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Guardian Knight

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Part 1: The Tragedy

Zelos Wilder had never been a whistler. He was actually pretty good at it; he just didn't like it. Most of the time whistling, especially when someone else was doing it, outright annoyed him. For years he'd snickered at people who would, for no apparent reason, wander around whistling to music only they could hear, oblivious to how stupid they looked. The main reason it annoyed him, though, was because listening to someone who was so obviously happy was, well, depressing. It was one thing to be happy; it was another to make sure everyone else knew it by pointing out how great your life was, even though those around you might very well be miserable. It was the equivalent of rubbing salt on a wound. He knew how that felt because, until Sheena had entered his life, he'd had nothing truly good going for him worth feeling happy about. Granted, he'd succumbed to the urge to whistle once since then, but his cheerfulness had quickly been cut short and he'd never bothered again after that.

That time had been...oh, roughly ten months ago. Actually, the situation had been identical to his current one: he'd been walking through the forest to Mizuho. At the time, he and Sheena had been dating a week, and he'd been going there to pick her up for their trip to Iselia to present Giannovio's idiotic suggestion that they submit to the king's rule. Other than wanting to punch Giannovio in the face, Zelos had been sincerely happy then, too; he'd been eager to see her, travel with her again, and find out what the future had in store for them seeing as fate had inexplicably graced him with something he'd always wanted: an honest-to-goodness girlfriend, one the Church of Martel couldn't punish for dating the Chosen.

Or at least he had been happy until he'd reached Mizuho's front gate.

"I apologize, Chosen, but you cannot enter," the ninja standing guard had told him.

Zelos had eyed him curiously - he now knew that the man's name was Atsuo, but at the time he'd only known him as the ninja standing between him and the woman he loved - and folded his arms to his chest. Sure, he'd expected to have some trouble getting into Mizuho because he'd never tried to enter it without Sheena before, but he hadn't expected to be denied entrance, either, at least not without being asked why he was there.

"I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you right," Zelos had lied, cupping a hand to his ear. "What?"

"I have been given specific instructions not to let you into Mizuho," Atsuo had said.

"You have," he'd stated flatly. "By whom, may I ask?"

Atsuo's face had twitched apologetically. "I am afraid I cannot tell you that."

Zelos had blinked at him, feeling his cheerfulness ebbing away. "Well, since I know Sheena wouldn't give you those instructions, that only leaves one or two other ninjas who probably even knew I was coming today. So here's a wild guess. Does his name start with 'O' and end with 'rochi'?" Atsuo hadn't replied, but he was fairly young, only being in his late teens, and clearly had yet to master the ninja art of keeping his face completely neutral since his wince had answered the question anyway. Zelos had sighed; that had been his first clue that Orochi would soon become a problem for them. "I'll take that as a 'yes.'"

After that, Atsuo had refused to meet his eyes. "I am sorry, Chosen."

Not nearly as sorry as I am, Zelos had thought. Instead of saying that, though, he'd nodded slowly, pondering what to do. Sheena had promised he wouldn't have trouble getting in, and so she hadn't given him any hints or secret passwords to get past the guard. So how should he handle the situation?

Well, since he'd refused to accept that Orochi had the authority to block his entry, his next step had been obvious. "Hey, didn't Sheena give you different orders? To, y'know, let me in?"

Atsuo had bowed his head. "Yes, she did. However, Orochi instructed me not to follow those orders."

...He did. Wait, he did? And what does Sheena have to say about that? Zelos remembered thinking at the time. "Okay, so, since I'm apparently not allowed into your village anymore, could you go get Sheena so we can sort this all out?"

"Do not bother, Atsuo. I will take care of this."

Annnnnd here's the roadblock himself, Zelos had thought wryly. And, joy of all joys, it looks like he's been hovering near the entrance waiting for me. Peachy. "Orochi," he'd said as pleasantly as he could muster.

Orochi had eyed him coldly - and it had been then that his hunch about Orochi becoming a problem for them had been confirmed. In all the times Zelos had seen him during their journey, he'd never seen Orochi looking at him as he had been at that moment, like a cockroach he was trying to squash without getting bug guts on his boot. Granted, Orochi had never paid him much attention during their journey, but at that particular moment there had been definite disapproval in Orochi's eyes.

"Chosen," Orochi had stated. "Please leave. Outsiders are not welcome in Mizuho."

"Hate to break this to you, but I'm pretty sure Sheena would disagree," Zelos had replied. Sensing a protracted argument approaching, he'd turned to Atsuo and smiled hopefully. "Hey, could you go get Sheena for me? Or at least let her know I'm here? She is waiting for me." Atsuo, bless his heart, had nodded and run off before Orochi could stop him - because judging from how Orochi had looked at him, he'd been about to do so. Once Atsuo was gone, Zelos had turned back to Orochi and sighed. "C'mon, Orochi. Be a chum and let me in. Sheena and I have things we need to do."

"No."

This will get really old really fast, he'd thought, frowning and lifting his hands in building exasperation. "Okay, sure, so I'm an outsider here, and I get how secretive you guys are, but it's not my first time coming here. You never stopped me before!"

"That was then; this is now," Orochi had said. "Your journey is over, and as such, my answer is now as it would have been then had it not been for your special circumstances at the time: 'No.'"

Zelos's eyebrows had risen. "Even if Sheena invited me here and we're on official business from the king? Y'know, Sheena being the Emissary of Peace and all that?"

"Sheena can handle this mission on her own. Go home, Chosen. You are not needed here."

With a groan, Zelos had turned around and rubbed his face. He hadn't been able to understand it at the time; Orochi had always seemed so mild-mannered and accommodating, and Sheena had given him no indication she suspected he'd cause them problems, either. After a moment, he'd lowered his hand and turned back to his adversary. "May I ask why you won't let me in?"

Orochi had folded his arms to his chest, eyeing Zelos as if bored. "You may, but I do not deem the question worth answering."

Zelos had gaped at him. What, am I looking at an evil Orochi clone created to make my life difficult? he'd tried to reason at the time. He'd motioned at Orochi, his exasperation growing. "Not worth...? You've gotta be kidding me! Orochi, c'mon! We've helped each other out plenty of times before this! I don't remember doing anything to piss you off since I was last here!"

Orochi, however, had just continued watching him through steely brown eyes, and Zelos had groaned again. He and Sheena had just started dating, and he'd been sure she hadn't told anyone about that yet, considering Mizuho's 'no public displays of affection' rule that he'd taken to mean 'don't ask, don't tell,' so Orochi couldn't have known that then. He just hadn't been able to fathom it. It hadn't boded well for his ability to come see her here anytime he wanted to, either, even though she'd assured him he could. Zelos had warned her something like this might happen, but she'd insisted it would be fine, and he'd believed her.

"Does Sheena know you're doing this?" he'd asked.

"She does not."

Naturally, because if she did, she'd be kicking your ass right now. At the time he'd been amazed to realize that, that Sheena had invited him here because she wanted to see him - heck, it still amazed him now, nearly a year later - but she'd made that very clear when she'd given him a sweet, shy smile and kiss and told him she'd be ready to go by noon so he should drop by then to get her. "And what do you think she'll say when she finds out?" Zelos had countered, but then he'd caught a flash of purple and black swiftly approaching and he'd grinned smugly. "Never mind. We'll find out in a second."

The instant Sheena had spotted them, she'd began jogging toward them, her brows furrowed. "Orochi, what's going on here? What are you doing?"

"What does it look like I am doing?" Orochi had replied as she'd joined them, but Orochi had kept watching Zelos closely as if afraid he'd try to sneak past him if he took his eyes off of him for a second. "I am preventing the Chosen from entering Mizuho."

Sheena had rolled her eyes. "Yes, Orochi, I can see that. Why?"

"Because he not welcome here."

Her eyes had slid shut and her head had sunk downward. And while Zelos had been disappointed by Orochi's behavior, part of him had also been relieved to know Sheena really hadn't changed her mind about inviting him to Mizuho and was using Orochi as an excuse to keep him out. "Orochi, I thought I told you this morning that when Zelos showed up, you should let him in," she'd said, opening her eyes again.

Orochi had nodded curtly. "Yes, you did."

For a moment, Sheena had waited, watching Orochi expectantly, but the longer Orochi hadn't answered, the greater the fire in her eyes had grown - a fire Zelos had recognized because he'd lost track years ago of all the times it had been directed at him. In his case, it had usually manifested itself in the form of furious, flying fists at his face, peppered with an occasional kick to his mid-body region. Once she'd started summoning, he'd received the wrath of her summon spirits, too. Efreet had been especially nasty, and he'd had the scorch marks for days to serve as proof of what an ass he'd been to her.

"And so you're doing this...why?" she'd finally pressed.

"If you remember, Sheena, I never said I would let him in."

Her brown eyes had flared, and Zelos had cringed. Rousing Sheena's anger was never a good idea. Unless, of course, the person doing so was a masochist, like he'd been. "You still haven't answered the question, Orochi. Why won't you let Zelos into Mizuho?"

Finally, finally, Orochi had turned to Sheena - and it had been then that Zelos had gotten his first clue about what was really going on: Orochi's eyes had softened slightly, even though his expression remained unchanged. There had been something kind and appreciative in Orochi's eyes that hadn't been there a minute ago, something Zelos had recognized because he knew he'd given Sheena the same look many times before: desire for something more than what they currently had. He just hadn't been sure why he hadn't considered that possibility sooner, that there were men in Mizuho interested in winning her affection for themselves, because she really was a strong, beautiful, amazing woman. But he hadn't; he'd never noticed Orochi looking at Sheena like that before, and so until that moment, he'd never suspected Orochi's feelings for her went beyond comradeship. Zelos hadn't been convinced yet then that that was what was really going on, and he'd never received official confirmation of that hunch, but he'd made a mental note to watch Orochi for other signs of affection - which he'd received quite regularly ever since.

"Why do you think I am stopping him from entering, Sheena?" Orochi had asked.

Sheena had met his gaze and folded her arms to her chest. While Orochi's eyes had softened slightly, hers definitely hadn't. "I'm waiting for you to answer that question; I'm the one having trouble figuring out why you'd turn away a guest I invited here. Whether or not you want to let him in doesn't matter, because I'm letting him in."

Instantly, all softness in Orochi's eyes had transformed into fiery exasperation. "Sheena, how can you invite this man into Mizuho?" he'd said, motioning derisively at Zelos. "You know what he does here, flirting shamelessly with our women and tempting them to disregard our relationship rules! You've heard the stories about him yourself - I know you have, because I told you them! The Chosen is renowned for seducing women for sport. I would be remiss in my vow to protect this village if I knowingly allowed that to enter here! I cannot even understand why you, our future chief, would tolerate such a person here!"

Zelos had scratched the back of his neck awkwardly as Sheena's eyes had closed and she'd gritted her teeth. So that's what this is about: my reputation as a womanizer, he'd realized. He must deem me to be a 'threat' to her 'purity' seeing as I'm here to accompany her on another trip, this time just the two of us. Unfortunately, he'd known even then that nothing he said would convince Orochi he had pure intentions toward her and would never hurt her or force her to do anything against her will, and that was why, while he hated stepping back from a fight, especially one attacking him, he'd opted to keep his mouth shut, knowing he couldn't win that battle. He always had excelled in self preservation.

Sheena, on the other hand, could fight that battle - and the fire in her eyes as she'd opened them had made it clear she would. "Orochi, Zelos is the Chosen, and the king approved his offer to accompany me to Iselia. You can't not let him into Mizuho for official business; restricting his entry could cause a major incident with Meltokio, which we can't afford right now. And you especially can't restrict his entry when he's here under my invitation."

Something that Zelos could only describe as a faint smirk had appeared on Orochi's lips. "I am relieved to hear you are not attempting to deny that his reputation precedes him. That gives me hope that you have not yet completely succumbed to his charms."

Scowling, Sheena's eyes had flitted at Zelos, who'd just watched her uncertainly. Even though they'd only been dating a week at that point, Zelos had trusted her not to share his 'secrets' with Orochi. Besides, he'd figured, even if she had, Orochi wouldn't have believed her; he would've written her off as deluded. After all, no amount of spying could have uncovered the truths he'd shared with her, not when he'd been careful to make sure no proof of his real self existed. But the fact that she hadn't tried to rehash it that day had reassured him that his secrets were in safe hands and that his decision to trust her with them had been the best, albeit riskiest, chance he'd ever taken.

"I won't deny there are a lot of rumors floating around about him," she'd said. "I won't deny that his reputation paints him as a womanizer, either. However, I will deny that those stories are true. He's not the man everyone believes him to be, and nothing you say can fool me into believing otherwise anymore."

Orochi's smirk had faltered, even as his eyes had widened. "Sheena, you've heard the stories; it is impossible they could all be wrong. And you saw it for yourself the last time he was here, how he disregarded our rules and approached our women as if they were his personal playthings! Surely you cannot deny what your own eyes have seen?"

"Yes, I've heard the stories about him, and yes, I saw how he used to act around women," she'd replied. "However, I know those stories aren't true, no matter how they might look, and I know his flirting here was nothing but an act."

Orochi's lips had parted. "You still deny the truth though it be right in front of you? Sheena, why? You were the one who swore the first time he came here that once your journey was over, he would never again return. Why are you suddenly defending him?"

Zelos had rubbed his neck again, his discomfort with the situation - and especially with the fact that they'd been arguing about his integrity right in front of him - rising, but he'd reminded himself, again, to stay out of it. Unfortunately, though, Sheena's argument really had been weak; all she'd had at that point was his word that he'd told her the truth that night at the king's party, which would never appease Orochi. But he'd also reminded himself that he trusted Sheena, and so he'd bitten his tongue and tried to be inconspicuous.

"I'm defending him now because he is a dear friend, and because I've grown to trust him with my life since then," Sheena had replied, her face softening as she'd glanced again at Zelos.

In sharp contrast, Orochi's face had hardened - although even then, his expression had been far more stubborn, pleading, and desperate than harsh, cold, and disgusted. "Well, I am sorry, but I do not share that trust, and I cannot understand how you can trust him, even after your journey together. Sheena, you are the one who returned from Meltokio years ago crying and kicking trees because of how badly he had hurt you by discarding your friendship! You swore then that you would never give him another opportunity to hurt you, and yet here he is under your 'invitation' because you now suddenly trust him again? And, even worse, you are planning on going with him, alone, on this mission?"

Tension had instantly returned to her face as she'd turned back to Orochi. "That's right, Orochi. Here he is, under my invitation and coming with me, alone, to Iselia, because I trust him. He's earned it."

By that point, Orochi had nearly been gaping at her. "Sheena, Mizuho is not the only thing I am protecting by refusing him entry; I am also protecting you from him, from his irresponsibility and easily, thoughtlessly changed mind! You may have forgotten how distraught you were then, but I never will! I care about you far too much to allow that!"

While Orochi's comment had lent more weight to Zelos's hunch that he had a 'thing' for her, that had also been the point when Zelos had decided he really didn't want to be there anymore. Letting Orochi throw dirt in his face hadn't done anything to ease his insecurities about how 'deserving' he was of dating her, and it especially hadn't eased his fears regarding when she would come to her senses and dump him for the sorry ass he was. He had hurt her, badly, and while his intentions in doing so had been good, and he'd apologized to her and had determined to do everything in his power to try to make it up to her, he couldn't deny it had happened. Heck, he still felt guilty about it now since nothing he did could erase the past. Sheena had proven since then that she'd forgiven him for that stupid choice, though, and that, in time, had made his guilt easier to bear.

But at the time, hearing Orochi recount how badly Zelos had hurt her had been a painful blow to the gut. And one thing he'd always been good at was running to save his own skin. "Look, Sheena," he'd begun, "maybe I should leave. I can wait for you outside..."

Her eyes had softened again as they turned back to him. "No. You're here because I invited you and because I accepted your offer to come with me, and I won't have you waiting outside the village. You aren't a threat to anyone here, Zelos." Before Zelos could respond, though, her eyes had snapped back to Orochi and her face had hardened again. "Orochi, I know what I said, and yes, I meant it at the time. Of course I remember that; I'll never forget how much it hurt. But that was a long time ago, and a lot has happened since then. I've certainly changed, and I've seen how much Zelos has, too. If he proves me wrong about him, then I won't let it happen again, but until he does, I'm giving him a second chance, whether you like it or not. Besides, I never asked for your protection. I can take care of myself, and I'm positive he won't hurt me again, not like that."

Orochi had blinked at her disbelievingly. "You can't seriously believe he," he'd motioned again at Zelos, "has changed, can you? A leopard cannot change its spots, Sheena; he can cover them over, but they will always be there. Once a man is a heartless womanizer, he will always be a heartless womanizer, no matter what pretty words he uses to cajole you into giving him another chance. Only three months ago was he last seen flirting his way through our village! How can you suggest he has changed since then? And how can you believe he will protect you on this journey? This is the same man who was such a coward that he even refused to take care of his own friends - to take care of you! He had to send us to do his job for him!"

"What do you mean, send you to do his job for him?" Sheena had asked, her eyes narrowing.

"Perhaps you should ask him that question," Orochi had replied.

She'd looked at Zelos, and he'd sighed, recognizing Orochi's meaning. "The Tower of Salvation. I sent a message to Mizuho asking your people to help out there - I never had a chance to thank you for that, Orochi, but I really do appreciate it."

Recognition had lit her face. "Oh, when you...?"

Zelos had nodded to stop her before she could say those awful words: 'When you betrayed us.' "Yeah. Regardless of who I sided with, I wanted to make sure you guy had any help you needed."

She'd given him a faint, understanding smile that told him she wasn't upset about the reminder of that incident, but Orochi had gone on before Zelos could reply. "No matter the outcome, the fact remains that he abandoned and betrayed his friends. I cannot respect that or allow him to do the same to Mizuho. He did it once; he will do it again."

Sheena's lips had pursed as she'd turned back to him. "Well, as one of the friends he 'abandoned' and 'betrayed,' I can respect that, because I know why he made that choice. I mean seriously, Orochi, in the years since he hurt me, he's proven a hundred times over how good of a man he is! His betrayal saved not only Colette, but the entire world. He was the only one who could make that happen; we never would've won without him doing what he did. And as for him ever hurting me again, well, I'm just as capable of hurting him. Does that mean he should refuse to travel with me again? Or that he should never let me into Meltokio again because of it? How do you think that will work when I have to report to the king?" Orochi's eyes, Zelos had noted, were flaring with frustration again, but Sheena hadn't stopped. "Besides, it's not like he's never been here before; he was with us every time we came here. You can't suddenly restrict his access to Mizuho, especially when he's the Chosen!"

"Sheena, the only reason I permitted him entry then was because he was with a group of people - yourself included at the time, before you apparently started idolizing him again - who didn't trust him either and who kept his nefarious schemes to seduce our women under control!" Orochi had countered. "Now no one except me will do so. Do not forget this is a man who takes nothing seriously - not his duties, not women, not even himself! I can already see what will happen if I let him in: he will seduce our women, he will persuade our youth to abandon our village by telling them enticing stories about Meltokio's vile nightlife, and he will steal our secrets and sell them, all while blinding you with a charming smile so you don't notice what he is really doing! There is a reason we hid Mizuho from outsiders: to prevent his kind from threatening our people!"

By that point, Sheena had been twitching with anger, and Zelos had found himself tempted to grab her arm, pull her aside, and do whatever it took to calm her down. Her anger might not have been directed at him, but seeing it directed at anyone was still a scary sight. Knowing Orochi would have blown a fuse if he'd touched her, though, he'd forced himself to stand back. Besides, by that point, even though Orochi really had had excellent points about the failure of a man and a friend Zelos had been, another part of him had actually wanted to see Sheena lose her cool - while defending him, of all people - and let Orochi have it. He'd suspected she wouldn't actually lose her cool, since he'd been the only person who'd ever been able to make her do that, but it had still been fascinating to watch from an outsider perspective, knowing he, for once, wasn't her target.

"You haven't listened to a word I've said, have you?" she'd said. "Yes, I've heard the stories about him. Yes, I remember how he once hurt me. Yes, I know how he used to treat women and experienced it firsthand for years. Yes, I couldn't stand him back then. Yes, I remember swearing to never have anything to do with him again. Believe me, at the time, I meant it; even he can tell you how often I used to beat him up! So doesn't it say anything that I'm now inviting him here and willingly letting him come to Iselia with me - and, beyond that, that I trust him to behave himself?"

Desperation had flared in Orochi's eyes as he'd shot Zelos another furious glare, but then he'd looked back at Sheena, only that time his stubborn, disapproving expression hadn't softened. "Yes, Sheena, it does. It tells me that he finally managed to wear down your defenses and has seduced you as well. I don't know what method he used to acquire your sympathy and trust like this, but mark my words, that is all it is: a new method to worm his way into your bed and between your legs, as he does with every other woman he meets."

For a moment, Sheena had just gaped at him, but then her face had reddened and hardened, her body quivering with barely suppressed rage. When she'd finally replied, she had spoken very slowly and carefully, her voice so tight that Zelos had been sure it would shatter. "Orochi, by insinuating that I would let my emotions and my hormones outweigh the facts and my intuition as a ninja, you show me extreme disrespect. In fact, this borders on outright insult. Don't let it happen again. Ever."

It was then that Zelos had realized he'd been wrong. In all the times he had royally pissed her off, he had never, never, seen her that livid before. In fact, he'd gotten the impression she'd been on the verge of physically exploding, and for a moment he'd been tempted to find a giant rock, crawl under it, and wait for the storm to pass. He had been terrified of her at that moment, and her anger hadn't even been directed at him!

Orochi, however, hadn't backed down; he'd just stood his ground and met her gaze head on - but Zelos had been sure he'd seen the man flinch, a tremor of something else flickering in his eyes. Zelos hadn't been sure what it was - maybe regret or uncertainty, maybe fear or alarm, or maybe something else - and it hadn't lasted long, but it had been enough to tell him that Orochi had finally recognized exactly what he'd done...and how much he'd just lost with her.

Folding his arms to his chest, Orochi had broken eye contact with her, that simple action alone betraying that he'd conceded the fight. "I apologize, Sheena," he'd said, his voice a little less terse than it had been a minute ago. "I went too far. It will not happen again."

Sheena had continued glaring at him until Orochi had looked back at her. She'd bowed her head, then lifted it commandingly. And not for the first time, Zelos had found himself admiring her utter strength and determination, two of the many reasons he'd fallen in love with her. It had been no wonder to him, at that moment, why Chief Igaguri had chosen her to be his successor. This is a woman who, when she stands up for something, can even make summon spirits submit to her, he'd thought at the time. And then taking that passion and applying it to protecting her own people? Oh, yeah, she'll make a good chief. She won't let anyone walk over Mizuho. She'll defend it to her dying day - and in the process, she'll win. While Zelos had known then, and still did now, that she rarely saw that strength in herself and that she needed to work on controlling her temper more to prevent losing sight of the battle she was fighting (an ability she'd improved since then), she was such a fighter that he had no doubt she would make sure Mizuho thrived.

"Apology accepted," she'd said, the edge leaving her voice and her face growing pleading. "Even if you can't trust Zelos yet, trust me, okay? I'll vouch for him. If he does anything inappropriate here and you hear complaints from any of the villagers, then you can hold me responsible for letting him in, and if the accusations turn out to be true, then I'll admit I was wrong and kick him out myself. But until that happens, he will be allowed in, as my guest, and I will be going to Iselia with him, despite your doubts about his intentions." She'd glanced at Zelos, her face softening further, then turned back to Orochi. "Zelos is a good man, Orochi. He always has been, even if it wasn't always obvious. All I ask is that you give him a chance to prove that to you like he has to me."

For a long moment, Orochi had watched her carefully, his eyes softening further, laced with what Zelos had thought looked an awful lot like sadness and fear. He'd then glanced at Zelos, disgust in his eyes, before looking back at Sheena and frowning deeply. "Very well. But he is not permitted to speak with the villagers - any of them, for any reason. As far as I am concerned, he is not welcome here. If I hear even one complaint about him, or if I detect he has attempted to corrupt our people, I will make sure Chief Igaguri bans him." His eyes had snapped to Zelos, the darkness there as threatening as his words. "And if he hurts you again, Sheena, in any way whatsoever, I will kill him."

Point taken, Zelos had thought, schooling his face into a neutral visage and raising his hands to tell Orochi he'd heard and would follow his rules. Besides, he really hadn't been scheming to 'corrupt' anyone in Mizuho...not that Orochi would have believed that seeing as he'd undoubtedly been convinced Zelos had already 'corrupted' Sheena. He had corrupted her, but not in the way Orochi had feared.

Orochi had glared at him another moment, then cast a final look at Sheena, that fear and sadness still visible in his dark eyes, and turned and stalked back into the village...and that had been when Zelos had realized every nearby villager had been watching them. Yeah, wonderful, he'd thought as they'd noticed him looking at them and quickly gone back to their previous activities, pretending as if he wasn't there. So now everyone knows Orochi wants me dead. Great. He hadn't been sure how much they'd overheard, but it had probably been enough to deem him a threat - and enough for them to know to report him to Orochi if he ever tried to talk to them. It had been frustrating then, and it had stayed that way for months. Zelos was just glad that since the Michi fiasco two months ago, things had calmed down significantly, everyone knew Igaguri had revoked Orochi's threat, and the villagers were no longer ignoring him or glaring at him as if plotting sneaky ways to kill him.

Zelos's eyes had darted at Sheena, who'd been watching Orochi walk away. She'd looked...well, she'd looked like she wanted to scream and punch something - which Zelos had quickly decided wasn't a good thing, seeing as he was the only one within striking distance. Needing her to calm down before she blew a fuse, he'd leaned toward her and whispered in her ear, "Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and count to five." Her head had quickly turned toward his, her brows furrowed, and he'd smiled faintly. "Trust me, it'll help."

Sheena had watched him another moment, anger still boiling in her brown eyes, but then she'd nodded curtly and done as he'd instructed. When she opened her eyes again, a good portion of the fiery anger had vanished. "Wow," she'd commented, looking at him again. "I didn't think that would work, but it did."

Zelos had grinned as broadly as his frayed nerves would let him. "Little trick I learned when dealing with the Pope to keep my emotions in check. It gives you a chance to clear your head and stay calm when facing something aggravating - because you really do catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Feel free to borrow it anytime, like when you're dealing with Giannovio. Or, apparently, with Orochi." He had considered telling her that he would have shared that secret with her years ago, seeing as a hot-blooded ninja like her could've used it, except he'd liked having her pissed at him because it meant she was paying him attention, but he hadn't thought she'd appreciate the comment right then so he'd kept his mouth shut.

"Thanks," she'd murmured, looking back at Orochi's retreating form. "I'm getting the feeling I'll be needing it with him."

"Yeah, no kidding," Zelos had said with a half-hearted laugh. "Looks like he has a few things in common with his brother, doesn't he? I have to admit, though, that actually went better than I expected seeing as I'm obviously not one of his Favoritest Persons Ever."

Sheena had looked back at him, her face softening further, that time with sadness and regret. "Zelos, I am so sorry about that. You shouldn't have heard that. I told him this morning to let you in when you got here, but nothing he said made me think he would act like that. I mean, I've known him my entire life and I've never seen him act like that before. Kuchinawa, yeah, but not Orochi. He's always been so calm and accepting of others...I have no idea what's gotten into him. Maybe he's just having a bad day?"

At least I'm not the only one confused by Orochi's new attitude, he'd thought. On the down side, though...well, that knowledge really hadn't helped because it told him he was apparently the most irritating thorn Orochi had ever had in his side. "Hey, don't apologize," he'd quickly told her. "That wasn't your fault. Like I said, I didn't expect anyone here would be happy to see me. I know you thought it would be fine, and I appreciate your confidence in me, but I've been the object of many a man's anger for years, most of the time for some unfathomable reason. And seriously, he is justified in not trusting me. I mean, I did hurt you, and I can't fault him for wanting to protect you. He's right; my reputation isn't sterling, and he has good cause to be concerned about me."

Sheena had frowned. "Okay, so you hurt me, but that was a long time ago, and you had a legitimate reason for it at the time. You've told me the truth, you're sorry about it, you promised not to do it again, and I believe you. Besides, his other reasons for writing you off as selfish, irresponsible, and cowardly aren't based on anything true."

His heart had skipped a beat at her words. He hadn't been convinced he could live up to her belief in him back then, but he'd surprised himself this past year. She'd helped him find a part of himself that even he could have a bit of faith in, without even realizing that was what she'd been doing. "Well, yeah, but it's not like anyone knows that," he'd said, grinning wryly. "And honestly, even if I denied all those rumors until I'm blue in the face, no one would believe me."

Her eyebrows had flown upward. "I believe you."

Zelos had let out a soft laugh. "And I suspect that will never cease to amaze me, sweetheart. But you have to admit, those were rather...unique...circumstances."

"Yeah, I know," she'd whispered, her eyes softening again, but then she'd sighed. "I guess you really did do a good job of creating that infamous reputation of yours, didn't you?"

No kidding. Even now, he still had trouble shaking it. Heck, he still had trouble deciding whether or not he even wanted to shake it. The more time he spent with Sheena, though, the more he was coming to realize that reputation was more of a curse than a blessing. A comfortable curse, and one he was still nervous about stepping out from because of how accustomed he'd become to it, but still a curse.

He'd nodded and folded his arms to his chest. "Unfortunately, undoing it isn't nearly as easy. People tend to remember the bad longer than they remember the good."

"Yeah, don't I know it," Sheena had replied, smiling wistfully. "I just wish I understood why he's acting like this. I've seen him upset before, but it was never that irrational."

That had added even more weight to his growing hunch about why Orochi had overreacted, and it wasn't just over-protectiveness. No, jealousy and possessiveness had been looking more likely - feelings Zelos had been able to relate to. In fact, those insecurities stemming from Sheena's 'crush' on Lloyd had persisted for months, until that day Sheena had told him, in no uncertain terms, that her heart was his. He'd been tempted at the time to tell her his suspicions and ask if she had ever noticed Orochi acting 'odd' toward her, but he'd bitten his tongue, not wanting to bring it up with her unless he was absolutely sure.

"I'm not sure," he'd said instead. "But I won't be forgetting it anytime soon."

"I wish you could, but I understand why you can't." Sheena had sighed, then given him a pointed look. "Well, I know I don't need to tell you this, but be careful what you do here. Eventually, the reality of who you are will outweigh the rumors and the villagers will come to see you like I do. Just give them time. Orochi, too."

"Thanks," he'd murmured, genuinely touched. That had been one of the first times she'd expressed such faith in him, and it had been then that he'd decided to do whatever it took to live up to her faith in him so he could hear it again and again. It had been addictive, and...well, even he was amazed at everything that goal had lured out of him. Back then, though, he hadn't been sure he believed her and had given her a wry grin. "But I'll only believe that last one when I see it."

Sheena had mirrored his grin. "Yeah, I know, but I'm not giving up hope. I trust you to be your usual, charming self. Preferably with less flirting, though."

Zelos had let out a soft laugh, then gave her a playful bow. "Your wish is my command, my lady. One charming, flirts-exclusively-with-one-particular-voluptuous-ninja, soon-to-be ex-Chosen at your service."

Unsurprisingly, Sheena had rolled her eyes at that, but they'd still been sparkling as she'd replied, "Just don't go overboard with it."

He'd flashed her a charming smile. "Just for you, my dear, I'll try."

Her brown eyes had softened, a delightful blush settling on her cheeks. "I trust you."

And again, his heart had skipped a beat, making him wonder what he loved hearing from her more: 'I love you' or 'I trust you.' His grin had broadened. "I'd kiss you right now only I suspect I'd be sawed in half by a furious Orochi."

Sheena had let out a soft laugh and looked downward shyly, then had met his eyes again, grinning. "Yeah, I think I prefer you in one piece, too. I'll take a rain check, though."

"You got it." He'd motioned at the village. "Then let's get your things and get going. We'll have plenty of time for stuff like that en route to Iselia."

And they had. While their trip to Iselia had paled in comparison to their amazing trip to Altamira several months later, they'd still had a wonderful time traveling together and making up for the time they should have been able to enjoy like that during the regeneration journey if only he hadn't been such an idiot toward her. But that discouraging encounter with Orochi had effectively ended any desire Zelos had to whistle while approaching Mizuho for fear of something similar happening again. And as a result, no matter how good life was treating him, it was a rule he'd followed religiously: 'Don't whistle, for any reason, no matter how exciting the circumstances.'

Today, though, he simply couldn't help himself. Today, Zelos Wilder was whistling again.

It was the third-happiest day he'd ever experienced, behind only the day Sheena had changed his life forever by admitting she loved him and the day they'd rendered the 'Chosen One' unnecessary by defeating Yggdrasill. Today, after all, was the first day of the rest of his life. For the first time since the day he'd been born into the prison that was his wretched existence, he was free. Free. Every choice he made from now on was entirely his own. He could pick and choose between obligations. He no longer had to attend pointless church services or bless things or recite passages of scripture at ceremonies; he didn't have to sign off on every major decision the king made. Sure, he now had new responsibilities instead, responsibilities that could prove to be just as exhausting and frustrating as the ones he'd just gotten rid of, but those responsibilities had been his choice to accept; he'd known what he was accepting, and he wanted to be doing them.

And now he needed to properly celebrate this morning's events, and only one person could truly appreciate and share in his utter happiness with him: the incredible woman who'd encouraged him to persevere this past year, even when the battle seemed hopeless. No one else would ever come close to understanding how he felt but Sheena, the love of his life - the love of his life who he could now start seriously considering making the love of his life now that he knew his happiness wouldn't be ruined by any other ridiculous restrictions. And that knowledge was...well, while it was scary, it was also exhilarating and promising and was making his heart pound with excitement over what was yet to come.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and spring was blossoming; nature seemed to be reflecting his cheerfulness. And, even better, the dread he'd once had of approaching Mizuho after all those run-ins with Orochi was nearly gone. Sure, Orochi's persisting hostility still bothered him, but he now had Igaguri's blessing to be there and to speak to its villagers, and ever since the Michi incident, the other ninjas actually seemed more receptive of him - not much, and not everyone, but a good number at least now spared him a glance or a nod when they saw him. Most still didn't talk to him - although Sadako and her daughter, Hamako, often greeted him and asked about Michi - but a simple nod from people who'd acted like emotionless robots toward him only two months ago was still a huge step forward. Heck, the guards at the gate no longer even questioned why he was there. One or two other villagers even addressed him by name now - well, by his title, but still, the fact that they were acknowledging him at all was still huge.

Compared to the glares he used to receive here, this was downright warm and cheery. Subdued, yes, but things were still significantly better than they had been; the people treated him like a human being now, and his opinion of this place had improved along with it. Heck, he even liked some of these people now. In fact, he was no longer dreading his quickly approaching, self-imposed deadline to make a decision for his future; part of him thought he might actually be looking forward to it. His gut seemed to be telling him there was no decision to make, after all, which was something he certainly wasn't going to complain about.

Everything in his life was going great. How could he not be whistling?

It was only as he was nearing Mizuho that he realized something didn't...feel...right. For a few minutes Zelos ignored it, deciding that his paranoia of cursing himself by being too happy was just making something out of nothing. The further he walked, though, the stronger the feeling became, and finally he decided to humor it and try to determine its cause - so he could soundly dismiss it and go back to being happy again. He stopped whistling and his footsteps slowed as he looked around, trying to pinpoint any oddities that might be causing his sense of unease. Birds singing overhead? Check; it was a gorgeous spring day and plenty of birds were out courting their mates. Wind rustling the leaves? Check; that gentle, relaxing sound he'd grown to love was a lovely backdrop for the walk. Scurrying wildlife? Check; they, too, were out eating and ambling through the forest. The sound of axes chopping wood, swords clanging, and ninjas training coming from Mizuho?

...No check. All he heard from Mizuho was silence.

His footsteps slowed to a stop and his eyes narrowed. He listened another minute but still heard nothing, and after a minute he began looking around. Had he made a wrong turn? No, he knew this path like the back of his hand and this was definitely it. Was he too far away to hear anything? No, there was that boulder that indicated he was getting close; another five minutes of walking and he should be able to see Mizuho's gate, and with his angel senses, he'd always been able to detect sounds of the village from here. So were his senses working properly? Closing his eyes, Zelos concentrated on the sounds of the forest...there was the river that ran through Mizuho, and just above that he could detect the tinkling of Chief Igaguri's wind chimes. But what he didn't hear was Mizuho itself.

Okay, he told himself, opening his eyes again, while that was cause for concern, it wasn't cause for panic. Maybe they were just meeting somewhere? But no, in that case, then he should hear someone talking, right? Unless they were inside a building...but Mizuho didn't have a meeting hall big enough for everyone, hence why public meetings were held outside the chief's house. Were they busy praying to Jizou or something? Maybe, but all of them deciding to do that at the same time? Their worship of Jizou wasn't a public occasion; it was personal. No, something about this scenario wasn't right...and the more he thought about it, the less 'right' it seemed. He listened again, hoping to hear something to explain what he wasn't hearing, but still he detected nothing, and he resumed walking. Fears be damned; there had to be a good explanation for this. Right?

...Right?

His footsteps quickened, his building sense of urgency overwhelming his attempts to reassure himself that he was just overreacting. And then there it was ahead of him: Mizuho's front gate, camouflaged amongst the trees. Oh, good; Mizuho was still standing. That eliminated the worst possibility: that the village had completely burned down, or that they'd packed up overnight and moved. But even now that he could see the village, he still couldn't hear sound coming from it...and he soon received his second sign that something was very, very wrong: no one was standing guard at the entrance.

Even if the villagers were meeting elsewhere, someone was always guarding the gate. So where was the guard?

Zelos's hand drifted down to the hilt of his sword as he slowed, cautiously approaching the village, every sense on the alert for any clues of what was going on. Taking a hesitant step inside, his eyes immediately fell to a dark lump nearby...a man. He rushed over to the man and squatted down beside him, looking him over, identifying him as Toya, one of the guards. His heart pounded faster as he noted that Toya's eyes were closed, his face a sickly green-gray color. Aw, crap. Not good. He couldn't see blood anywhere, not on the man nor pooling beneath him, which was good, but that didn't explain why he was lying face down, nor why no one was tending to him. In fact, that just made the knot in Zelos's gut pull even tighter. Deciding he had no choice but to risk potential exposure to whatever had felled this man, Zelos rolled Toya onto his back, still seeing no wounds. He felt at the man's throat for a pulse, and...

He couldn't find one.

Growing desperate, Zelos lowered his head to the man's lips, concentrating for any sound of breathing, but still he detected nothing. And a quick check of the man's pupil's yielded no eye response, either, just a blank, unseeing, clouded stare.

Toya was dead.

...Shit.

And then another dark lump near the fork where the road split caught his eye.

"Oh, no," he whispered, jumping to his feet and hurrying to the body - a female villager lying on her side. Falling to his knees beside her, he lifted his hand to her throat, feeling for a pulse...and relief swept through him as he found it. For a moment, Zelos closed his eyes and took a shaky breath - oh, thank Martel! - but then he place his hand on her abdomen and whispered the spell for Healing Stream. It cast...but nothing happened. Crap. He tried it again...but still nothing happened. "C'mon, hunny. Wake up." Her skin was just as green-gray as Toya's, but she was still alive...at least for now. And, like Toya, he saw no visible wound to indicate what had caused this...although there was lumpy, watery patch of vomit on the ground near her head. But why would throwing up have caused this? And the question remained: why wasn't anyone helping these people? He lifted his head and looked around, and his heart began pounding even faster as he spotted more villagers lying in the road. "What the hell happened here?" he whispered, horrified.

And just like that, the realization hit him like a sledgehammer. In an instant, he was on his feet, crying out "Sheena!", and was racing toward her home, barely sparing a glance at the other bodies he passed. Arriving there, he threw open the door and burst inside. Not bothering to take off his shoes, and not seeing her in the main room or in her kitchen, he raced to her bedroom...but she wasn't there. He peeked into her bathroom, and then into her spare bedroom, but she wasn't there, either. He paused and looked around, hoping for a sign of where she might be; her main room was a mess, with books and papers scattered across her floor and covering her table, but it didn't look like it had been ransacked, either. Actually, it looked like she'd been frantically searching for something.

Zelos picked up the closest book, but it told him nothing and he quickly tossed it aside, then he grabbed a few papers from the table...which also told him nothing. But he couldn't waste time on books and papers; he needed to find her. Leaving the house as it was, he rushed outside again, calling her name and looking around. Still not seeing her, nor receiving any response to his call, he rushed from body to body, checking everyone, but while he recognized the people, none were Sheena. Everyone was unconscious - or, in two other cases, definitely dead - but none had visible injuries. None. That meant this had to be a disease or poison of some kind, right? It had to be. Nothing else made-

"Igaguri's house," he suddenly realized. If Sheena wasn't outside, then there was only one other place she could be. He ran toward it and threw open the door...and his heart stopped at the sight before him in the genkan.

Oh, sweet Martel. Sheena.

In the blink of an eye, one of the greatest days of his life had transformed into the worst.

Oh, yeah, whistling is a surefire way to curse yourself. Never again, Wilder. Never again.

She was lying face down a few feet from the entrance, her fingers curled against the wooden floor as if she'd been desperately fighting to reach the door, a small pool of vomit nearby. Body trembling and heart clenched into a tight, painful knot, Zelos dropped to his knees beside her. For a moment he couldn't even touch her, terrified as he was of what he'd find; he could only gape at her and struggle to breathe, the weight in his chest crushing. But he had to know; he had to face the truth, whatever it might be. Taking a deep, shaky breath, he gently rolled her onto her back, placed his fingers to her neck, and closed his eyes...

His breath whooshed out of him and his head sank downward. Oh, thank Martel, she's still alive. She's still alive! His eyes flew open and he let out a soft, nervous laugh, relief sweeping through him, but then he took another deep breath and placed his hand on her stomach, closing his eyes again. He whispered the spell for First Aid...but received no response from her. He whispered the spell for Healing Stream...still nothing. Healing Wind...again, nothing.

His eyes flew open. Shit, shit, shit. "C'mon, Sheena," he whispered, gently shaking her, but still she didn't respond. "Don't do this to me, sweetheart. Please. I really need you to wake up right now."

She didn't even twitch.

All relief fled him as panic replaced it, and he sat back, his brain frantically trying to process everything. These people were dying. Most were extremely sick and unconscious, but at least three were already dead, indicating that whatever was afflicting them was deadly. And that meant that given enough time, it would kill everyone here. It would kill Sheena.

And Zelos had no idea what to do.

For a moment, he just sat there, paralyzed. He didn't know what this was; he didn't know how to help these people. He was only one person, and his knowledge of medicine was limited to basic First Aid; he had no way of knowing what had caused this, and without knowing the cause, he couldn't fix it, not if curative spells didn't work.

Everyone here was going to die. Sheena, the woman he would give everything for and then so much more, was going to die.

But paralysis and panic will get you nowhere, he quickly told himself, forcing aside the desperation and helplessness. You need to focus. You need to think. These people are still alive, and you're the only one here who can help them, so you have to help them. Sheena will not die, because a life without her is...well, you can't even fathom that anymore after this past year. And that means you have to figure this out. She's still alive, so there's still hope to save her, and you will save her.

Think, Wilder. Take your own advice, close your eyes, and count to five. Clear your head. Focus on the task at hand.

You can do this. You

can

.

Zelos took another deep breath, swallowed hard, and closed his eyes.

One...two...three...four...five.

When he opened his eyes, he didn't actually feel better - because Sheena was still lying in front of him, unconscious and dying - but at least he could think a little clearer. So now he just had to figure this out and find a solution. Piece of cake.

...Yeah, right.

As impossible and daunting as that thought was, though, he was damn well going to do every single thing he could to make that happen. So that required thinking everything through rationally. And that, thankfully, was one thing he'd always been good at.

Okay, so everyone was unconscious, and yet no one was physically wounded. That meant he could eliminate a direct, weapons-type attack on them. Could it be some kind of virus or plague, then? Maybe, but did viruses spread this quickly? The flu, while quick to spread, didn't spread like this. And the plague, likewise, transmitted quickly, but not this quickly. A carrier would have had to bring it here, and even then it would have taken a few days to spread to everyone. And if that were the case, Sheena would have had enough time to warn him what was going on and tell him to stay away to avoid exposure. While he'd been busy in Meltokio for a few days, it hadn't been that long since he'd last been here - four days, at most - and he'd seen Sheena two nights ago, and she'd said nothing about this then.

Judging from what he'd seen, it hadn't taken long for this to knock everyone out; most people looked like they'd been in the middle of something when they'd fallen unconscious, because no one appeared to have been trying to help anyone else. And if people were slowly falling unconscious and dying, wouldn't someone have tried to help them? Why just leave them out in the street? No virus he knew of knocked its victims out this quickly, not to mention where would they have picked it up from anyway? Mizuho was isolated, and unless a scout had brought it back, they wouldn't have been exposed to something like this, not considering Zelos hadn't heard about anything like this happening elsewhere in Tethe'alla. Besides, no scout would have come back here knowing he'd be bringing it with him, and he couldn't not have known he'd be carrying it when it worked so quickly; the place he'd brought it from would've looked like this before he'd left. And really, what Zelos was seeing here didn't match what he'd learned about the plague or any other virus. All that put together seemed to rule out those possibilities.

So...what? A poison, then? Zelos blinked, considering that. Poisons could be virulent and fast-acting, resulting in what he was seeing. But if so, what kind of poison? Something in the food supply? Or maybe in the air? He had no idea; he'd never researched poisons, although he was suddenly regretting having Mary Ann Trekolewski write that paper on poisons for him at the Academy so he didn't have to do it himself. And if it was a poison, where did it come from? Was it accidental, like a bad batch of mushrooms, or intentional? And if it was intentional, then who did this to them? Who would even know to look for the village here to poison them? Still, he couldn't eliminate the possibility that someone had accidentally stumbled upon Mizuho while wandering through the forest - or that these ninjas had once crossed paths with an enemy who'd conspire to kill them. Or, heck, maybe someone was doing this to punish him; it wouldn't be the first time someone hated the Chosen enough to hurt those close to him. Regardless, if it was a poison, then a panacea bottle should work, right? Right? His gut was telling him they would've already tried that, but he was desperate here, and since there should be a panacea bottle at the store, could it really hurt to check?

His first course of action decided, Zelos carefully scooped Sheena up in his arms - damn, she's so cold and fragile...no, no, you can't think like that, Wilder - and then stood and peeked into the adjacent room where not only were more books and papers strewn around, but Chief Igaguri was also a sickly greenish-grayish, unconscious lump on the floor. Not wanting to know yet who here was still alive and who wasn't for fear it would depress him and keep him from doing what needed to be done, though, he opted not to check on Igaguri's status. Sheena was still alive, and while he cared about the rest of these people, far more than he'd ever imagined he would, he really didn't right now. No, right now the woman in his arms was the most important person here to him; he would worry about the rest later.

Kicking open Igaguri's door, Zelos headed outside and carried Sheena back to her home; while placing her in her own bed wouldn't help anything, he wanted her to be comfortable. Hell, he wanted to be comfortable because it would keep him centered - and the only place in this village where he'd ever felt completely comfortable was in her home. He nudged her door open with his shoulder, glad it hadn't fully closed earlier, carried her into her bedroom, and laid her down on her futon. It was one of her endearing quirks: even though Mizuho's futons were designed to be easily folded and packed away so the room could serve as more than just a bedroom, Sheena never put hers away. Either she was too lazy or busy to take care of it, or she just didn't see any reason to. Right now, though, Zelos was glad she had left it out, because that way he could lay her down on it without having to find and unfold it first. He quickly pulled the pink ribbon from her hair so her head could lay flat against the pillow and then covered her with blankets, hoping to counter the iciness of her skin.

Satisfied she'd be comfortable if she awoke, he leaned down, whispered in her ear, "I'll be right back, love, so don't you dare die on me, okay?" and then rushed outside, heading to the shop. Before even reaching it, though, he could see an empty panacea bottle lying beside the shopkeeper, as if it had rolled from his hand when he'd fallen. A quick check revealed that the shopkeeper was still alive, albeit as green and unconscious as everyone else, also with a puddle of vomit to his side, but the conclusion was terrifyingly clear: the shopkeeper drank it, and it hadn't cured him.

Zelos slumped against the counter, his panic rising again. Crap, so even a panacea bottle didn't work? And not for the first time, he found himself wishing he'd had Raine teach him her Recover spell because that would've been really helpful right now. But beating himself up for something he couldn't change would just waste his time - time he needed to pursue other options. So that raised the obvious question: now what? Should he get help? Who could he get? What were the odds they'd understand this better than he did? And, well, would he even have enough time to find someone who could help before the rest of these people died? Seeing as several people were already dead, no, he wouldn't. He didn't know where Lloyd and Colette were, Raine and Genis could be in any of a hundred places, and Regal and Presea...well, even if he did know where they were, they knew no more about poisons than he did. And he didn't trust anyone else not to betray Mizuho's location to everyone. No, he had to jump straight into finding the solution - because he'd be damned if he accepted that there was no solution and just let everyone here die.

Okay, Wilder, think. What do you know? Most of these people had clearly had no idea what was happening to them; it had hit too quickly. Other than the empty panacea bottle, nothing seemed out of place to indicate they'd even tried to save themselves...except the messy piles of books and papers on Sheena's floor. Her house, while never perfectly neat, was never in such a state of disarray. Igaguri's house had looked the same. She'd been looking for something - Igaguri probably, too, unless Sheena had also made the mess in his house. Okay, so that seemed to indicate she'd recognized something was wrong and had gone searching for a solution. Had she found it? Zelos didn't know. He hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary on her or in Igaguri's genkan, but it was still his best place to start.

Pushing himself away from the counter, Zelos ran back to her home and dropped to his knees beside the piles of books and papers, rummaging through them. Oh, yeah, wasn't that wonderful? Every single one was written in the Mizuhoan language! Agh, just what he needed. While he'd spent the last two months reading through that language book Sheena had given him, he was still nowhere near being able to read much yet. Bits and pieces, sure, but full text? Not a chance. Despite his certainty that he wouldn't get anywhere, he still grabbed the nearest book and flipped through it, struggling to make out the headings. Okay, so from what he could tell, the book dealt with plants. But what kind of plants? Herbs? Drugs? Was it even connected to their current problem? Had Sheena been looking for something specific? No, he quickly decided, that book wasn't helpful. Even assuming she'd been searching for a cure, then no page stood out to indicate she'd found it. Zelos picked up the next book...another unmarked, unreadable book on plants. He grabbed a few papers from the table, but those, too, were just generic Mizuhoan documents. Nothing looked like it was related to a poison or virus.

Zelos growled and leaned back, giving up. This wasn't getting him anywhere. Chances were if he checked all the books on Igaguri's floor, he wouldn't get any farther, either, simply because he couldn't read them - and it would take him too long to try to translate them all with his limited language skills to see if they were helpful. So if Sheena hadn't found what she was looking for here, maybe she had at Igaguri's place? It was a desperate thought, but he was running out of options. He closed his eyes, summoning that horrible scene of Sheena lying unconscious in Igaguri's genkan. Based on the position he'd found her in, she'd definitely been heading out of the house, not in, meaning she'd either found what she was looking for or was heading out to search for it somewhere else. Assuming she'd found it - because if she hadn't, then there was no way he could - then she was carrying what she'd found elsewhere...not that she'd reached her destination. So, since he was positive there hadn't been anything else in the genkan besides Sheena and the vomit, if she had found something, then it had to either be on her or it had fallen when he'd carried her back here. Right?

...Unless it's locked up in her head where it's useless, an obnoxiously pessimistic voice pointed out.

He shoved the thought aside, refusing to think like that until he'd exhausted every option. Well, checking on Sheena would be faster than running back to Igaguri's place, so he'd start there. He jumped to his feet and headed back to her room, scanning the floor as he went for anything clue-like...and then he had to ignore the vicious kick to his gut as he saw her lying on her bed so sickly, so vulnerably, for fear panic and terror would consume him again. Instead, he knelt down on the edge of the futon, threw the blankets off of her, and focused on her body. He didn't see anything obvious; her hands were slack and empty, no papers or vials were sticking out of her clothes, and nothing was tucked beneath her iris bracelet. His heart sank, but then he took a deep breath, refusing to give up, and reached for the sides of her pants, feeling for pockets. Damn, there aren't any. Now what?

The answer abruptly hit him. Zelos had caught her a few times during their journey sneaking things into and out of her robe when she'd thought everyone was asleep, right around her chest area. At the time he'd been tempted to tease her about it - he distinctly remembered biting back a comment about all the glorious secrets buried beneath her shirt - but thankfully he'd valued his life enough to choose to keep that knowledge to himself. But now...was it possible she'd hidden something in that concealed pocket?

"Aw, crap," he mumbled as he realized what checking it meant, unsure whether he should be excited by the prospect or scared for his life should she magically wake during it. "You're gonna make me grope you, aren't you? And I don't even know you did stash anything there. But you aren't giving me another choice - either I grope you to find out, or I let you die. Sorry, love, but the answer's pretty obvious." Sure, she'd kill him if she ever learned about this, but then, he would much rather be the one dead here, not her, so he'd take his chances. Taking another deep breath, Zelos pulled off his gloves and slid his hand beneath her robe, forcing himself to ignore the soft curves he was feeling and focus instead on the robe itself. He was sure he'd always seen her reaching for her left side, so that was the first place to check.

"Okay, not there," he concluded upon only feeling the fabric of her purple robe and white shirt. If there really was a hidden pocket somewhere, then maybe it was further down? He grinned wryly as he reached further beneath her robe. "Y'know, sweetheart, this really isn't how I'd imagined this moment. I can't even enjoy this..." Agh, he still couldn't find anything. "Okay, not there either. Damn." He slowly slid his hand back up - and then he felt it, something like a tiny, folded piece of paper just beneath her chest. The only problem was that it was on the other side of her white shirt, against her skin. "Oh, come on! You have got to be kidding me! What have I told you about teasing a poor, weak-willed man like me, huh?" Growling, he extracted his hand from between her robe and shirt, and then closed his eyes and slid his hand directly along her skin, beneath the white shirt. Feeling her up like this is, by far, the worst torture I've ever experienced, he thought, not just because it was something he'd always wanted to do, but because of the circumstances - and because of how damn cold she was. "You have no idea how glad I am that you're unconscious right now or you would never speak to me again..." And then he felt it - the paper he'd noticed earlier. Snagging it with his fingers, Zelos pulled it out and held it up triumphantly.

"Ha! Booyah!" He grinned broadly as he smoothed down her clothes and covered her again with the blankets. "I'm really sorry about the 'molesting' thing, love, but I'd rather do that than watch you die. You'll probably need a new hiding place for top-secret ninja notes, too. Well, that or you'll just kill me. Either way works for me so long as you're alive to do it. So anyway, what've you got to say?" Sure, it was possible this note was unrelated to what was going on here, but he was choosing to be optimistic because right now...well, right now he needed hope or he'd either go crazy or be paralyzed by terror, which wouldn't help anyone.

Seating himself on the futon, Zelos unfolded the paper, relieved to see she'd written it in the Tethe'allan script, not the Mizuhoan script, so he could actually read it. The words were all sloppily scribbled, obviously jotted down quickly - while her handwriting was messy, it wasn't normally this bad - but he could still make out the letters. "'Kurinoku doku'?" he read aloud. "What the hell is 'kurinoku doku'? And...'Aribako gedokuzai'?" His eyes darted at Sheena, his confusion rising. "Sweetheart, this doesn't make sense. What is this, some kind of medicine? Does this have anything to do with all those books on the floor?" But Sheena, naturally, didn't answer him, and so he quickly looked back at the paper. "'Tsuchite shokubutsu'...gone." He squinted, trying to read the word in parentheses behind those. "'Corris'?" Blinking, he looked up, his mind racing. "Corris...corris...where have I heard word that before?" But the answer wasn't coming to him, and so he shook his head, going back to the note. "'Kusuri no hon'..."

His voice trailed off as his mind began racing. His gut was saying he already knew both of those words, but for the life of him he could only remember 'hon,' which meant 'book.' 'Kusuri' meant...agh, he didn't remember. He stood and rushed to the bookshelf in her main room, scanning the titles for a dictionary. Fortunately, that set of Mizuhoan symbols he did know, because it was on the front of the dictionary Sheena had given him - 'jisho' - and he soon located one. While it was far more advanced than the children's one she'd given him, the basics were still the same, and he soon found the word.

"Aha, medicine! 'Kusuri' means medicine! She was referencing a medical book." And that discovery was doubly exciting, not just because he'd figured it out, but because it lent weight to his hunch that this note was connected to this current situation. He looked back at the note and decided, while he had the dictionary, to locate the other words. 'Kurinoku' he couldn't find, but 'doku' he could: poison. And there, finally, was the confirmation that this note truly was related to this crisis. "Kurinoku poison! I was right, everyone's poisoned - and Sheena figured out the type before she fell unconscious." Okay, next word...'aribako' he couldn't find, either, but 'gedokuzai' meant 'antidote.' "Which means 'aribako' antidote should cure them...assuming I can figure out how to make it." He moved onto the next word. "'Tsuchite'...name of an extremely rare, potent medicinal plant only found in caves. Wonderful. And 'shokubutsu' is...yeah, that makes sense: 'plant.' I still don't know what 'corris' is or how it's connected, but it can't be a Mizuhoan word." Mizuhoan words, after all, were made up of specific syllables, which these didn't match. Heck, the letter 'c' didn't even exist in their language; it would be a 'k,' not a 'c.' "And 'gone' I'm assuming means gone gone, as in used up, rather than being some weird Mizuhoan word."

Zelos blinked several times, thinking everything through. "Okay, so what do I know? Sheena decided the culprit was kurinoku poison, and 'aribako' is the name of the antidote. She'd better be right about that, because otherwise I'm out of luck. Let's see...'tsuchite' is a medicinal plant that they're out of..." Oh, crap. If they were out of that plant and it was necessary for the antidote, then that was bad. He wasn't a plant expert and didn't know where to find more. "So what's 'corris,' then? Another name for tsuchite? A substitute? And why the hell does it sound so familiar?" He shook his head; the answer still wasn't coming to him. "Okay, so I need to find a certain medical book...somewhere..." He looked at the note again, praying for a clue to save himself precious time finding this book, and spotted something. "Oh, missed a word! 'Uki'...which means..." Oh, duh, he realized while flipping through the dictionary. Uki is Mizuho's healer. And since he knew where her house was, that was his new destination. Now he might actually be getting somewhere! Opting to take the dictionary with him, he headed to the bedroom doorway and peeked in at Sheena, but she hadn't budged. He pointed at her. "You'd better still be alive when I figure this out, Sheena. Don't even think of dying on me unless you want me kicking your ass when I get back. You hear me?" Realizing how he sounded, he let out a strained, nervous laugh, then cleared his throat, forced himself to focus again, and raced outside toward the healer's house.

It was empty when Zelos got there - thankfully, since he really didn't want to have to deal with another dead or unconscious body - and he looked around. Along one wall was a bookcase filled with books, while another wall was lined with shelves upon which sat jars of medicinal plants, roots, and herbs. "Bookshelf it is," he murmured, heading toward it. He began scanning the titles...and cursed softly. Damn, everything was written in Mizuhoan, which meant he had no choice but to translate each one. It was a good thing he'd brought the dictionary - and it was an especially good thing he had basic knowledge of this language. He had never been more grateful for that impulse that had led him to ask Sheena to teach him her language than he was right then, because while it would be a time-consuming, frustrating test of his patience, at least he could do some basic translation.

For several minutes, Zelos continued scanning the titles, searching for anything that might pass as this 'Kusuri no Hon,' his eyes growing bleary at all the unfamiliar characters. In response, though, he reminded himself that no matter how difficult it was, he couldn't give up. He had to do this. Sheena's life was at stake.

"How 'bout you?" he finally said, grabbing a hefty book with symbols on its leather spine that he thought were the ones he wanted. That was the symbol for book, and the other...a peek in the dictionary confirmed it meant medicine. Setting it on the counter, Zelos began flipping through it...and his heart sank again. Crap, the text was entirely in the Mizuhoan language, too. How was he supposed to find this 'aribako' antidote? For a moment he could feel tendrils of panic creeping through him again at the scope of the translation project awaiting him, but he shoved them aside, took another deep breath, closed his eyes, and counted to five again to regain his focus. Panic wouldn't help him - and really, he was already infinitely closer to finding a solution than he had been ten minutes ago. "Okay, get a grip," he instructed himself. "Focus, Wilder. You can do this. First things first: a book on plants and medicines has to be organized somehow, so you only need to find this one entry." He opened his eyes and nodded. I can do this, and I will.

Starting at the beginning, he began paging through the book. The first section appeared to be basic ingredient information, based on the plant pictures he saw there. Reaching the end of that section, he kept going...oh, good, the first entry. The name of the medicine was at the top; beneath it was what appeared to be a description and what it cured; beneath that was the ingredient list; and finally, at the bottom, was a set of steps to prepare it. The entire entry took up a single page. His eyes snapped back up to the name of the medicine at the top; okay, good, those weren't fancy Mizuhoan symbols but rather the basic 'alphabetical' type letters - and those, thankfully, he did recognize. He wasn't proficient with them yet, but he should be able to manage this. For a moment he struggled to read the name, sounding out each syllable aloud as he deciphered it, but finally he got it: akachika. He jumped to the entry on the next page: akawashi. Well, at least that boded well. Now he just needed to keep going until he found the entry for aribako, and...aha! His heart skipped a beat, hope racing through him, as he skipped a few pages ahead and located it. So now, instead of having to translate the entire book, he just had to translate a single page. That might actually be doable!

Zelos set the book on the counter closest to the wall of jars. Seeing too much text that he couldn't read - and probably didn't have to since Sheena had already identified this as the cure - he skipped the description and jumped to the ingredient list, which was also written in their basic script. "Let's see, I need some tsurenu..." He scanned the jars. "Hah, tsurenu!" He pulled the half-full jar off the shelf and moved onto the next item on the list, comparing it to the wall each time he made out another name. "Pesukona...got it. Reshimaku...got that, too. Tsuchite..." Damn, it really was gone. There was a jar with the name on it, but it was empty. And, worse, he saw nothing called 'Corris,' so if that was a substitute, they didn't have it, either. But for now, he'd find the other ingredients. "Heshiban...check. Oh, c'mon, how many plants does this thing need? And who would take the time to combine them all together to see what poisons it cures? Rochaku...uh oh." He scanned the rows of jars, but the 'rochaku' jar eluded him. He scanned them again...but there was no jar called that. His heart edged back into 'panic' realm. Crap, two ingredients missing? They wouldn't put an ingredient into an antidote unless it was necessary, so how would two missing ingredients affect the final result? "Yorusa...check." And that was it for the ingredients. He'd found everything else, and each jar was plenty full, but he was still missing rochaku and tsuchite - or corris, that name that would bug him until...

"Is this what I think it is?"

Zelos blinked as a fragmented sound bite flickered through his mind. Something from the regeneration journey...Sheena being fascinated with a plant they'd found somewhere. He closed his eyes, seeking the rest of the elusive memory. For a moment, it kept slipping away from him, dancing in and out of view just beyond his reach, but then...

"That's 'corris,' isn't it, Raine?"

"Very good, Genis. Yes, it is."

"'Corris'?" his memory told him Sheena had replied to the Sage siblings' exchange. "I've never heard of 'corris' before, but this looks an awful lot like a plant we use in Mizuho."

"That is definitely corris - or at least that is the name we know it by in Sylvarant," Raine had said. "Perhaps your people have a different name for it, Sheena. Corris is a very rare plant that only grows in caves of a particular temperature and humidity."

"I'm sure this is a medicinal plant we use in Mizuho - it's a weird, unique, five-pointed leaf. It's part of a few of our less common medicines, and from what I remember, it's really strong. Actually, I think we're running low on it, so I should grab some and take it back..."

Zelos's eyes flew open. "Corris...that's where I'd heard that name! I guess Sheena never brought any back. But where was that?" It had to be a cave somewhere...oh, right! Latheon Gorge, in the same place where they'd found that Mana Leaf Herb! And now that he'd remembered that, he also remembered why she hadn't grabbed any: because half a minute later they'd been attacked by that plantix creature and the corris had completely slipped her mind.

On the bright side, now he knew where to get some. Sticking Sheena's note into the book to save his place, he flipped to the beginning and paged through the ingredients. "Tsuchite...tsuchite...got it! It even has a handy dandy picture. Now I just need to get it..." Crap. Going to Latheon Gorge would waste a whole lot of time - time he wasn't sure he had before all these people died...before Sheena died. But he had no choice; unless he did something, they would die, and this was the most promising method he had to save them. Since no one else here was conscious, that meant he had to put this antidote together himself, and to do that, he had to gather as many of the ingredients as he could. If he had to skip that other one he couldn't find, the rochaku - and unfortunately a quick look at its description provided no hints because, damn it, he couldn't read solid text without wasting hours translating it - then he'd do it, but if he skipped two ingredients, he might as well give up now. As it was, he was afraid to think of what missing one would do; it was possible it was added simply to improve the taste, but it was also possible it was a critical agent in the antidote, and if it was the latter...well, he just had to hope it wasn't.

Grabbing the book, Zelos headed outside and ran back toward Sheena's house, scheming his next move. He had two options to get to Latheon Gorge: he could use his wings to fly there, or he could borrow Sheena's Rheaird. Well, not much choice there; Rheairds flew faster than he could so Rheaird it was. At least while Latheon Gorge was far away, it wasn't, like, Flanoir far away. In fact, while most continents had been pushed farther apart when the continents from Sylvarant had been squeezed in between them, that one had actually gotten closer to the northern one - which was a good thing for him since it meant he'd have to waste less time getting there. With a Rheaird, getting there, grabbing the plant, and flying back should take roughly an hour. And while an hour was still too much wasted time when people were dying, he had no choice; this had to be done.

Reaching Sheena's house, he headed to the dresser in her bedroom where he remembered seeing her putting away her wing pack. He rifled through the middle drawer, searching for it - damn, not her underwear drawer...and right now really isn't the time for thoughts like those, he scolded himself - until he spotted it. He quickly grabbed it...and then paused, noticing something else. Wait. Was that silver thing what he thought it was? Despite the gravity of the situation, he couldn't resist smirking. It was! Heh. Of all the things to find today, her camera had been the last one on his list - but now at least he knew where she kept it. Perfect. He'd have to do something about that - but only after he'd saved Sheena and her people. And he'd be damned if he thought in terms of if he saved them, because whatever it took, he would save them.

Wing pack in hand, Zelos turned back to Sheena...and again, his heart lurched at seeing her lying there, the lump of dread and terror in his gut nearly choking. Slowly walking over to her, Zelos knelt beside her and ran his fingers over her cold forehead. He swallowed hard, then bent down to press a kiss to her cheek, squeezing his eyes shut as his lips lingered there. Oh, Martel, if she died...if she died...

"Hang in there, Sheena," he whispered, refusing to consider the 'what ifs' yet, not when he was still working to prevent it. "I'll be right back with what you need. I promise."

He desperately wanted to stay with her, to watch over her and make sure nothing else could hurt her, but he couldn't yet. And so as difficult as it was, after a moment of watching her, of praying to Martel, to Jizou, to anyone who was listening, to keep her alive a little longer, he tore himself away, checked that he had his sword, and left her home, forcing himself to remain focused. Once he was out in the street, he extracted the Rheaird from the wing pack and climbed aboard, then flew off to the south, toward Latheon Gorge.

Getting there was easy, but it still took far too long with his mental clock constantly ticking away; every second was torture, wondering if that was the moment she had succumbed, thus rendering his efforts futile. Every time it became too powerful, though, he viciously pushed it aside, refusing to think along those lines...refusing to think of what would happen if he couldn't find this plant or make the antidote in time. Depressing himself was the worst thing he could do right now, because depressed people often made careless mistakes because they were distracted by their emotions, thus dooming them to failure without outside assistance, which was something he currently didn't have.

After all, while Michi might be safe in Sybak and knew the Mizuhoan language, picking him up and explaining what was happening would still mean wasting precious time. Besides, for all he knew, Michi would panic upon learning about his village, and trying to calm him down would waste even more time. And while there were probably ninja scouts elsewhere, spying and gathering information, he didn't know where they were and would never be able to find them in time, either. Waiting for one to return wasn't feasible, either. No, tackling this himself really was his best option. And in order to do that, he had to focus on the task at hand rather than worrying about all the disturbing possibilities.

To that end, as difficult as it was, Zelos kept his mind carefully blank until he reached his destination. Once at the gorge, he landed the Rheaird as close to the caves as he could - which, frustratingly, had to be at the base of the mountain because the top was too rugged for a safe landing. Leaving the Rheaird there, he closed his eyes and summoned his wings - and for only the second time ever, the first being when he'd used them to save Sheena in the Tower of Salvation, he was actually glad he had them, so he could fly up to the cave rather than fighting his way through the gorge and manipulating all the weird blowing plants. He quickly flew upward, struggling to get his bearings and identify the correct cave. It was somewhere near the top, near the Storyteller's house...

Spotting it, Zelos flew toward it and landed on the ledge, then headed inside and... "Oh, come on!" he groaned. "You have got to be kidding me!" Oh, yeah, this was where they'd fought the plantix - because at the moment, five baby plantixes and two adult plantixes, probably the mom and pop, were running around the cave as if they owned the place. Which, technically, they did, but at the moment they were standing between him and the antidote he needed to save the love of his life. Right now ownership of a cave meant nothing to him.

His hand ventured down to his sword, but he quickly released the hilt. One person alone against five baby monsters and two overprotective parent monsters, and with no armor or even a shield because he hadn't gone to Mizuho expecting a fight? Even he wasn't cocky enough to try it; that last battle against a plantix had been bad enough, and that had been with his friends' help! Instead, he eyed his opposition and then the layout of the cave. Raine, Genis, and Sheena had been on the far side of it when they'd had that conversation, but he just couldn't see any way to sneak by the monsters. So how could he get there if he couldn't fight them off himself? And every second he spent contemplating the dilemma, another second was knocked off of the time Sheena had left...

"Okay, screw that. I don't have time to deal with you...plant things...right now. Sorry 'bout this, guys, but you're in my way."

Decision made, Zelos stood up straight, closed his eyes, and concentrated, hoping none of the monsters noticed him there, casting. He could only see one possibility for success: he had to get rid of all seven monsters at once or else any still alive after the first round would maul him while he was recovering. And there was only one way to be sure that happened: go overboard with it, even if it sapped him of his strength. He'd hit 'overlimit' the instant he'd found Sheena in Igaguri's home, so going 'overboard' should be no problem. He'd originally begun casting the spell for Judgment, but after a moment he decided to take it a step farther. He'd never done this before, but hey, what better time to try it out?

"Divine Judgment!"

A circle of white light formed on the floor of the cave and then erupted upward, while lightning simultaneously crashed downward, accompanied by, of all things, a few angel feathers. It lasted a few seconds, and then it was over, leaving the cave empty except for him and seven mutant plant corpses. He sagged against the wall, weak and panting, but he couldn't help smirking at his handiwork. "Heh. Beautiful." It took him a moment to regain his breath and stand firmly on his legs again, but once he could, he ventured further into the cave, carefully picking his way past the steaming, charred plant remains. "Overkill? Definitely. But you guys gotta admit, that was pretty damn cool, right? At least I know you won't be bothering me anymore. I guess being an angel really does have its perks." And then he was past the corpses and was heading toward the back corner where he remembered seeing Sheena looking at the plant he prayed was the one he needed.

Spotting a patch of greenery, barely caressed by outside light, Zelos headed toward it and knelt beside it. He pulled out the medicine book and flipped to the page with the picture of the tsuchite...and a moment later he waved his fist in victory as his comparison proved the two a match. "Yes!" he cheered, then he grabbed his dagger and began cutting off clumps of the plant. "I never thought I'd say this, but I owe that know-it-all brat for pointing out what this is." Once he'd cut off as much as he dared, leaving a bit behind for fear cutting it all would prevent it from growing back, he stuffed it in the empty tsuchite jar, put everything in his bag, and then hurried back to the cave entrance, his heart pounding with hope, excitement, and fear. He then jumped off the ledge, pulled out his wings to slow his descent, and landed by the Rheaird. Half a minute later he was soaring back to Mizuho.

When he arrived, Zelos wasn't sure if he should be relieved or disappointed to find nothing had change in his absence; it really would have been nice to find people walking around again. On the other hand, he was glad it wasn't in worse condition, like everyone vanished or mauled by wolves. He jumped off the Rheaird and headed toward Uki's house, opting against checking on Sheena yet; after all, if it turned out she'd died while he'd been gone, then it would just prevent him from helping the other villagers, whereas if he didn't know, then it would keep him going in hopes he could still save her - and, with her, her people.

As he was passing the bonfire, though, his footsteps slowed. If he was going to make this antidote, then he had to do this outside - not because he hoped someone would spot the smoke and help, but because he should be keeping an eye on the village. If someone had found Mizuho and poisoned it, then that meant they had an extremely dangerous enemy roaming around. What if that enemy came back to check on his or her handiwork? Or what if some monster wandered into the unguarded village in search of an easy meal? He was lucky nothing had happened while he'd been gone, but he shouldn't push his luck, either - and that meant he should make this antidote outside, not in a house. To that end, Zelos set his bag down by the fireplace, grabbed some logs from a nearby pile, tossed them into the pit, and set them ablaze with a quick fireball. He then ran back to Uki's house and scanned the shelves again, without success, for that missing rochaku. He'd just have to give this his best shot without it and pray it was good enough.

Once positive it really wasn't there, he began grabbing the jars he'd set aside earlier, along with a giant kettle, and carried them outside. It took him a few trips to transport everything, but eventually he was ready. Thankfully, it was still afternoon so he had plenty of light. Pulling out the medicine book and the dictionary, he did his best to interpret the amounts and the directions for making the antidote, making him glad he'd studied Mizuho's numbering system first when he'd begun learning the language. The directions, however, were considerably harder, and as a result it took awhile to look up all the words and terms and then jot down his findings on a blank sheet of paper before he was certain he'd gotten the gist of it. Chances were he wasn't 100% accurate with his translations, but...tough. Without having someone fluent in the language there to correct him, he had no way of knowing if he was doing this right, so he could only do his best with what he knew. Thankful he was good at math, he multiplied everything out to make a quadruple batch, which he hoped would be enough, and then began measuring out the ingredients...but even before reaching the second ingredient, he cursed softly. Crap, he'd forgotten the water to boil this stuff. He ran back to Uki's home, grabbed a giant bucket he'd noticed earlier, and headed to the well in the far corner of town.

...The water.

His footsteps abruptly froze, his eyes widening. The water! That was the answer, the only thing all of these people had in common: they all drank water from Mizuho's well. If this poison had been airborne, he should've already been affected (unless, of course, his angel physiology was protecting him), but it seemed more likely that someone would poison the water because that was sure to be ingested by everyone and was guaranteed to go through their bodies quickly. That meant, if he was right, he couldn't use well water to make this antidote since there was no guarantee boiling it would remove the poison. And unfortunately, he probably shouldn't take any chances with the water from the stream, either, because if this poisoning was intentional, then there was no way of knowing if the culprit had poisoned all of the village's water. No, Zelos realized, he needed to use different water. There was a fork in the stream a short distance to the south, water from the mountains that met with this stream and continued away from the village and, therefore, should be clean. To be safe, he had to use that water for this, not Mizuho's.

...And crap, going that far to get water would waste even more precious time. But what choice did he have? He couldn't take the chance that in trying to create an antidote, he instead created a more powerful poison. Sure, he could be wrong, but he could also be right. Oh, the hell with it. The longer he spent debating this, the more likely it would be that these people would die...that Sheena would die. He would get water he knew he could trust. Deciding to make this as quick as he could, he pulled out his wings again, flew over the forest to the fork in the river, landed, filled the bucket, and flew back, frowning as he realized he'd lost another five minutes. And oh, how he hoped he'd gotten enough, because right now ferrying water here wasn't a productive use of his time.

Water in hand, Zelos got down to work. He double-checked his translation of the directions and recalculated the amounts needed, just to be sure, and finally started pulling out and combining ingredients. Ten full tsuchite plants came first, and then a sprig of tsurenu and five crushed leaves of heshiban, followed by seven peelings of pesukona root. If he was reading this right, those four needed to boil for five minutes before adding the yorusa, reshimaku, and rochaku...if only he had rochaku to add. And naturally, now he had to wait for this water to boil, which would take far too long to happen, especially considering the thickness of this kettle and the amount of water he was boiling. With everything combined, he stirred it briefly with a long wooden spoon, then placed the kettle on the fire and sat back to wait.

...Which really was going to take forever, he soon discovered. While he'd always been a patient man, waiting for water to boil was his least favorite part of cooking, and now, knowing how much was hinging on this, it was torture. He was tempted a few times to go check on Sheena and the villagers while he was waiting, just to make sure someone here was still alive for him to give this antidote to, but he always pushed the thought aside, refusing to get distracted and, as a result, risk shutting down completely if he didn't like what he found. Sure, that might still happen, but until he knew for certain, he still had hope. And one lesson he'd learned from his friends was that there was nothing in this world more powerful than hope.

The problem was, now that he had nothing to do, his brain had no distractions, and so all the fears he'd forced himself to ignore earlier were sneaking up on him again. Sheena could be dead right now. She could be dead. That would be...it would be...Martel, he couldn't even find the words to describe how horrible, how devastating it would be. Hell, he couldn't even envision a life without her in it anymore. The one woman who had ever made any effort to find him, who didn't give a damn about his money or power or title, who he hadn't just madly fallen in love with but who sincerely loved him in return...how could he live without her anymore? His heart wouldn't survive a day; it would die along with her. Everything would be empty and depressing and...meaningless.

And seriously, how ironic was it that this happened today? He'd just gotten something he'd always wanted only to turn around and lose the best part of his life? Heck, he could almost understand how Mithos must have felt after Martel was killed, spending the rest of his life trying to reclaim everything he'd lost. Losing someone so important to him in such a sudden, tragic, pointless way and then having nothing to fill the hole left behind? Pain like that could make anyone go insane. While Zelos didn't want to consider what that kind of pain would do to him until he had no other choice, he also couldn't deny that the path Mithos had walked would be appealing. At least having a driving need, a goal, would fill part of that hole - not nearly enough, but some of it. But that thought, that he could one day become like Mithos, obsessively seeking out those responsible and trying to revive Sheena, regardless of who he hurt in the process, was distressing, and he quickly pushed it aside. No, all he could do now was pray it didn't come to that, because falling into that kind of disgraceful selfishness would mean sacrificing every shred of self-respect he'd acquired this past year thanks to Sheena's patient help, love, and encouragement.

What was more, though, was that he was getting a frustrating, depressing sense of déjà vu. Here he was, just starting to like Mizuho and feel accepted by it, and then bam, this happened. In a twisted way, it figured; he should've expected it would happen eventually. Maybe he really was cursed; it seemed like every person he cared about and whose life touched his always suffered, and usually because of him. His mother, his sister, Shirley, Sheena... But, he quickly told himself, cutting off that thought before self-loathing could overwhelm him, you don't know for certain that this happened because of you. In fact, it could have nothing to do with you. And if that was the case, then he couldn't let himself think like that. He would figure out who was to blame and punish them later - assuming someone was to blame and this wasn't just an accident - but blaming himself would only result in a mental and emotional shutdown, and he simply couldn't afford that yet.

No, it really was possible that Mizuho had made enemies during past missions and someone had finally taken revenge on them - and if that was the case, then if he hadn't been here, no one would currently be working to save them. And even if it was his fault, that someone had attacked this place to punish him, then all he could do was what he was currently doing, and once he'd saved them, Martel willing, then he would leave this place - and Sheena - alone to prevent any further tragedies. And he would eventually find those responsible and make them pay. Heck, the rest of the gang would undoubtedly want a piece of the action, too, so chances were they'd help him catch the bastard who-

"You!"

Zelos jumped as the sudden voice jolted him from his thoughts, and he quickly rose to his feet and whirled around, his hand on the hilt of his sword and every nerve on the alert. Damn, he'd been so lost in thought that he hadn't been paying attention to the village. And then, in an instant, his heart leapt at who he saw. "Orochi! Oh, thank Martel! I have never been so happy to see you in my life." But right now he needed something; questions about how Orochi was conscious could wait. "Hey, I need rochaku, ASAP. Do you know what it is and if you guys have any..." Without warning, Orochi charged at him, grabbed his arms, and pushed him backward toward the fire. "Whoa! Hey, what the hell are you doing?"

"What have you done here, Chosen?" Orochi demanded, pushing him further backwards. "I will kill you for this!"

Zelos's eyes widened at the blistering rage in Orochi's eyes - but just like that, he got it, how this must look from Orochi's perspective. Right now Zelos was the only healthy person in a village full of dead and dying people. Since Orochi was also healthy, then it stood to reason he'd been away from the village when this happened and had just returned. The hows and whys didn't matter right now, though; no, the only thing that currently mattered was stopping Orochi from shoving him in a kettle of boiling water so he could save these people...so he could save Sheena.

"Whoa, hey!" Zelos countered, lifting his hands. "Take it easy. I didn't do this, Orochi. Mizuho was like this when I got here two hours ago. I swear."

It quickly became obvious, though, that rage, terror, and desperation had overwhelmed the ninja. "And you expect me to believe that? This has been your plan all along, hasn't it? All this time you wanted to infiltrate Mizuho, win my people's trust, steal our secrets, and then kill us all!"

"What the...?" Zelos muttered, gaping, but then he shook his head. "Why the hell would I do that? For the record, no. This is not my doing."

Orochi grabbed his arms again, his eyes wild. "I do not believe you. Prove it!"

"Prove it?" Zelos said. "I don't have proof! All you have is my word!"

"That is not good enough." Orochi shoved him further backwards, to the point where Zelos could feel the heat of the kettle on the back of his legs. "Now you will die!"

Zelos growled lowly, his own anger and frustration building. Okay, enough. He didn't have time for this. The water had finally started boiling, and that meant he only had a few minutes before he had to add the other ingredients. This was probably a horrible idea, but his emotions were uncontrollable right now; nearly losing his girlfriend on a day that had started out so perfectly - and then being interrupted while trying to save her - was a surefire way to piss him off, especially when the interruption was accusing him of causing it!

"Y'know what?" he said, shoving Orochi backwards so he could step away from the fire. "How 'bout you prove you didn't do this, Orochi? You're the only villager here not affected; how do I know you aren't plotting to wipe out this village for some nefarious reason of your own, huh? So tell me, where have you been while your people have been dying?"

Orochi pushed him backwards again. "How dare you imply I would do such a thing!"

Zelos folded his arms to his chest and gave Orochi a pointed glare. He refused - refused - to let this man intimidate him when he'd done nothing wrong. "I could say the same. How dare you imply that I would hurt your people! Contrary to what you apparently believe, I'm really not out to hurt anyone here. And consider this: if I really wanted to kill your people - Sheena included, mind you - why would I be trying to make an antidote for the poison, huh?"

"Sheena...? What have you done to Sheena?" Orochi demanded, his nostrils flaring like a deranged stallion escaped from Niflheim.

Damn it, he was completely irrational. It made sense, seeing as he'd just returned to find his village dying and only one man, one he'd never liked or trusted, alive and conscious, but still...how was Zelos supposed to get through to someone who refused to listen? He should've known better than to bring up Sheena, too, but the damage had been done.

"I did nothing to her," Zelos insisted. "Whoever poisoned your people did - and believe me, when I get my hands on them, they're gonna pay for it, assuming you don't get to them first. And yes, Sheena is sick, too. Why do you think I'm working so hard trying to save everyone, huh? Because struggling to understand your language and making something I have no knowledge of with my girlfriend's lifehanging in the balance is my idea of a great time?" Before Orochi could retort, Zelos took a step closer to him. This, too, was probably a horrible idea, but he needed to cut through all this crap, convince Orochi to leave him alone, and get back to work before he lost his slim window of opportunity to make this antidote and had to start over. "Look, if you're gonna insist on going into a jealous rage over the fact that Sheena's dating me, not you, and want to fight me, then fine. I'll fight you, if that's what it takes to get you off my back. If she survives, I guarantee Sheena will be pissed about it, but I'll do it."

The rage that flared in Orochi's eyes was something that, had he not been so desperate to save the love of his life, probably would've left him cowering in his boots. Instead, though, he went on before Orochi could retort. "But whatever you're going to do to me, wait until I'm done making this antidote. I have been busting my ass off for nearly two hours now trying to save your people, and I will not let you stop me when it's almost finished, not over something as petty and irrelevant as a love triangle. So it's your choice. Are you gonna insist I'm a worthless insect you need to crush and try to get rid of me for good, in which case I'll have to knock you out and tie you up until I'm finished? Or are you gonna agree to put that crap behind us, call a temporary truce, and help me out here? Because believe me, Orochi, I could really use your help right now." For a moment, Orochi didn't answer, but his hesitation gave Zelos hope that maybe he was reexamining his priorities. And he'd be damned if he didn't press further. His face and voice softened. "We're on the same side here, Orochi. We both want the same thing: to protect Sheena, save your people, and make sure whoever did this pays for it. We have common goals. Don't lose sight of that." When Orochi still didn't respond, just continued glaring at him, Zelos took a step closer to him. At this point, he wasn't above begging. "Please, Orochi. Help me."

Still Orochi continued watching him, fuming silently - oh please, Orochi, Zelos silently pleaded, don't make me go all angel on you to get you out of my way, because I really do need your help - but finally he pursed his lips and gave Zelos a curt nod. "Very well."

Zelos's breath whooshed out of him. Finally! Some help! "Thank you. Okay, first things first, I need rochaku. Do you have any?"

Orochi's brows furrowed, his face softening a tad. "Rochaku? Why do you need that?"

Pointless question; don't have time to answer it seeing as the antidote has already been boiling too long, Zelos thought, waving that off. "Why isn't important right now. What's important is that I need it, right now. Does Mizuho have any?"

The look on Orochi's face made it obvious he thought Zelos was crazy, but Zelos really didn't care what Orochi thought of him so long as he answered the question. "Rochaku is an antiquated name for geshuna. How did you even hear of...?"

Zelos shook his head to cut him off, just relieved to hear that Orochi recognized it. "I'll explain later. Do you have any?"

Orochi considered that a moment. "We should have a supply in-"

His heart leapt. They have the final ingredient! "Get it. Now." For a few seconds, Orochi just continued staring at him, and Zelos growled. Agh, hadn't he just said he'd explain later? "It's the last ingredient I need for this antidote, and I need it about two minutes ago. Go get it while I add the rest of the ingredients."

Orochi frowned but didn't move. "Chosen, I still do not understand..."

Zelos sighed, his exasperation building. This is what you get for trying to work with a guy who hates you and needs to be in control all the time. "Orochi, please. I know I'm asking the impossible here, but trust me. I'll explain later. Just go get that plant before it's too late and I have to start this antidote over from scratch!"

Orochi continued watching him a moment warily, but then he, too, sighed. "Very well."

And finally, finally, he began heading toward Uki's home - albeit far too slowly for Zelos's exhausted patience. "And hurry!" he shouted after him, eliciting another glare from the ninja. At least Orochi did start jogging.

Zelos double-checked his notes, then started tossing the final ingredients into the mixture, his heart racing and his hand, he noted with disgust, trembling a little. He was just adding the last ingredient when Orochi rejoined him, carrying a jar. Zelos threw in the required amount of rochaku/geshuna, then breathed a sigh of relief and, shaky, sat down. Now the antidote just needed to boil a few more minutes and it should be ready - with all of the required ingredients, significantly improving its odds of working.

For a moment he sat in silence, struggling to reclaim his emotions, but finally, once he was certain he could speak again without his voice wavering, he glanced up at Orochi, who was standing nearby, looking between him and the kettle. "Thank you," Zelos said. "I was going to try it without the rochaku, but I'm glad it's in there."

Orochi nodded curtly, then sat down, watching him carefully. "Now, you owe me an explanation."

"Of course. I got here two hours ago and found everything exactly like it is now." He swallowed hard as he realized that while he dreaded hearing Orochi's answer, he needed to ask the question so they were on the same page, seeing as they were now in this together. Zelos gave him an imploring look. "Please tell me you found someone here still alive, because I haven't checked on anyone in over an hour."

To his relief, Orochi nodded. "Yes. While a few were already dead, most of the villagers I saw are still alive."

"Good...I'm glad to hear that." Thank Martel, all his work here might still prove to be good for something. He just didn't want to know who was and wasn't dead yet. "In any case, I found this on Sheena," he handed Orochi Sheena's brief but vital note, "and interpreted it the best I could. If I got it wrong...well, let's just hope I didn't."

Orochi took the note from him and read it; at least he'd finally calmed down, although his body was still tense. Once finished, Orochi picked up the book and examined the open page on the aribako antidote. "This is what you are making?"

"Yeah."

Orochi skimmed the page, then nodded. "It appears you interpreted this note as I would have. However, Sheena was right; we ran out of tsuchite long ago. I'm not sure what 'corris' refers to, but I do know we have no tsuchite. If you chose to make the antidote without it, it will be useless. Tsuchite is its primary agent."

...And now Zelos was really glad he'd paid attention to Raine, Genis, and Sheena's little exchange. He was really glad he'd made that detour to Latheon Gorge, too. "Don't worry, it's in there."

"Where did you find it?" Orochi asked, his eyes narrowing as he looked up at him again.

"One of the caves in Latheon Gorge. I remembered Sheena mentioning it during our journey, so I went back there and got some."

Orochi's eyes narrowed further. "You traveled to Latheon Gorge during the two hours since you arrived here? That is impossible."

He'll never believe me, but lying won't help, either. "Actually, no, it's not. I borrowed Sheena's Rheaird to get there."

Yep, the disbelieving look Orochi was giving him made it obvious he still didn't buy it. "I have been to Latheon Gorge, Chosen. You cannot land a Rheaird directly at the caves, and the surrounding area is filled with monsters and would take considerable time to traverse, especially for one man on his own."

Zelos sighed and closed his eyes. Do we really have to discuss this? "Well, I just did, okay?"

When his eyes opened, Orochi was scowling again. "No, Chosen, it is not 'okay.' Doing something like that is not only foolish, but impossible."

Agh, why can't he just accept the truth? He frowned and lifted his hands defensively. "Do the particulars really matter?"

"Yes, they do! You ask me to trust you, yet you refuse to be truthful with me?"

...Oh. Orochi had a point. But damn, Zelos hated talking about this. Discussing it with Sheena was hard enough, but then to discuss it with someone who hated him? Orochi was definitely not on his extremely short list of people he'd ever willingly tell this. "Okay, fine! I flew up the mountainside to the caves."

Orochi huffed, rolled his eyes, and made to stand. "And again you lie. I am going to check on Sheena and Chief Igaguri."

Gee, what a surprise: he doesn't believe me. And Zelos already knew Orochi wouldn't like this, either. "No, I'm not lying, and yes, I really did fly to the caves."

"Oh, so now you have wings?" Orochi countered. "The lies just keep coming with you, becoming increasingly absurd the more you tell. I cannot believe Sheena ever saw anything in a pathological liar like you, nor can I believe she let herself fall for such blatant stupidity."

Zelos sighed again, then grinned wryly. Oh, Orochi, if you only knew. Unfortunately, it was starting to look like he wouldn't have a choice about telling Orochi the rest of the story. One thing he needed right now was Orochi's trust, because even if this antidote worked and they administered it in time to save these people, they still had a lotof work to do here - together. "Actually, yeah, I do. Y'know, like the angels of Cruxis have?"

Orochi's eyes flared. "You are an angel of Cruxis?"

Should've known you'd jump to that conclusion. "Yes, I'm an angel, but no, not of Cruxis," Zelos clarified. "Well, I was for awhile, I suppose, but I'm not anymore...it's a long story, one that currently isn't important." Without warning, Orochi jumped to his feet, pulled out his dagger, and assumed an attack stance, his face taut. In response, though, Zelos just groaned and rolled his eyes. "Oh, calm down and put that thing away. I'm only an angel because I was the Chosen and was forced to equip this thing." He pointed at his Cruxis crystal. "I'm exactly like Colette, yet you never had any problems with her. Believe me, Orochi, I'm not any happier about the 'angel' thing than you are, and if I could've gotten by without it, I would've happily done so." He abruptly pointed at Orochi, anticipating his next words. "And no, I'm not showing you my wings to prove it."

Orochi continued watching him carefully, but finally he relaxed and sat down again, still eyeing Zelos warily. "Does Sheena know this about you?"

"Yes, she does."

"And she accepts that?" Orochi countered, gaping at him.

"Yes, she does," Zelos repeated, giving Orochi a piercing look, hoping Orochi would catch his warning not to push. "Far more than I do, in fact. It definitely wasn't my choice to undergo the transformation, and I wish to Martel that I hadn't, but even I have to admit that certain perks that came with it can be handy at times. Like saving hours' worth of time flying up the mountain rather than fighting every monster in the gorge."

Orochi's eyes narrowed again. "So you really did retrieve the tsuchite from there."

Oh, good. Finally, Orochi believed him about something! Zelos held up the tsuchite jar. "And you have some extra."

Orochi took the jar, held it up, and examined its contents. "Yes, this is definitely tsuchite."

"Yeah, I know," Zelos said. "It has a distinct leaf that matched the picture in that book. And the only other ingredient I was missing was the rochaku, which you just took care of. I figured there had to be something special with it since Uki had jars for everything else."

"My people changed its name many years ago because it was often confused with rochikaku, which is a different plant. This book, however, was written generations ago, long before the name changed. There is no way you could have known that." Orochi looked back up at Zelos. "However, it is a good thing you did not attempt to make the antidote without it for rochaku is necessary to counter the toxic qualities of the reshimaku mushroom."

...Wait, what? Zelos's eyebrows flew upward. "Toxic?"

Orochi bowed his head. "It is possible the antidote would have worked without it, but it likely would have further sickened everyone in the process. Alone and under normal conditions, reshimaku does not kill, but in their present condition, it probably would have."

Zelos closed his eyes and let out a soft laugh. "Wow. I knew every ingredient had to be important, but I didn't realize some of them were dangerous on their own. Now I'm really glad you showed up when you did." Another thought struck him, and he motioned at the book lying between them. "And while I'm thinking of it, could you read the directions to me in a language I actually understand?" Orochi's eyes narrowed, but he thankfully did as requested anyway, and one by one Zelos mentally checked off each point. Once he'd finished, Zelos sighed, relieved. Apparently even the little studying he'd done had been enough for him to do this. "Good. I got the rest right."

"How is it you knew our language well enough to even read this?" Orochi asked.

...Heh. Orochi wouldn't like this. "Well, I kinda didn't. Not well, anyway." He paused, hoping that would suffice, but the expectant look in Orochi's eyes made it obvious it didn't. With a reluctant sigh, Zelos went on, hoping Orochi wouldn't strangle him for this. "Sheena gave me a kid's book on your language a few months ago, and I've been studying it on and off ever since. I haven't gotten far, but I at least got far enough to manage this."

As expected, Orochi frowned and looked away. "She should not have done that. It is not something an outsider like you should know."

Zelos's mental alarm clock - something he'd honed years ago while forcing himself to stay away from Sheena a set amount of time after pissing her off to let her cool down before he bugged her again - rang, and he rose to his feet and pulled the kettle off the fire, his nose wrinkling at the stench. "Yeah, well, she did. And I, for one, am really glad she did."

"I suppose if this works, I must be as well," Orochi murmured as he likewise stood. He then cleared his throat and motioned at the kettle. "The antidote must cool before we can administer it. I will get Uki's cooling pans to speed the process."

"Right." Zelos hadn't known such a thing existed, but he wouldn't knock it if it meant getting this antidote into Sheena faster. At least Orochi was finally cooperating; maybe somewhere inside the angry, resentful, jealous ninja, the calm, cooperative, friendly man Zelos had known before he'd started dating Sheena still existed. How long their truce would last, Zelos didn't know, but he would take it while he could get it, because even one more person working here to save these people drastically increased their likelihood for success.

A minute later Orochi returned carrying several wide, low-rimmed stone pans, and together they worked to pour the antidote into them. "There," Orochi said once they'd finished. "That will speed the cooling process significantly."

"Good. We need every second we can get." Oh, wait. Just like that, another problem hit him - something he hadn't even considered before. At least now he had someone to collaborate with. "So how are we gonna actually, y'know, get this stuff into these people? I can't help thinking we'd be asking for trouble trying to force an unconscious person to swallow something. That just sounds like a recipe for choking them."

"You are correct," Orochi said. "Because they are unconscious, we must administer it by syringe. I will retrieve two of those and some cleaning solution for the needle from Uki's house while we let this cool."

Zelos nodded and watched Orochi head back toward the healer's home. On the bright side, while these people were backwater country folk, at least they knew proper hygiene and had adopted a level of medical knowledge and equipment from the outside world. They weren't primitives or savages, as some ignorant people seemed to maintain they were; they just did things their own way. If they had survived this long on their own, then it worked for them - and Zelos admired them for it. And again, he found himself thanking whichever divine being had sent Orochi here like this because without him, Zelos would be fumbling around trying to take care of all these other details - and he undoubtedly would've just poisoned everyone further with unneutralized reshimaku mushroom. That was exactly why he held so tightly to his 'Whatever will be, will be' mantra: because fate oftentimes handed him those things he needed most when he least expected them, like Orochi appearing here in the nick of time to get this antidote made correctly. What was going to happen was going to happen regardless of how much he worried about it; all he could do was the best he could with those things he could control.

And while on the subject of what a godsend Orochi is... "So where were you before this?" he asked as Orochi returned with a basket containing two syringes, cleaning solution for the needles, and several smaller containers for the antidote. "How long were you away from the village? I'm trying to place when this poisoning happened."

"Yesterday afternoon I accompanied Sadako and Hamako to Sybak. While they remained behind to visit with Michi for several more days, I chose to return now." Orochi looked around the village, his voice lowering. "I had a bad feeling I could not explain."

Ah. So basically it was pure chance that Orochi was here right now. Yep, whatever will be, will be. "Yeah, you can't argue with intuition," Zelos murmured before clearing his throat. "So it must've happened after that, because you never would've left if you'd known something was wrong. Probably last night if my hunch is correct that whoever did this poisoned your water. If it had been any other time, someone would've seen him doing it."

Orochi's eyes narrowed again. "The water...yes, that is a likely explanation. If they drank it when they awoke this morning and it had a delayed effect on them, they would not have known they were poisoned until too late. If I remember correctly, kurinoku poison does that; it takes hours for the first symptoms to appear, but once they do, it progresses with alarming speed. They would have barely had time to react before they fell unconscious."

A chill ran down Zelos's spine. Whoever had done this - because until proven otherwise, he was choosing to believe someone was responsible for this so he'd keep his guard up at all times - had obviously chosen to poison something they would all ingest before anyone noticed anything was wrong. Crafty bastard. "So how long after falling unconscious does it take that poison to kill?" he asked. "I'm wondering why some people were dead before I even got here while others are still alive now, over two hours later."

"On the whole, those I found who were dead had not vomited, or they had other physical conditions that would make them more susceptible to the poison," Orochi replied. "Those who were still alive had vomited and were healthy beforehand."

That made sense. "Right, because throwing up would've gotten some of the poison out of their systems, so that would be less poison killing them." He breathed a tentative sigh of relief as he remembered the scene he'd found in Igaguri's genkan. It was no guarantee yet, but at least it was continued hope. "Sheena threw up, so it's possible she's still alive."

Orochi nodded, eyeing him carefully. "From what I saw, many had. That is part of our defensive training; if we suspect we were exposed to an oral poison, we induce vomiting to remove what we can of it from our bodies. In most cases, it appears they only realized that fact mere seconds before succumbing. I suspect those who died drank the water first - if, indeed, the water is responsible - and were, therefore, the first afflicted. They likely did not even realize what was happening until it was too late to take action. The others would have been given advance warning and could have watched for the symptoms and responded in time. Likewise, they obviously had enough time to begin seeking a cure. Fortunately, with kurinoku poison, unconsciousness strikes quickly, but actual death takes hours."

"But still, it's already been hours, and we don't know how much longer your people can hold out." He was getting impatient; the antidote was done now, which meant he needed to get it into these people. But injecting scalding hot antidote directly into them wasn't a good idea, either, so...aha! He had an idea. "Okay, that's enough waiting."

Zelos closed his eyes and concentrated, but Orochi quickly interrupted, asking, "What are you doing, Chosen?"

His eyes popped open and he motioned at Orochi. "You might want to back up." Once Orochi had done so, still confused, Zelos closed his eyes again and resumed casting. "Wind blade," he murmured a minute later, then he opened his eyes in time to feel the wind rushing around them, milder than usual so it wouldn't overturn the pans. Seeing Orochi eyeing him again, Zelos explained, "That's the best I can do to speed up the cooling process. I've never wished I knew an ice spell before, but man, do I wish I did now."

"I understand," Orochi said, his face relaxing. He then knelt beside the nearest pan and dipped a finger into the antidote. "Perhaps you should do it again."

"Right." He recited the spell and cast it again, then waited for Orochi to test the temperature before repeating the process again, and then again. After five times, he said, "At least tell me it's doing something," when Orochi motioned for him to do it again.

"Yes, it is. Each time it is a little cooler than the previous time. I believe one more time should put it at an acceptable temperature. It can still be warm, but..."

"...Just not too warm. Yeah, I got it." And again, Zelos cast the spell, and that time Orochi nodded and rose to his feet. The two then poured the liquid into the smaller distribution containers, leaving what didn't fit behind for later. "I think we're ready, huh?"

Orochi nodded. "This is the best we can do, given our time constraints."

Zelos returned Orochi's curt nod. "All right, now we're in business! So...Sheena first." Instead of jumping at the suggestion, though, Orochi frowned again, and Zelos sighed. "What? Why are you looking at me like that? Don't tell me you, the man constantly threatening to kill me if I hurt her, are objecting to that choice!"

"Of course I am!" Orochi countered. "I do not know that this antidote was prepared correctly. If it was not, then it will likely kill her - and quickly."

Yeah, and...? "So, what, you're gonna give it to everyone else and then wait and see if it works - or at least doesn't kill anyone - before giving it to her?"

"Yes. It is only prudent."

Zelos had to bite back a growl. "Sorry, but no can do, not unless you can guarantee that the results of this, be they good or bad, will be instantaneous. Besides, we probably won't have time to make another batch if I did make it wrong. She will die if we wait too long; that's a fact. The dead bodies here prove that."

Orochi's face hardened. "I will not take such chances with her life, Chosen! Perhaps you are willing to do so, but I am not."

What the hell? "Orochi, listen to yourself! You're taking chances with her life by not giving her the antidote right away! No, I don't want to risk her life, either, but given the circumstances, it's better than the alternative, which is certain death!"

"You will not touch her, Chosen," Orochi insisted, stepping into Zelos's way as he started walking toward Sheena's house. "Not until we are sure this works. And even if it does, if you truly knew Sheena, you would know she would not want us to place her life above the lives of the other villagers by singling her out to receive it first."

Zelos groaned, his head sinking downward, but then he looked up again, glaring pointedly at Orochi. "Of course I know that. But Sheena isn't making this choice; I am. And maybe I'm just that selfish, but I'm not willing to risk losing her because, well, the thought of living the rest of my life without her is the least appealing future I can come up with. I did this first and foremost to save her, and I refuse to lose any window of opportunity we might still have to do so. Besides, I suspect Chief Igaguri would agree that we give it to her first. Don't you?" Thankfully, while Orochi opened his mouth, he hesitated to reply, and Zelos pressed on, determined to get his point across. "And if she's going to be chief here, doesn't that make her and Chief Igaguri your village's two most important people - and, therefore, aren't those the two people we need to save first? She's certainly the most important person here to me, which is why I refuse to wait with this! Unless you have some aribako antidote you know was properly prepared stashed away somewhere that we can use instead?" And again, Orochi hesitated. "Didn't think so. And the longer we stand here arguing, the more likely it'll be that more people will die. Do you really want that on your conscience? Because I sure as hell don't."

Unsurprisingly, Orochi looked ready to blow another fuse - man, this guy's fuses are lit way too easily...or maybe any fuse connected to me is so short that it's lit before I even open my mouth - but after a moment, he nodded curtly. "Very well. But Sheena will not be happy about this."

"Duly noted," Zelos said, grabbing the antidote and a syringe from him and then heading toward Sheena's home, Orochi following him. "And trust me, if this works, she'll get over it. If she dies because of this...well, then I'm responsible for messing up, and I guarantee you I'll never forgive myself for it." His voice lowered as they reached Sheena's house and he pushed open the door. "Like I'd really need another reason to hate myself."

Orochi gave him a curious, albeit still distrustful, look as they entered and headed to her bedroom. And again, the instant he saw Sheena, the most beautiful, vivacious woman he'd ever met, lying there, completely lifeless, her skin tinted an ugly, sickening green-gray color, Zelos's heart caught in his throat and his footsteps slowed to a stop, a lump of dread tightening in his chest. Beside him, Orochi, too, froze, his breath catching. The sight truly was a blow to the gut.

And suddenly, fear paralyzed him. He couldn't do this; he couldn't find out the truth about what this poison had done to her since he'd last been here. If she was breathing, it was so shallow that he couldn't see it, and that...well, it didn't bode well. Zelos swallowed hard and breathed in deeply, trying to hold onto his hope, especially now that he held the potential solution in his hands. But if he was too late, if he'd messed up the recipe, if he'd interpreted her note wrong, if they'd identified the poison incorrectly...

Stop it, he instructed himself. You can't think like that until you know for sure. You had no choice but to leave her alone here while you worked on the antidote, and now...well, whatever will be, will be. Releasing a shaky breath, Zelos forced his feet to take another step forward, and then another, and then another, until he was standing above her. He took a deep breath, then knelt beside her, set the equipment on the floor, and forced his hand toward her neck. This was it, the moment of truth, whether his work had paid off or if it had all been for nothing. Just do it, he told himself as his hand wavered. You need to know, whatever the truth might be. At least if it turned out he was too late to save her, Orochi could take over where he wouldn't be able to, seeing as the devastation of watching his once-awesome day transformed into the worst hell imaginable would likely leave him institutionalized. Hell, this would be even worse than the day his mother died, and the thought of trying to live through something that awful again... Oh, please, Sheena, still be alive...please be alive...

Swallowing again, Zelos placed his fingers to Sheena's neck and closed his eyes, concentrating, searching for a pulse...and then there it was, the most beautiful thing he'd ever felt. She was alive. Sheena was alive. A laugh-sob burst out of him, and he lifted his hand to his face as emotion swept through him, leaving him with tears of relief pricking his eyes - tears he refused to let fall in front of his current audience.

It took him a moment, but he finally managed to compose himself enough to give Orochi, whose face was drawn and tense, a curt nod. "She's still alive."

Instantly, Orochi likewise released a shaky breath. "Good."

Zelos took another deep, controlling breath, trying to force his emotions aside and focus on the task at hand - because until this antidote was in her, anything could still happen. Hell, she could still die at any moment, even with them standing right there. Granted, they had no idea what the poison had done to her and if she was even capable of recovering anymore, but he was choosing to be optimistic. She was still alive, and Zelos hadmade it here in time to find her note and start the antidote, and Orochi had arrived in time, too, to make sure the antidote was made correctly. Fate seemed to be saying it wasn't her time to die yet. If it was, she would've been dead when he'd first gotten here or before they'd finished making this antidote. But she wasn't, and that was why he was choosing to believe she would be all right. He would hold tight to his faith in fate. Whatever will be, will be.

Now, to get that antidote into her. "Okay," he said, grabbing the needle and the antidote again and looking back up at Orochi. "So do those instructions indicate the most effective place on the body to inject this?"

Orochi shook his head. "Unfortunately, they do not. I suspect it is supposed to be taken orally, before the victim falls unconscious."

"...And we already decided orally isn't an option." Wonderful. But that would not deter him. "Okay, well, I'm gonna assume I can inject her anywhere, then. Maybe the stomach or hip area?"

"I cannot see why not."

Good, one less argument from Orochi. "Does it at least say how much to give them?"

Orochi opened the book and skimmed the directions again, then held up his syringe, examining it. "I would inject them with half a syringe of the antidote."

"Half a syringe. Got it." Zelos lifted his syringe, placed the needle in the container with the antidote, filled it to half, and then pushed the blankets off of Sheena and lifted her shirt until he located the cold skin beneath. He then stuck the needle into her side and, forcing his hand to remain steady, injected her. Once finished, he pulled out the needle, gave it to Orochi, grabbed the cloth Orochi handed him, and briefly pressed it to the wound to stop the bleeding. "Done." He quickly covered her cold body again and trailed his fingers along her cheek, tempted to kiss her forehead - an indulgence he dismissed knowing Orochi was standing nearby. For another moment he just observed her, realizing sadly that a miraculous, immediate recovery was hoping against hope, but finally he took a deep breath and looked up again at Orochi, who was watching him through dark, narrowed eyes. "So any idea how long before we know if this worked?"

"Unfortunately, no. The directions merely say that the recovery time depends on how long the victim was poisoned. I doubt we will see any change for at least several hours."

"Damn. I guess there's nothing else we can do right now, then." Zelos looked back at Sheena, eying her still form another moment. Would it work? Would she be awake when he next saw her? Even if it did work, would she make a full recovery or would she be permanently disabled? Or would she still die anyway? He quickly shook his head, though, refusing to think like that, then rose to his feet, took the syringe back from Orochi, cleaned it with the disinfectant, and headed toward the door. "Okay, let's do this."

Orochi arched an eyebrow as he followed. "What, you are not going to remain here with her? I thought you said you do not care about anyone but Sheena."

Zelos abruptly stopped. Tell me he did not just say that. "I said I was selfish, that Sheena was the most important person to me and that I didn't want to live without her," he said, turning back to Orochi. "I didn't say I was a heartless bastard who doesn't care whether anyone else here lives or dies. There's a big difference there. So are you gonna keep trying to bait me into fighting you or do you want my help saving your people? Because that was my plan - to save as many lives here as possible. If you'd rather I stayed here and let everyone die, though, well, say the word and I will. But when someone asks why I didn't help, I'm pointing at you and telling them you wouldn't let me because you wanted to play the hero and save everyone yourself, regardless of the fact that I'm perfectly willing to do whatever you need from me." Orochi's eyes flared again - yeah, big surprise, I pissed him off yet again - but when he didn't reply, Zelos nodded curtly, taking that as his answer. "That's what I thought." With a hard glare, Zelos continued walking to the door, with a still-silent Orochi following him. Once outside, Zelos stopped, observing the village. So, there were two of them, and...a whole lot of people to get this antidote into. That left one logical solution. "Let's split up so we can cover more ground. Where do you want to start?"

Orochi eyed him another moment, his lips still pursed, but then he sighed and motioned at Igaguri's house. "I will begin with Chief Igaguri. As you said, he is one of the two most important people in this village."

Zelos nodded. "Then I'll start with the people on the other side of the river."

"Very well."

They headed in opposite directions and began the long, arduous task of seeking out everyone, checking that they were alive, and then, if they were, injecting them with the antidote. Zelos was relieved to discover that most of the villagers were still alive - but, he also noted with dismay, one or two he'd known for certain had been alive earlier were now dead, some of whom had even thrown up. It served as a terrifying reminder that these people could still succumb at any moment.

So Zelos pressed onward, working as quickly as he could to administer the antidote to everyone. And finally, after about an hour, he met up with Orochi on the other side of the river. They compared the places they'd covered, making sure they hadn't missed anyone, and then finally concluded they were finished - although if someone had left Mizuho in search of help, then they could be anywhere and would be hard to find. No, right now they could only deal with the people they knew were here; the woods would have to wait until everyone was accounted for to see who, if anyone, was missing.

"I counted five dead on my side of the river," Zelos said as they returned to the bonfire and placed the remaining antidote and the syringes into a basket. "You?"

"Four," Orochi replied.

Zelos closed his eyes. Damn. Nine dead, and that number could still rise if the antidote didn't work. But dwelling on the fact that even if he'd saved Sheena - which still wasn't a given - he hadn't made it in time to save those nine people wouldn't get him anywhere right now, so he would focus on their next task instead.

Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes again. "Okay, so now what? I can't help thinking that sitting around here waiting for your people to recover is a poor use of our time." Orochi's dark eyes scanned the village, then lifted to the sky, then fell back to Zelos, his gaze measuring and hesitant. When Orochi still hadn't spoken a moment later, though, Zelos frowned, needing to do something. "Orochi, what? Whatever it is, say it. I'm helping you with it."

Orochi eyed him another moment before finally nodding. "We should move the villagers into their homes. It will be more comfortable for them to recover there than in the street."

Zelos nodded. "Okay. Besides, it'll be getting dark soon, and it's probably not a good idea to leave everyone outside overnight. Nights are still pretty cold, and I doubt you want to tempt any monsters in search of a snack into the village."

Orochi nodded. "On a related note, we should also move the bodies of the dead inside."

Zelos wrinkled his nose. Ugh. Talk about a macabre task. But Orochi was right - leaving them outside would turn Mizuho into a monster den. Besides, moving everyone would take long enough, and so wasting time whining about it would mean they'd have to do it in the dark, which would be even worse. As horrible and depressing as it is, it'll need to be done eventually, so let's just get it over with.

"Got it," he said with a nod. "When we're done, I'll get water from that stream to the south. When these people wake up - because I'm choosing to believe they will - they'll be thirsty. Besides, if the water really is poisoned, then we can't drink anything here, and we'll need some eventually, too." Well, Orochi would - thanks to his angel physiology, Zelos could probably forego water for several days, if necessary - but Orochi didn't need to know that.

"I suspect you are correct about the water being the cause," Orochi said. "I would search the well now to see if we could find the source, but darkness will fall soon, and moving everyone indoors is our current priority."

"Yeah. The rest can wait until morning." Zelos clapped his hands together once. Daylight was waning. "Okay, then let's get started. You'll have to lead the way, Orochi, because while I recognize most of your people, I couldn't tell you where they live."

"Very well. Let us start on this side of the river."

"Right." And with that, the two headed out to do what needed to be done.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 2: The Adversary

It took several hours to finish moving all of the villagers indoors, and by that point, darkness had fallen and Zelos was exhausted. Despite that, he pressed onward, making multiple trips to the 'safe' branch of the river to make sure they'd have enough water when - not 'if' - these people started waking. After that he'd forced himself - and Orochi - to eat something. He wasn't hungry, but he still ate; after all, even if he didn't need to eat, he needed Orochi to eat, and his gut told him Orochi never would unless he did, too. Since Orochi had made it clear he didn't feel comfortable cooking for anyone but himself (a fact that had amused Zelos greatly, since even if he knew his own cooking wasn't the best, he was at least confident enough in it to feed it to others), he'd whipped up a batch of seafood stew from what he'd found in Sheena's home. Chances were, unless something changed, he'd end up making soup for the villagers once they woke, too. The thought of having to cook for all these people didn't enthuse him, but he'd do it if it meant helping them recover.

On the bright side, they hadn't found any new casualties while moving everyone. On the down side, no one's condition had changed yet, either. Once they'd finished eating, he and Orochi had discussed what to do next, and Zelos had offered to take the night watch, with his only condition being that he stayed with Sheena the entire time to watch over her. Orochi had disapproved, claiming Zelos would inevitably fall asleep, until Zelos had reluctantly explained the 'reduced need for sleep' side effect of being an angel. Besides, while he was exhausted, Zelos knew he'd never be able to sleep while Sheena's fate was still uncertain - and especially not if some madman was out there, possibly planning to come back and finish the job. And really, it made sense for him to take the night watch since his hearing was so sharp; so long as he had a window cracked, he'd hear anything. Ultimately, Orochi had agreed and wandered off to Igaguri's home to watch over him. And to sleep, Zelos had quickly added, even though he fully expected Orochi wouldn't.

Once Orochi had left, Zelos had gotten the fire going in Sheena's house, cracked open a window, grabbed a mat, and settled onto the floor beside her, close enough to touch her and make sure she was still alive. Then the torturous waiting began, dragging on, and on, and on. Everything was still and silent - the village, her home, and her. It was too silent, actually, to the point of being unnerving, making him feel like he was trapped in a graveyard full of dead bodies. He ached for someone to wake and assure him his efforts had paid off; he ached for Sheena to wake and assure him she would be okay. With nothing further to do, Zelos could no longer keep his mind from wandering, from playing over all the possible scenarios, the good and the bad, and asking all the questions he'd so far been avoiding. What if these people didn't recover? What if the antidote didn't work and was only prolonging their deaths? What if they'd diagnosed the poison wrong and the antidote was ineffective? What if the bastard responsible for this waited until everyone recovered and then tried again? They had to catch this creep, make him pay, and guarantee it wouldn't happen again.

And, of course, there was the most disturbing question of all: what would he do if he lost this incredible woman and her beauty, strength, and love forever? The very thought of living the rest of his life without her...even now that she'd been given the antidote, the fear was still capable of paralyzing him. He hadn't even consciously realized it until he'd said it earlier, but the thought of life without her now was inconceivable. He didn't want to live without her. How could he when Sheena was his new Grand Master Plan? To not be able to talk to her, kiss her, touch her, hold her, make her smile, make her laugh, make her happy...no torture could be worse. Sure, before he'd experienced this happiness with her, he'd figured he could live happily ever after without it. But now...

Now, after everything they'd experienced this past year, after all the beautiful memories they'd created together, after he'd fallen so hopelessly in love with her, any life after her would be empty. He couldn't do it, knowing what he'd once had and lost. Even if he could one day pick up the pieces and move on, find another woman and enjoy the life he'd always thought he wanted, the truth was that he'd never be happy with it. No matter what happened, no matter what life he built for himself, he would always be comparing it to what he'd found with her. It would - it could - never live up to what he'd already had. And to think, he'd fallen that hopelessly for her even without sex entering the picture - and it astounded him to realize that maybe, just maybe, he'd fallen that hopelessly for her because sex hadn't entered the picture, thus complicating his reasons for being with her by forcing him to distinguish between how much he loved her and how much his body loved hers. And the more he considered that, the more he had to acknowledge that even if he had to spend the rest of his life never able to make love to her, to bury himself in her warmth and lose himself in her arms, so long as he was with her, he wouldn't even care anymore. Well, he would care, of course he'd care, but he would willingly put up with it if the tradeoff meant being with her and experiencing her goodness, beauty, and love in his life forever.

And the most shocking, amazing realization of all was that he truly meant that.

And finally, the answer to the question Zelos had been asking himself ever since Sheena had mentioned what was required of her before she could become chief, the answer he'd suspected he'd known for months but that only now became a conscious realization, hit him. He would do anything for her. Anything. Even that, what would be required of him to make their love permanent...to make sure he could spend forever by her side. It didn't matter to him anymore where that life happened or what would be expected of him; no matter what it entailed, so long as he was with her, and so long as she wanted him with her, he would accept it. And what surprised him most was how comfortably that thought sat with him. The one thing he had never imagined as a possible future - a life with Sheena in Mizuho, helping her lead this village - was now the only possibility he could envision. In fact, the thought now sat with him so easily, so surely, that he couldn't help wondering why it had taken him so long to see it...why it had taken nearly losing her to dismiss all remaining doubts and embrace it like this.

Of course, he reminded himself, even if he had realized it sooner, he still would've had to do everything else he had since then, working toward accepting Mizuho. And now, he was almost certain he'd succeeded. He did accept Mizuho; if this poisoning had proven anything to him, it was how much he'd grown to like this place. The thought of seeing it destroyed had terrified him - not just losing Sheena, but losing all of these people and their old-fashioned, backwater, yet unique and beautiful culture. It wasn't his home, but he was starting to see it as such simply because it was Sheena's home. Problems still remained, mostly in the form of Orochi and those ninjas who resented an outsider's presence here, a thought that made him hesitate, but he still had time to work on that. He may be sure of his answer now, but he would still use the weeks he had left before he reached his deadline to their fullest to sort out everything else. There was a lot he had to do yet, a lot of questions to ask and answers to seek, before he could follow through on this. And he would. This situation had given him a mental picture of what his life would be like if he walked away from her, and one thing he now knew for certain was that it was a lonely, depressing image he'd fight tooth and nail to never have to see again.

But all of that was assuming Sheena recovered, something that, unfortunately, still wasn't a given. Until she awoke, and until they found those responsible and prevented any further attacks on these people, and until Zelos knew they hadn't been attacked to punish him - something that, if true, would change everything he'd just decided since he could never risk hurting her by staying here - everything was still up in the air. And until things were stable again here, he couldn't start considering his next move, so getting too excited and making too many plans too soon would just risk ending in heartbreak if it all fell apart. To that end, he filed those tentative plans away in the back of his mind and grasped Sheena's cold hand tightly, settling into 'wait and see' mode and praying again to whichever deity was listening that she would recover.

It was after midnight when he suddenly heard movement in the village. Still clutching Sheena's hand, Zelos sat up straighter and listened carefully, trying to identify if it was an intruder, but he quickly relaxed as he heard Orochi cough, his footsteps drawing closer. Unsurprisingly, a soft knock soon sounded on the door, and a second later it creaked open and Orochi stepped inside, shutting it behind him and taking off his shoes before heading toward the bedroom. Zelos considered releasing her hand, seeing as he now had an audience, but then he decided the hell with it; it had taken hours, but her hand was finally warming up, and so he wasn't going to risk losing that progress. As it was, if it had been up to him, he would've crawled into bed with her, wrapped his arms around her, and tried to warm up the rest of her, too, but he'd decided not to for fear of this very thing: Orochi dropping by to check that he wasn't doing anything 'inappropriate' to her.

Their eyes briefly met, but then Zelos looked back down at Sheena, letting the fingers of his free hand trail over her pale face. Orochi hesitated as he reached the bedroom doorway, taking in the scene before him, but thankfully, instead of getting upset that Zelos was daring to touch her, he sighed, returned to the kitchen, grabbed one of Sheena's mats, and returned to the bedroom, placing it on the other side of the futon and kneeling on it. Zelos tensed - right now he really wasn't in the mood for another heated argument with Orochi - but telling Orochi to leave wouldn't go over well, either. And unfortunately, after the decision he'd just made, one thing Zelos knew was that he couldn't afford to piss off Orochi more than he already had. In fact, it was actually in his everyone's best interests to try to patch things up with him.

And so, to that end, instead of saying anything, Zelos sat silently, stroking Sheena's face, and after a minute, Orochi motioned at her. "How is she?"

Zelos glanced up at him, unsure if Orochi had an ulterior motive behind asking that, but for the sake of keeping the peace, he decided to take the question at face value. "She's still alive. And it may just be wishful thinking, but it seems like her color is improving, too."

Orochi nodded slowly. "I agree. She does not look quite as sickly as she had earlier."

Zelos eyed him again, still unsure why he was here. "How's Chief Igaguri?"

"The same as Sheena. His coloring, too, looks better than it had earlier, but I suspect even once they wake, they will still have a long road back to full recovery. Both are fighters, though. I expect they will survive. If they are still alive now, then they have weathered the worst of this. If the antidote was ineffective, they would already be dead. Of that, I am certain."

"I hope you're right about that." Oh, how he hoped Orochi was right, and for now he would accept it, because hope was infinitely better than despair. "And yeah, you're right, Sheena is a fighter. I've seen that time and again since the day I met her."

From the corner of his eye, he could see Orochi watching him again. "Yes, I suppose you have."

Zelos sat silently another moment, running his fingers over her cold forehead. Well, if Orochi wasn't going to offer this information himself, he would just have to ask. "So why are you still up? I thought you were going to get some sleep."

"I was."

Okay...? That didn't answer the question. He arched an eyebrow. "Didn't trust me not to fall asleep, eh? Had to check I was still awake?"

To Zelos's surprise, though, instead of glaring at him over his accusatory tone, Orochi sighed. "No, Chosen, it was not that. I simply could not sleep, so I decided to check on Sheena."

Ah. No surprise there. "Mm."

They sat silently again, Zelos having run out of 'safe' things to say, until Orochi suddenly cleared his throat. "I...I apologize for what I said before, Chosen."

...Wait, what? Had Orochi really just said the word 'apologize'? Zelos's eyes snapped up at him. "Hm?"

Unsurprisingly, Orochi refused to look at him. "For assuming as I had, that you were responsible for what happened here."

"...Oh." Zelos quickly looked back down at Sheena. Uh oh. This was about to turn into a weird, awkward conversation, wasn't it? Because Orochi apologizing to him for anything was making him wonder if he had fallen asleep and was dreaming this, even though he knew he hadn't. And suddenly, Zelos just wanted Orochi to let the whole thing go, because that was what he wanted to do. "Don't worry about it. I probably would've jumped to the same conclusion you did if I'd found you here alone."

"Perhaps," Orochi replied softly. "But still, I was wrong. You were only trying to help my people. I should not have threatened you. For that, I apologize."

Okay, this was already beyond weird and awkward; this lack of anger and sincere apology from Orochi was downright bizarre. It actually - gasp! - reminded him of the Orochi he'd known during their journey. Could it be that kind, friendly Orochi really did still exist beneath the jealous grouch he'd been this past year?

Well, if he did, then Zelos would certainly encourage him to stick around awhile, not only for his own sake, but for Sheena's, because he knew how much she missed her old friend. "It's okay," he said. "You were in shock. So was I when I first got here. Shock can make people say and do things they wouldn't say or do otherwise. We'll write it off as that."

While Orochi still didn't look at him, he did bow his head. "Very well."

They fell silent again, and only then did Zelos realize those statements applied to him, too. As much as he hated apologizing, if Orochi had done so, then it was only fair he return the favor. Besides, like it or not, right now they had to rely on each other, and fostering goodwill would help that. "Listen, I'm sorry about what I said before, too. Y'know, about the whole 'jealousy' thing."

Orochi tensed, but to Zelos's surprise, a moment later he sighed. "You were correct about that, Chosen."

...Wait, what? Zelos's head snapped upward. "I was?" Well, of course he was - if Orochi had been trying to hide his feelings all this time, then he'd done a horrible job of it - but he just couldn't believe his ears, which were insisting Orochi had actually admitted that.

For a moment, Orochi's only response was a curt nod, but then he cleared his throat and went on, slowly and hesitantly, as if the words were painful to say. "When Sheena completed the ritual to restore the Guardians and Chief Igaguri named her to be his successor, I assumed that I was..."

His voice trailed off, but just like that, Zelos got it. Orochi had seen himself filling the role of spouse for her because, of everyone here, he was the best candidate for it. He was an excellent fighter and upstanding, respected ninja, an intelligent man, and a Mizuho native who knew and loved this village and would give his life to protect it. Of course he'd think Sheena would choose him, a dear friend, to help her lead it. Countless pieces of the puzzle regarding Orochi's behavior this past year suddenly began fitting into place.

"...You assumed you were the logical choice of a spouse for her," Zelos stated.

Orochi's eyes snapped up to him, but they quickly fell back to Sheena, his face red. "Yes. And I accepted that and grew to...look forward...to it. I did not expect any other man to become an option for her, and I certainly did not expect that man to be..."

"...A messed up, irresponsible womanizer of a Chosen who not only doesn't take anyone or anything seriously, but who's already proven himself capable of hurting her," Zelos suggested when Orochi motioned discreetly at him. "Right?"

"...Yes."

Yep, that explained a lot. And oh, did Zelos hate this conversation already. But now that he'd made his decision about the future he wanted, they'd have to have it eventually, so they should just get it out of the way now, when no one else would hear it, rather than engaging in another public shouting match. He really could do without another one of those.

"Believe me, Orochi, I'm the last person I ever expected would enter the picture," he murmured, trailing his fingers down Sheena's cheek. "But Sheena has a way of getting things out of me that even I never thought myself capable of. She's a...a very special woman."

"Yes, she is." And while Zelos could feel Orochi watching him, he couldn't meet his gaze. Discussing such feelings with anyone had always been hard for him, but doing so with someone as critical as Orochi was far worse. Before Zelos could think of what to say, though, Orochi went on. "For months I could not understand why she chose to pursue you, of all available men, someone she had detested for years. I could not understand why she defended you so fiercely after how badly you had hurt her, nor could I comprehend what she saw in you that no ninja here could provide her. But now...now I believe I have seen an inkling of what she must see in you." Zelos's eyes widened, but Orochi just arched an eyebrow at him. "You truly do love her, do you not?"

Zelos quickly looked back down at Sheena, his face growing warm. Wonderful. Now Orochi was asking him pointblank about something he'd sworn to hide from him for fear of what Orochi would do to him if he knew. And, worse, answering the question would mean making his feelings 'public' here, something that was severely frowned upon. But shockingly enough, Orochi didn't sound disapproving of that, nor did he seem like he was trying to bait Zelos into saying something he shouldn't; in fact, it seemed like he was simply verifying something that he already knew.

Yep, definitely an awkward conversation. Absently, he wondered if this was the kind of 'big brother' conversation he would one day have with the man his sister fell in love with, and he made a mental note to remember how squirm-inducing it was for the person being interrogated. But still, Orochi had simply asked the question instead of assuming, again, that Zelos just wanted to 'get between her legs.'Heck, he wasn't even sticking his fingers in his ears and pretending to ignore their relationship anymore, either. And so, as much as Zelos hated doing this, he would make an exception this time, be honest, and hope for the best.

"I would think that would be obvious by now," he whispered.

Orochi eyed him again carefully before looking back at Sheena. "It is."

Well, good. He really had just been verifying something he already knew. Zelos wasn't sure how much else he should say, but with Sheena's fate still hanging in the balance, he was feeling obnoxiously emotional, and before he knew it, his mouth started saying things he'd never intended to say. "Y'know, Orochi, I never tried to win her heart. In fact, I did the opposite: I pushed her away to prevent that from happening, to protect her from...well, from me, and from everything that came with me as the Chosen. That's why I hurt her all those years ago. But in time I came to realize that no matter what stupid thing I did to her, it didn't work. I learned the hard way that I can't make her decisions for her. Sheena has a mind of her own, and only she can make her own decisions."

"Yes, that is true," Orochi acknowledged softly.

"Yeah, I suppose you'd know that too, wouldn't you?" Zelos whispered, grinning wryly, but then he took another deep breath and looked back at Sheena, his smile fading. "To this day, I still can't help thinking at times that she'd be better off without me - not that I would be better off without her, mind you. And that's why I've held onto her so tightly: because when I'm with her, she makes me into someone I actually like. It's selfish, I know, but there it is, and nothing you say will drive me away from her." He swallowed hard as he admired the soft curves of her face, his heart pounding as her chest rose and fell, an undeniable sign that she had defied the poison that had tried to snuff her beauty from this world. "I'll never understand why she gave me another chance to make it up to her after how badly I hurt her, but she did. And I'll be damned if I don't do everything in my power to rise to her expectations and live up to her faith in me." His voice lowered. "That's why I'm still with her: because I refuse to hurt her by pushing her away again. I did that once, and I'm never making that mistake again."

From the corner of his eye, he could see Orochi watching him again. He expected Orochi to counter that, insisting that such words might sound good but they could never make up for the pain he'd caused her and that, when this debacle was over, he still wanted Zelos out of her life, but instead all he said was, "You have not forgotten what I told you, have you?"

"You mean about how Sheena needs to find a spouse before she becomes chief?" Orochi bowed his head. "No, I haven't." He paused, then finally looked up again, unsurprised to see Orochi watching him expectantly, clearly waiting for him to continue. But before Zelos told him anything, he needed to know something first. "Has Igaguri indicated he's changed his mind about when he's planning to pass the baton to her?"

"He has not."

Zelos nodded faintly, then looked back at Sheena, resuming trailing his fingers over her forehead. "So a month or two left then, eh?"

"Yes. Chief Igaguri lost many years, and he feels great guilt for what happened during the Volt accident, both to our people and to Sheena, and believes easing the transition to her while he can still help do so would be for the best. Additionally, he has stated several times now that he is convinced she is ready to handle the responsibilities of the position."

"Ah." Well, at least that was now confirmed. And on the bright side, he had now made his decision, and a month or two should still give him enough time to finish up the rest of his outstanding business before it became an issue. "So does Sheena know he's looking to hand over the reins that soon?"

Orochi shook his head. "I am not certain. All I know is what he has told me. But she knows to expect it at any time; that was made clear when she became his successor."

"Yeah, but something tells me she isn't expecting it yet, because she doesn't talk about it much," Zelos said, but he quickly reconsidered that as he realized he could count on one hand the number of times she'd mentioned becoming chief. Actually, that was pretty weird. That was a major part of her future, and yet she was acting like she didn't want to acknowledge it. Or maybe she didn't want him to feel pressured to make a choice about his own future with her so she avoided speaking about it around him? He honestly didn't know. "Okay, she doesn't talk about it at all. And when she does, it definitely isn't in an 'immediate future' sense."

"Perhaps. However, the fact remains that the 'reins' and the 'baton' will soon be hers."

"Yeah, I know. I don't doubt you about that." Zelos shrugged. "And truthfully, that's okay. If Igaguri wants her to become chief, then that's his prerogative. He'll do what he thinks is best for everyone, Sheena included."

Orochi continued watching him carefully, clearly expecting more. "And what of you?"

Zelos stiffened, but instead of answering that, he simply continued looking at Sheena. Yep, he'd been afraid Orochi would ask him that. He really didn't want to discuss his decision already, not when he'd just made it, and especially not with Orochi, but that obviously wasn't an option. If Orochi had bothered to ask such a personal question in the first place, then he wouldn't drop it. Now, how to answer it in a way that won't result in my own disembowelment...

But before he could reply, Orochi's eyes widened slightly. "You are actually considering it."

...So much for finding a safe answer. But it was too late now; Orochi had already figured it out. And really, seeing as his choice would soon alter everyone's lives, Orochi's included, should Sheena say 'yes' when he popped the question, then Zelos supposed he should just be honest. "I would think that would be obvious by now, too."

Orochi considered that a moment, still watching him closely, then sighed. "Yes, I suppose it is." He cleared his throat. "And have you made a decision?"

Well, since Orochi hadn't yelled at him, insulted him, or attempted to rip his heart from his chest yet, Zelos supposed he should see the rest of this through, too. "Yes, I have."

And again, Orochi watched him, but when Zelos still found himself tongue-tied, he pressed, "And may I ask what you decided?"

Zelos's eyes snapped up to him. And here, now, is the moment of truth. He's probably going to kill me or call me a foolish, arrogant bastard for even considering this, but lying won't win me any points, either. In fact, it might curse my future if he's convinced I'm a liar, especially if I haven't given him reason to believe otherwise. As scary as this is, just tell him. "Probably not the one any man looking to marry her himself was hoping I'd make."

Orochi nodded faintly. "I see." While his face was cold, it thankfully wasn't murderous, either, as he arched an eyebrow. "Is Sheena aware you have made this decision?"

Zelos shook his head. "Not yet. And she isn't going to know it yet. I still need to get a few things in order before I approach her with this." He gave Orochi a pointed look. "So I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't say anything to her."

"Of course."

While Zelos wanted to take that to mean Orochi wouldn't break into his mansion and murder him some night in his sleep, he wasn't convinced Orochi would accept that yet, either. Ultimately, he just had to ask the question, even if it pissed off Orochi. Simply put, Zelos needed to know what to expect from him now. And since Orochi had been surprisingly direct with him tonight, he'd take a page from his book and do the same.

He arched an eyebrow. "And what about you? You love her too, don't you?"

As expected, Orochi tensed and glared at him, his eyes saying 'how dare you ask me something you have no business knowing!', but then he took a deep breath, looked down at Sheena, and, surprisingly, answered the question, his voice barely a whisper. "By now I suspect my feelings for her are as obvious as are yours."

Wow. He could not believe Orochi had just said that. But that alone didn't answer his question; all it told him was that Orochi was a normal human being with normal human emotions. "So now that you know what I'm planning, what are you going to do about it? Are you gonna try to persuade me that I'm not wanted here, so I should leave? Or are you gonna try to kill me to get me out of the picture so you can marry her instead?"

To his surprise, Orochi's sigh was one of defeat. "I would not do that. As much as I wish my relationship with Sheena was different, I cannot deny that she loves you and that losing you would hurt her. For months I never imagined she would consider someone like you for such an important role in her life, but the truth is she will consider you. I still do not like you, and I believe I would do a far better job than you would in that position, but all that truly matters is Sheena's choice - and as you said, Sheena makes her own decisions. I believe her final choice will include you." He released another sigh, his gaze falling down to the face of the woman lying between them. "And perhaps that is for the best. You make her happy, Chosen. You make her smile and laugh in a way I never have. I am simply incapable of drawing happiness from her as you can, it seems. Likewise, she lets you comfort and protect her in a way she would never let me. She does love you, perhaps even as much as you love her. And as long as she is safe and happy, then I will be happy for her. If you truly believe you can provide that for her, and after today, I have no reason to believe otherwise...then I will no longer stand in your way."

Zelos gaped at him a moment, once again unable to believe his ears. Was Orochi serious? Or was he speaking pretty words to lull Zelos into a false sense of calm before sinking a shuriken in his skull? But Orochi's somberness indicated he meant that. Zelos was shocked - and relieved. Maybe something good would come from this nightmarish poisoning after all. Maybe now Orochi would finally get off of his back; maybe he'd return to being the friend Sheena had once known, the one who'd been AWOL the past year because of how badly he'd wanted Zelos gone so he had a shot at winning Sheena's heart for himself. He could live with Orochi not liking him so long as Orochi accepted Zelos was a part of Sheena's life, which, incredibly, seemed to be what he was saying.

Relaxing, Zelos gave him a faint but sincere smile. "Thanks, man. I appreciate it."

Instantly, Orochi's face grew cold again. "I am not doing this for you, Chosen. As I said, I still do not like you, nor do I trust you or your intentions yet, and I still maintain that you are an irresponsible, spoiled city dweller who does not belong here. Rather, I am doing this for Sheena, because it is obvious this is what she wants."

Oh. Right. Zelos's smile vanished, and he looked back down at Sheena. Okay, so he still had a ways to go to win Orochi over. He should've known it would take more than helping him save his people and being honest about his future plans. But regardless, he'd still choose to take this as a promising start, since at least Orochi hadn't tried to kill him over this. Well, that or Orochi was only saying that to save face, which was a possibility he couldn't dismiss. Only time would tell which it was - or if Zelos could ever permanently win his favor.

"Of course," he replied. "You're entitled to view me however you want. Still, all I'm asking is that you respect Sheena's wishes with this, no matter what she decides."

"I will," Orochi said, his voice softening. He paused a moment, then gave Zelos another sharp look. "You have no idea what you are getting yourself into with this, do you?"

"No, I don't," Zelos admitted. "But before I make any final decisions, I will find out - although at this point, I seriously doubt anything could change my mind anymore. And don't worry, I won't act on this the minute everyone recovers. Heck, I probably won't act on it for another month or two. Like I said, I have things I need to sort out first. But I will act on it eventually - preferably before Igaguri pushes the issue himself."

Orochi bowed his head. "Understood."

Good. No more arguments. But Orochi needed to know this. "And don't forget, Orochi, you aren't out of the running yet. Nothing says she'll choose me. I mean, after what I did to her, she'd be more than justified in showing me to the door and booting me from her life for good. But still, I will see this through on my end. I've known for months now that one day she'd have to choose a spouse, and I didn't want to complicate her decision if I knew I couldn't handle it. I could never give her false hope if I knew there was none. If my answer had been 'no,' I would've ended this months ago. But I couldn't do it then, and I still can't now." He looked down at Sheena again, his voice falling to a whisper. "I love this woman far too much to hurt her like that again."

Orochi tilted his head in acknowledgment. "Very well. I will stand out of your way and pray to Jizou that you are capable of living up to your word." His face grew even colder. "But my warning still stands. You say you will not hurt her, but if you do..."

"...You'll kill me, I know. And honestly, if I did, you'd be justified in doing so - assuming I didn't kill myself for it first." He met Orochi's gaze. "I won't hurt her, Orochi. I promise."

Orochi eyed him another moment, then bowed his head. "I will hold you to that, Chosen."

"I'd expect no less from someone who cares about her as much as you do."

They fell silent then, both just sitting beside Sheena, watching her chest rise and fall, until finally Orochi sighed and rose to his feet. "I should check on Chief Igaguri."

Zelos nodded. The silence had been comfortable after the understanding they'd just reached with each other, but he was still glad Orochi was leaving. "And then you should get some sleep."

"Yes," Orochi agreed softly. "Perhaps now I will be able to do so."

Ah, Zelos thought. So this really had been bothering him. He hadn't just wanted to check on Sheena; he'd wanted to clarify a few things with me, too. And really, now that he knew Orochi wouldn't kill him, Zelos was hopeful he'd told the ninja what he'd needed to hear. And the best part was that he'd done so without telling a single lie. A year ago he never would've thought himself capable of handling an intense conversation like that without resorting to any, and yet he had. He was proud of how far he'd come.

...Oh, right. Orochi was leaving. He could pat himself on the back later. "Well, I hope you can," Zelos said, smiling faintly. "We still have a lot of work to do tomorrow."

Orochi bowed his head. "Yes, we do. I will see you in the morning."

"I'll be here."

"Yes, I know you will," Orochi whispered. He stepped into the main room, but before he'd even cleared the doorway, he turned back toward Zelos. "Chosen?"

Zelos looked up at him. "Hm?"

Orochi opened his mouth to say something, but then he closed it again and looked down at Sheena, hesitating. A moment later, though, he sighed again and met Zelos's eyes. "It may be no secret that I never liked you, trusted you, or wanted you here...but I am glad you are here now. I could not have done all of this alone, and I have no doubt that my people would be dead right now if not for you. I owe you my deepest gratitude for that, and I will not forget this. You have earned my respect. Arigatou gozaimasu."

And again, Zelos just stared at him. Part of him - the part that always felt uncomfortable being thanked - suddenly wanted to say he hadn't done what he had for Orochi's sake, nor even for the villagers', but solely to save Sheena...but he hadn't just acted out of fear for her life. No, he could scarcely believe it, but he truly had been scared for all of these people. As it was, he already knew the nine lives they'd lost because he hadn't gotten here in time would probably haunt him the rest of his life, making him wonder what he could have done differently to save them, but it was too late to change that now. And that realization, that he'd done what he had here to save everyone, because he liked them, actually took him by surprise - a pleasant one. In fact, that realization alone served as a confirmation that he'd just made the right decision regarding his future here.

Therefore, instead of succumbing to that instinctive reaction, he nodded. "I could say the same, Orochi. I'm glad you're here, too. Sheena would be dead right now if not for your ability to put your grievances with me aside. Thank you."

"I should have done so long ago," Orochi whispered. After a moment, though, he sighed, met Zelos's eyes again, and nodded curtly. "Keep good watch over her."

Zelos gave him another faint smile. "I will."

Then Orochi was gone. Alone again, Zelos leaned back against the wall to not only wait for Sheena to recover, but to ponder the progress he'd just made with Orochi and to contemplate the future he had now definitively decided to pursue.

And when Orochi returned an hour later and handed Zelos a book on Mizuho's language, saying if he was truly serious about the future he'd decided on, then he would need something more substantial than a children's book to learn their language - 'for Mizuho's sake,' he'd added, 'so we don't have a completely incompetent fool in the position' - before leaving again, Zelos took the gesture as the best, and perhaps only, sign he'd ever get that Orochi approved of his decision. Finally having something worthwhile to do, Zelos settled onto his mat and started reading. He would skim the entire book now to get the gist, but then he would study it in depth from the beginning. After all, Orochi was right. Mizuho deserved someone competent in that position, and so did Sheena.

And when the time came, he would make damn sure he lived up to their expectations of him. He would, no matter what. Failing them simply wasn't an option.

0~*~0

The rest of the night passed quickly thanks to the book that gave Zelos something to focus on aside from Sheena's unchanging condition. Even after skimming it, he still felt lost with their language, but knowing he'd now made his decision about the future and would have to learn it eventually, assuming Sheena really did choose him, kept him motivated, as did the fact that even his minimal knowledge of it had proven life-saving, and thankfully he did manage to pick up a few new things. But he wasn't in a hurry; he still had a few months until Igaguri declared Sheena to be chief, and technically, this was just a head start in case his future plans unfolded as he now hoped they would.

Dawn eventually arrived, and shortly after that, he heard Orochi begin moving from home to home, checking on the villagers. Realizing he should talk to Orochi so they could plan their day's activities, Zelos set his book aside and made to stand, only to stop as his gaze fell again on Sheena. Unable to resist, he gently touched her face, his fingers trailing over her smooth, pale cheek, pleased to note that her skin didn't feel quite as cold as it had the last time he'd checked. For a moment, he let his fingertips play over her lips, his heart aching at seeing her so still and lifeless, even while his body ached to kiss her. He sighed, pulling his hand away and moving again to stand, when suddenly, without warning, a moan sounded from her lips, so soft that he nearly missed it.

Instantly, he froze. "Sheena?" For a moment she was still, making Zelos afraid he'd just imagined it, but then her head rolled a little toward his hand and his heart soared. He quickly stroked her cheek again. "Sheena? Can you hear me?" Again, she didn't respond, but he could see it: her breathing patterns were changing. She was rousing. He leaned closer to her, suddenly desperate to lure her back to consciousness. "C'mon, sweetheart. Time to wake up."

His fingers continued playing over her cheek another minute until she suddenly breathed in a little more deeply. A moment later she moaned softly again, and then finally - finally! - her eyes opened the slightest bit before closing again. "Zelos?"

His name was a mere breath from her lips, but it still managed to put a huge, stupid grin on his face. Oh, Martel, she was awake! The sight before him was quite possibly the most beautiful one he'd ever seen. "I'm here, love."

Her head turned a little further into his hand as he continued caressing her face. For a moment he was afraid she was falling asleep again, but then she took another deep breath. To his concern, though, her face contorted in discomfort as she struggled to pry her eyes open and focus on his face. "What happened?" she whispered, her eyes sliding shut again.

...Oh. Right. He hadn't considered what to tell her when she woke. He really didn't want to hit her with the truth yet, but if he babied her by not telling her, it would piss her off, which he also didn't want. "What do you remember?" he asked carefully.

Her brows furrowed slightly. "Don't rememb..." Without warning, her eyes flew open. "Poison...!"

"Hey, hey, calm down," Zelos said as she struggled valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to sit up. He tried to urge her to lay back down but quickly gave up as she refused to do so and instead offered her his support. "Take it easy. It's okay. Everything's taken care of."

"What...?" she began, managing to get herself nearly up, but suddenly she trembled and sagged into his arms, moaning lowly. Zelos tightened his grasp on her; she clearly didn't have the strength to sit up by herself yet, but frustratingly stubborn fighter that she was, he knew trying to get her to accept that would be futile. "Oh...don't feel..."

"I'm not surprised," he said, pulling her closer as she shivered violently and curled further into him, then he pressed a kiss to her forehead. "You've been unconscious and poisoned for nearly a day now. You're lucky to be alive." Her hand tightened on his arm, and suddenly Zelos noticed it: she was breathing too quickly. He looked her over, noting that her eyes were squeezed shut and she was clutching her other arm to her stomach. Her skin was getting clammy, too, and her coloring...aw, crap, her face was nearly white. His eyes widened. "Hey, sweetheart, you okay?" She shook her head jerkily, and he pulled back a little to get a better look. Damn, her face was drawn and tense. "Stomach?" She nodded, and Zelos could feel his own stomach sink in dread. "Nauseous?"

Sheena gave him another curt, jerky nod. "I think I'm..."

...She's going to be sick. Zelos quickly extracted himself from her grasp, leaving her slumping forward, still clutching her stomach, and jumped to his feet, his heart and mind racing. One thing he'd always hated was throwing up. Being in the line of fire of someone else who was about to throw up wasn't quite as bad, but it was still awful. But then, the person in question was Sheena, and, surprisingly enough, he found he really didn't care about that. He just wanted to help her through this and get her back to normal - and the sooner, the better.

"Okay, hang on, let me get you a bowl," he said as he headed toward the door. "Don't move. And try to hold it until I get back."

She nodded again, hugging her stomach with a death grip that told him how urgent the situation was. "Hurry," she gasped.

"Hurrying."

Zelos raced into the kitchen, threw open her cabinets, and scanned the contents until he found a large mixing bowl. Grabbing it, he raced back into her bedroom and fell to his knees beside her, holding the bowl in front of her an instant before she started retching. Mostly it was dry heaves, but there was still a little left in her stomach, too, and he just waited out the spasms, shifting to sit beside her again and support her since she was still having trouble sitting up by herself, whispering soothing words in her ear and holding her hair out of her face. And finally, a minute later, the spasms calmed, and she sagged against him again, trembling and shivering.

"Better?" he asked, pressing a kiss to her head just above her ear. Sheena nodded faintly, unable to speak, but at least it answered the question. "Good. Hopefully that's the last of it. Your body was probably trying to get rid of any remaining poison in it." He gently pulled himself away from her, leaving her the bowl, waiting to make sure she wouldn't tip over, then stood again. "Hang on a sec. Let me get you some water to rinse out your mouth, okay?"

She nodded again nearly imperceptibly, and Zelos smiled sadly, his heart breaking at how miserable she was. But still, even this was a thousand times better than how she'd been a few hours ago. And hey, he'd spent the past year looking for excuses to pamper her and wait on her, but every time he tried she gave him a pointed look that stopped him cold, so this might actually be his chance to finally do so. Granted, having to deal with vomit hadn't been on his agenda - and come to think of it, he and Orochi really should clean up the village considering all the people who'd thrown up yesterday - but hey, romantic at heart or not, even he knew life wasn't all hearts and candy and roses. No, life could be ugly, disgusting, depressing, and terrifying, too. And if the future kept progressing as he now wanted it to, then this was part of the life he'd be signing on for with her: taking care of her however she needed it, even if it meant dealing with something 'disgusting' like this.

He returned a minute later with a glass of water and handed it to her, waiting until she finished rinsing her mouth before taking the bowl and carrying it back to the kitchen. He rinsed it out, making a mental note to clean it better later, but right now he didn't want to leave her alone too long. Besides, for all he knew, she'd need it again, and if so, then it didn't pay to clean it too well now. Zelos then grabbed a washrag from her bathroom, dipped it in some lukewarm water, and rejoined her, sitting down beside her, wrapping his arm around her, and drawing her back against him. He dabbed lightly at the cold sweat building on her forehead, then just held her and waited patiently as she sipped at the water. She was probably dehydrated, and if there was one thing he'd learned the hard way as a kid, it was how important sufficient hydration was for a body.

After several minutes, her sipping stopped and she stilled. Afraid she was falling asleep again, Zelos gently nudged her cheek with his nose and reached for the glass. "Done?"

She nodded faintly and let him take the glass, which he set on the floor with the washrag. "Thanks," she whispered, resting her head against the crook of his neck.

He smiled and pressed another kiss to her forehead. "Feeling a little better?"

"Not really," she mumbled.

Zelos quirked an eyebrow. Sheena didn't readily admit when she wasn't feeling well, so for her to say that now...she must feel really awful. "Still feeling nauseous?"

She shook her head faintly. "No. Just...terrible."

"No surprise there, considering what you've been through. You should get more sleep, sweetheart. You need it." On the bright side, getting her to do that shouldn't be hard, seeing as her lack of a response told him she was already half asleep. But unfortunately, as much as he wanted to hold her while she slept, he had too much to do today. "Sheena?"

She started - yup, definitely falling asleep - but then shook her head. "Can't. Mizuho..."

"Mizuho is fine," he cut her off, recognizing what she was going to say. Because that was one thing he could always count on from Sheena: even on her deathbed, she'd still be using every last ounce of strength she possessed to crawl to someone who needed her help. Her selflessness, devotion, determination, and altruism had been nothing short of an inspiration that had turned his life around - as had Lloyd's - but it also scared the hell out of him when she held onto those qualities so tightly to the detriment of her own well-being.

Her eyelashes tickled his neck as she lifted her head a little to look up at him, the dark shadows around her sunken eyes and the paleness of her face making his heart sink further. She looked terrible - but he truly didn't care how she looked right now. After all, she was alive. The antidote had worked. And if it had saved her, then it would save the other villagers, too. And oh, had the struggle he'd put into it yesterday been worth it.

"But...?" she began, but he quickly cut her off again with a reassuring smile.

"It's fine, Sheena. Really. Orochi and I took care of things here."

For a moment, she blinked at him blankly, clearly not grasping that. "Grandpa...?"

"Last I heard, he's still alive, so I'm sure he'll be fine, too."

Sheena sighed in relief and sagged into his arms. "How?"

Zelos shook his head. "It's a long story, and really, right now it doesn't matter-"

"Chosen?" Both jumped as Orochi's voice suddenly cut through her home. Zelos turned in time to see Orochi take off his shoes by the door and step inside. "May I speak with you for a...?" The instant Orochi stepped into the bedroom doorway, though, he froze, his eyes widened, and he rushed inside and knelt in front of Sheena. "Sheena!"

"Orochi," she whispered, her eyes sliding shut. Looks like her strength is nearly sapped, Zelos noted with a frown of concern.

"You are awake!" Orochi said, eyeing her closely.

"For now, although I'm trying to get her back to bed," Zelos replied.

Orochi's eyes darted at Zelos, but then he looked back at Sheena and nodded, his face twitching as if he was trying to suppress his emotions. "Yes, that would be wise." He observed her another moment, then glanced again at Zelos. "How is she?"

"Not so hot." Zelos tilted his head, reconsidering that. "Well, she's always hot, but..."

To his immense pleasure, Sheena poked a finger into his leg weakly and mumbled, "I'm sitting right here, y'know." Her voice was slurred because her face was half-pressed against his chest, but Zelos could still make out the words, and he grinned stupidly. It felt so good to hear her react to his stupid comments like that, because for awhile there he'd been terrified he would never experience it again.

"And you have no idea how glad I am that you are, love," he whispered in her ear, but then he cleared his throat and looked back at Orochi, growing serious as he saw how disapprovingly Orochi was glaring at him. He probably thinks I was being disrespectful toward her, Zelos figured with an internal sigh. At least he isn't blowing a fuse over it. But still, Zelos didn't want to push it with him after the tentative agreement they'd reached last night, so he'd try to behave himself better. "She's still pretty sick, though, hence why I'm trying to get her to sleep some more."

Orochi's face relaxed. "That is not surprising. I researched kurinoku poison overnight and, based on what I read, I suspect it will take everyone weeks to fully recover." He turned back to Sheena, his face softening further. "The Chosen is correct, Sheena. You should rest. Do not worry about Mizuho. We will handle this."

Sheena's eyes opened just a bit and she peered at Orochi, but then she nodded sleepily and closed them again. "'Kay."

Oh, good. No more arguments from her - although, granted, that was most likely because she didn't have the strength to do so. It was a subtle indication of how awful she felt, because Zelos would've expected significantly more arguing from her if she'd felt better. He looked up at Orochi again. "Anyway, what did you need from me?"

Orochi watched Sheena another moment, but then he sighed and turned back to Zelos. "When you have a moment, there is something you should see."

Zelos's eyes narrowed. Orochi had said he was going to check the well this morning to try to identify where the poison had come from. What had he found? As curious as he was, though, he quickly opted to wait until Sheena was asleep again before asking about it. After all, she'd never go back to sleep if they were discussing that right in front of her.

"Okay," he said. "I'll be out as soon as I've gotten her back to bed."

"Very well." Orochi looked back at Sheena, whose eyes were closed again, and reached for her arm as if he wanted to touch her, but before he could, he pulled his hand back and sighed. "Rest, Sheena. You need to recover your strength."

"'Kay," she murmured, her eyes never opening to look at him.

Again, Orochi observed her, but realizing Zelos was watching him, he cleared his throat awkwardly, stood, and headed to the door, slipping on his shoes again before sneaking outside. Once the door was closed, Zelos turned back to Sheena. "Then what do you say we get you settled in again so I can see what he wants?" Sheena nodded faintly, and he gently, reluctantly, pried himself from her grasp enough to help her slide back under the covers. Once she was tucked in, he arched an eyebrow as her eyes opened a little and she looked up at him blearily. "You good? Or do you need another blanket?"

Her eyelids drooped downward again. "I'm okay."

Smiling softly, Zelos pressed another kiss to her forehead, letting his lips linger there a moment before he brushed her messy hair from her face. "Then I'll just be outside. Get some sleep, sweetheart. And if you need anything, call my name and I'll come running."

Her eyes stayed closed, but she did nod to indicate she'd heard him. Zelos brushed his fingers over her cheek one last time, then he finally stood and headed toward the door. An instant later, however, she whispered his name again. "Zelos?"

He quickly turned back to her, surprised to find her eyes open again. "Yeah?"

"Thanks."

His heart melted, and he found himself nearly overwhelmed by the urge to run back over to her, hold her to him, and never let her go for fear something like this would happen again. But he still had too much to do to help her people - and right now the best, and perhaps only, way to truly protect her was to hunt down the murderer who'd tried to kill her. If he was lucky, that was what Orochi wanted to talk to him about.

So instead of doing so and risking being unable to pull himself away again, Zelos gave her another soft smile. "You're welcome." She watched him a moment, but then her eyes slid shut, and Zelos sighed as he finally headed to the door, slipping on his shoes and, on impulse, grabbing his sword from beside the door. After all, right now he couldn't be too careful. He cast one last glance back at the bedroom, just able to make out Sheena's sleeping form behind the doorframe, then pulled the door open and stepped outside. After a few steps, he spotted Orochi standing by the well, staring out at the forest.

"So how is she, really?" Orochi asked, turning away from the forest as Zelos joined him.

Zelos sighed and leaned back against the well, folding his arms to his chest. "Not great, but still better than yesterday. She threw up when she tried to sit up. She's extremely weak and tired, and even she admitted that she feels like crap. But she did drink half a glass of water and was conscious for a bit, and I'm choosing to take those as good signs."

"They are," Orochi agreed. "I suspect the other villagers will follow a similar pattern when they wake. We should place bowls and water beside them since it is unlikely we will be able to tend to each one directly, especially if multiple people wake at the same time."

Ah, right. That made sense, especially now that they knew what the next stage of recovery would look like. Zelos nodded. "We should probably do that pretty quickly, too. If Sheena's waking is any indication, the rest will follow suit soon."

"Yes. She received the antidote first, so it makes sense she would awaken first."

"Well, that and she's still young and healthy," Zelos added. "She'd be more likely to recover quicker than someone in poor health would."

"True." Orochi motioned at the village. "Then let us do that. We can address the other matter I wished to discuss later."

Zelos eyed him, wondering again what he'd found, but then he nodded. This was more urgent right now. After all, he wouldn't want to wake up feeling as sick and clueless as Sheena had and not have anyone around to explain what was going on. At least while they might not be able to tend to everyone directly, making it obvious help was nearby should provide these people some comfort.

"Okay," Zelos said. "I'll meet you back here when we're done."

They split up again, each taking the same side of the river they'd dealt with the previous day, and did whatever they could to accommodate the people who would hopefully be rousing soon. Everyone had survived the night, Zelos was relieved to find, but other than Sheena, no one else had awoken yet. It was uncomfortable searching through other people's houses for bowls and glasses to set beside them, and the sun had fully risen by the time they'd finished distributing drinking water to everyone, but as tedious and mind-numbing as it was, he forced himself to press onward until everyone had been tended to.

An hour later, they finally met up again by the well. "At least now when they wake, that should give them what they need and reassure them help is nearby," Orochi said.

Zelos nodded and hopped up to sit on the stone ledge of the well. "Right. We could use more help, though. Once they start waking up, we'll be running ragged trying to address everyone's needs."

"I suspect you are correct about that," Orochi murmured, looking at the silent village.

Zelos sighed. It was so easy to say they needed help, but who even could help them? "Well, the only people I'd trust to help with this are Lloyd and our friends, but they'd be hard to find. Regal and Presea dropped by Meltokio a few days ago to invite us to a party, but they'd been traveling around for a week before that and had yet to find anyone else; Lloyd, Colette, Genis, and Raine aren't where we expected they'd be. Heck, they were thrilled just to find me. And they said they were going to keep looking for the others, so that means they won't be easy to find, either. And right now, I don't want to leave you alone here any longer than necessary while I look for them. Unfortunately, that exhausts my short list of people who could help - unless, of course, you want me revealing Mizuho's location to even more outsiders, none of which I can vouch for."

Orochi shook his head. "No. We cannot afford to involve outsiders in this. Mizuho will be moving eventually, but I do not see that happening for several more years. I believe Chief Igaguri is leaving that project to Sheena for when she becomes chief." He fell silent, thinking. "I should return to Sybak and retrieve Michi, Sadako, and Hamako. They would be of great assistance here."

Oh, right. Zelos had forgotten about them. At least they were safe, because the thought of losing a dear friend like Michi was nearly as bad as the thought of losing Sheena. "The only problem with that is that I'm not sure bringing them here with a potential, murderous madman running around is a good idea. I realize you ninjas are fighters by nature - well, except Michi - but I'm just not comfortable involving kids in this while we're still dealing with someone who'd rather hide in the shadows and throw darts at you rather than confront you directly. Assuming, of course, that there really is someone else to blame for this."

"You have a point," Orochi said. "Michi is not yet prepared to confront an opponent like this, nor is his sister. Sadako, perhaps, but right now we should not leave Hamako alone if this person is targeting ninjas."

...And that, unfortunately, eliminated everyone they could trust to help here. Zelos sighed again and leaned back, resting his hands on the cold stone beneath him. "How 'bout any other ninjas out in the field? Is there anyone you could easily get in touch with?"

Orochi shook his head. "Unfortunately, while we have several spies currently on scouting missions, they, like your friends, would be difficult to locate. Right now we simply do not have time to waste on fruitless searches."

"So for now, it's just us. Great." And now they were back at square one. There was no use bemoaning something they couldn't change, though, so...next topic? "Anyway, what did you want to talk to me about?"

Bending down, Orochi grabbed a pair of black gloves from the ground, put them on, and then picked up something. "When I scoured the well this morning, I found this."

Zelos's eyes narrowed as Orochi stood, holding up what appeared to be a small ball made of patches of purple, yellow, and red fabric. "What the hell is that?"

Orochi's eyebrows rose as Zelos jumped off the wall to get a better look at it. "You do not recognize it?"

His eyes lifted to Orochi's. Was he accusing him of something? "Should I?"

"No, but I was hoping you would so we knew where it came from," Orochi replied.

Okay, good, no accusations. But as for recognizing it...he searched his memories, trying to think of anywhere he might have seen it - inside his hunnies' homes, kids playing with it in the streets, for sale in a souvenir shop - but came up blank. "I don't have a clue. It almost looks like a kid's toy, like a hacky sack, only it isn't soft enough to be one. And..." His eyes narrowed as he leaned closer, then quickly backed away as the stench reeking from it hit him. "Ugh, it stinks. I don't want to get closer to check, but are those holes in it?"

"Yes, it does smell rancid, like rotting herbs," Orochi said. "And yes, those are tiny holes in the sides. However, we do not have anything like these...hacky sacks...in Mizuho, nor do I recognize it from my own travels. In fact, my initial impression matched yours, that it was a children's toy - or, rather, something designed to resemble a children's toy."

"'Designed to resemble'?" Zelos repeated, observing Orochi carefully. "Are you thinking what I am, that this is the method your murderer used to deploy the poison into your well?"

"What I am thinking is that it does not belong in Mizuho's well," Orochi said.

"Yeah, between its location and the smell, it is pretty suspicious, isn't it?" Zelos murmured, looking back at the colorful ball in Orochi's hand. "And you're right, it could've been made to look like a toy to fool anyone who found it into thinking it was something harmless that a kid had dropped in the well. I'd say tear it apart and see what's inside, but based on how it's constructed, that would wreck it, and I don't know that we want to do that until we've checked around to see if anyone recognizes it and knows where it came from."

Orochi nodded. "That was my thought as well."

Zelos's eyes snapped up to him. "Did you check the stream to see if there was another ball there? That might confirm this as the method used to poison your water."

"No, I did not, but perhaps we should," Orochi said. "If it is another colorful ball like this, it should be easy to locate."

"Okay, then let's do that." Orochi nodded again and tossed the ball on the ground, then they began heading toward the river. After only a few steps, though, Zelos thought of something. "So about this kurinoku poison. You said you read up on it overnight?"

"Yes, I did."

Good. Then maybe Orochi could answer a few questions for him. "So tell me about it. What is it? A natural poison, like poisonous berries? How common is it? Do we even know this poisoning was intentional, not an accidental leak of something toxic into your water?"

Orochi shook his head. "Kurinoku poison is not found naturally in nature. It is a combination of two plants and a toxin found only in the saliva of a rare type of frog. I believe our murderer chose it because when it is properly prepared, it is tasteless and odorless when dissolved in water - the rancid smell is only noticeable once it has dried - and only a specific antidote will cure it."

"...Which is why the panacea bottle didn't work." Well, there went his hope that there was no murderous third party involved in this; someone really did hate these people enough to poison them. "Crafty bastard."

"Yes. No one here would have detected it until it was too late to reverse the effects. However, based on the symptoms and the fact that the antidote is working, it is clear they correctly identified the poison. If they had not, Sheena would not have awoken."

While Zelos was glad they'd identified it correctly, Orochi's other implication was disturbing. "So definitely not an accident then."

"No. Something that specific and deliberate could not have been an accident."

Wonderful. Now they had to find this creep and stop him before he discovered his plan hadn't worked and tried again - because while Zelos had gotten here in time to get the antidote started, and Sheena had figured out what it was and how to cure it in time, and Orochi had showed up in time to help, there was no guarantee those things would happen again the next time. And that was now a terrifying given: unless they caught this murderer, there would be a next time.

Well, that meant they had to figure out who could access this poison. "So how well-known is this poison? Who would even be aware of it to make it and use it against you guys?"

Orochi glanced at him again, frowning. "That is what concerns me most: kurinoku poison is not common. In fact, it was concocted by Mizuho centuries ago and should have remained unknown to anyone not from here. How someone could have even discovered the recipe to create it...I do not know." Reaching the stream, Orochi pointed north. "We should check upstream. If this river was also poisoned, the culprit would have placed the device there."

"Right." They headed north along the river, but Zelos couldn't help smiling faintly. As awful as this situation was, he was really kinda liking this whole 'working together peacefully with Orochi' thing. "So do you have any idea who'd hate your people so much that they'd go to such extreme lengths to wipe you all out?"

Orochi's frown deepened. "I have been asking myself that very question since yesterday, and I still cannot think of anyone in particular. We have many enemies, people who carry grudges from incidents that occurred years ago, people whose requests we denied, people who fear we are always lurking in the shadows, ready to steal everything they love. However, Mizuho received no specific threats to warn us this was coming. Likewise, no one had ever located us before this, either."

Zelos nodded...but one possibility did come to mind. He hated to mention this considering who he was talking to, but it was a possibility he couldn't dismiss. "Hey, listen," he said carefully as he stepped over a gnarled tree root. "I know you'll probably strangle me for this, but someone has to say it, because I can't think of anyone else who'd have motive or opportunity to attack you. So please, please, don't take this personally. Okay?"

Orochi's eyes narrowed warily, but Zelos gave him his most sincere, pleading look, and finally, Orochi bowed his head. "Very well. What is it, Chosen?"

Zelos breathed in deeply, then slowly released it. "Are you certain Kuchinawa didn't do this? I mean, he has the knowledge of Mizuho, the skills to sneak in undetected, and a vendetta against Sheena. It's also pretty ironic that those people he cares about here weren't in Mizuho when the poison hit. Y'know, Michi's family...and you."

As he'd feared, Orochi tensed, anger and defensiveness briefly raging in his eyes, but thankfully, instead of yelling, he took a deep breath and shook his head. "I am positive my brother did not do this, although I understand why you are suggesting it."

"But how can you know that?" Zelos pressed, his eyes narrowing, wondering if this was a case of blind loyalty to one's family. "He's been gone over a year now. And take it from me: over time, people do sometimes change."

Orochi's face softened. "I have not spoken with Kuchinawa since he left. However, I know my brother. He is stubborn and hotheaded, but he would never harm the village. The only person he takes issue with here is Sheena; even if he were to try to kill her again, he would not threaten the other villagers to get to her. He may have banished himself, but he does not hate the village itself. And even if he had changed that drastically since I last saw him, he would not use this method to make his point. He is not a coward, as this murderer is. No, he would challenge Sheena to her face; he would not indirectly attack her with poison, and he especially would not do so without issuing a challenge or a threat first. I am positive he did not do this."

"Okay," Zelos said, his frown deepening. "I'll have to take your word for it. You're right, though; this doesn't seem to be his M.O. or the tactic he'd use to kill someone." His voice lowered. "I just wish we knew who we were dealing with."

"As do I," Orochi replied. "Let us try to identify the source of the poison; perhaps that will shed clues on our murderer's identity."

It only took a few minutes of searching the riverbank to prove Zelos's hunch that the river had also been poisoned correct; half a mile north of Mizuho, they located another ball submerged in the water, stuck in place behind a rock, that one blue, green, and orange. Orochi put on his gloves, grabbed it, and held it up, that one thankfully still wet and odorless.

"Damn," Zelos murmured. "I guess this really is the method of dispersal. There's no way two of these could be a coincidence."

"Yes, this poisoning was clearly intentional. It is possible our murderer placed this here days ago to try to poison the village but, when it did not work since our drinking water does not come from the stream, he snuck into the village at night and also poisoned our well. I do remember one of our ninjas commenting several days ago that he had found more dead birds and animals in the forest than was normal this past week." Orochi looked up at Zelos. "At least now I have one ball I can take apart and another to investigate."

Zelos nodded thoughtfully. That was good, but it didn't help him. "I wish I could take one to Meltokio and ask around about it, see if anyone knows anything. The king needs to see this and be made aware of what's happened here. I mean, Sheena is one of his emissaries, and any assassination attempt on her life, even if not directed specifically at her, still falls under his jurisdiction - and I assure you he takes any assassination attempt like this personally."

Orochi nodded. "I understand that, and I agree he needs to know what happened here. However, I am afraid I cannot give you these. We need them to conduct our investigation."

"Yeah, I know." This was one battle he wouldn't fight, because even if Meltokio held a level of jurisdiction over Mizuho, Mizuho still took care of its own problems without seeking outside assistance. "And since you're both the professional spies and the victims, and odds are if anyone else had been attacked like this, the king would've gone to you guys to investigate it, you should have the originals." And just like that, a brilliant idea hit him - one he was quite proud of himself for thinking of. "Well, I know what I can do to get the ball rolling in Meltokio...no pun intended. Let's head back to Mizuho. This won't be as good as having the originals, but it's better than nothing."

"What are you thinking?" Orochi asked, eyeing him uncertainly.

Zelos grinned craftily. "You'll see."

Once they'd returned, unfortunately finding no sign that anyone else had awoken yet, Zelos jogged back to Sheena's home and went straight for the dresser where he'd found her Rheaird. He cast a glance at her, but she hadn't budged, and wanting to let her sleep, he quietly pulled open the drawer and rummaged through it until he found what he was looking for: the camera. Grinning triumphantly, Zelos wrote her a mental 'IOU' for it, then closed the drawer and headed outside, rejoining Orochi by the well.

Orochi's eyes narrowed and he pointed at the box in Zelos's hand. "Is that a...a...?"

He fumbled for the term until Zelos supplied, "A camera? Yeah, it is."

"Where did you get it?" Orochi asked, stepping closer to take a better look at it.

Wait, hadn't Sheena ever showed this thing to anyone here? That was odd. Zelos was sure these ninjas could find plenty of uses for it. Maybe she didn't want to recount the story of how she'd gotten it? "Actually, it's not mine; it's Sheena's. I'm just borrowing it to take some pictures of these balls so I can show them to the king without actually showing them to the king."

Orochi cocked his head. "But where did she get that? We looked into them once to aid in our information gathering, but we had to dismiss the option because of the expense. Mizuho cannot afford one."

Well, good, at least they had considered using these things here; Zelos would be sorely disappointed in them if they knew everything else about Tethe'alla but had never bothered to learn about cameras. "Yeah, I know. It was a...gift. Of sorts." He bit back a grin; Sheena obviously had a reason for not telling Orochi the full story, and he'd respect that. But oh, was he glad she had gotten the camera, because seeing that picture first thing every morning was the only way to wake up. Well, waking up beside her would be infinitely better, but hey, he wouldn't complain. And if the future went according to plan...well, waking up to see her beautiful face might just be a possibility soon. He shrugged. "Beyond that, does it really matter?"

Orochi frowned, clearly unconvinced, but then he sighed. "No, I suppose not."

Good. That story was Sheena's to tell, after all, not his. He quickly looked down at the camera. "Okay, now to figure this thing out and take some pictures of those balls..."

Lifting the camera, he examined all the buttons and switches, unsure what he was looking for since he'd never actually operated one before. Usually these things were only used by reporters and security companies because such magitechnology was rare and, as Orochi said, expensive. And while he could've afforded one, he'd never bothered. He'd spent years avoiding these things because of how often they'd been used to take pictures of him that he hadn't wanted taken. In fact, until Sheena had gotten rid of Harry McHenry, the word 'camera' had made his skin crawl. Although after New Year's, he'd occasionally found himself wondering why he hadn't looked into them years ago so he could've had fun taking pictures of women when they had no idea he was there...

...But that is not important right now, he scolded himself, stopping his mind before it could stray into perverted territory. Just figure this thing out. "All right, so this is the lens, and this switch zooms the lens, and this button..." He pressed it, and a flash of light went off. "Aha! This actually takes the picture. Got it." He motioned at the ball in Orochi's hand and the first ball still lying on the ground beside the well. "Okay, hold them up so I can take some pictures." Orochi did as directed, and Zelos snapped a picture. He then played with the zoom and took a few more from different angles, hopeful that at least one of them would turn out. "That should be good."

"What do you do now?" Orochi asked, dropping both balls to the ground.

Zelos shrugged. "As far as I know, we have to get these pictures printed. Chances are my butler knows how; I know he helped Sheena get some printed a few months ago. I'll take this camera back to Meltokio and have him work his magic on it."

"Then I will wait to take either ball apart until we know this worked." Orochi motioned at the camera. "If possible, I would also like copies for Mizuho. They might help us track down who did this."

"Of course. I'll make sure to get a second set developed for you guys."

Orochi nodded and looked around the village again. "Right now, however, I believe we should check to see if anyone has awoken. If any have, it is possible they lack the strength or comprehension to call for help."

Good point. Sheena certainly couldn't have screamed for help; he'd just been lucky he'd been sitting with her at the time. "Yeah, probably, although my angel senses haven't heard anyone yet, and they really are pretty sensitive-" His voice cut off and his eyes narrowed as, speak of the devil, his ears suddenly caught a sound. "Wait."

Orochi eyed him curiously. "What is it, Chosen?"

"Shh," Zelos silenced him, lifting a finger. Orochi's eyes narrowed, but he did comply. Zelos was just starting to wonder if he'd imagined it when he heard it again. He wasn't sure what it was, but it was something. His eyes snapped to Orochi. "Did you hear that?"

Orochi mimicked Zelos's silence, but then he shook his head. "I hear nothing."

"No, I'm sure I heard something." Now he just had to figure out what. He looked around the village for the source, but try as he might, he couldn't spot anything out of the ordinary.

"Are you certain it was not a villager rousing?" Orochi asked.

"Positive. It sounded more like a branch breaking, followed by a whisper."

"An animal, then?"

Zelos shook his head. "No, it was definitely human. And it came from...that direction." He pointed at the eastern forest. Orochi didn't reply, just listened again, his eyes narrowing further, but suddenly Zelos heard a shuffling sound and turned toward it, trying to zero in on the source. "There it was again."

Orochi stepped beside him, observing the line of trees. "I still hear nothing."

But Zelos didn't reply; he just continued scanning the forest, his free hand straying down to the hilt of his sword. He kept looking, kept looking...and then finally he spotted it: a pair of dark, beady eyes covered by shaggy black hair poking out from behind a tree, looking at the village. "There."

Orochi followed Zelos's gaze, trying to see for himself, but the forest was dark, and he probably couldn't see the guy from this distance. In fact, Zelos never would have noticed him himself if not for his enhanced senses. "I still do not..."

"Trust me, he's there," Zelos cut him off, lowering his voice. He didn't know if the guy had seen them yet, but he didn't want to tip him off to his audience yet.

"Who is it?" Orochi asked, glancing at him.

"My guess? Our murderer back to make sure everyone's dead and, if not, to finish the job."

Instantly, Orochi snarled, pulled off his black gloves, and reached for what Zelos assumed were shurikens hidden in his clothes, but he didn't want to verify that and lose sight of their visitor in case the guy bolted. He had to figure out how to handle this situation first - preferably without losing what could be their only chance at catching this murderer. Assuming, of course, that he was their murderer.

Orochi, though, had a different idea, for he took a menacing step toward the forest. "Where is he? He must pay for this!"

Zelos quickly grabbed his arm, trying to stop him before he spooked the guy, but...oh, damn. Too late. The guy had noticed them, and especially that they had noticed him, for his eyes widened and he immediately took a step backwards, and then another, and then he began running, vanishing into the trees. "Oh, crap," Zelos muttered. On the bright side, this guy was likely their culprit, because innocent people didn't run away like that. On the down side, though, he was getting away. He shoved the camera at Orochi. "Hold this. Bastard won't get away from us that easily." Okay, now, to stop this guy...agh, he hated using these things, but he had no choice. Closing his eyes, he summoned his wings, then opened them again and, ignoring Orochi's stunned gape, pointed at the forest. They had no time to waste; they had to act, and fast. "I'll fly over him and cut him off from the front; you make sure he doesn't hightail it back here when I do."

Thankfully, Orochi quickly brushed aside his shock, turned back toward the forest, and nodded curtly. "Understood. He will not escape us." Zelos quickly pushed up into the air, and Orochi looked up at him pointedly. "We need him alive, Chosen."

"I know." And he meant that, because when Zelos got his hands on this son of a bitch, he would wring every drop of information he could get out of him, not only to make sure he'd acted alone here but to figure out how he'd managed to a) make a Mizuhoan poison, and b) find a hidden village like Mizuho at all. Only then would he hand this guy over to Orochi to do...well, whatever he wanted to do to him. Sure, while the king would want this guy locked up for life, Zelos would rather see what ninjas did to murderers. Besides, these people deserved the right to exact their justice in their own way - a way that undoubtedly wouldn't mirror the king's. And honestly, Zelos suspected this guy was more likely to get his proper due at Mizuho's hands than he would at the king's.

He rose into the sky and flew above the trees, carefully watching below for signs of movement. It didn't take his sharp eyesight long to pick out the bastard, still running through the trees as if demons were hot on his tail. Now, to actually catch the guy. Hoping Orochi wasn't far behind, Zelos scoped out a clearing a short distance ahead of the guy and dove down toward it to cut him off. While he hadn't flown much before, he was relieved to discover he could fly faster than a human could run - and the closer he got to the ground, the more obvious it became that their culprit wasn't a crazed ninja with impressive ninja speed since Zelos could make out Orochi quickly catching up to him. It only took Zelos a second to land in the clearing, blocking the man's path.

Zelos grinned nastily and pulled his sword from its sheath. "Oh, I don't think so, buddy. You're not going anywhere."

The guy - a man of ordinary build and appearance except for his long, matted dark hair and dirty, tattered clothes - skidded to a stop, his eyes widening in shock. "Ch...Chosen?"

His voice was gruff, but his expression was one of complete surprise - and Zelos sighed internally as his biggest fear was laid to rest: this guy really hadn't expected to see him here, which meant that whatever his nefarious reasoning for poisoning Mizuho might be, it wasn't to punish Zelos. And thank Martel for that, because if he had inadvertently been responsible for this tragedy, he never would've forgiven himself. At least that was one possible motive eliminated.

"Oh, yeah, it's me," Zelos said dangerously, taking a step forward as the man stepped backwards, his eyes widening further. "You pissed off the wrong guy this time, because believe me, I'm not letting you off the hook for this."

Further confirming his hunch about this guy's guilt, the man didn't even try to deny it or question what he meant; instead, he gaped at Zelos a moment before turning and running in the opposite direction. Or at least he tried to run in the opposite direction, only after three steps he ran into Orochi, who looked like a starving hellhound in search of souls to eat. "Not a chance," Orochi growled, lifting his shurikens threateningly.

Zelos took a cautious step forward, hoping the guy would give up and let them restrain him, but suddenly the bastard whirled around, grabbed something from his cloak, and tossed a dagger straight at Zelos. Thanks to his angel- and Cruxis crystal-enhanced reflexes, though, Zelos jumped aside, deftly avoiding it. So much for admitting defeat; this guy is acting like a cornered rat. "That is the best you can do?" Zelos countered, arching a mocking eyebrow.

The creep quickly pulled another concealed dagger from his filthy cloak and swung it wildly, first at Zelos, then at Orochi. "Stay back!" he barked, making Zelos wonder if he should be admiring the guy's determination or shaking his head at his utter stupidity. "You will never take me alive!"

"Do not let the dagger touch you, Chosen," Orochi said. "It is likely poisoned."

"Figured as much. And I wasn't planning on it." Zelos watched the man continue swinging his dagger another moment, but then he decided enough was enough and he swiftly disarmed him with a well-placed blow from his sword. An instant later, he lifted the tip of his sword to the man's throat as Orochi restrained him from behind. Heh, that was too easy. While this guy might have weapons, it was obvious from his clumsy movements and how easily he'd been disarmed and restrained that he was no fighter. Zelos grinned and shrugged. "There, one less murderer running around."

Finally, finally, the man sagged in Orochi's arms. Only a moment later, though, he grinned evilly, his eyes gleaming with crazed wickedness. "You have not won. You will never win! Ninjas are vile creatures! And you, the Chosen, associating with such filth! It is shameful! They are thieves! They are cretins! They murder innocent women and children! I must purge the world of their wickedness! I must avenge those lost! They must all die! If not by my hand, then another will take my place! They will never be safe! Death to all ninjas!" Without warning, he bit down hard on something concealed in his mouth and began laughing maniacally.

Zelos's eyes widened as, a moment later, the man's mouth began disintegrating into a horrific blob of red and green ooze - and it kept spreading outward from there. For a moment he could only gape at him, but then, realizing what had happened, he uttered, "Whoa!" and pushed Orochi backwards. "Let him go!"

Orochi didn't argue. Still laughing hysterically, the man collapsed to his knees, gasping and sputtering as his skin disintegrated - no, melted - away, quickly spreading downward through his body. "Acidic poison!" Orochi said.

"Oh, crap." This bastard was going to die. He'd just killed himself in the most horrific way imaginable rather than face the punishment he deserved - and, worse, he was completely disfiguring himself so no one could recognize him. And then Zelos saw a flash of silver from Orochi's dark cloak. "Orochi, the camera!"

Orochi immediately pulled it out and tossed it to Zelos, who snapped several pictures in hopes they'd have something to use to identify this man, although his gut told him it was already too late; whatever acid he'd used was frighteningly fast-acting. But despite his deformity, the creep was still alive and laughing, the sound a mere gurgle now, with disgusting green bubbles spewing from him as he gasped for breath. As terrible as the sight was, though, Zelos was feeling far too spiteful and vindictive to let this man die believing he'd won by killing every ninja in Mizuho.

So while life still remained in the bastard, Zelos bent down and, careful to stay out of range of any acid sputtering from him, gave him a cold, vicious grin. "For the record, your little stunt yesterday, poisoning the ninjas in Mizuho? Well, they all lived. Every. Single. One. We arrived in time to save them all. Yeah, that's right, you miserable son of a bitch, you failed." He smirked nastily. "Take that knowledge to your grave, why don't you?" And finally, all traces of victory vanished from the man's destroyed face and he sputtered a few more times before his breathing ceased, his lungs and heart succumbing to the acid. Even then, though, the acid kept working, and Zelos quickly stood up, grimaced, and backed away, wrinkling his nose and lifting a hand to his face to try to block the stench reeking from the man's burned flesh. "Ugh, that's disgusting."

"That pathetic coward," Orochi spat - and that time, Zelos couldn't blame him for his fury. It wasn't supposed to end like this; Mizuho should have been able to punish him their way. "He couldn't even face his punishment like a man; he had to run away by killing himself!"

"Yeah, no kidding," Zelos muttered. "Our only comfort is that he died an excruciatingly painful, despicable death. I just wish it had taken longer so he suffered more." And then the body was completely gone, nothing remaining except a stinking puddle of red and green ooze. He frowned but sighed. "Well, on the bright side, at least he won't try to kill your people again."

Orochi folded his arms to his chest and glared at the bastard's remains. It actually was a relief to realize that in all the times Zelos had seen Orochi pissed, he'd never looked like this before. "That is true. But unfortunately, we do not know if he was acting on his own or if he was working with others."

Yeah, Zelos knew. And that fact made him want to punch a tree. "Considering what he said, I could see both being possible."

"As could I. This also means we will still need to investigate the clues he left behind anyway and attempt to ascertain that he did not have an accomplice who will take up his cause."

Zelos nodded curtly. "I doubt he was working directly with anyone this time, because he was definitely alone when he was watching Mizuho earlier, but we can't dismiss the possibility there are others like him who've made it their goal to kill all ninjas. We'll have to see if we can come up with a motive, assuming he isn't just a psycho who decided your people would make for good target practice, which is also a possibility we can't dismiss. Some people are just missing that many screws, it seems. Personally, though, I thought it sounded like a ninja had killed someone close to him and getting rid of every ninja in one fell swoop was his way of seeking revenge for it."

"Yes, that too," Orochi agreed. "Although what ninja would have done such a thing, I cannot fathom; we never kill innocent women or children. That is a rule here that none of us ever dare break, and no chief would ever accept a mission that asked us to do so."

Zelos's eyes snapped up to Orochi's. Hm. Then who would have done something like that? Kuchinawa hadn't started accepting rogue missions that involved breaking those rules this past year, had he? Unfortunately, with Kuchinawa, anything was possible. Or maybe it wasn't a woman or a child a ninja had killed but rather this guy's brother or father or friend, and he'd jumped to the incorrect conclusion that ninjas would kill anyone? There was simply no way to know, especially now that the creep was dead.

On the bright side, though, they'd just received another clue that could shed some light on this. "Have you ever seen that acid before?" Zelos asked. "I saw a lot of weird stuff during the regeneration journey, but nothing like that."

"I have heard of it, yes, but I never saw it in use before this," Orochi replied, scowling. "Like the poison, it was also a Mizuhoan concoction long ago, as a way for ninjas to remove definitive evidence from an assassination by leaving no body behind. However, we lost all of our supplies of it, along with all record of how to create it, years ago, long before my own lifetime, so it is impossible he discovered it from Mizuho itself."

"Yeah, well, someone obviously found it," Zelos muttered. Great. So how did this creep get two top-secret ninja formulas, one of which Mizuho had lost years ago? "Between this and the poison, I'd almost think this guy ran into a secret ninja storehouse somewhere."

Orochi's frown deepened. "Yes, it does appear that way, does it not? Mizuho has moved many times during its history, some of those times in a rush to escape an approaching enemy, so it is possible something was left behind. We always send scouts to search those areas afterwards and clean up, but the possibility remains that they were unable to search one in time to secure any remaining secrets before others acquired them. Alternately, it is possible they missed one of our concealed supply warehouses."

"And if this creep happened to stumble onto it somewhere, even if it was well hidden..."

"...Yes."

Their eyes met again, the alarm on Orochi's face matching how Zelos felt. If this murderer had stumbled onto supplies Mizuho had once failed to reclaim, then what else had he found? Who else knew about it? Or had someone given him these things? This guy's choice of weapons was too deliberate to be coincidental; he'd clearly chosen this poison and acid because they were Mizuhoan in design, as a way to play up the irony of ninjas being killed by their own creations. And that...well, that seemed to indicate he wasn't just some random crazed psycho, but rather a smart, scheming, obsessive crazed psycho who had been studying these people for a long time, maybe even collecting every piece of information he could find about them and intentionally hunting them down here so he could attack them. It was the worst kind of enemy to be facing, and the thought left Zelos unsettled.

But right now, focusing on a mystery that could take months, maybe even years, to solve was pointless; they had too many questions that couldn't currently be answered. And while it was possible this man really had been working alone and nothing more would come of this, the fact remained that something could happen - maybe not today or tomorrow, maybe not even for another ten years, but one day it could - and unless they figured it out, they could one day find themselves facing a similar crisis, or worse. At this point, though, no matter how unnerved Zelos was to learn about this potential stash of secret ninja weapons that could be in the hands of other ninja-hating, terrorist psychos, it was impossible to say what would come of this, and so for now all they could do was keep an eye out for clues and pursue the few leads they had.

"Once your people have recovered, you may want to send scouts to Mizuho's previous locations and verify there's nothing else left behind," Zelos said.

"Yes, we will," Orochi said. "If anything remains from previous generations, then it should be in our possession, not in the possession of a revenge-seeking madman. But we cannot worry about that now; we should return to the village in case he did have an accomplice who used this as a diversion to attack while we were otherwise engaged."

Oh. Right. Zelos hadn't considered that, even though he should have because using diversions to achieve an end was his forte. "Good idea. But what about this...er...guy?" He motioned at the gooey remains lying between them. "Shouldn't we cover this up so some creature doesn't find it and end up with a really nasty stomach ache?"

Orochi frowned as he looked at the disgusting mush between them, then sighed. "While it will waste time, yes, we should. Michi would be disappointed if we neglected to dispose of this body and, in turn, killed innocent creatures. This man does not deserve a proper burial, but we cannot leave his remains like this, either, since they are still poisonous."

Yeah, Michi would definitely have something to say if they didn't consider his beloved forest creatures - and he refused to disappoint Michi when Michi was trying so hard not to disappoint him. "Okay, then let's cover it over the best we can and get back to the village ASAP before anything else happens."

Zelos secured his sword and the camera, and then the two worked together to cover the body with dirt and leaves. Fortunately, it wasn't terribly time-consuming since the fluid was already seeping into the ground, and only a few minutes later they were done. They marked the spot with some wood to warn others to steer clear of it, and then, once Orochi had spit on the grave in disrespect, they turned back to each other.

"Let's get back," Zelos said. "I'll fly over the forest to see if there's anyone else we need to worry about; you head back on foot. I'll meet you in Mizuho."

Orochi bowed his head. "Very well."

Hopping up into the sky, Zelos flew back toward the village, carefully observing the woods below. Other than Orochi, though, he saw nothing unusual - although granted, he couldn't see through the trees (too bad X-ray vision isn't included in the angel package, he absently thought) so he could have missed something. At least he didn't spot anyone else, lending more weight to the possibility that that miserable S.O.B. had been working alone. Several minutes later he landed in Mizuho, listening for any sounds to indicate another murderer was running around killing the incapacitated villagers, but again, he heard nothing suspicious. On the bright side, he did hear retching coming from a nearby house - a horrible sound normally, but right then it was one of the greatest sounds he'd ever heard because it meant the villagers were finally waking. Finally!

"What is it, Chosen?" Orochi asked as he rejoined Zelos in Mizuho a few minutes later.

"Sounds like your people are rousing," he replied, grinning.

Orochi listened a moment, looking around the village, the sounds of movement and groans of pain and discomfort coming more frequently from the buildings, then he nodded, his face relaxing into a definite expression of relief. "Yes, it does. We should tend to them and reassure them we are here to aid them."

Zelos nodded. "You start here; I'll take the other side of the river again. Once we're sure everyone's okay, I'll head back to Meltokio to get these pictures developed and report this to the king." Without warning, he thought of something else he could now do - something that would make the next few days infinitely easier to get through. "On my way back, I'll swing by Sybak and pick up Michi and his family. Now that our murderer is gone, they should be safe here." He arched an eyebrow. "Unless you don't want them here yet in case that creep did have a partner who'll come back to finish the job?"

"No, you are correct that it should be safe for them here now," Orochi said. "We will emphasize that we are uncertain whether the matter has been fully resolved yet and have them be on constant guard for any signs that someone else means us harm, but as of now, we have yet to see any. Besides, at the moment, we need their help."

"That's an understatement," Zelos muttered, looking around at all the houses. "All right, then, let's get started."

"Yes, let's." Without warning, though, Orochi tilted his head as he gave Zelos a confusing, almost teasing, smile. "Oh, but Chosen?"

"Hm?" Zelos replied, his eyes narrowing as Orochi's smile turned into, incredibly enough, a smirk.

Orochi pointed at him. "You should hide your wings. I do not believe it necessary to alarm my people by leading them to believe they died and are being tended to by angels."

Oh. ...Oh. Zelos's face flared, and he rubbed his neck and let out a soft, awkward laugh as he put his wings away. That was, quite honestly, the first joke he'd heard Orochi make in over a year. Sure, it was subdued because of the gravity of the situation and the disappointing death of Mizuho's murderer, but it was still a joke. And really, Zelos was shocked that he'd forgotten to put them away at all, considering how much he hated them. What surprised him most, though, was that for once, he was actually glad he'd had them. Sure, that bastard had avoided punishment by killing himself, but at least he would never threaten these people again - and that was because Zelos had caught him using these wings. Maybe one day, given enough time, he really would be able to accept what he'd become. Oh, how he hoped so.

"Right," he said, smiling sheepishly. "You have a point there."

Orochi smiled faintly, then nodded. "Then let us get started." And with that, they split up and began tending to the people, getting them water, easing their fears, and helping them out however they could.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 3: The Healing

The day raced by in a blur. The villagers all started waking at roughly the same time, albeit thankfully staggered enough that Zelos and Orochi managed to keep up with them, and for several hours they rushed from house to house as someone new awoke, tending to them and offering brief explanations and assurances that Mizuho would be fine. During those hours, Zelos put himself on autopilot, doing whatever needed to be done, thankful for the extra stamina his angelic physiology granted him, and Orochi did the same, although every time Zelos saw him, the fatigue was showing more prominently on his face. Eventually, though, everyone had awoken briefly, they'd drunk some water (most after having also thrown up), and then they'd dozed off again.

Once everyone was sleeping, Zelos had grabbed Sheena's Rheaird and flown back to Meltokio. His first stop was his mansion to give the camera to Sebastian, who was appalled by Zelos's account yet relieved to hear Sheena had survived, and he'd promised to get the pictures developed immediately. Zelos had then taken a shower and changed into clean clothes, feeling icky after dealing with so many sick people and a melting murderer, and then headed to the palace to give the king his report. As expected, the king was shocked, horrified, and furious, and he swore to devote all available investigators to the matter. While he'd certainly had issues with Mizuho in the past, they were still his people, and Zelos had no doubt he'd do all he could to get to the heart of what happened. The king had then summoned a sketch artist so Zelos could have a rendering made of the murderer in case the photographs didn't turn out, and once satisfied it was accurate, Zelos asked for a copy to take back to Mizuho, which they gave him. And once he'd gotten the developed pictures from Sebastian, of which only the ball ones had turned out since those of the murderer, as expected, depicted a horrific figure barely recognizable as human, his urgent business in Meltokio was concluded.

His next stop was Sybak, where he'd found Michi, Sadako, and Hamako sitting near the coast while Michi showed off all the books he was studying. Zelos had stopped by several times to see him since he'd started his classes, and as he'd expected, Michi was proving to be an extremely good student. He was catching up to the other students with a speed described as 'remarkable,' his grades were excellent, his teachers loved him, he was behaving, and he was always eager to discuss what he was learning. They'd played a few more games of chess, and while Michi still hadn't won, with every game he was improving, and Zelos expected he soon would win. And, the best part, Michi was happy there - and judging from the relaxed smile Zelos saw on Sadako's face before they noticed him, she was happy to see him so happy.

And then his heart had broken as he'd interrupted and told them the bad news, all their happiness instantly vanishing. He'd quickly countered that with the good news, that most of their people had survived and that the guy who'd poisoned them wouldn't hurt anyone ever again, and before he'd even finished asking them to come back with him to help, they'd been on their feet, ready to go. Zelos had then briefly talked to the school's administrators, informing them he was taking Michi out of class for a few days to attend to an emergency and would have him back ASAP and that he shouldn't be penalized for it, and then they'd jumped on his Rheaird, which he'd grabbed while in Meltokio, and Sheena's Rheaird and flown back to Mizuho.

Their work continued the rest of the day, and Zelos was grateful for the additional sets of hands because every one of them worked their butts off. Zelos spent several hours hauling drinking water from the 'safe' stream to the village, not wanting to take any chances with any other water in the village, while Michi and Orochi ran from house to house, tending to the sick and distributing the water, with Hamako alternately helping them and cleaning up the village and Sadako cooking a hearty soup for everyone. The villagers began to wake more often, and each time they did, they seemed a little more lucid than before. Most were soon able to start eating a bit of Sadako's soup, and once satisfied with their water supply, Zelos chipped in distributing food to everyone.

And then darkness had fallen. Still unwilling to take the chance that their murderer had had an accomplice, Zelos volunteered to take the night watch again, especially after seeing the others' exhaustion. Hamako, precious but hardworking nine-year-old that she was, had fallen asleep before the sun even set, and a single look at the other three told him they could never serve as night watch, either, not even ever-vigilant, uber-ninja Orochi, who reluctantly admitted he'd barely slept last night and now looked ready to collapse. And while Zelos was exhausted, too, at least he knew he could handle it. He wasn't sure how many nights he could keep going like that, but he'd find out. So, for the second night in a row, he settled in by Sheena's bed and resumed reading the language book Orochi had given him. At least the rosy coloring was returning to Sheena's face, and she, too, had awoken several times during the day and had eaten a bit of soup and drunk a full glass of water. And knowing she was on the road to recovery and that the primary, perhaps even only, cause of Mizuho's poisoning wouldn't be back had led to a much calmer night than the previous one had been.

Part of him had hoped Sheena would wake during the night so he could talk to her - one of the times she'd awoken during the day she'd tried to ask him how everyone was doing, and he'd answered her as best he could, but she kept dozing off again, leading Zelos to believe she hadn't caught what he'd said - but she didn't, and he opted to let her sleep, knowing she needed it. On the bright side, two full nights of studying their language had led him to some breakthroughs with it. It wasn't enough to make him comfortable with the language yet, but at least he was getting somewhere - because the past day hadn't changed his mind about the life-altering decision he'd made. In fact, the opposite had happened; the more people in Mizuho let him help them, the more enamored he was becoming of the village. He still wasn't sure the people were enamored of him - in fact, some vocally resisted his help before realizing they had no choice and reluctantly accepted it - but he still considered every new person he dealt with to be a step in the right direction. If he was lucky, maybe one day their reluctant acceptance of him would even change.

Oh, how he hoped it would change.

Since all Zelos had to occupy his time was a dry language book, morning took forever to arrive, but eventually it did, and with it came more of the same. He helped Sadako and Hamako make an easy-to-eat breakfast of what they claimed was rice gruel but that tasted far better than rice gruel had any right to taste, and then they then spread out again to tend to the villagers. Fortunately, the more people ate, the more strength they were recovering, and Zelos was glad to see that everyone was significantly more lucid than they had been the day before. While they were still extremely weak and couldn't stand yet, they weren't delirious anymore, which Zelos chose to take as a good signs.

And finally, around midday, he made it back to Sheena's home. She'd been half asleep when he'd dropped off food and water for her that morning, but at least she'd recognized him and given him a groggy smile. This time as he entered her house, though, grinning as he noted something else while stepping inside, he could see it: she was completely awake and was sitting up in her bed, looking around as if bored. And, even better, the second he finished removing his shoes and began heading toward her, she gave him a smile that was significantly more believable than anything else he'd seen from her in days.

"Well, well!" Zelos said, returning her smile. "Look who's up!"

"Hi," Sheena replied as she watched him enter her bedroom.

Seating himself on the futon beside her, Zelos pressed a tender kiss to her cheek, which resulted in her blushing and beaming him an even brighter smile. He then pulled back and touched her face, looking her over closely. Her dark eyes were still sunken, and her face was too thin, and her hair was a wild mess, but her color had significantly improved. In fact, it almost looked normal again.

He ran a hand through her tangled hair. "So how is my favorite patient feeling today?"

"'Favorite patient'?" she repeated, her eyebrows flying upward and her eyes sparkling with amusement. "What are you now, my doctor?"

Oh, good. She was definitely feeling a little better if she'd responded to him like that. And even though he had other stuff to take care of in Mizuho, he couldn't pass by an opportunity to spend some time with her. "Yep, yep! Dr. Zelos, at your service." He grinned broadly and bowed his head to her.

"Dr. Zelos," she muttered, rolling her eyes and shaking her head, albeit still smiling, too. "Leave you alone with a bunch of sick people for a few days and you start getting all these grand aspirations that you've magically turned into a doctor."

Zelos blinked at her innocently. "What, you mean I haven't?"

Sheena arched an eyebrow at him. "You're many things, Zelos, but 'doctor' isn't one of them. Just because you know First Aid doesn't mean you're a doctor."

He poked her arm. After how close he'd come to losing her, he would never again take these fun little moments with her for granted. "Yeah, well, I'm not entirely convinced of that yet, but one thing I do know is that I'm the closest thing you have to one right now, so you might not want to write me off as a quack. My bedside manner might just have to suffer if you do." She laughed softly and shook her head again, and Zelos shrugged. "Besides, after the past few days I'm pretty sure quite a few of your people are convinced I am one."

"Eh, you might have a point there," she admitted, but then she closed her eyes and moaned softly as Zelos continued trailing his fingers through her hair, gently massaging her scalp. "Mm...that feels good."

"Yeah, I bet it does." Zelos pressed a kiss to her neck, then he pulled back and rose to his feet. "Let me get a brush. Your hair is starting to look like a rat built a nest there."

"It's starting to feel like a rat built a nest there," Sheena murmured, pointing at the dresser beneath her mirror. Seeing the brush on the counter, Zelos grabbed it and returned to the futon, turning her slightly and seating himself behind her. The second he started working on a snarl in her hair, though, she looked back at him, her brows furrowing. "Y'know, I can do this myself."

"Maybe," he replied, turning her head forward. "But I don't want you overexerting yourself, so..."

Sheena turned back toward him, her expression incredulous. "By brushing my hair? How would brushing my hair be overexerting myself?"

Zelos grinned and gently turned her head forward again. "It probably wouldn't be, but this is my treat, sweetheart. My vantage point back here is better than yours. Besides, I've always wanted to do this."

That time her head only turned a little, her brows furrowing further. "You have?"

...Why did that surprise her? "Of course I have! Since you apparently haven't noticed this yet, I love your hair. So dark and sleek and sexy..."

She rolled her eyes and chuckled as she turned forward again. Chances were she was blushing, too, Zelos figured, grinning, because she always blushed whenever he pointed out aspects of her anatomy that he liked, both the innocuous and the not-so-innocuous. "Hard not to notice your obsession with it," she murmured.

"I'd be sorely disappointed in your deductive skills if you'd failed to realize that by now." They fell silent as he continued working on her hair, being as gentle with it as he could, knowing from experience how much it could hurt. The problem was, he'd been so eager to talk to her for days now that he couldn't stay silent long. And besides... "You never answered my question, love. How are you feeling?"

She glanced back at him, then sighed softly and turned forward again. "A little better. I'm still tired, and my muscles still feel weak, but I don't ache as badly as I did yesterday. My head doesn't feel nearly as fuzzy as it did then, either."

"Good." He'd suspected as much when he'd gotten that smile out of her a few minutes ago, but he was still glad for the confirmation. "It kills me to see you like that."

She fell silent again, but then her head dipped downward, her voice lowering. "I...I tried to stand up before, too, but that...didn't work out so well."

...Of course she'd tried that. She wouldn't be Sheena Fujibayashi if she hadn't. But still, Zelos sighed, his hand stopping as he leaned forward, peering around her at her face. "Sheena, you aren't ready for that yet. Your body is still healing. You need to Stay. In. Bed." He lightly tapped the brush against her back to punctuate those words.

"I know, I know," she grumbled. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

He sat back and resumed brushing her hair. "I'm not saying you do, but for now, that's how it is. Forcing yourself to do something you aren't ready for will just set you back."

"Yeah, I know, but how do I know if I'm ready for it or not unless I try?" she murmured.

"When you're ready, you'll know it. Trust me, you will. You just have to give it time." Which was easier said than done with her because she was one of the least patient people he'd ever met, but it couldn't hurt to reemphasize that, could it?

She was silent another moment before sighing again. "I just...I hate this, being stuck here all the time, feeling this awful, having to rely on someone else to take care of me..."

Zelos's hand stilled as his gut twisted. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? But he quickly resumed working on her hair anyway, trying to inject some playfulness into his voice. "What, I'm not doing a good enough job taking care of you? So cruel, Sheena."

Considering how her head snapped toward him and her eyes widened, though, his attempt to mask his pang of disappointment had failed. "What? No! No, that's..." She sighed and shook her head. "That's not what I meant, Zelos, not at all. You're doing an incredible job here. You have no idea how appreciative I am of everything you've done, not just for me, but for all of my people." The knot in his gut loosened and he relaxed, relieved that he'd just misunderstood her, as she bit her lip shyly and turned her head forward so he could continue brushing her hair. "I just...it's because you have already done so much for me that I feel terrible asking you to do even more."

He shook his head. "Don't. Don't feel bad about it. Please. I'm doing this because I want to help you when you need it most. And for the record, I can't do that unless you tell me what you need, so please, tell me what you need, no matter how trivial it might seem. You'd want me to tell you what I needed if our positions were reversed, wouldn't you?"

Her voice lowered further. "Of course I would."

Good. He was glad she recognized that. "That's what people who love each other do; they go out of their way to help each other however they can. Besides, what am I supposed to do, just let you suffer when I can prevent it?"

"Of course not." She was clearly reluctant to admit what that meant for her - that he wanted to help her, even if it meant she had to tell him what she needed and ask him to 'inconvenience' himself for her - but at least she wasn't dismissing his argument. "I just...I like being able to take care of myself. I hate feeling weak and asking others to do things for me that I'd normally do myself."

"No kidding, Little Miss Independent Ninja Girl," he replied. "And the truth is, your independence is one of the things I love about you most, how you don't require hand-holding to get through life like so many other women I know do because you're capable of doing it yourself. But it is okay to ask for help. Doing so doesn't make you weak, especially when the person in question wants to help you. There are times you just fall so far down into a hole that there's no way you can climb out of it on your own, and at times like those, I'd hope you'd accept the hand of the person reaching down, trying to pull you up. Or at least grab the rope that's been thrown to you so you can use it to pull yourself out."

She turned her head a little, her brows furrowing. "Wait, are you saying I should've been a girl and let Lloyd save me in the Tower of Salvation instead of falling down that hole?"

Zelos smirked as he turned her head forward again, remembering how she'd felt in his arms as he'd caught her and how tightly she'd clung to him as he'd flown her out of that hole...followed by her vicious slap for having betrayed them. Chances were part of that slap had been because she'd been pissed that he'd saved her, too, instead of letting her try to save herself. But still, as painful as it had been, he wouldn't trade the rest of the memory for anything.

"Nah, I'm glad you didn't that time. It gave me a chance to save you instead." Sheena groaned, but then she chuckled, and Zelos quickly lost the grin. He needed her to know this - and especially to accept it. Independence was great, but not at the expense of your own health. And Sheena...well, Sheena was awful at accepting help. He should've known she'd already be antsy to be herself again; she wouldn't be the woman he loved if she wasn't. "Seriously, though, sweetheart, that's all I want to be for you now: that hand that's helping you climb out of the hole as quickly as you can. I want you to recover so you can go back to being the kick-ass ninja I love so much. I mean Martel, Sheena, you were nearly dead, and now you expect to be back at 100% two days later? Give it time. You may be superwoman, but you're not, either. We're limited by what our bodies let us do, and there's no reason for you to push it beyond its limits because that will just hinder its ability to heal. So let me dote on you until that happens. Heck, I'd be happy to do that for you even after you're better if only you'd let me. Right now there's nothing in what's happened here - nothing - that reflects badly on you, that says you didn't do everything in your power to save your people or that you're no longer an independent woman. You'll be her again soon enough. Just be patient and accept my hand until you get there. Okay?" He stopped brushing her hair and peered around her shoulder at her face. "Please?"

Sheena watched him a moment, her brown eyes softening, until finally she gave him a faint smile. "Okay. I'll try."

Zelos returned her smile and kissed her cheek. "Thank you. And by all means, my dear," he turned her head and resumed brushing her hair, "feel free to whine. I whine to you all the time, usually over stupid stuff, so you're more than entitled to a few whining sessions after this." He briefly stopped and gave her a pointed look. "Just so long as you don't whine about the fact that I'm trying to help you, of course."

"I won't." She smiled again, then sighed as she looked forward. "I just hate this, Zelos, having to sleep all the time, not being able to get up, having to sit here doing nothing when there's so much to do out there." She pointed at the door. "I know it's only been two days, but it's so frustrating being stuck in bed when there's so much else I'd rather be doing."

Heh. And let the first whining session begin. "Well, I won't deny we could use another set of hands out there, but we are managing on our own." He shrugged, locating the last of the snarls in her hair and carefully working on it. "Of course, if you're really that bored, we could always find you something to do here to keep you occupied."

Sheena's eyes narrowed and she turned so she could see him as he finished with her hair, tossed the brush on the end of the bed, and set his chin on her shoulder. "Like what?"

It took all of Zelos's restraint not to laugh at the curious, eager look in her eyes. Even after all this time, she still hadn't learned not to get him started tossing out stupid suggestions intended to make her roll her eyes or blush, had she? Well, that or she liked when he did that and was subtly encouraging him; he couldn't dismiss that possibility, either. He gave her an innocent look. "Well, for starters, you could take up knitting."

Unsurprisingly, Sheena glared at him, unamused. "Knitting? That's not funny."

He smirked. "I thought it was. Or you could take up painting and create the next world masterpiece."

That time she rolled her eyes - but there it was: the telltale smile that told him she recognized what he was doing. "Let me guess, using your edible body paints, right?"

Zelos had to bite back a laugh. "Well, that might get a little messy on your bed, but it sure would be fun. Tasty, too! I'd even volunteer to be your canvas." His face lit up and he waggled his eyebrows, ignoring the mock glare she gave him. "Hey, I think I like this idea!"

Sheena shook her head in weary disgust. "You're a perverted idiot. You know that, right?"

His only response, though, was to smirk mischievously and whisper huskily in her ear, "What, can't you just imagine me stretched out here on your bed, naked, waiting for the finishing touches from your..." And there, finally, was the smack to the leg that he'd expected. It wasn't as hard as normal because she was too weak to put much effort into it, but it was better than nothing. "Hey, ow!"

He gave her a mock-incredulous look, but it quickly turned into a cheeky grin as she turned to face him, her face growing red as she struggled valiantly, albeit unsuccessfully, to hide her smile. Heh, so she had been envisioning it, hadn't she? "You'd better stop while you're ahead, buddy, before I really have to overexert myself by beating you up," she said, although the embarrassment in her voice nullified any real sense of warning.

Zelos chuckled. "Sorry, sorry. But I thought I was being altruistic, offering up my body for your entertainment like that...ow!" He laughed even harder as Sheena smacked his leg again, thrilled to see she was now laughing, too, her face bright red as she continued glaring at him unconvincingly. He lifted his hands. "Okay, okay! I'll stop now."

But she really didn't seem to be upset about his stupid suggestion; she just seemed flustered. And honestly, Zelos was just so glad he still could flirt with her like this that he hadn't been able to stop himself. For awhile he'd been terrified he would never see her laugh and blush again; he'd been terrified he would never see her again. And with the sheer happiness sweeping through him, he couldn't resist leaning in and giving her a kiss, one she immediately returned, her fingers curling around the nape of his neck and holding him to her. No, on second thought, this was what he'd been most afraid of never experiencing again - the warmth, passion, and love in her kiss - and as she moaned faintly against his lips, he knew full well that this, kissing her, loving her, was what he wanted to do every day, every second, for the rest of his life.

Oh, yeah, he would definitely be following through on his decision to make their love official and permanent. He had made the right choice; he could feel it. No sense of entrapment accompanied it; he didn't feel like he was asking for a ball and chain or was obligated to marry her, as if she would dump him unless he caved to her demands, as he'd always expected marriage would feel like. No, this was something he now wanted with such desire that it left him breathless. He wanted to help her in every way she'd let him. He wanted to be with her, and he would even make this mysterious ninja village his home and accept the unknown responsibilities that came with it if it meant he could kiss her and flirt with her and make her laugh and talk with her and hold her and make love to her and protect her so nothing could ever threaten her like this again. And more than that, he would do it all willingly...gladly.

Instinct and the desire and need building within him told him to deepen the kiss and take it to its next logical step, especially now that that step had an actual chance of happening soon, but he quickly dismissed the notion. Sheena wasn't nearly strong enough for that yet, nor was she mentally ready for it. Heck, he wasn't ready for it yet, either, since he still had a number of things to take care of first. And so, instead of pursuing that desire, he broke the kiss, pulled back a little, and touched her face, giving her a soft smile. He might not know for certain yet whether or not that 'next step' would become reality, because anything could still happen, including Sheena deciding she didn't want the same future he did, but he was choosing to be optimistic. Sheena might struggle with patience, but he didn't, and he could wait a little longer. He could. For her sake.

"I love you, Sheena," he whispered, brushing his thumb over her cheek and eliciting a warm, happy smile and soft, "I love you, too, Zelos," from her in return.

Zelos observed her a moment, entranced by the blush on her cheeks and the warmth in her eyes as they lowered to his lips, then he smiled and gave her one more kiss that she eagerly returned. For a moment she just watched him as he pulled back, her lips parted as if she wanted to say more, but then she sighed and leaned back against the wall, her eyes sliding shut before opening again, the implication clear: while she wanted to be outside helping, she was too exhausted to do so yet, and she probably wouldn't last long before falling back asleep. But the brightness in her eyes as she opened them and smiled at him again told him she wasn't ready for him to leave yet, either, and so he'd accommodate her fatigue. Turning so he was sitting beside her, Zelos wrapped his arm around her and pulled her to him, kissing her cheek as she shifted further into him, resting her hand on his chest and her head on his shoulder. Holding her like this always felt heavenly, knowing she trusted him enough to let him do so. Well, it was heavenly except for this...thing...currently digging into his thigh. And while her leg was pressing against his, her body was too soft to be causing that other feeling.

Grimacing, Zelos reluctantly removed his arm from around her and reached under the covers. Upon finding the culprit, he grabbed it and pulled it out. Aha, so that was the problem! "I see you found my book, eh?"

Sheena eyed him as he set it on his leg and then wrapped his arm around her again. "So this is yours? I was having trouble figuring out where it came from and why it was sitting beside my bed."

He grinned and nodded curtly. "Yup, my book."

She continued watching him expectantly, but when he didn't say more, unsure as he was how to explain it, she pressed, "Where did you get it? I know it isn't mine."

His grin transformed into a crafty smirk. "Nope, not yours. It was a...gift."

Her eyes narrowed further. "A gift."

"Yep, a gift."

"From whom, exactly?"

Heh. She would never believe this. Never. Part of him was tempted to make her guess, but eh, she was tired, his guessing games annoyed her, and, well, he was pretty damn tired, too, and didn't feel like playing too many games right now. "Try, oh, Orochi."

Sheena gave him a disbelieving look. "Orochi."

Zelos nodded brightly. "Yep!"

For a moment she just stared at him, but then she sighed and shook her head. "Okay, so who is it really from? Because I cannot believe he would give you a book on our language."

Yeah, no surprise there; even he still had trouble believing it. The difference was that he knew why Orochi had given it to him - and that reasoning was something Zelos couldn't share with her yet. "Seriously, love. It was from Orochi." Sheena pursed her lips, and he chuckled and pressed a kiss to her cheek to placate her. Okay, so she'd never believe him unless he told her something, and just because he couldn't tell her the primary reason didn't mean he couldn't tell her anything. "I'm not lying, Sheena! Honest. When he learned you'd given me a kid's book on your language and that it was a good thing you had because that was how I'd been able to get that antidote started, he saw the value in it and gave me a more advanced book."

She watched him closely again, but then, finally, her disbelief transformed into amazement. "You're serious, aren't you?"

Aha, finally! Some semblance of belief! If he didn't understand how crazy this sounded, he'd be offended, but in this case her disbelief really was warranted. "Yep, I am."

"Wow," she said, letting out an incredulous laugh. "That's incredible. So, what? Did the world end while I was unconscious, too?"

Yeah, he supposed Orochi actually being nice to him qualified as an 'end-of-the-world' type of scenario. He grinned. "Something like that. Oh, and pigs started flying, too."

Her brows furrowed. "Eh?"

...Oh. Right. Mizuho didn't use that saying. "Eh, just a colorful saying we have in Meltokio to describe impossible scenarios."

"Ah." She was silent a moment, her gaze falling to the book, but suddenly she grabbed it and flipped it open to his bookmark: the note she'd written detailing the poison and its cure. "And this?" she asked, pulling out the paper. "Where did you get this?"

Uh oh. Warning alarms were blaring in his head. This was not a safe subject. If she pursued it, it could only lead to one possible end: his violent, painful death. He smiled sheepishly. Maybe a slight diversion would work? "Heh. You don't remember writing it?"

She observed the note thoughtfully, albeit confusedly, too. "Well, it's my handwriting, and I vaguely remember jotting down some notes while talking to Grandpa and then shoving it somewhere safe so I wouldn't drop it, but those memories are even fuzzier than the ones I have of writing it. Which is why I'm wondering where you got it."

Oh, please, Sheena, let this drop. Please don't push this. "Oh, I...found...it."

She looked up at him and grinned wryly. "Obviously, since I'm still alive." Her eyes narrowed, and suddenly Zelos got the feeling she knew damn well where she'd stashed it and was waiting for him to come clean about it. Well, that or his reaction had already told her his answer. "Zelos, seriously. Where did you find it? Did I drop it somewhere?"

He was briefly tempted to lie and say 'yes,' but she hated being lied to - and ever since that night when everything between them had changed forever, Sheena had always known when he was lying to her. He cocked his head, desperately searching for a way out of this that involved him keeping all of his appendages attached to his body. "No, you didn't drop it. I, er, found it...on you."

Unsurprisingly, her eyes narrowed further. "Where exactly did you find it on me?"

Zelos gave her another nervous smile as he released her and backed away a little, wondering if he'd be able to dodge her fist when she tried to slug him. Oh, yeah, she already knew his answer and was just waiting for him to tell her the truth. "Where you're afraid I found it." Sheena eyed him a moment, but then she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and shook her head. "Yeah, so you're gonna need a new top-secret hiding spot."

Her eyes opened and she sighed softly before glaring at him again. He really, really wanted to believe that was an exasperated glare she was giving him, not a furious, prepare-to-die glare, because if it was the former, then he - and their relationship - at least stood a chance of surviving this. "Please tell me you didn't do what I'm afraid you did."

He lifted his hands in a show of innocence. "Sweetheart, you're the one who put it there!"

Her eyes narrowed again - but surprisingly, a smile was toying on her lips, too. She was enjoying making him squirm, wasn't she? Although he really did deserve it because he had put his hands in places she never would have approved of. Man, it was a good thing they were this far along in their relationship and that he'd behaved and kept his hands to himself before this or she would've already dumped him and beat him to within inches of his life.

"I'm almost afraid to ask what possessed you to look there for any notes I might've had hidden on me," she stated flatly.

Okay, it was time for some massive damage control here. He lifted a finger. "Let's consider my options a moment, m'kay? One, I could grope my gorgeous, voluptuous girlfriend to see if she happened to hide an Ultra Top Secret Note in her Ultra Top Secret Pocket where I've caught her putting Ultra Top Secret Things in the past when she thought no one was watching, because I could tell from how ransacked her home was that she'd been searching for something and I'd hoped she'd found it and hidden it somewhere on her. Or two, I could be a gentleman, not grope her, and as a result, let aforementioned gorgeous, voluptuous girlfriend and her people die a horrible, pointless death." He pretended to weigh the options on his hands. "The choice really wasn't that hard, love." Instead of responding, though, Sheena continued watching him through narrowed, accusatory eyes - at least there's still a smile toying on her lips! he noted before he could panic - and Zelos pointed sharply at her, needing to make this absolutely clear. "And to be perfectly honest, if I had to do it all over again, I'd make the same choice again in a heartbeat."

Thankfully, that time her eyes softened. "Yeah, I suppose you would."

His eyebrows flew upward. "Would you rather it had been Orochi looking there for it?"

Her face wrinkled in distaste. "Ugh, no...but chances are he would've been a gentleman and not looked there at all."

Zelos smirked. No, he wouldn't have, and if he hadn't, then they wouldn't be sitting here right now and she knew it. "And then you and your people would be dead right now, which is why I refuse to apologize for doing what I had to do."

"Yeah, I know," she murmured reluctantly, then gave him a wry grin. "Y'know what the worst part is? I can't even be mad at you and smack you for that."

Oh, thank Martel. At least she understands the position I'd been in. Chuckling, Zelos wrapped his arm around her again - and thankfully, she let him draw her to him, returning her head to his shoulder and her hand to his chest. "Well, you could, but I think you're far too happy to be alive to do that."

Sheena nodded faintly. "Yeah, I am. And you're right, I'm the one who put it there. I wasn't even thinking at that point, I was just..."

"I know." She'd been terrified of failing her people, so she'd operated on instinct, and instinct had told her to hide an important document in a safe location so she couldn't lose it if the poison hit her, too. She hadn't even considered that hiding it there might doom them all if she had succumbed. And it couldn't hurt to emphasize this, too, because it was the truth. "And for the record, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I expected I would."

She lifted her head and gave him another disbelieving glare. "Yeah, sure you didn't."

Zelos batted his eyelashes at her innocently. "What? I didn't! Your skin was too cold, you were very definitely dying, and...well, believe it or not, I kinda missed the whole 'smacking' part. It definitely did not match up to any of my regular fantasies about you, and trust me, it's not becoming one of my regular fantasies about you, either."

His mention of his fantasies elicited another blush from her and left her momentarily flustered and fumbling for a reply, but she quickly shook it off, her eyebrows creeping upward as she met and held his gaze. "Well, I can smack you now, if you'd like."

"Only if you want to and it would make you feel better about this," he countered, smiling uncertainly.

She watched him again, considering that, but finally she sighed, shook her head, and sank back against him. "No, I really don't want to. I doubt it would make me feel better, either. So I'm gonna let it go this time. You deserve the benefit of the doubt, and I really do owe you for everything you did here." Abruptly, her head snapped up again and she pointed at him warningly. "But this is the only time you'll ever get away with pulling a stunt like that."

Oh, thank Martel. Crisis averted. Zelos gave her a quick kiss. "It won't happen again. I promise. Well, not unless there's another life-or-death situation like this one, anyway." He gave her a crafty grin and waggled his eyebrows. "Or unless you want me to."

Instantly, her eyes widened and her blush deepened, but then she laughed softly and shook her head, embarrassed. And the best part was that she didn't even try to respond to that - which he'd learned months ago meant she couldn't deny his insinuation or assert it would never happen, either. And then, not wanting to piss her off, he let the subject drop, watching her fingers stray back to the book resting on his leg.

Flipping it open, Sheena returned the slip of paper to its original location, then closed it again. "I'm still surprised he gave you this, though. That was really nice of him."

Zelos shrugged. "Eh, he's not so bad once you can get him to overlook his grievances with you, which I guess I finally did. Life and death situations tend to do that."

Sheena nodded faintly, then rested her head on his shoulder again. "Now I almost feel bad for getting so mad at him when he stopped by earlier."

...Wait, what? His eyes narrowed and he turned to her. "You got mad at him this morning? Why? What did he do?"

Sheena snuggled further against him, her hand lifting back to his chest. "He wouldn't tell me how many villagers had died."

"He wouldn't?" She shook her head, and Zelos sighed. Sheena never had reacted well to people keeping secrets from her. Never mind that not only was she plenty guilty of secret-keeping thanks to her job as a spy, but that it was Orochi's job to keep secrets, too. "Eh, he was probably just trying to keep you from worrying too much."

"Never mind that by not telling me, he made me worry even more," she murmured. "Y'know, that, like, half the village died or something."

Zelos's heart sank. Oh, Orochi. You've known this woman her entire life and yet you still know nothing about her, do you? And again, he couldn't help thinking there was a reason she hadn't returned Orochi's affections: not just because a rival had entered the picture, but because Orochi wasn't the best man for her. He was a good, trusted, loyal friend to her, but he was too simple, single-minded, set in his ways, big brotherly, and normal for a fiery woman like Sheena. He would undoubtedly love her and be a good husband to her if she chose him, but as Orochi had admitted, he couldn't make her smile or laugh because he just wasn't what she needed. She needed adventure and passion and, as she'd once said, unpredictability, someone who would challenge her, keep her on her toes, and make her consider things from a different perspective. She needed somebody who understood grief and guilt and yet could still make her happy. She needed somebody who could calm her down with a look or a touch, someone who could complement her strengths and weaknesses. And while Zelos would probably always question whether he really was the best man for her, he couldn't deny that she seemed happy with him. In fact, after how clearly she'd spelled out what she was looking for, she truly did seem to think he fit the mold she needed.

But right now that was neither here nor there. No, right now he had to do the last thing he'd ever expected to have do: defend Orochi. "I'm sure he only wanted to protect you, Sheena. Don't hold it against him too much."

She considered that a moment before nodding faintly. "You're probably right."

Okay, this whole subject was weird, and awkward, and darker than he currently wanted to be dealing with, so it was time to lighten the mood. He grinned. "Well, that or he's starting to like the fact that you're always pissed at him." She lifted her head and arched an eyebrow at him, but he just blinked at her innocently. "What? I did!"

Sheena rolled her eyes and returned her head to his shoulder. "That's because you were a masochistic idiot."

He chuckled. Then it's a good thing you were a sadist, eh? "Well, that and because I was in love with you and wanted the attention."

"Yeah, because you were in love with me and wanted-" Her voice cut off, her body stiffened, and he could feel her face grow warm. "Y'know, I don't think I want to know where you're going with that - or how it's connected to Orochi."

Zelos grimaced, realizing what he'd said. That had been a poor choice of words. Right now Sheena didn't need to know about Orochi's feelings for her; things between the three of them were awkward enough without her knowing that, and it would be infinitely worse if she was always questioning Orochi's intentions toward her. "Yeah...probably a good idea."

They fell silent again, but suddenly Sheena lifted her head and looked at him, her face pleading. "Zelos, how many?"

Yeah, he'd expected that, too - and like Orochi, he was reluctant to answer. But he couldn't hide this from her. Orochi may not have known she needed someone to be honest with her, but he did. As much as he hated breaking this to her, she trusted him to answer honestly, and so he would. He sighed but met her eyes. "Nine."

Her eyes closed and her head sank downward, but then she opened them again and nodded curtly. "Nine is far too many, but it's a lot better than it could've been."

"Yeah, it is," he whispered.

"Do you know who they were?"

Zelos shook his head. "Other than Toya, I don't know their names. I remember seeing the others at your grandfather's memorial dinner, but I can't put a name with the face. You'll have to get a full list from Orochi or Sadako."

"I will." She swallowed again, nervousness creeping onto her face. "And Grandpa?"

Ah, good. That he could reassure her about. "He's fine. I stopped by to see him earlier. He's still weak and pretty out of it, but he's alive and kickin'. He's a tough old man."

Sheena chuckled. "Yeah, he is."

"He was asking about you, too. Relaxed when I told him you were steadily getting better."

"Yeah, that's Grandpa, too," she murmured. "I hope I can stop by and see him soon."

"I'm sure you will." He sighed, his voice lowering. "I just wish I'd gotten here sooner. Maybe I could've saved those nine people."

"Zelos, don't," Sheena quickly said, turning further toward him. "Orochi didn't tell me all the details, but he did make it clear that none of us would be alive right now if you hadn't gotten here when you did and made that antidote."

Zelos nodded and gave her a faint smile. "I know, sweetheart. Believe me, I do. But that doesn't stop me from wishing I could've prevented any deaths here."

"That's because you're a good man," she whispered, her gaze falling to his lips as she brushed a lock of red hair behind his shoulder. "You didn't even stop to think when you found us like that, did you? You just acted." Her eyes lifted back to his, and Zelos opened his mouth to respond - but he faltered, words failing him, as they always did, at her expression of faith in him. The uncomfortable part of him was tempted to brush off the awkwardness with a joke, but the other part of him was deeply touched, too. Torn between his options, he hesitated a little too long, and she smiled warmly. "That's what I thought."

As much as he wanted to deny that, he couldn't, because he had just acted, not caring what it took to save these people, just knowing he'd had to do it. "Eh, I guess this place has grown on me. I mean, I couldn't just let you guys die, could I? And don't forget, it wasn't just me. If you hadn't done your research before I got here, and if Orochi hadn't shown up when he did, everyone still would've died. I can't take all the credit."

"I know," she quickly replied. "But that doesn't change the fact that you played your part, and that if you hadn't been here, we would be dead right now." Her eyes softened as they took in his face, her smile broadening. "My guardian angel."

...Wow. His heart skipped a beat at her words, but it also made him feel awkward and uncomfortable again, because hearing such praise directed at him was just...weird. It always had been, especially when, for the life of him, he had no idea how to respond to it. And so, needing to say something, he resorted to his instinctive response when feeling so uncomfortable: acting stupid. Lifting a hand to his chest, he gasped in mock-shock and wrinkled his face in distaste. "Guardian angel? But I'm not your guardian angel!"

The softness on her face transformed into curiosity and amusement. "You're not?"

"Nope!" His face lit up. "I'm your knight in shining armor!"

Sheena gave him a look that said she thought he'd lost his mind. "But you aren't a knight, Zelos. You are an angel. Even Orochi apparently knows that now."

Well, yeah, but where was the fun in going along with that? "But I don't want to be an angel!" he countered, pouting. "I want to be your knight in shining armor!"

Sheena's lips parted and she gaped at him a moment, but then she let out a soft laugh. "Zelos, you're an angel. A title like 'Guardian Angel' applies to you a whole lot better than 'Knight in Shining Armor' does."

He batted his eyelashes at her and pointed at the door. "What, you didn't see my white steed standing guard outside your home?" She rolled her eyes, but his grin just broadened. "And I collected plenty of shining armor during our journey. I can go get my Golden Armor from my mansion if you require further proof, my lady."

With a groan, Sheena covered her face with her hand, shaking her head and trying unsuccessfully to conceal her laughter. "Zelos, you told me that isn't something you can change about yourself!" she said, lowering her hand. "You can't just choose not to be an angel anymore just because you don't want to be! That's like me suddenly deciding I don't want to be a summoner anymore! It's a part of me I can't change. It's the same with you!"

"So?" he replied with a shrug. "Doesn't mean I can't try!"

Sheena laughed again, then poked her finger into his chest, punctuating each word with another poke. "Zelos, you. Are. An. Angel!"

"But. I. Don't. Want. To. Be. An. Angel!" Zelos said, poking her leg in return.

"Fine, fine!" she finally said, throwing her hands up in defeat. "Then you're my 'Guardian Knight.'" Her eyebrows rose, just daring him to argue that. "Happy now?"

'Guardian Knight,' eh? He smirked and waggled his eyebrows at her. "...In shining armor."

Sheena groaned, but the laughter that followed it as she nudged his side with her elbow was so utterly beautiful that it took his breath away. "You are such a childish idiot sometimes."

Zelos beamed her a bright smile and gave her a quick kiss. "Yeah, I know." And then he remembered something else. "Oh! And you know that show we're supposed to see in Altamira next week?"

Eagerness lit her face. "The one you gave everyone tickets for at New Year's?"

"That's the one. Well, Regal and Presea stopped by Meltokio a few days ago to inform me of an addition to it. We're still meeting for the play as scheduled, but they're taking advantage of the fact that everyone will be there to hold a fundraiser at the amusement park the next day to raise money for the reconstruction of Ozette. Needless to say, we're invited. I told them I couldn't think of any reason why we couldn't come and that I'd let you know, because while they wanted to drop by here and tell you themselves, they were having trouble finding the others and were afraid they'd need the extra time to search for them. That was before all this other stuff happened, though. So if you're feeling up to it by then, we can expand our trip to Altamira and I can drop plenty of gald there on what is definitely a worthy cause."

Unsurprisingly, her eyes lit up further. "Are you kidding? I'd better be feeling up to it by then! I've been looking forward to that play for months! Besides, if I have to spend another week bedridden, I'll go crazy. So yeah, we're going."

Zelos gave her a pointed look. "You just need to make sure you don't overdo it, because if you aren't better by then, sweetheart, we aren't going. Dr. Zelos's orders."

"Oh, for the love of..." she muttered, rolling her eyes, then gave him a wry grin. "Y'know, Dr. Zelos can go to this thing even if I can't."

Yeah, right. Sure, Sheena. Whatever you say. "Nope, not happening. Not without you. I'm not leaving Mizuho again until you're at least 90% better."

"And let me guess, you're gonna baby me that whole time, aren't you?" she countered.

He grinned cheekily. "Yep!"

Sheena rolled her eyes and gave him another mock-glare, but the smile on her lips told him she wasn't just amused, but touched. "I'd say I'll be completely sick of you by then, but...well, I really don't think I will be."

Zelos chuckled, his heart melting. While he knew she loved it when he caught her off guard with unexpectedly sweet, loving statements like that, he loved it when she caught him off guard like that, too. "Love you, too," he murmured, giving her another quick kiss.

Her smile softened further as she observed him. "So is that why you were stopping by here when you found us? To tell me about that?"

Hm. To answer that directly, or to drive her crazy by answering it indirectly; that was the question. And unfortunately for her sanity, driving her crazy was infinitely more entertaining than answering her directly. "Mm...kinda."

Her eyebrows rose. "'Kinda'? What does that mean?"

And suddenly, Zelos realized that while he wanted to tell her the rest, because that was why he'd originally been coming here that day, he didn't want to tell her yet. No, he wanted her to be better first so they could go somewhere and celebrate this properly, even if it meant just spending an extra day or two in Altamira. Besides, after this bout of entertaining banter, his playfulness was back, his exhaustion had temporarily subsided, and, well, he couldn't help thinking that dangling a carrot in front of her was not only a fun, innocuous way of teasing her (albeit one he might eventually end up regretting, depending on how badly she beat him up for it), but it was also a motivator for her, too, to keep her 'behaving' so she'd get better as soon as possible.

Decision made, Zelos gave her a crafty smile. "It means the fundraiser was only part of my reason for coming here that day."

"Okay...?" She eyed him expectantly, but when he didn't answer, she prodded, "So what was your other reason for coming here?"

He smirked. "...Heh."

Her eyes narrowed further. "Zelos? What's going on?"

For a moment, Zelos lifted a hand to his chin and pretended to seriously consider that, but then he shrugged, his smirk broadening. "Y'know, after careful deliberation, I think we're going to wait with the other piece of news I had."

"What other piece of news?" she pressed, watching him warily.

His eyebrows flew upward. "Didn't I just say we're gonna wait with it?"

Sheena rolled her eyes again, and Zelos could see it: she was on a mission now to uncover concealed information. "Are you saying you have more news than just the fundraiser?"

"Yep, yep, I sure do!" He pointed at her. "But I'm not telling you what it is until you're at least able to stand on your own."

...And let the craziness begin. Zelos could see it starting already in her suspicious, vaguely irritated eyes. "Okay, that isn't fair."

He shrugged. "Who said life was fair? I've never had a fair life, thank you very much. And neither have you, for that matter."

For the briefest of moments, her eyes softened, but then she sighed and gave him a hopeful look. "Is it good news?"

"Yep."

"Does it have anything to do with Regal and Presea's visit?"

"Nope."

"Does it have-?"

Okay, that was enough of that. "What is this, twenty questions?" he cut her off before she could ask anything else - because it really wouldn't take much prodding for her to figure it out. "I'm not telling you yet, love!"

Sheena growled, glaring at him again, but then her expression suddenly transformed into one of pure pleading. "C'mon, Zelos! I could really use some good news right now!"

He tilted his head again, grinning wickedly. "Yeah, I'll give you that, but it'll also give you another reason not to overexert yourself. Y'know, incentive to get you to rest so you'll get better as soon as you can. I mean, everyone needs a good motivator when facing a formidable task like the one standing between you and full recovery, especially when the person in question is a stubbornly independent ninja like you!"

Her eyes narrowed even further - but Zelos was delighted to see that she was smiling faintly again, despite her growing frustration and irritation with him. "Y'know, when I get my strength back, I will have to beat you up for this," she muttered.

She won't actually beat me up; she'll just threaten to beat me up. But even the threat of being beat up by his ever-so-violent girlfriend couldn't change his mind. "Heh. And I'll be so thrilled you can beat me up again that I'll let you. Gladly." She growled again, and Zelos smirked and poked her nose. "I'll enjoy every second of it, too."

Sheena sighed and rolled her eyes, but her smile never faded. In fact, that time she batted her eyelashes at him. "C'mon, Zelos, please?"

Heh, so now she was trying the 'cute, sweet, irresistible' route, eh? Yeah, he'd used that tactic plenty himself. Under other circumstances, it probably would have worked, too, considering how adorable it was to see her like that, but not today. "Nope! Just give up now. I'm not telling you yet. Get yourself better first and then I'll tell you."

Instantly, all cuteness and sweetness vanished, and Sheena growled again, her eyes narrowing warningly. Okay, so if he didn't want to be nursing a few bruises tomorrow, he had to distract her. Piece of cake. He took great pride in his powers of distraction. Grinning, he gave her a quick kiss, but that only made her poke his chest and glare at him even more dangerously. "Uh uh, that won't appease me this time, buddy."

Damn, usually that did the trick. Now what to try...aha! Perfect. His face lit up again. "I know what will tide you over until then." Releasing her, Zelos rose to his knees, pushed the blankets off of her, and held out his arms toward her. "C'mere, sweetheart. We're going on a field trip."

"What?" When she didn't reach for him (naturally, he thought, chuckling, because why would Sheena ever do this the easy way?), Zelos scooped her up in his arms and rose to his feet, ignoring her shriek of surprise, her enticing squirms of resistance, and the gape she was fixing him with. "Hey, what are you doing? Quit changing the subject! And put me down!"

Zelos grinned smugly, reveling in the feel of holding her in his arms, then blinked at her innocently as he carried her toward the door. "What? Like I said, we're going on a field trip!"

She continued gaping at him, but she was laughing again, too, he noted. Sure, she would protest - because she wouldn't be Sheena Fujibayashi if she didn't - but he had no doubt in the end she'd love this. She poked his chest again. "Zelos, put me down!"

His footsteps slowed as he pretended to consider that, but then he shook his head and resumed walking normally. "Mm...no."

Sheena growled and glared at him again. "Zelos..."

"Not yet, sweetheart," he cut her off. "I mean, seriously. You already admitted you can't stand on your own, right?"

That deflated her protests a bit. "Well, yeah, but..."

"You also admitted you were sick of sitting around all the time, right?"

She deflated even further. "Well, yeah, but..."

Zelos rolled his eyes. "Then I have trouble believing you're really upset about getting out of bed for a few minutes!" She opened her mouth to reply but didn't say anything, and he grinned again. "Besides, there's something you need to see before I send you back to the wild blue yonder that is your bed."

"My bed isn't blue," she mumbled, then poked his chest again, fixing him with another glare. "And I still think you should put me down!"

He burst out laughing. Damn, she was stubborn. Bossy, too. And he loved her anyway. "I'll put you down in just a second, love, once we get where we're going."

Her eyes narrowed warily. "Which would be where?"

Well, duh. She hadn't figured that out yet? "Outside."

It was her turn to roll her eyes. "Yeah, I caught that. Where outside?"

"Not far."

"Why?"

"You'll see."

Sheena growled again at his evasive answer. "Zelos..."

Zelos chuckled. Egads, didn't this woman possess any patience? He really needed to work on that with her because impatience bred carelessness, and that wasn't a good quality for a chief. But he'd have to save that for another time, seeing as he was now at the door and had to figure out how to open it without dropping her. "Are all of you ninjas this stubborn? Can't you just accept this little gift in the form of a change of scenery and be done with it?"

And again, Sheena rolled her eyes - but she couldn't shake her grin, either, indicating that no, she really wasn't mad at him. In fact, Zelos suspected she loved this, trying to figure out what he was scheming while plotting her revenge against him; she was just embarrassed by his actions and was giving him a hard time to put up a tough front. "Oh, like you're one to talk about being stubborn!" she countered. "You're the one who's refusing to put me down!"

Hm...open door...open door...aha! Got it. Granted, he'd have to go out there wearing just his socks because there was no way he could put on his shoes while holding Sheena, but that was okay. He'd just be careful not to trip. "Okay, hold onto my neck, love. I'd really rather not drop you." He arched a questioning eyebrow at her. "Unless you want me to drop you in a pathetic, albeit pretty, purple heap while I'm opening the door?"

Despite the fact that she growled at him yet again, she did as directed, looping her arms around his neck, and with her weight redistributed, he could use one hand to grab the handle. "I think you're gonna pay for this," she mumbled against his neck.

Grinning, Zelos pushed the door open, then returned his arm to its original position beneath her. "And I think you should reserve judgment on my sanity and need for punishment until you see what I'm trying to show you!"

She eyed him again warningly - but her smile was back, too. "This better be good, then."

"Oh, believe me, it is." And then he was carrying her outside into the beautiful spring day. The door slid shut behind them, and Zelos turned so she could see the front of her house. "Annnnnd...we're here." He waggled his eyebrows. "Told ya it wasn't far."

For a moment, Sheena just gaped at him. "That's it? You wanted to show me the front of my..." With a smirk, Zelos nodded down at the ground, telling her to look, and after a moment, she followed his gaze downward. Instantly, she gasped, her eyes widening and then lighting up in pure delight at the beautiful sight before them: one of her iris had bloomed, its velvety, deep purple petals cheerfully tilted upward toward the sun. "...Oh!"

Heh. That was exactly the reaction he'd been hoping for. "See? Thought you'd like that." Sheena tore her eyes from the iris to look up at him in amazement, then she smiled shyly and looked down at it again, resting her head against his chest. "So, still pissed at me?"

Even from his awkward angle, he could see her blush deepen as she shook her head, her arms tightening around him. "No. Of course not."

"Didn't think you'd be," he murmured, then pressed a tender kiss to her forehead. Mission accomplished: not only had he managed to distract her and get her out of bed, but he'd lifted her spirits a bit, too. "Okay, then, hang on tight so I can set you down on your feet without you collapsing."

Sheena did so, and Zelos eased her down so her feet were touching the ground. As she'd said, though, her legs really were too weak to support her, and she quickly wrapped her arms tighter around him to maintain her balance, her cheek pressed to his chest and her body shaking slightly, even as her eyes remained focused on the iris. Zelos kept his arms snugly around her waist, though, and soon she was mostly steady. He wasn't sure how much of the tightness in her hold was because she feared falling and how much was simply because she wanted to hold him, but regardless, he loved it, the softness and warmth of her body pressed against his. In fact, he was pretty sure he could stand with her like that for the rest of the day and never want to move.

"I still can't believe it," she murmured. "They survived the winter."

"And now you've got your first flower." Zelos grinned. "We did a good job with these, didn't we?"

Sheena nodded faintly. "Yeah, we did. It's perfect." She observed the flower another moment, then motioned at the line of lush green plants growing along the front of her house. "And look at all the buds still coming! I can't wait to see this in full bloom."

"Me, too," he replied. This really would be gorgeous in a few weeks. "It took awhile to see any payoff from all that work we did last fall, but now we know it was worth the effort."

"Yeah, it was." She peered up at him, smiling softly. "Thanks again for helping me get these and plant them. And for bringing me out here now to see this. I'd noticed the buds starting last week, but none were blooming yet."

Zelos returned her smile and gave her the best gentlemanly bow he could manage without dropping her. "It was my pleasure, sweetheart. Anything to make you smile."

Her cheeks reddened, and she looked down at his chest shyly before meeting his gaze again, her eyes so soft and loving that it made his heart skip a beat. And then, to his utter surprise, she lifted a hand to his neck, pulled his head down to hers, and kissed him. For a moment, Zelos hesitated, unable to believe she was kissing him in public in Mizuho, but then, realizing he had yet to see Orochi, Sadako, or the kids anywhere, he pushed aside his surprise and sank into it, reveling in not only the warmth of her full lips moving with his, but in the meaning behind the unexpected gesture. Releasing one arm from around her, he cupped her cheek with his hand and lightly trailed his thumb over her jaw, eliciting that beautiful, seductive moan from her that never failed to make his heart pound faster and send love and heat sweeping through him. He could feel her tremble faintly - her strength must be nearly depleted, he figured, making a mental note to get her inside soon - but he was so entranced by the kiss and by how Sheena was pulling him even closer to her that he couldn't have ended it even if he'd-

"Ahem."

The sound took a moment to register through the desire flooding his brain, but the moment it did, Zelos's eyes flew open and he tore his lips from Sheena's, his face turning as red as hers as he looked at the source of the sound. Oh, crap. Orochi was standing beside them, his arms folded to his chest and his face cold as he looked between them. His heart racing in alarm, Zelos glanced back at Sheena as she smiled awkwardly, bit her lip, and looked down at his Cruxis crystal, leaning further into him as if trying to hide behind him.

Zelos cleared his throat and looked back at Orochi, mirroring Sheena's awkward smile. "Orochi." For a moment, their eyes met - oh, yeah, Orochi was definitely not happy about what he'd just seen - and Zelos let out an uncomfortable laugh as he looked back at Sheena. Of all the times for Orochi to magically show up... "Uh, sorry 'bout that, man. We shouldn't have done that here."

Orochi arched a disapproving eyebrow. "No, you should not have. You know our rules, Chosen. Such displays are forbidden here."

Sheena closed her eyes and sighed, but then she opened them again and looked at Orochi, her face still red. "Give it a rest, Orochi," she said, her voice soft but commanding. "Zelos just saved everyone's lives here, mine included. I think you can overlook the rules this one time. Besides, I kissed him, so if you need to blame someone, blame me, not Zelos."

Still frowning, Orochi looked between them again, but then, to Zelos's immense surprise, he sighed. "Very well. Be glad Sadako and the children did not see that." He abruptly pointed at them. "But if I ever see anything like that again, I will report it to Chief Igaguri."

Oh, thank Martel. That could have been a nasty fuse blown - because according to Mizuho's rules, Orochi truly would have been within his rights to seek punishment. At least it looked like their talk the other night really had helped him gain Orochi's reluctant acceptance, because if it hadn't, he'd probably be dead right now. And suddenly, Zelos thought he was starting to see the benefits of that rule: because of all the people to catch them doing that, Orochi would be the one most hurt by it because of his unrequited feelings for Sheena. As much as Zelos hated the thought of telling her about that, he probably should so it wouldn't become an issue like this again.

"Don't worry, it won't happen again." Zelos cleared his throat again, needing to change the subject before Sheena started questioning why Orochi had reacted so mildly to that particular display. "Anyway, did you need something?"

Orochi's face softened as he looked from Zelos to Sheena, who was watching him, clearly confused, before looking back at Zelos. "Most of the villagers are currently either asleep or are resting comfortably in their homes. Now would be a good time to carry out that task we agreed this morning to undertake."

...Oh. Right. Zelos's heart sank. After the playfulness he'd just experienced with Sheena, that was definitely not what he wanted to do right now. He had promised to help, though, and as appealing as it was to procrastinate, the longer they waited, the worse this would get. Might as well get it out of the way now before it started resembling, say, the gore level of a horror novel.

Sheena looked at him again curiously, but instead of answering her silent question, he nodded to Orochi. "Right. Let me get Sheena back to bed, then I'll meet up with you."

Orochi bowed his head. "Then I will wait for you outside the storehouse." His eyes turned back to Sheena, softening, and he offered her a faint smile. "Sheena, it is good to see you outside again. Please, take care of yourself and recover. We will need your help again soon, but until you have sufficiently recovered, we will manage without you. I promise. Just rest."

Orochi reached out as if to touch her arm, but then his eyes darted at Zelos, who was still holding Sheena tightly, and he quickly retracted it, a light blush appearing on his face. And not for the first time, Zelos found himself empathizing with Orochi. If there was one thing he knew, it was how hard it was to watch the woman he loved suffering and being unable to comfort her because she was in love with another man. Admitting defeat and letting a woman go, despite his persisting, burning feelings for her, was one of the hardest things a man could do. Zelos had once tried to do so himself only to fail miserably. A few times he'd thought he'd succeeded, but then he'd seen Sheena again and the yearning had always returned, stronger than before, especially during her 'Lloyd crush' phase when he'd known she would have gladly accepted Lloyd's comfort if only Lloyd had offered it to her. And just because Zelos wasn't in Orochi's position anymore and the woman he loved did love him back, that didn't mean he would wish those feelings on him. Orochi was a good man, and he would find a good woman eventually, but it wasn't likely to be Sheena. As long as he truly did stand out of their way, though, then Zelos would do whatever he could to make this as easy and painless for Orochi as possible.

But Sheena didn't realize that, and her eyes narrowed at Orochi's restrained action as she said, "I will." Orochi bowed his head, looked between them one last time, then turned and walked away. "Well, that was weird," she said as she watched him go.

"Yeah, just a little," Zelos murmured. Okay, well, he knew Orochi's reaction was bugging her, and he'd decided he needed to tell her this, so he might as well get it over with. "And for the record, sweetheart, we, ah, really shouldn't do that in public anymore, at least not anywhere Orochi might see us."

Her eyes narrowed. "I agree, but...why do I get the feeling there's more to it than just following Mizuho's rules?"

"Because there is?" he replied, smiling sheepishly.

Sheena's eyebrows rose, but when Zelos hesitated to say more, still having trouble figuring out how best to articulate this - this would, after all, permanently change her view of Orochi - her patience, naturally, quickly ran out. "Well?" she pressed. "Go on already!"

...Heh. Maybe this really was a bad idea. It didn't help that he wasn't sure if he was being considerate toward Orochi by telling her this so she'd be more careful around him or rude by betraying Orochi's confidence and telling her something he probably didn't want her to know. But Zelos couldn't back out now. "Okay, how to put this delicately...let's just say if I was in Orochi's position, I wouldn't want to watch you kissing another man, either."

Sheena blinked at him a few times uncertainly, but he could see the instant she got it for her eyes widened and her face fell. "Oh, please tell me you don't mean..."

He smiled uncomfortably. "Yeah, actually, I do."

Unsurprisingly, her eyes widened further, her expression verging on horror and panic. "Are you...are you sure?"

Zelos nodded curtly, losing his smile. "Positive. I'd suspected as much for awhile now, but a few nights ago he came right out and confirmed it for me."

"...Oh, no," she whispered, her gaze drifting down to his chest. A moment later, though, she looked back up at him. "And here I was hoping your implication earlier didn't mean what I was afraid it did. I mean, I've noticed him acting strangely around me at times, and some of the looks he's given me were just plain weird, but I had no idea it was because he has...because he has..." She shook her head, unable to say the words: 'Because he has romantic feelings for me.' "I just thought he was disappointed in me or mad at me for dating you!"

"Well, it's that, too, but that's all connected to the rest of it."

Sheena closed her eyes, sighed, and shook her head. "So that's why he's had so many issues with you this past year."

"Jealousy is definitely part of it," he replied with a nod. "Men can get like that when they're vying for a woman's affections; I don't even want to think about how many guys have acted similarly when a woman they liked was fawning over me. And then add to that his certainty that I'm an irresponsible, childish louse? I'm actually amazed he didn't kill me."

"Yeah, me too," she said, glancing in the direction Orochi had wandered off towards earlier. "It explains a lot. Of course, I'm not sure I wanted to know that."

He let out a soft laugh. "Believe me, I didn't want to tell you that. I know you'll never look at him the same again. But if it's any consolation, rest assured he won't act on it."

Sheena arched an amused eyebrow at him. "Do I want to know how you know that?"

Zelos smirked. "Probably not. It was a...weird...conversation. Kinda scary, too." But that wasn't important right now, and he quickly lost the smirk, needing to impress this on her. "Just try to act normally with him. This whole thing is already uncomfortable enough. If he knew you were aware of his...feelings...for you, it would just get even more weird and uncomfortable for all of us."

She eyed him, blushing again, then nodded. "Well, I can't make any promises, because the thought of him thinking of me like that is..." Her face wrinkled in distaste, betraying her thoughts: she had always viewed Orochi as a big brother, not as a potential suitor, and so knowing he thought of her like that felt like incest to her. "But I'll try."

"Good. And while part of me wants to rub it in that, y'know, you're dating me, not him, another part doesn't because, well, I wouldn't like it if someone did that to me. Seeing as I'm trying to live up to your belief that I'm a 'good person,' I'll keep any gloating to myself."

Her eyes softened and she smiled faintly, then let out a soft laugh as her gaze fell back to his chest. "That must have been quite a conversation. And whatever you said must've worked if he walked away now without pushing the issue - or without strangling you."

"Well, he did come close to strangling me at one point...well, pushing me into a pot of boiling water, actually. But yeah, we eventually reached an...understanding...of sorts." And suddenly, he couldn't resist grinning smugly. "I think I'm growing on him."

Sheena snorted. "You always have been an acquired taste." A second later, though, her face softened again. "But I'm glad you guys worked things out. If you hadn't, he would've made sure we were both punished severely for what he just caught us doing."

"Yeah, no kidding," Zelos murmured, cringing as he remembered Orochi's initial reaction upon finding him in Mizuho two days ago. The difference between that and this was like night and day, like a flip had been switched once Orochi realized Zelos had honorable intentions toward her. And oh, was he glad it had because that particular attitude shift would make life a whole lot less stressful for everyone here. "But right now that's neither here nor there, so what do you say we get you back inside?" He grinned. "As much as I love groping you like this, sweetheart, you're also turning into dead weight in my arms, which tells me you're nearly out of steam. And like I said, it'll take you longer to recover if you waste all your energy now just standing up."

"Yeah, I know," she mumbled reluctantly. "And you're right, we should get back inside. After all, you're busy here, too, doing...whatever it is you guys are doing now." Her eyes narrowed curiously. "Which would be...what, exactly?"

Oh, right. That again. He sighed, his smile vanishing. And again, while he'd rather not mention this, Sheena had a right to know. These were her people, after all. "This morning he asked for my help moving the dead bodies from the storehouse to the cemetery and getting started making the funeral pyres. Sadako and Hamako are keeping an eye on the villagers, and Michi isn't strong enough yet to help Orochi carry the bodies, so I get the honors." He paused as her face sank. "It's been too many days already. We would've taken care of it sooner only we've been so busy tending to everyone that we haven't had a chance to do so yet."

"...Oh. I didn't even think of that." Sheena looked down at his chest again. "Are you going to cremate them as soon as you're done?"

Zelos shook his head. "Not yet. It'll take awhile to move everyone there and make all the pyres, so we probably won't get around to burning them until tonight."

Sheena nodded faintly, but then her eyes suddenly met his, determination shining in them. "I want to be there when you do, even if all I can do is watch. I'm sure we'll have a funeral ceremony later, but they deserve to be honored at the cremation. I can't do much, but I can at least do that." Her voice lowered. "Besides, I'd like to see them one last time before they're gone for good."

Zelos observed her a moment uncertainly before nodding. As much as he hated involving her in something this macabre, especially since those bodies had been in that storehouse two days now and weren't in prime condition anymore, he could also understand her need. She loved these people dearly, and now they were suddenly gone, while she had survived. Being there for their cremation was the closest she could come to saying goodbye. And what kind of boyfriend would he be if he stopped her?

"Okay," he said. "I'll make sure you're there when it happens."

"Thank you," she replied, smiling faintly. "I appreciate it."

"Of course. Then let's get you back inside so you can rest up before that."

"Okay."

He grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her. "Then hang onto my neck again, love. Doctor-Knight Zelos's high-speed transport service is back in action!"

Sheena rolled her eyes but did as directed. Zelos waited until she was situated and then scooped her up in his arms and carried her back inside, that time receiving no arguments from her, which he wasn't sure whether to interpret meant she was too tired to fight him or that she'd finally accepted his help. They were silent until he'd reached her bedroom, then he gently set her down on her futon and knelt beside her, helping her pull up the blankets around her.

Once she was settled, Zelos leaned back and clapped his hands together once. "Okay, so what can Doctor-Knight Zelos get you to keep you occupied so you aren't twiddling your thumbs all afternoon? Or are you planning to go back to sleep?"

"No, not right now, Doctor-Knight Zelos," she replied, rolling her eyes again at the title. "Probably later, but not yet." She bit her lip, considering the question. "Um, I had been reading a novel before all this happened, but I don't remember if I left it on the table or the bookshelf..."

"Lemme check," Zelos said, pressing a kiss to her cheek. "I don't remember seeing a novel when I was picking up all the papers and books on your floor last night, but that doesn't mean it isn't hiding somewhere else."

Her eyebrows flew upward and a smirk appeared on her lips as he stood and headed into the main room. "So you've been cleaning again, too? I'm impressed. Between all the cooking and cleaning you've been doing lately, you're going to turn into a domesticated housewife yet, aren't you?"

"'Housewife'?" he repeated, spinning back toward her, lifting his hand to his chest, and giving her a mock-affronted, incredulous look. "Not a chance, my dear. I am far too manly to be mistaken for a common housewife." Sheena smirked and snorted, and he shrugged. As much as he hated to say this, she did have a point. "Although I have to admit I apparently picked up more from Sebastian than I ever thought I would. And believe me, you are the only person who will ever see just how many 'domestic skills' I may or may not have acquired."

Sheena chuckled, her smirk softening. "Now I really feel special."

Oh, Sheena, if you only knew. Walking back into her bedroom, he knelt beside her again, gently grasped her face, and pressed a tender kiss to her lips, delighted to feel her hands lift to his chest, encouraging him on. After a moment, he pulled back and whispered in her ear, "That's because you are, sweetheart." Sheena let out a soft, shy laugh, her face reddening, but she was still smiling as he stood again. "Anyway, I was finding you a book." Heading back into the main room, Zelos looked around. "Let's see here. If you were a book, where would you be hiding?" Well, her primary bookshelf was the most likely place, but he already knew it wasn't any of the books he'd put away yesterday because those had all been nonfiction. Her other bookshelf, then? Turning to the one near the door, he quickly spotted it: a sole paperback novel sitting on the edge of the middle shelf amongst a few knickknacks. He quickly grabbed it and turned back to her, holding it up. "Is this it?" he asked...and then froze as he saw the cover, his eyes widening and his jaw dropping.

"Yeah, I think-" Zelos lifted his gaze to her, and the moment Sheena saw him, her eyes, likewise, widened and her face flared. "No! No, that's not...that's...I'm not..."

Well, if that didn't answer his question, nothing did. Zelos arched an eyebrow as she covered her face with her hands. "You mean to tell me you're reading a-"

Abruptly, her hands lowered and she pointed at him, giving him a warning glare. "Don't. Don't you dare say what you're thinking right now, because I don't want to hear it."

Oh, Martel. This was incredible. Zelos couldn't remember the last time he'd been this amused by a discovery about her. Grinning wickedly, he walked back over to her, tilting his head as he admired the book's cover. "Huh. So this is what you read in your spare time, eh? I have to admit, I never would've thought this would appeal to tough-as-nails, kick-ass ninja Sheena Fujibayashi. In fact, I'm pretty sure you are the last person I would have ever pegged as a romance reader."

Sheena continued glaring at him as he sat down beside her, shaking his head in amazement at the half-naked couple on the cover, posed sexily in one another's arms. A romance was reading a smutty romance novel. Sure, she had a romantic side - he'd experienced it firsthand countless times this past year - but he just couldn't believe she would spend her free time reading this. And really, didn't he give her enough romance? Should he be concerned that this meant he wasn't fulfilling her 'romance needs'?

"Sh...shut up!" she countered. "Since when is a ninja not allowed to enjoy a little romance every now and then?" She tried to snatch the book from his hands, but before she could, he quickly moved it out of her reach. She growled and glared at him. "Besides, it's not actually my book!"

Zelos snorted. "Yeah, sure it's not."

"What? It's not!" She made another move to snatch the book from him, but again he pulled it away from her, tilting his head and smirking as he flipped through its pages. "Agh! Turn to the inside of the front cover, then! You'll see whose it really is!"

His eyes snapped up to hers. Hm. She seemed to mean that. Maybe it really wasn't hers - although that didn't erase the fact that she was the one currently reading it. She motioned impatiently at the book, telling him to do it, and he finally did as asked...and his jaw dropped again. No. Freaking. Way. "Colette Brunel? This book is Colette's?"

"Yes, it's Colette's," Sheena said, making another attempt to swipe the book from him that he denied, resulting in a frustrated smack to his arm. "She loaned it to me after she found out we were dating, saying I'd love it because it was 'soooo romantic.' And since we're supposed to be seeing her next week in Altamira, I thought I should finally quit procrastinating and read it so I could give it back to her!"

"Yeah...uh huh." He believed her - really, he did, because he remembered seeing her tucking a book away in her bag before they'd left Lloyd's house on New Year's Day - but teasing her when she was this adorably embarrassed about something was too much fun for him to quit yet. "A likely story."

"Agh, it's the truth!"

"Whatever you say, sweetheart." Sheena growled and smacked his arm again, which made him burst out laughing, but that time when she tried again to grab the book from him, he let her have it. Immediately, she hugged it to her chest, continuing to glare at him dangerously. Okay, so maybe he'd pissed her off with the teasing, but hey, he wasn't the one who'd been caught reading a book like this! Regardless of whether or not she'd brought this on herself, though, even he knew when to back off - or at least when to take a step onto safer ground. "I do have to say, though, that Colette is definitely not someone I would've thought would read, let alone own, a smutty romance novel. I mean, seriously, can you imagine what Raine would say if she caught her reading this?"

In the blink of an eye, Sheena's glare transformed into a wicked smirk. "Heh. Actually, Raine was the one who gave it to her."

...Wait, what? Zelos gaped at her again. "No. No way!" Sheena just continued smirking, and his jaw dropped even further. "Seriously?"

She nodded smugly. "Seriously." Zelos stared at her a moment, but then he burst out laughing again, and her grin broadened. "Yeah, that was my reaction, too."

Oh, Martel. Raine Sage had given Colette Brunel a smutty romance novel. What was the world coming to? "What, so is her goal to make Colette less naïve about male/female relationships? Or maybe she decided she didn't want to teach her about the birds and the bees herself, so she handed her this book knowing it would do the trick?"

"Probably. Although it sounds like this is just one of many romance novels that Colette owns. Apparently she started reading them religiously after our journey, so it's just as likely Raine gave it to her because she knew Colette liked them and that it was already too late to spare her mind from such corruption." Sheena pointed at him. "And for the record, this book is not smutty. There isn't even any sex in it!"

Yeah, right. And my name isn't Zelos Wilder. He arched an eyebrow at her. "You don't actually expect me to believe that, do you? With a half naked girl in a torn dress on the front cover, along with a buff, shirtless ruffian trying to grope her? I don't think so!"

Her blush flared as she looked down at the cover. "Well, okay, so there was that one scene, but that's been it so far!"

Okay, she knew he couldn't resist that, right? Zelos waggled his eyebrows and grabbed for the book. "Ooooh...a sex scene! Lemme see it!"

Mimicking his earlier refusal to let her have the book, though, Sheena did the same, holding it out of his reach. "Uh uh, absolutely not. As if your twisted little mind isn't already fully capable of coming up with enough stupid ideas on its own! The last thing I'm gonna do is let you anywhere near a so-called 'trashy romance novel' and add to those ideas!"

Zelos laughed again at her smug, pointed expression and lifted his hands in defeat. "Okay, so you might have a point there." He winked at her. "Besides, I'm sure I already have enough other books at home that accomplish the same - or worse."

Sheena rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I don't doubt that one bit."

He chuckled, then motioned at the book. While he wouldn't be caught dead reading something like that himself, he had to ask. "So how is it?" Her eyes widened and she briefly fumbled for response, and he laughed again, realizing she thought he was asking how the sex scene was. "The book! I'm asking about the book! Get your mind out of the gutter, my dear."

She glared at him again, but then she shrugged, relaxing, and looked down at the titillating scene on the cover. "Actually, it's surprisingly good. It's very sweet and romantic - not nearly as trashy as this picture would lead you to believe it was." When she looked up and found him staring at her disbelievingly, her eyes widened. "What? Even with that one sex scene - a very tame, non-explicit one, mind you - it's not!"

Zelos knew she was right; for years, women had been fantasizing about all the 'romantic' things the male protagonists in these books did, and usually the guys weren't sex addicts. Suave Casanovas, sure - that was one of the reasons he'd taken the approach he had with women, because most women ate it up - but they weren't perverted, horny jerks. Well, usually. At least not in books labeled 'romance' rather than 'pornography.'

"And yet the guy on the cover looks like a cross between a pirate and a male stripper," he stated, motioning at the book.

"Well, yeah, I'll give you that, but the artist definitely took liberties with the picture since the author didn't write him that way." She cocked her head. "He's...well, he's the perfect guy, actually."

His eyebrows flew upward. She did realize he was now intrigued as to what kind of guy she considered to be 'perfect,' didn't she? "'The perfect guy'?"

She nodded. "Mm hmm. The kind of guy every girl wants for a boyfriend."

Ooh, this was way too good to pass by. He beamed at her brightly. "You mean like me!"

"No, not like you," she muttered, snorting again. "He's nothing like you, actually."

That...didn't sound good. He stuck out his lower lip in what had proven in the past to be a highly effective pout. "Why do I get the feeling I'm being insulted here?"

Sheena gave him a wicked grin, then, ignoring the question, lifted a finger to her lips as if deep in thought. "Well, let's see. He's handsome and sexy..."

Oh, good start! "Hey, so am I!"

"...And he's strong, and smart, and clever..."

Zelos nodded curtly. "Yep, I'm all of those things, too."

"...And he's sweet and thoughtful and romantic..."

"Check, check, and check." He grinned proudly. "Keep going, sweetheart. I'm really kinda liking this description of me!"

Sheena rolled her eyes and fixed him with a pointed look. "He would never dream of teasing the heroine if he caught her reading a smutty romance novel."

Instantly, his grin vanished. He opened his mouth to respond to that, but all he could utter was a simple, "Oh," before shutting his mouth again, eliciting another smug grin from her.

"He's a chivalrous gentleman who doesn't have a perverted bone in his body," she went on. "He isn't arrogant, childish, or irreverent. He doesn't have an overly inflated sense of his own self-worth. He's never annoying. He doesn't crack inappropriate, poorly timed jokes or make stupid comments that make his girlfriend smack him. He always takes things seriously and makes the right choices. He never gets jealous of any other guys his girlfriend once had a crush on. He would never toy with a woman's heart. He never pisses anyone off and always says the perfect thing. He doesn't have any enemies because everyone adores him. He never whines when something doesn't go his way or complains about how 'bored' he is. He wears his heart on his sleeve, always means what he says, and wouldn't know what to do with a mask if he found one. He can fix anything that breaks, he's skilled with every weapon ever created, he can speak nine languages, he isn't a lazy, spoiled rich guy, he built his girlfriend a house, he's a gourmet cook, he doesn't use an exorbitant amount of products to get his hair to look good because of how vain he is..."

"...Oh," Zelos repeated, cringing. Okay, so he'd known he was pretty damn idiotic for years now, but this was downright depressing.

She arched an eyebrow, the smirk still toying on her lips. "Need I go on?"

"No, please don't," he said in a small voice, shaking his head feebly. "I don't think I like this conversation anymore."

"Told ya you were nothing like him," Sheena replied, nudging him with her elbow.

"No, I guess not." And here he'd thought he was at least a decent boyfriend to her, but that must be yet another self-delusion because he obviously didn't fit her definition of 'perfect.' He should've known better than to tease her about her choice of reading materials; there was a reason women had always swooned over the heroes in those stories, and it was because they were exactly what women wanted, nothing like the mess he was and undoubtedly always would be. "So he really is the perfect guy, isn't he?"

Sheena nodded brightly. "Yep. He's as perfect as perfect can be."

His heart sank lower. Sure, he deserved to hear the ugly truth about himself like this, but she wasn't even trying to soften the blow or make him feel a little better about himself. "I guess I can't compete with that, can I?"

"Sorry, Zelos, but you really can't."

He sighed, trying not to let her see how much that bothered him, but after the past few days he was apparently feeling too tired and emotional to mask his feelings because he couldn't even brush it off with a shrug or a fake smile. So much for living up to Sheena's belief in him; someone 'imperfect' like him didn't stand a chance of ever marrying someone incredible like her. He should've known better than to bring up anything that would remind them both of what a useless, unwanted excuse of a man he was. Damn it, why hadn't he let that stupid romance novel go? Why had he insisted on teasing her about it? And he'd been so happy a few minutes ago, too...

"But y'know, he's almost too perfect," Sheena suddenly said. "In fact, I can't help thinking he's actually kinda boring."

Zelos looked sharply at her. "'Boring'?"

She shrugged. "Well, he can do anything. He's way too serious and has no weird yet strangely endearing personal quirks. He's an over-the-top sap with the lovey-dovey, romantic stuff. He's completely unbelievable. I mean, seriously, no one is that perfect. I can't help thinking dating someone like that, having to live up to that kind of perfection, would be horrible. Talk about putting pressure on his imperfect girlfriend to feel worthy of him. And besides...he never offered to help the heroine plant iris in front of her house." Zelos's eyes widened as she lifted her right hand, around which hung her iris bracelet. "He never gave her anything this special, either. He never sponsored a lost, confused child's education or donated a staggering amount of gald to start an orphanage. He never schemed to remove a dangerous foreign minister from office to protect a bunch of people he barely knows. He never saved a poisoned village by going to incredible lengths to make an antidote for them. And he..." She smiled shyly and trailed a finger over his hand where it lay between them. "Well, he never struggled to overcome his tragic, tortured past and find and accept the good-hearted man he's always been, because how can someone grow and develop as a person when they're already perfect?" She lifted her eyes to his, the softness and love he saw in them stunning in its beauty. "Personally, I think perfection is overrated. As great as he may be...well, all things considered, I'd take you over him any day, Zelos. You may not be 'perfect,' but I'm glad you're not. I'd much rather have a boyfriend who's real, and that's exactly what you are. And in that respect, I guess you're right; you really are perfect. Maybe not for everyone, and maybe not in the conventional way, but you are for me."

Zelos swallowed hard, his heart pounding furiously as she pressed a sweet, loving kiss to his lips. Wow. Sheena loved him anyway, despite his many - and, in some cases, glaring - flaws, inadequacies, and idiocies. Who would've thought? And not for the first time, he couldn't help but be amazed at how straightforward she'd just been with her thoughts and feelings and certainty about him, albeit this time in a roundabout, teasing way, thus renewing his hopes for the future in the process. And really, he could say the same about her: despite her bossiness, impatience, stubbornness, secretiveness, and occasional temper issues that resulted in violent outbursts and painful bruises for him, he wouldn't trade her for any woman in the world, no matter how 'perfect' that woman was.

He let out a soft, shy laugh and returned the sweet smile she offered him. "Thanks, sweetheart."

Her smile broadened, her eyes sparkling, and she lightly brushed his nosed with hers. "Just telling it like it is."

Oh, Martel. Just when he thought he couldn't possibly love her any more than he already did, she went and did something like this that made him fall for her all over again, and then so much farther than he ever had before. "Sheena..." His heart was soaring as he closed his eyes, leaned forward, and pressed his forehead to hers, cupping her neck with his hand. All the words to express the wave of emotion swelling within him were bubbling up within him, eager to be said: how much he loved her, how much he needed her, how much he wanted her, how scared he'd been when she'd nearly died, how scared he'd been that he would fail to save her...how hopelessly his heart was hers. "I..."

But the words were sticking in his throat, and when he still couldn't articulate his feelings a moment later, Sheena smiled, kissed him again, and murmured against his lips, "I know. I love you, too." Giving up trying to express himself, Zelos surrendered to the emotion and let his actions speak for him as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her against him and holding her tightly, never wanting to let her go, having to fight back the tears pricking his eyes lest he start looking like an 'over-the-top sap with the lovey-dovey romantic stuff.' And for a long moment they just sat like that, engulfed in each other's embrace, enjoying the love and intimacy of the moment, until finally she took a deep breath and pulled back, smiling shyly as she motioned at the door. "Now, go. Let me finish reading my book so I can find out what other 'perfect' yet boring things this guy does for his girlfriend." Zelos let out a soft laugh and nodded, his eyes trailing longingly over her face, memorizing every curve and praising, yet again, any and every god he'd ever heard of that this beautiful, amazing woman still wanted him in her life...and that she wasn't one of the bodies they would be cremating tonight. She shrugged again. "Besides, Orochi is waiting for you, and I don't want you losing all the points you just won with him."

"Right," he murmured, trailing his thumb over her cheek and eliciting a shiver from her, then he pressed another kiss to her lips before taking a deep breath, forcing all those unspoken words and feelings to the back of his mind to await a better time to try again, and rising to his knees. "But if you need anything, sweetheart, just say my name, okay? No matter where I am, no matter what I'm doing, I'll hear you and come running."

Her eyebrows flew upward, and she grinned and poked his chest. "That's because my imperfect boyfriend also happens to be an angel with super-sensitive angel hearing."

Agh, again with the angel? "But I'm a knight!" He smirked and waggled his eyebrows knowingly. "...With an ultra sensitive hearing aid."

"Okay, okay!" she said, laughing again as she lifted her hands in defeat. "I get the point. You're a knight, not an angel. Now go help Orochi before he gets pissed at you for making him wait so long!"

Zelos grinned and bowed his head to her. "Yes, ma'am!"

Sheena rolled her eyes and shook her head again, still laughing. A moment later, though, her laughter trailed off and her face softened. "And I promise, I'll let you know if I need anything. Okay?"

Oh, good. Maybe she would finally accept his help instead of insisting on suffering stoically. "Okay." He gave her another kiss and then rose to his feet, losing the grin as he thought of something. "Oh, and when I see Sadako, I'll send her here to give you a list of everyone who died. If you want to do something more productive than sitting here reading a trashy romance novel filled with boring, perfect characters, maybe you could think of something to say tonight when we light the funeral pyres. I'm sure their spirits would appreciate it."

For a moment she just watched him, clearly surprised by his suggestion, but then she smiled faintly. "I like that idea. Thanks."

"You're welcome. I'll see you later, then." He took a step toward the door but quickly succumbed to the urge to bend down and give her yet another kiss, deeper than the last, delighted when she not only returned it, but then smiled softly and brushed her fingers over his cheek as he pulled back to look at her. "I love you, Sheena."

Her smile broadened beautifully. "I love you, too, Zelos."

Oh, Martel, how he loved hearing those words and eliciting that smile from her. His heart pounding wildly again, he pressed one last kiss to her lips before finally, reluctantly, forcing himself away from her and heading toward the main room, reminding himself why he couldn't stay here with her for the rest of the day, no matter how much he wanted to. While this entire conversation had been amusing and heartening in oh so many ways, it had also proven something else to him, too: Sheena would be just fine. It would take time, but she would recover, regain her strength, and return to normal; her mind was as sharp as ever, which meant she hadn't suffered any brain damage that would keep her from being her again. And if she was recovering this well already, then everyone else in Mizuho soon would be, too. Talk about a relief.

Much to his own surprise and pleasure, these past few days, tending to Sheena and helping Orochi care for her people, while exhausting, trying, and stressful, really hadn't been all that bad. He would always prefer 'normalcy' to this, but he liked being able to dote on her for a change, and even though it wasn't in her nature to accept it, he was glad she was at least trying to. In fact, the longer he was doing this, the more apparent it was becoming that if he could do something like this for the rest of his life, helping someone who needed it, doing something meaningful that didn't waste his time with trivial things that affected only him, he might actually feel like his life had real value.

He was pleasantly surprised, too, to find he didn't mind standing in for her here. He had basically taken on her role and become her 'substitute' here, doing everything he knew she'd be doing herself if only she could, and it felt...good. It felt comfortable. The relief on her face had likewise told him how grateful she was that he was filling in for her - and, more importantly, it told him how much she trusted him to do her job for her. He might not know the details of what would be required of him if he married her yet, but he couldn't help thinking that whatever it was, having her trust like this and his own feelings of comfort while standing in for her here would be requirements for it. And now, after experiencing a slice of that potential future, he knew that yes, he truly was okay with it.

And what amazed him most was that as difficult as all of this had been, he hadn't messed up here. He had always been afraid if he found himself in a life-or-death situation like this, he would freeze, think only of himself, and take the easy way out; after all, until a person was tested in such a way, they had no way of knowing whether they'd prove to be a coward or a hero when it really counted. But he hadn't failed here. He hadn't failed here. Talk about an encouraging boost to his self-esteem; maybe he really could trust himself to make the right choices, because he'd now proven himself capable of it. It made him feel good, knowing he could accomplish something like this - and, as Sheena had pointed out, without even stopping to think about it, just doing it. And now that he'd seen that goodness in himself, Zelos wanted to continue doing things that strengthened that view for the rest of his life.

Sheena's faith in him was astounding and humbling; it pushed him to try things he didn't think himself capable of, and it helped him accept that he might actually be the man she believed him to be. How could he not want to repay her for that? Was there any better way to thank her for everything she'd done for him than to marry her, to give her everything of himself that he possibly could in return? Even if he spent the rest of his life trying to make up for all the ways he'd hurt her and all the incredible things she'd given him this past year, he would still be severely in her debt, but shouldn't he at least try to do so? Everything he gave her, every smile or laugh he drew from her, was so much better than the alternative, of always taking from her, never giving to her. It wasn't much, and it would never suffice, but it was the best he could do, and he'd be damned if he didn't devote every ounce of strength and goodness he possessed to doing just that, to trying to 'break even' with her.

Zelos knew now what he wanted for his life; the wheels of his brand new Grand Master Plan, a plan even more life-altering than the last one had been, were in motion. Now he just had to make sure all his i's were dotted and his t's were crossed so he could make it happen. And whatever it took to do that, be it scheming, arguing, bribing, or begging, he would. Sheena was worth it all, and then so much more.

On his way through the main room, Zelos caught sight of the Jizou shrine in the back corner. Despite his role as the Chosen, he had never been a religious man - it was hard to be when his life had been a long string of disappointments, frustrations, and tragedies because of his 'religion's' demands of him - but a few nights ago, when he'd been agonizing over what would still happen to Sheena and Mizuho, he'd decided it couldn't hurt to give prayer one last shot, and the results spoke for themselves. And now, remembering something Sheena had once told him about her own faith, he knew what he had to do. Walking over to the shrine, he fished from his pocket two pebbles he'd grabbed earlier that morning. As he set the first one down at the statue's feet, he said a prayer of thanks for the protection Jizou had granted this woman and her people by sending him here in time and giving him the knowledge he needed to save them. And as he set the second one down, Zelos said a prayer that when he got everything in order and worked up the nerve to ask her the question he was now certain he would soon ask her, she would say 'yes.'

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 4: The Wings

The idea to clean up in the bathroom, grab a bite to eat, and go for a walk to see her grandfather had seemed so good, so easy, when Sheena had initially decided to do so. She'd wasted the entire morning finishing reading that silly romance novel, and so, with nothing else to do, she'd opted to take advantage of the fact that she was feeling the best she had in days to start trying to get back to normal, stop feeling so helpless, and prove she was better. Before even reaching the bathroom, though, she'd realized she wasn't better yet. While she could rely on her legs to hold her upright, they were still too weak and stiff to do much more than that. As it was, she practically had to drag herself, leaning against the wall the entire time, to get anywhere. Sure, she was pleased she could stand again, but the lack of mobility was so frustrating. For a moment she was tempted to yell at her legs to move, but she bit her tongue, not wanting to wake the red, white, and black lump currently dead to the world on her couch. She knew she should be glad she was standing again without toppling over, seeing as this was the first time in five days that she did feel steady on her feet; she knew she should. After all, any improvement at this point, as Zelos kept reminding her, was a sign that she was recovering. And really, this was considerably better than being incapacitated except for his 'high-speed transport service.' But damn it, she wanted to be better already!

Emerging from the bathroom, Sheena took one look at her kitchen and dismissed her notion of heading there next. It was too far away, and there wasn't enough furniture in her path to use for support, which meant it would take at least fifteen minutes of walking along the outer walls to get there, and then another fifteen to get back to her bedroom. She sighed, frustrated and disappointed, as her stomach rumbled. So much for that idea. And if it took her that long just to get to her kitchen, it would probably take three days to get to Grandpa's house, so that idea was out, too. Well, at least until Zelos woke, because she knew he'd be happy to walk her there - 'walk,' preferably, not 'carry,' which he'd become obnoxiously fond of doing lately. Well, he'd become obnoxiously fond of waiting on her hand and foot and was stubbornly refusing to leave Mizuho until she was fully better, too, but she was having trouble getting too irritated about that. After all, he really was eager to help, and he was so sweet and thoughtful that so far she'd only managed to get as upset with him as she could with a playful, excitable, mischievous, attention-seeking puppy. Even when she felt awful, she just couldn't rouse any real anger toward him anymore, it seemed. Honestly, she hadn't been able to since that night at the king's party when she'd discovered who the man really was - and, more than that, what she meant to him and what he meant to her, too. And everything he'd done here the past week was exactly why she couldn't.

Leaning heavily against her bathroom doorframe, Sheena's gaze ventured back to her couch, and she finally caved to the urge she'd been fighting off ever since she'd noticed Zelos lying there in just his black shirt and white pants, curled up on his side, sound asleep. At least that was one place she could reach without having to walk the entire perimeter of her house. Her hand securely on the wall, she slowly headed in his direction, then pushed herself over to the couch. Once steady there, she followed the front of it until she could sit down in the empty spot near his waist, careful not to wake him. He had been asleep ever since she'd awoken four hours ago; heck, he'd been here since midnight when he'd stumbled inside and collapsed on the couch, briefly waking her in the process. At one point he'd mentioned he was testing how long his angel abilities would let him stay awake while he covered the night watch, but now it appeared he'd either reached his limit or Orochi had felt generous and finally sent him to get some sleep while he served as the night watch. And while she knew she was risking waking him by joining him here, the sight of him peacefully asleep on her couch was simply too enticing to resist.

She was in awe of him. Everything he'd accomplished here...it was incredible, and every time she thought about it, her heart clenched with longing and love. He'd had no obligation to do what he had for a village and a people who weren't his own. While she knew he never would have done nothing had he found her dying, he hadn't had to bother with her people. And the fact that he had, without being asked to do so and then without complaining about it even once, both astounded and confused her. Why had he fought so hard to save them all? Knowing him as she did, having seen what he was capable of this past year, she knew she should have expected nothing less from him, but every now and then she still had trouble seeing and accepting the reality directly in front of her, maybe because he still had trouble seeing and accepting it. But whether he realized it or not, he had proven her right about him, and at that moment, watching him sleep, she loved him so much that it hurt. What he'd done here meant the world to her, and knowing her shortcoming with words, chances were she would never be able to sufficiently express her gratitude to him. She owed him everything for saving her village, and then so much more.

Even Orochi had finally started seeing Zelos for who he really was. When he'd dropped by yesterday to check on her, she'd thanked him for working with Zelos despite his issues with him, and she'd thanked him, too, for giving Zelos the book, which he'd brushed aside with some muttered, incoherent ramblings. She'd also asked about what Zelos had done here - and his description had told her he, too, knew Mizuho still existed because of Zelos and that he was grateful for it. At least Orochi had given her a full explanation, because she'd quickly realized Zelos wouldn't; when she'd asked him for one, he'd glossed over the details, his blush telling her he'd been embarrassed and uncomfortable discussing it. Orochi, on the other hand, had filled in the gaps. And, even more telling, when Sheena had commented about what a good man Zelos was, needing to make sure Orochi recognized that fact, Orochi hadn't argued with her. She'd then asked what had happened between them, hoping for more details of why Orochi no longer treated Zelos like a threat, but he'd refused to expound on it. Regardless, though, things between them were better. It gave her hope that maybe Orochi would no longer give Zelos a hard time here.

Of course, being alone with Orochi had been completely awkward, too. He had romantic feelings for her? She didn't doubt Zelos, and some of the odd looks and weird things Orochi had said to her lately now made more sense, but it still surprised her. Because of Mizuho's restrictions against displays of affection, it was hard to know when a man here loved a woman, especially when he didn't act on it. Or maybe she was just that blind to it because she, too, had always been taught to keep such feelings to herself. In fact, that was probably why Zelos's forwardness about his feelings for her had always come as a relief, because while reciprocating the gesture had been difficult at first (and, granted, still was at times), she never had to guess how he felt about her. At least Orochi didn't know Zelos had told her about his feelings, and as a result he was still acting normally with her, which made the situation a little easier to deal with.

It was just...she had always viewed Orochi as a close friend, even at times like a brother, and so trying to view him romantically was just wrong. In fact, the very thought left her recoiling. Even when she had acknowledged that Orochi was probably the man she would end up marrying - after all, he was likely the man Grandpa would recommend she take as her husband when she became chief - she could never summon any feelings toward the thought beyond discomfort and reluctance. On the other hand, Sheena supposed she was glad Orochi did care for her like that, because otherwise wouldn't a marriage between them - since that was still the most likely possibility for the future - be even more awkward than it would without it? While those feelings might only ever be one-sided, that was still better than nothing. And he would be a good husband and co-leader for Mizuho; she didn't doubt that for a second. The problem was that Orochi just wasn't the man she wanted filling that role for her.

No, Sheena knew who she wanted filling that role, and it definitely wasn't Orochi. Part of her - the part that kept reminding her of her iris bracelet and insisting fate was watching out for her - was hopeful this poisoning incident and Zelos's willingness to help everyone out here meant her ideal future, one that included him, was still possible. And the more she envisioned that future, with him here by her side, the more she wanted it, to the point where her longing, especially after everything he'd done the past few days for her people, was now so strong that it squeezed her heart like a vice and made it hard to breathe. She didn't want him to sleep out here on her couch anymore; she wanted him in her bed, where he belonged, wrapping her in his protective embrace as warmly, tenderly, and lovingly as he had on New Year's, for the rest of their lives. And the best part was that after this, it was actually possible Mizuho might one day be able to accept him in a role like that, too.

But life was never that kind or simple, which was something her sense of logic never failed to remind her of whenever her longing became so powerful that she started considering how to turn desire into reality, and as a result, Sheena was utterly terrified. The love she felt for him, especially now, was so overwhelming that it was nearly paralyzing to realize the most likely outcome was still the future she dreaded. It made her want to break down and cry. For months she'd been able to push that fear aside, telling herself she would deal with it later, but her gut was telling her she was past the point of being able to ignore it any longer.

Sheena could feel it, roiling up within her: the desperate desire to tell Zelos everything her future held for her and ask him to join her here. With every new thing that happened, that desire grew more and more powerful. But whenever she felt herself itching to do so, her mind always reminded her of something Raine had once said: that if she really loved Zelos, she would let him go. Asking him to stay, after all, meant asking him to give up his life in exchange for hers, something unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and unwanted by him. And that...well, she could never live with herself if she did that. Never. Because the thing was, knowing Zelos, and especially after seeing everything he'd done here for her, if she asked him to, he would do it. And also like Raine had said, if he did, he would either be miserable for the rest of his life because of it, or 'they' would fall apart within a year. One day he would find he couldn't handle it anymore, and in time his misery would outweigh his love for her, he would grow to resent her and the chain she represented linking him to that life, and he would ultimately leave her. Having Zelos here with her was what she wanted, more than anything she'd ever wanted before, but it simply wasn't meant to be, no matter what signs fate seemed to be sending her. The depth of her love for him refused to let her do that to him.

And so, once she finally did what she should have done months ago and ended their relationship, that was when Orochi would enter the picture. And unfortunately, Raine had been right about something else, too: giving Zelos her heart as completely as she had was probably the cruelest thing she had ever done, not just to Zelos, but to Orochi. She really had been a foolish, selfish girl, encouraging Zelos as she had. No matter how hard she tried, she could never return Orochi's feelings, not when Zelos held her entire heart. Even when she broke it off with Zelos, her heart would still belong solely to him; Orochi could never even have a tiny piece of it because none remained to give him. While she could try to force herself to love Orochi, because he deserved a wife who loved him, any feelings she could muster for him would only ever be lukewarm, and settling for 'lukewarm' after the all-encompassing heat and passion of loving Zelos would just cause pain and misery for them both. After all, she had no doubt that Orochi knew she loved Zelos, and he would always be wondering how much she loved him in comparison. And when he did everything he could to win her heart yet never could, he would eventually realize she wasn't happy, and that realization...it would kill him. And the thought of being stuck in that kind of miserable, lonely life forever, without love and passion and Zelos, was what terrified her most.

It was impossible to back out now, though. Breaking up with Zelos was the right answer, but how could she, especially now? 'Oh, thanks for being so incredible and saving my life and my people's lives, Zelos, but I don't see a future for us anymore so I'm dumping you like I should've done months ago'? What kind of cruel, calloused, ungrateful 'thank you' was that? And the thing was, if she didn't go that route, then she'd instead have to say, 'Oh, thanks for being so incredible and saving my life and my people's lives, Zelos, but now could you do even more for me by giving up everything you know and want for yourself and instead moving here to live this boring, mundane, demanding life with me, one I know you don't want? I'm sure you'll quickly become so miserable here that you'll leave me, but maybe we can have a few good weeks together before that happens?' Yeah, that was so much better. And unless she ran away with him, something she'd never forgive herself for doing knowing she'd be letting her people down, or fate showed her another future - and soon, if something Orochi had mentioned was right, that her grandfather believed Mizuho would be safer under her watch, which meant he probably wanted to make her chief soon - those were her only options. And oh, did she detest them both, with more hatred than she'd thought herself capable of feeling.

She'd faced down Mithos and all the Summon Spirits, taken on evil necromancers and giant dragons, stepped into Niflheim and challenged demons, but never had she been as scared as she was at that very moment of facing her own future.

She wasn't certain yet which option she would choose. It would most likely be the first, but she couldn't dismiss the possibility that her selfishness would win out in a moment of weakness and she'd blurt out the question and ask Zelos to live here with her, and she already knew if she did that, she could never retract it or tell him she'd made a mistake because her selfish desire for him would still have been revealed. And the thing was, as long as she was torn over which choice to make, and as long as a single sign from fate still existed that gave her hope - like her iris blooming right now - she couldn't act in either way. But one thing she did know was that burying her head in the sand and letting 'Whatever will be, will be' rule her choices wouldn't cut it anymore. She was nearly out of time and would need to choose soon, and that meant she had to quit running and instead give it serious thought so she could choose correctly when that time came. While she knew she never should have encouraged their relationship, and she knew trusting something as finicky and, oftentimes, cruel as fate had been a horrible idea, it was too late to turn back the clock, and so she had to figure out how to handle this situation. Only once she had carefully thought everything through and made her choice could she act on it.

But while she couldn't hide from it much longer, she still had some time left. Besides, she could never walk away, if that was what she decided to do, right now, when her heart was pounding so fiercely with love and amazement as she watched him sleep. She hated to admit it, but she was too weak, physically and emotionally, to make her choice now. The way he looked as he slept, the peace radiating from him, his handsome face, his gorgeous red hair, his lean but muscular body, the faint smile toying on his lips and the aura of innocence surrounding him...he looked angelic. She didn't want to wake him, but his beauty was calling to her, and Sheena couldn't resist letting her fingers play over his face, brushing a lock of hair behind his shoulder. And for the first time, she could actually understand why he was always staring at her when she didn't know it, because right now that was exactly what she wanted to do: watch him sleep, for as long as she could. Was what she was seeing and feeling, this exhilarating love and desire, what he saw and felt when he looked at her? Maybe it was. But regardless, could they please freeze time at this moment so nothing could ever threaten their love again?

As it always did, though, the clock soon unfroze, and Sheena pulled her hand back as Zelos moaned and rolled onto his back, lifting his hand to his face and rubbing his eyes blearily. Damn, she'd woken him. She sat silently, stilly, hoping he'd fall back asleep, but a minute later his eyes slowly opened. The second he noticed her, he smiled broadly and his eyes groggily slid shut again.

"Now this is what I like to see when I wake up," he murmured, opening his eyes again and watching her as she chuckled shyly, her face growing warm. As embarrassed as she was to have been caught staring at him, she also trusted him not to rub it in. Too much, anyway. "I could get used to this very, very easily."

"Yeah, I bet you could," she replied, but instead of coming across as sarcastic, as she'd intended, her words were a mere whisper. She offered him a faint smile. "Sorry I woke you. I'd been trying not to."

"'S 'kay," he replied, his words muffled as he stifled a yawn with his hand. "If you were anyone else, I'd be pissed, but...eh. You're you, and I'm not." Lowering his hand, Zelos watched her another moment, smiling softly, but then he breathed in deeply and threw his arms upward, stretching. "What time is it?"

"Nearly lunchtime."

His eyes widened and his smile faltered. "Lunchtime? Really?" Sheena nodded, and he let out a soft laugh and shook his head. "Wow. I can't believe I just slept for, what? Twelve hours? I never sleep that long! Heck, I never even slept that long before our journey unless I was fighting off a hangover!"

Sheena grinned. "I guess you finally reached your sleep deprivation limit, eh?"

Zelos nodded as he sat up, his legs still stretched out in front of him. "And now I'm making up for it. Still, five days with only a catnap to keep me going...not too shabby."

"No, it's not. I guess that really is another advantage of being an angel." Naturally, he pouted at that, and she rolled her eyes. "Oh, excuse me. I meant to say 'guardian knight in shining armor with an ultra sensitive hearing aid and every physical advantage that angels possess.'"

A smug, mischievous grin appeared on his lips as he pointed at her. "That. Exactly." Sheena rolled her eyes again, but Zelos just took another deep breath and stifled another yawn with his hand, looking her over curiously. "So what are you doing up?" Before she could answer, though, he smirked and waggled his eyebrows. "Wait, don't answer that. It's because my beautiful face was so irresistible that it literally drew you over here to admire it, right?"

Egads, the man would never completely lose the arrogant act, would he? If she didn't know he was joking, she'd have to beat him up - especially since his stupid comment was right. "Idiot," she muttered, flicking his arm with her finger. "Or maybe I was just checking on the lump that magically appeared on my couch overnight."

"Nah, I think my theory is far more likely," Zelos replied, his smirk broadening, and that time Sheena couldn't resist smacking his leg, eliciting a chuckle from him as he lifted his hands. "Sorry, sorry. Couldn't help myself." Without warning, though, his smile faded and his eyes narrowed. "But seriously, sweetheart, should you be up and walking around like this?"

Part of her wanted to smack him again for how overprotective he'd been of her lately, but then she reminded herself that he was merely inquiring about her condition, not forcing her back to bed, so she didn't. Instead, she smiled smugly. "I made it over here, didn't I?"

He eyed her a moment before grinning. "Huh. I guess you did." Without warning, his grin transformed into a smirk. "Although it's just as likely you used one of your Ultra Top Secret Ninja Tricks and teleported your perfect specimen of a voluptuous, feminine body over here to get a better look at my perfect specimen of a sexy, masculine body."

Wonderful. He just woke up and he's already in 'perverted idiot' mode. That didn't take long. She gave him a mild warning glare, then chuckled softly and shook her head. "I'm not even going to dignify that with a response. And for the record, no. I didn't teleport here. My people have a lot of fancy tricks, but teleportation isn't one of them."

"I'm not sure I believe that, considering how mysteriously you and your people appear out of thin air at times, but go on anyway," Zelos quipped, motioning at her.

Sheena bit her lip, her eyes trailing down over the smooth, rippling muscles of his chest, visible beneath his black shirt. This man was ridiculously gorgeous - not that she would tell him that when he was in such an idiotic mood. "I just needed to get out of bed for awhile, so I thought I'd get up, grab some lunch, and go see Grandpa. But..."

Her voice trailed off and her head sank downward as reluctance to admit her physical limitations stilled her tongue, and after a moment, Zelos leaned forward, gently lifting her chin with his finger so she was looking at him again. "Sheena?"

She sighed at the sincerely concerned look on his face, knowing he wouldn't back off until she'd told him the truth. And after days of fighting him, of trying not to inconvenience him, she'd realized fighting was a waste of time since he never gave up. She might as well just tell him. "My legs still won't let me. I can stand up now just fine, but I'm still having trouble walking. I don't know what that poison did to me, but it's sure taking its time getting out of my system."

Zelos's fingers brushed her cheek again, and he gave her a soft smile. "Hey, even if it's still hard for you, I'm impressed you're walking again at all. Little by little, things are coming back for you, sweetheart. You'll be back to normal soon. Just give it a few more days."

"I know," she quickly replied. "I keep telling myself that, but it's just so...frustrating. I couldn't even take a bath or wash my hair because it would've taken too much walking to fill the tub - and because, well, I don't trust my body to keep me upright long enough to manage that, not without a wall or something to hold onto."

The instant his eyebrows flew upward, Sheena realized she shouldn't have said that, and his words confirmed why. "You realize that's what I'm gonna do now, right? Fill the tub for you and help keep you upright so you can clean up? It's not like I can blame you for wanting a bath. Being bedridden for five days is a surefire way to feel icky."

Well, he was right about how icky she felt, but that didn't alleviate her guilt for having unintentionally talked him into doing even more for her. "I knew I shouldn't have said anything," she murmured, looking down at his chest again.

"Ah!" he interrupted, lifting a finger to silence her. "You won't change my mind. In fact, if you'd like, I can even wash your hair for you so you don't have to worry about your arms giving out in the middle of it, thus leaving your hair a soapy mess."

...He's kidding, right? She arched an eyebrow at him. "And you really think I'm letting you anywhere near me while I'm naked and taking a bath?"

Zelos grinned sneakily and waggled his eyebrows. "You will if you want to feel like a normal, clean human being again." He quickly lifted a hand. "And I promise, nothing inappropriate. Even though I've technically already seen everything there is to see - by accident - I will be a good, albeit imperfect, boyfriend and not peek at you." To her surprise, his face grew somber as he gently grasped her hand. "I would never take advantage of your weakness to do anything stupid like that, love. You know that, right?"

And the thing was, she did know that. Even if his expression hadn't been one of complete sincerity, she still knew he would behave himself. "Of course I do," she whispered, giving him a soft, grateful smile. "And yeah, I'd appreciate your help. I'm sick of feeling like this."

"Then that's settled!" he replied, grinning happily and clapping his hands together once. "And after that we'll grab some breakfast...er, lunch, and then I'd be happy to escort you to your grandfather's house so you can see how he's doing."

Just as I expected. "I was hoping you'd say that."

"Great! Then let's get started." He pulled his legs up to his chest, swung them around her, and moved to stand, but before he did, he stopped and cupped her face in his hands, giving her a tender, loving kiss. "I love you, Sheena."

"I love you too, Zelos," she whispered, her blush returning. And she meant that, far more than she should. But whenever she was with him, all common sense flew out the window - and for now, until her decision about the future was settled, she would let it and enjoy every second of this that she could get.

They quickly got started. As promised, Zelos behaved like a complete gentleman while he got her set up in the bathroom (well, mostly, limiting his perverted comments to only one or two), and then he did as promised and washed her hair, which felt heavenly. His hands were magic when it came to massages, and after how horrible she'd felt for days, she would have had to be a fool not to let him. Once her bath was finished, he then made some quick but tasty sandwiches (thank you, Sebastian, for teaching him a few of your special sandwich-making tips, she'd thought as she'd savored her turkey and cheese sandwich), cleaned up from lunch, and helped her get dressed. He then accompanied her to her grandfather's house - walking her there, thankfully, with his arm tucked securely around her back and letting her set the pace. Sheena was relieved to see a few of the villagers were also up and about, standing at their windows or doors, looking around. Since it really was a lovely spring day, she was glad to see some of them were able to enjoy it, too.

It took them fifteen minutes to reach Igaguri's house, and by the time they did, she was exhausted and was tempted to give up and let Zelos carry her. Normally it took half a minute to get there, but her legs simply wouldn't let her move any faster than that. Zelos, fortunately, was extremely patient, and once they finally reached it, he escorted her inside and helped her remove her shoes. Orochi was also there, they discovered upon entering the main room, and Sheena was pleased to see that when he greeted them, he nodded not just at her, but at Zelos, too. Her grandfather, likewise, smiled upon seeing them, one she returned as she saw him sitting up in bed, looking weak yet surprisingly energetic. Instinct told her to run to him and give him a hug, needing to convey her happiness at seeing him alive, but she didn't try, knowing how pitiful the result would be. Zelos continued helping her walk toward Igaguri, and unsurprisingly, Orochi was soon on his feet and lending a hand, leaving her blushing and biting back a growl at how helpless the gesture made her feel. She may have gotten used to accepting Zelos's help, sort of, but Orochi's was...well, it was too weird, not knowing how much of it was friendly helpfulness and how much...wasn't. But then they were lowering her to the floor beside her grandfather, and all annoyance vanished as Igaguri pulled her into a hug.

"Oh, Sheena," he murmured, placing his hand to the back of her head as he held her. "I am so pleased to see you are becoming well again."

"You too, Grandpa. I've been so worried about you."

"And I, you." He pulled back and looked her over, still smiling, his hands lowering to her arms. "And you even walked here! This is wonderful improvement!"

"Well, not by myself, but it's still the best I've managed in days," she replied, giving Zelos a grateful smile. "At least I'm starting to feel more like myself again."

Zelos nodded. "Every day she's getting a little better, slowly but surely. I have no doubt she'll be back to normal soon."

"Nor do I, Chosen," Igaguri replied as Orochi retook his earlier seat. "Orochi has kept me informed of everyone's conditions. I am certain he has done the same for you, Sheena."

"Yeah, he has. Zelos has, too." She gave Zelos another smile as he sat down beside her, leaving a safe distance between them - but less than he normally left while in her company in Mizuho, she noted, probably wanting to be close in case she needed his help. "When he isn't busy running around the village and catching up on days' worth of missed sleep, that is."

"Yes, Orochi has informed me of that, too," Igaguri murmured, softer that time, but then he cleared his throat and turned toward Zelos. "And how are you faring, Chosen?"

Zelos's eyebrows rose slightly, as if he was surprised Igaguri was asking about him, but then he waved that off. "Oh, I'm fine. Even better now that I've finally gotten some sleep."

"You were able to, then?" Orochi asked.

"Definitely. I haven't slept like that in years. Thanks for taking the watch last night, Orochi. I'm not sure I could've managed another night." Zelos shrugged. "I guess even I have my limits."

Orochi bowed his head. "You are welcome, Chosen. You have more than earned a full night of sleep. I am glad you could get it."

Zelos smiled faintly, then cleared his throat. "So how are things this morning? I couldn't help noticing that a lot more people seem to be up and about."

"Yes, they are," Orochi replied. "Many have reached the same stage Sheena appears to be at: they are feeling significantly better and wish to resume their usual activities."

Sheena let out a soft laugh. "Yeah, well, I can tell you from personal experience that even though I'm starting to feel better, it'll still be awhile before everything's back to normal. Until I can move on my own, I can't really say I'm better yet."

"I agree," Igaguri said. "I am currently unable to walk by myself yet, but Orochi did assist me in standing this morning. Being able to stretch came as a great relief to my aging legs, which have not appreciated the lack of movement the past few days."

"Well, I know this doesn't help you guys deal with the frustration of being unable to do what you want to do when you want to do it, but I've seen how much you've improved the past few days, and I, for one, am impressed," Zelos said. "You've come a long way and it shows."

"Yes, it does," Orochi agreed. "It has been very encouraging, especially during the past day, to see the progress everyone has made."

Zelos gave him a faint smile, then cleared his throat. "Anyway, is Michi still here or did he head back to Sybak? I know last night he was debating what to do."

"He decided to remain here one more day," Orochi said. "Judging from the rate of recovery, by tomorrow we should be able to handle the situation without him."

Zelos nodded. "Makes sense. I'd hate for him to miss too many days of school, especially since we only have a few weeks left before summer break starts."

"Yes, I agree," Igaguri said. "He stopped by yesterday to see me, and he informed me of the many things he has been studying in Sybak. He appears to be very happy there."

"You have no idea," Zelos replied, grinning. And again, Sheena's heart melted at the sparkle of delight in his blue eyes, knowing he was the one who'd helped Michi achieve that happiness. "That kid has trouble not talking about everything he's learning. And his teachers adore him. Every time I talk to them, they rave about him and about how great a student he is and how thrilled they are to work with someone who's so excited to learn. I'm proud of him."

Igaguri smiled. "As is Mizuho. He has proven how gifted he is, and I am hopeful that the knowledge he acquires will benefit us. However, I would be remiss to not also acknowledge how helpful his assistance here has been the past few days."

"Definitely," Zelos said. "I'm glad he was here. He did a phenomenal job helping us out."

Orochi nodded. "Yes, he did. I was impressed by how hard he pushed to help everyone."

Zelos shrugged. "Just in case you needed further proof of where his heart truly lies."

"No, I believe that has now been made abundantly clear," Igaguri said. Without warning, though, his eyes narrowed as he watched Zelos, his faint but sneaky smile telling Sheena what was coming next - and Sheena couldn't help smiling as well, glad her grandfather was taking the time to point it out. "I could say the same about you, Chosen."

Instantly, Zelos's smile vanished and his eyebrows rose. "Hm?"

"I have not had a chance to do this yet, but I intend to remedy that now," Igaguri went on. "Orochi has informed me of everything you did for us here these past few days."

His cheeks grew red, and his face fell. "...Oh. That."

"Yes, 'that.' What you have done here is nothing short of incredible. You were instrumental in creating and administering the antidote that saved us, you stopped the murderer responsible for attacking us, and you exerted considerable energy in guaranteeing our recovery and in protecting our village when we could not protect ourselves. For these things, we owe you our deepest gratitude." Igaguri sat up straighter, then bowed humbly to Zelos as best he could without standing. "Chosen, on behalf of the village of Mizuho, thank you. We still exist because of your quick thinking here. As such, we are forevermore in your debt."

"Yes, Chosen, I must echo Chief Igaguri's sentiment," Orochi said, albeit not actually looking at Zelos, indicating how hard the words were for him to say. "We would no longer exist as a people if not for your actions. Thank you."

Sheena's smile broadened as she saw Zelos look down at his knees, his face nearly as red as his hair. "Heh. It was...it was nothing. Really."

Igaguri lifted his head, his eyebrows rising. "Oh? Saving our people was 'nothing'? You must forgive me, Chosen, if I cannot see it as such. I am certain my people will likewise have difficulty accepting such a blasé viewpoint in regards to being saved."

For a moment, Sheena was tempted to explain that Zelos hadn't meant that as a personal slight or as claiming the villagers meant 'nothing' to him, rather that he'd said that because he was uncomfortable being praised and was trying to look as if that hadn't affected him, but she bit her tongue, wanting to see how Zelos responded. Thankfully, judging from his wide-eyed alarm as he looked at her grandfather, he wasn't going to pull out his usual tactic when backed into an uncomfortable corner: making a stupid comment to brush it all aside. And oh, was she glad he wasn't. There was so much good in him that he still had trouble seeing, and she hoped incidents like this, along with the legitimate praise that came from people beyond just her, would help him become more comfortable with that part of himself.

"Oh!" he replied, letting out a soft, nervous laugh as he shook his head. "No, that...that didn't come out right."

"Oh?" Igaguri pressed, his eyebrows rising further.

Zelos looked first at Igaguri, then at Sheena. And it was as she saw how wide his eyes were that she decided she could ignore the rules this one time only by grasping his hand and giving him a reassuring smile. Right now he needed it - and even though Grandpa and Orochi were there, she really didn't think they'd raise a fuss over something that could be taken as not just affection, but as encouragement and gratitude. Thankfully, her gesture didn't go unnoticed by Zelos, for it seemed to disarm the worst of his alarm, at least enough for him to turn back to Igaguri and answer the question.

"'It's nothing' means...well, it means I don't want you guys to feel obligated to me or like you owe me anything. I'm just glad I could help at all, and I'm especially glad we were able to save most of your people. I know I'm a not-so-well-liked-or-respected outsider here, and I may not be a die-hard fan of your culture, but what your people have created here, the life you've made for yourselves...it's still admirable. Just because it's different doesn't make it wrong, and it definitely doesn't give an intolerant, cowardly, melting freak the right to decide you shouldn't exist anymore. You may be different, but you're still a good, loyal, respectable people - more so than most people I've met, actually. And, well, I don't want to see anything bad happen to you guys." Igaguri eyed him carefully, but after a moment, Zelos cast a small smile at Sheena as she squeezed his hand. "Besides, I know Sheena loves you guys and would've wanted me to help. How could I walk away when I knew losing her people, her family, would devastate her? I couldn't."

"Mm," Igaguri murmured, giving him a faint smile. Even Orochi, Sheena noted, was watching Zelos closely again. "I see."

"And it's not like I'm the only one responsible for saving this village," Zelos went on, motioning at Orochi and Sheena. "These two are just as responsible, if not more so. If it weren't for Sheena and the research she did, I never would've been able to identify the poison or the antidote to get started making it. And if not for Orochi, I would've been missing a crucial ingredient that would've made the antidote lethal, and it would've taken twice as long to distribute it to everyone - during which time more people could've died."

"Yes, that is true," Igaguri replied with another nod. "And believe me, Chosen, I do not mean to downplay their contributions. However, Sheena and Orochi are members of our village; this is their home, and as you said, these people are their family. If they had not done what they did here, I would have been extremely disappointed in them. That is not the case for you. While I expected such actions when it came to saving Sheena, you were not obligated to help the rest of us, and yet because you did, my people are still alive. That is why I thank you especially, for going out of your way to save a people who have not always been as kind and welcoming to you as they should have been."

Sheena squeezed Zelos's hand again and smiled warmly as he glanced at her. He was starting to fidget, and she could almost see his mind searching for a way out of being thanked without coming across as disrespectful. For a moment he just observed her uncertainly, but then he turned back to Orochi and Igaguri and shrugged again. "Well, you guys are worth all the effort I put into it, and like I said, I couldn't just let you die when I could prevent it. I'm still not convinced I deserve such gratitude, and I still maintain you don't owe me for it, but...you're welcome anyway."

Igaguri smiled and bowed his head. "And now, with that said, Chosen, may I ask you to do something for me?"

While Zelos's face was still red, he did relax a little, clearly relieved to be off of that subject and curious to know what her grandfather wanted. "Of course."

"May I see your wings?"

Zelos's eyes widened, even as Sheena's heart plummeted. Oh, Grandpa, what are you doing? she silently asked him, honestly having no idea where he was going with that. Unsurprisingly, Zelos let out a soft, nervous laugh and rubbed the back of his neck. "Oh, um, I, ah..."

Even Orochi fidgeted as Zelos's eyes darted accusingly at him. Wait, so even he knew Zelos was uncomfortable with that part of himself? Wow, she really didn't know everything that had happened between them the past few days yet, did she? "I apologize for telling him about that, Chosen," Orochi said, his head sinking downward. "Chief Igaguri was having difficulty believing certain parts of the story without knowing the finer details. I would not have told him otherwise."

Igaguri's eyebrows rose further as he looked between them. "Was my request impolite?"

Zelos opened his mouth but still no words came out, and Sheena smiled awkwardly as he fumbled for a reply. At this point, she didn't think he would object to her answering the question for him. "No, Grandpa, it's not that. It's just...Zelos isn't comfortable with that part of himself yet. If it were up to him, he never would've undergone the angel transformation. For that matter, he'd never let anyone know he has wings, either."

"Mm, is that so?" Igaguri asked, turning back to Zelos and watching him carefully. "And why is that, Chosen?"

Again, Zelos hesitated, his mouth opening only to quickly close again, but finally his head sank downward and he sighed before looking up again. "Let's just say I didn't receive those...angelic abilities...under the best of circumstances. I wasn't given much choice in them, and if it had been up to me, I never would've gotten them. As a result, well, my wings symbolize a time in my life that I'm not particularly proud of. As far as I'm concerned, they're a reminder, a stigma, of all the bad choices I've made, one I can never get rid of. Sheena's right: I wish I didn't have them. If I could, I'd get rid of them."

"Hence why you do not wish to show them to others: because forgetting they are there is easier without the reminder that they exist." Igaguri's brows furrowed further as Zelos looked down again and nodded. "However, I would think the important thing is not how you received them or what they stand for, but rather in how you choose to use them."

Sheena glanced at Zelos as his hand stilled beneath hers. His mouth opened as he lifted his head, but again he didn't say anything - although it was obvious from how his narrowed his eyes were that he was considering that. And finally, he let out a soft laugh. "Y'know, Chief Igaguri, you might just have a point there."

Igaguri's sly smile returned and he tilted his head in acknowledgment. "From where I stand, Chosen, it appears that, since receiving these 'abilities,' you have chosen to use them not only wisely, but admirably. I am convinced that, had you not had them, many more of my people, perhaps all of us, would have died here."

Sheena squeezed his hand again and gave him a soft smile. "Speaking for myself, Zelos, I know I would've died a long time ago in a certain hole if you hadn't had them."

He observed her carefully, maybe even hopefully, but before he could respond, Igaguri pressed, "Please, Chosen? They did aid you in saving my people."

Zelos sighed and lifted his hands. "Okay, okay! You can see them. Besides, you're the only one here who hasn't yet, Chief Igaguri." Sheena bit her tongue as he stood - that isn't true, Zelos, because you haven't seen them yet, either - and pointed at Igaguri. "But barring any other freak emergencies, this is the last time I'll ever show them to anyone."

Igaguri bowed his head. "Thank you. I will not ask to see them again, and I will not mention them to others, either. I am certain Orochi will do the same."

"Of course, Chosen," Orochi assured him.

The worst of Zelos's tension seemed to fade away, and he nodded curtly. "Thanks."

And then, finally, he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, and his golden-orange wings appeared behind him, as brilliant, glorious, and beautiful as ever, stretching halfway across the room. Sheena's heart skipped a beat; she hadn't seen them in months, but regardless of his opinion of them, she was quite certain she could see them every day for the rest of her life and never tire of them. And knowing how they felt when she ran her fingers over them, and the effect touching them had had on him...she couldn't help the blush that warmed her cheeks. Unfortunately, though, that memory was wistful now, knowing the likelihood of ever being able to follow through on her promise to 'try that again one day' was slim to none, not unless her selfishness ultimately won out, which was something she would fight tooth and nail to prevent from happening.

But she was getting sidetracked, and so she shoved that thought aside, refusing to worry about the future for fear it would depress her - which would result in Zelos trying to uncover what was wrong and then doing everything he could to make her feel better. It was a chance she couldn't take, that he might push and get her to admit her fears to him, not when she knew it would lead to heartache and misery if he were to offer to stay with her, and so she refused to let it reach that point.

Igaguri, likewise, smiled as he observed Zelos's wings. "They are magnificent, Chosen."

Zelos's eyebrows flew upward. "Really?"

"Yes, Chosen, they are impressive," Orochi added.

Sheena smiled softly as Zelos's eyes fell to her. "Like I've said, Zelos, they really are beautiful."

"Huh," he whispered, a tiny smile appearing on his lips as he watched her. "I thought you'd just said that make me feel better. Or that you were, y'know, biased."

She let out a soft laugh. "Well, I am, but that doesn't change how incredible they are."

And there, again, was that atypical yet endearingly shy blush and smile from him. Sheena could see it, too, in the way his fingers were twitching as if searching for something to play with: he was reaching his limit of how much praise he could endure and was about to distract them. He rubbed his neck again. "Heh. Well, just don't tell me you guys have a prophecy here about a man with red hair and wings one day saving your people from certain doom, because that would just be hokey."

Sheena could see her grandfather's lips quirk upward, as if he, too, recognized what Zelos was doing. He always had been sharp like that, catching little hints that indicated what a person's true motivation for doing something was. "Rest assured we have no such prophecy, Chosen. Although I must warn you that our historical records will now include an account of your impressive exploits here the past few days."

"Yeah, I was afraid of that," Zelos mumbled. "I don't have a choice in that, do it?"

"No, you do not. Heroic deeds like these must be recorded to give future generations something to aspire to." Igaguri observed Zelos another moment, then he smiled and bowed his head. "Thank you for letting me see them. You truly are the Chosen."

As expected, Zelos quickly retracted his wings, but what Sheena didn't expect was the crafty smile that appeared on his lips as he retook his seat. "Actually, Chief Igaguri, no, I'm not."

Sheena's eyes narrowed in confusion, as did her grandfather's and Orochi's. "You are not?" Igaguri said.

"Nope." He gave Sheena a pointed smirk. "At least, I'm not anymore."

And just like that, her eyes widened and her lips parted as she caught his meaning. "Zelos, are you saying...?"

He nodded, his smile broadening even further. "That's exactly what I'm saying."

For a moment, Sheena could only gape at him, her smile slowly appearing as that sank in. Oh, Jizou. Oh, Jizou! That was incredible! They hadn't discussed that particular quest of his for a week or two now, so she'd had no idea he was that close! "Are you serious? Zelos, that's wonderful!" And despite their audience, she couldn't help herself; grinning broadly, she threw her arms around him and pulled him to her in a hug. "Oh, thank Jizou! Finally!"

Zelos laughed softly and returned her hug, but he quickly pulled back, more mindful of their audience. "Heh. 'Bout time, eh?" he said, beamingwith delight.

"No kidding!" But that was only part of his goal. "What about everything else you wanted?"

"You bet, babe," he replied, nodding proudly. "I got that, too."

He got it. He got it! It took all her willpower not to squeal in excitement. "I can't believe it's finally official!"

"Heh, I'm not sure I can yet, either. It's not like I've had a whole lot of time to think it all over yet."

Before Sheena could reply, though, Orochi leaned forward. "I am afraid I do not follow."

Igaguri shook his head, his eyes narrowing. "Nor do I. What has happened?"

Sheena grinned again, so utterly thrilled for him that he'd finally gotten something he'd wanted for so long: to be rid of that accursed title. And then to get his other goal, too...Tethe'alla was in a much better position now than it had been for years. Mizuho was extremely lucky to have him as their liaison - and she was extremely lucky to be able to work directly with him as the king's emissary, too.

"As of five days ago, in the eyes of the Church and the King, I'm no longer the Chosen of Tethe'alla," Zelos announced, turning to Igaguri and Orochi. "The title has been removed from my name and, along with it, all of the obligations and responsibilities of the Chosen."

...Had he just said five days? "Wait a minute, is that the news you were hiding from me the other day?" He gave her a sheepish smile, and Sheena sighed, shaking her head. Agh, this man was such an idiot sometimes. Why hadn't he just told her? This was huge! "So is that why you were coming to Mizuho when you found us like this? To give me the news?"

His smile fell a little. "Yeah, it was. Finding you guys poisoned did kinda wreck the moment, but that's all in the past now so no worries."

Her heart sank. She didn't even want to think how quickly his excitement had plummeted when he'd found Mizuho decimated. But still, he was right; it was over now, and other than the nine bodies they had cremated and buried, everyone else had survived and was recovering. "Well, regardless, I'm still so happy for you!"

Zelos opened his mouth to reply, but Igaguri quickly lifted a finger to interrupt them, his eyes narrowing further. "One moment. Am I to understand this is a good thing?"

"Oh, you have no idea how good it is," Zelos said with a soft laugh.

Sheena smiled. "Zelos has been trying to get rid of that title for nearly a year now."

He pointed at her. "That was just the negotiations stage with the Church and the King. Believe me, I've been trying to get rid of it a lot longer than that. Pretty much my entire life." His grin faded. "Hence some of those 'bad choices' I made that resulted in my angel transformation."

"Mm," Igaguri murmured, still watching Zelos closely. He clearly didn't understand yet, and Sheena was tempted to explain it, but it should be Zelos's choice to share that, not hers, so she bit her tongue. "May I ask why you were so insistent on being rid of it?"

Zelos hesitated, his face falling further, but then he took a deep breath and cocked his head a bit. "Let's just say that when you're the Chosen, that's all you are and ever will be: the Chosen. You aren't a real person; you're a larger-than-life figurehead, a sacrificial lamb, someone who has to live up to every expectation the world has from you. Everything you say or do, everything that happens to you, the way others treat you...it all revolves around being the Chosen. And personally, I'd rather be known for who I am and what I do than what I am. I'd rather be a person, not a title, and especially not one I had no choice in. I came to realize that a long time ago, and I've been working to getting rid of it ever since. It just took this long for all the pieces to fall into place. And now...now, for the first time in my life, I'm just a regular guy." He gave Sheena another grin. "It feels really, really good."

Sheena grasped his hand again. "Well, you'll never be a completely regular guy, especially not with the title you just replaced it with, but you're far closer to it than you ever were before."

He nodded. "Yeah, I know. But being rid of the title of 'Chosen' opens so many doors for me that even I probably haven't realized them all yet."

"Ah, I see," Igaguri replied, lifting his head a little. "While I am afraid I cannot fathom the life you lived before this, I also cannot deny that your desire to be free from the life you described is justified. However, I must warn you that in my eyes, and undoubtedly in my people's eyes as well, you will always be our Chosen One. I suspect many in Tethe'alla will say the same. You do realize that, do you not?"

Zelos sighed. "Yeah, I figure that'll never completely change. As long as people are aware that I'm not the Chosen anymore, though, and that I have a very different role in life now, then that's okay." He shrugged. "If you want to keep calling me that out of habit, then go ahead. I'm used to it."

Igaguri smiled faintly. "Not out of habit, Chosen. Out of respect."

Sheena grinned as Zelos's eyebrows rose. Yeah, that was Grandpa, too: he could always catch others off guard with pointed statements like those because of how sharp he was at reading people - far sharper than she was afraid she'd ever be. She'd figured out a lot about Zelos since they'd started dating and thought she could read him pretty well now, but it had taken her months to reach that point. And yet here Grandpa was, reading Zelos perfectly even though he barely knew him. Maybe she'd have to ask him for some pointers so she could try to improve that skill, because it really did seem useful.

"Oh," Zelos finally murmured, letting out another soft laugh. "Well, I guess I can't really argue that, can I?"

Sheena gave his hand another squeeze as he looked at her, smiling awkwardly, but before she could say anything, Orochi cleared his throat. "You speak of 'another title' you now carry, Chosen, and you mentioned you received 'everything else' you wanted, yet I am afraid I do not know of what you speak."

Zelos grinned proudly. "In exchange for that title, the king bestowed on me another one instead: Tethe'alla's Foreign Minister."

Igaguri's eyebrows rose. "Oh, is that so? So you are our new Foreign Minister. I know you have been acting Foreign Minister since the removal of Adolphus Giannovio from the position several months ago, but I did not realize you intended to make the position permanent."

"To be honest, neither did I," Zelos replied. "But Sheena encouraged me to consider the possibility, and over time, I grew to like the idea. I didn't want to give up all the powers of the Chosen when I lost the title, especially when dealing with other peoples, and this seemed like a good way to keep just the powers I did want. I mean, not to sound conceited, but because I was the Chosen for so long and have traveled so much, I have a lot of hands-on experience with other races. I've actually met the people the Foreign Minister has to deal with and know how they think about things." He motioned at Igaguri. "I mean, take you guys. Mizuho doesn't really count as a 'foreign power' since you report to the king, but you're not locals, either, and every now and then you need something from Meltokio or vice versa and then those negotiations fall to the Foreign Minister. The same holds true for the other outlying towns, like Ozette and Flanoir, and especially for the Sylvaranti towns. Personally, I don't trust anyone else to listen to your needs and fight for them, because I can't think of a single nobleman who knows anything about you. And maybe I'm being presumptuous saying this, but I can't help thinking you guys would feel more comfortable going through someone you already know, even if that person is me, than through a complete stranger. At least I do have a vested interest in you guys and want to protect your rights - and I know how Tethe'allan politics and diplomacy work after all the years I spent as the Chosen."

"That is kind of you, Chosen," Orochi replied, his eyebrows rising in amazement.

Zelos shrugged. "Well, I mean, I doubt I'm the best choice for the job, because I'm sure there's someone else out there who's a better diplomat than me. But having me there to stand up for you guys has to be better than, say, the king deciding he doesn't like you anymore and sending a militia here to slaughter you, and having a Foreign Minister who doesn't care a whit about you encouraging it because he wants the king's approval, isn't it?"

Igaguri bowed his head. "Yes, it is. And I do not find your declaration to be presumptuous at all. Sheena often mentioned how relieved she was to have an ally like you in Meltokio when dealing with Giannovio, one she could rely on to fight for her when her arguments fell short. She has likewise praised your ability to pursue and achieve those goals you wish to accomplish. And I agree with Orochi as well. Your decision to retain such power to help those forgotten, often denigrated, people like ourselves when you could have easily been free from such responsibilities with the removal of your title is a very kind, generous choice to make, one that I, for one, am grateful for."

"Well, even if you're keeping those powers, at least you've gotten away from the Church," Sheena said when Zelos began fidgeting again at her grandfather's commendation. Oh, wait. Maybe she should verify that. "You have gotten away from the Church, right?"

Naturally, Zelos relaxed at the shift in subject. "Yeah, thankfully my hand is out of that one completely, although knowing how needy they are, I'm sure they'll still be coming to me for awhile with their problems and asking my advice, if only because I know how it all works and they're too lazy to start figuring things out for themselves. You know how much the Church fought to keep me as the Chosen, and even now, they only reluctantly let me go. But honestly, based on everything I've been hearing and on how low attendance at services has been lately now that people are starting to realize their faith had been based on a bunch of lies, I don't think the Church will last much longer in its current form, especially without me. Either it'll change drastically, or it'll fall apart. I'm not sure which is the better option, but then, I'm not involved anymore so it's up to them to figure it out."

Sheena's eyes narrowed. "So is the entire Chosen system done away with?"

Zelos sighed. "Unfortunately, no, not yet. In fact, that was one of the reasons it took me so long to get rid of the title: while the Church had no issue with me not being the Chosen, seeing as they never liked me anyway, they wanted to make my sister the Chosen instead. Needless to say, there was no way I was gonna let that happen, not when it would mean putting her through all the crap I went through." He shrugged. "She'll be pissed at me since I know she would've loved to be the Chosen and would've been great at it, but then, she's always pissed at me, so what's one more reason added to her list?"

Her heart sank at the reminder of how bad things had deteriorated between Zelos and Seles. In fact, they were nearly back at the place they'd been before going on their world trip. Zelos loved his sister dearly and was always looking out for her from afar, but Seles wouldn't see this as such. In fact, she would probably take this refusal to let her become the next Chosen as a personal insult, as Zelos thinking she couldn't live up to the challenge rather than what it really was - as her brother protecting her from being trapped in the nightmarish life he'd lived. It was heartbreaking, and not for the first time, Sheena found herself wishing she could change that by making Seles see the truth about him and everything he'd done for her.

But right now they couldn't fix anything yet, so there was no use dwelling on it. And besides, she really wanted to know this. "So Colette...?"

"...Is still the Chosen of Sylvarant," he replied. "Tethe'alla simply doesn't have a Chosen anymore; that doesn't affect Colette. I didn't want to speak for her as to what she wants, and really, that's her battle to fight if she does decide she wants to get rid of the title. The Church in Sylvarant is pretty similar to the one we have here, but they still have their own hierarchy and paperwork to go through." Zelos shook his head. "One thing I do know, though, is that the Chosen system won't last long here. There's no purpose for it anymore but to have an empty figurehead. Sylvarant...well, some people are thrilled with the job Colette did, and others resent her for everything that happened. She'll have to decide for herself what she wants. That isn't my problem, though."

Sheena smiled and squeezed his hand again. "I'm sure she'll appreciate you not making any life-altering decisions for her. I know I would."

"Yeah, I've had more than enough people make my decisions for me to know how much I hate it," Zelos agreed, returning her smile.

Igaguri watched them another moment, then nodded curtly. "Well, since this truly does seem to be what you want, Chosen, and since you clearly gave this considerable thought before pursuing it, then I, too, must be glad for you. Congratulations. I hope your future brings you everything you desire from it."

"Yeah, me too," Zelos said, only to quickly look at Sheena again. "And honestly, from where I'm standing, it's certainly looking possible."

Sheena gave him a curious look, unsure what it was he wanted from his future that he thought he could now attain, but before she could consider that, Orochi sighed. "Yes, Chosen. I agree with Chief Igaguri and also wish you luck with that."

Zelos's eyes snapped to Orochi, giving him a knowing look that Orochi returned. "Thanks, Orochi," he finally said, giving him a faint smile. "We'll just have to see how things go."

Okay, she was definitely missing something here, Sheena realized, her eyes narrowing as she looked between the two. The look Orochi was giving Zelos told her that he knew what Zelos was talking about even though she didn't. But then, maybe she was misinterpreting what she was seeing thanks to the knot of guilt tightening in her gut at hearing Zelos express such eagerness about his future...a future she seriously doubted she'd have any part of. It hurt to think of him looking forward to a future without her, but now, with the loss of that detested title, she especially couldn't interfere with the new future that awaited him, one full of freedom and fun, the life he'd always wanted. Asking him to sacrifice what he'd just gained for a life of being trapped in Mizuho was...well, it would be a despicable display of selfish cruelty, hence why she would have to work toward finding a quick and painless way to release him from those ties that bound him to her.

But this wasn't the time to be considering that, and again, Sheena pushed aside those thoughts and focused on the present as her grandfather yawned. "Oh, excuse me," he said, covering his mouth with his hand. "It seems my energy level has not yet returned to Sheena's."

"You should sleep more, Chief Igaguri," Orochi said.

Igaguri nodded. "Yes, I should, for that will hasten the healing process." Sheena frowned, wondering if he'd said that to subtly scold her for 'overexerting' herself - had Zelos or Orochi tattled on her and told him how impatient she'd been to be normal again? - but before she could give either an accusatory glare, Igaguri smiled warmly and her irritation dissipated. "I am glad that you stopped by, Sheena. Seeing you recovering so well is a great relief to me." His gaze returned to Zelos, and he bowed his head. "And I thank you again, Chosen, for taking such good care of my granddaughter."

"Of course, Chief Igaguri," Zelos replied, bowing his head in return. "I'd never forgive myself if I didn't."

Igaguri gave him a knowing, acknowledging tilt of his head. "No, I suspect you would not."

Apparently sensing that their discussion was over, Zelos moved to stand, but before he could, he stopped and turned to Orochi. "Hey, did you need me to take care of anything right now? Or can I see Sheena back to her home?"

Orochi shook his head. "I do not believe so. In an hour or two, perhaps you can relieve Sadako from her duties, but for now she and I can handle things. The villagers no longer require intensive care, and many have begun moving again on their own. Later we can see how they are doing and what they need, but for now I think we are fine." He bowed his head to Zelos. "However, I thank you for the offer."

"You're welcome," Zelos said, smiling again, but then he glanced back at Sheena, his eyebrows rising. "Then how 'bout we get you home so your grandfather can rest?"

Despite her growing apprehension of the future, Sheena returned his smile. After all, his happiness was - and always had been - so contagious that she could never remain worried about anything when she saw it. "Sure," she said, letting him help her up, and again, Sheena held onto him as her legs wobbled, protesting the sudden use. Once steady, she nodded to Zelos to tell him she was fine, then gave Igaguri another smile. "Take care, Grandpa. I'll stop by again soon."

"You as well, dear child."

With Zelos holding her tightly, Sheena leaned down and pressed a kiss to her grandfather's cheek. She then straightened and nodded to tell Zelos she was ready, and he walked her back into the genkan, put on his shoes and helped her do the same, then slowly led her out to the street and back toward her home.

They had walked a few minutes in silence when she couldn't resist anymore; despite her happiness for him, she was still pissed at him, too, for playing games with her rather than telling her something she'd been looking forward to for him for months. She shot him the best glare she could manage, even though she was pretty sure her smile ruined the effect, and muttered, "You are such an idiot."

Zelos jumped a little as she elbowed him, and he gaped at her a moment before bursting out laughing. "What? What the hell was that for? What are you trying to do, make me drop you?"

"No, I did that because you deserved it!" she said.

His eyes widened further. "I didn't even say anything!"

He didn't get it, did he? "And that's why you're an idiot! Why didn't you say anything?"

Zelos stared at her uncomprehendingly another moment, but then he let out a soft laugh and relaxed, clearly catching her meaning - because the man really wasn't an idiot, even though he acted like one. "Oh, you mean about the Chosen thing."

"Yes, about the 'Chosen thing'!" she replied. "And about the Foreign Minister thing! You should've told me! That's huge news - amazing news! And yet you refused to say a word about it!"

He grinned wickedly. "Eh, that's because it was far more fun to keep you guessing."

...Was he trying to get himself killed? "For you, maybe, but not for me! And what guessing? You wouldn't even let me guess; you kept cutting me off every time I tried to!"

"Oh, right." Damn this idiotic, infuriating, irresistible man for being so smug and blasé over this, Sheena thought as his eyes sparkled. "I wouldn't even let you do that, would I?"

She gave him another glare but still had no luck putting any real anger behind it. And damn my inability to get mad at him anymore, she thought. Part of her almost wished she could because that would've made their relationship infinitely easier to deal with; after all, she could have legitimately broken up with him months ago if he'd managed to piss her off. But no, somehow the man always knew exactly how to calm her down and turn something stupid - like this - into something endearing.

"No, you wouldn't!" she countered.

He shrugged. "Well, that's because you would've hit jackpot within, what? Three guesses? And what fun would that have been?"

Sheena rolled her eyes, but she couldn't resist laughing again. "Like I said, I. Di. Ot," she said, poking his side with each syllable.

Zelos chuckled softly, but then he did give her a sincerely apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, love. Really, I am. Sometimes I can't help myself, though. I was just so excited you were getting better!"

...And when he's excited, he automatically slips into playful, mischievous mode, which tends to manifest itself in endearingly exasperating behavior like that. Yeah, that was another thing Sheena had figured out about him months ago. She sighed, her face softening as she looked at him. "Yeah, I know."

He nodded knowingly. "And like I said, I wanted you to be better first so we could go celebrate this! I mean, you said it yourself: this is huge! How can I not want to celebrate something like this with the woman I love?"

She melted further, her heart pounding faster and tears pricking her eyes at the sheer happiness of the smile on his face. It would never fail to amaze her that his ideal method of 'celebrating' something like this was with her. While leading him on like this was cruel, she couldn't help it; she couldn't ruin his good mood right now. If she decided to end this with him, which was the most likely possibility, she should do it before things got even more out of control than they already were, before it was too late to salvage a few pieces of their hearts and before her selfishness won out and the future that resulted in Zelos being miserable for the rest of his life became reality, but she couldn't do that to him today. The future wasn't imminent yet, and until it was, her heart simply wouldn't let her.

And then her eyes fell on the iris in front of her house as they neared - their iris, a handful of which were now blooming - and she couldn't even consider that dismal future anymore. There those irises were, looking to the sun, to the brightness of life, telling her to do the same. And yet again, she chose to accept the sign that they - along with the beautiful talisman around her wrist that she turned to whenever the future looked bleakest - seemed to be giving her, and she pushed her confused thoughts to the back of her mind, relishing instead in the love radiating from the man beside her, letting its warmth erase her fears. That future she was dreading might be getting closer, and her doubts had been popping up with increasing frequency lately, but for now this was reality, and she would cherish it. So long as she had this bracelet and these beautiful irises, her heart refused to heed her head's warnings. And for now, that was what she would do: marvel at the goodness and the transformation of the man by her side, the man who loved her and had given her so much happiness and love the past year...the man to whom she now owed her life, and then so much more.

She nuzzled her head against him as they continued walking. "Well, unfortunately, I don't think I'm up to celebrating yet, but the minute I am, we will." She could feel his lips curl upward into a smile as he kissed the side of her head, and she relaxed further. "Or maybe we can wait until Altamira next week and celebrate there. Even if I'm not completely better by then, I should be well enough for that."

"I like the way you think," Zelos murmured in her ear, eliciting a full-body shiver from her.

Sheena looked up at him and gave him a soft smile as they stopped, finally reaching her front door, then she turned to face him and lifted her free hand to his cheek. "I really am happy for you, Zelos. You deserve this after the hell that title put you through."

Zelos mirrored her smile. "Thanks. I'm just glad I still have someone I can share it with."

A flush warmed her face, and she bit her lip and looked down at his chest shyly before meeting his gaze again. For a moment he just observed her, his eyes soft and loving, but suddenly, without warning, his smile faded. "What is it?" she asked, her brows furrowing at his sudden somberness.

Biting his lip, he eyed her carefully, as if silently debating something. He opened his mouth to respond but quickly closed it again, hesitating. Finally, after a moment, he sighed softly, his gaze drifting down to her lips before meeting her eyes again. "Can I ask a favor of you?"

Under normal circumstances, Zelos + Favor = Really Bad Idea and was something she dismissed without giving any consideration. This time, though, his demeanor was all wrong, and he was acting far too serious to suddenly come out with some stupid request that would make her regret agreeing to it. In fact, the way he was looking at her right then was almost alarming in its intensity. Her eyes widened. "Are you kidding? Of course you can. After everything you've done for me, I owe you many, many favors."

He let out a soft, awkward, nervous laugh. "Heh. I was hoping you'd say that."

Sheena gave him half a smile. "Of course, that's assuming I'm physically capable of doing whatever it is you want me to do..."

"Oh, you will. No concerns there." On the bright side, he wasn't looking quite as shy or uncomfortable anymore, but now she just wanted to know what he did want. "And trust me, it's nothing bad. Honest. I'm not trying to seduce you or anything like that."

"I never thought you were," she stated in all sincerity. If he hadn't tried that on her even once the past year, then he wouldn't start now. "But I am curious what you have in mind."

Zelos gave her a tight smile but didn't immediately respond - and even when he did, his words were slow and hesitant, as if he was choosing them carefully. "There's something I need to do, and I...I don't want to be alone when I do it."

But that didn't answer her question. None of this was making sense, and he was still acting far more subdued and uncertain than normal. She grasped his arm and squeezed it, needing to make sure he was okay. "Zelos, what's going on?"

Instead of answering, though, he shook his head and pushed open her door. "You'll see in a minute. C'mon, sweetheart."

While Sheena was still concerned, she nodded and let him help her inside anyway. Once their shoes were off, he guided her toward her bedroom, and her eyes narrowed further. "Whatever it is you're planning to do, you have to do it in my bedroom?"

Zelos shot her a wry grin. "Yes, I have to do it in your bedroom. And like I said, it isn't sexual. I would never take advantage of you. I just need something you have in there."

"Okay...?" And again, Sheena reminded herself that despite her confusion, she didn't want to argue with him, because he really was acting strangely. Sure, the man always acted 'strangely,' but never like this, which meant whatever this was, it was difficult for him to do.

Because of how uncooperative her legs were, it took them a minute to reach her bedroom, but once they did, Zelos guided her toward the empty space between her dresser and her futon. "You can have a seat anywhere you'd like."

While her tired, aching legs appreciated that, she wasn't about to sit anywhere until she knew what he was planning to do. Before he could pull away, Sheena grabbed his arm again, forcing him to meet her gaze. "Zelos, seriously. What's going on? Just tell me."

He looked her over a moment, his face still somber, but finally he sighed and nodded. "I think it's time I take a look at my wings." Her eyes widened, but before she could reply, he went on, "I mean, it was one thing when you were the only one who'd seen them, but now...heh, I really wasn't expecting to have to use them in front of Orochi, and I definitely wasn't expecting your grandfather to ask to see them. But if they've seen them...well, I should probably know what it was they saw." He breathed in deeply, then nodded, more to himself than to her. "I'm ready for this."

Oh, Zelos. While she still wished her grandfather hadn't pushed that, she could understand his fascination with them. He'd wanted to see the man - the guardian angel - who had saved them in his full glory. She was still confused how Orochi knew about Zelos's discomfort with them, but she was pleased he hadn't made a big deal out of them, either. And really, it now made sense why Zelos needed to do this here: because her bedroom was the only room that had a mirror large enough for him to see his wingspan. It also explained why he wanted her with him when he did this: because he still wasn't comfortable facing that part of himself alone. Only extremely rarely did Zelos admit any fear like this without her pushing to uncover what was bothering him, but occasionally he surprised her - and one thing Sheena would never do when he was sincerely asking for her help was turn him down. Whatever he needed from her, she would give it to him.

Sheena squeezed his arm, then grasped his face in her hands, pulled his head down to hers, and gave him a tender kiss. "Okay," she whispered against his lips, smiling softly, then pulled back. Recognizing what he needed most - not just her support, but her - she chose a spot on the far edge of her dresser to lean against, facing him so he could see both his reflection and her. It was simply the best spot for this.

Zelos waited until she was settled, then he gave her a faint smile and stepped up to the mirror, looking at his reflection and steeling his jaw. He observed himself a moment, then glanced at Sheena again, flickers of nervousness dancing in his eyes. She gave him another reassuring smile and nod to tell him she was there for him, and he looked back at his reflection, breathed in deeply, and closed his eyes, his brilliant, golden-orange wings appearing behind him - although even then, it wasn't until she grasped his hand that he managed to pry his eyes open again. For a moment, his gaze was focused solely on her wooden dresser, not the mirror, but finally he swallowed hard and his eyes drifted upward.

His initial reaction was a muted jolt that shook his body, but Sheena just squeezed his hand tighter, glad to see he wasn't looking away from his reflection in disgust. After a long moment, she could feel him relax a little, and a moment after that, he actually smiled. It was faint and shaky, a little crooked and unconvinced, but it was a smile. "Eh, I guess they aren't that bad, are they?" he murmured.

Oh, Zelos. Sheena gave his hand another squeeze. "No, Zelos. They're not."

His eyes darted at her, then back at his reflection. Without warning, he smirked and cocked his head, although the lingering uncertainty on his face dulled the effect. "Actually, they're kinda sexy, aren't they?"

Instinct told her to roll her eyes and smack him, but she'd learned long ago that such stupid comments were merely a defense mechanism when he was struggling to accept something, and so instead she slid closer to him until he was standing in front of her. "Actually, yeah, they are," she whispered, pulling his head down to hers for another kiss.

His eyes widened, his smirk transformed into a surprised smile, and his gaze drifted down to her lips as he gave her another quick, grateful kiss before looking back up at his reflection, his face, thankfully, only falling a little that time. "I guess it really isn't fair of me to hate them so much after how handy they've been, is it? Maybe your grandfather was right that what's important is how I use them, not how I got them." His gaze darted back to her face. "I mean, they did help me save you."

"Twice, actually," Sheena replied, giving him a warm smile.

Zelos chuckled softly. "Yeah, twice."

"And they helped you save a lot of other people here, too."

"Yeah, that too," he whispered. Without warning, his eyebrows rose and he pointed at her. "But I still want to be your Guardian Knight, not your Guardian Angel!"

Sheena laughed and rolled her eyes, but she couldn't help it: she had to kiss him again, so she did. Despite his ridiculous refusal to accept a title that was completely appropriate for him, she was just glad he might finally be starting to accept that part of himself, because like it or not, it was a part of him, one that would never go away. She wanted to think the same held true for his 'real self,' too. In fact, she couldn't help thinking that the fact she was now seeing this man - this man who for years had believed himself to be worthless and a waste of space, yet who held so much goodness within him that it took her breath away every time she saw it - more around other people seemed to indicate his 'real self' might actually be starting to rival the 'Idiot Chosen' for dominance. Hopefully now being free of that damned title would encourage him further. And oh, did she want more people to see this man she'd fallen so madly in love with.

Pulling back, Sheena gave him another warm smile. "I think I can handle that."

Zelos returned her smile, then lifted his eyes back to his reflection, that time without cringing. "And I think I can handle this."

"I'm glad." Sheena touched his face, drawing his eyes back to hers as she admired the man standing before her, only then realizing she had neglected to do something. While she had thanked him for everything he'd done here, she hadn't really thanked him for everything he'd done here. She'd always felt awkward thanking someone who'd done something so special, so incredible, for her, knowing how far they'd gone out of their way for her, but her grandfather had also taught her proper manners, and if anything deserved a 'thank you,' it was this. "Zelos..."

"Hm?" He watched her struggle for words to express her gratitude, but then his eyes narrowed, his face likewise growing somber, clearly sensing this was important. During the past year, he had gotten better at detecting when she was serious and needed seriousness in return, and at those times, he always put joking aside and gave it to her. Occasionally he still misinterpreted and cracked a joke, thinking she needed to laugh when she really just needed him to listen, but those times were getting rarer. And finally, a minute later, he gently cupped her face with his hands and leaned closer to her. "What is it, sweetheart?"

Her gaze fell to his Cruxis crystal, one of the primary reasons why he'd been able to save her and her people, then lifted back to his. Just be honest, because that's what he deserves, she told herself. "Thank you." He eyed her curiously again, but she quickly pressed on before he could question that, hoping the words she wanted to say would magically come to her. "For everything you did here. Y'know, for being here for me...for being here for all of us."

Zelos sighed and shook his head. "Sheena, really, you don't have to thank me for that. I did what I had to do. Like I said, I wasn't just gonna let you die."

"I know," she quickly replied. "But this went far beyond that. Orochi told me everything you did here, and...well, Grandpa was right that you didn't have to do any of that, not for the other villagers. But you did. And I know how many details you didn't tell me, because Orochi filled those in for me." He let out a soft, uncomfortable laugh and his head sank downward, his cheeks reddening, and again, Sheena couldn't resist smiling at his atypical modesty. "Zelos, thank you. I know you're going to say it was 'nothing,' but no, it wasn't. Not to me, and not to my people. What you did here means everything to me." Her voice lowered. "I don't think words exist to express how grateful I am for this."

Still blushing, he looked up at her again and gave her another faint smile. "Sheena, the truth is, all that matters to me is that you're safe and happy. And since that appears to be the case, then I'm happy." Clearing his throat, he suddenly gave her another crooked, vaguely smug grin. "Heh. I did do pretty good this time, though, didn't I?"

No surprise there: his defense mechanisms were kicking in again. But despite her instinctive eye-roll response, she really didn't care, either, and she released a mock-exasperated sigh. "Yeah, I knew I shouldn't be stroking your ego."

Without warning, his grin broadened into a smirk and he waggled his eyebrows. "Y'know, if you're feeling so inclined, I would be delighted to accept my reward now, too..."

Her gut told her to smack him, because stupid comments like those deserved a smack, but she resisted because, well, smacking him to thank him for saving her life and her village was just wrong, especially when she knew he'd only said that to lighten the mood. But she didn't want to lighten the mood, because this was serious for her, and so instead she lifted her hands to his neck and pulled his head to hers again, pressing her lips to his in a long, slow kiss that made her head spin as he moaned softly, wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her closer to him. When she finally released him a minute later, Zelos blinked at her, dazed, and she grinned, tickled that she'd been able to surprise him like that.

"Wow," he whispered. "Heh. Y'know, I didn't expect you to actually do it..."

"That's okay," she said, her grin broadening. "You deserve it for this."

Zelos smiled softly, his eyes roaming her face, but then he unwrapped an arm from around her and brushed his fingers over her cheek, his face growing somber and intense. "The truth is, Sheena, when I found you like that, unconscious in your grandfather's home, I..."

His voice trailed off, and Sheena could see him swallow hard. And just like that, she got it, why he was struggling to say this: because the emotion that accompanied it was too strong to let it be said. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart pounded faster, and suddenly she needed to hear this. "Zelos?" she pressed, searching his face.

He observed her again, his lips parted as if the words wanted to come out, but instead of saying anything, he let out a soft laugh and looked away. "Nah, it's nothing." Sheena briefly considered pushing, because his inability to speak his mind was inciting her curiosity further, but afraid of spooking him, she instead grasped his arm and drew him back to her as he tried to pull away. Thankfully, the gesture had the intended effect for his eyes lifted back to hers, and finally, he sighed, his voice falling to a painfully soft whisper. "When I found you like that, I...it scared the hell out of me. I've never felt like that before, and I never want to feel like that again. And if you had died, I..."

Her heart was pounding so hard and aching so badly that she suddenly couldn't hear any more of this. It hurt too much to hear him express such pain, fear, and yearning over her, because she knew how she would have felt if she had found him like that. The helplessness, the desperation...the terror that he might die and she wouldn't be able to save him. It was horrible, and the last thing she wanted was to make him relive that horror while trying to express how he'd felt at nearly losing her - especially when she knew it would likely happen again when the future she was dreading arrived. And when it did, when reality demanded she leave him for good and put him through that pain again, only that time with no antidote in existence capable of saving 'them,' it would devastate him. And thinking of that future now...it made her heart clench with the most unbearable of pains.

So instead of letting him finish, Sheena silenced him with another kiss, that one far more heated and needy than the last, one he immediately sank into, obviously needing it right then as much as she did. And not for the first time, Sheena could feel the heat welling inside her, the flamethat yearned for him that she had forced herself to stamp down this past year, desperately trying to break loose and melt into him. She wanted to push him down onto her futon, kiss the life out of him, and see where it led them, and it was probably a good thing she was still too weak to follow through on that or she doubted she could have stopped herself that time. And giving in to that desire, teasing him with something that could likely never again be, would be the worst thing she could possibly do to him.

It took every ounce of willpower she had to pull her lips from his, but finally she did, and, breathing heavily, she looked up at him, seeing her own desire reflected back at her in his heated blue eyes. Squeezing her eyes shut, trying to calm herself, she leaned forward and pressed her forehead to his, grasping his arms tightly. "I love you, Zelos. I love you so much. Have I told you that lately, how glad I am that you're here...how glad I am to know you're watching my back? And not just mine, but everyone's that I care about?"

Zelos wrapped his arms around her and crushed her to him, pressing his lips to the sensitive skin beneath her ear, his warm breath against her neck making her shiver, leaving her helpless but to return the hug. And for a long moment they just held each other, reveling in the warmth and security of their embrace, as if so long as they were together, they were safe from the cruelty of the outside world. Without warning, though, he pulled back and forced her to meet his eyes, his hands cupping her face again...and that, coupled with the heated urgency of his gaze and the soft but intense need in his voice, made her heart skip a beat.

"I would do anything for you, Sheena," he said. "Anything. Tell me what you want, tell me what you need, and if it's in my power, I will give it to you. You know that, right?"

Sheena gasped softly, her breath hitching in her throat and tears pricking her eyes. Oh, Jizou, did he really love her that much? Part of her had always suspected he did, but now, hearing those words, words so powerful and certain that they left no room for doubt about his sincerity...it terrified her.

She swallowed, her heart pounding so hard and fast that it felt like it would burst. "You've already done so much for me, Zelos. How can I possibly ask for more?"

He shook his head, his eyes never leaving hers. "No matter what I give you, Sheena, it'll never be enough. Never. I would give you the moon if I could, and then so much more. Say the word and whatever it is, it's yours." And at that moment, Sheena was positive she could see it on his face, the words he wasn't saying: "Ask me, Sheena. I won't say 'no.'"

Her chest tightened so painfully that she was afraid she would pass out, the intensity and insistence in his eyes so hypnotic that she couldn't look away even though she tried. And again, she almost did it; she almost asked him. Ignoring the voice in her head, the one that sounded like Raine, that was saying forever was impossible for them and that keeping him here with her would be selfish and cruel, her mouth opened to say the words. If he really wanted her to ask him, she would; she would ask him to stay with her, to marry her, to spend forever by her side. It was what she truly wanted. She knew that now - honestly, she had known that all along - and she couldn't deny it any longer, couldn't write it off as letting her emotions be swept away by the beauty of their relationship. This was the man she now knew, without a doubt, she wanted forever, for always: someone who would help her in her duties, who would take care of her when she was sick, who would make her laugh and smile and enjoy life, who would hold her when she cried, who complemented her strengths and weaknesses, who would protect her and her family and friends, who she wanted to hold her and kiss her and make love to her...and who she wanted to do all those things for in return. She wanted everything. She wanted him. This was beyond simple infatuation or love; this was the deepest of attachments, of commitments, of needs, as if her heart had been melded to his, something she had never felt before and that she now knew, no matter what life handed her, she would never experience again with anyone else.

But reason in the form of a stark, terrifying image of the future - their real future, not the idealistic utopia and 'happily ever after' her heart was painting for them - stilled her tongue, and she shut her mouth. She couldn't. Jizou help her, she couldn't.

Oh, Zelos, please don't, her mind cried out, begging for mercy. Please don't say that, not unless you know what you're inviting and really do mean it and will be happy with it. Please, because I'll do it, I'll ask you. And I can't do that to you. I love you far too much to condemn you to such misery. So please, don't make me. I want to so badly, to ask you for everything, to ask you to take this fear and despair away for good. I would never forgive myself for hurting you like that, though, for letting selfishness consume me and keeping an amazing, beautiful man like you to myself, for trapping you in yet another cage like the one you just escaped. You would say 'yes' now, I can see it in your eyes, and maybe you could even endure it for awhile, but one day you would regret choosing me. I know you would, because I'm just not worthy of that kind of love. I can't give you what you deserve. The future is too volatile, too unpredictable. In the blink of an eye, everything can change. Beautiful things like our love can change so quickly, without anyone noticing until it's too late, and then we'd be left with something so ugly and vicious that we wouldn't even recognize it anymore. The amount of work required to make it beautiful again would be too much, too hard - and after being marred that badly, it would likely never go back to the way it was, no matter how hard we worked to polish it and make it new again. It would never be the same, and that isn't a chance I'm willing to take with our love. This, this mundane, boring life I bring with me, just isn't what you should be worrying about. You've found your life for the very first time, the life you've always wanted; now go, live it, forget about me, and never look back.

But she couldn't say that to him, either; her heart and the urgency and need in his eyes that was begging her to let him in wouldn't let her. And so, at an impasse between her warring heart and mind, Sheena did the only thing she could: she kissed him again, as passionately as she could, to silence both sides, and Zelos, oblivious to her fears, sank into it, pulling her body tighter against his. She didn't know what to do; she was at a complete loss. And she already knew she wasn't ready to make that decision yet. One day she would have to choose, since a third option was looking less and less likely, but she couldn't do it yet. It was getting closer and she couldn't hide from it anymore, but 'one day' still wasn't here, and until it was, she couldn't act on it. She knew why she was so indecisive, why the never-ending struggle between her heart, which wanted Zelos more than life itself, and her logic, which was grounded in obligation to her village, left her so torn, and she knew she would just have to make her decision and then see it through, but she couldn't do it now. In fact, it would probably be a few more weeks before she finally could.

Because as long as he was there with her, holding her, touching her, and kissing her, it was impossible for her to make a rational choice. His presence made an already frustrating, confusing situation that much worse, because all she wanted to do when she was with him was melt into his warmth, his safety, and his love. But once he was gone and she could think clearly again, she would do so, and she would make her choice. She would. And when she did, it would be the right one to make, maybe not for her sake, but for everyone's sakes - for her grandfather's, for her people's, and for her village's.

But above all else, it would be the right one to make for Zelos's sake.

~Fin~