Well, I've been planning for a while, and it's about time I finally posted something. This fic currently holds the position of 'this idea is my baby', and I actually have some hopes for it. Enjoy the prologue, and I'll see if I can do some improving on my dialogue skills when I write the next chapter; a lot of what I'll be doing in this fic is covering new-ish ground for me.

Although Colette's absence was noticed universally, it alone was not what made this day different. What made this day different was a combination of factors: the way the adults were quiet and careful not to talk withing earshot of the younger ones; the way even the older children, for once, didn't seem to understand completely what was going on; and the quiet, conspicuous absence of the oldest person who could be called a child. Despite the teacher's refusal to acknowledge anything that made this day different from any other, the classroom was simply not the same place it usually was. Children talked quietly among their peers about the absence of their nearly grown-up friend, and despite being on other sides of the room until lunchtime, a four-year-old and a nine-year-old exchanged slightly worried, mainly confused glances regularly.

It was after noon when the two returned; by chance, at the same time when the children were outside for a break from their studies. A select few really did drop everything to rush up to Raine Sage and the smaller girl holding her hand, though something told them to keep their distance even if only a little. The white-haired girl slowed to acknowledge the others, but firmly kept walking, Colette following her obediently in an almost doll-like fashion.

They didn't stop until they'd reached the door of the schoolhouse – and for a moment, the scene froze as Colette slowly took in the sight of the two boys waiting for her, their eyes wide with concern.

Slowly releasing Raine's hand, the blond girl took a quick step toward her friends, a smile almost crossing her face.

Raine would never understand what feeling or intuition made the little girl turn back to her and, craning her head up to look her elven friend in the eye, slowly tilt her head in a way that she did every day; somehow, for a moment, the action seemed much older and less innocent than usual. Then she had turned away, short hair bouncing slightly against her neck as she approached her friends just as if nothing had happened.

Nothing was decidedly different about that day. Colette remained at Genis and Lloyd's side, a slightly subdued look in her face as she hung onto their every chattering word. Fifteen-year-old Raine, responsible as always, seemed once more to be the real teacher in the classroom, correcting others and always never quite scolding – and as she frowned with slight disapproval, it was easy to ignore the tears that sometimes formed in her eyes. Just as usual, Lloyd was an outcast in the best way a person could be, choosing to stay by Colette's side, not showing the slightest sign of caring that he was the son of a dwarf; and as usual, the older children quietly disliked being outshone by a four-year-old. To an outsider, everything was normal for a quiet village that was the birthplace of the Chosen of Mana.

The only difference between that and every other day was that, for the longest time since she had returned from the temple, Colette Brunel did not smile.

* * *

It wasn't just the adults, it was the kids too. While the old noble women and those just on the fringe of good status, all of whom claimed to be good friends of his father, would come up to him and offer their sympathy and condolences (like the simple fact that he was dressed in black meant he was something to be pitied), no one was exempt from this, the apparent requirement that everyone who could possibly claim any connection to the royal family make sure he knew how sorry they were for his loss, and of course, how much faith they had that he would carry the title just as well as his father had. Sure, there were people he'd never met coming up and talking to him; after fourteen years, Zelos Wilder was used to it. This, on the other hand...

"Chosen One, are you sad?" "Chosen, do you want to play with us?" "Chosen, are you okay?" Completely innocent, childlike questions; maybe it would've been kinda sweet if it wasn't so disturbing to think about. Tilting his head down to see the latest young girl who had hesitantly taken his hand, Zelos managed turn what might have been a grimace into a guarded smile. She couldn't have been more than seven years old, and already she was trying to get in the good graces of one of the highest-ranked nobles in Tethe'alla. Talk about a messed-up world.

"Hey, sorry, but I think I'm gonna head home. Your parents are probably looking for you, anyway." Or, rather, biting their lips and hoping that their little one didn't offend the all-important new Chosen of Mana. The disappointed look on the girl's face was hardly noticeable – probably because she was still young enough to see him partly as another of the older kids who'd never want her tagging along. Nodding politely (and yet there it was again, that completely ingrained instinct to listen to whatever some high-ranked noble said), she quickly walked off, taking a quick look back over her shoulder when it seemed Zelos's focus was no longer on her.

At this point, going home was actually starting to seem like a pretty good option. No one randomly coming up to him to sigh over him like they actually cared. No parents to put pressure on him anymore, either; practically a blessing in disguise, Zelos thought viciously. Just Sebastian, and he knew when not to intrude.

Passing through the streets of the upper district, Zelos carefully shrugged off any attempts at conversation or consolation. At least the town guards nowadays stopped anyone crazy enough to wait right outside his house. At least there were those perks to being part of the Chosen bloodline – and now, being the Chosen himself. Everyone wanted in – in on his status, on any conversations he had, on anything he happened to do; but despite that, they were all careful about where they drew the line. No one wanted to seem like they were pestering the young Chosen, or certainly not stalking him.

Zelos knew he wasn't really any different from them. Soon enough they'd be treating him like an adult, and that was bye-bye to getting away with being anything but a perfect noble. Do your duties, go to church, mind your manners, smile at people you don't know and make decisions you know nothing about... Right now, a rude comment or scowl was treated as normal for a poor boy who'd lost his father, but let a few years pass and, just like that, they'd be treating him like his father, second only to the king and royal family.

Kicking his shoes off and flopping onto an oversized bed, Zelos sighed loudly. An old man dies in his sleep and they've gotta act like this all of a sudden? Funeral speeches, ceremonies, public appearances... There was no end in sight. Maybe there just wasn't an end to what a Chosen of Mana was stuck with.

A careful knock sounded from the door. Zelos rolled over into a half-sitting position, shoulder-length red hair trailing across the comforter. "Sebastian? You can come in." The door opened in a movement that was somehow inherently... stiff, and Sebastian walked into the room, stopping just in front of the doorframe.

"The neighboring family has come to inquire about your health," Sebastian explained briskly. "What would you like me to tell them?"

"Just tell them I'm fine. And not taking visitors or anything," Zelos quickly added, staring back up at the ceiling.

"I will relay your message." Sebastian turned to leave, then turned back before closing the door. "Master Zelos... Excuse me for asking, but how are you faring? Your father's passing must have come as a shock."

Great... him too? Zelos swung his legs over the side of the bed, sitting up and straightening his hair. "Like I said. I'm fine." The words were level and emotionless, but as he spoke, an effortless smile crossed his face.