It was snowing once again in Flanoir, not that it ever really seemed to stop, murky clouds silently covering the city with another layer of frigid white, like a watchful parent drawing a blanket up over a sleeping child, carefully tucking in edges and smoothing out wrinkles, enfolding the buildings in a wintery embrace. The snow was still falling steadily and the hour was approaching midnight when Zelos found himself pacing just as silently down the upstairs hallway of the Olive Village, the local inn.
If he answers the door and agrees to go for a walk with me, I'll tell him.
He knew he'd need the cold to numb him into unfeeling before he'd be able to spill about his past--he'd been arguing with himself about this ever since the other half of the group had rushed off to Altessa's with the doctor. Lloyd could be pretty thick about these things, and Colette and Sheena were the only others still around; they didn't suspect him of anything either, so even if they did happen to overhear his talk with Lloyd or he said too much, he should still be safe.
Standing in front of the door, Zelos paused, toying with the Chosen's Orb at his neck and reconsidering his choices one last time; just when he'd decided to go for it and knock, a resounding CRASH came from the room next door--Colette's, if he remembered correctly, and where girls were involved, he always did. He quickly backtracked and, trying the handle, found her door unlocked. A glance to either side showed only empty halls, so he opened the door just a crack and peered inside.
Colette was in the middle of the floor, in the act of recovering from taking her latest nosedive into the ground, pushing herself back to sit upright. That wasn't at all unusual--he'd seen her fall and get back up countless times--but the expression on her face gave him pause. She looked downright miserable, almost devastated, and seeing that forlorn expression on her perpetually bright and happy face was something of a shock. In all that they'd been through, he couldn't remember ever seeing her look quite that close to tears.
Something was clearly very wrong here. Someone had to cheer that girl up, and who better for the task than the great Zelos Wilder? Grinning to himself, Zelos tossed a few errant strands of fiery red hair back over his shoulder and swept into the room, his face taking on a carefully-schooled look of apprehension.
"Hey, that was a pretty loud crash. You alright in here, Colette?"
The girl quickly turned her face towards the door as it swung open, her gloomy expression dissolving into an embarrassed smile on seeing him standing there. "Oh, Zelos! Did I wake you up? I'm sorry if I worried you…"
Zelos chuckled, stepping forward and reaching out a hand to pull the girl to her feet, letting the door fall closed behind him. "Well now, you should be sorry. Worrying gives you wrinkles, and what will I do if my beautiful face gets all creased and worn like that?" Slipping her arm through his with practised ease, he led her over to the bed, seating her on its edge before looking down at her with seemingly casual concern, hands posted on his hips. "So what happened this time? Floorboards just a little uneven, or…is something wrong."
Colette put up her hands, still smiling that adorably self-depreciating smile. "No, i-it's nothing, I just tripped…"
Zelos looked at that falsely bright smile, feeling uncomfortable and uncertain, two emotions he particularly hated to feel. He of all people knew what it looked like when someone was hiding how they really felt, and that glimpse he'd caught of her face when she hadn't known anyone was looking convinced him that something was really bothering Colette…which left him feeling decidedly ill at ease. He tended to avoid serious issues as much as possible; for years that had been all that had kept him going, skimming over all the many unpleasant things surrounding him, focusing on pleasure, pretending nothing bothered him, nothing was wrong, nothing really mattered.
If this had been Sheena, he would've known what to do right away: he'd just say something to make her angry, since venting or turning her annoyance from herself to someone else always helped her get out of her funks. After all, dwelling on problems or mistakes for too long didn't do anyone any good. But this wasn't Sheena, this was Colette, and Colette was vastly different from the violent ninja girl. She was gentle, openly warm, inwardly strong but not really physically tough…and she was a Chosen, and therefore far too much like himself for Zelos to pretend he hadn't seen her looking like she was about to cry, to simply turn his back and walk away. Her problems were too similar to his own, which meant this would require an entirely new approach.
…Anyway, I don't think I really have what it takes to make her mad…
"Look, I told you before, we Chosen have to stick together," he said with his usual slick demeanor, giving her a wink and a rakish grin. "Now, why don't you tell the great Zelos what's wrong, hmm? …Hey, some guy wasn't bothering you, was he?" he added as Colette hesitated. "I don't let anyone get away with making my cute hunnies cry!"
"No, it's nothing like that…it's my fault really." Even staring down at her hands folded in her lap, she could feel the weight of Zelos' expectant gaze; she only lasted a few seconds beneath the pressure before the rest of the story left her in a rush. "It was snowing earlier, and it was just so cold and beautiful, I wanted Lloyd to see it. So I went to ask him if he wanted to take a walk, but he said no. I thought I was bothering him, and that maybe it was wrong of me to be so happy since Altessa was hurt and suffering right now, so I went back to my room. But I heard voices in the hall a little later, so I peeked out, and saw him going outside…with Sheena."
Zelos blinked in mild surprise--sure, he'd thought Sheena might have developed a little crush on Lloyd, but he'd never thought it was so serious that she'd be bold enough to act on it. Surprising, too, just how jealous he was feeling all of the sudden…
"…It's so awful of me to feel upset like this," Colette said, her tone miserable; Zelos started a bit at how close to his own thoughts her words were (albeit different in tone) and refocused his attention on the tiny blonde girl. He found it oddly touching just how disappointed she looked in herself--not angry at Lloyd or Sheena, but frustrated by her own perceived shortcoming--and once again, he couldn't help but marvel at her. "…I know should be happy for him, and Sheena, too. But Lloyd…he's done so much for me…he's been there for me all this time, and I…I wanted it to be like that forever. I wanted to always stay by his side. I'm so selfish…"
Zelos looked away, feeling his mouth twist in an atypically obvious cynical smile. "…Heh. If you're selfish, then what does that make me...?" he mused. Colette didn't respond--he'd spoken too quietly, and she was too preoccupied with not crying--and as he turned his face towards her again, he noticed she was holding something in the hand that she wasn't using to scrub away gathering tears. "Hey, what've you got there?" he asked, settling himself on the bed beside her, just a little too close for anyone who might walk in on them to consider it casual and platonic, though Colette seemed utterly oblivious to this.
"It's a charm. A Flanoir snow bunny." She opened her hand, holding it out to let him get a better look. "They say it brings good luck. I had them take one to Altessa earlier. I wanted to give this one to Lloyd, but…it…wasn't a good time. And anyway, I think I want give it to you instead. As a thank-you for worrying about me."
With the way she was beaming up at him, there was really no way he could refuse even if he'd wanted to, and he didn't. He was used to having girls give him all sorts of things, from money to food to any number of random items, some of them fairly rare or expensive. What was one more little trinket on top of all that?
…So why does this time seem different somehow? he wondered as he stared at the charm she'd dropped onto his open palm. Abruptly he closed his hand around the little bauble, tucking it into his pocket before turning his winning smile on the girl beside him. "Why, thank you, madam. It's not every day I get a gift from an angel...though I guess thanks to all of us, you're not going to turn into an angel any more, huh…" He suddenly snapped his fingers, his face lighting up. "I've got it, from now on your new nickname will be 'hunny bunny'!"
"Huh? But that's a snow bunny, not a honey bunny," Colette protested mildly, eyes wide with curious confusion. "I don't think they make honey bunny charms here. I wonder where you'd find one of those--maybe somewhere where there's lots of honey?" She tilted her head pensively, obviously putting some serious thought into the matter.
Zelos just stared.
"…You know what, never mind. Your nickname can stay the way it was."
"Oh…okay!" They sat in companionable silence for a while, Zelos gazing out the window at the falling snow and looking unusually solemn, Colette presumably still thinking about honey bunnies. "I'm sorry, Zelos," she said at last. "I'm being such a burden again...to everyone, not just Lloyd."
"Don't be ridiculous. You're not a burden, especially not to me. I've actually learned a lot thanks to you. You're amazing, Colette." He gave a little one-shouldered shrug. "Sheena and Lloyd are a lot alike, that's all. And it's not like he's actually gone anywhere. He'll be stuck with us for a while longer."
"You're right," Colette nodded, brightening visibly. "I can still support Lloyd even as things are now. After all, he saved me, just like he said he would. I still trust him more than anyone."
"…Trust, huh?" Zelos murmured, a faint but undeniably wry smile turning his mouth. "Yeah, I guess he is pretty trusting…" He fingered the edges of the letter in his pocket absently, wondering if he'd ever get a chance to deliver it, and if he really even wanted to. Man, am I really choosing the weaker side? That's so not like me.
"Between the two of us, I was planning on visiting someone, too," he said aloud, all confidence and cheer once again, though he put on a tone of overdramatic woe a second later. "Looks like I got beat to the punch. And I was so looking forward to seeing my hunny tonight..."
He heaved a longsuffering sigh, and Colette gave a little giggle at his comically anguished expression. "Um, well…you've still got me, right? Like you said, we Chosen have to stick together."
Zelos knew she'd meant it innocently, that he had her as a friend, but of course that didn't stop him from throwing his arms around her, enveloping her in a tight, expansive hug. "Oh, my sweet darling little Colette!" he gushed theatrically, rocking back and forth and ignoring her surprised flailing at suddenly finding her face smashed against his chest, "how long I've waited to hear you say that you'll join my harem and stay by my side forever! My heart will belong to you until my dying day!"
"Harem?" she said, twisting a little in his arms to look up at him inquisitively. "Oh, that's sort of like a fan club, right? Of course I'll join! But only if I can be in Lloyd's harem, too."
Zelos smirked as he released her, then wagged an admonishing finger. "Ah ah, no need to do that—I already offered him a year's worth of complimentary tickets to the Great Zelos Harem, or he can join me and help put it together."
"So Lloyd's in your harem, too?"
"H-HUH?! Now wait just a minute, I never said--!"
"That's amazing, Zelos! You really are popular! I'm so lucky to be in your harem with Lloyd and everyone!"
The red-haired Chosen rubbed at his forehead, closing his eyes to shut out the sight of the beaming Colette. He was feeling very tired all of the sudden. "Yeah…lucky."
Speaking of luck… Something in his pocket was digging into his thigh; as expected, the culprit proved to be the Snow Hare charm Colette had given him. He extracted it with a wince, rubbing his thumb over the dull edge that had been trying to embed itself in his leg, then glanced back over at Colette. She was sitting upright, hands folded neatly in her lap, but there was something in the slight slump of her shoulders and the misty look in her eyes that told him she was thinking about Lloyd again.
"…You know, a lady always looks prettier with a smile on her face," he said, the gentleness in his voice and matching smile surprising even to himself. "But…it's not always the right time to smile. Sometimes tears are okay too."
She stared at him, reading in his face the words he hadn't said: you don't need to pretend. Not for me. Because I know, and we are very much the same.
"...And don't worry…I won't tell Lloyd. It'll be our little secret," he added with a wink.
Those words seemed to be all that she needed to hear, or perhaps the unexpected understanding in them was just too much for her at that moment, because for the first time in years, Colette found tears running down her cheeks that she couldn't seem to stop. And then she didn't want them to stop, because just like the biting cold in the air outside, the fact that she could cry reminded her that she wasn't turning into an angel anymore, that she had been saved. Crying was a natural reaction, a welcome release, and she knew that Zelos had almost told her to do it, but even so, she didn't stop apologising. "I'm sorry," she kept saying over and over, the words coming out wet and muffled and full of just as much relief as remorse. "I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…"
For once, Zelos didn't seem to have anything glib or flirtatious to say in reply; instead he just pulled her against his side, loosely draping one arm around her shoulders and resting the side of his head on the top of hers, letting to her cry enough for both of them and thinking about how very ironic it was that they were both called 'Chosen' when neither of them had been when it really counted.