Title: Whatever Will Be #7: Worth It

Author: SMB814

Rating: T (It's a strong 'T' at times, but in my estimation, it doesn't verge into 'M' territory. Just be forewarned that YMMV.)

Warnings: Zelos being Zelos (i.e. mild language, adult themes, etc.) There's also some non-graphic sexual content in this story, Sheena acquires a colorful new nickname, and Zelos goes a little over-the-top crazy with the innuendo and dessert analogies at times.

Category: Romance/Fluff, Drama, Angst, Character Study

Pairing: Zelos/Sheena, but if you hadn't figured that out by this point, then I have no idea what series you've been reading. This story also has a bit of Lloyd/Colette in it.

Time Frame/Spoilers: Part 7 of the Whatever Will Be series, and the conclusion of the series. If you haven't read the first six stories in the series (Mental Holiday, Trust Building 101, Exceptions to the Rules, Crossing the Line, The Experiment, and Guardian Knight), then do that first or you won't understand the place where these two are currently at. (The seven stories in the series are, in order, Mental Holiday, Trust Building 101, Exceptions to the Rules, Crossing the Line, The Experiment, Guardian Knight, and Worth It.)

Summary: 'One day' has finally arrived.

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

Feedback: Feedback is love and fodder for future fics.

History: General plotting began December 2008, completed October 8, 2009. Rough draft completed October 13, 2010. Final version completed on May 31, 2011.

Author's Notes: Wow. I can't believe this series is finished. I'm not sure whether I'm excited that I've finally reached the end or disappointed that there isn't any more. I've spent so much time writing this the past two, nearly three, years, getting into these characters' heads and playing with them and laughing and crying along with them, that the thought of not being in this universe anymore actually seems rather...surreal. I'm honestly not sure how to say 'goodbye' to them. I have so many more ideas set in this universe that I'd love to explore one day, and I know I left a few dangling threads open in the series that are begging for a follow-up, but I also have an original novel I'm working on that I've promised people I would finally finish once I was done with this series, and I have other Real Life plans that are going to be extremely time-consuming the next few years, and, well, honestly, right now this feels like the most complete, appropriate, and satisfying ending for these two, so I suspect I'll have to put any continuation of this series on hold until a later date. I'd certainly like to come back here one day, though, and if the muse strikes - and if I have the time to follow through on it - believe me, I will.

To every single person who's walked this (extremely lengthy) journey with me - thank you. I hope you've enjoyed reading it even a fraction of the amount I enjoyed writing it. I know I've fallen behind in responding to the incredible feedback you've left on the last few stories, and for that, I apologize. I've been operating under a tight deadline, though (I start graduate school in June and was desperate to get this finished before then for fear if I didn't, it would never be finished), and the last thing I wanted to do was leave you all hanging indefinitely with only one story left. Hopefully now I'll be able to catch up on responding to your reviews, because I am deeply appreciative to everyone who has left such kind words, encouragement, and, yes, even criticism on this series.

I've written a lot of stories the past 10+ years, some completed, others not, some serious and angsty, others fluffy and pointless, but of them all, this series was, by far, the one I enjoyed writing the most. It's hard not to enjoy writing these two characters, simply because of who they are and how they interact. Beyond having a ridiculous amount of fun with it, though, writing this series helped me shape and define my own views on certain life issues - and, even more than that, it ushered me into a brand new phase in my own life. As these two characters were growing and evolving and struggling to figure out their own future, so was I, and I didn't even realize what I had done and where it had led me until long after the first drafts had been finished. And now...well, now I hope the lessons I learned from writing this will help take me in a better direction than the one I had been heading in before. Only time will tell, but I'm hopeful. And if any of you readers can pick up something from it, too, no matter how miniscule or trivial that 'something' might be, then that would be the icing on the cake.

While I know some of you will probably be tempted to jump straight to the end of the story at times and see whether or not these two manage to get their Happily Ever After (because honestly, I probably would too if I didn't already know how this ended)...please don't. The final chapter will be far more potent if you read the story from start to finish and experience the journey along with them than if you spoil yourself for how it ends without knowing how they got there. For those who simply NEED TO KNOW that they'll be okay, though, I will say is this: trust me. Everything ends up as it's supposed to. By the end of Part 4, you will be through the worst of it, and after that you should have a clearer vision of how the rest of the story will play out. So grab a solid, sturdy tree branch, hang on tight, and weather out the storm until you reach that point instead of jumping prematurely to the ending, okay? Please?

As always, love, hugs, and thanks to Daidairo and Trickksi for taking the time to read through the (extremely) messy initial draft(s) of this series, encouraging me to keep working on it, and giving me some helpful pointers to improve it, although any mistakes or typos you find are still solely my fault.

Oh, and I've also created a page for this series on my web site. All of the stories are currently available there in a single-page format (and without the silly stickywords that kept inserting into the text), as is a music playlist for some of the songs I found myself repeatedly playing while I was writing this series. Hopefully in the future there will be other additions to the site as well, like fan art and a Spanish translation, thanks to Ehsabet, who is currently working on those. Right now the page is pretty boring, but you might want to check back periodically. For those of you who might be interested (or if you just want single-page versions of these stories), you can find it at:


Just replace the (dot)s and (slash)es with the appropriate punctuation mark and you should be good to go.

But that's enough of me talking. Fasten your seatbelts, folks, because this roller coaster gets a bit crazy at times. Here's hoping everyone enjoys the ride!


Part 1: The Shift

Zelos knew full well that if Sheena were to turn and realize he was staring at her, yet again, she would be pissed at him. He couldn't help himself, though, especially when he couldn't remember the last time she'd been truly pissed at him anyway, hence why he wasn't as concerned as he probably should be and wasn't trying to curb it. Well, other than closing his eyes and feigning sleep whenever she did happen to glance his way. Granted, knowing her, even if she caught him, she wouldn't be pissed pissed about it; she'd just roll her eyes, smack his arm, and reemphasize how much she hated it when he did that, maybe also blush and stammer in response when he pointed out how often he'd caught her staring at him lately, too. But since she always put a stop to it whenever she knew he was doing it, he had to be sneaky and take advantage of every opportunity he got, like this, to enjoy the view while it lasted.

At the moment he was lying on her couch, dawn having recently broken, his eyes focused on her as she moved around her bedroom, getting dressed. This was exactly why he'd decided that first time he'd stayed overnight here to sleep facing her bedroom: so he could occasionally watch her like this without her knowledge. He didn't even care about catching her half-naked while she changed (although he'd be lying to say he didn't sometimes hope to be privy to that sight, too); he just wanted to see her, to watch her beautiful, toned body move so gracefully and certainly while she went about her business, oblivious to his watchful eyes.

Like this morning. She'd changed out of his range of sight, behind a wall the pervert in him wished he could see through, and now she was sitting on her futon, putting on her boots, a rare sight considering she usually only donned footwear near the door to avoid stepping on her tatami mats, but she was apparently making an exception today so she wouldn't accidentally wake him. It should be a simple task that only took her a few seconds, but this morning fate seemed to be smiling on him for she was having trouble with it: she kept putting the left boot on, taking it off, dumping it out, and then putting it on again, only to repeat the process again. This was the third time she'd done that, and Zelos was having a hard time keeping from laughing, but he bit his tongue, not wanting her to know he was awake yet. After the third time, she cursed softly...and he quickly closed his eyes as she glanced in his direction, checking to see if she'd woken him. Only when he heard her resume struggling with her shoe did he reopen his eyes. A moment later she was moving again, disappearing behind the wall, and when she reappeared a minute later, her dark hair was up in its usual messy ponytail, leaving him sighing at the loss of his ability to admire her with her hair down. And then she was growling, sitting down, and taking off her shoe again, that time followed by the other shoe and then her socks. Tossing them all aside, she instead grabbed a pair of flip flops and slid them on.

And it was at that unlikely moment, as a single, stray lock of black hair fell in her face and she blew at it as it tickled her nose, that the realization hit him: it was time. He couldn't wait any longer; he was ready to take the next step with her. He was no longer just madly in love with her; his heart was hers, and he would never get it back, not when she'd laid claim to it long ago and with her was where it would stay for the rest of its existence. It had been nearly two months since the Mizuho poisoning, when he'd made his decision regarding the future he wanted; it had been a year since the regeneration journey ended, meaning they'd been dating nearly that long. That meant he'd reached his deadline to do what he had to do, what he wanted to do, for her sake, before her grandfather decided it was time for her to become chief. During the past few weeks, around dealing with his Foreign Minister duties, he'd been working on finishing up his remaining business, little things he had to do before they became an issue, and now it was time to turn his decision into reality.

What surprised him most was that the longer he lived with that decision, the more comfortably it sat with him. Sure, every now and then he still questioned if he was truly pursuing the right road - because it was a drastic change to his life, hopefully for the better but possibly not, depending on how well he could adapt to the as-of-yet unknown requirements that came with it - but it was moments like this one, watching Sheena living and being herself, that reassured him he'd made the right choice. This, these little idiosyncrasies of hers, these quiet little ordinary moments early in the morning when it was just the two of them, and then all the big ones, too...this was what he wanted to see and experience every day for the rest of his life. He didn't just want sex (although he definitely wanted that, too); he wanted so much more than that.

He wanted her - her heart, her mind, her kindness, her beauty, her strength, her temper, her stubbornness, her impatience, her kickassness...all of her. He didn't want to live without her anymore; he didn't want to miss her as desperately as he did when he wasn't with her. He wanted her presence, her goodness, in his life, forever and always - goodness that had, during the past year, helped shape him into the better person he'd always wanted to be. He wanted to help her; he wanted to make love to her; he wanted to sleep with her in his arms and wake to see her smiling face; he wanted to watch her extend her kindness, goodness, and love to their children; he wanted to watch her curse the little stones in her boots and struggle against the unruly locks of hair that defied her attempts to control them and then find a way to overcome those obstacles. He wanted to face life by her side. There would never be another woman who could do for him what she already had, who he wanted to devote every second of his life toward making happy, whose smile he coveted so much. There would never be another woman in his life who compared to her, period.

He had known all of that for months now, and now he was getting antsy to make that future happen. The prospect of turning careful planning into reality was terrifying, as was the thought of facing the ultimate rejection if she didn't want the same thing he did, but it was equally exciting to think what could be awaiting them if everything did go as he hoped. In a sense, it was strange to be feeling this way; he was the last person even he had ever expected to consider settling down and committing to one woman for the rest of his life. Once, he'd thought the only thing he wanted was a fun, easy, carefree life, but now...well, honestly, that life didn't even look appealing anymore if Sheena wasn't a part of it. The life that came with her might not be fun, easy, or carefree, but it included her, and that was all that truly mattered to him. He had gone back and forth about it at times the past few weeks, considering all the possibilities, but not once had he seriously second-guessed his decision. He couldn't, not when his heart already knew that she was the answer to every single question he'd never even known he'd had. Fate had sent him the answer when he'd least expected it but had needed it most, and now it was time to give her back everything she'd given him by providing her with what she needed most: a man who loved her and was willing to help her deal with her soon-to-be responsibilities as chief. Whatever it took to do that, to give her back a tiny piece of what she'd given him, he would.

Zelos had been preparing for this moment for months, and now he only had a few things left to take care of...but those were the most important and, therefore, the hardest and riskiest to tackle. The ring was the easiest part, seeing as he'd had the jeweler make it a few weeks ago already; it just needed to be sized. He'd been trying to get at her jewelry collection ever since then to verify her ring size, but so far to no success. He'd really hoped to get it right before asking her, but if he couldn't, he couldn't, and he'd just have to guess and ask the jeweler to correct it later on. Telling the king his plans would be the other easy part; the king liked Sheena, and he had no right to step in and stop a marriage between them anymore. Only the Church still could, and Zelos would finalize the annulment to his previous engagement ASAP to take that power away from them. All he needed was a few more signatures, and if he had to barge into people's homes, interrupt whatever they were doing that they deemed more important than his freedom, and get them himself, he would. But he wasn't worried about that, either; just because he was laid back by nature didn't mean he couldn't be pushy when necessary. After all, he hadn't lost the Chosen One title by sitting back and doing nothing. No, if he'd managed that, then annulling a pointless engagement should be a piece of cake.

The next requirement, though, wasn't nearly as straightforward: talking to Igaguri, finding out what was expected of the chief's spouse, making sure he was okay with those expectations, and then getting Igaguri's blessing to marry Sheena. If even one of those things went badly, then every other plan Zelos was making was pointless because it would end this whole thing prematurely. On the bright side, Chief Igaguri had always been welcoming toward him and had handled all situations involving him without bias, even when Orochi had pointed out all of his shortcomings (something that had, thankfully, stopped since the poisoning, much to his insecurities' relief). Heck, Igaguri had even indirectly approved of their relationship by turning a blind eye the few times they'd 'displayed affection' in front of him, which boded well seeing as any one of those would have provided sufficient grounds for punishment - or banishment. And Igaguri really had seemed grateful for his help during the poisoning incident, so that, too, had hopefully earned a bit of his respect. Besides, as he'd told himself before, Igaguri wasn't stupid; he had to recognize Zelos was a likely candidate for this role, so if he really hadn't want him anywhere near Sheena, wouldn't he have stopped it before this?

But then, he always reminded himself, Igaguri's tolerance of his presence here was a completely different matter than handing him his beloved granddaughter's hand in marriage, especially when it also essentially meant entrusting him with his beloved village's future. And that was why, before Zelos could ask for anything from Igaguri, he had to find out not only what was involved in this leadership role in Mizuho, but if he, an outsider, was even allowed take it on, and if Igaguri, with Mizuho's interests in mind, would even let him. And Zelos couldn't dismiss the possibility that Igaguri had something different in mind for Sheena's future; for all he knew, Igaguri had already arranged for another ninja to marry her, or maybe he'd only tolerated Zelos here all this time because he'd been the Chosen while, in reality, he couldn't stand him. It certainly wouldn't be the first time Igaguri had surprised him with something unexpected like that.

And honestly, the thought of sitting down with Igaguri and actually having that conversation was...well, it was terrifying. Even he recognized that his mouth could run away from him at times and that words occasionally came out that he didn't mean to say or that were inappropriate for his audience. As it was, he'd already slipped more than once with Igaguri, possibly even unintentionally insulting him, and those occasions had happened during regular conversations. Then to have to watch his mouth during one of, if not the, most important conversations of his life? He was so not looking forward to it. But, he reminded himself, Sheena was worth the effort and discomfort, and so he refused to run from this. He just had to make sure he was completely ready for that conversation before he actually approached Igaguri.

And then, assuming Igaguri didn't reject him or convince him he was making a huge mistake, he still had to actually ask Sheena and pray to Martel, or maybe to Jizou, that she said 'yes,' which would be another brutally gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking conversation. Even after all this time, after everything they'd been through and knowing how much she truly did seem to love and trust him, she could still very well say 'no.' He was, after all, a perverted, childish, highly 'imperfect' idiot who had run from responsibility and refused to take anything seriously for most of his life. More than that, though, he was a man who hadn't always made good decisions, who regretted much of his past, and who had a track record of hurting and betraying those he cared about, and nothing he said or did could change what had happened. The bottom line was that she had every right to write him off as an 'unsuitable husband' and refuse to accept him in such a critical role in her life.

But at the moment, worrying about receiving the ultimate rejection from her was jumping the gun. First things first: he had to find out whether or not Igaguri would even let him do this. Everything could still change before he even reached the 'talk to Sheena' stage. Only once he knew he'd cleared the Igaguri hurdle could he start considering that next step. But one thing was certain: terrifying or not, he was ready to get the ball rolling.

He, spoiled, pampered, arrogant, aristocratic, lady-killer Ex-Chosen, Zelos Wilder, was ready to accept the life of a simple, backwater farmer-slash-spy and commit his future to the hands of one beautiful, voluptuous, fiery, kindhearted, strong-willed, determined, incredible ninja. And, amazingly, the thought of doing so no longer terrified him. It didn't even feel foreign to him. He wanted it.

Now he just hoped everyone else involved wanted it as badly as he did.

A shriek of his name shocked him from his thoughts, and only then did he realize Sheena was watching him from her bedroom doorway, wide-eyed. Aw, crap, he'd gotten careless and had been grinning goofily at her all this time, hadn't he? "You're awake!" she said.

His grin briefly faltered, but then it returned even brighter than before as he pushed himself up into a sitting position and stretched. "Good morning to you too, sweetheart," he said, stifling a yawn. "Just woke up a bit ago."

Sheena took a step toward the couch, her eyes narrowed and her arms folded to her chest, but as always seemed to be the case when she tried to scold him, a smile was also toying on her lips. "You were staring at me again, weren't you?"

Seriously, that still surprised her? Hadn't she realized that even when she slapped his hand for doing that, he couldn't stop himself even if he wanted to? She was the most incredible, gorgeous woman he'd ever laid eyes on; how could he not stare at her? "Guilty as charged. Sorry, love, but you're too hot in the morning not to stare at." His grin transformed into a smirk as his eyes trailed down her curvy body. "Well, actually you're just as hot in the afternoon and especially at night, but there's something about you in the morning, your hair all bed-ridden and sexy, that just makes me want to..."

Sheena rolled her eyes but barely even tried to hide her laughter as she motioned dismissively at him and headed toward the door, carefully avoiding stepping on the tatami mats. "Ugh, I am not dealing with this right now."

Choosing to ignore that, Zelos's grin broadened as he rose to his feet and stretched again, following her. Hm...Sheena was heading out, eh? Where was she going? And, more importantly, was he about to get the opportunity he'd been waiting for for weeks? "So where are you headed at this ungodly hour of the morning?"

"Out to the forest to take a bath in the river." She abruptly turned, clearly anticipating his response, and then gasped as she realized how close he was standing behind her, her face growing red as her eyes ventured downward over his black shirt-clad chest. For a moment she just stared at him, her thoughts derailed - oh, how he loved these moments where she proved what a hypocrite she was by staring at him -- but he could tell the instant she realized what she was doing for she quickly looked away, her blush deepening. "A...and no, I don't require company while doing that."

"Wouldn't dream of following you, love." Oh, wait. "Well, actually I would dream of it, and technically, I do dream of it, all the time - and man, those are some hot dreams..." he waved his hand as she gave him an unamused glare, "er, ignore me - but..."

Sheena sighed and smiled softly, running her fingers down his bare arm. "I know, I know. You'll behave."

Zelos's grin softened. Oh, was he glad she truly did know his intentions were honorable. Well, mostly. At least when the pervert in him wasn't calling the shots. "Yeah, I will." And then he couldn't help smirking, because Sheena's decision to take a bath right now was excellent news for him. "Besides, I have far too much work to do here."

"You have too much work to do here," she stated, her eyebrows flying upward. "You don't even live here!" Without warning, her brows furrowed suspiciously, her grin once again betraying her amusement. "Although you have been spending an awful lot of time here lately. In fact, I'm pretty sure you've spent more time here this week than you did in Meltokio." She grinned cheekily. "Maybe I should start charging you rent or assign you some household chores..."

Zelos chuckled but chose not to respond to that. There was, after all, no way to explain that without getting into the rest of his reasoning - namely, that he'd been waiting for the opportunity to be alone here so he could get his hands on her ring size. Well, that and to give himself more time to adjust to the Mizuhoan lifestyle. He gently grasped her arms and ran his thumbs over them, hoping to distract her. "You'll see. Now shoo, get out of here." He released her and waved her toward the door, eager to get started. "Go take your bath and make yourself all nice and clean and pretty."

Sheena folded her arms to her chest again. "You're scheming something, aren't you?"

Either she knew him too well or he was being too obvious. He grinned. "That's for me to know and you to find out...later."

Her eyes narrowed further. "Zelos..."

"Nope!" he cut her off, lifting a finger to silence her. "You're not finding out yet. Just wait until later and go take your bath." Without warning, an irresistible impulse hit him, and he grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "Oh! But not before I get a good morning kiss."

Sheena groaned and rolled her eyes again, but then she chuckled and shook her head incredulously. Blushing, she lifted herself up on her toes, her hands gently grasping his shoulders, and pressed a kiss to his lips that was so sweet and loving that it made his heart skip a beat. "Better?" she said when she pulled away, her eyes soft.

Oh, Sheena, if you only knew. His fingers lifted to her face and trailed down her cheek, and for a moment he was helpless but to smile at the beauty of the woman standing before him. He gave her another quick kiss, then brushed his nose against hers, his voice lowering to a whisper. "Infinitely." And then he abruptly pulled back and gave her an expectant look. "Now, I believe you were leaving?"

Unsurprisingly, she burst out laughing at that. Shaking her head, she snuck to the bathroom to grab her things for her bath, then headed toward the door, pointing sharply at him as she passed him. "My house better still be standing when I get back, because if it's not, you and Maxwell will be getting to know each other very, very well."

"Just for you, my dear, I will try very hard not to burn down your house." Zelos bowed charmingly, admiring the view as she walked past him. "I won't lure any tornados or hurricanes to Mizuho, either. And I definitely won't invite any rabid, jealous hunnies to ravage the place in search of pictures of me naked, or let a pack of wolves in to eat all your meat, or sell off all your possessions to the poor, or try a new science experiment involving explosives, or practice my Judgment spell, or invite a marching band to camp out here for the next week, or turn this into a paintball practicing range, or..."

Sheena's only reply was to laugh and shake her head again as she opened the door, stepped outside, and shut it behind her. Even through the door, though, Zelos could still hear her muttering about how here he was, telling her to leave her own home, and how she just knew she'd find a nightmarish mess when she got back. Oh, how he loved that woman - and he especially loved that she not only tolerated his playfulness now but actually played along with him. It amazed and amused him that the goal he'd made back when they'd first started dating, to get her to loosen up and have fun with life, had been achieved so effortlessly. He'd always known she had a light-hearted side; she'd just never had the opportunity to explore it before because of the guilt that had dragged her down after the Volt tragedy. She'd experienced just as much crap in life as he had, and so being able to see her laugh and watch her eyes light up in delight, especially knowing he'd caused it, was pure beauty. Nothing had ever made him happier than making her happy. And if she would let him do that for the rest of their lives...well, he was pretty sure he would die the happiest man on the planet.

...And ugh, if he kept this up, he would start rivaling that 'perfect romance novel hero' she'd once told him about for the title of 'King of Over-the-Top Sappy, Lovey-Dovey Romance Stuff.' Pretty soon little pink hearts would start floating in his eyes, which was fine for The Great Zelos while flirting with some random hunny, but not for the real him when dealing with the love of his life, someone who would smack him if he started waxing poetic over her. He'd better be careful or Sheena would realize something was up, and if that happened, she would push to uncover what was going on in his head. That would be fine - entertaining, even - if he could resist caving to her, but he knew himself: during the past year, he'd grown weak-willed about keeping his thoughts from her. And that meant if she pushed, he would spill his guts to her, and...well, he simply couldn't have that until all the pieces were in place.

Walking over to the window, Zelos watched her vanish into the tree line, and then, hoping she wasn't lulling him into a false sense of security to trap him in his 'scheme,' he turned and looked around. If Sheena loved one thing, it was her baths, and so, based on how long they usually took at his mansion, he guesstimated he had about twenty minutes before she returned. Heading to her bedroom, he went straight for the jewelry box he'd found in the middle drawer of her dresser during the poisoning incident. Careful not to disturb anything else, he pulled it out, set it on the dresser, and lifted the cover. On top was the iris jewelry set he'd given her - minus the pendant she'd turned into a bracelet, which means she's wearing it again this morning, he noted, grinning - and then, upon lifting the tray, he spotted it: her ring collection. It wasn't well organized, seeing as the summon spirit rings were lying loose on the bottom, but then, the only jewelry she regularly wore was that bracelet, so it didn't need to be.

So which ring? He scanned his memory, trying to remember what she'd worn during their journey. Usually she didn't bother with any of them; in fact, she'd often complained they didn't fit right, and if the summon spirits were giving her the rings as a special gift, why couldn't they make sure they actually fit her? There was one she had worn occasionally, though...which was that? Oh, right! The sapphire one. And, even better, he was sure she used to wear it on her fourth finger, because he'd been tempted one time to teasingly ask her if forming a pact with Celsius meant she'd married her and the sapphire ring was her wedding ring. Looking back now, it was probably a good thing he'd been distracted before succumbing to that urge. Quickly locating the ring, he pulled it out.

For a moment he considered taking it back to Meltokio and then quietly slipping it back here later, but knowing Sheena, not only would this be the one day she decided to wear it, but considering how many weeks it had taken him to get this opportunity to be alone here for a few minutes, he'd never get another before she did go looking for it. Okay, so if he couldn't take the ring, then how...? Aha! Got it. He set the ring on the dresser and headed back into her main room, going to the shelf where she kept her paper and writing utensils, and grabbed what he needed. He then headed back into her bedroom and carefully traced the inside of the ring on the paper. Once finished, Zelos folded the paper and slipped it in his pocket, put the ring back in the box, and then returned the box to her drawer, double checking that nothing was out of place.

Satisfied his mission was complete, he returned to the main room. Now it was time to make it look like he really had been planning to do something nice for her...like making breakfast. He walked over to her kitchen and pulled open the cabinets, looking over the food she had in stock. Eggs, cheese, onion, rice, more rice, even more rice...omelets it was, then. He'd never had trouble making those, and while hers were always better than his, she'd never complained when he'd made them during their journey, either. And since the ring measuring hadn't taken long, he should still have enough time to throw some together, depending on how long she indulged in her summer morning bath.

And so he did. Once the omelets were cooking, he freshened up in the bathroom, finished getting dressed, and then, still having spare time, cleaned up the mess he'd made during his impromptu cooking session - and then decided to go a step further and clean up a few messes he knew he hadn't made. It was a silly, unnecessary thing to do seeing as this wasn't his house and, well, he hated cleaning, but knowing it would make Sheena smile that smile he adored most had made up his mind for him.

He was just taking the omelets off the stove, starting to wonder if she would take too long and he'd have to reheat them, when the door opened and Sheena stepped inside, her hair damp but pulled up in its usual ponytail. She kicked off her shoes and then, as Zelos had hoped, immediately beamed at him brightly as she saw him in the kitchen. "I should've known this was what you were scheming," she said, stepping toward him and looking around her kitchen, amazement shining in her eyes.

Oh, how he loved that smile. He returned it just as brightly. "Yep!"

Sheena shook her head, then walked over to him, wrapped her arms around his neck, and, even better than the smile, pulled his head down to hers and gave him a quick but grateful kiss. "You really are sweet and thoughtful sometimes, y'know that?" she murmured, her smile growing shy but oh-so-loving.

Zelos couldn't help chuckling softly. "That's our little secret, sweetheart."

"Yeah, I know." Suddenly, her eyes widened and her lips parted as she looked around her kitchen. "Are you kidding me? You cleaned up from dinner last night, too?"

He barely managed to bite his tongue before he could burst out with a gleeful, 'Score!', opting instead for something a little less smack-worthy. "I somehow doubted you'd mind. Unless, of course, you were dying to do it yourself, in which case I could happily make a new pile of dirty dishes for you to wash..."

Sheena snorted softly. "What do you think?"

He waggled his eyebrows. "I think you've chosen your boyfriend exceptionally well."

"I should've known you'd be thinking that," she muttered, rolling her eyes.

Zelos gave her an innocent shrug. "Or maybe I just like helping you out."

Instantly, her face softened. "You are unbelievable. You know that, right?"

I try, because I know how much you love that I am. He stole another quick kiss from her. "Yeah, I know."

Sheena lowered one arm from around his neck and poked his chest. "And yet you still insist you aren't becoming a domesticated housewife. I'm starting to think you like doing this kind of stuff!"

His grin broadened and he shrugged again. "Who knows? Maybe I do." Realizing how that sounded, though, he gave her a pointed look. "Like helping you, that is - not that I'm becoming a domesticated housewife, because someone as manly as me would not look good wearing an apron and waving around a feather duster. And I'm not becoming your slave or personal manservant, either. I'm just a regular old Guardian Knight-Doctor-Foreign Minister-sexiest-idiot-ex-Chosen-ever who wants to make your life a little easier."

Judging from how her mouth opened, she'd been planning to retort to all the weird titles he'd just rattled off, but it quickly closed again at that last bit. Her face softened and she smiled shyly, her eyes falling to his chest as her fingers traced invisible patterns there, her blush reappearing. "Well, whatever you are...can I keep you?"

The sheer shyness and hopefulness in her eyes as she lifted them back to his not only sent a wave of pure, exhilarating love and longing through him, but it left him unable to resist grinning broadly. Zelos opened his mouth to respond...and it was only at the last second that he caught himself before he could say the words: 'If you want me, Sheena, if you'll have me, if you trust me and love me and believe I can live up to everything you and Mizuho will need from me, then I'm yours, forever. There is nothing I want more than this, than you...than to be by your side for the rest of my life.' He desperately wanted to say it, to start the conversation about the future that he'd so far been avoiding while he'd been busy sorting out his thoughts on the matter, so they could start moving forward with the next phase of his Grand Master Plan, one built around her. He was mentally and emotionally ready to say it and then to follow through on whatever came of it. The fact of the matter, though, was that he wasn't ready for it. He might be ready now, but the timing wasn't right yet. Having the ring in hand might be negligible, but the conversation he had to have with Igaguri was nonnegotiable, and until that happened, everything could still fall apart. Her grandfather, after all, was the determining factor in this, one capable of making or breaking all of his plans.

And suddenly, Zelos's impatience to just get that damn conversation out of the way so he could move forward became overwhelming. He couldn't wait any longer. He needed to get that conversation over with now. Well, okay, not now now, not unless he wanted to tell Sheena what he was doing, which he didn't because getting her hopes up only to crush them if everything went pear-shaped would be cruel, but he had to do it ASAP. So then...tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, when he was sure she'd mentioned she would be training some girls, he would see if he could meet with Igaguri. And when he did that, he had to be prepared for it; he had to know what he wanted to say, what questions he had to ask, and how to handle anything unexpected Igaguri might throw at him. The prospect was terrifying, knowing the critical moment was nearly upon him, and his smile faltered as nervousness crept over him, but it needed to be done. For Sheena's sake - and for his own.

And so instead of answering her, Zelos pushed his concerns aside and instead gave her a sincerely happy smile, his heart pounding faster at her implication that she really did want to 'keep' him. Trailing his fingers over her face, he leaned down and kissed her again, drawing her closer and holding her there, hoping that simple gesture alone would tell her his answer. "I love you, Sheena," he whispered when he pulled away, his hands cupping her face as he observed her intently. "I love you so much."

For a moment, something flickered in her brown eyes that he had trouble identifying - it almost looked somber, or maybe guilty, or maybe worried or alarmed or...or...sad, none of which made any sense to him - but then, without warning, she offered him a faint smile, and Zelos wrote off his impression as a misinterpretation due to his nervousness over everything that would soon be happening. Because seriously, why would she feel somber, guilty, worried, alarmed, or sad after he'd just told her he loved her? And thankfully, a moment later she whispered in return, "I love you too, Zelos."

Yep, there were the words that made him ridiculously glad to be alive. His grin broadened and he gave her another quick kiss, but then he released her, stepped backward, and clapped his hands together once. "Anyway, let's eat! I didn't spend all that time slaving over breakfast just so we could eat cold omelets."

Instead of sitting down, though, Sheena hesitated, watching him closely, her mouth opening as if she wanted to say something else, but a moment later she closed it, smiled, and followed him to the table. Zelos served their thankfully-still-warm omelets, and they dug in. It was only as he had nearly finished eating that he realized Sheena had barely spoken since sitting down - and, more alarming, he realized she wasn't smiling and hadn't smiled since before they'd started eating. Uh oh. That wasn't a good sign. He was reminded of his earlier uncertainty over her mood.

Well, then, if something was wrong, he'd just have to figure it out and help her fix it. His brows furrowed. "Hey, sweetheart, you okay?"

"Hm?" she said, looking up at him wide-eyed, as if he'd startled her - yep, that is definitely not right - but then she gave him another smile...one he would've had to be blind not to see was forced. "Yeah, I'm fine."

No, you're not. "Omelets okay?"

Her eyes widened further. "Oh! Oh, yeah, they taste great, Zelos. Thank you. Your cooking skills have definitely improved."

Well, he sure hoped they had after a year of practicing so his attempts to cook for her wouldn't mean forcing her to eat mediocre food. And she did seem to sincerely like them, so that couldn't have caused her abrupt mood shift. "Okay...then what's wrong?"

Sheena blinked at him a few times, but then she looked down at her omelet, picking at it with her chopsticks. "Nothing's wrong." She looked up and smiled again. "Really."

Her smile was still forced, though, and the fact that she hadn't looked at him as she'd said that indicated she was lying. "You sure?" he pressed, setting his chopsticks on the table. "Or am I gonna have to resort to more stupid tactics to make you laugh?"

While that succeeded in eliciting a soft laugh from her, it also sounded...stilted...to his angel-enhanced ears. And, even more telling, she didn't look at him again as she answered, "No, really, I'm fine. I just...I didn't sleep well last night."

His eyes narrowed. He wasn't sure if she was telling the truth about that or not since she still refused to look at him, which wasn't like her. But then she did finally look up at him again, and he decided to resort to the 'stupid tactics' he'd just threatened to use. After all, if she'd been trying to ease his concerns, she'd failed miserably, and now she had to face the consequences. He grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "You should've said something, because I could've fixed that problem for you very, very easily."

As he'd expected, Sheena rolled her eyes, but the smile that accompanied it was far more subdued than normal. Heck, it was far more subdued than the sincerely happy smile she'd just given him a few minutes ago. What had changed? "No, you were asleep, and I didn't want to wake you. I..." She bit her lip and looked down at her plate. "It was just a nightmare."

A nightmare, eh? Hm. Zelos had been regularly staying overnight here for months now, and she'd never mentioned having a nightmare before this. In fact, she'd actually told him once that her nightmares - about Volt, her fallen comrades, her grandfather, her parents, and Corrine - had actually subsided after their journey ended...right around the time his own nightmares about his mother, his father, Seles, and being the Chosen had. So now she was suddenly having nightmares again? Something had to be bothering her; usually people only had nightmares when they were struggling with some sort of underlying fear. And that on top of the fact that she hadn't even responded to his stupid comment...

Zelos briefly considered resorting to the stupid act again, but he was too concerned by the fact that she'd had a nightmare at all to do so. Instead, therefore, he asked, "You wanna talk about it?"

Her eyes met his, and for a moment he thought she might actually take him up on the offer, but then she shook her head and looked away again, giving him another weak smile. "Not really. I don't really remember it anyway. Just some lingering bad feelings, I guess." His eyes narrowed further - and again, she wasn't looking at him - but before he could push, Sheena cleared her throat and, in a tactic he easily recognized because he'd mastered it years ago, changed the subject. "So how long are you sticking around today?"

While he still had no idea what was going on in her head, he opted to let it go for now, because sometimes people just didn't want to talk about what was bothering them or would rather form their own thoughts on the matter before discussing it with anyone else. And if there was one thing he knew, it was that Sheena liked keeping her secrets and that pushing her would only result in frustration, which was something Zelos didn't want to invite right now. He had enough on his mind already, and chances were if it really was just a nightmare, it would clear itself out of her system before the next time he saw her, which would probably be after his conversation with Igaguri tomorrow. If she was still acting strangely then, then he'd push to uncover the truth. But seeing as he was currently keeping secrets of his own, he supposed it was only fair that he let her keep hers, at least for now, for fear his pushing would result in her pushing back.

And to that end, he'd let it drop. With a sigh, he finished his last bite of omelet, then rinsed it down with a gulp of water. "Unfortunately, I need to head back pretty soon."

Her eyes widened and her face fell again in obvious disappointment. "Already? I thought your meeting with the king and Flanoir's mayor wasn't until this afternoon."

Aw, crap. As nice as it was to know she wanted him to stay, he really needed to get started planning his conversation with Igaguri. But should he stay a little longer and try to figure out why she was acting 'off'? As much as he wanted to, he had to reluctantly dismiss the option. There was no way he could wait much longer to get started on this. Now that his mind was made up and his timeframe was tentatively planned, he needed to act on it, and seeing as he really did have a meeting scheduled for this afternoon, he had to devote every spare minute he had toward working on that plan. If he didn't, he knew what would happen: he would get restless and antsy, maybe even irritable, until he could sort things out, and he couldn't afford to be acting like that during his afternoon meeting with the king. That was one thing he knew about himself: when a major plan was so close to coming to fruition, everything else took a backseat to it while he raced for the finish line. In fact, it was the only time he'd ever found himself unable to control his impatience.

"It isn't," he assured her, then smiled and shrugged. "I just need to take care of a few things before that." Which wasn't a lie since he really did, but didn't need to know the details yet.

"...Oh." Her gaze fell to her plate and she set her chopsticks down, signaling she was finished. At least she'd eaten her omelet. And for a moment, Zelos's heart twisted, and he couldn't figure out which he should be feeling: pleased that she was disappointed he couldn't stay longer, or guilty for causing her to feel so disappointed. Before he could figure it out, though, her eyes snapped up to his, alight with hope. "Y'know, I don't have much planned for today. If you want, I can come with you..."

It took all of Zelos's restraint not to burst out laughing. Of all the days for her to offer that, she had to pick the one when he truly needed time alone. Having her there with him would be lovely, but right now it would be counterproductive to his goals. Tomorrow really was the perfect time to talk with Igaguri, and he knew what would happen if she came with him: he wouldn't be able to plan for it, which meant he'd be going into it blind...which meant his odds of wrecking it and of being permanently dismissed by Igaguri drastically increased. He didn't want to wait for another perfect opportunity to arise; he wanted to get this over with before he found himself in another situation like the one he'd been in a few minutes ago, where she asked to 'keep him' and he either couldn't answer or, worse, jumped the gun and did answer, thus tipping her off to his plans prematurely. No, as frustrating as it was to turn down her offer, it was a far better way of handling the situation. He would happily trade a single day with her if it meant being able to spend the rest of his life with her.

And to that end, Zelos gave her a soft, wistful smile. "Normally, I'd jump all over that, babe, but...well, I really don't think you want to spend the day running around Meltokio with me."

Her eyebrows flew upward, even as her face fell again. "I...wouldn't?"

Damn, that hadn't come out right. All he'd done was alarm her - and hurt her, too, judging from the shocked sadness in her eyes. Damage control, Wilder. Now. "No, seriously," he went on, motioning it off with his hand as if it was no big deal, "Sebastian is going crazy because Abigail and Courtney are both out sick with the flu, and so he needs me there to cover the mansion while he does the grocery shopping because Seles is supposed to show up sometime this week - and Martel forbid anyone make the little princess stand outside two minutes longer than she has to," he rolled his eyes, "and, well, as much as it pains me to say this, I know you and Seles aren't the best of friends, so..." Okay, that was not a graceful save. He was rambling and he knew it, and he wasn't sure that explanation would even check out if Sheena looked at it too closely, but he was getting desperate to convince her to stay here without hurting her or making her suspicious that he was up to something nefarious. Because he wasn't doing anything wrong. Really. He just needed some time alone to focus on an upcoming, nerve-wracking conversation without her there, distracting him.

Fortunately, despite his lame excuse, Sheena did relax a little at his mention of Seles. "Oh, she's visiting Meltokio?"

Zelos nodded. "Now that school's out for the summer, she sent word that she'd be dropping by soon."

Which was the truth...mostly. The only lies there were that he knew Seles wouldn't be coming for two more days and that Abigail and Courtney had both nearly recovered from their bouts with the flu, so Sebastian didn't really need to go out shopping. Other than that, he thought the story worked. He really was getting rusty at this whole 'lying' thing, though, wasn't he? Heck, he couldn't even remember the last time he'd had to dust off the Chosen One mask like that. He just hoped Sheena bought it. But damn, did he hate lying to her. In retrospect, he probably should've just told her the truth - that he needed time alone to plan for an upcoming meeting with a scary, important individual over a business contract or something related to his job as Foreign Minister - but, it was too late now; he had already spun the other tale. Trying to go back on that would look even more suspicious, and then she'd never let it go. His gut tugged with guilt, and he wished he'd thought of the better alternative sooner, but he hadn't, and he couldn't undo it now. And oh, how he wished he'd been able to think a little faster so he hadn't had to take the semi-lying route with her.

"Ah," she said. "So basically you're house-sitting in case she shows up today?"

He nodded curtly, despite the fact that that was yet another lie. He would actually be spending his free time getting the jeweler started resizing her ring, talking to the king and everyone who still needed to sign off on that document freeing him from his previous engagement, and then retiring to his room, preferably before his afternoon meeting, so he could start plotting his upcoming conversation with Igaguri, but that, too, she couldn't know yet. "Pretty much so."

Her brows furrowed slightly. "And you're sure you don't want company? I mean, I really should try to work things out with her..."

"I know," Zelos replied, biting back a sigh and offering her a faint smile. And that was yet another conversation he was already dreading. But if things went as planned, Sheena was right that she'd need to try to work things out with Seles soon; after all, 'forever' would be a miserably long time if his sister and the love of his life couldn't even be in the same room together without Seles making snide remarks about her. Sheena always watched her mouth when she was with Seles - she really had gotten better control over her temper this past year - but Seles didn't. Sheena deserved better than that, and it was up to him to control his sister's treatment of the woman she had, for some unknown reason, deemed to be an 'evil witch.' "But not today, love."

Something that his brain interpreted as concern, maybe even doubt, flickered through her eyes as she watched him, but a moment later it vanished and she offered him another smile. It was still far more subdued than usual, but at least it was a real smile. "Okay."

Oh, good. While she still didn't look happy, she wouldn't argue with that, either. Zelos made a silent vow to do everything he could to make this up to her once he'd sorted everything out, and then he'd make sure she knew why he was acting like this. Returning her smile, he rose to his feet and grabbed his plate and glass - and then, as an afterthought, grabbed hers, too. "Anyway, let's get this cleaned up so I can get back to Meltokio."

Her feeble smile faded, and she hesitated a moment before standing. "Right. I'll walk you out."

They washed the dishes in silence - unfortunately, Sheena's mood still wasn't improving, and after his first few unsuccessful attempts to strike up a conversation with her, Zelos gave up and wrote it off as, hopefully, either something hormonal (which wouldn't be the first time he'd had to watch his mouth around her at certain times of the month) or a result of her nightmare - and then he was grabbing his traveling bag and they were heading out the door. Since Sheena still wasn't saying much and Zelos didn't want to piss her off by pushing, he instead let his gaze drift around Mizuho. The village was so calm and peaceful, and over the past few months he'd come to realize just how much he liked the simple, quiet, relaxed environment here, especially compared to Meltokio. Sure, it was a backwater, boring, 'primitive' place compared to what he was used to, and no matter how hard he tried to understand them, his big city-reared mind still found their customs and traditions to be strange and unnecessary, but he really had grown to like this place and its way of life.

It was incredible to think that if the next few days played out as he hoped they would, this place would be becoming his home, but during the past year he truly had become comfortable here, more so than he'd ever thought possible. Thankfully, the village had made a full recovery since the poisoning, and right now everyone was going about their business. Everything was normal here again: men were planting crops and training in the fields; women were talking quietly to one another; children were playing in the streets. While he still wasn't sure his mind could fathom being here 24/7 and learning to do farm work - because if he lived here, he knew he'd have to contribute like that - the thought no longer scared him, either.

A lot of that was probably because, ever since the poisoning, the villagers were far more accepting of him. Overall, everyone had been kinder since then, with a number of people even politely bowing their heads to him in greeting, still always referring to him as 'Chosen,' not 'Zelos,' but even that was an improvement compared to how they'd once ignored him. It was promising. The people he had tended to personally during the poisoning were the friendliest, perhaps out of gratitude or because they'd gotten to know him better. And the best part, Zelos noted with a grin and a wave as he spotted him, was that Michi was back for the summer. Not only was it great to see him here again, but it was even better to have someone here who was happy to see him. Even Orochi didn't treat him as coldly anymore; learning about Zelos's intentions toward Sheena and working together to save these people had done wonders for their relationship. Sure, Orochi still usually kept his distance, and Zelos still occasionally caught a few irritated, impatient looks from him, but he wasn't hostile anymore, either, to the point of actually greeting Zelos when he saw him. Not feeling threatened or always under Orochi's constant scrutiny was a huge relief. He felt more welcome here, and that, in turn, had significantly improved his comfort level here.

The problem remained, though, that none of that said anything about his long-term future here. Just because Mizuho accepted his presence now didn't mean it wanted him here on a permanent basis, and he couldn't forget that not everyone was glad to see him and that suspicions still ran high; some ninjas would always quickly look away whenever their eyes met, and they refused to say anything to him even when he tried to be friendly. And assuming his plans played out as he hoped, he would undoubtedly be taking on a lot of responsibility here. Would these people accept him in that capacity? That was vastly different than just accepting his being here. Would they ever sincerely accept him, or would it just be for Sheena's sake? Did they respect or like him at all or was their tolerance of him mere politeness because he'd saved their lives? Zelos didn't know.

And then, of course, there was everything he would be signing on for here. What would happen if he moved here and something happened to Sheena? Would he be stuck here forever, maybe even with their children, assuming they had any? Could he leave? What responsibilities would he be taking upon himself by marrying the future chief? Would he even be capable of doing them, especially when he fully intended to keep his job as Foreign Minister, too? Would Mizuho let him do those duties? How scrutinizing would they be if he made a mistake? By marrying Sheena, he would be saying he believed himself capable of handling this and swearing he wouldn't run from it...but was that even possible for someone like him who had spent his entire life running from his responsibilities? Or would he succumb to habit and run at the first sign of difficulty, thus breaking Sheena's heart in the process?

That last thought especially alarmed him, and suddenly Zelos was tempted to grab her hand, pull her out of Mizuho, and beg her to run away with him, to escape the unknowns so they could live happily ever after somewhere, anywhere, that wasn't here. Even after all this time, it seemed running away at the first sign of trouble was still second nature to him, and he had to force himself to not only fight off that urge but to remember that he'd promised himself he would not run anymore, and neither would she. Sheena wasn't going anywhere; even if he asked her to run away with him, she wouldn't do it. This was her home, and she had accepted her future as its chief. Sure, she might occasionally admit that things about this place irritated her, but even if she ran, her heart would always be here. She wanted good for this village and would fight to make that happen; she wanted it to thrive and reclaim its former glory. She would never agree to run away with him, and really, Zelos could never ask her to; he could never live with himself knowing he'd taken her from a place she would spend the rest of her life longing for. Her future simply wasn't alterable anymore. His, on the other hand, was. And so that was what he was going to do: alter it.

His choice was made, and he wouldn't run from it - not today, not tomorrow, not fifty years from now. Whatever it took, he wouldn't let himself. Even if it weren't for Sheena, he would stick to his decision simply because it was his decision, not another's decision for him. Even if he one day found himself restless, bored, and overwhelmed here, he still wouldn't run. He would not run. He would never forgive himself for leaving her like that, and Sheena would never forgive him for it, either. No, he hadn't seriously considered running even once this past year, even when it would have made his life easier, and he wouldn't start now. If he'd really wanted to leave, he could have done so long ago, back when he'd learned about the marriage requirement hanging over her head before she became chief, but he hadn't then, and he wouldn't now. He wanted to give her something in return for everything she'd given him, and he, as the ex-Chosen who'd lost that title honorably and was now the Foreign Minister, could help her achieve her goal of helping Mizuho thrive, not just on a daily basis, but simply by associating himself with her, thus supplying her village with a significant amount of credibility.

"Hey, is something wrong?"

Zelos jumped, startled, as Sheena nudged him with her elbow. Aw, damn. He'd been so lost in thought that he hadn't even noticed they'd reached the forest, and a quick glance at his companion showed her brows were furrowed as she watched him. "Huh?"

"You heard me," she said softly. "It's not like you to be frowning and lost in thought like this, Zelos. Something's bothering you."

His eyebrows flew upward. Like she had any right to talk about how 'odd' he was acting seeing as she'd been acting far stranger than he had ever since breakfast. Pot, meet kettle. "Y'know," he began, smirking, "I could ask you the same question since something has obviously been bothering you for awhile now, too. So what's wrong?"

As expected, though, Sheena's cheeks reddened and she looked away, biting her lip. "I...I already told you."

Mm hmm. Right. That 'nightmare' explanation. Suuuuure. "For the record, I'm still not convinced that's it, but I'm not gonna push since you obviously don't want to talk about it."

Sheena glanced at him before looking away again. "I'm fine, Zelos." And then, frustratingly, she offered him another forced smile. "Really."

Agh, what was going on with her today? Why was she refusing to even acknowledge it? He sighed and shook his head, looking back at the path. "Well, if you're fine, then so am I."

"I don't believe that," she murmured.

He arched an eyebrow at her. "You mean like I don't believe you're fine even though you keep insisting you are?"

That time she didn't respond at all, and Zelos bit back a groan. This whole conversation was getting a bit too weird for him. He didn't often feel off his game with her anymore, but she wasn't acting normally this morning, and as such, he was starting to feel like they were out of sync today, like they were operating on completely different wavelengths. He couldn't help thinking, too, that this whole conversation would be so much easier for them both if she would just tell him what was bothering her.

But noooo, instead of telling him what was wrong with her, she kept insisting on trying to uncover what was wrong with him. "Did something happen that you're not telling me?" she finally asked.

Zelos sighed again, frustrated at how she'd sidestepped his question. "No, nothing happened. Sweetheart, I'm fine. Really." He paused, considering what he could tell her that might alleviate her concerns without giving away his real issue, and finally decided to toss her a bone. Maybe he could even lure some valuable information from her in the process. "I'm just thinking."

Sheena looked at him again, her eyes narrowing. "About...?"

"About Mizuho, I guess."

Her shoulders sagged, and Zelos silently cursed himself as he realized that instead of alleviating her concerns, he'd just seemed to upset her further. "Did somebody say something to you this morning? Because I thought everyone was past all that..."

"No, no, it's nothing like that," he quickly assured her, shaking his head. What could he say that wouldn't give his plans away and yet that would feel out her opinion of his status here? After all, her perception of that would be far more accurate than his own. "Just wondering how much they're accepting me."

Damn, that didn't work either, he thought, sighing as her face sank further and she looked away, biting her lip. Seriously, what was with her today? "Zelos, they're fine with you being here. You know that. Michi adores you, and Sadako and Hamako like you, too, and my grandfather has no problem with you, and Orochi talks to you civilly now..."

Aha, finally! A way to make her smile! Zelos grinned, looped his arm through hers, and pulled her closer to him. "The last of which still surprises me..."

Bingo! And there, finally, was that faint but definitely sincere smile he'd been craving. "Yeah, me too," she murmured.

He tilted his head. "Although I'm not convinced yet that he won't sneak into Meltokio some night and slaughter me in my sleep. Every now and then he still gives me a glare that makes my blood run cold..."

And while it was strained, at least he did get an undeniable chuckle from her. "Eh, don't worry about him. Lately it seems like he's been glaring at everyone, even people he likes."

"Yeah, I know, especially when the person in question is dating the girl he has 'feelings' for." Sheena blushed, as she always seemed to whenever he mentioned Orochi's 'feelings' for her, but Zelos quickly cleared his throat and went on. "And everyone else?"

"As far as I've heard, no one's complained about you since the poisoning, if that's what you mean." She gave him an uncertain look, her smile gone and a touch of worry on her face. "So don't worry about them, Zelos. They're fine with you being here. Really."

Well, good, at least she wasn't aware of any further complaints about him. But he still had to question how 'fine' they'd be with him in the role he was now looking to fill. Instead of asking her that, though, because he just couldn't, he'd have to put that on his list of questions to ask Igaguri tomorrow, because if it was impossible for these people to ever accept him, he didn't stand a chance of being happy here for more than a few months.

"I hope you're right about that," he murmured, looking at the forest ahead of them.

Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him again, gently squeezing his arm. "Hey, are you sure you're okay? It's not like you to worry about something like that."

And again, Zelos had to resist sighing. She just wasn't going to give up, was she? He pressed a kiss to her cheek. "I'm fine, love, really." His eyebrows rose as she slowed to a stop and turned to look at him, and he brushed his fingers over her cheek, wanting to emphasize that he really was fine. "I'm just concerned about you. Are you sure you're okay?"

Her nod was a little too quick, though, and she didn't look him in the eye as she said, "I'm fine." And, worse, when she finally looked up at him and smiled again, it was still too forced to be convincing. "Really."

Agh, she was lying to him again; guilt was shining in her eyes loud and clear. She had always been terrible at lying and hiding things; for such a secretive ninja, she was just too honest for her own good sometimes, and it tended to wreck her efforts to appear innocent. Apparently her honesty had rubbed off on him now, too, because he was clearly having as much trouble summoning the mask and hiding things from her as she was from him - which was yet another reason why he needed to get away from her, before she called him on it and it ended up hurting her.

"Y'know, if you ever want to talk about something, I'm here," he said. "If something is bothering you, I'd like to help make it better."

Her gaze fell to his chest and her smile faded. "I know," she whispered, but then she looked up at him again, her face somber, that time not even attempting to smile. "Maybe later I'll be ready to talk about it."

Zelos sighed - but again, he opted not to push further. At least she'd finally admitted there was something wrong if she'd agreed to 'maybe' discuss it with him later. And right now, he would take it. "Okay."

Giving her another smile, Zelos leaned down and kissed her, and he was relieved when she eagerly sank into it, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding him to her - relieved to know she wasn't suddenly having doubts about him, but confused, too, because what he felt radiating from her was...strange. It almost felt like fear and desperation. Her kiss was far more heated and needy than anything he'd felt from her in weeks, and for a moment he couldn't help wondering if that, too, should concern him because of how out of place it seemed this morning...but then Sheena moaned against his lips and all his confusion evaporated in the wake of the lust that moan ignited in him, leaving him deepening it further and surrendering to the building desire. Martel, he wanted this woman so much, in every possible way, so he could kiss her like this forever without having to stop it before it went too far. He just hoped that soon, if he survived his conversation with Igaguri tomorrow, this would turn out to be the end of what they used to be and the beginning of a new road, a better road, one where he could indulge in his desire for her and she could do the same. In fact, maybe that would happen the next time he saw her already. Oh, how he hoped it would, because he wasn't sure how much longer he could hold himself back.

But they weren't there yet, and until they were, he would wait, for Sheena's sake, just in case there was no tomorrow for 'them.' And that meant stopping this kiss before it could head in a direction they simply couldn't take yet. With a sudden burst of willpower, Zelos forced himself to detach his lips from hers, his pulse racing and his heart pounding, and looked into her heated brown eyes before lifting his hands to her face, his thumbs trailing over her cheeks. And this...well, it never hurt to reemphasize this. "I love you, Sheena. So, so much."

Thankfully, that time the smile she gave him reflected sincere happiness, and she quickly pressed another kiss to his lips, that one briefer than the last but still just as needy and desperate, before pulling back, resting her forehead against his, and whispering, "I love you too, Zelos."

Instantly, his smile broadened, and he pulled back just enough to take in her beautiful face, memorizing every line and curve, because the next time he saw it, he would hopefully have a clearer picture about which awaited them: a promising future or their ultimate demise. And oh, how he hoped it was the former, because the smile she was giving him right now really was the most amazing, beautiful thing he'd ever seen and he couldn't imagine living the rest of his life without ever being able to elicit and admire it again. No matter what it took, he would do it if it meant being able to spend his life with her and make her happy.

But he still had to make that happen, and that required him to leave so he could start working on organizing the final pieces of the puzzle. As much as he hated to do so, he had to. He sighed reluctantly. "But right now I really do have to go."

Sheena watched him another moment, but then she lowered her eyes and nodded faintly. "Right...Seles. Say 'hi' for me if she shows up today, okay?"

Oh, good, Zelos thought with a grin. No more attempts to come with me. "I will. And maybe next time we can all sit down and try to work a few things out."

All traces of her smile vanished again. "Okay."

Damn, her mood was fading fast; he could see it. And again, he was tempted to stay awhile longer and try to lure her out of her funk, but their awkward, stilted conversation, wherein they'd just accused each other of not being 'okay,' had proven how bad that idea was, and so he dismissed it. Instead, he leaned down and gave her one last kiss before pulling back and smiling again. "I'll try to swing by tomorrow to say 'hi.'"

"Okay," she repeated, giving him another feeble smile. "I'll see you then."

And then he turned and continued on his way. He was disturbed by how strange that exchange had been, especially after she'd been acting so normally before breakfast, but he quickly pushed it aside because he had too much else to worry about first. No, right now he had a major, life-changing conversation to plan. After all, for as much as he might not know yet, one thing he did know was that he loved Sheena with all his heart, which was why he would do this right - not just for his own sake, but for hers as well.

Sheena was worth it.


For several minutes, all Sheena could do was stand there in the forest and watch Zelos leave, her arms folded to her chest and her heart heavy and aching. She wanted to cry, scream, and kick a tree at the unfairness of life - and then she wanted to pull him to her, drag him away with her to a remote corner of the planet where no one would ever find them, and never let him go. She could feel it: everything was changing between them. She'd always known it was inevitable, that she couldn't run from it forever, but the realization that it was now catching up to them was still crushing. It was devastating. And never before had she felt it as pronouncedly as she had this morning. The shift in him had been slight, but it had been unmistakable, indicating the winds of change had begun to blow - and nowhere had it been more obvious than in this last kiss. It had tasted different on her lips, and only now as she watched him leave did she realize what it had tasted like.

It had tasted like the beginning of the end.

Her pretty little dream bubble, the one she'd been hiding in the past year to avoid dealing with the future that awaited them, had finally burst, and her heart was plummeting from the heights where it had soared for so long. Zelos was uncertain about Mizuho and his place here; he'd made that clear from the little he'd told her. Even more telling, though, he was uncertain about their future together. She'd always struggled to feel out his thoughts about the future, knowing what would happen if his answer had been the one she dreaded, but when the opportunity to test the waters had arisen this morning, she'd taken it...and it had been at that moment, when he hadn't responded to her 'Can I keep you?' and she'd seen doubt flicker in his eyes, that she'd seen the truth.

His answer had been a kiss and an 'I love you.' That was it. No 'Yes'; not even a 'No.' He hadn't directly answered her question; he'd just diverted her attention elsewhere...which, in turn, had answered her question. She had so hoped he would jump on that and give her hope, something she could hold onto that would make her decision about which road to walk with him easier to make, but he'd avoided it. It had been obvious, and heartbreaking, and had essentially killed any hope she had left that maybe, just maybe, he would be willing to consider taking this life upon himself if she asked him to stay. He was such a wonderful man, so kind, giving, and loving, always sweet and eager to help her and please her, and she loved him so much, but now she knew the truth.

This had been a wonderful year together - the most fun, beautiful, amazing year of her life - but all good things eventually came to an end. She'd spent nearly a year forcing herself to ignore the reality her mind kept trying to point out to her, the past two months since the poisoning being the worst when she'd pointedly refused to think about it to put off having to make her decision, but she couldn't do that anymore. Zelos didn't want this life, and she could no longer delude herself into thinking otherwise. He'd hesitated this morning, and that had been his answer, as loud and clear as any words. He loved her - she would never doubt that, not after everything he'd done for her - but love alone wasn't enough to guarantee them a 'Happily Ever After.' And maybe now he was finally starting to realize he couldn't comprehend of a future here with her in Mizuho...a future she could never escape. She was trapped here, and no matter how much she wanted to choose him over her responsibilities to her people, she couldn't, and she knew he knew that.

The cold, hard fact was that there was no future for 'them.' She'd known that all along, despite the red herrings fate had sent her; she'd just chosen to live in the present and ignore reality and reason because she didn't want to let him go. She wasn't ready to break up with him quite yet, because she still had to figure out how to actually do that, but the end was quickly approaching. 'One day' had finally arrived. Time never stopped, not for her, not for them, not for anyone. She could try to run from it forever, but one day everything she'd been running from would catch up with her and force her to deal with it. And now...now it had, and she had her answer. Now, she had to deal with it. Fate had yet to show her another possibility, and it would be irresponsible and cruel of her to keep waiting for something that would never happen.

Her heart hurt. It ached. It longed for him, for a different life, for a different situation, one where they didn't have to write 'The End' to their love story. She loved him and always would; she knew that already. The one thing she had ever truly wanted in life - him - was the one thing she now knew she could never have. She didn't even care that he'd lied to her this morning; she wasn't sure what exactly the lie had been, but she knew he'd lied about something since in one breath he'd said he had to run around Meltokio and in the next he'd said he was house-sitting in case Seles showed up, and those activities didn't mesh. Normally that would piss her off, but right now...well, when combined with his unspoken answer to her question about the future, she knew it was just an excuse to escape her.

At least he hadn't said 'Yes' if he'd really meant 'No, I'm sorry, but I can't'; he just hadn't said anything. And really, calling him on his lie would have been hypocritical seeing as she was just as guilty of lying; she hadn't had a nightmare last night, and telling him she had was just her own excuse to avoid telling him the truth. That wasn't to say the nightmares hadn't started popping up again - in fact, the past two months they had been, probably because of her growing fear of having to make this very choice - but last night hadn't been one of them. She just hoped that now that Zelos had apparently come to the same realization she had about the future, it would make ending their relationship easier. Of course, on the other hand, if she was feeling this miserable about it now and she hadn't even done the deed yet, then actually doing it could very well kill her heart completely.

She'd known for a long time now that she shouldn't have fallen for him, but she had, and he'd fallen for her, and now...now it was too late to undo that without it hurting them both like hell. She dreaded doing this with every fiber of her being, but she would. Not tomorrow when she saw him, because she'd never be ready for it by then - and she would have to do a better job of concealing her fears from him then, because she knew Zelos, and just because he hadn't pushed to find out what was wrong with her today didn't mean he wouldn't tomorrow - but soon, she would. And then she would have to start facing the real future that awaited her. She hated it, she would probably never forgive herself for it, but it was what it was, and that was that.

A drop of wetness suddenly hit her arm, drawing her from her thoughts. Sheena looked down, startled to realize it was a tear...and instantly, her stomach twisted as she saw it was lying beside the bracelet she had made out of the perfect iris pendant he'd given her. Once, that symbol had given her hope for the future, but now...now it mocked her, it laughed at her and her foolish, naïve eagerness to take anything as a sign from 'fate.' Sniffling, she quickly looked up and brushed the tears from her eyes, new ones immediately replacing them that she, likewise, fought off. Once satisfied she had composed herself, she breathed in deeply and turned, heading back to Mizuho. She needed to think, alone, about the least painful way to end their relationship. It would probably be the hardest, most painful thing she would ever do, but it needed to be done. And by all means, she couldn't let him see how upset she was before she was ready to do it because then he'd worry about her, and there was no way she could follow through on this when he was being all sweet and thoughtful toward her. No, she would do her best to keep her thoughts to herself and carefully plan her approach, and then she would be ready for it.

Oh, who was she kidding? No, she wouldn't. She would never be ready for it, no matter how much time and effort she spent preparing herself. But she would do it anyway because setting him free to live the life he really wanted was the right choice to make.


(Continued in Part 2: The Blessing)