Title: excruXiation

Author: trickssi

Rating: T

Disclaimer: I own neither the characters not their scripted antics in Symphonia, Rodeo Ride Tour, and Dawn of the New World.

Description: Coming to terms with oneself is not an easy task, especially with distractions like the Ratatosk upheaval, relationship problems, and friends going berserk. But in order to move forward, Zelos has to destroy an integral part of his past. In this chapter, Cape Fortress happens.

Warnings: Major spoilers for ToS, the Japanese radio drama Rodeo Ride Tour, and Tos: DotNW.

6. Don't Expect

When, after Zelos's mother died, Yuan came to collect the boy to begin his training, the first place they went was an office in a clean, white hallway. Zelos doesn't remember much about it except for the low hum and the jewel-tone carpet exclusive to the room. He was sure he had noticed the gold accents, although his recent memory of the same room might have influenced the timeframe.

Cruxis was nothing if not a towering cluster of well-embellished organizational buildings. And somehow, they remained free of dust even in the sparsest corners. Zelos suspected it had something to do with the way Mithos had built the place―keep out as many traces of humans as possible. But for as creepy as it seemed to anyone not used to the life of an angel, every space was comfortable. The offices were lavishly upholstered. Even the chamber that ultimately housed the body of Martel was stunning to look at and truly a work of art.

Cape Fortress was… not.

Cape Fortress was always more of a cavernous shithole. Not even Exsphere dealers or pirates would use it as a stronghold because the place was mazelike, having been carved out and furnished only to be abandoned by a failing kingdom some thousands of years ago when Tethe'alla was in decline. Not to mention, the pathways inside of the halls were big enough for all sizes of monsters to venture there. In another twist of evolution's knife, the creatures endemic to the area were known to produce the foulest-smelling bodily fluids known to Tethe'alla. It was poisonous, dangerous, and full of way, way too many staircases. So of course it was perfect for the Vanguard.

When the group arrived―not before a long day's travel and endless non-conversations―it seemed like the place hadn't improved much. It had, however, gotten a little redder than Zelos remembered. The Vanguard flags were pasted upon the walls in the gaudiest manner possible. It wasn't surprising that the Vanguard didn't actually hold meetings there very often.

"Here we are," Marta said sheepishly, gesturing at the obvious entrance. It reminded him of so many temples.

"So this is the Vanguard's base… Man, what a total dump," Zelos remarked.

Tenebrae, who had been resting beside Marta, said, "Making it ornate would serve little purpose."

"Look, I know you were all locked up with some sort of Summon Spirit thing for a long time and all, but have you not noticed standards of living? What kind of scum locks a guy's poor sister up in a place like this?!" he ranted. Tenebrae was beginning to really piss him off. Was it his nature to be so contradictory? Didn't he know everything in the world? And for god's sake, would he stop floating around and using his powers all the time? It was annoying.

"You were expecting one of those immaculate, luxurious revolutionary soldier camps?"

Zelos snapped. "A little of you goes a long way, Tenny."

"I might say the same thing about you, sir," Tenebrae smarmily countered.

"You got that right," Sheena said, followed by Regal's, "Indeed," and a quiet, "Yeah," from Emil.

Regal continued a thought. "However, this place is not very well-guarded. We ought to advance to an inner chamber." He moved forward.

Zelos hung his head briefly. "Come on, guys, where's the love?" he entreated. It wouldn't be the first time an entire party would be biased against him. Except this time, it was because of something he actually felt and wanted to fight for. Didn't Tenebrae know about Cruxis and the way Zelos was raised? Didn't he know how bad Seles's condition was? He couldn't trust these people, or things (Tenebrae), outright. There was a lot to worry about with the Vanguard. They hadn't been established for four thousand years and their kidnapping schemes would be a wild card. Seles might not be killed immediately, but if she were away from treatment or rest long enough…

Meanwhile, Marta had begun to move everyone inside the fortress. Tenebrae and Emil had taken up the lead with her while Regal kept behind a short distance. Like Zelos, Sheena hadn't even begun to walk.

Zelos glanced at her then. When he locked eyes with her, though brief it was, he felt the same stretched-out guilt in his soul the same as he had on the day he last saw her. Can't you tell what I'm thinking?

"Hey, um, I don't want to spoil your moment, but we should get moving," Sheena said quietly.

"'M not having a moment, Sheena. I mean, that Centurion…" He suddenly lost all the words he could have said.

Without missing a beat, Sheena replied, "Well, it'd be better to think about it while getting Seles, wouldn't it? I mean, I get it. Just follow me if you're not up for leading today." She began to follow the group.

"Man, what is with you?" Zelos called, having no other way to reach out to her.

Sheena turned around. "You really can't figure it out? Man, you're thick."

"… So we're back to this." He sighed.

And every time they met from now on, it would always be this distanced, pretend-polite putting up with each other; wouldn't it? They would have the years of history between them forming a gap rather than a bind. He wondered if anyone else saw that gap every time he spoke to her or how badly he wanted to cross it.

"Hey, I owe Seles," Sheena said firmly, ignoring the root of his comment. Then her face softened. "… Besides, I'm sick of everyone saying her name wrong."

They both cracked a grin. Zelos said, "These people seem to pronounce a lot of things wrong. Maybe we should go and set 'em straight." At least it was some common ground. But it wasn't a replacement for the ease of conversation they used to have.

"Yeah, okay. Get a move on, Zelos." Sheena shooed him into the Cape Fortress entrance. The pair walked quickly to catch up with the rest of the group.

It was dark and humid, so the use of torches lining the walls did nothing to diminish their discomfort. Regal mostly kept to himself, although he did entertain a few exchanges with Tenebrae. Marta and Emil walked side-by-side without saying much, except for Marta's occasional directions through the place.

"We've got one more staircase until we make it to the main entrance," she explained.

"Oh goody," Tenebrae snorted. "Are there going to be tons of monsters or just lots of monsters?"

"Are there really that many monsters here?" Emil squeaked. "I don't know if I'm up for that…"

"Oh, Emil, I'm sure you'll be there to rescue me if it gets too bad! And don't forget, I'll protect you, too!" Marta squealed, perking up for the first time since they had arrived. Zelos had to admit that his gut churned a little every time Marta said something sugary to the boy. Was it that she was so hopeful in a time of distress? Everything about her was a veneer until it came to mentioning the Vanguard. There was something she wasn't telling anybody about, likely not as horrifically secretive as what he'd signed up for, but definitely dangerous. Aside from the fact that the Vanguard would continue to pursue her for the Ratatosk's core inside her head, there was something else that they needed from her. She left for another reason.

"I hope Seles is okay," Sheena thought out loud. To be fair, it had been a while since Seles had attacked anyone with anything but words. But if the danger she was in was real, it was essentially another product of Sylvarant.

Zelos glared at the back of Marta's head. "Let's just say that if she's not okay, I'll make sure the Vanguard pays with their lives."

"I'm sorry," Marta offered, turning to face Zelos, who quickly changed his expression from clearly irritated to vaguely confused.

"Y'know, doll, I wish I could say, 'it's fine, don't worry about it,' but I really can't this time," Zelos said.

As they rounded the last corner, Sheena ended up at the front of the group and ended up whipping around to chide the Chosen. "Don't you think that's a little harsh to say? She's just a girl, Zelos."

There was a moment of quiet where what sounded like wind rustled along the walls of the fortress.

"Sheena! Behind you!" Regal called suddenly.


"Look out!" Emil shouted, his voice deepening to signify imminent attack. Zelos couldn't see what they were telling her to avoid for the dark. Nevertheless, he thumbed the hilt of his sword to pop the blade out just in case there was an actual opponent. It was odd that he didn't sense anything if the others did.

Sheena lifted herself over and backward into a flip, landing as gracefully as a traveling gypsy acrobat. "No sweat!" she proclaimed cockily.

Then, the inevitable.

There was a loud click, a shift like the earthquakes in Meltokio, and the floor panel she had been standing on dropped out. She fell.

"YOU'VE GOTTA BE KIDDING MEEEEEE!" she howled, hurtling into what sounded like a little more than a slight pit.

Instead of running to the edge of the hole, Marta put her hand on her hip and said, "What? Again?!"

Zelos suddenly sensed what the rest of them had been avoiding. It was a moderately large monster, looming beneath the staircase. He was stricken with the lightning bolt of adrenaline. Fight or flight―it couldn't be both, because this fall was sure to be shorter than the Tower of Salvation.

Regal shot Zelos a look of urgency. "I'll go look for her," he insisted, though subtly. I will go take care of Sheena so you can stay on task. "You all, go get Seles." He knelt by the hole then lowered himself down by the arms.

There wasn't a spare moment for Zelos to wonder whether Regal had wings. His hand grasped the sword at his belt as he dashed toward the foe. It appeared to be a mutant rabbit creature based on its large ears and leg structure. He didn't know the name―not that it mattered.

Three swift slashes subdued it and Zelos glanced to make sure the kids were helping out. Sure enough, Emil was yet standing dumbfounded at the pitfall, and Marta was trying to cast while an errant bat flitted at her head.

"Hey! Cover me while I'm casting!" she called to either of them. But the moment Zelos wasted looking elsewhere brought a swipe of claws.

"Emil! You've gotta cover her!" Zelos infused a lightning spell into his next maneuver.

Finally, it seemed that Emil's Ratatosk warrior awoke and ran to protect Marta. It wasn't a long battle, though Zelos had defeated the large rabbit beast singlehandedly before the two others got the bat. He sighed.

"We did it!" Marta said exhaustedly.

Tenebrae materialized and motioned with his tail. "Let's get moving before we meet up with any of its relatives," he advised.

Several monster attacks and hundreds of stairs later, the party decided to rest. There was a gated-off stairwell partway through the fortress where they would make their temporary camp.

Sitting down, Emil said, "I'm glad we can take a break. This place is a lot bigger than I thought it would be."

"Yeah," agreed Marta. "I never knew it was this winding. I was pretty sure it was just a big chamber, like the palace in Meltokio." She folded her legs as she knelt beside the boy. "And I didn't realize they'd have enough space to hold someone hostage and make a pitfall trap."

Tenebrae floated loftily above them. "One would think that we would have run into Regal and Sheena by now, if not Seles as well. Unless, of course, the two of them happened to find Seles and are working on a separate escape."

"Sounds like we'd be on a pointless search, then. Tenny, don't you have some sort of people-searching power thing?" Zelos asked. He was leaning against the wall, thumbs in belt loops. His legs hurt but the pain was dull, and he believed that if he rested now he wouldn't be able to go on. It didn't help that now their mission could be useless. He just didn't have a good feeling about this Cape Fortress place.

"It's Tenebrae. And unfortunately, unless Regal or Sheena has a core, I'm rather unable to locate them," he explained drily. "Additionally, even though Seles is supposed to be in possession of Glacies, I can't sense the presence of any cores at all. Perhaps this fortress protects Centurions from sensing how many or which cores exist within."

"Great," Zelos muttered. Doesn't protect them from acting pretentious, though.

"Hey, wasn't Sheena some sort of a ninja agent?" Marta questioned.

"Assassin," Zelos corrected. "Or at least she tried to be."

The girl continued, "She should be able to find anyone with stealth, then!"

While Zelos was somewhat impressed by her faith in a woman she hardly knew, Emil pulled a strange face. "If Sheena was an assassin, why did she get fooled by that low-tech trap at the entrance?" he remarked.

Tenebrae chuckled. "From what we've heard, she struggled with this a bit in your previous journey as well."

"―And! This isn't the first time it's happened on this trip, either," Marta added.

Zelos's eyebrows crept into confusion. "… For real?" The other three nodded in consent. "… Wow. Even I didn't think she'd be that much of a klutz."

"To be fair," Tenebrae offered, "anybody could have fallen into that trap. If you had attacked that monster before it snuck up on her, we could all have fallen together. Except, of course, for me, since, well, haha, I'm not like you humans. I can't fall!"

Zelos glared at him. "No need to rub it in." He took a second to release a heavy sigh. "First Seles was abducted, then Lloyd turned out to be an impersonator, and THEN Sheena fell into yet another trapdoor. Why do things like this keep happening around me?" he mused.

With an almost rehearsed air, Emil stuttered, "I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry, too," Marta chimed in.

"… Why are you guys sorry?"

"W-well..." Both of them remained silent and became interested more in the dirt floor. That moment showed the youth in their faces, the sunken hope. They were burdening themselves with far more than they should. Truly, Seles's kidnapping would have happened regardless of what those two had done because Tokunaga would have gotten that core for her no matter what. Lloyd was being impersonated long before any of them knew what was going on. And Sheena… well, they'd seen her history with traps. She would always need to be rescued if she kept running in front of the pack. Her disappearances were, at times, far too convenient.

Better to keep the kids happy and hopeful, because Zelos sure as heck wasn't representing the welcome wagon. "… Come on, you're making me feel like the bad guy. Cheer up! No more sad, depressing faces. You're young!"

"But it's all our fault. If not for us, Seles would be safe," Marta lamented.

Zelos shifted weight and knelt down next to the pair. "If you really wanna help, the best thing you can do is focus on the task at hand. None of your apologies are going to bring us closer to finding Seles." Marta brought her eyes up to meet his but her mouth was still in a guilty twist. "All I want to do is save my sister. I don't want to make you miserable. That's not my style. You understand, right?"

Emil nodded. "Right. We'll save Seles!"

"There, that's the spirit. Maybe I'll even cook you something once we get back to my mansion!" Zelos offered. That is, if they ever got to Seles in the first place.

But Emil and Marta hadn't reached that conclusion and were smiling instead. Tenebrae turned to Zelos. "You are much kinder than one would expect."

"What?" he stammered, fake-insulted. "How could you gaze upon this epitome of manliness and think otherwise?" There. Walls back in place.

"Ah, you'll have to excuse me. It would appear the standards of manliness between monsters and humans differ greatly," Tenebrae dug.

Zelos's eyes narrowed. "You might make a great piece of steak at that dinner," he said.

Marta giggled. "Emil, I think he's saying you're the manliest one here!"

"Aaaaall right, drink some water and let's keep going. The longer we wait, the likelier it is that Seles is being tortured."

"There! That has to be it," Marta exclaimed. She was pointing to a large entryway obviously leading to the royal chamber. However, it was guarded, as many other paths in the fortress, by large iron bars.

"But how are we supposed to get past it if those bars are there?" Emil asked.

"Do you think we have to press a switch like the other traps?"

Tenebrae again materialized, having traveled invisibly during the monster battles. "It would be wasteful to double back and press all the switches to see if they open this door. Perhaps there's something in the area that will trigger or unlock it."

The area was swathed in torchlight from six statues of creatures that lined the corridor. Each statue represented a different species and each torch was lower to the ground than the sconce torches lining the rest of the walls. Based on his experience, Zelos would say that the torches were either moveable or were meant to be extinguished.

"It's gotta be those torches," Zelos said. "They look out-of-place. I've seen this before. Marta, dear, would you try to pick that one up?" He gestured to the nearest one on the left wall. Marta compliantly reached for the torch.

"It's… it's not coming out," she replied.

Tenebrae floated a little further in the corridor. Fine with Zelos; if he was able to materialize on the other side of the fence and find what was on the other side, perhaps they'd be able to pass more quickly.

"My next guess is that we have to put out the light. Anybody wanna try blowing on it?" He thought about his word choice. "Hah. Blowing. No response? Noooo response, okay… five-year-olds, right."

But Marta and Emil were distracted. "Lady Marta, Emil! Up ahead," Tenebrae called.

"What, I'm chop liver?" Zelos muttered. Nah, he was the one with the plan.

The brats ran ahead of Zelos to the end of the corridor. "Zelos, look! I'll bet this changes the Sorcerer's Ring to wind to blow out the fire!" Emil said, gesturing to a familiar silver well.

When Zelos caught up, he asked, "Sorcerer's Ring? How'd you get that? I thought it was Lloyd's, or Colette's."

"Well, you see, when I became a Knight of Ratatosk, it was passed down to me," Emil explained.

"But―but Lloyd wasn't ever a Knight of anything, much less this Rata-touille character. That doesn't make sense."

"Perhaps," Tenebrae interjected, "the Ring was used for different purposes when Ratatosk wasn't reigning supreme."

"I… I don't get it. You'd think that Summon Spirits would have had it, then," Zelos said. "Transferred to summoners or even Mithos… the Hero, and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have given it up for a long time." Sometimes he had to remember to bite his tongue when it came to Cruxis history. For all the progress made in Tethe'alla after the Regeneration, the masses were still highly unaware of the non-existence of a goddess Martel. Zelos and Lloyd's group as well as the higher-ups in Cruxis knew that Martel was only ever really a person, and a half-elf at that. He supposed that the Church didn't find it the best publicity to advertise that there was no goddess and their religious efforts were a scam. Best not to mention that Mithos wasn't a Hero, either: just a crazy, slightly incestuous, slightly homoerotic half-elf.

"Well, I'm not sure how that works, but look! The ring has a water element. Does that mean we extinguish the flames with it?" Marta said.

"It sure doesn't mean we have a wet t-shirt contest," Zelos remarked. Though Marta blushed, Zelos had to remind himself that they were too young for his brand of off-putting humor.

"I'd say that's enough of that," Tenebrae chided. Emil pointed his hand at the closest torch.

"Wait!" Zelos snapped. "You can't just douse them in any random order. Usually there's a hint to this sort of thing. Otherwise, we'll have to figure out how to light them all again. More time wasted."

"O-okay," Emil said.

"Wow, Zelos, you sure think of everything," Marta complimented.

"Once again, how are you people surprised? I won't even say it's because I'm so beautiful and talented. Really, it's because I was trained to do this kinda thing," he replied.

While Marta was busy awing at him, Zelos took to exploring the other branches of the t-split hallway. More statues. On the right, there was a blue-tinted statue, and on the left was a red-tinted one.

"These look like the main cues. They're different from the other statues," he directed at Emil and Marta.

"Oh! There's a plaque on the wall," Emil said, now pointing to the wall near the red statue. "Let's go!" He led Marta and Zelos toward it.

Squinting at the slab, Zelos said, "Huh! Whaddaya know. It's in the common language."

"It says… we have to press the buttons on the statues after we extinguish the flames in this order," Marta read. " 'The red knight protected the fortress from a monster with sharp claws and a bent beak―'"

"Wait!" Tenebrae cautioned. "Perhaps we should read it out loud as Emil directs the water onto the torches."

"Right!" Emil trotted back to the hall of statues.

Marta continued to call out once Emil was in place. "Okay. 'The red knight protected the fortress from…'"

But the red-tinted statue caught Zelos's eye again. Upon closer inspection, that is, underneath the helmet decoration, he noticed the facial structure and hair styling of the human figure inside. He could have screamed. Instead, he let out an exasperated sigh and mumbled, "No way. Oh, no way."

"What is it, Chosen-to-Be-Observant One?" Tenebrae inquired.

The news was above the Centurion's sarcasm. "This statue. I know this guy."

"How is that possible? This stone looks to be hundreds of years old. Unless you're immortal, it seems unlikely that you would know the red knight."

"No, I'm not immortal, but funny you should say that. It's not just any red knight," Zelos sighed. "It's Kratos. Kratos Aurion. Has to be."

"Who is this Kratos Aurion of whom you speak? I'm not familiar."

"Wait, aren't you… Oh, this must have been during the time you were asleep. Kratos is a―" Zelos stopped himself abruptly. He realized in that moment that he didn't have to tell Tenebrae who Kratos was. He didn't have to tell the whole story of Cruxis, from the Angels to the making of Exspheres. Hell, none of these souls knew about his flip-flopping with Renegades, nor did they know who the Renegades were. They didn't know about his betrayal at the Tower.

… They would never have to know about his betrayal.

He was a new man, or at least enough of one.

"―Well, Kratos is a member of Cruxis who just so happens to be immortal. Part of the whole Tethe'alla-gets-technology thing. It wouldn't surprise me that he was at this fortress hundreds of years ago. It was before he got distracted and ran off on his own," Zelos explained. "And I'll bet… Can you see if that blue-tinted statue has a ponytail, by chance?"

Tenebrae nodded, poofed himself over to the blue statue, then returned to the red side. "It appears as such."

"That'd be Yuan. No way," Zelos laughed. "I can't believe they were here before. Not even I would have guessed that."

"And you know everything, is that right?"

Zelos smirked. "Sure is." Nobody had to know.

Emil approached them, having completed his task. "So do we press the switch now?"

"Lady Marta, the honor is yours," Tenebrae said.

"Goody!" Marta shouted and pressed the red knight's switch. For all of their naïveté, the three of them made a pretty good team. In fact, they may have been more cooperative than the Regeneration group.

At the pressing, a loud rumble shook the ground. At last, the iron bars descended and the large entryway was open. And there was that electricity running through Zelos's veins again, and circling back to his Cruxis crystal. They would be able to get to Seles. His time to shine. "Let's go."

When met with the sounds of live steel clashing, Zelos was uneasy. At the bottom of the stairs would surely be a battle―he only hoped they weren't too late. After all, Seles, Sheena, and Regal didn't have swords on them.

The group followed through an archway, and there it was: Two Lloyds fighting each other with identical weapons. Well, it wasn't two Lloyds. One had to have been that guy that Marta reassured him was able to impersonate Lloyd. Zelos knew it from the smell. But Seles was nowhere in sight.

"There are two Lloyds?" Emil exclaimed.

"One of them has to be Decus!" Marta replied.

Momentarily, Lloyd stopped battling Lloyd and held a defensive stance. "Come on! Give me a hand! Help me defeat this fake Lloyd!"

The other Lloyd then advised, "Don't let him fool you! He's the imposter!"

Zelos took a discerning look at both Lloyds. Every detail from the split-ended haircut to the stains on the tails of his jacket was exactly the same on one as the other. Decus, whichever one he was, must have taken the transformation into effect shortly before they had arrived. Although, there was one thing that Decus could truly not replicate. It was something unique to Lloyd alone, just as was the woman that comprised it: the Exsphere on his hand. However, that would be a hard thing to test by looks alone.

He would have to rely on his Cruxis Crystal. If what Seles said was true about Exspheres having mates, then Zelos's Cruxis Crystal would be able to tell whether Lloyd's Exsphere was fake or not. Wouldn't it? He closed his eyes and focused his thoughts into the little jewel on his chest. Come on, give me something. Come on, come on, come on…

He felt a tendril reach out, intangible and light, toward his right. The sharp pain was necessary.

"If one of them is Decus, he should reek of that cologne," Marta noted.

"The smell is overpowering everything. I can't tell which one it's coming from," Zelos said. It wasn't a lie; he really couldn't smell which was which. But he did know now that Decus was the left-hand Lloyd.

"Damn it! This is ridiculous!" the real Lloyd cried.

"I trust all of you! I know justice will prevail and you'll make the right choice!" Decus-as-Lloyd flailed his arms in the air victoriously. Man, if those two kids didn't see the act by now, they'd never get it. As a precaution, Zelos drew his sword.

"Emil! What should we do?" Marta whispered. Zelos watched as Emil nervously glanced between Lloyds. He soon fixed his eyes on the left-hand one.

"This one! This is the imposter!" he declared, swinging his sword at Decus. Decus flew across the room and landed on a slab of broken column so roughly that it caused him to revert to his true form.

Zelos shared a moment with Lloyd in which they glanced at each other, then took defensive stances behind Emil and Marta. It occurred to Zelos why Lloyd was there in the first place. He wasn't trying to save Seles or steal her core. He was there to get one from Decus. Perhaps Seles's core would come later, but for now, his battle was definitely against Decus. If it wasn't, why would they be on the same side?

"Decus!" Marta exclaimed. "I can't believe it. You're… you're the one responsible for attacking Palmacosta and destroying all those cities!" Her voice hitched.

All too casually, Decus said, "Aw, crap, you found me out. Damn it, I was supposed to keep all of this a secret from you, Marta."

"W-what are you talking about? So then… Daddy ordered you to…?"

Uh oh.

"Daddy? What do you mean, 'Daddy?'" Emil asked.

Decus, leaning against a large sapphire-colored coffin object, laughed, "Oh, I see. You didn't tell them, did you? Yes, of course! If you did, you wouldn't be able to stay with them…"

In an uncharacteristic tone, Emil asked, "What does he mean, Marta?" His eyes, still big and green, narrowed. Marta couldn't even bring herself to look at him.

Suddenly, a new voice spoke. "Our dear little Martmart is the only daughter of the Vanguard's great commander, Brute!" Zelos whipped his head around to see that the voice belonged to none other than Alice. He was almost diabetic for the sugar in her voice, which he imagined was laced with little less-than-three hearts.

And―oh god. She was manhandling Seles, who was bound at the wrists.

"Seles!" he called.


"Don't you dare take another step!" Alice barked, twirling her riding crop. To Seles, she said, "I just love breaking the arms of cute little girls like you."

At the sight of Alice threatening his sister, something welled up inside of him hotter than any burning he'd felt from the Cruxis Crystal. And it exploded. "Why, you little BITCH." It was all he could do not to slice her throat right then and there.

"Long as I win," Alice smiled cruelly.

"Yeah, you'd better not badmouth my precious little Alice, or you'll have to answer to me!" Decus threatened. Although it wasn't as threatening with the hot iron hate Zelos held.

"Shut up, Decus. Now, be good kids and hand over your cores and your weapons! Why, Martmart can bring them to us," Alice instructed.

Suddenly, Emil spoke up. "Why are you doing this? What do you want with the Centurions' cores?"

Alice remained tight-lipped and wild-eyed.

"We only really need Ratatosk's core. Commander Brute wants the rest for his little collection," Decus said, likely only saying so to show off. Funny how Alice had called Emil's group "kids" and her companion acted more juvenile than all of them combined.

"Decus! Stop answering their questions!" Alice hissed.

With a flamboyant bow, Decus apologized to his "dear" Alice. Oh, please, Zelos thought.

"NOW, Martmart. And do your best to be quick about it."

Zelos could see that Marta was actually considering surrendering herself to Alice. But in a flash―literally, a flash―something punched Alice hard enough to knock her backwards and off Seles. Except that something wasn't a thing, it was a someone. Except that someone wasn't anyone, but the actual most unlikely person it possibly could have been.


"Not so fast!" the ninja shouted. Simultaneously, a glowing circle zipped through the dank air. It boomeranged back to its owner, Colette, who had appeared beside Sheena.

"We're not gonna let you!" Colette said. She hadn't changed a bit. After putting her discs away, she put a protective arm around Seles.

Suddenly, Regal shouted from the far wall, "So sorry to disappoint you!" and kicked Decus down to the ground. Now that their entourage was complete, Zelos was not one bit surprised that the operation had been a success. Of course, the Regeneration group worked harder than any other people in the world. If the Vanguard really cared, they'd stop deploying soldiers elsewhere and protect their own damn fortress. Did they know what they were dealing with?

Sword still drawn, he asked, "Colette, is Seles okay?"

"We'll take care of her. Lloyd, this way!" Colette replied. Obediently, Lloyd ran over and also put his arm around Seles, whom they escorted through a back door.

"You're not getting away!" Alice cried, then followed after Lloyd, Colette, and Seles. Just as Zelos sprung to run after them, Decus brought his coffin over and blocked the way. Zelos followed them with his eyes and could have sworn he saw a flash of bright light from Colette before they disappeared―angel wings. That was something Alice didn't have, for sure. They'd be fine.

"Not so fast, Red. Don't interfere with my Alice. I'll protect her no matter what!" Decus swore.

"Oh, really? You're gonna stop me? You can't even put on cologne without screwing it up, you miserable lout!" Zelos replied. Finally, he'd put his sword to good use.

When Decus was finally brought to his hands and knees, the Glacies core became dislodged and dropped to the floor. It rolled just enough that Marta was able to pick it up and guard it.

Decus muttered something that was unintelligible to Zelos, who was catching his breath farthest from the foe.

"Decus, did Daddy really order you to do all of that? Did he order you to attack Palmacosta?" Marta asked, cautious.

"I was ordered to use the power of the Centurion's core to transform into Lloyd, then attack a meeting of the Vanguard. That would allow us to wipe out our internal dissent, and place all of the blame on the Church of Martel," Decus explained, barely loud enough to hear. But there was something else that was making sound. Zelos surveyed the area, where aside from Marta, nobody had moved since the end of the battle.

"No, Decus…" Marta said quietly.

Then it became clear. As though he saw it right in front of him, he could tell that someone was approaching him from behind. Right―he was at the archway where they had entered. It was just in time, too. He heard the rush of air where a weapon was surely headed toward them. Whipping around, Zelos guarded the slice of an axe from hitting him or Marta.

Sure enough, behind the handle was the only other soul malicious enough to pursue them this far.

"Richter!" Emil gasped.

"I'll handle this, Decus. Now, go!" Richter said, straining against Zelos's sword.

Marta dashed toward the fleeing Decus. "Wait a minute!" But she was swept up by what looked to be a white and blue siren monster, and thrown against a far wall. Emil's eyes went bright red.

"Man, what is it with you people?!" Zelos shouted. "That's a little girl you're throwing against the wall!"

Richter forced his axe to the side so that it would disengage the blade against it. He turned to Emil, who was focused on Marta. The three of them weren't concerned with Decus's getting away, but Regal and Sheena did. They followed him hastily.

"Emil, farewell," Richter said and pounced on the boy.

His fighting style was a cross between berserker and mage. Since Zelos knew of Richter's half-elven heritage, it was easy for him to predict when a spell would be cast in place of a sword attack. He would pace his sword thrusts to interrupt spell casting, then run back to cast his own magic when he could. But he ended up serving as a bit of a healer. He imagined being thrown against a wall impeded Marta from healing at full capacity. And Tenebrae simply floating in the corner and watching with a concentrated stare wasn't helping the three of them any. He'd wished that at least Regal had stayed to help them fight. Sheena would have just distracted him when clearly Emil and Marta needed him more.

After a rather arduous handful of minutes, Richter and Emil arrived at a standstill. But Richter only took a few breaths until reaching out and lifting the helpless boy by the throat. Zelos was still busy healing Marta―there was only so much he could do.

"Emil, I won't ask you to forgive me. You can curse me in hell instead," Richter threatened.

"N-no, Rich―ter!" Emil stammered, clawing at the man's arms.

Somewhere during the plea, Richter softened. Barely above a whisper, "Aster."

And Zelos heard it and knew what it meant, only wondering if Tenebrae or Marta or Emil knew. Perhaps Zelos didn't know the whole truth, but based on that look in Richter's eyes, something must have happened between him and that Aster guy that reminded him of this situation. A reversal? Did Aster leave Richter at one point, and Richter had pleaded like that? Either way, the flash of empathy really humanized Richter, for whatever it was worth.

Emil crumpled to the ground, and Richter turned and left, his strange blue-and-white monster friend in tow.

"Come on, Seles is still in trouble!" Zelos called. Marta helped Emil to stand and follow.

In the next room, thankfully, a battle was not in progress (again). Alice stood in front of Lloyd, Colette, Sheena, Regal, and of course, Seles, who was now useless to the Vanguard.

Lloyd was acting as the voice of the group, reasoning with Alice in some way or another. "You don't need those cores for your goals," he assured.

Weakly, Emil spoke up. "Your goal is to revive the Sylvarant Dynasty, right?"

Zelos looked at him, dumbstruck at the information. He knew aaaaall about the Sylvarant Dynasty. What's more, he'd learned it from the mouths of people who were alive during the short time that it had happened. Rather, angels. The most important fact was that it wasn't a dynasty, it was just two strong kings in a row followed by a lousy one whose Chosen was defeated by Tethe'alla's. They built a couple of cool buildings and temples and had the most advanced society that Sylvarant would ever experience. But they weren't anything to aspire to, really. They weren't despots or champions; just lucky. And that was partially due to the fact that Mithos was curious to see what would happen if the world of the elves suffered a little.

"The Sylvarant Dynasty? Please. You guys can't be serious."

"Oh, our commander is quite serious. He is a descendant from the Sylvarant Dynasty, which fell eight hundred years ago," Alice bragged. That was the sign that she was stark, entirely full of crap and ignorant to boot.

Before Zelos could insult her and get an upper hand, his Cruxis Crystal gave him an indication that they were not alone with Alice. "Someone's above us," he warned the group, looking up to confirm his suspicion of Decus.

Smugly, Decus said, "Did you know that the Sylvarant Dynasty was destroyed by the Cruxis Angels and the Church of Martel?"

Wonder what he'd do if he saw my wings, Zelos thought.

"Dear Martmart, come back to the Vanguard. If you bring back Ratatosk's core, Commander Brute will forgive you," Alice offered.

"No way! I'll never go back. I took Ratatosk's core on purpose to stop Daddy's foolish ambitions once and for all," Marta replied.

"Nobody likes a strong-willed little girl." Alice, barely more than a girl herself, turned to summon a flying monster pet of hers. "Let's go, Decus."

"I'll follow you to the end of the earth," the man replied, hauling his coffin onto the monster before they took off.

There was a collective moment of anticipation, then a sigh of relief. It was easier than they had thought to keep the Vanguard at bay. Again, perhaps they didn't know what they were dealing with. The moment passed, and Regal ventured to say, "We are all wounded and tired. Let's go back to Meltokio for now. Is that okay, Zelos?"

He nodded. "Yeah, my mansion is perfect for that sort of thing."

"Let's go," Lloyd asserted, the leader in him stronger than ever.

Colette, who had been standing off to the side with Seles, suddenly jerked to the side. Seles had fainted and the angel was attempting to hold her up. Of course, Zelos rushed to help, and knew he would be the one carrying Seles on his back on their way out of Cape Fortress. Only, he wondered if Seles wasn't the reason Lloyd was still following them.

During the long journey up the stairs and out toward the light, Lloyd was unreachable. He wouldn't even answer to Colette. Seles wasn't heavy, but since the group didn't rest until they emerged into the light, Zelos's legs could hardly carry him. He had to set her down on a stair.

Thoughtfully, Sheena had called for her agents to arrange for a couple carriages for their ride to the city. They had camouflaged canopies and were led by domesticated monsters, driverless since Mizuho scouts knew no common folk were allowed knowledge of Sheena's business. Lloyd took about one look at the setup and said, "I've changed my mind."

Nervous and obliged to handle the situation, Emil interjected, "Lloyd! I'm sorry for the way I acted. It's my fault!"

"It's nothing you should feel bad about. I had no intention of staying to explain myself from the beginning."

"There's only one way we can remove Ratatosk's core from Marta. We have to hatch all of the cores and wake up Ratatosk himself. Why are you after the cores? Maybe we can work together, hatch them for us and get them for you?" Emil bargained.

"Yeah, let's work together. You can start by handing over your cores, right now!" Lloyd barked. He drew his swords and glared at the boy. Obviously, this wasn't what the old Lloyd would do.

"This isn't like you!" Sheena shouted to try and distract him.

"Lloyd, please, don't hurt yourself," Colette pleaded. Her face was more sullen than Zelos had ever seen it.

"There's nothing I can say for now," Lloyd finally said. He left without another word, following the side of the building to where everyone was sure he had parked his Rheaird.

"―We have to go after him!" Emil said, ready to dash forward.

Zelos put his hand on his hip. "It's no use. He's got a Rheaird and we're travelling by land. It's not worth it to carry on." He glanced at Seles, who still looked like she needed rest pretty badly.

"Come on, get in the carriages. I'll take Emil and Marta. Regal, can you drive Colette, Zelos, and Seles?" Sheena said. Regal nodded, and they took what supplies they had into the carriage with them.

The ride was fairly short thanks to the monsters, but getting into the city was as much of a pain as ever. When Sheena's carriage arrived at the front gate, it was met with a few guards. Because Sheena was an emissary, she got through with no problem, but advised via scout system that Regal take the other carriage to the back of the city. If rumor got around that Seles was injured and coming into the city, surely some less-than-fans would try to cause her harm. Man, this was such a pain.

Instead of being able to reach the back way into the city, the carriage was impeded by its wheels. Begrudgingly, Zelos and Colette had to use their Cruxis-given wings to lift Regal and Seles up over the city walls and into the Wilder mansion garden.

"By the way, Regal," Zelos said as he set the man down, "What's up with you and Sheena being so buddy-buddy lately? Y'know, Mizuho connections and whatnot?"

"Ah, well," Regal muttered. "I can't tell you the details, but it has to do with the protection of Lezareno. Don't worry. My intentions are simply that of a business partner." He smirked at Zelos's confused expression.

"Oh, well, I wasn't worried, I'm just wondering why she can talk to you but not me." He plodded to the door.

Tokunaga attended to Seles and saw her to bed―just as well, since it might have been his fault for buying the core in the first place. Meanwhile, Sebastian ordered the kitchen staff to prepare a meal for the guests. The group took turns washing up and lounging in the living room, which was actually not the room at the front entrance of the house but rather a corner room overlooking the garden.

"Um, Mister Zelos, your house is… it's really… big," Emil said. Marta gently hit his shoulder.

"Emil! I think what he's trying to say is that it's lovely," Marta covered.

"Well, it is the second-biggest in the country," Zelos explained, "behind the palace, which apparently counts because the King sleeps there."

"Probably second-biggest in the world, now, considering Sylvarant's biggest buildings are cathedrals and shrines," Sheena commented from the other side of the room. Her legs were crossed in the single big leather chair. The room was furnished with large couches and even a chaise lounge, upon which Marta had chosen to sit. For the full-length windows and solid gold accents, everything was swallowed up in grandiose nature. It made Zelos feel guilty that the teenagers present had all grown up in less-than-civil conditions: attacked Palmacosta, construction-era Luin, and, Colette still being eighteen, primitive Iselia. But if not for this privilege, Zelos might never have had access to the wealth of information that protected them unknowingly.

"Sylvarant… right."

Marta's face fell once more. Instead of trying to tiptoe around the topic, Zelos pushed it. "Marta, is it true that the Vanguard wants to revive whatever of the Sylvarant Dynasty is left to destroy Tethe'alla?"

"They… They want to destroy the Church of Martel and the Royal family to upset the country's foundation. And they need Ratatosk's core to do it." She brushed her bangs out in front of her face.

"Ratatosk's core alone can do that?" Emil questioned.

"They plan on using it to power some weapon called the mana cannon."

Sheena sat straight up. "No way!"

"You've heard of it?" Emil asked. Regal and Colette shared a knowing look before Sheena spoke up again.

"Yes, I've used it myself. It takes the energy of half the Summon Spirits combined to power it at all. If left in the wrong hands, it could destroy the entire world…"

There was a pause in conversation. Regal suddenly said, "We need to come up with a plan if we are going to successfully halt the Vanguard. Let's list the things we have to cover."

"Well, there's the mana cannon. Tethe'alla doesn't even know it exists, and I have no idea how Sylvarant found out about it," Sheena said.

"Can I assume something for a minute? 'Cause knowing Yuan, the confidentiality among the Renegades was pretty weak. I know for a fact that some of the Renegades joined the Vanguard because of the benefits and their mercenary background. If even one of them mentioned the mana cannon, I'll bet he was promoted that second," Zelos announced. "So, since the only other organized fighting group is the Church of Martel, I'm gonna have to have an audience with the King." As an aside to Emil, he added, "Not the Pope, though, I'm not gonna mess with him again. Heh."

Colette spoke next. "And Iselia is near the mana cannon. I have to go back and warn them. Is there any way we can find Professor Sage?"

"I guess I'll leave that to some Mizuho scouts. Raine and Genis and Presea, too, right? We're gonna need all the help we can get," Sheena said.

"Emil, what are you going to do next?" Regal asked.

"Well, I was going to free the rest of the cores with Marta. That way, we can free Ratatosk and also stop the Vanguard from using the mana cannon. Right, Marta?"

Marta nodded.

Regal responded, "Then I shall continue to accompany you. I don't pretend to understand what Lloyd is thinking. But perhaps I could be of help the next time you face him."

Sheena looked from Regal to Emil, then to Marta. "I think I'll go, too. If we end up having to stop the mana cannon, my powers might come in handy. And… I can't throw my support to Lloyd until I know what he's about."

"Then I can't go," Zelos said. He shot an aggressive look at Sheena. If that was her problem, fine. "I'm sure Lloyd has his reasons. I'm gonna search for him after I'm done with the Royals. I know he wouldn't do anything to endanger the world in the meantime."

Colette sat up. "I feel the same way. I want to find Lloyd and help him."

"So Emil and Marta will look for the cores. After Sheena contacts Mizuho, she and I will accompany their party. Perhaps Genis, Raine, and Presea will be able to meet up with us. Zelos will go to the palace, and Colette to Iselia, and from there they will attempt to find Lloyd. Is this information correct?" Regal summarized. Every head nodded resolutely.

Then, Tenebrae poofed into the room. "Well, I suppose it's correct, although I guess I should expect to be forgotten," he remarked.

Marta smiled for the first time in a while. "Oh, Tenebrae, we haven't forgotten about you! You're coming with me!"

Zelos could have sworn he saw Sheena's eyes widen in annoyance.

Sebastian appeared at the doorway just then. "Ladies and gentlemen, your dinner is served," he said. He bowed to each member of the group as they passed through to the dining room. Zelos, of course, let everyone else enter ahead of him. He had to at least appear to still be a nobleman of Meltokio, even if it was full of superfluous ceremony.

Upon entering the room, he had noticed that the placing around the table was Colette and Marta on one long side, Regal and Emil on the other, and Sheena at one end. The head of the table was necessarily left for the man of the house. But he couldn't help but be embarrassed and a little annoyed at Sheena's placing. According to Meltokio etiquette, that was usually reserved for the wife of the host, or in lieu of one, the most important woman at the table. He would have thought it would go to Colette.

Before seating himself, Zelos took Sebastian aside. "Sebs, why is Sheena at Colette's placing at the table? You know what that implies and I'm not going to deal with that with the kids here, my petulance aside," he whispered harshly.

Sebastian raised his eyebrows. "Master Zelos, Miss Sheena requested to be at her traditional place. Perhaps she feels most comfortable there."

"When did she do that? I was here the whole time."

"I believe there was a moment whereupon she excused herself to the washroom and found me in the corridor."

Zelos thought for a moment. "Oh. Well. Probably, now that I think about it. Didn't realize we were going to play this game, though."

"It is not my place to say so, but if I were you I would enjoy the solitude of her behavior and cherish these moments while they last. She does not seem confrontational toward you," Sebastian recommended. "I repeat that I know it is not my place."

Sighing, Zelos turned to his chair. "All right, but I might blame you later."

"What's for dinner, Zelos?" Colette asked cheerily. "I always know it'll be a gourmet meal from you."

"I didn't actually cook it, so I don't know. Sebastian?"

Headed out to retrieve the pre-course salad, Sebastian quickly answered, "Curry rice, sir."

Zelos could hardly stop himself from glancing at Sheena, whose favorite and in fact signature dish it was. Seriously, what else was going to taunt him this hour alone? It would be a long meal.

As time progressed, conversation got a little lighter. "So anyway, now that you've met the Sage siblings, how did you like them?" Sheena asked Marta.

"Oh! Well, Genis is so smart with magic. I picked up a spell from him, actually! And the Professor was nice, until…" Marta's face soured, politely.

"Haha! So you've met her Ruin Mode, eh?"

"She can be scary when she's a maniac!" Emil added, his mouth half-full of food.

"Oh! Speaking of maniacs," Colette jumped in, "I think that Richter's a maniac, too."

"In what way? Did you meet the guy? 'Cause he does seem a little nuts to me," Sheena said. Zelos smirked.

"No, I mean, you know how Professor Sage is a Ruin Maniac? Richter must be a Chosen maniac. When I met him earlier, he said he needed my Cruxis Crystal!"

"What's a Cruxis Crystal?" Emil asked.

"Oh! That's right. It's this jewel on my neck," Colette demonstrated. "Zelos has one, too, 'cause we're both Chosen Ones. Anyway! When he was trying to take it from me, I tripped and broke a fence. And you know what? Instead of leaving me there, Richter paid for the damage and even let me go! But he did say that the next time we met, he'd need to take it from me. He must be crazy about the Chosen!" When Colette was done with her story, everyone else had a wary look on their faces.

"… I don't… think that's… what…" Marta said hesitantly.

"No, no, she's got a point," Zelos quickly corrected. "I mean, Richter came after my Cruxis Crystal, too. He's looking for its power." He realized that he wasn't exactly ready to explain anything more about Richter. "Or, maybe he's just trying to pick up babes."

Marta giggled (mission accomplished. "Zelos, you're so flighty sometimes!"

"No, Marta, Zelos isn't flighty. He's 'shallow'," Colette explained, giving Zelos a big wink. Oh, she must have thought that "flighty" was referring to his wings, which neither of the kids knew about. It might have been a point of contention if "flighty" didn't mean something entirely different.

"Colette, I have no idea what you're talking about," Zelos stalled.

"But Professor Sage said it! She said you're like a wading pool. Professor Sage can't swim, remember? I think she means she likes Zelos!"

Sometimes Colette made absolutely no sense at all. "Ooookay, sure, I'm a shallow guy with obvious motives and I'm assuming Richter was chasing after you for that reason," Zelos said dismissively. A couple people laughed, and that was all the cover he needed. Thankfully, it was also time for dessert.

After dinner, Zelos showed the guests to their rooms. Since there were only two guest rooms, Colette and Marta took one and Regal and Emil took the other. His own room he gave to Sheena, and he would sleep on the couch in the living room. He figured if he distanced himself from the group, they wouldn't ask prying questions. And truthfully, he wasn't even in the mood to talk to a crowd at all. It was just too hard to keep up appearances anymore. The day and circumstances were exhausting.

Once he had checked on Seles, cleaned up, and put down some linens on the couch, he was resolved to sleep the problems away.

So, of course, someone had to wake him up just as he reached the brink of sleep.


He turned around to see Sheena in a bathrobe and her hair still wet from a shower, like a hazy memory. He couldn't believe she'd actually approach him looking like that. "… Hey," Zelos replied hesitantly. "Do you, ah, need something?"

Sheena smiled slyly. "What, did I catch you off-guard?"

"Tch. Come on. Seriously, why are you here?" he asked, his voice tired and acrid. "There are more blankets in the hallway closet. You know where all this stuff is. I'm trying to catch some shut-eye while I still can."

She lowered her eyes, almost guiltily. "You shouldn't be sleeping on the couch in your own house."

"I'd rather… If it means that you all are better rested to go grab the cores, it's fine with me. Go back upstairs," he said. He couldn't look at her with her hair like that. There was only one time she would let him see her with her hair down, and she wasn't going to let that happen again. Or was she? What was the deal?

"Well, I'll go, then. But… come with me?"

"Give me a break," Zelos sighed. "I don't know what you're trying to do."

"Zelos… Just come lie down with me, please?" she asked softly. "I'm thinkin' about a lot of things."

Very seriously, he paused. "Are we going to have sex? Is that what you want?"

"… I don't know."

"Because that's confusing for me."

"… We don't have to. Maybe I don't want to. Look, whatever happened, you're still my friend. I just… And being back here… I need someone who understands what's going through my head without me actually talking. You don't seem much in the mood for words, yourself. Just come lie down with me." She placed a hand on his shoulder. Almost automatically, his hand went up to cover hers. This wasn't a choice.

"Okay, hunny―er… Let's go before I think about it," he answered, hating how stupid he sounded.

He didn't think about it as he followed her up the stairs, nor the second set of stairs. He didn't think about it when he closed the door and locked it with a gentle click. He didn't even think about it as she let the robe fall from her shoulders, shaking out her damp hair with her hand. It was the natural cycle of things, wasn't it? Pick up where we left off, like always. To think would end the moment.

So he embraced her, he unspeaking and she letting a few tears dot his shoulder, skin to skin because this might be the last moment he ever had to pretend like they hadn't ever left that sunset so many months ago.

The inevitable morning light cut through the fine gap between the curtains and Zelos stirred. He felt the warmth of the sheet underneath him and the cool air on his skin. And he knew that if he turned his head, he would see a mess of black hair. Ah, he was always awake first.

Without wanting to wake her, he gently rolled from his back to his right side, caring not for how his arm would sting with pins and needles. He sighed and curled his left arm around her, put his forehead against the back of her head with his nose at the nape of her neck. He breathed. Lloyd be damned if he tried to take this away from him.

Sheena took a noisy breath in, which signaled her consciousness. Please don't move.

She did move, but it was only to press herself into his chest. They both breathed and he could feel her blinking, looking around.

"Hnnn," she hummed softly.

"Shh," Zelos chided, and squeezed her closer.

"Ugh―can't breathe!"

"Not even sorry about it."

"Zelos, come on."

"Fiiiiine," he conceded, releasing his iron grip. Instead, he brushed her skin with the back of his hand. Was it the roughness of battle making her seem so soft in comparison or was she just that magically smooth?

She turned her head to the side. "You should go."

His forehead began to prickle with sweat. "Yeah, I know."

"I just don't want anyone to get the wrong idea," she sighed. "Especially you."

"I… know. I'll go." Shifting to sit, he kissed her shoulder. But she sat up, too, and gently kissed his lips. Just once.

"Go," she urged, "before I change my mind."

"But Sheeeeeeenaaaaaaaa…" He looked down to his lap where a typical morning problem had arisen. Sharply, she rolled her eyes.

"Don't push your luck."

He sighed. He had to accept it. "All right. Well, good luck. And don't let Tokunaga serve you breakfast," he added as an afterthought. Then, "I, uh… I'll miss you."

"You too. Maybe."

And after he left, she'd deny that night had ever happened.