(For disclaimer and author/story/series notes, see Part 1.)

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Epilogue: The Iris

Afternoon quickly turned into early evening. Igaguri's announcement went smoothly ('smoothly,' to Zelos, meaning no one was booing him or throwing rotten fruit or shurikens at him), and afterwards he was pleasantly surprised when a few villagers actually approached him and offered him their own congratulations and welcomes. Most he recognized from tending to them during the poisoning, which he supposed made sense since they were sincerely thankful for his help then. Others, however, mostly the ones he'd had little contact with then, did not and, as Igaguri had warned, gave him distrustful glares and a cold shoulder, but still, he couldn't help thinking the fact that not everyone in Mizuho hated his guts was a good start for an outsider of questionable repute. It wasn't much, but it was enough to give him the courage to keep working toward complete acceptance here.

After the announcement, he and Sheena sat down with Igaguri, who presented a full list of the responsibilities that would be required of them. The sheer amount of duties was even more staggering than the partial list Igaguri had given him the previous week, but whenever he started feeling overwhelmed, Zelos just looked at Sheena, remembering why he'd agreed to do this: because if she didn't have a spouse to help her with it, then she would have to shoulder it all alone. Or, worse, if he hadn't offered, then she would have to face it with a man by her side who she might not love or trust. Part of him - the obnoxiously insecure part he suspected would take years to completely go away that was still uncertain he could handle this the way Sheena deserved - still couldn't help wondering where she would be right now if he hadn't unintentionally made her fall in love with him that fateful night at the king's party, who she would be marrying instead, and especially if that man would be better for Mizuho in the long run than he would, but then she would look at him and smile that sweet, shy smile that told him she was truly, truly happy, and all his fears were silenced.

No, he knew Sheena wanted him here with her and that she trusted him to help her, and so he refused to seriously doubt himself anymore. He wouldn't let her down with this. Whatever it took to make her life easier, to make her laugh and smile, he'd do it. She was worth it. Because the truth was, this was the perfect opportunity, one he'd never thought he'd get, to work toward making up to her for how he'd once hurt her in a pathetic effort to save both of their hearts from future devastation, and he was glad she was letting him. It had been a sometimes painful, other times exhilarating journey to reach this point, but ultimately, that was what this was: not just a chance to spend the rest of his life with the woman he loved more than life itself, but the chance for him to show her his gratitude for everything she'd done for him. Helping her as she needed it most was the least he could do to give her back even a fraction of what she'd given him. Even if someone else, like Orochi, would have been better for Mizuho in the long run, Zelos would never have been able to walk away if he knew she would never be happy with that man. And if even Chief Igaguri had faith in him to protect her, help her, and make her happy...well, he would live up to that faith. He would.

Once finished going through their future duties, Igaguri sent Zelos with Orochi to find him some clothes and to briefly explain what Zelos would be studying with him the next few months while Sheena stayed behind with Igaguri to discuss a few other 'chiefly' matters. Zelos was surprised and relieved to find Orochi was actually pleasant toward him, and he was careful to respond in kind. Heck, at one point Orochi had even thanked him for following through on his promise to 'make the right choice' so this past year wouldn't prove to be a 'waste' of Sheena's time to find a spouse. The conversation, while brief and to the point, had still given Zelos hope that they really would be able to work together here - and, more than that, that one day they might actually find themselves considering the other to be a friend. And if there was one thing Zelos was positive he could never have too many of, it was friends he could count on and who accepted him for who he was.

Dusk was falling when Zelos finally returned to Sheena's house - his house now, too, he had to keep reminding himself - thoroughly exhausted, but pleasantly so. Together, they had gotten through what would probably prove to be one of the more difficult, stressful days they'd have to face, and Zelos couldn't help but think it boded well for how they'd handle anything else yet to come their way. He paused for a moment at the door, smiling as he admired the iris blooming in front of the house and remembering the days he and Sheena had spent planting these, a beautiful omen of the future yet to come, then he pushed open the door and stepped inside. Immediately, his smile broadened as he found Sheena standing in her kitchen area, her dark hair hanging loose around her face, humming softly to herself while cutting up vegetables. A sudden wave of warmth and love filled him as he quietly closed the door, slipped off his shoes, and leaned against the wall, just observing the oddly domestic scene before him of a happy, loving wife cooking dinner for her husband. And just like that, the memory hit him of a time not so long ago, when he'd been younger and acted like a jerk toward her, when he'd asked if she'd been keeping up her cooking skills for her future husband. At the time, he'd been the last person either of them had ever expected would fill that role, and yet now...now this was their reality.

"Hey, gorgeous," he said softly.

Instantly, Sheena stopped humming and turned around - and, the best part, the second she saw him, she beamed him a warm, beautiful smile. "Hey."

Zelos watched her a moment, mesmerized by her beauty, then he pushed himself away from the wall and headed over to her. He quickly backed her against the counter, cupped her face in his hands, and closed his eyes, drawing her into a long, slow, languid kiss that she immediately sank into, wrapping her arms around his neck in return. Oh, Martel, he would never get enough of this - her warmth, her scent, her taste, her touch, or her soft moans of pure pleasure.

After a moment, he pulled back, tickled to see she was still smiling at him as they observed each other silently, but then he peeked over her shoulder at the counter and arched an eyebrow. "Cooking dinner, eh?"

She blushed lightly, her smile turning shy as she lowered her fingers to his chest. "Well, I was hungry, and I figured you'd be hungry when you got back, and Grandpa and I finished a little while ago, so I thought I'd get started making something."

Oh, yeah, he could get used to this very, very easily. Not the 'somebody doing every little thing for him' thing, because that had gotten old years ago thanks to Sebastian's refusal to let him do anything for himself, but the fact that someone actually cared about him enough to go out of their way to do nice things like this for him. "Thanks." And this, too, he wanted her to know. He refused to let her think that just because she was his wife now that she would have to deal with not only running this village, but also with being the sole person responsible for running their household, too. When he'd offered to help her out here, he'd offered to help her out in every way he could, even like this - traditional gender roles be damned. "If I'd finished before you, I would've gotten started with dinner, too."

Her smile broadened and she nodded. "I know."

Good. Now was the time to set up those kinds of precedents, before they developed too many patterns about who did what that would be hard to change. "So...curry, huh?" He flashed her a grin. "I should've known."

Her eyebrows rose and she poked his chest. "Just remember, you like my curry."

He couldn't deny that. Sheena made the best curry he'd ever eaten. But then, he loved all of her cooking. Bizarre ingredient choices included, probably because they made her dishes taste good, as opposed to Raine who threw in bizarre ingredients that made her dishes taste like dirty socks. "Heh, yeah, I do. Pineapple and all."

She gave him a mock glare and poked him again. "It tastes better with the pineapple!"

Well, yeah, it did, but teasing her about it was so much more fun. "If you say so, sweetheart." She groaned and rolled her eyes, and Zelos chuckled before giving her another kiss.

After a moment, Sheena pulled back, smiling softly again, then leaned back against the counter, folded her arms to her chest, and sighed. "So how did everything go with Orochi?"

"Surprisingly well, actually. He started laying out everything we'll be going through the next few weeks." Zelos arched an eyebrow at her. "Did you really have to study breathing through reed tubes while submerged underwater?"

"Oh, yeah, I did," she said, grinning. "Just wait until you get to creating your own bombs inside eggshells."

"As long as Orochi doesn't use one on me, I think I'll be fine." He grinned. "I guess you never really did hate me, did you? If you had, something tells me I would've been in for an explosive surprise one night during our journey while cracking open a few eggs for dinner."

Her face softened. "No, Zelos, I never hated you. You know that. Wanted to beat sense into you pretty much all the time? Definitely. But hate you so much that I wanted to kill you? No." Without warning, she smirked. "I mean, you were just too pretty to kill."

Zelos gaped at her a moment, unsure he'd just heard her correctly, but then he burst out laughing, which made her smirk broaden. "I am such a horrible influence on you," he said between laughs.

"Yes, you are," she stated, still beaming at him. "You're a terrible influence on me."

"Good." He stole another quick kiss from her. "I really kinda like you this way, more willing to loosen up, crack jokes, and laugh things off."

"As incredible as it may sound, I think I like me better this way, too," she said, her voice lowering as she leaned closer to brush her nose against his. "And I like seeing the serious side of you more often, too."

His grin softened. "You're a horrible influence on me, too. And I, for one, am glad you are."

"So am I," Sheena replied, then she gave him one last quick kiss before leaning against the counter again. "So Orochi treated you okay?"

"Oh, definitely," Zelos said, lowering his hands to her waist. "He was actually pleasant toward me."

She nodded curtly. "Good. Grandpa has a way of getting others to see the truth about what they're doing that's unparalleled here." Her smile faded a little. "I just hope one day I'll be able to do that, too."

Zelos trailed his thumbs over her fine hipbones. "Oh, I'm sure you will. You have an excellent teacher and role model to follow."

Sheena gave him an appreciative smile, but then her gaze traveled down over his body, her face wrinkling in distaste - and he knew exactly what she was about to say before she said it. "Although it looks like Orochi's already getting subtle revenge on you for marrying me...you mean to tell me this was the best outfit he could come up with for you?"

"Oh, yeah - this was the best," he replied, giving her a wry grin. Unsurprisingly, Sheena bit her lip, visibly holding back her laughter, and Zelos released a dramatic, showy sigh. "All right, fine. Go ahead. Get it out of your system."

As expected, she burst out laughing, her fingers running down the front of his extremely bland, brown outfit. "I'm sorry, Zelos. I know I shouldn't be laughing like this, but you look like...you look like..."

"...Like I'm wearing a brown paper bag?" he suggested.

"...Like you're wearing a brown paper bag," she agreed with a nod. "Personally, I think you'll stand out more here looking like this than you would in your normal clothes!"

While he detested the outfit and was embarrassed to have anyone seeing him, 'The Great Zelos,' looking like this, he couldn't deny how much he loved seeing her laughing, even if he was the butt of the joke. He grinned again. "Brown is not my color."

Sheena shook her head, still running her hands over his chest, trying unsuccessfully to control her laughter. "No, it's definitely not your color."

He shrugged. "Eh, in Orochi's defense, he did find two other outfits that looked better on me except both were two sizes too small. At least I can move in this one. You have to admit, I wouldn't be able to train very well if I couldn't even move."

"No, I know, it's just...this is so not you."

"I've been intentionally avoiding looking in mirrors the past few hours, but yeah, I can imagine how bad it looks."

She bit her lip again, struggling to control her laughter, and looked up, meeting his eyes. "And I'm not laughing at you, dear. Really, I'm not..."

"...You're laughing with me," he finished for her. Sheena, after all, wasn't the kind to laugh at someone else's expense. It was one of the many reasons he loved her: she truly cared about others, and since she didn't like it when others made fun of her, she didn't do it to them unless she knew for certain, like she did now, that they wouldn't be offended by it. Or unless they really deserved it, like he'd deserved her insults for years. "I know."

She eyed him another moment, running her fingers over his arms, smoothing down the material, something unexpected settling on her face: a blush. Her smile softened, and when her eyes flicked up to meet his before returning to his outfit, Zelos could have sworn he'd seen shyness lurking there. "Well, don't worry about it too much," she murmured.

'Don't worry about it'? "Sheena, I look like I'm wearing a brown paper bag and you expect me not to worry about it? I don't even want to think what Seles would say if she saw me looking like this! She'd probably drag me back to Meltokio and lock me in my mansion for fear her beloved brother, the sexy, stylish Chosen, had lost all sense of fashion!"

Sheena chuckled again, but her blush, oddly, deepened further, her fingers returning to his chest. "No, seriously, Zelos, don't worry about it. This outfit is only temporary. I'll...I'll get started making you a new one right away."

...Wait, what? That knocked the wind from his sails. Zelos's lips parted as she awkwardly met his eyes before looking away again, her cheeks still red. "You are going to make me clothes?"

Instantly, her face darkened and her brows furrowed, and she only briefly glanced up at him before looking down again. "What?" she snapped. "You'd rather go to your fancy Meltokio designers and ask them to make ninja clothes for you?"

Zelos's eyes widened, and he quickly grasped her arms, running his hands soothingly over them, taken aback by her sudden defensiveness. "Hey, hey, calm down, sweetheart," he said gingerly. "That's not what I'm saying. I didn't even know you could make clothes, and...well, to be honest, I'm a little surprised you'd offer to make any for me."

Thankfully, her defensiveness dissipated, even as her blush deepened further. Zelos wasn't sure why she was feeling so shy about this, but when she glanced up at him again, her eyes didn't stay there long before falling back to his chest, her fingers trailing down the bland, brown material. What, was she embarrassed about this? Since when was something like this embarrassing? "It's...it's a tradition in Mizuho," she said softly. "A wife makes her husband's first new set of clothes as a married man and gives it to him as a present on their wedding day. Women are taught to sew from little on so we can do that. So...yeah. I can make clothes."

She was still clearly uncomfortable about this, and suddenly Zelos wondered if it wasn't so much embarrassment he was seeing as it was fear. What, was she afraid he'd reject the offer? Or maybe deem her 'unworthy' to make him something like this? "Hey," he said, placing a finger beneath her chin and tilting her head up so she was looking at him again. "You don't have to do that, you know. As far as I'm concerned, you and I fall so far outside the realm of tradition that we can't even see it anymore, and so things like traditional gender roles don't necessarily apply to us. I mean, Martel, Sheena, you're gonna be chief here; how many women have scored that kind of role before you? And that makes me your support here, which, yeah, okay, is more of a traditional 'housewife' position - although if you ever call me your housewife, I will throw a hissy fit and whack you over the head with my feather duster." Sheena snorted softly, but Zelos didn't give her a chance to respond. "And the thing is, even then, we'll still be mixing and matching our roles here based on our own personal qualifications - and I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way." He shrugged. "Besides, you're gonna be so busy with your training that there's no way I can ask you to take even more time out of your day to make clothes for me."

"No, it's...it's okay, Zelos, really," she said, smiling shyly again. "I want to do this for you."

For a moment, all Zelos could do was search her eyes, his heart pounding at not only the sweetness of the gesture, but at the reminder, again, that he was now her husband and she was now his wife and that such unfamiliar, awkward, but definitely coveted and welcome domesticity was their new reality. And the thought that she was willing to do something like that for someone like him filled him with such a warm, loved, happy feeling that he couldn't help but smile and kiss her again. "Are you sure? I mean, you're not just doing this to make up for what happened two days ago, or to make up for my spending so much on my wedding ring, or something like that, are you?"

Sheena quickly shook her head. "No, I'm sure about this. And that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because I want to...because I can, and because I've always looked forward to doing this for my husband one day, and because this is the least I can do for you after everything you've done for me, and because...because you deserve something special, not something that makes you look like you escaped from a monastery." He smiled again, his heart swelling with love, and brushed his fingers over her cheek. "I'll take your measurements after dinner and get started working on it right away." Her eyes lifted to his and her face fell a little. "If...if you're okay with this, that is..."

"Hey," he cut her off, cupping her face with his hands so she was looking him in the eye. "I would be honored." For a moment, Sheena just watched him, clearly trying to determine if he meant that, but he did - as strange as it was to think of Sheena making him the clothes he would probably be wearing for years to come, he was deeply touched that she would offer to do that for him - and finally she smiled faintly, accepting that. He arched an eyebrow. "So did you make your own outfit?" She bit her lip, looked down shyly as he returned his hands to her waist, and nodded - and he couldn't help smirking. Heh, how many people knew that about her, either? He'd known she could mend clothes since she'd done it a number of times during their journey, once even patching a hole one of Rodyle's dragons had sliced through one of his gloves for him, but he was positive no one else knew she could make them. "And now I'm fully confident that whatever you come up with, I'll love it. I mean, I do quite like yours."

"You just like the view," she muttered, rolling her eyes.

Okay, so it really did give a nice view of her cleavage, something he'd since learned was intentional to distract any male suckers - er, victims -and lure them into a false sense of security with her so she could snatch something from them or get information out of them, but that was only part of it. "Of course I do, but that's a given because I'm a guy. I meant the style and coloring are nice, too. It's simple, but it's still sexy. I just had no idea you even could do this."

"Well, it isn't a skill I'm eager to advertise," Sheena replied, her face wrinkling again in distaste. "Sewing just seems so...girly."

Zelos burst out laughing again, eliciting another embarrassed glare from her. Ah, Sheena. He should have known. Martel forbid she willingly act like a female once in awhile. When he kept laughing, she lightly smacked his arm, trying to get him to stop, and after a moment, he forced himself to bite his tongue. "Y'know, I really hate to break this to you, babe, but beneath the tomboy ninja act, you really are a girl. A very beautiful, sexy one, if I do say so myself." She smacked his arm again, blushing deeply, but Zelos just grinned. "And y'know what? I, for one, am glad you are a girl. I mean, do you really think I would've just married you if you weren't?"

"No, of course not," she murmured, her cheeks still a beautiful, vibrant red, but then she looked up at him again, uncertainty returning to her brown eyes. "So you're really okay with me doing this for you? I mean, I know coming from Meltokio's upper class, you have high fashion standards that I could never live up to-"

"Sheena," he cut her off, cupping her face again, "this is, by far, the sweetest thing anyone's ever offered to do for me. Of course I'm okay with it. Yeah, I'm pretty vain about my appearance at times, but I really do trust you to make me something that's comfortable, durable, and looks good. I want to see what you come up with. Really."

Meeting his eyes shyly, Sheena watched him another moment before finally smiling and nodding. "Okay. And I promise I'll make it look better on you than...this."

Zelos chuckled. He didn't doubt that one bit. And to be honest, if he had to wear ninja clothes here, which he did, then there was only one person he trusted to know him well enough to make him something he would wear proudly, and that was her. "As long as we agree that this thing makes me look like I'm wearing a brown paper bag and belong in a monastery, I think anything you come up with will be fine." He smirked, tossed his hair back behind his shoulder, and lifted his head. "I trust you to make me look like the sexy, masculine being that I am."

Sheena rolled her eyes again, but her smile never faded. "I'll try. Let me think about it for a few days and see what I can come up with." She eyed him a moment before running her hands through his wavy red locks. "The biggest problem will be finding a color that goes with this hair."

Oh, yeah. He didn't envy the selection job she had ahead of her. "Heh. Welcome to my world. Why do you think I always wore the colors I did? Most others just looked...wrong...with it."

"Yeah, well, I don't think a pink ninja would be well respected here," she deadpanned.

"Pink?" Zelos gasped, lifting a hand to his chest, then pointed sharply at her. "Hey, I will have you know my normal attire is not pink. It's salmon. This?" He grabbed the obi around her waist. "This is pink. Presea's hair is pink. My clothes are salmon."

"Light salmon pink, maybe, but regardless of what you call it, it's still pink," Sheena said, arching a challenging eyebrow at him. "Not that salmon is any more a ninja color than pink is."

...Okay, so she had a point there, although he still wasn't buying the whole light salmon pink descriptor. "Well, I don't think I need to remind you just how bad brown looks on me."

Her eyes trailed down his body. "No, I can see that for myself. If it was a darker shade, it might be all right..." Zelos pulled a face - no, no, no - and she rolled her eyes. "I said might, not that that's what I'll go for, because brown really does look drab on you." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "Maybe a darker color altogether..."

"Hey, I'm not a dark, brooding guy, y'know," he quickly pointed out.

Sheena smirked as her eyes snapped back up to his. "Well, you certainly have your moments, dear, but only you and I know that." Her gaze drifted back down to his body. "Let's see...yellow would make you look..."

That time she was the one who pulled the face - and Zelos couldn't argue with her. In fact, he cringed at the memory of the suit one particularly inept seamstress had made for him when he'd been thirteen. She'd been quickly kicked out the aristocratic fashion circuit after that disaster. "Tried it. Didn't work. Trust me, yellow on me is a visual you do not want."

"I'll take your word for it," she said, eyeing him carefully. "We can't go with too much red because finding a red here that doesn't clash with your hair will be nearly impossible...I'm not even going to consider orange...green might be okay, depending on the shade..."

"Eh, green makes me look like a poinsettia plant."

She snorted. "Okay, no green, either - although I can't help thinking a darker, earthier green, like olive green or hunter green, might look good on you. Purple...eh."

Zelos couldn't resist waggling his eyebrows. "What, you didn't like the swimsuit that woman in Altamira gave me?"

Scowling, her eyes snapped up to his. "We are not discussing that...thing. I'm pretty sure I made my opinion of that particular article of clothing of yours very clear months ago."

Oh, yeah, she had. He still wasn't sure why she'd objected to him showing off that much skin during their New Year's Altamira trip - he loved it when she showed off her beautiful skin and curves, and he knew damn well she loved his physique, too - but she'd definitely made her point at the time. "Yeah, I suppose making me burn it while you watched and laughed maniacally really is as clear as you can get, isn't it?" he murmured.

"I'm glad you realize that, dear," Sheena replied, grinning smugly.

"Heh...I still think you just didn't want to share such a pretty view with the hunnies."

She rolled her eyes again. "Pretty view. Yeah, maybe, assuming your goal is to look like a male stripper. And as for you sharing that 'pretty view' with your hunnies...well, I'm gonna choose to ignore that comment. Unless you want me to beat you up, just for old times' sake?"

Zelos grinned wickedly. "Mm. That's definitely tempting, love...but I think I'll pass. This time, anyway."

"Good choice," Sheena muttered, then she cleared her throat. "In any case...most shades of blue do look good on you. So does black."

"Just so long as it doesn't get too dark," he pointed out. "Or too bright, for that matter."

"That's where the accent colors come in," she stated matter-of-factly.

His eyebrows rose and he smirked again. This just kept getting better and better - and the fact that she was already putting such serious thought into it eased his mind further. She wouldn't make him look like a buffoon, even though she'd have every right to. She would make him look damn good, no matter what she decided on, and so he'd let her. "Accent colors, eh? You're really serious about this, aren't you?"

"Of course I am," Sheena said, giving him another shy smile as she ran her hands down his chest. "You're my husband, Zelos. I can't very well have you running around Mizuho looking like you're wearing a brown paper bag and just escaped from a monastery, can I?"

Instantly, his smirk softened into a smile. He was so damn in love with this woman that it hurt - a good ache, a persistent tug at his heart, that grew more powerful with every day that passed. He would do anything to protect her, to make her smile and laugh, to feel her touch and taste her kiss and lose himself with her and stand by her side forever. And knowing she was looking out for him and making sure he was okay, in every way she could, just as he was doing for her, made his heart ache all the more.

Leaning down, Zelos gave her another quick kiss. "No, I guess not."

Her eyes softened further, and for a moment she just observed him, returning his smile, before looking down at his chest again and nodding. "Anyway, like I said, I'll take your measurements after dinner so I can start working on it. But right now..." She bit her lip and lifted her eyes to his oh-so-cutely. "Could you help me finish making this curry?"

Oh, Sheena. All you've ever had to do is ask, sweetheart, and it's yours. And I am so glad you've finally started accepting that. "Of course. Just tell me what you need me to do."

Once they finished making and eating her (as always) delicious curry, Zelos helped her clean up, determined, again, to prove he was serious about not sticking to traditional gender roles. Doing such menial chores still felt strange, but the more he did for her - and, more potently, the more he detected her appreciation for it - the more he found he really didn't mind doing such things for her. Maybe in a few years he would regret setting this precedent of equal cooperation and partnership in their marriage, once again to reassure her that everything they now did, no matter how big or small, it was something they were doing together. For now, though, he couldn't help but think it was important to establish that mindset so Sheena really did feel comfortable coming to him with whatever she needed - and, well, so he didn't revert into the lazy bum of a Chosen he used to be.

Sheena, for her part, seemed surprised, even a bit amused, by his willingness to help, but she didn't turn him away or try to persuade him she could 'handle it herself,' either. And even though he was tired from an exhausting few days, Zelos enjoyed it. Helping her made him feel good. It made him feel needed and valued. It was such a far cry from life in Meltokio, where everyone waited on him, trying to impress him, that once again he couldn't help thinking that just because Mizuho wasn't as advanced as Meltokio didn't mean he wouldn't one day grow to like this place more. This warmth, this feeling of being appreciated and wanted, like he wasn't worthless, like it mattered that he existed and that someone was sincerely glad he was alive, was a nice feeling. It was a good feeling. It was a warm, happy, loved feeling. It was a feeling he would fight, tooth and nail, to hold on to for the rest of his life.

After they'd finished cleaning up and he'd changed back into his usual, far more comfortable and flattering black shirt and white pants, true to her word, Sheena instructed him to stand in the middle of her living area so she could start taking his measurements. And at the first touch of her fingers on his bare arm (since, naturally, she was using the old-fashioned method of measuring, which meant fingers instead of measuring tape), Zelos could tell: this particular measuring session was going to be pure torture, requiring every ounce of restraint he possessed not to pick her up, carry her to bed, and have his way with her. He knew she wouldn't appreciate that, especially since her focused expression told him she was serious about getting this right, and so he'd try to resist, but man, this was going to be hard, no pun intended...

"Stand still," she suddenly instructed him.

Uh oh. They'd only been standing there half a minute. Not a good start. "Sorry."

But her fingers were on his shoulders, and on his arms, and her touch was so gentle and sensual that he couldn't help it: he had to move. And, unsurprisingly, only a minute later, Sheena sighed and stopped, looking up at him pointedly. "Zelos, if you want this to look better on you than that outfit from Orochi does, you have to stand still."

He gave her a tight smile. "I'm sorry, sweetheart - I really am - but I...can't...stand still."

Up went the eyebrow as she stepped in front of him and placed her hands on her hips. "You can't stand still...riiiiight. Zelos, I happen to know this isn't your first time having your measurements taken. In fact, I'm pretty sure you've done this, what, at least a hundred times before this?"

If only it were that simple. He tilted his head awkwardly. This really was embarrassing since she wasn't doing it to him intentionally. Heck, it wasn't even intentional on his part since he did want her to get all the information she needed. "Well, yeah, but-"

"So don't think you'll get away with it now," she cut him off, poking his chest. "I can't imagine any of those high-class, professional seamstresses putting up with your fidgeting without slapping you silly to get you to stop."

"Yeah, well, I never had this problem with them," he mumbled.

Sheena folded her arms to her chest. "Gee, I feel so special getting to deal with it instead."

"You should, actually." Zelos grinned wryly. "None of them were nearly as sexy and drop-dead gorgeous as you. I wasn't married to any of them, either. And that's why they never turned me on the way you currently are."

Instantly, her eyes widened, her lips parted, and a blush blossomed on her cheeks as she finally got it. "O...oh." Heh. She really didn't realize how crazy she drove him and how hard it was to resist her at times, did she? Especially when they were alone like this and she was touching him and nothing was stopping them from following through on desire except their own determination to get something else done first? She let out a soft, embarrassed laugh and looked down at his chest. "S...sorry. I...I didn't realize..."

He shook his head. "Don't worry about it. It feels great; it just doesn't make this particular measuring session easy for me to endure. Just keep going and I'll do my best to stand still for you. I'll try extra hard not to make my current problem your problem."

Biting her lip, Sheena looked up at him again, then she nodded and gingerly resumed her work. "Then I guess I should be glad those seamstresses didn't have to deal with this."

Zelos smirked, detecting an opportunity to lighten the mood. "Well, there was that one..." Abruptly, she stopped and gave him an unamused look. "I'm kidding!" he quickly replied, laughing and lifting his hands in a show of innocence. "I'm only kidding, love."

"You'd better be," she muttered, going back to work.

"Well, except for..." That time she growled at him as her eyes snapped up to his, and he lifted his hands again. "I am! I am. Really, I am."

She glared at him another moment, then turned and jotted a few numbers on a pad of paper sitting on the back of her couch. "Well, if that's really your problem, dear, and you aren't just being stupid or difficult, then distract yourself. You're good at that. At least until I'm done, because something tells me that particular problem of yours won't go away even if we wait until tomorrow to do this." Finishing her note, she stepped back up to him. "I really do want to get started working on this so I don't have to look at you wearing that brown thing any longer than absolutely necessary."

He didn't want to wear it any longer than absolutely necessary. "I'll try, but I make no promises."

She gave him a pointed look. "Just don't distract me or this'll take a ridiculously long time."

A ridiculously long, torturous time, his mind added. He arched a hopeful eyebrow at her. "Can I at least talk to you?"

Sheena tilted her head, considering that, but then she sighed. "I suppose. Just don't try to persuade me it's time for bed already because I really do want to get this part done tonight."

Zelos bowed to her. "Your wish is my command, my lady. My body is yours to grope to your heart's delight." Before she could so much as roll her eyes at that, though, he pointed sharply at her. "Just don't go overboard with it, because there's only so much I can take before I snap and go all caveman on you."

Her blush deepened, but she did nod and chuckle softly. "I'll try."

And then her hands were on him again, feeling, measuring, and most definitely turning him on. Agh, this was never going to work. Okay, fine, then. She'd given him permission to talk to her, and so talk to her he would - about subjects not related to sex for fear of turning himself on more than he already was. Well, mostly. Except the timing on this one was just too perfect to resist. He sighed showily. "This is so not fair."

Her eyes darted up at him, a smirk toying on her lips. "Now what are you whining about?"

"How is it you're gonna have all of my measurements, and yet I still don't have yours?"

Her smirk appeared in full as she snorted. "Because I'm smart enough to know what you'd do with them if you did get your grubby little hands on them so I've gone to great lengths to keep them to myself?"

"But I'm your husband!" he countered, throwing out his arms only to have Sheena growl, grab them, and push them back down to his sides again. "I think I have the right to know so I can, oh, have something nice made for you sometime!"

"You may be my husband, but you're also a perverted idiot. Knowing you, your idea of having something 'nice' made for me would mean I'd end up with a huge collection of see-through lingerie."

Zelos cocked his head. Sheena in sexy, see-through lingerie? Maybe even stretched out across her bed, beckoning to him with a come-hither look in her dark, exotic eyes? Yes, please! "And the problem with that would be...?"

"Not going to happen, dear."

He sighed, the oh-so-lovely image of Sheena wearing only a few strategically placed scraps of lace bursting. "You're no fun," he grumbled, but then he shrugged, his face brightening again. "Then I guess I'll just have to bribe the seamstress the king selects to make your wedding dress for that information."

Her eyebrows flew upward as she looked up at him. "And I will just have to threaten her with bodily harm if she shares even a single number with you."

"Yeah, that will go over well," Zelos countered. "I can just see the headlines now: 'King throws sexy ninja emissary and fiancée to the great Ex-Chosen Zelos Wilder in prison wearing 100,000-gald designer wedding dress due to reported threats leveled against the Royal Seamstress. The Chosen's hunnies are thrown into a state of chaos, uncertain whether they should be thrilled that their lifelong rival is in prison or horrified that the dress they all wanted for themselves is now covered in dirt and rat feces.'"

Her smirk erupted in full as she tilted her head. "Maybe, but I assure you, physical harm speaks louder than any bribe you could give them."

"We'll see," he replied, unconvinced. "Those numbers are worth a fortune."

Sheena rolled her eyes and shook her head as she turned away to jot down a few more numbers, but his angel senses still caught her low chuckle. "You're terrible."

"Yeah, I know," Zelos quipped, grinning brightly. He was, and he knew it, and while she would never admit it, he knew she loved that he was. But he also knew when to drop it, because overkill was, well, overkill. Besides, he had other things to talk to her about - only this time he'd avoid anything sexually suggestive since that mental image of her wearing sexy lingerie really hadn't helped his current predicament. "So are there any other Mizuhoan marriage traditions I need to know about? What kind of wedding gift is a man expected to give his wife?"

"A boar."

...Huh? For a moment, he just blinked blankly as Sheena finished writing down her notes and resumed her work, that time moving on to his back, but then his head whipped toward her, his face contorting in confusion. "I'm sorry, could you please repeat that? I thought I just heard you say I'm supposed to give you a boar."

"You heard right, then."

Zelos blinked again. No. Just...no. "As in, a boar boar. Y'know, a wild pig."

"Yep."

...A boar. He was supposed to give her a boar. This conversation was suddenly feeling surreal on multiple levels, not the least of which was how blasé Sheena sounded, as if giving a woman a boar as a wedding present was perfectly natural and, in fact, expected of men in the real world. He bit his lip, his face scrunching up further. "Alive or dead?"

"Dead."

...Sheena was way, way too calm about this. "I'm supposed to give you a dead boar to celebrate our wedding."

Oh, thank Martel, she's finally chuckling again. "A man typically gives his new bride and her family a boar he himself caught."

Hm...maybe he could tie colorful ribbons around its neck and tusks and then sprinkle sparkly glitter and confetti over it to make it look a little more festive? Nope, that mental image wasn't working, either. Now he just wanted to laugh, which really wasn't appropriate for a wedding present. "Yeah, because a dead boar is so very romantic..."

She snorted. "It's more practical than that. It's the man's way of proving to both the woman and her father that he's capable of taking care of her." She paused and peered around him at his face. "In your case, dear, I don't think that will be a problem considering the fortune you have waiting for you in Meltokio."

"Huh." He supposed that made sense in a village where daily necessities were so highly valued and fathers were so protective of their daughters, but still...it was a dead boar. "Excuse me a moment, sweetheart. I have to go find a boar to slaughter for you."

"I think that's one tradition we can safely choose not to follow," Sheena said with a laugh.

Zelos grinned. "Oh, good. I was having trouble figuring out how to break it to you that I'm really not in a boar-slaughtering mood right now. Anything else I need to know?"

Her nimble fingers briefly stilled against his back, but then they resumed their work. "No, I don't think so. Most of Mizuho's marriage traditions center on the ceremony itself, so we won't have to worry about those for a few more months."

Thank Martel. After finding out about the dead boar he was supposed to give her, he was starting to fear what other crazy ninja things would be required of him before their Mizuho wedding. "Good. Because I'd really hate to find out I have to hunt down a rare dragon and perform a one-man song and dance routine for it in hopes it rewards me with a special jewel that proves my undying love for you, or something equally crazy."

"No, I think you're safe," Sheena said, clearly trying - but failing - to hold back her laughter. "No singing and dancing for dragons required."

"I feel much better now."

They fell silent again. Zelos closed his eyes as her fingers worked on his back, trying not to distract her so she could count, but her touch was so gentle and sensual as it brushed over him that his body once again quickly reminded him of how attracted he was to her, far more now than the day they'd met. Okay, so he needed more distractions. What did they have to figure out yet? Well, they'd have to start ironing out the details of that disagreement agreement soon...but he really wasn't in the mood for that right now. Maybe tomorrow. Okay, so that meant he had to find something else to talk to her about. What other secrets did Sheena have besides being able to make clothes? And just like that, two things hit him. In fact, he couldn't believe he hadn't thought to ask about these sooner. But which should he address first?

Ah, the heck with it. This was something he really wanted to know. "So...I just thought of something."

"Hm?"

Zelos turned his head toward her. "When do I get to find out what your real name is?"

Instantly, her fingers stilled. For a moment she was completely silent, but then she pulled her hands from his back and stepped around him so she was standing in front of him again, an amusing mix of a blush and a smirk on her face as she arched an eyebrow at him. "What, you mean it's not 'Violent Demonic Banshee'?"

He burst out laughing. Oh, the memories that name brought to mind, of days when he'd spent all his time teasing her and she'd always risen to the bait and smacked him, kicked him, or called on a summon spirit or three to beat him up. He really should've just left her alone back then, seeing as his goal at the time had been to push her away and convince himself he didn't love her, but clearly that hadn't happened. For as much as he regretted teasing her back then, he really couldn't regret it, either, because in the end, he'd learned his lesson about doing so in a way he would never unlearn, and it had kept him a part of her life and her a part of his and probably, in that twisted respect, had led them to this very moment.

"Sweetheart, I haven't had to call you that in a long, long time," he said. "I think that name is pretty well retired now."

Her smirk broadened and she folded her arms to her chest. "Well, except for earlier when you described me as your violent wife."

"Heh...yeah, I did, didn't I?" But he'd also learned long ago how much she detested the nickname 'banshee' so he'd been careful not to throw that in there, too. And besides... "The difference is you only threaten to beat me up now; you don't actually beat me up anymore. If you were still beating me senseless, I'd have to revert to calling you that again."

An eyebrow crept upward, but the tenderness in her eyes told him she wouldn't revert to treating him like that any more than he would revert to treating her like that. "Yeah, well, I've been waiting this past year for you to give me a reason to actually beat you up."

"And since I like my pretty face the way it is - and since I know you like my pretty face the way it is, too - I'm making a point not to give you that reason," Zelos replied with a knowing grin.

Her smile softened further. "Yeah, I've noticed."

For a moment, she just stood there, biting her lip shyly, until finally his curiosity couldn't take it anymore and he cleared his throat. "Anyway, your name...?"

To his surprise, Sheena's eyes fell back to his chest and she chuckled shyly. "I was actually wondering how long it would take you to ask me that, because I know there was no way you, of all people, could've forgotten about that."

Well, it had always been there in the back of his mind that she really did have another name and that if they got married, he could hear it since spouses were allowed to know that, but it had never been a priority since they'd started dating. He'd been far more concerned with figuring out where he stood on the whole marriage and Mizuho thing and then with actually getting married. "Sorry to disappoint you. I've been a bit busy the past few days."

"I know." After a moment, she lifted her eyes back to his and gave him a shy smile, her fingers trailing over his arms again, that time definitely not measuring. "You really want to know?"

Was she serious? "Of course I do! Now that I know there's a whole lot more to you than even I ever guessed, I'd like to get to know who it is I just married."

She eyed him another moment, her blush deepening, then her eyebrows rose pointedly. "You can't tell anyone. Right now Grandpa and I are the only ones who know it."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Zelos said in all seriousness. Sure, he might be tempted to dangle the fact that he did know over Lloyd or Genis's heads to taunt them, but he would never actually tell them. "Something like this I don't want to share with anyone else. I like having secrets about you that no one else will ever know."

Sheena bit her lip, eyeing him carefully as if to make sure he was serious about that, but then she gave him a shy, maybe even eager, smile. "Look at the inside of your ring."

Zelos blinked at her uncertainly, but then he slipped off the ring he'd put back onto his finger, where it belonged, after dinner. He'd figured she had been conspiring something with Master Elrickson yesterday, but so far he'd been too busy to check what she'd done. He turned the ring until he found the engraving in the platinum band, his heart pounding in anticipation, then his eyes narrowed as he read it aloud. "'Forever Yours'...and two Mizuhoan symbols." He wrinkled his face in mock irritation and looked up at her again. "Aw, man, you mean you're testing my language skills before I can have my answer?"

"Quit whining," she murmured, chuckling, her face still beautifully red. "The practice is good for you."

"Yeah, probably," he muttered, then he took a deep breath and focused. "Okay, let's see if I can make these suckers out...well, this one I recognize. That's 'treasure,' right? Don't ask me its reading, but I'm positive that's the symbol for 'treasure.'"

She nodded. "Takara. That's my...well, my people don't actually have middle names, but that's what it amounts to. Grandpa said he couldn't not include it, so he threw it in there anyway when he named me."

Zelos's eyes darted up at her, then back down at the ring. Takara, eh? Nice. 'Treasure.' Because Martel knew that was what this woman was: the most amazing treasure imaginable. "Takara. Okay, that's the easy one. This other one, though, is definitely more obscure." His eyes narrowed as he searched his memory. Well, that symbol on top indicated it was a plant of some kind, right? A few possibilities came to mind, but he dismissed each one, although he was pretty sure he was on the right track based on the associations his mind had made between this symbol and a few of the other ones he'd seen around the same time. "Well, I'm pretty sure it's some kind of flowe-" Abruptly, his voice cut off and his eyes snapped up to hers as he realized what he'd just said. "No." Sheena's smile broadened as she nodded shyly, her blush deepening. "Sheena, no. No way."

"What you're thinking right now?" she said, her fingers trailing down his arms. "You're right."

For a moment, Zelos could only gape at her. "Your name...you're saying your real name is Iris?"

She tilted her head slightly. "Well, not Iris, but the Mizuhoan word for it."

...Her real name means 'iris.' He blinked at her blankly. "Which is...?"

"Ayame," she whispered, her eyes falling to his chest, her lips curled upward in a soft smile. "Ayame Takara Fujibayashi."

...No. No. His mind had gone completely blank, unable to wrap itself around this revelation - and especially around all the implications that accompanied it. She didn't seem to be joking, not at all, but his brain simply couldn't comprehend or accept the thought that she wasn't joking. "Sheena, are you...are you for real? You're serious?"

She nodded, her eyes lifting shyly back to his. "After my parents abandoned me in the Gaoracchia Forest when I was a baby, Grandpa found me lying on the ground beside a single wild iris in full bloom. He never would've found me if he hadn't stopped to admire that iris. I was weak and unconscious at the time, and he doesn't know how long I'd been there before he found me, but I was still alive, and he nursed me back to health, took me in, and..."

Zelos let out a soft, incredulous laugh. This was...this was incredible. "...And so you became his iris treasure."

"Mm hmm."

He was speechless, barely even able to register the gentle pattern her fingers were drawing on his chest or the shy smile lingering on her lips. So many pieces were fitting into place that the sheer number of them was staggering. The iris in front of her house, her shyness when he'd helped her plant them, her stunned reaction to the jewelry set he'd given her, her insistence on wearing that bracelet every day, her amazement over this ring, Igaguri's amazement over the ring... "Sheena, I...I don't even know what to say..."

"I know," she said, lifting her dark eyes back to his. "Neither did I. In Mizuho, the iris symbolizes protection and purification from evil. For me, personally, the iris has always been my special protector, watching over me, keeping me safe, and guiding me where I should go. And that..." she laughed softly, "...that's why I was so stunned when you gave me that jewelry set. I mean, I didn't think I'd made it obvious how special the iris was to me, and so I thought you had to have asked Grandpa or figured it out in some other way, but..."

Oh, Martel. This was...his brain couldn't wrap itself around this, and words, any way to articulate a proper response, were evading him, too. He suspected he was still gaping at her stupidly, but he just couldn't help it. "I...I had no idea..."

Sheena nodded and met his eyes again, smiling warmly. "I know you didn't. And that's why when you gave it to me, I took it as a sign from fate that I'd made the right choice to stay with you, because how could you have known what the iris meant to me to give me that otherwise? I hadn't been sure sure about us before that; I'd always had trouble seeing a future for us because I never imagined you would want this life and I never would've forgiven myself for trapping you here if you didn't. But while I didn't let myself consider it often, this, where we are right now, is the only future I've ever really wanted. Despite my doubts and fears, though, when you gave me that set, I...I chose to interpret it as fate telling me to keep going anyway, that I should trust it to hand us a different future than the one I was dreading...that I should trust you to make sure everything ended up like it was supposed to. And in some way or other, I held onto that faith until just this past week." She closed her eyes, her face falling, and stepped closer so she could rest her head against his, her hands grasping his arms. "I'm so sorry, Zelos. I never should've underestimated you or lost faith in you...I never should've written off our relationship as a cruel joke fate was playing on us both. If I hadn't, I never would've run away and hurt you like I did..."

Tears pricked his eyes at the tremor in her voice, and Zelos wrapped his arms around her and crushed her to him, an embrace she immediately returned, burying her face against neck. His heart felt like it was going to burst; his mind was spinning wildly; he was having trouble breathing through the shock of this rare, incredible look she'd given him of her heart and soul. The full weight, the scope, the gravity, of this, of the sheer, impossible coincidence of his gift to her, was overwhelming. He mentally went back in time to the moment, all those months ago, when he'd decided the iris was the only appropriate gift for her, and tried to remember what had led him to make that choice, but it had just seemed like the obvious answer. He couldn't see that flower anymore without thinking of her; after seeing how touched she'd been when he'd helped her plant the ones outside her house, the iris had just made sense to him. It had felt right, as something he knew she liked...something he'd thought might remind her of those sweet moments they'd shared together, because that was what the iris did for him. He'd never thought...never imagined...oh, Martel, the sheer meaning behind this, how deeply it had touched her, how it had protected her, him, them... She was right. No other possible explanation existed for this but the guiding hand of fate placing all the pieces where they belonged to lead them to this very moment.

"It's okay, Sheena," he murmured in her ear, stroking her hair with his hand. "Really. We're here now, and nothing will change that. Fate made sure we both ended up back here anyway, right where we obviously belong."

She pulled away from him enough to smile beautifully up at him, her eyes shining. "I know."

Zelos couldn't resist returning her smile as he observed her, one arm still wrapped around her waist and the other stroking her face, shaking his head in amazement. "Heh. And here when I got that for you, I..." he laughed softly, "I just thought you liked iris. I mean, I figured they had to be your favorite flower if you planted so many of them in front of your house. It wasn't until after that, when you reacted to that jewelry set like you did and started wearing that bracelet every day, that I realized it had to be more than that, that it had to have special significance for you. I just...I never imagined..."

"I know," Sheena said, her touch feather-light as her fingers grazed his cheek. "And that's what makes it so astounding and special, that you did choose this, of all possible things, to give me, even without knowing how significant it was to me." Without warning, she grinned and poked his chest. "And the best part is you designed it yourself!"

His eyes widened and his face fell, but then he let out an embarrassed laugh, his face growing warm. "So Master Elrickson told you that, did he?"

"Yes, he did. He even gave me your original design." Her smile softened with so much warmth and love that it took his breath away. "Zelos, I can't even begin to tell you how awed I am of it, of your thoughtfulness and perceptiveness...and of the meaning behind the gesture, even if you didn't realize it at the time. I wanted to tell you on New Year's just how special it was and how much it meant to me, but I couldn't, not until I was sure we had a future together. And then when you gave me this ring..." She swallowed as she lifted her left hand, looking at the ring sparkling there before smiling shyly at him again. "Nothing else could ever be this perfect, especially knowing you gave it to me without knowing the rest of the story. I just...I can't help taking it as proof that I'm right to be so sure about us, that even if we struggle with it at times, we're still going to make this marriage work. I can't help thinking it means something, that fate is smiling on us and wants us to be here. Maybe I'm just being naïve and seeing signs where there are none, but..."

"If you are, then so am I, because I can't see any other way to interpret this, either," Zelos whispered, pressing a tender kiss to her forehead, then resting his cheek against hers, his heart pounding. "And I really don't think you're wrong about this, Sheena. That's how fate works, handing us what we most need when we least expect it...when we don't even realize we need it. And if we don't let it, if we reject its gifts and refuse to see them for what they are...that's when we all lose." He swallowed, fighting back the tears pricking his eyes, and pulled back to give her an amazed smile. "We are where we belong, sweetheart, and like I said, there's nowhere else I'd rather be." His smile faded. "There's nowhere else I'll ever want to be but right here by your side."

Another beautiful, heartwarming smile lit her face. "I know."

For a long moment, they just stood there, smiling at each other while Zelos absorbed it all, marveling again over the whole thing - over the ridiculously powerful meaning behind it - and realizing there really had been no other explanation for how he'd gotten it so right except some form of divine intervention, a cosmic seal of approval. Never before had he felt so at peace with his life or the choices he'd made as he did at that moment, especially now knowing this, that by leaving his destiny in the hands of fate and letting whatever was meant to be happen, everything had arranged itself as it was supposed to be. And now...now he was finally happy - sincerely happy, so much so that his heart felt like it was soaring a thousand miles above the clouds, a feeling intensified tenfold by the soft, breathtakingly beautiful, smiling face of the woman he loved more than life itself that told him she was just as happy as he was. This was a moment, a feeling, that he would never forget, never take for granted, and never let himself lose sight of - and he would never let her do so, either.

"Ayame," he whispered, brushing his fingers over her face, wanting to feel and hear the name rolling off his tongue. He was now one of only three people who knew this about her, something meant for only those people nearest and dearest to her. It was astounding...and humbling. "Ayame Takara." The name suited her, in so many ways. And the meaning behind it...and the history behind it...and the guiding hand of fate behind it...he had never before been so pleasantly surprised and encouraged by an unexpected revelation as he was by this. "It's beautiful. I like it."

Sheena's blush deepened, and she looked down at his chest, her smile shy as she trailed her fingers over his Cruxis crystal. "I like hearing you say it."

Oh, Sheena. Hearing her so freely voicing such feelings to him made him feel like he'd just been given the greatest honor in the world. And if she really did like hearing him say her name, then he supposed he'd have to use it more frequently. He just couldn't get too attached to it or he would accidentally use it sometime when he shouldn't. Sure, he could write it off as another one of his pet names for her, but he didn't want anyone else to know even that much about her. This was one secret he wanted to keep solely between them.

"Heh...I guess you aren't just your grandfather's iris treasure anymore, are you?" he murmured. "You're mine now, too."

She bit her lip and lifted her warm brown eyes back to his. "I guess so."

His eyes trailed downward over her nose, over her lips, over her rosy cheeks, over the dark hair framing her face, then finally back to her dark, loving eyes. His perfect iris treasure, who had given him so much more happiness and love than an idiotic, worthless ex-Chosen like him deserved. She had blossomed beautifully over the past year, becoming someone even more full of life and fire and love than she'd ever been before - and in the process, he couldn't help thinking she had helped him blossom into not necessarily a perfect man, because he would never be perfect no matter how hard he tried, but into someone who finally bore a faint resemblance to the man he'd always wanted to be, a man who might actually one day become, if fate continued smiling on them and if he never lost sight of those things that had true value and meaning, someone deserving of her.

"The iris may have protected you all this time, but it did something for me, too," Zelos said, trailing his fingers over her face. "It purified me. Simply by leading me to you, it helped me rid myself of all the crap in my life, all those influences I shouldn't have been involved with but was, and in the process it helped me become someone I actually like. Talk about humbling...and amazing."

Her smile broadened. "And beautiful."

He mirrored her smile. "And hopeful."

"And incredible."

"And oh-so-promising."

Sheena nodded faintly. "Yeah, it is. For both of us."

Zelos swallowed hard, once again fighting back tears as he shook his head. "Wow. Y'know, I figured there had to be something behind why you planted the entire front of your house with iris, and then why you were so excited about that jewelry set and have worn that bracelet ever since, and why you and your grandfather were so enamored of your ring, but this...I never expected this."

"I know," she whispered. "Believe me, I never expected any of this, either."

Heh. If anyone had told him a year ago, that night on a balcony when, against all odds, she had managed to pry so many secrets out of him, something she might not have managed to do had the Chosen One not been taking a mental holiday and had he not been in a contemplative, Grand Master Plan-rewriting mood, that this was their future, that that was the moment fate had started manipulating the pieces so they would end up here, and that he would be so happy, and that Sheena would be so happy, and that they would be married, and that he would be starting a brand new life with her in Mizuho, and that fate would make it so painfully obvious that this was exactly where they belonged, he would have written them off as a lunatic. But now...now they were here. And, most reassuringly of all, they had fate's stamp of approval on their marriage in the form of the ring on her finger, a symbol that would always be there, reminding them that when life got tough, this really was where they belonged and they couldn't give up and walk away, not unless they wanted to piss off fate itself.

Zelos let out a soft laugh, slipping his own ring back onto his finger, then rubbed his eyes. "Give me a minute to process all of this, sweetheart. I'm in awe right now."

"Me, too," Sheena whispered, lifting her fingers back to his chest as he lowered his hand from his face. "Now you know how I've felt ever since New Year's."

Gently grasping her left hand, he lifted it, eyeing the ring shining there a moment before pressing a gentle, reverent, amazed kiss to it, eliciting a gasp from her. "Yeah, I guess so."

The emotion was so overwhelming, so all-encompassing, that Zelos felt like he was drowning in it, and for a moment, all he could do was lose himself in her mesmerizing smile, his heart pounding faster. He was hopelessly in love with this woman, this Ayame Takara, his beautiful iris treasure, this woman who had given him her hand in marriage and had made him happier than he had ever believed he had the right to be, and suddenly, a desperate need swelled within him to try to convey that to her, to tell her just what she had done for him. He wasn't sure how, he wasn't sure words existed that could do so, he wasn't sure his voice would even let him say the words, but he had to try to express at least a tiny portion of what he was feeling at that moment, his sheer gratitude for every single thing she had done for him...and for every single thing she was yet to do for him.

His face grew serious, because this was serious, and he gently touched her cheek again. "Sheena?"

Her eyes darted up at his curiously. "Hm?"

"Thank you."

Her brows furrowed. "For what?"

"For...for this." His eyes scanned the room to indicate the grand scope of her home, of her life, of her world, so she didn't think he was simply thanking her for telling him her name. "You know, for loving me. For being my best friend. For giving me the respect I never thought I'd have and then encouraging others to do the same. For putting up with my idiocy and my inappropriate, perverted humor. For busting down my walls, finding me, and accepting me for who I am. For sticking with me through my sister's jealousy, my hunnies' stupidity, my stalkers, and all the other crazy stuff that comes with me. For trusting me, forgiving me, and giving me a second chance when I didn't deserve it. For making me want to be a better man and helping me become someone I actually like. For giving me a home and a family and a place to belong. For giving me a future and helping me forget my past. For making me feel wanted and needed and valued, like it matters that I'm alive. For giving me a purpose and showing me that I'm not completely worthless. For...for opening your cage door and letting a lost, wayward, lonely bird like me in and making sure I won't spend the rest of my life alone. I'm not perfect and I never will be; I'm going to mess up and piss you off; I'm going to get frustrated and want to give up; I'm going to whine and get lazy and say and do the wrong things and make bad decisions. One day I might even accidentally hurt you again. And yet, even knowing that, you still chose me. Nothing I say or do can ever express how grateful I am for that, how grateful I am for you, how happy you make me...how desperately I love you."

Tears shone in her eyes as she let out a soft laugh-sob. "Zelos, I'm the one who can never thank you enough. I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am for everything you've done for me, and I'm not even talking about the iris or for forgiving me for making such a stupid mistake and then giving me another chance. I mean, the fact that you offered to accept all of this...I never could've asked you to give up so much for me. I tried to, I kept going back and forth between wanting to ask you to stay and not letting myself, and I came so close to it at times, but in the end, I just couldn't. I was too scared; I couldn't convince myself to do that to you, to ask you to take this on for my sake. I kept telling myself if I really loved you, how could I ask you to give up everything in exchange for this? But you...you didn't make me ask. You volunteered." She chuckled, a tear rolling down her cheek. "And then you didn't let me say 'no' even when I tried to. You have no idea how relieved I am to know that whatever happens next, you're here with me. There's no one else I'd rather have beside me than you. You keep saying I'm worth it, worth all of it, worth all of the craziness that's required to be with me, but the truth is, everything that's required to be with you...you are, too. You always have been...and thanks to the beautiful hand of fate, I know you always will be."

His throat constricted and his heart pounded wildly as the emotion encompassed him so fully that he couldn't hold it back anymore, and next he knew, a single tear broke loose and rolled down his cheek. Wrapping his arms around her, Zelos pulled her to him and held her tightly, closing his eyes and sinking into the embrace as she wrapped her arms around him in return. "I love you, Ayame," he whispered in her ear. "I love you so much."

Her fingers dug into his back and she pressed her face against his chest, her tears now flowing freely. "I love you too, Zelos," she whispered back to him. "So, so much."

In time they would part, and he would verify that she had taken all the measurements she needed, and then he'd check that she had managed to get one of those charms she'd mentioned that morning, and then they would make their way to her - their - bedroom to express their love for each other in a way not requiring words that were often so difficult to find, but there was no hurry to do any of that yet. They were there, they were in love, and they had the rest of their lives to look forward to ahead of them. Times would be good, times would be bad; things would go right, things would go wrong; there would be successes, there would be failures; they would have laughter, they would have tears. But in the end, so long as they were together, and so long as they let fate guide them, and so long as they didn't get complacent or take each other for granted or lose sight of who they were and how much they loved each other, and so long as they put their all into communicating and compromising and working together and aiming for a brighter, more beautiful and promising future, then it would all be worth it.

Whatever will be, will be.

~Fin~