A/N: Oh hi! ...Happy Valentine's Day? I love you all. Am single, so going to buy myself things and call myself pretty. Happy update!

Lying on my right side, I watched events unfold while also trying to wrap my mind around what I was experiencing. The shock of having the wind knocked out of me caused me to feel a strange sort of detachment, and everything slowed right down.

There was a sharp pain coming from the upper part of my arm, pulsing with my rapid heartbeat and extending all the way to my fingertips in agonizing waves. Fighting was going on all around me, and I was abruptly aware of Presea standing over me, brandishing her axe threateningly at the angel that had been trying to finish me off.

Sheena and Kuchinawa facing off, a battered but fierce Corrine at her side. Lloyd and Regal battling a trio of angels. Genis was bleeding and Raine was standing over him, staff glowing with healing magic as Colette guarded her back. Zelos—

A hand under my right shoulder, lifting me into a sitting position. My breath came back to me just in time for a scream to tear out of my throat. Something wasn't right. Something wasn't right. My arm—limp at my side. To move it was excruciating.

"Shit." Zelos, his voice coming out as a quiet hiss in my ear.

Things were starting to speed up again. There was too much pain to stay detached, and the redhead's one-word assessment sent a jolt of alarm and panic through me.

I sucked in a breath through gritted teeth, trying to think through the haze. Zelos had quickly moved over to my injured side and he was undoing the buckles on my long glove, gingerly tugging it down. The glove had become suddenly tight on my skin so removal took some effort, and each tug resulted in a white hot flash of pain that made me feel dizzy.

The skin on my upper arm a few inches above my elbow was already turning a variety of shades due to the bleeding going on beneath it. There was a sense of wrongness about it, and I had to look away.

"Is it bad?" I managed to say when I felt his fingers ghost over the injury.

He didn't reply right away. Instead I glanced over to see him scanning the battlefield. It was still utter bedlam, but Presea had our backs—and I looked just in time to see Genis join her, albeit a little shakily.

"Raine!" Zelos called. The yell caught her attention, and she began rushing over right away.

"Shit." I grimaced, repeating his earlier expletive. "It's bad, isn't it." It sure as hell felt bad.

"What is it? Let me see." The professor swept in like a whirlwind, dissipating some of the tension Zelos' silence had created. She knelt at my side and took one look at the situation, her eyes narrowed.

"You haven't used any healing magic on her, have you?" she asked Zelos.

"And set the bone wrong? Gimme some credit here. I know when I'm in over my head," he shot back.

There was a split second where she paused and stared at him, something akin to surprise flashing through her eyes—but then it was gone, and she was all business.

"Good. We'll need solid protection for at least a few minutes."

"That I can do," the redhead replied.

"Wait, what's going on? What do you mean, set the—oh, no." I started to protest, and then suddenly it clicked.

"Fractured humerus," Raine replied as Zelos stood to join Presea and Genis. She was lightly pressing one hand to the problem area, frowning in concentration.

An involuntary "oh" of surprise escaped me. Then I was silent, my stomach churning.

For a moment I thought back to the broken ribs I had retained from the Asgard human ranch, and how long they had troubled me. I thought about how my right arm was my dominant sword arm. I thought about how close we were to endgame and how I chose now, now of all times, to drop my guard and render myself fucking useless.

"Stay completely still," Raine cautioned. Her staff began to glow.

I closed my eyes and tried to halt the stream of troubling thoughts. The warmth of healing magic flooded my upper arm, but there was a nagging sort of itch that came with it—I recognized it as the feeling of the bone knitting back together. Maybe it would be better this time. Maybe since the injury was getting treated so quickly, it could be fixed like it never happened.

The process couldn't have taken longer than a minute or two, but it seemed like an eternity passed. I kept hearing sounds of the battle and desperately wanted to look, but I knew I would only be torturing myself. The how and why wasn't relevant right now—all that mattered was getting everyone out alive. As of right now I could do nothing to help other than hopefully stay alive myself. I hated this feeling.

The warmth faded and the professor pulled away. I opened my eyes and chanced a look over at the injury. Before I could help it, I exhaled a breath of relief. My arm looked the same now as it had before; all signs of bruising and bleeding under the skin were gone. Then I looked up to meet Raine's gaze and felt myself tense up all over again. She was giving me a very stern look.

"I've repaired the bone, but if you strain it, it will re-break and you'll have to start the healing process over again."

My stomach sank; I knew what she was about to tell me. There was still chaos around me and she was going to tell me I couldn't fight.


"No," she said firmly.

She opened her mouth to say more, but the sound of Lloyd letting out a yell cut her off—he had sustained an injury while guarding Regal's back. Now several angels were closing in on him.

Raine wasted no time in rearranging her priorities. Her eyes hardened and she stood up straight, turning her head to look behind me.

"Zelos, look after her!"

I heard a faint "wait, me?" come from Zelos, but the professor had already turned her back and rushed to the others.

Reality sunk in; I was extremely vulnerable like this. Feeling stubborn, I grabbed Kerberos with my left hand and pushed myself unsteadily to my feet. It quickly became obvious that the sword would serve as no more than a useless prop. There was no way I could swing it with any force using just my left arm. Even if I could get a good swing in, there would be no control to it—I'd more than likely get the blade stuck in an enemy and render myself vulnerable all over again.

Zelos at my side. "Don't even try it, babe."

"I know," I growled, shaking a bit. "I just…"

An angel closed in and Presea cut it off, swinging hard with her axe to knock it back.

"Don't worry. I will be your right arm," she said.

"What the hell? I should be the one saying cool things like that!" Zelos whined between brutal swings of his blade, standing on my left.

Genis had left us to join Raine, casting a spell to distract some of our opponents so she could get to Lloyd. Regal was forming the brunt of the offensive on that front, and he was clearly getting tired. The angels had taken some casualties, but since they didn't feel pain they fought for much longer than normal soldiers would. It was like fighting zombies.

Regal hit an angel with a particularly strong kick, sending her flying in Kuchinawa's direction. The ninja was forced to dodge out of the way, briefly distracting him from his fight with Sheena.

It was the only opening she needed. Dark runes glowed beneath her feet, and the world seemed to dim as the temperature around us dropped a few degrees.

"I call upon the envoy from the dark abyss… Come, Shadow!"

The stone beneath our feet went dark and the summon spirit rose up through the ground, tendrils of darkness clawing at our enemies and latching on. There was a terrifying low rumbling—I thought I heard Shadow growl a word or two, but I couldn't make it out—and suddenly all of the angels were blown back.

It was an immensely powerful attack, and I was left in awe even after the summon spirit returned to the darkness. Our opponents were all grounded from the force of the attack, and for a split second it seemed like we might have been saved. But then, sure enough, the downed angels began to stir. Their stamina was unbelievable… there was just too many of them. They were outlasting us.

"We're fighting a losing battle," Raine said, out of breath. There were precious few seconds for everyone to collect themselves. I hated myself for having energy but no ability to use it.

"No kidding. We're toast if we don't cut our losses now," Zelos agreed.

Sheena still had her back turned to us, facing Kuchinawa's slumped form with her fists clenched. It was tough to tell whether or not he was dead. After an attack like that…

"Sheena," Lloyd said.

She jerked a little. "…I know."

Raine was reaching into her bag for the wing pack to retrieve the Rheairds. Sheena began to turn around, head lowered so that her bangs would shield her eyes. All at once, I was overwhelmed with a jarring sense of déjà vu. I felt that I should know what was so terribly off right now, but the dominoes had already begun to fall. A violent chill racked through me.

"No," I whispered.

Next to me, I felt Zelos tense instantly, as if hyperaware of the sudden change in my demeanor. He knew what was wrong even before I did.

Behind her, Kuchinawa had shifted.


Her eyes widened and with lightning speed she whipped back around. She wasn't fast enough. Everyone else saw and began to lunge forward in what was now a futile attempt to stop the inevitable.

Somehow, despite taking Shadow's attack as well, Kuchinawa was able to move with incredible speed. He let out a desperate cry, a wild look in his eyes, and charged straight at Sheena with a dagger clutched in a glowing hand.

The only one fast enough to stop it was the only one who had been directly at her side this entire time—Corrine.

The summon leapt between them. The three tumbled to the ground and there was an audible thump as Sheena cracked her head hard on the stone. Lloyd and Zelos ripped Kuchinawa from her. Yelling, Lloyd punched the ninja hard enough to whip his head to one side and send him to the ground once more.

Kuchinawa's dagger had pinned Corrine to Sheena's heart.

We stood in shock at the scene. Kuchinawa was still. Slowly, gingerly, Colette began to approach Sheena; she dropped to her knees and reached out with shaking hands, cradling Corrine's limp body. Pulling the summon from Sheena took hardly any effort—his body had been completely impaled, taking the brunt of the force. The blade had just barely penetrated Sheena's skin.

The small spirit lay still in Colette's hands. Sheena was unconscious but her chest still rose and fell. We were motionless, watching. I felt cold.

Then Corrine's body faded a bit, losing substance; the bloodied dagger fell to the ground, along with the bell that had been tied around his neck. The sound of the bell jingling as it hit the stone seemed to snap the blonde out of a horrified trance.

"…Corrine?" Colette whispered.

"Thank you, everyone…" The summon's voice rang out. His body continued to fade. "Thank you for supporting Sheena. For being her friends all this time. She's come so far… she's not alone now. That's why I can go… with no regrets."

"No, Corrine, you can't!" Lloyd protested, stepping forward. "You can't die now! Not—not without saying goodbye to her!"

Angels were beginning to rise again all around us. Kuchinawa stirred once more, a strange aura about him. I got the painful sense that our time was running perilously short.

"I know she'll understand someday," he said in reply. "But now, you have to go." His eyes closed for a moment, and he hesitated. "Your hearts feel so warm… I… I think there's one last thing I can do."

"But—" Lloyd started, and was immediately cut off.

Corrine opened his eyes and his fur bristled, a very faint glow about his translucent spirit.

"Go! You have to go now!"

"He's right," Raine said.

The Rheairds appeared before us—she had finally retrieved them from the wing pack. Regal quickly hoisted Sheena up, and being reminded of her potentially dire state was what got everyone to act. We rushed on to the vehicles and took off from the seal just in time.

After twenty seconds or so there was a startling flash behind us. I tried to crane my neck to see, but Zelos had pushed me on to a Rheaird in front of him so he could hold me secure; his form blocked my view.

A murmur of concern ran through the group, but we didn't stop. We couldn't.

Trying to turn around was too uncomfortable. I resigned myself to facing forward, feeling numb.

And so, fate won out and one of my small victories came unraveled. We said our silent goodbyes to Corrine and flew on with incredibly heavy hearts as the sun began its descent below the horizon.

Rather than fly to the closest town, we opted to play it safe and make the several hour journey across the sea to the Triet Renegade base. We desperately needed someone to watch our backs for a while as we regrouped, and in a moment like this our alliance with the Renegades was a true blessing.

The journey was made mostly in silence. It was too hard to make conversation over the rushing wind, and I honestly couldn't talk to Zelos right now. He knew exactly what was on my mind, and if I said what I was thinking I was afraid the ice chilling my heart would thaw and I would start sobbing.

I had saved Corrine for nothing. On top of that, I had robbed Sheena of her only chance to say goodbye. She was going to wake up with nothing—I hadn't even had the presence of mind to grab his bell, and now it was too late to go back. This was wrong… it was all wrong. It wasn't fair. Why did things have to turn out this way?

Kohl was one of the guards at the gate when we walked up. When he saw Sheena's state, he broke protocol and let us in without even calling his superior. It was thanks to him that we were rushed immediately to the infirmary upon entering. He was getting an earful from his older brother now, but I was extremely grateful he had stuck his neck out for us—for her.

We were ushered out of the medical wing and into Yuan's office while doctors examined Sheena's condition, and in the meantime Botta himself had come out to meet us. I was certain Yuan would've looked pretty unimpressed by the whole thing, but his second in command was exceptionally hard to read.

Raine apologized for barging in so suddenly, and explained what had transpired at the Balacruf Mausoleum. Botta listened patiently with the same impassive expression, while on occasion Lloyd and the others would pitch in and add something to the story.

"…I see," he said when she was finished. "So Lord Yuan's theory was correct."

Freyr had slipped in while we were talking, standing on the sidelines to listen as well. Now the half elf stepped forward.

"This traitor to Mizuho—do we have any idea if he's still alive?"

Lloyd shook his head. "There was this flash of light after we left. No one followed us, but… I dunno what Corrine did."

"Sis… Kuchinawa's mana was all wrong," Genis piped up, looking troubled.

"It was?" Lloyd said in surprise. "Come to think of it… it didn't make any sense how he recovered faster than the angels did after Shadow's attack. How did he catch Sheena off guard like that?"

"There was something off about him," Raine agreed. "I can't say for certain since Kuchinawa is human, but it felt similar to when Rodyle made use of that faulty Cruxis Crystal back at the Remote Island Ranch."

"If he has indeed allied with Cruxis, there is no telling what sort of resources he may have access to," Botta remarked. "Take care to cover your tracks in the future. As there is only one seal left, the likelihood of another ambush is slim—I will have my men secure the area in advance when the time comes." He crossed his arms, thinking for a moment. "Additionally… as Lord Yuan has returned to Cruxis, I will see if he can garner some information on their activities."

"That would be an enormous help. Thank you," Raine said.

Kohl slipped discreetly in, ducking his head a bit when his older brother shot him a look. The second Botta turned to acknowledge him, his posture straightened right up.

"Sir," he said. "Shee—um, the summoner is in stable condition. She suffered some head trauma, and the doctor says she should be allowed to sleep while the healing magic does its work."

Everyone in our group relaxed visibly. She was okay; thank goodness.

"Very well," Botta replied, and looked over to us once more. "If that is all, I must be going. You may stay here until she awakens." A pause, and then a rare wry smile. "I'm sure by now you can show yourselves to the guest rooms."

The door slid shut behind him with a hiss, and I snorted. He had a point… this definitely wasn't the first time we'd had a slumber party with the Renegades.

"She's just sleeping…" Genis breathed a sigh of relief. "It was scary how hard she hit her head back there."

"Sheena is lucky indeed," Regal said.

"Depends on how you look at it," I remarked quietly.

"…Yeah," Lloyd said, bowing his head a little. "After all, Corrine…"

"Sheena's a tough chick. She'll be all right," Zelos piped up, crossing his arms. "And hey, her head's still in one piece. Pretty surprising considering how quickly everything went to hell, eh?"

His flippant, cheerful tone caused a few of the others to bristle a little bit; I just stared at him. After a second he glanced over, saw me staring, and just offered a charming smile. He wasn't fooling me; I could tell he was just as shaken by the events as the rest of us were.

Something clicked. That meant… he hadn't known about it. Come to think of it, I had never thought to ask Zelos about Cruxis' activities—I hadn't really wanted to think about his triple agent status. But it hadn't occurred to me that maybe he wasn't telling me anything because he wasn't being informed. Was he suddenly out of the loop? What did that mean?

Raine sighed. "That is a valid point. We should have been more on guard today."

"It all happened so quickly," Colette lamented.

"Well, don't beat yourselves up too badly," Freyr interjected with the usual crooked smile. "Angels have the fairly annoying ability to teleport. It's caught me by surprise once or twice." He glanced, not so subtly, in the direction of Yuan's desk. "…Regardless, it's probably about time for you all to get some rest. If you'd like, I can see about getting you some dinner while my brother escorts you to you rooms."

"That'd be great, thanks," Lloyd said.

Freyr disappeared for a bit while Kohl led us to the same rooms we had used in the past. The familiar surroundings, the security of the base and the knowledge of Sheena's current state helped me finally relax a little. I absentmindedly rubbed my right arm, attempting to roll my shoulder a bit. Applying pressure to a certain spot on my arm still caused a twinge of pain.

"Are you all right?" Presea asked me quietly as we set our things down and got ready to eat.

"That's right," Regal remarked. "I recall seeing you fall on the battlefield. Did something happen?"

"An angel caught her from behind. She suffered a broken arm," the professor replied for me.

"What?!" Lloyd balked.

Colette pressed a hand to her lips. "Oh, no… does it hurt?"

"It's… just really tender, I guess," I replied. "Professor Sage healed it right away, but… I don't really know when I'll be able to fight again."

The admission caused a lump to form in my throat. Saying it out loud made it real. With so many things out of my control, fighting was one of the few things I could do to make a difference. It was one of the only ways I could look out for everyone. I hated feeling helpless…

"It's going to take time," Raine said, stern. "Every injury is different. Healing magic can speed up the process, but not complete it. You need to rest."

My gaze was glued to the floor. "Yeah…"

"Hey, why don't we take some time off after Sheena wakes up?" Lloyd suggested.

Raine frowned. "Do we really have that luxury?"

"Well, the next seal is the last one, right? So the worlds are gonna separate," he pointed out. "It might be a good time for everyone to figure out which world they want to stay on. We can go revisit some places in Tethe'alla, and Brittany won't have to strain her arm."

"That's not a bad idea," Genis commented. "Plus we'd be moving more randomly, so it might throw Kuchinawa off our tracks for a while. And… I'd like to go visit Mithos one last time, too…"

"In that case, we might as well ask around at the Elemental Research Lab in Meltokio. They have data on the summon spirits dating back to before the Ancient War—it's a long shot, but they might have some clues on Aska," Zelos said.

"Very well," Raine replied. "I suppose it couldn't hurt to slow down and consider our options for a few days. Does anyone have any objections?"

I shook my head, and looked around as everyone else did the same. We all seemed to be in agreement on this. I felt a rush of relief; our next serious plot-related battle wouldn't be till the Tower of Mana. We still had to get Aska and everything after this. Maybe by the time all that was over with, I could use my arm again without it falling off or something.

This was also buying Kratos time. Two birds, one stone. I hadn't exactly wanted to break my arm to delay events, but hey… at least something good came out of it.

After a little bit Freyr ended up coming back with some dinner for us; we ate, and eventually turned in for the night. I laid awake in bed for a long time and thought about Sheena, sleeping alone in the infirmary…

The next morning came and Sheena remained stubbornly out cold. We went through the motions and ate breakfast, though it was easy to see it was weighing heavily on everyone. A day of rest was always welcome, but considering where we were… none of us were very sure of what to do with ourselves. After a while everyone seemed to splinter off doing different things. I alternated between wandering the base and visiting Sheena for a bit, but it got old quickly; I knew nothing had changed even before going to see her because I would always catch a glum looking Kohl lurking around the infirmary doors.

Finally I came to stand next to him, sending him a sidelong glance.

"…Aren't you supposed to be on patrol or something?"

He flinched a little, then gave me a dirty look. "A-are you insinuating that I'm not?"

"I mean, if you're just patrolling this particular hallway…"

Kohl averted his gaze and tucked a lock of hair behind his ear, cheeks flushing just a bit. "I… I'm worried about her too."

I blinked, surprised he would actually admit it. Kohl seemed more guarded than his brother on the surface, but once you were around him enough it was easy to see the opposite was true. It was mostly a front.

"You are?" I prodded, curious.

The teen crossed his arms, leaning against the wall. His gaze was fixed to the floor. "… That Kuchinawa. He blames her for everything, doesn't he? The Renegades have records of all the summoners over the years… there's data on the Mizuho incident in our archives. She was one of the youngest people in history to ever try forming a pact."

That didn't surprise me. I frowned. "Yeah… prodigy or not, it's wrong to place that kind of burden on a kid. And to blame her today for something like that... it's just wrong."

"I know what it's like," Kohl said abruptly. "To… to have someone hate you for something that's out of your control." His voice grew quieter. "Even if you can't change it, even if it's not your fault… I know… it still feels terrible…" He shuddered, closing his eyes. "So, I can't help it. I keep waiting for her to wake up."

My brow furrowed a bit. "... Kohl?"

He shook his head, dismissing my unspoken question. "I don't want to talk about it. Listen, I have to be by this spot every so often… so you don't have to worry. I'll make sure everyone knows as soon as she's awake."

I got the hint: go away. Well, it looked like that was all I was going to get out of him today. There was still that nagging worry about Sheena, but I understood it was useless to just sit there and watch her sleep. Might as well find something else to keep me busy.

I let out a sigh. "All right, all right… I'm going. But you better not break your word, Kohl."

He smiled, and for a moment looked just like his brother. "Wouldn't dream of it."

"Y'know, I never really mind a day off, but this isn't exactly how I wanted to spend it."

I snorted a little, glancing over at my companion. He was busy fixing his headband, his red hair slightly mussed from the desert wind. The sun was setting and it was much more comfortable outdoors now than it had been earlier.

Zelos and I were standing atop a sand dune outside the base. I had come out here a little while ago to get some fresh air, and he had somehow found me out here. I was secretly agonizing over the fact that maybe he had been looking for me, while also telling myself not to get worked up. He had probably just wanted some fresh air too. Why did I have to overthink everything?

"Same," I finally said. "What's your ideal day off, then?"

"Hmmm." Now I sensed him giving me a sidelong glance. "Well, you can't really beat a beach day. Smell of the salt water, cute girls in bikinis, the warm sun… aw, man. It's been too long."

I closed my eyes. "Yeah, a nice long barefoot run on the beach…" My mind flashed back to summers in Maine, when I'd get out of work and meet my dad at the jetty. Ooh, and lobster rolls at the Clam Shack!

"What? A run?" Zelos whined. "What are you talking about? That's no way to enjoy the beach!"

"It's relaxing!" I insisted.

"In what way is exercise a relaxation activity?" he demanded. "Uh-uh. You gotta chill, babe. You're telling me you never just laid in a chair and sipped on something with a little umbrella in it?"

"Well, first of all, the drinking age back home is twenty-one," I pointed out, rolling my eyes. "And second… I mean yeah, maybe once or twice? I just… don't really… like wearing swimsuits." I finished awkwardly, realizing I had blurted out the truth without meaning to. The thought of stretching out on the beach with half my skin laid bare had never really been something I was comfortable with—at least, not since my teenage years hit and being super self-conscious became a thing.

"Hmmm." Now I really sensed the redhead's stare.

I looked over to see him smirking, and offered a glare in return. "Can you please stop imagining me in a bikini?"

He held up his hands to fend off a smack, his smirk turning into a grin. "Hunnyyyy! I can't help it! Where else did you expect my mind to go?"

I flushed, looking straight ahead again and letting out a huff.

"All right, all right," Zelos relented. "What about you, then? What's your perfect day off?"

That caused me to pause. I thought for a moment, trying to shake off the feeling of his staring and my hot cheeks. Perfect day off? I couldn't really put my finger on anything specific anymore. My old lifestyle no longer fit the new me, and my current lifestyle didn't allow for much time off. What made me really happy nowadays?

"Just…" I rubbed the back of my neck. "Um, I've always liked traveling and seeing new places. So I guess… any day where I get to experience a place without having to worry about all—all this—" I waved my hands around vaguely at the Renegade Base and our surroundings, "—then that would be a good day off."

"Huh." He was frowning, still watching me.

"What?" I asked, glaring again.

"Traveling for the sake of traveling," he remarked, and I could see that he had dropped his usual façade. "It's a weird thought. I can't remember a time where I didn't have to explain myself every time I went somewhere. And if I didn't explain myself, I had to do what people would expect me to do, you know?"

"It's cool to just be a stranger in a different place sometimes, to experience a different culture than what you're used to," I said. "You must be getting that a little, being in Sylvarant, right?"

"Yeah. It's kinda jarring, to be honest," he replied. Then he tilted his head, wearing a little halfhearted smirk. "I've been considering sticking around on this world. Tethe'alla's better off without me, anyway. I just wonder how well I'll handle being demoted to Nobody."

"Gimme a break. You're just scared 'cause if you drop the Great Zelos front, you'll have to figure out who you actually are," I said.

He suddenly stopped and stared, and I got the feeling I had hit the nail on the head. I had to avert my gaze.

"Anyway, if you stay in Sylvarant, what about Seles?"

"…Heh." Zelos shook his head. "Speaking of jarring… I've never mentioned her to you, but you just know."

Now it was my turn to falter, trying to think of something to say. I suddenly felt like I had somehow overstepped a boundary. But that wasn't fair… all this time and he had never even told me about his sister? Now I just felt self-conscious again; maybe I hadn't really earned his trust yet. Oh, man, but I wanted to just tear down that weird barrier between us… I was really in deep, wasn't I? Ugh, pathetic.

"Sorry," I told him.

"It's not like it's your fault." He shrugged. "Anyway, she'd be better off, too. Two birds, one stone."


He waved a hand. "Don't tell me it's not true. C'mon. What kind of a brother do you think I've been all these years?"

"That doesn't matter, you ass," I said, and smacked him on the arm. "You can't just peace out to another world without a word to your little sis. Let's at least visit her while we're in Tethe'alla."

"It wouldn't be the touching reunion you're hoping for," he remarked, frowning.

I sighed, running a hand through my hair. "I know what your relationship with her is like. To an extent, anyway. But just because you think she wouldn't care doesn't mean you'd be right. You can be really thickheaded sometimes."

"Now you just sound like Sheena," Zelos whined. "Jeez, can't I ever go one day without a thorough scolding? Not fair!"

The mention of Sheena diverted my thoughts for a moment, and I glanced over my shoulder back at the Renegade base. The sun had almost completely dropped below the horizon, and it was starting to get a little colder. It had been a solid twenty-four hours now, and she was still out…

"…I wonder how she's doing?" I said quietly.

"Hm? Oh, she's probably fine."

"'Probably?'" I sent him a pointed glare.

He held his hands up in surrender. "Hey, hey! I just mean that nothing is certain! There's no point in worrying about her while she's still snoozing, anyway. I'd be more worried about when she wakes up."

Something in my brain clicked, and I suddenly realized he had dropped Sheena's name on purpose to derail the previous topic of conversation. I felt annoyed for a second, but made a conscious decision to let it go. I'd just have to catch him unawares and bring it back later. We'd be visiting Seles eventually anyway.

"You're right," I said, forcing my mind back to the present. "I mean, it's bad enough that her childhood friend is working with Cruxis… then we have to tell her about Corrine." I pressed a hand to my mouth; thinking about it brought a lot of negative feelings back. "I screwed everything up, Zelos."

"What, by saving him the first time? So you prolonged the little guy's life a bit. Can't really see how that's a bad thing." Zelos crossed his arms, giving me that half-smirk that said he was annoyed. "I'm not happy you broke your arm or anything, but in hindsight it's sort of a blessing in disguise. If you'd tried to save him again you would've actually died this time. You realize that, right?"

A cool breeze whipped my hair back, and I shivered. The first few stars of the night began to shine.

"…It's not that," I said, swallowing. "Sheena… this time Sheena never even saw any of it. She never got to say goodbye or anything. I took that from her…"

"You're talking like you did the deed yourself." His voice had edged a little lower. I could tell he wasn't impressed with my words, but I couldn't stop.

"If I had just left it alone, she would've at least seen him in his last moments," I continued quietly. "She wouldn't just have to wake up all alone. And she'd have his bell… I didn't even grab his bell. That was the only memento of him and I just left it."

Suddenly I froze. It was just a few hours there and back… if I left after everyone went to sleep, maybe…

"Zelos." I turned to him, tense. "Corrine's bell! Maybe we could go get it. There's probably no one at the Mausoleum anymore—and we'll find out for sure if Kuchinawa survived."

Finally he lost his patience with me, giving me an incredulous glare. "Are you insane? Babe, do you want to die or something?"

My shoulders sagged. "Well, no, but—"

"We already came pretty damn close to dying yesterday," he said, anger edging into his voice. "We are not risking our lives for a bell that might not even be there. Trust me, a stupid memento doesn't soften the blow of grief. So things didn't go the way you expected—that's life. If you're gonna run around and play hero and change things, it's gonna stop being predictable at some point and you'll be stuck not knowing the future with the rest of us."

I chewed on my lower lip, my eyes glued to the ground with shame. For a few seconds I mulled over his words, regretting my reckless suggestion. But the desire was still there… I understood now that I was just feeling a selfish need to redeem myself for letting things happen the way they did.

"…Sorry," I offered, unsure of what to say.

Zelos let out a sigh. "We could be attacked at any time and you're sitting here with an arm you just broke yesterday. It'd probably re break if I just glared at it hard enough, and you want to just gallivant off into the night?"

"…Cruxis didn't give you a heads up for this last one?" I asked.

He was quiet, and wouldn't look at me. I watched him and tried to read his expression. I could sense that I was right… but at the same time there was something else there, something he wasn't telling me. He had thrown his guard up again.


A sudden voice calling over the wind caused us both to jump a little, and we turned around. Genis was standing by the front door to the base. I got my hopes up for a moment, but then he simply yelled that dinner was ready before turning around and going back inside.

Zelos shrugged and simply began to make his way back down to the base. I let out a sigh and began to follow. I had a feeling it was going to be a while before I could get him to be straight with me again. Oh, well. Tomorrow was another day…

Sheena was out for another solid 48 hours. During that time I quickly grew bored of talking in circles with everyone, so I eventually harassed Regal to train with me. He refused to do anything more intense than simple balance exercises out of worry that I would fall on my arm… but it was a core workout and it was better than nothing. I was gripped with the sudden intense desire to learn how to adequately fight like him. If I could just do that, I wouldn't be completely helpless if my arm took forever to heal.

When Kohl finally burst into our room with the good news, it was evening and we were all in the middle of eating dinner. Everyone dropped what they were eating and we made our way to the infirmary. The summoner was sitting up in bed, one hand pressed to her forehead.

"Sheena! Oh, thank goodness," Colette exclaimed. "Are you feeling okay?"

She weakly looked up at us, her eyes searching. When she opened her mouth to reply, she couldn't; her voice was hoarse. Kohl handed her a glass of water and she slowly gulped down the contents.

"… I'm alive, anyway," she managed. "How long was I out?"

"Just over three days," Raine replied softly.

"You hit your head really hard when you fell back there," Genis added.

Sheena nodded slowly. Then she looked back up, that dark, searching look on her face again. She could probably sense the mood of the room, the way we were all watching her.

"Corrine's dead, isn't he?" she asked. Her voice was just barely above a whisper.

Lloyd stared down at the floor. "…Yeah."

The ninja closed her eyes, leaning back against the headboard of her bed. "I had a dream about him. Somehow, I just knew…" She shook her head. "He's really gone…"

"He saved you," Lloyd said. "And because of him, we were able to escape."

"We were outnumbered," Regal told her. "And Kuchinawa had strength we did not anticipate. There was nothing anyone could have done. We owe Corrine our lives."

"I know. I know that, but…" She let out a shuddering sigh. "I'm sorry, guys. I know I just woke up, but… can I be alone for a little while?"

"Of course," Raine said.

"I'll be just outside the door," Kohl offered, walking up to set a steaming bowl of brothy soup on the bedside table. "I'll fetch you if she needs anything."

"All right," Lloyd replied, glum.

There was nothing we could do but give her space. And although we all wanted to be there when she woke up, it had to be overwhelming for her right now. We reluctantly left the infirmary without another word.

It was hard to go back to eating dinner after that; the thoughts of what Sheena had to be feeling weighed heavily on me. I really couldn't help it… I knew there wasn't much I could've done given what happened, but I still wanted to blame myself. I just couldn't accept that Corrine had still died despite the changes in the plot. It just wasn't fair. Did that mean Botta was going to die anyway, too? What about the two Renegades that had originally drowned with him—Kohl and Freyr?

Trying to choose different paths, trying to derail bad events… did any of that really make a difference? What if certain events were set in stone? Maybe my efforts were just making things worse…

The others made stunted attempts at conversation while we finished dinner; I poked at my plate of food and worried about the future. I was so tired… I didn't know what the right thing to do was anymore.

"Okay, okay, that's it!" Zelos burst through the door, causing me to jump; I hadn't even realized he had excused himself. He had a few steaming mugs clutched in each hand, and an amused looking Freyr followed him in with more.

"Zelos?" Lloyd raised his eyebrows, confused. "What is that?"

"Hot chocolate!" the redhead declared. "You guys were being a huge drag, so here's something to cheer you up."

"Oh, I love hot chocolate!" Colette said. She was smiling, but it was clear she was putting forth an effort to do it.

"I know you do, my little angel," he replied with a wink. He and Freyr passed each of us a mug. "Okay, so those of you who are having an especially bad day, hold your mugs out."

Regal blinked. "…Beg pardon?"

Well, I wasn't going to lie. I held my mug out immediately. Next to me, Lloyd hesitantly held his out too. Zelos let out a laugh.

"Hunny! Bud! Knew I could count on you two." He yanked a bottle out of his bag and proceeded to pour some of the contents into each of our mugs. It was the whiskey Lloyd had given him for his birthday.

Lloyd stared at his mug with a furrowed brow. "That stuff? Why would you ruin perfectly good hot chocolate?"

"You don't get out much, do you?" Freyr snorted, and held out his own mug.

Then Raine held out her mug, and we all nearly crapped our pants. Zelos poured her what looked like a double shot with barely concealed joy.

"…Raine?" Regal looked over at her, raising an eyebrow.

She sighed. "It's been a long couple of days."

"Hmm." He chuckled… and held out his own mug in defeat.

Hilariously enough, eventually everyone ended up with a boozy hot chocolate in their hands—even Genis, who was looking quite satisfied with the tiny bit he got because it was what Raine defined as a "special occasion, this will never happen again, don't get used to it."

Zelos really was a terrible influence. I smiled at him, grateful for the silly distraction. We hadn't left off on the best note the other day, and I hadn't talked much to him since, but he met my gaze with a wink and I knew right then that we were still cool.

"Say, guys… what's the date, anyway?" the redhead asked after a few minutes.

"To be honest, I have no idea," Raine admitted.

"Umm… November something?" Lloyd tried. "It's still November, right?"

"Ha! Now that's how you can tell you've been on the road too long," Freyr remarked with a smirk. "It's the seventeenth."

"The seventeenth…" Lloyd frowned… and then stiffened, his eyes widening as something seemed to click. "The seventeenth?!" He turned to me. "Your birthday's in three days!"

I blinked, having arrived at the same conclusion a second ago. "…I guess it is." Wow, great. Happy birthday, have a broken arm! What a year.

"Hunnyyyy, that's no way to be!" Zelos exclaimed. "Since we've gotta visit the research lab anyway, let's go to Meltokio next! There's no way you can have a bad time at my party pad."

"We have to sneak through the sewers again…" Genis groaned.

Colette leaned in and tugged lightly on my coat, smiling. "Maybe we can finally have that girls' night! I bet that would cheer Sheena up too."

That perked me up a little; I smiled back. "That's not a bad idea, actually."

"All right, then," Raine said, setting her mug down. "We'll leave in the morning. I'm going to go discuss this with Sheena and see how she's feeling. Try to get some sleep, everyone."

Freyr excused himself as well, and after they were gone we all fell silent once again. Zelos caught my eye, wearing his usual smirk.

"So, hunny… what do you want for your birthday?"

I stared at him for a moment and my brain started to go somewhere it shouldn't have. Feeling my face heat up, I took another gulp of my drink and hoped people would think the flush was due to the alcohol and not my own wandering thoughts.

"… Boots," I said abruptly.

His face fell. "Huh?"

"Oh, yeah, your boots are looking pretty ragged," Genis remarked.

"Yup, they're falling apart."

"That is literally the most boring birthday request I have ever heard in my life," Zelos groaned. "Boots?"

"Steel toe ass kicking boots," I confirmed. "Since my sword is retiring for the time being, and I plan to be kicking many asses in the more literal sense, right, Regal?"

Regal sighed.

And so the conversation dissolved into the usual nonsense, and resulted in most of us bickering over nothing and me demanding a twelve-layer chocolate cake before jerking my mug out for more booze. In the end we were all laughing, and for a brief moment I felt that maybe things might be okay, and maybe we'd get through this.

It was jarring to realize that my birthday was so close already. It was the first one I had ever spent away from home. But… at least I would still be among people I cared about.

A/N: Sorry for the lack of real Zelos fluff despite the holiday. Building up to... something? PATIENCE YOUNG GRASSHOPPERS

Next time: birthday shenanigans! plus plot stuff i guess