sheena truly believed him, didn't she? That thought alone was inconceivable - and his heart skipped a beat again as she smiled softly, shyly, so unlike her normal tough girl self that he felt honored she was showing him this side of her. It was a smile that made him weak in the knees and left him willing to do anything for her, no matter the cost. He may have been burned in the past by insincere, flighty, manipulative, power-hungry women and had told himself he'd never trust anyone again for fear the resulting pain and disappointment would break him, but now, seeing that smile...he was helpless to resist her. He trusted her; wise or not, he couldn't help it. She was Sheena, and he wanted to trust her, just like he'd wanted to trust her that night at the party. While she'd undoubtedly had plenty of opportunities these past three weeks to break his trust and share his secrets with the world, he instinctively knew that she hadn't, a simple fact that spoke volumes about her. Maybe it was worth taking that chance on a woman one last time - taking a chance on her. Heaven knew how much his heart wanted to.

"Heh. I...well, that's because you're you. I wouldn't have told just anyone all that. But like I said, don't expect me to ever mention or acknowledge it again. Once is all I can manage."

There was a sparkle in her eyes as she held his gaze. "I know. I won't bring it up again unless it's necessary. But if you ever want - or need - to talk again..."

He grinned and nodded. "I know who to contact." He paused, watching her closely, rubbing his thumbs lightly over her fine hipbones. "And if you're ever sick of keeping your own secrets to yourself...I'm here for you too, babe. It's the least I can do for you for letting me finally get all that crap off my chest."

Sheena blushed and looked down at his chest again, smiling that cute little touched smile that he adored...the one that, before this, he'd always inevitably had to wipe off her face by being insensitive and hitting on her or making fun of her for fear of letting it go any further than that. Not this time, though. Fighting the habit to respond to her like that felt strange, but he would not do so now. "Th...thanks. Maybe I'll take you up on the offer one day."

"It'll always stand." Zelos arched an eyebrow, his nervousness now dissipated, even if he still wasn't sure where she was going with this yet...and damn, now he really wanted to kiss her senseless. "Okay, now that the time out's over and we've cleared that up, could we maybe go back to, y'know, what we were doing a minute ago...?" She met his eyes again, but instead of kissing him, her face suddenly grew cold. Without warning, she backed away and slugged him, hard, making his head snap to the side. Her sudden turnabout temporarily stunned him, but after a moment, he rubbed his jaw, blinking dazedly. "OW." He turned back to her and looked her over, his eyes narrowing and his jaw dropping as he took in her furious expression. "Y'know, I'm getting whiplash here from all these emotional bank turns, babe. What the hell was that for?"

Oh, yeah, she was pissed. He knew that look all too well. "What, you're denying you deserved that?"

He considered that a minute, trying to remember what he'd said the instant before she'd slugged him, but he was drawing a blank. All he'd done was ask to go back to a kiss she had initiated that he had interrupted, so she couldn't be ticked about that. And if she was, well, she had a very strange, confusing sense of justice. He wasn't yet ready to revoke all the trust he'd just placed in her, at least not until he knew her reasoning since she might actually have a good reason for this, but man, something like this seriously made him reconsider it. "Well, of course I deserve it, for a lot of reasons, none of which I feel like listing right now, but is there anything in particular this time that resulted in my face becoming target practice for your fist?"

"You really don't know?"

Yep, she was still pissed; clearly she had something in mind worthy of hitting him and it wasn't just a reflex response to any request from him for a kiss. His eyebrows flew upward. "No! I don't! So hurry up and tell me already!"

She nearly growled and shoved him back into the wall."That was for making me fall in love with you and then running away from me for three weeks without stopping even once to see me in Mizuho while you were traipsing around the world with your sister! You took her everywhere else! I thought you said you were going to stop running!"

Zelos blinked at her again, his brain not catching anything beyond the whole 'Sheena's mad because I didn't stop in to see her' thing. He released an incredulous laugh. "What, you're mad because I didn't drop by Mizuho to say 'hi'?"


Oh, sweet Martel, would he ever understand how her mind worked? He'd spent years trying to comprehend how women thought, and yet he still found their minds impossible to interpret. Just when he thought he'd gotten somewhere, they went and did something like this. No wonder he had so many issues with trusting women. "Well, y'know, babe, I seriously considered doing just that, but in the end I had more reasons not to."

"Such as?" she challenged.

What, she wanted a detailed breakdown of his thought processes? Fine. If that would alleviate this latest bout of anger and get them back to that kiss he'd interrupted, he'd do it. "Well, let's see here. One, Mizuho is hidden for a reason: so no one can find it. I didn't think you'd appreciate my sharing its ultra top secret location with anyone, including my sister, who we both know isn't your biggest fan. Two, I couldn't even find it since nothing's located where you'd expect it to be anymore...although, granted, I didn't look too hard because of all my other reasons. Three, I knew whatever conversation we had would take awhile, and I didn't think you'd want Seles listening to it - and I seriously doubt she'd want to listen to it, either. Four, I'll have an easier time explaining to the King why Mizuho isn't on my maps when I sincerely don't know where it is anymore. Five, I had some serious doubts that I'd even be able to get into the village past Orochi, your Wonder Bodyguard, to see you. And six, well...I wasn't even sure you wanted to see me again after that last time or if you'd beat me up again like you just..." It clicked. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back up a minute. Did you just say what I think you said?"

She blinked at him, her anger abating as she clearly tried to remember what she'd said that would make him suddenly act like a kid in a candy store with a thousand gald. Her grip on his arms slackened, and Zelos took the opportunity to grasp her arms, swing her around, and pin her to the wall where she'd just held him, anticipating her upcoming desire to run. Uh uh. He was not letting her go, not now and not ever again, and especially not before she answered this. Her eyes widened at his reversal of their positions, looking like a little girl caught with her hand in the cookie jar, and he could see the instant she realized what he was talking about when she blushed, deeply, and looked away from him. "N...no."

Her blush continued deepening, and Zelos couldn't restrain a giddy grin, his heart pounding faster. "Yes, you did."

"No, I didn't." Sheena briefly met his eyes as his grin broadened smugly, recognizing her lie, before looking away again. Oh, was she cute when she was embarrassed and flustered, especially when caught in a slip that huge. "Okay, maybe I did, but I didn't mean to..."

Now that he believed. He leaned closer, making her hold his gaze, and forced himself to soften his grin. "Did you mean it?"

She fidgeted beneath his hands but, surprisingly, didn't force herself away from him. Zelos had never seen her this red before, and he'd been making her blush for years. "No." His eyebrows rose expectantly - her uncertainty and especially her inability to meet his eyes as she'd said that made it obvious she was lying through her teeth - and she sighed. "Yes." He backed off a little, grinning smugly as that confirmation sank in, alleviating his remaining nervousness and making his heart soar. She meant it. The woman he'd never dreamed could stand being anywhere near him had just admitted to that. And oh, was her embarrassment and defensiveness over it adorable. "I mean, you showed me a side of yourself that I'd only ever suspected was there, and...I liked it, okay?"

He had died and gone to heaven - or maybe this was all just a very, very good dream. Man, he hoped not; he wanted this to be real. He briefly considered asking her to pinch him, only knowing how easily roused her violent tendencies were, he'd undoubtedly regret that so he didn't. "Really? You serious about that?"

Sheena bit her lip and nodded. "I liked it a lot, actually."

Yup, it was official: he was grinning like an idiot. His long-held, 'impossible' fantasy had just come true. Sheena loved him - him, not the Chosen. Zelos doubted he'd ever recover from this shock - and he was pretty sure he never wanted to. "Well, who would've thought?"

That wasn't meant to be answered, so she didn't, instead looking down at his chest again as her fingers played over the edges of his Cruxis Crystal, trailing over his skin and sending little tendrils of fire racing through him. "And did you...did you really mean it, that I was the one you regretted pushing away because...?"

He silenced her by kissing her again, that time slow and sensuous, taking his time to show her exactly what he'd meant that night, and he was amazed when he felt her sink into it and kiss him back for all she was worth, showing him how much she meant what she'd just said. It was the best kiss he'd ever experienced, not only because it was her, but because for the first time in his life it felt real, and he wanted to make it the same for her - and judging from how tightly her hand was clutching his shirt, as if she was afraid her legs would give out beneath her, it was working. Her little moan into his mouth, the one he now wanted to hear every day for the rest of his life, and her other hand tangling in his hair, though, nearly crumpled all his self control. He didn't want this kiss to end, ever, but he needed to say this while he had the courage to do so. He reluctantly pulled away, giving her lips a few more lingering nips, then brushed her nose with his and lightly pressed his forehead to hers. "I love you, Sheena. I've loved you for a long time. And I'm so, so sorry that I had to..."

She smiled shyly and, using the hand still resting on the back of his neck, gently pulled him back down to her. "Shh, you idiot. I already figured it out." She kissed him again softly, short but very, very sweet, then looked him in the eye seriously...and sadly. "You have no idea how much it hurt to lose your friendship back then, though. No, I didn't love you then, but I could have. That's probably why I got so mad at you after you transformed into that obnoxious, egotistical, perverted jerk. You frustrate me to no end, you always have...but I never hated you, Zelos. I mean that. I may have wanted to at times, but even then I never did. And now...as much as I hate that you did that instead of telling me the truth so we could've figured out a better way...I do understand your reasoning and I forgive you for it."

He sighed. While hearing that she forgave him for his stupidity was a huge weight off his chest, his gut still twisted at her honesty of the pain he'd caused her anyway, regardless of his good intentions. Cupping her cheek, Zelos brushed his thumb over her smooth, soft skin. "It killed me having to do that to you, Sheena. I never wanted to hurt you. I really am sorry, for all of it."

The warmth in her brown eyes as she looked up at him soothed his guilt-ridden nerves. "Just promise me you'll never do it again."

In a heartbeat. "Promise." He chuckled softly. "To be honest, I don't know that I could do that to you again even if I had to - and believe me, I already know I'll never want to. I love you too much to hurt you like that again."

Sheena smiled, the blush on her cheeks deepening. "Then I won't hold it against you anymore." She paused, shaking her head and sighing. "Heh. Is it sad that that's actually the most romantic thing anyone's ever done for me? Pushing me away because of how much you cared about me to prevent me from being hurt even worse?"

His eyebrows flew upward. If she thought that was romantic, then he had a lot of work cut out for him - and that time, he would rise to the challenge. Assuming, of course, that she gave him the opportunity to do so, which was something he really should be checking on before he let his hopes rise too high. "Listen, I know I don't deserve a second chance to make it up to you, but..."

Sheena touched his lips to silence him, watching him with so much longing in her eyes that he was amazed, again, to realize he was standing there with this woman in his arms and that the feelings he'd held for so long, feelings that had refused to go away no matter how often he'd tried to dismiss them, feelings that had grown to nearly unbearable levels during their journey together, were sincerely reciprocated. "Maybe you do, maybe you don't, but you're getting it regardless. Don't make me regret it."

Zelos smiled softly as she held his gaze, her eyes shining. "I won't. And if that is the most romantic thing that's ever happened to you, then we're definitely going to have to fix that."

Her smile broadened into a grin even as her flush deepened. "You know I'm going to hold you to that now, right?"

He mirrored her grin, pleased to hear the playful tone in her voice. That, too, was another goal he was now setting up for himself: getting Sheena to loosen up, to have more fun with life, and to not be so serious all the time. She'd probably fight it, but then, he could fight back, too. Besides, fighting back with her tended to be plenty fun in its own right, even if he'd never tell her that. "You'd better."

Without warning, her grin faded. "Just do me one favor, okay?"

He pulled back a little to look at her more closely. He'd start working on the 'less serious' thing with her later; even he occasionally recognized when seriousness was appropriate, and until they'd ironed out the details outlining their new relationship, what they both wanted, and what their boundaries were, he refused to ruin the moment with a badly timed joke. For her, he would see this through. "Anything."

She reached up to trace the lines of his face, her soft touch sending fiery desire racing through him. "I want to see this guy again, not the Idiot Chosen. I want to see you, Zelos. You're the man I'm in love with."

He nodded somberly, even as his heart skipped another beat or three at her words. That touched him far more deeply than anything else she'd said so far had. She didn't just love him, she loved him. "Got it, although I have to warn you, it'll take me time to break some of those habits. They've been there for years, and like I said, there's no button to push to turn them on and off at will. I mean, I'm not used to being completely honest with anyone but myself yet - and sometimes not even with myself. I promise I'll work on it, though." He smirked. "Just don't expect me to act differently when I'm amongst my adoring public. I still have an image to maintain, you know."

"I'll try to be patient." Sheena grinned cheekily. "But don't expect me not to smack you if you act stupid or hit on every girl you meet."

"Should've known." Damn, there went that fun diversion - but then, he'd only ever really wanted to hit on one girl anyway, so it was all good. Whoops, maybe he should check on that, too. "I can still hit on you, though, right?" He couldn't help waggling his eyebrows at her.

She sighed but shook her head fondly. "Chosen or not, you really are an idiot, aren't you?" Zelos's response, however, was to give her his best pleading, puppy dog eyes, and finally she rolled her eyes. "Fine, fine. But only me. Got it?"

"Heh. I always knew you were jealous." Sure, that may not be the wisest thing he'd ever said, but since when had that stopped him from saying something, especially when her words had just confirmed something he'd long suspected - hoped - was true?

As expected, Sheena's eyes narrowed and she pointed sharply at him. "Don't push it."

He gave her his best, 'Who, me?' look, although it quickly reverted into a smirk. "Then if you let me hit on you, I'll give you permission to occasionally smack me - but only if I really deserve it, m'kay? Oh, and think you could try to tone it down a notch? I'd really rather not have my pretty face constantly looking like it's been mauled by a tiger, even if that's the truth." He grinned deviously. As tiring as it was sometimes not to be serious, he found it just as tiring to have to be serious for too long. Playful was good - and he loved the side of her that it brought out. "Besides, I seriously doubt you want to see my pretty face looking like that all the time, either."

She chuckled and ran her fingers over his cheek again. "Fine. I'll try to control the 'Demonic Banshee' a little more carefully. Unless, of course, your fan club gets too pesky, in which case I might just have to...make you more unappealing to them."

Zelos couldn't bite back his gasp in time. Whoa, so Sheena really could be feisty! Heh. He'd always suspected as much. Oh, yeah, this was going to be fun. "You wouldn't."

Her grin broadened. "Try me."

"As much as my face might hate me for saying this...I might just have to." He leaned closer, watching her carefully through narrowed eyes, not wanting to push her too far but unable to resist seeing how far he could safely get. "Marking your territory, huh? If only you knew how much that turned me on, babe..."

Just like he thought, her fist shot out and smacked his shoulder so quickly that it could be nothing but a reflexive response to his innuendo, but he was relieved that not only was it barely painful, but that the grin on her face had brightened further, despite her deep blush. "Perverted idiot." They both chuckled at that for a moment, but suddenly she looked him in the eye, growing serious again. "Look, Zelos, the truth is I really don't care anymore how you act out there so long as when we're alone, you show me the real you. Even if you decide to keep hiding yourself from the rest of the world, don't hide from me. Please."

Zelos swallowed hard and nodded. Oh, Sheena. Damn, he loved her. It would be a struggle at times, he already knew, but if that was what she wanted and it would make her happy, he had no choice but to oblige. "Deal. And Sheena...I meant what I said before. Let me be there for you, too. I want to be there for you. You have enough responsibilities and other crap to deal with that you've always tried to hide from everyone, but you don't have to hide from me. Any secrets you tell me are as safe with me as mine are with you." He smiled. "I mean, take it from me. Sometimes letting down those walls with someone you trust really does feel good."

Sheena returned his smile and nodded. "Deal." He was pleased to see her eyes drifting to his lips again, her fingers toying with a stray lock of his hair. Without warning, she grasped his neck, dragged his head down to hers, and pressed her lips to his again...oh, thank goodness, apparently she couldn't get enough of this, either. He'd really hate to be the only one enjoying this so much.

That time the kiss continued growing progressively deeper and more heated and passionate, tasting and exploring, with neither pulling away and Zelos pressing her harder into the wall as his desire for her flamed again, until Sebastian suddenly cleared his throat. With reluctance, they broke apart and looked at him where he stood by the kitchen door, and since even Zelos could feel himself blushing, it was no surprise that Sheena's face, too, was bright red at being caught like that. "My apologies for the interruption, Master Zelos, Miss Sheena, but dinner will be served in five minutes. How many places shall I set?"

Zelos looked back at her, letting his eyes ask the question, and her shy smile and faint nod answered it for him. "Two, Sebastian. We'll be there in a minute." He quirked an eyebrow as an idea struck him. Talk about appropriate. "Oh, and could you pop open a bottle of champagne for us? Y'know, the good stuff I keep for special occasions?" He flashed Sheena a grin and was happy to see her grin knowingly right back at him.

"Of course, sir." Okay, so no, Sebastian's pay wasn't getting cut. Zelos was just feeling too generous right now. Heck, maybe he'd even double it.

Sheena's smile softened as Sebastian bowed his head and left, and she touched Zelos's face again, looking him over as if taking everything in. "So where does this leave us?"

He smiled tenderly, admiring her beauty, and recognizing she truly did love him like he loved her, Zelos knew he would forevermore be grateful for the gift he'd just been given. It had cost him everything he had, but oh, was the incredible end result, the second chance he didn't deserve but would never turn away or take for granted, worth it. This was something he would treasure every day for as long as she could put up with him. "I don't know yet. But I'd like to take our time with it and see where it goes. Y'know, do things right this time."

She bit her kiss-swollen lip again and nodded. "Me too." And with nothing else he could see worth saying right then that couldn't wait until later, Zelos dipped his head down to hers and kissed her again, and in that moment, as he started to see a clear vision of the future awaiting him with this incredible, beautiful, strong, smart, kind, sexy woman as a major part of it, he knew he would never get enough. For the first time in his life, he had a future worth looking forward to. There would be road bumps to overcome, and further issues to work out, and important things to discuss, and nasty fights to have, and misunderstandings and cultural differences to sort through, and lingering emotional walls to knock down, but in the long run he knew he would never jeopardize that future. Temporarily, maybe, because of his own stupidity and her hot-blooded nature, but never permanently.