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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and I've also created a page for this series on my web site. All of the stories are currently available there in a single-page format (and without the silly stickywords that kept inserting into the text), as is a music playlist for some of the songs I found myself repeatedly playing while I was writing this series. Hopefully in the future there will be other additions to the site as well, like fan art and a Spanish translation, thanks to Ehsabet, who is currently working on those. Right now the page is pretty boring, but you might want to check back periodically. For those of you who might be interested (or if you just want single-page versions of these stories), you can find it at: http://smb814.creativearchivist.net/WWB/index.html

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

0~*~0

Part 1: The Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes narrowed further. "Zelos..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheena snorted softly. "What do you think?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, is something wrong?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"About Mizuho, I guess."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheena was worth it.

0~*~0

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

It had tasted like the beginning of the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 2: The Blessing

It was mid-morning when Zelos next found himself walking toward Mizuho, rubbing his hands together and definitely not whistling, his mind racing and his heart pounding, silently rehearsing everything he needed to discuss with Igaguri before he could feel capable of making the right decision regarding his future with Sheena. He had a number of specific points in mind that needed to be addressed, and beyond that, he'd improvise. Of course, that was assuming Igaguri wasn't busy and could meet with him. If he was busy...well, Zelos just hoped he wasn't since having to wait even longer to do this would mean making an already nerve-wracking situation that much worse. As much as he dreaded doing this, he wanted it done with ASAP, before his nerves faltered completely; now that he'd gotten the ring properly fitted, had hunted down every remaining signature that annulled his previous engagement, and had told the king his plans, this was the only thing holding him back. He was ready; all that stood between him and his future now was talking to Igaguri.

The problem was that actually doing that was...well, it was making his gut twist. He didn't get nervous about much anymore, but he sure was now; the next hour or two could prove to be the end of the line for his plans, and all it took was saying one thing wrong - which was something he'd been known to do before with unpredictable people like Igaguri. Heck, he couldn't even remember the last time he'd felt this nervous. Maybe that afternoon he'd returned from his world trip with Seles when Sheena had suddenly showed up at his mansion and he'd been terrified of how she would react to him after his confession to her at the king's regeneration party? Yeah, this was close to that, probably because both instances held frighteningly huge ramifications for his future. If he messed this up or if Igaguri rejected him, after all, it could take away everything good he had going for him in his life. Everything.

Nerves aside, though, this conversation had to happen eventually, assuming he didn't just want to end things with Sheena, which he didn't. No, he knew what he wanted now, and waiting even longer to do this would just waste everyone's time. Orochi had made it clear that Igaguri was getting close to transferring his position to her, and that meant Zelos either had to volunteer to fill the missing role in Sheena's life or end it. There was no question what he wanted on his end anymore, and so that meant at this point, the only thing that could drag him away was if leaving would be the best thing for her. If that turned out to be true, well, he'd do what she needed him to do...but oh, how he hoped it didn't, because he really didn't want to have to try to construct a brand new life for himself, especially one that wouldn't include her.

Seeing the village approaching, Zelos took a deep breath and quickened his pace, summoning the remains of his nonchalant 'Chosen' mask. That mask may have spent this past year slowly corroding from disuse, but it still existed, and at moments like these, when he needed its help to stay sane and accomplish his goals, it still came back to him. He didn't miss it when it wasn't there - usually he never even noticed anymore when it wasn't there - but being able to fall back on it was useful, too. He always had been an opportunist, after all, which was something that would probably never change - and he was okay with that. After all, when something unexpected landed on his lap, he liked being able to use it either for his own benefit or for the benefit of those he loved.

Zelos smiled and nodded to Atsuo, who was standing guard at the gate, and was pleased when Atsuo bowed his head and greeted him with a, "Chosen." He really did like being able to enter Mizuho without having to explain himself every time he came here; it wasn't like they didn't already know the reason. And then he was walking through the village, feeling his nerves relax a little as he absorbed its serenity. Nothing ever changed here, it seemed, at least not for long, and he was glad it didn't, because then he always knew what to expect. And if this conversation with Igaguri went as he hoped it would - and if his conversation with Sheena after that went just as well - then he'd be seeing a whole lot more of it soon. And if it didn't...well, then, he'd better enjoy every second he had here because he probably wouldn't be seeing it again for a long time, if ever.

It was as he was nearing Igaguri's home that he spotted the man he was looking for, speaking with another ninja. "Orochi," he said.

Instantly, Orochi stopped and looked around curiously, but when he caught sight of Zelos, he sighed and whispered something to the other ninja, who bowed his head and walked away. "Chosen," Orochi replied, turning toward him, his face neutral.

While Zelos really did hate involving Orochi in this because he knew the ninja still harbored feelings for Sheena - feelings he suspected would persist at least until she was off limits for good - Orochi was the only person here who knew his plans and could, therefore, lend him a hand without asking too many questions in return. "Hey, any idea where Sheena is?" Zelos said.

Orochi motioned at a field currently hidden from Zelos's view. "She is training a group of young students."

Good. Just what I wanted to hear. "And Chief Igaguri?"

Orochi's eyes narrowed. "He is at his home."

"Perfect." Zelos gave him a hopeful look. "Hey, so, think you could do me a huge favor?"

One of Orochi's eyebrows rose as he folded his arms to his chest. "That would depend on the favor you are asking of me."

...Right. Of course it would. Sure, Orochi may 'accept' him now - or at least he was no longer trying to strangle him - but Zelos knew he still didn't like or trust him. While they got along far better now than they had pre-poisoning, Orochi's suspicion of him still ran high. "I need to talk to Igaguri for a while, and I'd rather Sheena didn't overhear us. So think you could keep an eye out for her and distract her if it looks like she's heading there?"

Unsurprisingly, Orochi's eyes narrowed again. "Is there a problem with Sheena?"

...And her performance as an emissary that requires me, the Foreign Minister, to speak to the chief about her instead of speaking to her about it directly, Zelos inferred. "Oh, no, no. Not at all. She's doing a great job. The king is always impressed with her and never fails to tell me as much."

"I am glad to hear that," Orochi replied, nodding curtly, but he still looked uncertain. "Then have you heard anything new regarding the identity of our murderer?"

That time Zelos sighed and frowned. Oh, how I wish. I'd sleep far better at night if I knew for sure there were no more freaks running around threatening you guys with even more lost, secret ninja weapons. "Unfortunately, no to that, too. The king's investigators are still asking around, but they keep hitting dead ends. I'd like to believe that means that creep was working alone, but it could be nothing more than wishful thinking on my part." He motioned at Orochi. "How 'bout you guys? Any luck?"

Orochi's face darkened into a scowl. "No. We have followed many leads and searched many of Mizuho's previous locations, but so far we, too, have found nothing conclusive. Our next step will be to investigate any past missions that might shed clues on his motivation behind poisoning us. However, in the meantime, no one has attacked us again, nor even threatened us, and we have seen no sign of anything unusual that might mean someone was wishing us further harm, so it is looking less likely that he had an accomplice."

"Thankfully," Zelos murmured.

"Yes." And again, Orochi eyed him a moment before asking, "Then is there anything else I should be concerned about that requires you to speak with Chief Igaguri?"

Zelos opened his mouth to reply but hesitated before actually answering. While he couldn't blame Orochi for being concerned, seeing as Zelos had never sought a private audience with Igaguri before, he wasn't sure how Orochi would react to the truth, either. But then, Orochi's attitude toward him really had relaxed once he'd found out about his intentions toward Sheena, so maybe he should just tell him. "No, no problem at all. Everything's great." He gave Orochi a pointed look. "I'm finding out."

The ninja's eyes narrowed, but then his face fell, indicating he remembered what Zelos had once told him about 'finding out' what he'd be getting himself into here before he made any final decisions about marrying Sheena. A moment later, though, Orochi nodded curtly. "Understood. If she returns before you finish, I will keep her distracted."

Zelos was briefly tempted to give Orochi a grateful slap on the back, but he quickly stilled his hand. After all, Orochi was already unhappy enough that Zelos even existed in Sheena's life, and he really didn't want to piss Orochi off any further than he already had. The future he coveted would be far less stressful for everyone involved if Orochi could at least tolerate him.

Instead, therefore, he settled for a smile and a, "Thanks, man. I appreciate it." Orochi frowned and gave him another mild glare, and Zelos lifted his hands at the warning not to get too chummy with him. "I know, I know, you're doing it for Sheena's sake, not mine. But I still appreciate it."

"Of course," Orochi mumbled, but then he gave Zelos a pointed look. "Make the right choice, Chosen."

Zelos nodded somberly. "I will. I promise."

Orochi observed him another moment, as if either trying to read his mind or manipulate him into 'making the right choice,' but then he suddenly turned and walked away. Zelos released a low sigh, then, before he could start entertaining any doubts, breathed in deeply and resumed walking toward Igaguri's house. Arriving at the door, he paused as his nerves flared again, reminding himself he would not run, then forced himself to knock. Once Igaguri had instructed him to enter, he opened the door and stepped inside.

Shutting the door behind him, he quickly slipped off his shoes and peeked into the main room...and his heart sank. Kneeling on a mat beside Igaguri was Tiga, some papers on the table before them. "Ah, Chosen," Igaguri greeted him.

Despite the smile Igaguri offered him, Zelos still silently cursed as disappointment swept through him; they were clearly discussing village business, which meant Igaguri was busy. Looks like I'll have to make an appointment...I should've known a drop-in wouldn't work. He gave Igaguri a tight smile as he lifted his hands and backed away from the door. "Hey, I'm sorry for interrupting. I know you guys are busy. I'll come back later."

Before he could so much as turn, though, Igaguri rose to his feet, followed a second later by Tiga. "By all means, Chosen, come in," Igaguri instructed him, motioning at a mat on the other side of the table. "This is nothing that cannot wait. In fact, I have been meaning to speak with you about a certain matter for some time now. So please, have a seat." He turned to Tiga. "Tiga, if you would be so kind as to give us some time alone?"

Tiga bowed his head. "Of course, Chief Igaguri."

The look Tiga gave Zelos as he walked past was curious but thankfully not unfriendly. Zelos gave him half a smile in return, then waited until Tiga had left before taking another deep breath and joining Igaguri, his heart pounding a little faster as he knelt on the indicated mat, making sure to follow Sheena's directions about proper Mizuhoan seating. Okay, this was a good start...he thought. At least it was what he'd wanted - some time alone with Igaguri - but now that he was actually here, he was suddenly feeling that damn instinctive, self-protective urge to run returning. For such a calm, quiet man, Igaguri really was intimidating. And, worse, every other time he'd met with Igaguri, he'd always had Sheena with him, able to mediate and diffuse any misunderstandings that arose. This time, though...well, this time he had to handle this entire conversation on his own. Oh, how he hoped he could manage it without falling flat on his face.

And suddenly, Zelos's nerves flared even further as he realized what the 'certain matter' Igaguri had mentioned undoubtedly was: the future, especially if he really did want Sheena to become chief soon. But what approach would Igaguri take? What was he planning to say? That Zelos was no longer welcome in Mizuho because his granddaughter had to find a suitable husband? That he'd done something wrong and was being kicked out for good? Or was he going to question Zelos's intentions and then scrutinize whether he was deserving of her, in which case did he even stand a chance? His heart pounded faster as an overwhelming sense of inadequacy settled over him. But jumping to conclusions would get him nowhere, and it was too late to turn back now; running before Igaguri had spoken his mind would really give Igaguri the wrong impression of him.

Just suck it up and get this over with, Wilder, Zelos told himself. Sheena is worth it.

Igaguri stepped over to his kitchen area, casting a glance back at Zelos. "Would you care for some tea, Chosen?"

Even after regularly drinking tea here, it still wasn't his drink of choice, but Sheena had made it clear that rejecting such an offer would be taken as a personal insult, and since that wasn't an option given his current situation, he'd just have to deal with it. "Sure."

Igaguri bowed his head and poured two cups of tea, then he walked back toward the table and set one of them on the table in front of Zelos with a bow of his head and a, "Here you go."

"Thank you," Zelos replied, bowing his head in return. He then took a sip, relieved to find it was one of the varieties he didn't mind. At least after Sheena had made him try pretty much every variety of tea they had here, he'd found a few that weren't too bad, and this was one of them. Besides, its soothing aspects might be helpful. Martel knew his heart could use some calming right now.

Once finished serving their drinks, Igaguri seated himself on the opposite side of the table. "So, Chosen," he said, sitting up straighter and watching Zelos closely. "How are things in Meltokio?"

Regular chitchat to get the conversation started. I can handle this. "They're good."

"The king is well?"

"Yeah, he's doing great. Every time I see him he updates me on their investigation into the guy who poisoned you, but unfortunately, they haven't uncovered any more about him than you guys have."

Igaguri nodded somberly. "While that is unfortunate, it is not surprising. Every trail we have found so far leads nowhere. However, we will not quit searching until we have identified him and ascertained that no one else will become a similar threat. In time, I believe the truth will be known." He paused, his eyes narrowing slightly. "However, am I assuming correctly that he did not send you with a message for me, nor that you are here on official Foreign Minister business today?"

No surprise there - Igaguri was trying to rule out all possible reasons for Zelos's visit without actually asking the question. He did that a lot. "No, not this time."

"Good," Igaguri replied with a faint smile. "Then that is one less thing we must discuss."

"Right."

Zelos quickly took another sip of his tea, glad that the stilted formalities were now over. While he'd had years of practice dealing with a wide variety of people and had always felt confident and in control those times, even after all the preparing he'd done for this yesterday, he still felt like he was dancing with two left feet. And, worst of all, it appeared that everything he'd wanted to say was now fleeing from him in the wake of his rising nerves. It was frustrating that tense, important conversations like this had always been a cinch for him to handle before, only to leave him feeling completely clueless in this particular situation. But then, he supposed that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise seeing as he had never asked a rather strict, scary, unpredictable man for his granddaughter's hand in marriage before this.

Martel, how he hated this.

Okay, well, first things first: he had to get the ball rolling, and the best way to do that was to just ask the question. He cleared his throat. "So what did you want to talk to me about?"

Igaguri, likewise, took a sip of his tea, then lowered the cup back to the table, eyeing Zelos carefully. "My granddaughter, and her future."

"Ah." Unsurprisingly, a simple, 'Yeah, I love your granddaughter, so can I marry her?' wouldn't cut it since Igaguri apparently had thoughts about the matter and wanted to discuss them first. Zelos let out a laugh that probably sounded more nervous than amused. "Heh. Y'know, it's funny, but that's the same thing I wanted to talk to you about."

Igaguri's lip tugged upward into a sly smile, giving Zelos the distinct impression he was enjoying making his guest squirm. "I see. Then perhaps you should speak first, Chosen. You may, in the process, answer my questions before I can ask them myself."

Zelos bit his lip, considering that. Normally he would accept the invitation, knowing it would give him control over their conversation, but the words he'd rehearsed yesterday still hadn't returned to him, and that meant he had no choice but to hand it over to Igaguri. Guess I should have written it all down, eh? he thought, biting back a wry grin. "Actually, Chief Igaguri," he began, trying not to sound sheepish, "I think it would be better if you went first, because depending on what you say, I might have to...alter...what I say."

"Mm," Igaguri murmured. "I could perhaps say the same. However, if you insist, I will begin."

While Zelos didn't always abide by his manners, contrary to popular belief, he did know them, and letting Igaguri go first was the most polite choice right now. He motioned at him. "By all means, go ahead."

"Very well," Igaguri replied, then he lifted his head and looked Zelos over carefully. "As we both know, you and my granddaughter have been in a relationship for nearly a year now. However, in that time, while we have occasionally spoken, I have not yet had a chance to properly get to know you. I obviously know you were Tethe'alla's Chosen, but unfortunately, I was incapacitated during most of that time so I cannot use that knowledge to determine what kind of man you truly are. I also know you are currently Tethe'alla's Foreign Minister, but you have not yet had that position long enough for me to judge you based on your performance. Therefore, to remedy that problem, I have asked my villagers what they could tell me about you." Without warning, his face hardened. "Imagine my surprise when I heard the stories people reported about your past - and, more importantly, about you."

Zelos swallowed hard, summoning all his willpower to keep his face schooled into a neutral expression, but inside, his heart had already begun dying. Oh, crap. Crap, crap, crap. If Igaguri had been asking around about him and had heard all the rumors about The Great Zelos...this conversation wasn't going to be pretty. In fact, it pretty much guaranteed that a positive end result to this conversation would be impossible to achieve. And, worse, he was trapped here now while Igaguri laid out every story he'd heard for scrutiny. Again, he could feel himself itching to run, wanting to save himself before Igaguri could rehash all the crap for him and the inevitable, 'How could I ever want someone like that to have anything to do with my granddaughter?' left his lips...but he couldn't do that, either. Running, after all, would not only be the cowardly response to this, but it would mean admitting that the rumors Igaguri had heard about him were true, which they weren't...sort of. And suddenly, the realization hit him that Igaguri had probably only tolerated his presence here before this because he hadn't yet heard those stories. Now that he had, though, he was undoubtedly ready to tell Zelos to get out and never come back.

But since he couldn't run, that left him one option: to wait for the proverbial axe to fall. Besides, he should have known this was coming; Igaguri would never let just anyone marry his granddaughter, not unless he'd done a background check on the guy and knew exactly who it was she was marrying. And oh, could Mizuho's ninjas do thorough background checks. And the thing was, Zelos really did deserve the boot that was undoubtedly coming his way; his past was something he couldn't run from, and it was about time someone not named Orochi called him on it. All he could do was hope the past year had meant something to someone.

"Yeah, I suppose those came as a surprise to you," he murmured.

Igaguri lifted his head again, still eyeing Zelos closely. "Indeed. Countless stories of an irresponsible, childish man who wasted time and money on inconsequential, destructive things; who treated women as playthings, used them as he pleased, and then discarded them when he tired of them; who took nothing seriously and was lazy, selfish, arrogant, and generally troublesome. However, while those stories alarmed me, the ones that concerned me most were those of a man who had once hurt my granddaughter, deeply."

For a moment, Zelos could only stare at the table between them, wanting to curl up and die. He had no idea how to respond to that - and he was terrified that anything he did say would come out wrong and make this already impossible situation that much worse. He should have known better than to think he, a pathetic excuse for an ex-Chosen, even had a shot at a future with the girl of his dreams. No matter what he did now, no matter how hard he worked to make up for all the bad choices he'd made, his past would always haunt him, wouldn't it? He couldn't escape it anymore - and now it was going to doom his future, too. And again, Zelos found, all he wanted to do at that moment was run, to summon the mask and make as graceful of an exit as he could. The problem was that the mask he'd relied on for so many years appeared to have made its escape before he could - and now, as a result, it was nowhere to be found, and it was leaving him at a loss for how to handle this unexpected, devastating situation.

"Yeah, I can see how those would concern you," he murmured, softer than before.

"Mm hmm." Even without meeting Igaguri's eyes - which he knew he should be doing, but he just couldn't, ashamed as he was of his inescapable past - he could still feel Igaguri watching him as he leaned forward. "Based on the stories I heard, I would perhaps even go so far as to say that man was the exact opposite of the kind of man I wished for my granddaughter to associate with. In fact, it amazed me that such a man was tolerated as the Chosen in the first place and was then selected by the king to become Tethe'alla's new Foreign Minister."

Zelos closed his eyes, his head sinking downward and his heart hitting rock bottom. Oh, yeah, he could see where Igaguri was going with this, and Zelos had reached his threshold for tolerating such a long, drawn-out, painful execution. Just get the inevitable conclusion over with, Igaguri, he silently pleaded. Hell, I'll even expose my neck and hand you a sword with which to behead me. "So you're saying you want me to leave her alone."

"Perhaps." Zelos's eyes flew open, his brows furrowing as he met Igaguri's piercing gaze and his waning hope latching onto the uncertainty of the word. "The truth is, I had difficulty reconciling the man portrayed in those stories with the man I regularly see here. The man in those stories I cannot see doing what you did to save my village two months ago, nor can I see him helping a lost, troubled child as you did with Michi. I was also puzzled to hear that for many years Sheena had been unwilling to have anything to do with you, and yet now, whenever she is with you, I see something I hear had once been extremely rare in her: happiness. My villagers have been unable to provide instances where you acted as the man in those stories, other than several women who claim you used to flirt with them. Other than Orochi, who accepts you with a level of reservation I believe I understand, no one opposes your presence here any longer. And Sheena herself defends you quite adamantly; for someone who distrusted you for years, her staunch devotion to you now says a great deal. Likewise, I have observed nothing inappropriate from you myself; you have done remarkably well in following Mizuho's rules. In fact, what I have observed this past year is a kind, caring, intelligent, mature man whose devotion to my granddaughter is nothing short of inspiring. So you can understand my confusion. To that end, and since I make a point not to base my decisions on hearsay but rather on what I have seen for myself and know to be true, I figured the best way to determine the truth would be to ask you for it directly."

...Wow. Talk about a pleasant, unexpected surprise. Igaguri was actually giving him a chance to set things straight rather than just dismissing him as a lazy, egocentric, womanizing jerk who shouldn't be anywhere near Sheena. Zelos still wasn't sure he could persuade Igaguri of the truth - after all, it wasn't like he had any proof to back him up, only his word, which, given his questionable reputation, held little weight - nor was he convinced he even deserved a chance to defend himself, but Igaguri was giving it to him, and he'd take it. He could feel the worst of his fears - namely, that Igaguri would permanently ban him - subsiding, but that didn't mean he could relax yet, either. He was still treading on shaky ground here, and this could still go either way, depending on how well he defended himself.

So, apparently it was time to be on his best behavior and do some major damage control while still being honest - because something told him if he wasn't honest, Igaguri would spot it, call him on it, and dismiss him as a liar. "Heh," he chuckled nervously, digging his nails into his palms to prevent himself from looking guilty by rubbing his neck or fidgeting. "Yeah, I suppose my past has been rather...colorful...hasn't it?"

Igaguri gave him a tight but unamused smile. Zelos actually thought it looked rather calculating - something he recognized because he was sure he'd already given plenty of people that exact same smile himself. "'Colorful' is one way to put it."

Zelos fell silent again, wracking his brain for a truthful way out of this. He wasn't sure this method would work, but he didn't have any other options. He took a deep breath, then slowly released it. "Well, I won't deny all of the rumors I'm sure you've now heard about me, because I can't. And let me guess: you want to hear all the sordid details, huh?"

"You can tell me as much or as little as you would like, Chosen." Igaguri's eyebrows rose expectantly. "However, the more detail you give me, the more likely I will be to make an accurate assessment of you."

"...Right." Naturally, while he had a choice, he didn't really have a choice - and that meant telling Igaguri the truth, or at least as much of it as was necessary to make his point. Well, okay then, here went nothing. Just keep plowing ahead, he told himself. Don't stop. Say what you need to say to get through this. If you second guess every word that leaves your mouth, you'll just look like an unconfident fool, and that won't go over well with Igaguri, either. And by all means, Wilder, don't lie. Taking another deep breath, Zelos nodded and met Igaguri's eyes again. "All right, I'll be honest. There are a lot of things I once did that I'm not proud of; not all of the rumors about me are wrong. Others, though, simply aren't true...although I understand why people would have trouble believing that since I don't have proof to back that up. All I have is my word, which I realize isn't worth anything to most people."

"Mm." Igaguri lifted his head slightly, but otherwise his only response was a prompting, "Go on."

Zelos bit his lip again, trying to remember everything he'd once told Sheena that had miraculously convinced her of the truth about him, and silently prayed for lightning to strike twice. "Contrary to popular belief, I have not slept with every woman in Tethe'alla, nor do I have any illegitimate kids running around the countryside; I've merely flirted with women, and even that stopped the day Sheena and I started dating. I can't deny that I spent much of my life running from my responsibilities, though. Like I mentioned once, I never wanted to be the Chosen, and I especially never wanted the responsibilities that came with the title. But I was never given a choice in that; my bloodline made it impossible for me to say 'no' to it. And over time, I grew to resent it and everything that came with it. I guess shirking my responsibilities was my way of rebelling against the entire institution, venting my frustration, and probably even hoping someday I'd piss off the right people so much that they removed the title from me and gave it to someone else instead...not that I ever really believed that would happen. And I'll admit that in rebelling like I did, I often went overboard with it, didn't follow through on responsibilities that would've helped others, and as a result, inadvertently hurt people. And that is one of many regrets I'll carry with me to my grave: that my selfishness hurt them like that."

He fell silent, but Igaguri just watched him, waiting for him to continue, and so he did. "As for the other rumors you mentioned, well, being the Chosen, the Church placed a number of behavioral expectations on me, and quite a few of my actions were simply catering to that demand and giving the people what they wanted from their Chosen: a happy, carefree man who enjoyed life and would happily die for Tethe'alla should he ever be asked to do so, yet who never became too endearing to the populace that his death would devastate everyone. That's why I acted like I did and encouraged all the rumors: to create and maintain that image. And there, again, I know I went too far with it." His voice fell to a whisper, and he looked down at his tea. "Unfortunately, there's no way for me to change that now."

"No," Igaguri murmured, and a quick glance upward showed that his face had, like his voice, softened a little. "The past cannot be rewritten, no matter how hard we try to do so. All we can do is learn from our mistakes, work to make amends for them, and struggle against our natures to make sure we never repeat them."

"Yeah, that," Zelos replied, pointing at him. "While I'd like to think I've done those things, the fact of the matter is that I don't have the right to judge that in myself. Only the people I've hurt can decide that."

Igaguri nodded somberly. "Mm. Yes, that is true."

Unsurprisingly, Igaguri fell silent again, still watching him, and Zelos sighed, his head sinking downward, recognizing what Igaguri was waiting for. He detested recounting this because even though it had happened a long time ago, remembering what he'd done still made his gut twist painfully, but he could see it in Igaguri's eyes: he wouldn't let this go until he'd received an answer. And that, unfortunately, meant Zelos had to keep going. "As for hurting Sheena...yeah, I did. Far worse than I'd thought at the time." Igaguri didn't respond, and again Zelos found himself unable to meet his eyes. "The behavioral expectations weren't the only ones imposed on me as the Chosen. I was also expected to accept that one day, if necessary, I would die for Tethe'alla, and if it wasn't, then I'd have to marry someone determined by the Church and have a kid with them to keep the bloodline going. Serious relationships outside of that one were forbidden, although that obviously never stopped me from flirting.

"But Sheena..." His voice trailed off, and he couldn't help smiling faintly as he remembered her all those years ago, just as beautiful and fiery as she was today. "Sheena was the first woman - well, teenager, at the time - I'd met who I felt anything for. And the truth is, those feelings terrified me. I refused to believe I was falling for her, but I still did everything I could to push her away for fear I would fall for her - or, worse, that she would fall for me. And if that happened, I was afraid of how badly it would hurt her if I was one day summoned to die or was forced to marry another woman. I thought I'd caught my feelings in time, but I hadn't. And so I kept going, doing everything I could to make her hate me. In the process, I treated her...well, I treated her very badly. Ultimately, I thought it had worked, that she'd refuse to ever have anything to do with me again. It wasn't until just before we started dating that I realized it hadn't, that instead of making her hate me, all I'd done is hurt her. And when I found that out..." He swallowed hard, his eyes closing as the guilt he'd fought for months to suppress returned. "The truth is, finding that out nearly killed me. I've done a lot of stupid things and made a lot of bad choices in my life, but of them all, I regret that the most, what I did to her while trying to protect us both. It amazes me to this day - and it probably will for the rest of my life - that Sheena could find it in her heart to forgive me and give me a second chance. I've spent every day since then trying to make it up to her and refusing to give her any reason to regret giving me that chance. So really, Sheena is the one who has the right to tell you how good of a job I'm doing, not me."

"Mm." Igaguri lifted his cup to his lips and took a sip, his gaze never leaving Zelos's face, then he lowered the cup back to the table. "Seeing as Sheena has made it clear she believes you deserve the chance she gave you, and I have seen no reason to doubt her opinion of you, I believe that answers my question about the kind of man you truly are. But I must ask." He leaned forward expectantly. "Does she know the truth about you, about why you hurt her and what the motivation behind your actions and the rumors was?"

Zelos nodded curtly. "Yes, she does."

"All of it?"

He shrugged. "Well, I don't think it's possible for one person to know everything about another after only dating a year, but she knows enough. And if I ever find something I missed and feel she needs to know it, I won't be afraid to tell her."

"Very good," Igaguri replied with a nod. "And it is obvious she believes you."

Zelos let out a soft laugh. "I'll probably never understand that one myself, but I can't deny it."

Igaguri smiled faintly. "Sheena is a good judge of character. Generally speaking, she is only fooled by those things she is not interested in or that she sees no value in examining too closely. So if she has accepted you even after that, then I see no reason to question her judgment of you." He paused and leaned forward again, his smile disappearing and his eyes narrowing. "I have one more question to ask you, Chosen, and I am certain you will not be happy about it. However, given what I am going to address with you next, I must know this."

Okay, that sounded alarming. After all, questions that were preceded by such comments were never good. "Okay...?"

"Have you and my granddaughter slept together?"

Zelos's eyes widened, and a soft, incredulous laugh burst out of him before he could stop it. "Wow. Don'tcha think that's a little direct?"

"Yes, it is," Igaguri stated, his expression never wavering. "But it is an important question."

While Zelos supposed he should have expected that, given the importance Mizuho placed on abstinence, the truth was he wasn't used to anyone, let alone someone from a sexually repressed culture, directly asking him for the details of his sex life. On the bright side, at least that, too, he could answer truthfully. "Well, for the record, I'm of the opinion that's no one's business but mine and Sheena's. But to answer your question, no, we haven't."

Igaguri eyed him carefully, and Zelos met his gaze head on, needing to impress on him that really was the truth. Finally, Igaguri nodded. "Very good. Seeing as that matches the answer I received from Sheena when I asked her that question and I can see nothing to indicate you are lying to me now, I have no reason not to believe that. I must confess, that was one of my biggest concerns regarding your 'colorful' reputation."

And wow, was Zelos glad now that he'd decided not to push for sex when Sheena had explained that particular restriction to him, because something told him if he'd just lied to Igaguri, not only would Igaguri have known it, but it would have gotten Sheena into huge trouble here - not to mention Igaguri would have likely severely punished him for 'corrupting' his granddaughter, too. As difficult as it had been to resist at times, his struggle to do so had been worth it just to pass Igaguri's test now. "Yeah, I'm not surprised. Those rumors in particular I never tried to curb. But one thing I wanted to make very clear to Sheena was that I wasn't dating her solely because I lusted after her body; I was dating her because I loved her." He shrugged. "Besides, she made it clear from the start that Mizuho has a very traditional stance on relationships, and I wanted her to trust me and feel safe with me."

Igaguri gave him another tight smile and sat up straighter. "Very good, Chosen. I am pleased to hear you say this. Your words give me great confidence in my granddaughter's choice to pursue a relationship with you."

Oh, thank Martel. Zelos's breath whooshed out of him and he finally relaxed a little. While he still felt shaky, because that grilling had been torturous, Igaguri's words seemed to indicate his opinion of him was still mostly positive. But then, it was possible that conclusion was just wishful thinking on his part. He should really verify that before getting his hopes up too high.

"So am I understanding correctly that I don't have to find the least painful way to break up with her?" he asked, trying not to sound overly hopeful.

And finally, Igaguri's smile also relaxed and lost its harshest, most calculating edge as he picked up his cup and took another sip of his tea. "That is correct, at least not for that reason. However, that leads directly into my next question for you, one which very well could change your mind regarding continuing your relationship with her."

Uh oh. Zelos's eyes narrowed again - but he quickly chose not to overanalyze that until Igaguri had explained himself. "Okay...?"

Igaguri set his cup on the table and gave Zelos another scrutinizing look. "As I am sure you are already aware, I have named Sheena to be my successor. Traditionally, it has been required that the chief be married prior to accepting this role. The reason for this is simple: the position is extremely demanding of the one accepting it, and requiring that the chief have a spouse to support them and help them manage the responsibilities is done not only for their benefit, but for the village's. More than that, though, since any co-leader would be capable of fulfilling that role, is the fact that the chief consort can provide the chief with other desirable aspects that a co-leader cannot - namely, mental, emotional, and physical support, in addition to being a trusted, loyal confidant. Simply put, a spouse is capable of providing a source of release and distraction from the stress of the position, be that in the form of humor, emotional connection, or even physical intimacy, all of which help the chief maintain a clear head and enhance their well being. Now, seeing as I am looking to retire soon, while I am still in good health and can ease this transition of power to her, that means I would like her to step into her new role soon. Therefore, you can understand why I must closely scrutinize anyone who becomes a candidate for such a crucial position in her life."

"Of course." Yep, Zelos could see where this was going - and thankfully, it was right where he wanted to be. Finally, after an intense, nerve-wracking interrogation, they were getting to the real meat of this discussion. Relaxing further, Zelos grabbed his tea and took another sip, relishing in the soothing warmth it provided him.

Igaguri nodded and leaned forward again expectantly. "To that end, Chosen, I will be blunt with you. What are your long-term intentions toward my granddaughter?"

Zelos couldn't help grinning. "Heh. Y'know, Chief Igaguri, that question is actually pretty ironic."

The chief's eyes narrowed, but Zelos could see the ghost of a smile on his face, too, as he pressed, "And why is that?"

"Because I came here today with the intent of asking your blessing to marry Sheena."

Instantly, Igaguri's smile broadened and he leaned back. "Ah, I see. Yes, I suppose that answers my question nicely, does it not?"

"Yeah, I guess so." Finally, Zelos felt like he was standing on solid ground again - ground he should be able to safely navigate to reach his destination. Well, assuming he didn't trip over his own two feet on his way there, of course. Now he just had to make sure his destination was somewhere he truly wanted to be. It was - Sheena was there, after all - but he had to be absolutely sure he could handle the rocky, uneven terrain where she was standing. And that required asking certain questions that, thank Martel, were finally coming back to him. "Before I do that, though, I have a few questions of my own to ask you."

"Of course," Igaguri replied, bowing his head. "I would be concerned and disappointed if you had none. Please, Chosen. Ask your questions."

Okay, good. Here went nothing. Zelos breathed in deeply, then slowly released it. "Well, first and foremost, I know I'm an outsider and am not necessarily someone well-liked or from an area that's well-respected here. So what are the rules when it comes to the chief marrying an outsider? Am I even allowed to marry her?"

"An excellent question," Igaguri said. "The short answer is yes, you are. Traditionally, the chief consort has always been someone born and raised in Mizuho. It is a great asset to have someone in the position who knows the village, its people, and its customs. However, there is no rule that restricts an outsider from marrying into the position. In fact, my own grandfather chose an 'outsider' to become his wife before he became chief, and during her lifetime, my grandmother brought much good to the village. History has proven it can be beneficial to us. In addition, Mizuho's numbers have been severely reduced during my lifetime; we lost many during the Volt accident, and we lost more to the recent poisoning. The truth is, if we never accept outside help replenishing our numbers, Mizuho will eventually fade away. None of us wants that." He motioned at Zelos. "You are clearly of a good bloodline, Chosen, so I cannot object to you on those grounds, and after what I have seen of you, I believe, like Sheena, that you are a good man who would be a blessing to us. We may initially be wary of 'outsiders' like yourself, but if they earn our trust, as you have, then they are always welcomed into our midst; our people are not restricted by genetics but rather by cultural philosophies and a loyalty to our own. These are our primary values.

"That does not mean, however, that we are limited solely to those philosophies, despite how strongly we hold to tradition. No growth can be achieved for Mizuho unless we are willing to look at all possibilities - and, more than that, to embrace them if they would help us. We are a dying village with many enemies, and if we do not find a way to change that, we may not survive. In fact, that is one of the main reasons I chose Sheena to become chief after me: because she is not tied to tradition. She has been schooled outside of Mizuho and has seen the world beyond our borders. She does not think solely like a traditional Mizuhoan. I would have considered Orochi except he is steeped in tradition; he is a capable leader and an honorable, respected ninja, but I cannot see any change or growth in Mizuho under his leadership. The same applies to Tiga; he had no clear vision for Mizuho except to lead it to survive until I awoke, and so little here changed under him. With Sheena, however, I see change in our future. And honestly, in that respect, I think you would make a fine choice as her spouse since you would bring in even more ideas due to your radically different upbringing. Naturally, your ideas and suggestions would be merely that and the choice would ultimately be hers, but as long as you respect our traditions and her decisions, your opinions would always be welcome here. And so would you."

Wow. Zelos was impressed. And suddenly he couldn't help but wonder what Mizuho would look like today if the Volt accident hadn't happened. Igaguri actually seemed like a forward-thinking leader, realizing that Mizuho's days were numbered if something didn't change and then setting the wheels in motion to make that change happen. Zelos also thought he was starting to see where Sheena had acquired her ability to think for herself, even if it meant disobeying orders, and then stand by her convictions. There were undoubtedly people here clamoring for Mizuho to embrace tradition alone, but Igaguri seemed determined not to let them speak for him. And that...well, Zelos could definitely respect that.

"I'm liking you more and more the more I'm hearing, Chief Igaguri," he said, grinning.

Igaguri returned his smile and bowed his head. "I am glad to hear that, Chosen. Truthfully, I could say the same about you."

Agh, again with the whole, sneaky 'catch the ex-Chosen off guard' thing? Zelos hated being complemented like that when he knew he didn't deserve it, and he could feel his face grow warm as he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Well, I wouldn't go that far, but whatever." He cleared his throat, wanting to get off of that subject. "Anyway, that was my first question. The next one's a little more involved."

"Of course. Go ahead."

Zelos took another sip of his tea, then set the cup down and leaned back. "Before I'm willing to make any final decisions, I need to know what I'd be getting myself into with this. If I were to step into that position, what kinds of responsibilities would be expected of me?"

Again, Igaguri bowed his head. "Another excellent question, one that does not surprise me knowing your dislike of the responsibilities that were expected of you as the Chosen."

"Well, the way I see it, being forced to accept certain responsibilities and choosing to accept them are two completely different things," Zelos replied.

Igaguri gave him a knowing smile. "Indeed they are, and you, of all people, would know that best. As for my answer, though, as you said, this might be more complicated to answer simply because of who you are. Naturally, I expect you are not speaking of the general responsibilities any husband has toward his wife: to love her, support her, protect her, provide for her, and assist her however she requires."

Oh, yeah, he knew those already. If it were only those, this decision would've been a cinch to make; he wouldn't have had to spend the past six months wondering if he could handle it. "No, I'm already aware of those, and those I accept with no reservations whatsoever."

"Of course." Igaguri took another sip of his tea, then cleared his throat. "Traditionally, the chief consort has been responsible for Mizuho's internal affairs: overseeing education and training, organizing the farming and managing our food and money supplies, and determining justice when rules are broken. The chief is the one who typically deals with external affairs: protecting the village, setting the vision for Mizuho's future, choosing which job requests to accept, determining which ninjas to deploy on those jobs, handling the king's requests, and basically serving as the liaison, if you will, for the outside world. Many more responsibilities are assigned to both roles - such as organizing ceremonies, honoring the brave, maintaining our records and preserving Mizuho's oral and written traditions, and so on - but those are the primary ones."

Zelos took a deep breath as the staggering number of jobs sank in - many of which he hadn't even considered as possibilities. "Wow. That many, huh?"

"Yes. Running even a village this small requires great effort by its leaders. We are self-sufficient, but achieving and maintaining that status is no easy feat. In any case, though, there is no reason why those responsibilities could not be shuffled due to the chief and his or her spouse's strengths. Likewise, there is no reason why certain responsibilities cannot be delegated to others. Orochi will certainly be of great assistance for he is an exceptionally skilled warrior. Tiga, likewise, has had years of experience running the village, and I expect one day Michi will also be invaluable here. For years after illness claimed my wife, a dear friend of mine graciously took over the duties she had overseen and handled them until his untimely death during the Volt accident. In short, there is considerable leeway in these matters, but proper delegation of the tasks is a skill every chief must master. He or she should not simply pass off the tasks they do not desire to do themselves but rather only distribute those tasks they know they cannot handle themselves. In the end, though, most duties should remain with either the chief or with the chief consort."

Zelos nodded slowly. At least there was some leeway; it wasn't a firm, unchangeable set of duties. Fluid he could handle; rigid he could not. But now wasn't the time to be thinking too deeply about that, because he had other things he needed to know first - and there were things Igaguri needed to know, too. "Right. I do have to point out here, though, that I'm still Tethe'alla's Foreign Minister, and that's one job I'm not willing to give up yet, not after I fought so hard to get it. There's still too much I want to get done and cleaned up before I even consider stepping down from that role."

"Of course," Igaguri quickly replied. "I had not forgotten that. And honestly, I would never suggest you give up those duties, because such a power of authority, not only in the Tethe'allan political sphere but with the royal family, is something I see as perhaps the greatest advantage Mizuho could ever attain. You have connections there and influence with them that we, a disgraced people, would never have on our own. Unless, of course, the king would see this as favoritism and ask you to step down?"

"No, that's not a problem," Zelos replied. "I already talked to him about this to make sure there was no hidden catch about who the Foreign Minister could or could not marry, and there isn't. Actually, he was delighted about it, probably because he figures it'll make Mizuho easier to control - although I won't tell him the truth about how determined you guys are to make your own decisions if you won't." Igaguri smiled, and Zelos shrugged. "Besides, because of the nature of the work Mizuho does for him, you usually don't fall under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Minister anyway; you report directly to the king himself. Every now and then you go through the Foreign Minister for something, but it's rare."

"That is true, although based on what I heard about Adolphus Giannovio and how he failed to defend our people when we had trouble appeasing the king, much of that I believe was simply because Tiga did not want to deal with him."

Oh. Right. Zelos pointed at him. "That...makes a whole lot of sense. Hopefully you'll feel differently about me."

"Regardless of the outcome of this conversation, Chosen, I do not believe that will be a problem," Igaguri said, his smile broadening. "And as long as the king takes no issue with you being here, then neither will we. However, your current title and your level of political experience is why I could see you and Sheena perhaps opting to switch certain traditional roles; your influence and experience with the outside world could prove invaluable, whereas Sheena has far greater knowledge of the village itself."

Well, good. They were on the same page with that, and Igaguri saw value in his being here. In fact, Igaguri's words confirmed something Zelos had suspected for months now: one of the reasons he'd welcomed Zelos here was because of his status as the Chosen - a status that could provide protection and legitimacy to his people. It wouldn't be the first time someone had allied with him because of who he was; heck, even in the short time he'd been Foreign Minister, he'd already found a number of people trying to do the same to 'get him on their side.' And really, considering Mizuho's history with the king - much of which probably had been Giannovio's fault, seeing as he'd publicly declared how much he hated working with 'those crafty, thieving ninjas' - he couldn't blame Igaguri for wanting a powerful ally...although his heart did sink a little as that realization made him question how much Igaguri had really accepted him here because of him, not just because of who he was. On the other hand, Zelos had trouble believing Igaguri would tolerate him here in any capacity, let alone as a suitor for his granddaughter, if he really couldn't stand him, regardless of how much power he wielded. Besides, his titles could have some major disadvantages, too, not just for him but for those close to him, and it was only fair Igaguri know that.

"Well, I do have to remind you that every public figure has enemies, and I'm already on certain people's bad sides," Zelos said. "Just from the two months I've spent as Foreign Minister, I can tell you not everyone is happy Giannovio is gone, because with him went some of the perks they'd been enjoying for years - perks I've already rescinded because I refuse to keep wasting the taxpayers' money on them. Beyond that, though, I have to point out that the role of the Chosen has, historically, drawn criticism from radicals and resulted in assassination attempts. My father died at the hands of some radicals, and even though I'm not the Chosen anymore, someone could still one day try to do the same to me. My coming here could actually put Mizuho in danger. That poisoning two months ago could happen again if I moved here, simply because I was - and, to many people, always will be - Tethe'alla's Chosen. I mean, before we caught the guy who attacked you, I had wondered if he'd done it as a way to punish me by hurting those people I cared about."

Igaguri nodded again, but it was so quick that it was obvious that didn't bother him. "Yes, that is possible. I still remember a time shortly after I became chief when a shady figure offered me a significant amount of gald to kill your grandmother, who was the Chosen at the time - a request I soundly refused. However, while I appreciate your warning, I am not concerned that your presence here would pose us any more threat than we already face on a daily basis. We can protect ourselves and have learned even more ways to do so from this latest attempt on our lives - an attempt we survived, mind you, because of you. Additionally, because of your special abilities as an angel, I cannot help but think the advantages you would provide us significantly outweigh any risk involved in opening our doors to you. We can protect you from anyone who threatens you so long as you protect us in return."

"Oh, of course. I wouldn't dream of not protecting you guys. I just wanted to make sure you knew that." Zelos paused. He hated to bring up this, too, but he felt obligated to say it. "And I also have to remind you that as the Foreign Minister, I carry far less power than I did as the Chosen. I serve more as an advisor to the king than anything, and in the end, he still makes the final call, regardless of my advice. And like I said, a number of people already aren't happy I was made the Foreign Minister and they don't trust me because of my reputation and because of my connections with so many other peoples. If I married someone from Mizuho, I'm sure I'd lose even more trust - because while the king may be thrilled about it for his own selfish reasons, not everyone else feels the same way. Unfortunately, and I really do hate to say this, but a lot of people are still wary of ninjas due to your secrecy, your 'underground dealings,' and your 'shady methods.'"

"Along with our relative poverty, our foreign culture, our opposition to certain taxes, our frequent questioning of the king's orders, and our occasional refusal to accept jobs we deem to be inappropriate," Igaguri added.

While Zelos hadn't planned on saying any of that, he couldn't deny it, either. "Yeah."

Igaguri nodded somberly. "You tell me nothing I do not already know. However, you cannot deny the value of having someone of your status in the position of liaison between our people and the Tethe'allan monarchy. Sheena has done an excellent job representing us, but to have not just the current Foreign Minister but the previous Chosen himself accepting and defending us would perhaps help our reputation more than it would harm yours."

Heh. That sounded like logic he himself would use when trying to persuade someone of something - and he couldn't help but like anyone else who did the same. "You're a crafty old man, Chief Igaguri, you know that?" Zelos said, giving him a sly grin.

Igaguri returned his grin and bowed his head. "I will take that as a compliment, Chosen."

"Good, because that's how it was meant." He just loved people who weren't blind sheep and refused to let others make their decisions for them. "I'm impressed."

The grin never left Igaguri's thin lips as his eyebrow arched upward. "Can you blame me for seeking every advantage I can find to aid Mizuho's future?"

Zelos shook his head, laughing softly. "Of course not. I'd do the same in your position."

"Yes, I suspect you would," Igaguri murmured, giving Zelos a thoughtful look before clearing his throat. "In any case, the responsibilities that would ultimately be asked of you here are flexible since I am certain Sheena will also see the advantage in letting you retain your position as the Foreign Minister. However..."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Zelos said, waving that off. "I'd still have to take on as many of the other responsibilities as I could, because somebody needs to do them, and I'd never be able to live with myself if I left them all to Sheena to handle on her own."

"Correct."

And that settled that - and, surprisingly enough, Zelos was actually okay with that, probably because it wasn't set in stone and it involved sitting down with Sheena and hashing out what would be best for them both, which assured him that whatever they decided, he'd be able to handle it. He took another sip of his tea. "Okay, so my next question. For an outsider like me who's pretty unfamiliar with Mizuho's customs...what would I need to do to be ready to take on these responsibilities?"

Igaguri's face grew somber. "Yes, you do come from a significantly different background, do you not? We are a simple farming people who train in the art of ninjitsu; until just recently, you were the Chosen, raised among the luxuries of Meltokian high society. I expect you experience considerable culture shock every time you visit our village."

"That's one way to put it," Zelos replied with a soft laugh. "And to be honest, I'm still not entirely sure how comfortable I am making such a drastic switch."

"Mm. Your hesitation is understandable." Without warning, Igaguri arched a knowing eyebrow. "However, it is clearly not a determining factor for you since you are still here and are pondering this carefully rather than retreating back into your 'more comfortable' world, a world you would never be forced to leave otherwise."

Oh, yeah, Igaguri was a sharp, perceptive man who obviously had little trouble reading people. Zelos liked that. "Yeah, I guess I really can't deny that, can I?"

Igaguri's face softened into a warm smile. "It is truly amazing what we find ourselves willing to do for those we love."

Zelos's head sank downward, his face grew warm again, and he let out an embarrassed laugh. Igaguri was right, but right now, in the middle of such an important conversation with the leader of a village that didn't encourage public displays of affection, really wasn't a good time for him to start waxing poetic about how much he loved Sheena. Instead, therefore, he resorted to something safer. "Heh. Well, that and I have to admit this place has grown on me quite a bit the past year. I'd be lying to say I wasn't at least fond of you guys."

"I am pleased to hear you say that, Chosen," Igaguri replied, his smile broadening. "And to be honest, a number of my people have expressed similar sentiments, that they have grown attached to you as well." Zelos breathed a sigh of relief, even though he'd still have to address that point again later, and Igaguri cleared his throat. "To answer your question, though, because of your upbringing and lack of knowledge about Mizuho's culture, you would need to undergo significant training before you would be able to effectively fill this role. For one, you must master our language so you can read and study our records and become well-versed in Mizuho's culture and traditions. While you have begun to grasp the basics, and I am certain you have progressed beyond where you were two months ago, complete mastery is a requirement for this role. After all, without being able to fully understand our history, philosophies, and values, it would be impossible for you to help Sheena make the best decisions for Mizuho. Additionally, you would need to study our oral traditions and undergo ninja training."

In the blink of an eye, Zelos's heart plummeted. He'd been following the rest of what Igaguri was saying just fine, but that last one knocked the wind from his sails. He quickly lifted his hand. "Whoa, hang on a sec. I can understand all the reading and studying. I'm not enthused about it, but I understand it and will do it. But ninja training? No offense to your style, Chief Igaguri, but I'm not cut out to be a ninja. And to be honest, I'm not convinced yet that no matter how hard I try to fit in here, I'll ever be a shining example of your culture. Some things are engrained in me because of the life I've lived, and I'm not sure I'll ever completely shake them."

Before he'd even finished, though, Igaguri smiled reassuringly. "Relax, Chosen. Undergoing ninja training does not mean you must become a ninja yourself, nor does it mean you must sacrifice who you are to conform to our ways. You would no longer be the man my granddaughter loves if you did so, and forcing you to change completely would, I am sure, cause you great frustration and discontent. However, it is imperative that you understand our mindset, and you cannot do that unless you have experienced our training. Besides, Sheena has made it clear you are already an exceptionally skilled swordsman and magic user; I would never ask you to change a style you are comfortable with and that works for you. Once you have seen how we train, you are welcome to incorporate our practices into your own, but it will not be required of you. In fact, it might even benefit our ninjas to train with someone who is not a ninja himself so they know what they might one day face from adversaries during a mission."

Oh, thank Martel. Zelos released his breath and nodded, relaxing again. Changing his entire way of life and way of fighting, especially since he'd already had to alter it once to incorporate his angel abilities, really wasn't something he wanted to do. Ninja fighting might be cool and amazing, but it just wasn't him. The rest of what Igaguri had said came as a relief, too, knowing he wouldn't have to give up everything about himself and completely adopt all of Mizuho's mindsets. "Okay, good. That I can handle...I think." He just wouldn't think too hard right now about the horror stories Sheena had told him about everything they'd made her do during her training. He would deal with that later, when and if it became an issue.

"You can, Chosen," Igaguri assured him. "I have no doubt about that. Sheena has faith in your abilities, and since I trust her judgment, so do I."

'Wow, really?' was what he wanted to say - even after this past year, it still took him aback whenever anyone placed an iota of faith in him - but he bit his tongue. Hearing such words would never get old, and he already knew after the years he'd spent without anyone trusting him that he would never take such a gift for granted. And now to have someone besides Sheena actually placing such trust in him? And not just anyone, but Sheena's strict, scary grandfather? He was stunned - and encouraged.

He gave Igaguri half a smile. "Thanks." He bit his tongue again as he felt another 'I think' trying to follow that, and instead he cleared his throat. "Anyway, my next question. In the event that, Martel forbid, something should one day happen to Sheena, like she's killed during a mission or something equally disturbing, what would be expected of me?"

Igaguri's smile quickly vanished. "While the possibility is not something I enjoy considering, the question is prudent. As the chief consort, you would, in essence, be next in line for the position yourself, simply because of the extensive experience you will accumulate - unless, of course, Sheena had already designated another successor before such a thing happened. Likewise, if Sheena is away from the village and an immediate decision is required while you are here, that responsibility would fall on you. In many senses, the chief consort truly is Mizuho's second-in-command, with the Vice Chief being next in the line of succession. However, you would never be permanently tied here, especially since your extended family does not reside here...although it is certainly my hope that you would one day grow to love this village as much as any native Mizuhoan and wish to stay, especially if you and Sheena are blessed with children. Regardless, you would be asked to fill the role as long as you could, or as long as was deemed necessary to find a successor and train him or her, but you would never be trapped here."

Oh, good. So far this conversation was going significantly better than the worst-case scenario Zelos had been afraid of. While there were still plenty of things he wasn't entirely enthused about, he was pretty sure he could handle everything he'd heard so far. He would learn along the way, and he'd do everything he could to live up to Sheena's faith in him. "Okay. I'm not saying I'd leave under those circumstances, but I just wanted to know. Because the truth is, as much as I may have grown to like this place, I wouldn't even be considering this if not for Sheena."

"Of course," Igaguri replied, bowing his head again. "I appreciate your honesty, Chosen."

Grabbing his cup, Zelos nodded and took another sip of his tea. It was time to tackle the subject that concerned him most - after the responsibilities one, of course. "And I have to ask. How likely is it that the villagers would accept me as their 'chief consort'? I know you said they're getting used to my being here, but there's a huge difference between tolerating someone and accepting them in a leadership role like this. And honestly, without knowing it's possible to one day earn their trust and respect, I'm not sure I could do this."

Igaguri quickly nodded. "That is a valid concern. Trust and respect are prerequisites for effective leadership. If the people under you do not respect you, trust your decisions, or follow your instructions, leadership is rendered impossible. To answer your question, I am certain there would be resistance if you were to be named as chief consort, just as resistance still remains to my decision to name Sheena as my successor because she is a summoner and because some people still blame her for the Volt accident. Because of how important tradition is to my people, many would see your involvement as a drastic break to tradition and would resist it. Most villagers do not remember my grandmother or that she was an outsider who did the village great good and introduced many new ideas they now take for granted; they only know what Tiga has done, and perhaps the older ones remember what I did during my earlier years. And, of course, your reputation will also be questioned, far more severely than it has been before this. You may become uncomfortable with their implications, and they will be suspicious of you, perhaps for a long time. Orochi in particular will likely have issues with this, despite the reluctant fondness he has acquired for you, but I truly believe his 'issues' have more to do with Sheena than with you, and I assure you, his opinions do not reflect my own, nor those of my people."

Without warning, Igaguri leaned forward pointedly. "However - and please believe I speak truly about this, Chosen - for as strongly as Mizuho holds to tradition, it is also capable of great change and of acceptance of unfamiliar things. We would not have survived this long if we could not adapt to the circumstances life hands us. Some people will resist, but in time, they will grow to respect, accept, and trust you. If you are patient with them while they scrutinize you and make sure you mean Mizuho no harm, you will find they will grow to embrace you in this role as surely as they would one of their own. In fact, I cannot help but observe how great the strides you have made toward acceptance here have been the past year, and as I said, my people have responded to your acceptance of them with acceptance of you in return. At the beginning they were uncomfortable with your presence here, and many made that known to me. However, in time, those comments grew less frequent, and now I have not heard any in months. In fact, since the poisoning, all I have heard are compliments about you, your kindness, and your generosity. No, you have already earned their trust and respect, and they will take that into account should you decide to pursue this life."

Zelos nodded thoughtfully. He didn't doubt Igaguri was telling him the truth as he knew it, but everything inside him was still screaming that such a thing was impossible, that no matter what he did, he would never fit in in a place like this...one he was truly starting to believe he could legitimately call 'home.' "I hope you're right about that."

One of Igaguri's eyebrows crept upward. "You are uncertain?"

Hell, yeah, I am, especially after all the years I spent being accepted by people only because they had to accept me. That was one feeling he really didn't want anymore - and in that respect, he actually felt more comfortable in Mizuho than he had elsewhere simply because he had done a few things here that people might legitimately accept him for. Regardless, though, the concept was still foreign to him. "Let's just say I'm used to more people disliking me than actually liking me."

"Ah, I see," Igaguri replied, a faint smile appearing on his lips. "The people of Mizuho, as I am sure you are already aware, are very reserved with their emotions, which makes it difficult for someone unfamiliar with our ways to recognize or interpret what they are seeing. Trust me when I say they do not dislike you, Chosen. If they did, I would know it. You have done nothing worth disliking; in fact, this past year you have done only the opposite. They do not know your ways yet, nor can they predict yet where your loyalties lie, and like all people, they hold suspect those things they do not understand, but they do know if you truly meant them harm, you would not have saved their lives two months ago. Give them time. If you truly are the man Sheena believes you to be, and that I, too, believe you to be, you will not give them cause to doubt you." Igaguri's eyes narrowed. "Or is that the problem? That you do not yet trust yourself to win their trust?"

And again, warmth flooded his cheeks. Oh, yeah, he now knew where Sheena had gotten her uncanny ability to get the truth out of him, things he'd never planned to tell anyone: from her grandfather, seeing as Igaguri obviously possessed the same trait. In just the short time they'd been talking, Igaguri had already seen more things about him than Zelos had wanted him to see. And man, was he getting tired of constantly being caught off guard like this.

"That obvious, huh?" he replied, letting out another nervous laugh as he looked down at his nearly empty cup. A quick glance upward showed that Igaguri was arching an expectant eyebrow at him, and finally Zelos sighed, his awkward smile fading. "Just like I'm not used to people actually liking me, I'm not used to actually doing things right. For years all I did was mess up everything I touched. And this...well, this is something I don't want to mess up."

Igaguri's face relaxed into a warm smile. "We are all human, Chosen. Humans make mistakes; it is the way of life. We learn from them, and we move on. I am certain you will make many mistakes, just as I have made many and Sheena will make many. Some of mine were devastating; some of those Sheena will make will be as well. You have implied the same about your own. However, that does not mean we are all failures; it simply means we are human. I have learned many valuable lessons from my mistakes; Sheena has learned many from hers. Can you deny you have learned many from your own?"

Zelos's gaze fell back to the table. He knew Igaguri was right, but admitting and accepting that was so damn hard, especially when the guilt still ate at him whenever he remembered all the stupid things he'd done. Usually he could distract himself before he started dwelling on those things, because there was no point in depressing himself over something he couldn't change, but every now and then the guilt still hit him like a sledgehammer. But Igaguri was right; he had learned many valuable lessons from those mistakes, and he'd used those lessons to prevent himself from making the same ones again. After all, he hated feeling guilty, so why not do everything he could to try to avoid it?

"No, of course not," he murmured.

"As I expected, Chosen: while physically you may be an angel, your soul is still human." Zelos looked down at the table again and let out a soft laugh, but before he could reply, Igaguri went on. "In any case, that is another reason why it is critical Sheena have a companion when she becomes chief: not just so he can help her avoid mistakes by supplying input and proposing alternate possibilities, but so she can help him do the same. You believe in her ability to do her job well, even if she occasionally makes mistakes, do you not?"

Seriously, how could Igaguri even question that? Zelos had had faith in Sheena and in her ability to do her job and kick the ass of anyone who deserved it, his own included, since the day he'd met her. He gave Igaguri a disbelieving look. "Of course I do. Sheena is the strongest, most capable and determined woman I've ever met. That's one of the things I love most about her."

Igaguri nodded curtly. "I agree and feel the same. However, she does not always see herself in the same light. You must have seen that as well."

His face fell as he remembered all the times during their journey when she'd questioned her own abilities, be it to make a certain pact with a summon spirit or just to make Mizuho proud of her. Hell, that one time he'd even had to drag her through the Otherworldly Gate to prevent her from sacrificing herself to Kuchinawa to save them. And why? Because she, too, had trouble seeing the value in herself and in everything she'd accomplished that was so obvious to everyone else. This past year she'd gotten better about it - or at least she seemed to be, although Zelos wondered at times if she'd just gotten better at hiding her insecurities from him - but every now and then he still detected the signs that she hadn't shaken them completely.

"Of course I have," Zelos murmured. "Sheena doubts herself too much, even when she has no reason to."

"Yes, she does," Igaguri agreed. "We are often our own harshest critic. However, if she deems you the same way, that you doubt yourself too much even when you have no reason to, then can you really deny her belief in you to be true - and, beyond that, valid?"

He was surprised to realize Igaguri was right. Sheena might not always have faith in herself, but she had faith in him, and Zelos had faith in her. As a result, Sheena had faith in his faith in her. Likewise, he might not have faith in himself, but he had faith in Sheena, who, in turn, had faith in him. How could he say he truly had faith in her if he didn't trust her faith in him? "Heh. I guess I can't, can I?"

"I do not believe so, and I suspect Sheena would agree." Igaguri leaned forward, giving Zelos another warm smile. "Trust her judgment of you, Chosen, just as she trusts your judgment of her. In that way, you both become stronger."

Again, Zelos couldn't deny that. He nodded and returned Igaguri's smile. "I'll try." But this was still jumping the gun, because while his questions were now answered, he still didn't know what his future held. His smile grew awkward. "Of course, that's assuming I get your blessing and she agrees to marry me, which she'd certainly be in her rights not to do..."

"I believe Sheena will make the right choice," Igaguri cut him off with surprising certainty. "And as for my blessing, Chosen, as her grandfather, I would have gladly given it to you based simply on how happy you make her and how well you treat her." Without warning, though, his face grew somber. "However, as Mizuho's chief, I cannot extend it to you until we are both certain this is the right decision for all involved. To that end, I must wait to do so until you can answer the following question for me: after what you just learned, are you prepared to accept these responsibilities?" Before Zelos could even open his mouth, though, Igaguri lifted his hand. "I must warn you that I will not accept your answer today, nor will I accept it tomorrow, nor even the following day. I want you to take what we have discussed and think on it seriously for one week. In one week, if you can return and say, with all honesty, that you accept, that you can live this life that isn't yours and would not be required of you otherwise, then I will give you my answer. But I want you to be absolutely certain about it before you give it to me, because once you accept this, there is no turning back. This affects far more people than just yourself and Sheena. And if you conclude you cannot accept it...well, it pains me to say this, but I think we both know what must happen."

Zelos's heart sank - he had to wait a whole week? What was Igaguri trying to do, kill him? - but deep down, he thought he understood Igaguri's reasoning. And just like that, his mind made another connection. "That's why you asked if we'd slept together, isn't it?"

Igaguri bowed his head. "Yes. In the event that you reject these responsibilities or Sheena does not accept your proposal, it will be far less complicated for everyone if you had not. This is one of the main reasons behind Mizuho's rule that couples here abstain from sex, even if they are engaged, since until they are officially married, it is still possible for their engagement to be called off. Likewise, as I am sure Sheena has already told you, it will keep her pure for whomever she would choose to marry instead."

Zelos's body bristled at the implication that if Sheena had sex, it would somehow render her 'impure.' How could men view women like that, especially when they didn't hold themselves to the same standard? If they were going to ban premarital sex, which he supposed was their right to do since there were some legitimate reasons for it, at least make it applicable to both sexes! But as hard as it was to keep his mouth shut, he did. He didn't think Igaguri would get upset if he voiced his opinion since Igaguri really did seem to be accepting of ideas that didn't match his own, but it was a waste of time trying to change someone's mind when he already knew it wouldn't work. It was a cultural thing here, and as such, all he could do was hope if this blessing/proposal thing played out as he wanted it to, he could eventually change that mindset, or at least get rid of the double standard.

"I understand," Zelos said. "And you're right - this is a lot to think about. While I suspect I could give you my answer now with 99% certainty, I'll give it the thought it deserves and then give you my answer in a week...no matter how impatient I may get in the meantime."

"Good." Igaguri eyed him carefully. "Making a decision like this that will drastically affect the rest of your life, especially when you are still so young, requires appropriate thought. Waiting an extra week is a small price to pay to be certain you are making the right one. If, however, you find you need more time, rest assured that I will not push for a decision immediately. I have not set a specific deadline to transfer the position to Sheena, and so I am willing to wait as long as you require - assuming your decision does not drag into years, of course. The only reason I am pushing to transfer it to her at all is because it has become obvious Mizuho will need to move soon, and I would like her to make that her first major project, as a way for her to set the vision for her time as chief, and it would be easiest for her to handle that if she had time to settle into the role first. At the moment, I merely needed to know whether or not this was even a consideration in your mind, because if it was not, then it either had to become one or I would have had to ask you to leave."

Zelos nodded. "Of course. But the truth is, I've been thinking about this for quite awhile now. Shortly after Sheena and I started dating, Orochi mentioned that you would probably want to make her chief within the year, so that's the deadline I've been operating under, and I've been giving it serious serious thought for six months now. I mean, this isn't just committing to Sheena; this is an entire lifestyle change. And while I'm still not completely sure I'm cut out for this life, I really do think in the long run, I'll be able to handle it."

"Mm," Igaguri murmured, giving him a faint smile. "I, too, think you will, Chosen. I must likewise admit that I started having suspicions regarding your intent when you offered to sponsor Michi in Sybak - and those suspicions were confirmed when I heard you had begun learning our language. But despite the fact that you are so certain of your answer now, I would still like you to think about what we have discussed for the next week. Your questions prove that when you decided to pursue this, you did not have all the facts before you. Now you do."

"Yeah, I do. And like I said, I'll give it the consideration it deserves." Zelos took a deep breath, silently checking off all the questions he'd had on his mental checklist, and then, once satisfied they'd all been addressed, he nodded curtly. "Anyway, I should get going. I have a lot to think about, and before I do that, I should stop by and see Sheena."

"Of course." Both men rose to their feet, and Igaguri escorted him into the genkan. Once Zelos had finished putting on his shoes, Igaguri bowed his head and offered him another smile - one that gave him hope for the future. "It was good to finally have the chance to speak with you, Chosen."

Zelos returned his smile and, drawing again on the various Mizuho politeness lessons Sheena had given him, bowed to him. "You too, Chief Igaguri. Thanks again for the tea."

"It was my pleasure. Then I will see you in a week?"

"Definitely."

Slipping out of Igaguri's home, Zelos waited until the door had shut behind him before he closed his eyes and released a low sigh. That had gone surprisingly well - once Igaguri had finished grilling him about his past, anyway. And the best part was that it really did seem like he would get Igaguri's blessing - assuming, of course, that after pondering everything for a week, Zelos didn't freak out and run off. He seriously doubted he would, but he couldn't dismiss the thought entirely, knowing his annoying, persistent urge to run from difficulty in search of a fun, easy life.

But still...a week? He had to wait a whole week to act on this? He'd been hoping to talk to her today already! Heck, now that he had the ring, it was already starting to burn a hole in his pocket. Seriously, how was he going to manage to keep his mouth shut about this when he was with her? He'd had enough trouble restraining himself yesterday because of how well she could detect when something was wrong and pull the truth out of him; he didn't even want to think what this next week would be like! His best bet would probably be to avoid her completely so he wouldn't accidentally reveal his plans to her - and yet he had to be careful with that, too, so it didn't look too suspicious, like that he was cheating on her with some hunny in Meltokio or something.

But he didn't have a choice; he could not ask her without Igaguri's blessing. Besides, it wasn't like he didn't understand Igaguri's reasoning for making him wait. This was huge, something that would permanently affect Mizuho, and he really should think everything through to make sure could handle it...but that knowledge didn't placate his waning, antsy patience level. While he was pretty sure he'd get Igaguri's blessing, the fact of the matter was that he hadn't yet. Going behind Igaguri's back and asking Sheena anyway, especially after he'd promised he would wait, would ruin Igaguri's trust in him - and pissing off the man who could soon become his grandfather-in-law, especially one as perceptive and scary as Igaguri, was not a good idea. And really, this did deserve proper thought. His decision would affect the rest of his life - and Sheena's, too. And if there was one thing he didn't want, it was to promise her he would stand beside her forever only to one day find himself realizing he'd made a huge mistake and then hurting her again by leaving. No, Sheena deserved a husband who knew what he was getting himself into and accepted it, and to make sure he could be that man, he had to think it all over. And he would. Definitely.

There was still so much he had to consider, but his hopes were soaring. Right now, though, wasn't the time to be dwelling on this. No, now he somehow needed to not think about this until after he'd seen Sheena. Maybe he would just stay for lunch and then make up some excuse to get back to Meltokio; he should be able to handle an hour with her without messing things up, right? Hopefully her mood would back to normal today, too. There was only one way to find out.

Spotting Orochi a short distance away, Zelos gave him a curious look. Orochi arched an expectant eyebrow, but Zelos wasn't about to tell him anything yet, and thankfully Orochi didn't ask the question. In fact, Orochi even seemed to recognize what Zelos wanted, for he pointed at Sheena's home, indicating she was there. With a nod and a, "Thanks," Zelos headed toward it, grinning as he took in the iris blooming in front of it. He'd never been much of a flower fanatic, other than when it had helped him win the heart of a hunny, but these...every time he saw them, they took his breath away. He had helped her with these, and to see them thriving like this, and especially now, when he was about to take that next major step with her...he couldn't help but feel fate was smiling on them. For a moment, he observed them, his heart pounding excitedly, then he breathed in deeply and closed his eyes, forcing himself to calm down lest impatience get the better of him. Once satisfied he wouldn't give himself away, he opened his eyes, knocked on her door, and then pushed it open when he heard her reply, casting one last grin back at the iris before stepping inside.

He would never again see an iris without thinking of Sheena. And, if all went well, hopefully she would never again see one without thinking of him, either.

0~*~0

As Zelos expected, the next week was torture. The hour he'd spent with Sheena after his talk with Igaguri had proven one thing to him: he had to stay as far away from her as he could manage until he'd received Igaguri's blessing, seeing as any attempts he'd made to act 'normal' around her had ended in failure. The only thing he'd done during that hour had been get distracted whenever she'd tried to talk to him, sometimes even while he was talking to her, as his mind kept straying back to everything he'd discussed with Igaguri. And, worse, whenever that happened, it just made Sheena's still subdued mood darken further. No, he'd quickly realized that being around her wouldn't work, and so he'd made up an excuse for why he'd be sparse for a few days and had then forced himself to stay in Meltokio, keeping himself occupied by talking to people there. While he missed her terribly, being with her complicated everything because she made the decision he had to make infinitely harder to approach from a detached, objective point of view. And since this was one decision he could not get wrong, he did what he had to do so that wouldn't happen.

And so for seven days he chatted with people, gathered information, and thought. And then he thought some more. And then he thought even more - about the man he'd become, about Mizuho, about Sheena, and about the nature of love, marriage, and 'forever.' But all of his thinking had just reinforced that this really was what he wanted; against all odds, he had grown to look forward to being with her in Mizuho, and especially to being of value to her there. Years of laziness and of feeling worthless, like he didn't matter and shouldn't have been born, had apparently led to this, and once he'd had a taste of what it meant to be useful to someone and had realized he liked feeling like his existence made a difference in someone's life, the rest of the pieces had fallen into place. Now he never wanted to lose that feeling again; even if he had to work hard to keep it and do things he'd never imagined himself doing, he would. While 'forever' would, Martel willing, be a long time, and he couldn't see what else life had in store for them, this feeling...he wanted to hold onto it. And the only way he could make that happen was to follow through on this, refuse to run from the life that came with marrying her, and commit his heart to her forever.

After all, the alternative, of living the rest of his life without her, her love, and that feeling, was unthinkable. During the past week, he had forced himself to consider it, as he'd promised Igaguri he would, in case it really did change his mind. But ultimately, without Sheena, his future was nothing but a long, tedious, never-ending string of fakeness and lies. No matter what he did or where he went, people would still always view him as not just the Foreign Minister, someone powerful they needed to 'kiss up' to, but as the Chosen. It would be a life filled with acting and pretending to be a man he wasn't to meet others' expectations of him, because that was all life was for people like him: an act, carefully chosen to manipulate others' perceptions, that complied with the rules of their society.

Not marrying Sheena would mean he could do whatever he wanted. He wouldn't have any responsibilities except the Foreign Minister's, either, which he supposed would be nice. But in the long run, he wouldn't have anything interesting or important to do to occupy his time besides that, either, and being Foreign Minister wasn't that big of a job; so far all it had required of him was a few hours of his time every week. And even if he went looking for an additional job to pass his time, who would hire the Ex-Chosen? He could hear it already: 'Oh, I'm sorry, Chosen, but I could never ask you to work for me!' Or maybe, 'You don't need this money, Chosen, since you - and five generations after you - could spend lavishly and you'd still be able to live a life of luxury. Shouldn't I hire someone who needs money?' And that meant he'd be doing...what, exactly? Coming home from bars drunk every night? Seducing his hunnies amidst enduring their shallowness and lust for his money and fame? Getting himself fired as Foreign Minister for causing trouble in his never-ending quest to be happy?

Well, on the bright side, he could move Seles into his mansion, even if having no one else he was truly close to in his life meant he'd probably drive her crazy by doting on her incessantly. And he could focus on his job as the Foreign Minister by traveling the world and meeting people whenever he wanted to. He could probably find plenty of volunteer jobs or donate his money to more good causes, too. But he couldn't help thinking he could still do all of that even if he and Sheena were married and living in Mizuho. He wouldn't be in his mansion as much, so Seles could still move in there. Sheena was also invested in this new world and loved traveling, and he was sure Mizuho would be fine under Orochi's leadership for a few weeks at a time. And he could certainly find good causes to support, regardless of where he was living. But as much as he hated to admit it, he also knew himself: without Sheena's gentle pushing, it would take an awful lot of concentration on his part not to slip back into his lazy, self-destructive ways and to instead actually do those good things. And the bottom line was that Zelos still didn't trust himself to choose the good over the bad without her guidance and encouragement.

The worst part of not marrying Sheena, though, would be the sheer loneliness of it. Sure, he'd never have to be alone alone - he could always find a hunny to spend the night with, and he did have real friends now, even if they still saw him as an idiotic jokester - but he'd already lived that life, and it had always made him feel lonely in a way he hadn't this past year with Sheena. He'd felt disconnected, distanced, and empty back then, and living in Meltokio, with so many people who didn't care to know the real him, guaranteed he'd go right back to feeling like that. He knew he was doing something good as the Foreign Minister, but he and the king weren't best friends, either, and so that job would never supply the feeling of camaraderie he craved. His other 'friends' in Meltokio were merely people to chat with at social functions. And his real friends were scattered across the globe, and while he could see them any time he wanted, they weren't here, either, which meant he couldn't go to them on a whim whenever he had something he felt like chatting about with someone.

And as for other romantic relationships...well, he didn't even want to think about those. He knew there were good women out there besides Sheena who might one day come to truly love him, but how could he find them? Those were the women who would never give him a chance simply because of his reputation; good girls like them, after all, didn't waste their time on a 'womanizing troublemaker' like him. Heck, most of the good ones were already off the market. The fact that he had found an incredible woman like Sheena and especially that she loved him would never cease to amaze him; he would forevermore maintain that that night on the balcony was a chance occurrence orchestrated by fate. And so, taking Sheena out of the equation, what did that leave him? Hoping and praying that fate handed him another once-in-a-lifetime chance occurrence with a woman he could grow to love as much as he loved Sheena? He'd been flirting with every woman he'd ever met for years, and how many other 'Sheenas' had he found? Not a one. So then having to wait and hope another 'Sheena' one day appeared? He'd get frustrated and give up long before that happened.

And what would he be left with once he'd given up looking? An endless stream of shallow, ditzy, faker-than-a-mimic-box hunnies who would never love him; past experience had proven that. While sure, he occasionally missed the female attention - because having a gaggle of adoring women following him around had been an ego-booster - it wasn't real, and after enduring so much fakeness for years, real was now all he wanted. He could never resist his hunnies' sexual advances, either; he wasn't the Chosen anymore, so the Church could no longer punish any woman he slept with or had a child with, and chances were he'd be so starved for affection, a way to stave off the loneliness, that he'd seek it anywhere he could get it, even if it meant stooping to them. And damn it, he was a man; if he had no promising shot at ever finding real love again, then he could never resist sexual temptation when it literally landed in his lap. It had been one thing to control his hormones this past year for Sheena's sake, but he suspected he would never love or respect any other woman enough to do the same for her. And the thought of succumbing to sexual temptation and then facing the same feelings he had all those years ago, knowing he'd let himself be enticed by hollow, insincere endearments and used for a single, fleeting night of pleasure, felt...empty. After the fullness and love he'd felt this past year, emptiness was the last thing he ever wanted to feel again.

No, after experiencing real love with Sheena, he would never be happy going back to the loveless life he'd lived before their journey. The 'fun, easy, carefree life' might be what he'd always wanted and why he'd pushed so hard for freedom from being the Chosen, but the bottom line was that now, in order to get that life for himself, he would have to sacrifice certain things he currently had: Sheena, the only love he'd ever experienced, and all the self-respect he'd found with her. He would have to give up all the meaning he'd found in his life. Choosing to marry her would mean accepting a hard, frustrating, unfamiliar, challenging life, but with it came those four things he now wanted more than life itself: Sheena, love, self-respect, and meaning. His choice after examining the alternative was simple. He couldn't be truly happy without those four things, but he could be happy without the rest of it.

Sheena, the only person who had ever made him feel welcome, wanted, and needed, was now his home and where his heart was and would always be. Mizuho was her home and she wasn't leaving it, and so if he wanted her, he had to go to her. The location itself didn't matter anymore; the kind of life he had to live didn't matter anymore, either. All that mattered was being with her. Meltokio wasn't his home anymore; when he was there and she wasn't, all he did was miss her. No, Mizuho, for all its primitiveness, simplicity, and quietness, was far more home to him than his mansion now, simply because she was there.

His choice was made. He wanted this, to help her lead her village. Maybe part of him was still trying to make up for hurting her as badly he had, maybe he wanted to thank her for giving him a new outlook on life, maybe he was selfish and wanted her all to himself, maybe he was just hopelessly addicted to making her smile...he didn't know, but his decision felt right to him. It wasn't his anticipated life, he couldn't predict that he wouldn't get restless there one day, and he'd never imagined himself settling down anywhere, least of all there, but he was at peace with his decision. This was the life he was choosing for himself. He might not always take things seriously, but he wouldn't make that mistake with this. This, Zelos refused to run from. He wanted to feel love. He wanted to be with her. He wanted to look at himself on the day he died and still like what he saw. He wanted to feel like his unwanted existence had value. He would adapt to the responsibilities necessary to be with her or he would die trying. He would do anything to make their relationship last; he would do anything to be someone she still wanted in her life fifty years from now. He would. As long as she did her part to make this work, then so would he.

After talking to the Pericheks and a few other long-married Meltokian couples, he even had some ideas he thought might keep them together - because he'd seen enough to realize that even the strongest couple wouldn't always get along, that they would make mistakes, and that they would, in time, grate on each other's nerves. As Igaguri had pointed out, after all, they were both human. No matter how much they loved each other, they would one day have a major fight - he was actually shocked they hadn't already - because all couples inevitably did; different people viewed things differently, and those different views would eventually butt heads and cause friction between them. They were no exception, especially when they both already knew how different their opinions could be. 'Forever' truly was a long time, and both he and Sheena had changed drastically during the past year alone, so he could only imagine how much more they'd change during the next fifty. And couples who changed like that, for better or worse, would undoubtedly disagree on things, perhaps even rather viciously, especially when one of them had an easily roused temper and the other didn't always take things seriously. Fighting would one day happen between them, especially considering how stressful their lives would be. They'd just have to accept that.

And, a step beyond that, he couldn't forget how many 'happy, perfect couples' he'd seen fall apart due to unexpected circumstances handed to them by fate - a thought that especially terrified him, knowing it could happen to anyone at any time and was completely outside their control. One day Sheena could wake up and realize she didn't love him anymore, or one day he could make a mistake that made her regret loving him, or one day he might realize he couldn't make her smile anymore. He had seen and heard enough while studying male/female relationships to know marriage wasn't just smooth sailing and romance but that it brought heartache and pain, too, and required a lot of hard work, patience, compromise, and forgiveness to make it last. But he was hopeful that some of the ideas he'd picked up from talking to the Pericheks and a few other couples who had weathered the unwanted storms life threw at them would help. Those, after all, were the marriages he wanted to emulate and use as models, not the unhappy ones he'd been exposed to throughout his life, like his parents'. And he really did think certain suggestions they'd made held promise. If he was lucky, Sheena would feel the same.

Of course, all of that was assuming Igaguri hadn't changed his mind about giving Zelos his blessing and that Sheena said 'yes,' because hearing a 'no' from her now that he'd viewed what his alternative life would look like would...well, it would essentially be a death sentence. But he would never know what the future held unless he was brave and faced the music, and so that was what he was going to do.

It was with that in mind that Zelos found himself approaching Mizuho for the first time in a week. Night had fallen, leaving the village enshrouded in darkness other than the glow of candles burning inside the buildings, and as he reached the entrance to the village and nodded his greeting to the night watchman - Susumu that time - he was relieved to find he'd waited long enough for everyone to have retired to their homes for the evening. As much as he missed Sheena, he didn't want to run into her on his way to Igaguri's home, either, because he never could have explained what he was doing here at this late hour without resorting to lying, nor could he have gotten away from her long enough to meet with Igaguri without raising her suspicions. At least coming here this late meant he could approach Igaguri's home undetected and uninterrupted.

Reaching it, Zelos knocked on the door and waited. He'd been afraid if he came too late that Igaguri would already be asleep, but thankfully that didn't appear to be the case, considering how alert the chief was as he answered the door. "Ah, Chosen," he said, smiling warmly. "I have been expecting you. Please, come in."

"Thanks," Zelos replied as he stepped inside.

Igaguri closed the door and, once Zelos had removed his shoes, ushered him inside. "I must admit, when you did not arrive earlier I was starting to fear I had chased you away last week."

"Yeah, I bet you were," Zelos said, grinning. "And don't worry, you didn't chase me away. I was just afraid Sheena would catch me if I came here any earlier than this. She...well, she has a way of getting things out of me that's really rather unnerving. As it is, I've had to avoid her the past week for fear of tipping her off to what I was planning. I used to be so good at keeping secrets from her, but now...well, not so much anymore."

Igaguri chuckled. "Ah, I see. To be honest, I have trouble seeing that as a bad thing. But in any case, please, have a seat." Zelos knelt on the guest mat while Igaguri took his usual seat. "So, then, let us get straight to the point. I trust you have an answer to my question?"

Zelos nodded. "Yeah, I do. I won't pretend to be excited about all the responsibilities that come with this, and I can't anticipate how well I'll be able to adjust to this lifestyle, and I'm still not sure how well I'll be able to handle everything, but whatever it takes to make this work...I'll do it. I choose to accept this role and everything that comes with it." He paused, unable to resist smiling again. "Sheena is worth it, and then so much more."

A warm, almost fatherly smile appeared on Igaguri's lips. "Very good, Chosen. I am relieved and heartened to hear you say that. Then I have one last question for you, as the chief of Mizuho, not as Sheena's grandfather, before I give you my answer to your question."

Okay...? Zelos motioned for Igaguri to continue. "Shoot."

Igaguri's smile faded as he eyed him carefully. "Because of who you are, agreeing to this places you in the precarious position of having to keep three distinct groups appeased: the king, the Church, and Mizuho. If a situation were to arise one day that creates conflict between Mizuho and one of those other groups, with whom would your loyalties lie?"

Ah, the loyalty question. He wasn't surprised Igaguri was asking that, because as the chief, Mizuho's future really was his primary concern. Zelos wasn't sure he was 100% loyal to this village yet - although if this became his home, in time that would likely change - but then, he wasn't, and never had been, 100% loyal to the king or the Church, either. Both had done far too many questionable things to him for him to ever fully devote himself to them. Other than a few suspicious ninjas, only Mizuho had ever accepted him or made any real efforts to win his trust - and that was exactly why they'd won him over.

But even discounting all of that, the question was still simple to answer. "That's easy. With Sheena. By default that probably means Mizuho, but first and foremost, it's with Sheena."

Igaguri offered Zelos another smile. "A good answer, Chosen, one that gives me confidence in your approach to future dealings outside of Mizuho. Then with that said, yes, you have my blessing to marry my granddaughter."

Zelos released his breath as relief swept through him, and his eyes slid shut. Oh, thank Martel. Finally. After a week of waiting and thinking and missing Sheena and praying Igaguri wouldn't change his mind, he'd finally gotten his answer. That took care of one major hurdle standing between him and the future he wanted. But the worst hurdle still remained: initiating this conversation with Sheena, asking her to marry him, and hoping she said 'yes' so he wouldn't have to revisit that alternate future he'd now soundly dismissed.

Opening his eyes, he returned Igaguri's smile. "Thank you."

Igaguri bowed his head. "I truly believe that you will be a good, loving husband for my granddaughter, that you will work hard for Mizuho's benefit, and that you will be a great blessing to us all."

Zelos's face grew warm as the depth of the faith Igaguri was placing in him sank in. He was basically asking for a piece of the sacred pie that Igaguri held dearest to his heart - his granddaughter's hand in marriage, along with an extremely integral leadership role over the village he loved - and Igaguri trusted him enough to let him have it. Talk about humbling. Knowing he'd earned such trust felt amazing, but it was also damn scary, too, realizing Igaguri was now counting on him to fulfill his end of the bargain. And Zelos would be damned if he didn't use this opportunity to prove he truly wasn't the incompetent, lazy oaf everyone had always believed him to be.

"And I truly hope I can live up to your belief in me, Chief Igaguri." His gaze fell to his hands as he let out a soft laugh. "Of course, first I actually have to ask Sheena, and all of this is assuming she says 'yes.'"

Igaguri gave him another warm smile. "As I said, Chosen, I trust my granddaughter to make the right choice."

While it was encouraging to hear that Igaguri felt confident about Sheena's decision, Zelos wasn't as sure. Assuming she said 'yes' was arrogant and presumptuous, and he'd learned the hard way that even when he thought he knew what she was thinking, he wasn't always right. After all, for years he'd been certain she hated him, and he never could have predicted she'd forgive him and give him a second chance. For all he knew, she would surprise him again now; just because Igaguri approved of him for this role didn't mean she felt the same.

"Well, while I'd like to think this decision won't be difficult for her, the truth is, she's surprised me plenty of times in the past," he said. "Sheena makes her own decisions, and I can't dismiss the possibility that will happen again now with this."

Igaguri's smile faded. "No, I suppose you cannot. I, too, have witnessed instances when she made a decision I did not anticipate. Then let us say I pray she will make the right choice by accepting your offer."

"Believe me, no one hopes that more than I do," Zelos said. "I've considered what my life would be like without her, and it isn't something I want to experience firsthand."

"No, I suspect not," Igaguri murmured, observing him another moment before clearing his throat. "So when do you plan to approach her with this?"

Zelos shrugged. "Well, I'd hoped to swing by there tonight and see how things went. I need to initiate a certain conversation about the future that I'd been avoiding until I figured out what I wanted and talked to you about it. Depending on how that goes...eh, I could probably do it tonight already, while I have my courage worked up."

Igaguri smiled nostalgically. "Ah, the eagerness and nervousness of young love. I will never forget the day I asked my wife to marry me; I felt the same as you clearly do now. I just wanted it over with so we could move on with life." Without warning, though, his eyebrows rose expectantly and his smile faded. "However, may I ask that you wait one more day before doing so?"

"Why's that?" Zelos asked, his eyes narrowing.

"Because I wish to speak with Sheena first."

His eyes narrowed further, uneasiness beginning to build within him. "About...?"

"I believe Sheena must know that I am looking to transfer the position to her soon," Igaguri replied. "She should be aware that, because of my age, I cannot guarantee how much longer my health will remain and that I would like to begin training her while I am still capable of doing so. I, too, have not yet approached her with this because I wanted to be sure where you fit into the picture first. She knows she must find a husband before becoming chief, and I did not want her to feel pressured to find one until I was certain that decision would cause her no stress. Now that I know it will not, it is time to tell her such."

"...Oh." Okay, Zelos could understand that; Igaguri, too, had obviously resisted talking to Sheena about the future until all these other pieces were in place. But for some reason, Igaguri's suggestion was actually sitting rather uncomfortably with him. He wasn't sure why, but his gut was telling him this was a bad idea - and not just because it meant he'd have to suffer yet another sleepless night before he could finally take the step he'd been ready to take for days. "Actually, Chief Igaguri...is that really a good idea?"

Igaguri's eyebrows rose again, but his eyes reflected only curiosity, not anger. "You disagree?"

Zelos rubbed his neck, trying to pinpoint why he was suddenly afraid that letting Igaguri do that wouldn't give them the result they wanted. And while he knew Igaguri was open-minded, he wasn't sure how Igaguri would react to being directly questioned. He had to try, though. "Well, yeah, actually, I do." He paused, struggling to find the words to express himself when he didn't even understand his feelings yet. "Knowing Sheena, I'd think doing that would put her in an awkward position, maybe even make this decision harder for her to make. I mean, the last thing I want is for her to feel obligated to accept my proposal because she doesn't think she has another option. Or, worse, I could see that putting...ideas...in her head that she might not have otherwise." And give her too much time to think about where I fit into her vision of the future and reconsider whether I have any place there, especially since I haven't discussed my ideal vision of the future with her yet, he silently added.

Igaguri considered that a moment, eyeing him closely. "Mm. I suppose you could have a point. However, I do not believe this will adversely affect her decision. As you said, Sheena makes her own decisions, and I truly believe she will make the right choice. And I do wish for her to know my plans before you approach her with yours. This order of events seems most logical to me."

Damn. Well, he'd tried. And he didn't want to piss off Igaguri by going behind his back and asking Sheena first because he really did need every ally he could get here, so he wouldn't. "Well, I'm still not convinced it's a good idea, and I am concerned about how she'll react to all of this, but I suppose I can't argue it. You've known her longer than I have."

Igaguri bowed his head. "Thank you. I appreciate your understanding in this. Then I will speak with her immediately, so if you wish, return in the morning. That should give her sufficient time to process everything."

And again Zelos found himself tempted to argue further, because this whole situation made his stomach churn, but then he sighed and let it go, reminding himself that 'Whatever will be, will be.' Igaguri really did seem convinced it had to play out like this, and so he'd just have to trust him about that. "Yeah...okay." He gave Igaguri a tight smile as they both rose to their feet. "I hope you're right about this."

With a smile, Igaguri patted Zelos's back reassuringly and escorted him to the genkan. "Do not worry, Chosen. Everything will work out as it should. Go home, get some sleep, and return in the morning. I suspect tomorrow will be an emotional day for you both."

Zelos nodded, then, once he'd finished putting his shoes back on, stood again. "I'll try."

"Then I shall see you tomorrow."

"Yeah. Tomorrow."

And then Zelos was stepping outside into the warm night air, closing the door behind him. Taking a deep breath, he looked around the village. He really had hoped to talk to Sheena before Igaguri hit her with this so he could feel out her thoughts about the future, and especially so she knew where he stood on it, but as unhappy as he was about having to wait, he couldn't change it. Despite that uneasiness, though, he was still hopeful. Maybe, if he was lucky, she would repeat the question she'd asked him last week - 'Can I keep you?' - which had implied she did want him to stay, only this time he could tell her that yes, she could. And oh, how good it would feel if she did. But the truth was, he knew how uncomfortable doing so would make her - in fact, getting her to ask anyone for help was like pulling teeth at times - and honestly, he didn't want her to feel obligated to ask him. No, he wanted to surprise her with this, by offering her what he knew she would never feel comfortable asking him for herself.

But worrying about that now wouldn't get him anywhere. Whatever will be, will be, he reminded himself again. He might not know how this would play out yet, but he had to have faith in Sheena, as Igaguri did, to make the right decision for her, and he had to trust fate to make sure that what was meant to happen did. He may not have faith in much, but he did in that - because he'd have to be blind not to recognize how far it had gotten him. A year ago he'd never dreamed he would be free of the cursed title of Chosen, with his sister free and safe, nor that he'd be about to ask the love of his life to marry him, and yet here he was, on the threshold of a challenging but bright future, despite all the wrong turns he'd taken. He deserve any of it, but oh, did he want it. And he would do everything in his power to make it happen.

Casting another yearning look at Sheena's candlelit home on the other side of the street, Zelos had to suppress the urge to disregard Igaguri's request and just approach her with all of this now anyway. Oh, how he wanted to see her, to touch her and kiss her and get the future started. On the other hand, though, he was also scared stiff of actually doing that - and of making sure he didn't accidentally mess it up and drive her away from him for good. Okay, so maybe waiting until tomorrow was for the best after all; he needed time to figure out how to approach her with this. He couldn't always think clearly when he was with her, and this was too important not to have it properly planned. Igaguri was probably right; he should get some sleep and then talk to her with a clear head in the morning.

He continued watching her home a moment, overwhelming longing burning within him, but then he released a low sigh and forced himself to turn and slip back through the village. After days of only sporadic sleep while his brain mulled over everything, he seriously doubted he'd get any tonight, either, but he would try anyway, because Martel knew he was starting to reach the limits of his angel-enhanced ability to stay awake and he really wanted to be on top of his game when he did this.

After all, Sheena deserved the very best he could give her, and then so much more.

0~*~0

It was sheer chance that Sheena found herself walking by her window to grab a bookmark from her bedroom when she caught sight of it from the corner of her eye: a man with long, red hair standing in front of her grandfather's home. Instantly, her heart caught in her throat and she hurried to the window, careful to remain hidden so he wouldn't spot her, her eyes narrowing as she watched him, confused. While shadows obscured the man's face, she would still recognize Zelos anywhere. For a moment he just stood there, looking at her home with an expression she thought looked almost wistful, but then, without warning, he turned and began walking away. But why was he here, especially at such a late hour? She hadn't even known he was coming here today - she hadn't seen him in days, in fact - and yet now he was just leaving? Without even saying 'hi' to her? She blinked a few times, waiting for him to come back, but her puzzlement soon turned into disappointment and then into hurt when he kept going, soon vanishing into the darkness.

Sheena continued staring at the street a long moment, but finally she turned, dazedly walked over to her couch, and sat down. Zelos was gone. He'd left Mizuho without stopping by to see her. It shouldn't surprise her given the fact that he'd been avoiding her for days now, but it still hurt, badly. He had warned her he'd be scarce for awhile - an excuse she'd silently questioned because it involved spending several days with his sister rather than the single day he'd originally said he'd be with her - but she'd chosen to give him the benefit of the doubt, not wanting to start a fight with him. Plans could change, after all. And really, she'd realized, having time away from him was a good thing since it let her think about what to do about their relationship. Heck, she'd been grateful for the time alone because it seemed like even when he was with her lately, he was always distracted, barely paying attention to her and acting like his mind was a thousand miles away. That was bad enough, and the hurt and confusion resulting from it chiseled away at her heart. But this? This was far worse. It made no sense why he was here tonight, why he'd been talking with her grandfather, and why he'd left without talking to her. Unless he'd been delivering a message from the king? But if that was true, then why hadn't he given it to her? She was the king's emissary, after all, not Grandpa.

Unless...unless he just hadn't want to see her. While that thought hurt and saddened her terribly, it made sense, given how he'd been acting toward her lately. It was becoming painfully obvious that he was pulling away from her. He'd spent nearly every day here for over a week, being his usual, cheerful self, unwittingly making her forget about the future she didn't want to face. But then, that one morning, everything had changed. One minute he'd been acting normally with her; the next he'd been distant and brooding. Since then, he'd stopped coming here to see her altogether. He was shutting her out.

And, worst of all, he'd started lying to avoid her. She'd had to deliver a message to the king two days ago, and naturally she'd dropped by his mansion to see him, but he'd been out, and her conversation with Sebastian had been enlightening...and heartbreaking. He had, after all, unintentionally confirmed that no, Zelos wasn't entertaining his sister this week, that she'd returned to Sybak days ago, and that they'd always known when she was going to be there, which didn't match what Zelos had said. And so where was he that day? Out chatting with people in town, Sebastian had said - and Sheena could only think of one way to interpret that: Zelos had reverted to flirting with his hunnies. Now that he'd apparently realized 'they' had no future together, he had no reason to keep from doing that anymore. Unsurprisingly, Sebastian had been extremely flustered when Sheena had repeated the lies Zelos had told her several days before that, and he'd quickly backpedaled by saying he must have gotten Seles's plans confused, at one point even theorizing he must be coming down with the flu. He'd then excused himself, saying he needed to rest before his master returned, but it had been too suspicious - and his initial look of surprise when Sheena had pointed out the discrepancies between his story and Zelos's had been far too guilty for her not to realize he was covering for him. She'd then quickly left Meltokio, afraid if she stayed any longer she would run into Zelos and do something she'd regret.

And still, surprising even herself, she found she wasn't mad at him about it - not the lies, the evasions, the drastic change in attitude...not even his reversion to flirting with his hunnies. She was just hurt - hurt that he'd chosen not to tell her he'd realized he saw no future for them and had instead chosen this tactic to end things with her. She had always known the day would come when he'd realize the truth, just as she knew he probably felt immensely guilty about it and didn't want to hurt her by telling her that directly, hence why he was avoiding her, and she knew letting him go really was the right response to this, but those realizations didn't make her feel any better. She didn't doubt he loved her, and she knew he would do nearly anything for her, but he just couldn't do this. She knew it would be unfair of her to expect him to, and she didn't, but thanks to those stupid 'signs' from fate, her hope had refused to let go of the idea completely and had instead chosen to believe something would change to make a future for 'them' feasible before it was too late. Now, though, she could see that wouldn't happen, and she could no longer deny it.

And then when the knock sounded on her door and she answered it, praying Zelos had returned only to find her grandfather standing there instead, and especially after he'd told her the rest of the changes that would soon be coming her way, it all clicked. Her grandfather, in deciding it was time to name her chief, must have summoned Zelos and questioned his vision for his future here. He may have even mentioned it that morning Zelos's evasiveness began - it couldn't have been a long conversation since she'd barely been gone while taking her bath, but that was when this shift in him had started. He'd probably given Zelos an ultimatum, saying if he had no intention of marrying her, he had to leave her alone - or maybe he'd just told Zelos to leave her alone, period. And obviously, Zelos had agreed, since he had left her alone, to the point of not even stopping by tonight to see her. Or maybe Grandpa had told him to think about it, and tonight he'd returned and given him his answer. As far as she was concerned, Zelos's response had been devastatingly clear: he didn't want this. After all, he never would have left tonight without seeing her if he did. And that wistful expression she'd seen on his face before he'd turned away told her he, too, was searching for an easy, painless way to break up with her, hence why he'd left - because he had yet to find it.

None of that stopped her from loving him, but she couldn't change the reality, either. In fact, she was actually surprised he hadn't asked her to run away with him, to try to escape the tortured future that awaited them, as Raine had theorized he would. He hadn't, though, probably because he knew she never would. She would have wanted to go with him, and she was tempted again even now to chase after him and beg him to take her away from here, but she couldn't, knowing how much she would be leaving behind. She would never forgive herself if she did that, nor would she ever be completely happy in that situation, not even if it meant being with him, and she had no doubt Zelos knew that.

She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting back her tears - and her curses - at the utter cruelty of fate. She'd let herself be deluded by the pretty lies for so long that she'd ignored reality and had put off doing what she'd known from the start she would one day have to do. Heck, this very situation was exactly why she hadn't originally planned to pursue a relationship with him, why she'd only revealed her feelings for him accidentally: because she had known, even back then, that regardless of how much she loved him, she would one day become chief here, which was something 'they' couldn't survive. And now, finally, she couldn't fool herself with 'maybe' any longer.

She knew what she had to do: get off her butt, stop being so naïve and indecisive, and just do it. Rip it off like a bandage. Continuing to procrastinate was just making it worse. She had to end their relationship firmly but cleanly, as a preemptive strike to try to salvage a piece of her heart. It would never work and she knew it, but it was the best thing to do for him. It was best for her, too, actually, since then she wouldn't have to hear him say the devastating words that he loved her but couldn't stay with her, which would result in her breaking down in a pitiful wreck in front of him, and then he'd feel awful and guilty and would make the offer anyway, and she couldn't have that, either. No, the last thing she wanted was for Zelos to agree to it for her sake, thus sacrificing his hopes and dreams and aspirations for himself. In fact, once he realized what she was sparing him from by doing this, he'd probably be relieved. She was, after all, setting him free to live the life he really wanted.

As convinced as she was now that she had to do this, though, she also had to do it right. But how? How did one break up with someone they still loved more than life itself? Should she pick a fight with him? Maybe, but she didn't have anything believable to yell at him about, not even his lies or his reversion to flirting this past week since she didn't have proof of them. Besides, knowing Zelos, he'd feel horrible about it and would apologize profusely, and then her resolve would falter, she'd forgive him, and they'd be back at square one. Should she tell him she was in love with another man? No, that wouldn't work either because he would never believe she suddenly wanted to marry someone else, like Orochi. Should she tell him the truth? No, she couldn't do that, either, since she knew him too well: if he wasn't ready to break up with her yet or if he was considering staying here, then he would talk her out of dumping him. He always had been persuasive. So what about pissing him off and making him see that he really didn't want to be with her, thus making it his choice to leave? That might work, but it was so hard to get Zelos upset because of how level-headed he was that she wasn't sure she could manage it, not without having a year to plan it.

She couldn't see an easy solution to this...not that that should surprise her since tearing apart a beautiful, treasured relationship shouldn't be easy. And, worse, she would probably only have one shot at this, and if it didn't work, if Zelos wasn't convinced, then she would never be able to find the strength to try again, nor would he believe her even if she did. Whatever she decided, though, one thing she now knew for certain was that the next time she saw him would be the last. She would make sure of that. She wouldn't cave while doing this; she wouldn't procrastinate doing it any longer. She would not. No, she would figure out the arguments he would likely make and counter them; she wouldn't let him sway her with pouting and pleading; she would summon every ounce of her ninja training and refuse to let her emotions show. Maybe, if she was lucky, he really had concluded that a future for 'them' was impossible and would beat her to the point, which would make this infinitely easier to do, if it was a mutual decision that resulted in an amicable parting. But then, nothing was ever easy when it came to Zelos, so why should this be any different?

Oh, how she hated this, like nothing she had ever hated before. Life as she knew it was falling apart. The end was upon her. There had never been real hope. His precious philosophy, 'Whatever will be, will be,' which she had adhered to religiously this past year, had failed her. It had failed them. And with it, so had fate.

Tear-filled eyes drifted down to the beautiful iris pendant on her right wrist. She'd been such a fool, letting it sucker her in so thoroughly. All believing in fate had done was drag out the inevitable by convincing her to pursue their relationship too long. It had betrayed her and played the cruelest of jokes on her. Maybe it was karma, as a way for the villagers she'd killed to punish her by killing her heart. She should have known better than to place her faith in a coincidental symbol like this...but she hadn't, and now it was too late.

Unable to bear the mocking sight any longer, Sheena finally did what she had sworn she would never do: she unclasped the bracelet and, with trembling hands, carried it to her bedroom. Opening the middle drawer of her dresser, she pulled out her jewelry box and lifted the cover. Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she placed the bracelet in the box for the final time, but she didn't care. Let them fall, she told herself, closing the lid and placing it back in her drawer before sitting down on her futon. They're the first of what will undoubtedly be many, and the more you get out of your system now, the more likely you'll be to get through this nightmare without completely falling apart.

This would hurt them both no matter what she did, after all. It would devastate them both. It would smash both of their hearts into millions of tiny, unsalvageable pieces. But it was for the best - it was the 'right decision' Grandpa had assured her tonight that he knew she would make - and so now all she could do was try to minimize the pain. She doubted anything would work, but she would try. And in the end, she would succeed. She would.

For both of their sakes.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 3: The End

It was ridiculously early when Zelos found himself returning to Mizuho the next morning - not 'dawn still hasn't broken' early, but 'sun just came up an hour ago and I'm crazy for not still being in bed' early. He had waited as long as he could before leaving Meltokio, but he'd been awake all night, thinking and planning and forcing himself not to worry about what Sheena was thinking and planning regarding what Igaguri had told her last night, and he'd finally reached his limit. Igaguri had said to return in the morning; it was morning. The exact time didn't matter, and the longer he waited, the more his courage would seep away. And so here he was, entering the village and heading toward her home, his stomach churning with mixed nervousness, fear, excitement, hope, and eagerness to get this necessary evil of a step out of the way so he could move on to the next, hopefully far more pleasant, one.

Everything would change today, for better or worse. Today, after all, would either be the beginning of the rest of their lives or the end of everything good Zelos had going for him. Needless to say, he was praying to every god he'd ever heard of that it would be the former, not the latter. His future was now in Sheena's hands and in the hands of fate. Whatever will be, will be - but he'd be damned if he didn't do everything in his power to get the result he wanted.

He was nearing her house when he spotted Orochi and Igaguri speaking in the street, and a few steps later, both turned their attention to him. Igaguri smiled and bowed his head knowingly - good, so he really did talk to Sheena and now I'm free to do the same, Zelos inferred - even while he could see Orochi sigh, nod resignedly, and motion toward a patch of forest to the north where Zelos had occasionally found Sheena before. Giving them both a smile and nod, he headed in the indicated direction.

Several minutes later he found her exactly where he expected: sitting on a log facing the river, her back to him and her head lowered, clearly thinking, most likely about everything Igaguri had told her last night. No surprise there; being handed so many responsibilities was a lot for someone as young as her to consider. What did surprise him, though, was how close he managed to get to her without her acknowledging that she'd heard him, even though he hadn't been trying to sneak up on her. But eh, she was probably just lost in thought. Of course, he couldn't dismiss the possibility that she'd come to some sort of epiphany last night regarding 'them' and didn't want to acknowledge him - a doubt he quickly silenced. But then, he also couldn't forget that she'd been acting strangely for a week now, meaning something had been bothering her even before this, so maybe it was just a combination of everything. He quickly shrugged that off, though, telling himself that whatever it was, he'd deal with it eventually, once she'd told him what was wrong.

Just get this done with, Wilder, Zelos told himself. Talk to her. Don't jump to conclusions. You've done that before and it's nearly wrecked everything; this is not something you can afford to mess up. And for the love of Martel, don't overthink this. Just do it.

Breathing in deeply to calm his racing heart, he checked his pocket for the umpteenth time - yes, you have the ring, so quit worrying! - and then cleared his throat to alert her to his presence. When she still didn't respond, though, he opted for the direct approach. "Hey, sweetheart. I was wondering where you were."

He walked forward until he was standing beside her, but all it took was one look at her to see that something was wrong. And not just wrong; something was really wrong - as in, beyond simple nervousness about becoming chief. She didn't answer him, didn't even look at him, but at least her rigidness was finally broken as she blinked slowly, as if awaking from a deep daze. And...uh oh. Where was her bracelet? She wasn't wearing her gloves today so it should be visible...only it wasn't. That was not a good sign.

Okay, relax, Zelos instructed himself. Maybe the band broke. Or maybe she was so distracted this morning that she forgot to grab it. But that didn't erase the fact that something was very, very wrong here, and despite his determination to relax, his fear and nervousness were still rising. His next step was obvious: he couldn't ask Sheena anything until he knew what she was thinking. For a week he'd been avoiding directly addressing what was bothering her, hoping it would pass, but it clearly hadn't, and so it was time to confront it. Now that he had Igaguri's blessing, he had no further reason not to.

Brows furrowed, Zelos sat down on the log beside her. "Hey, love, you okay? What's wrong?" But still she didn't answer or look at him; she just continued staring at her knees. He sighed, quickly growing sick of this guessing game. "Okay, that's enough of this. Something's been bothering you for days now, and you promised you'd eventually tell me what's going on. Since it's obviously still bothering you, I think it's time you talked to me about it. C'mon, sweetheart. Let me try to help fix whatever's wrong." That time, when she still didn't answer him, he gently touched her hand...and was stunned when she abruptly pulled hers away as if his touch had burned her. Whoa...what was that about? Whatever it was, it was not good. He blinked at her a few times. "Sheena? Seriously, what's going on here?"

She breathed in deeply, then slowly released it. "This isn't going to work, Zelos."

And again, Zelos could only blink at her. His quickly resurfacing doubts were pretty sure they already knew what she meant, but he refused to listen to them. "What isn't?"

"Us. Our relationship."

Okay, that he couldn't refuse to listen to. His lips parted slightly, his stomach turning. "It...won't?" Sheena shook her head, and for a moment, he just gaped at her. Suddenly, though, he let out a nervous laugh and, ignoring the doubts that had begun screaming 'See, see, see, see, see!' in his head, pointed at her. "Wait, I get it. This is a joke, right? You almost fooled me there. Crafty."

"It's not a joke."

Instantly, he sobered and swallowed hard, his throat tightening and his heart pounding harder. Not a joke. He could feel the first inklings of panic beginning as his mind struggled to make sense of this, but he couldn't let it prevail yet. Whatever this was, he could fix it. He just needed to know more about her reasoning. "Sheena, really, what's going on here? This can't be what it sounds like."

"It is what it sounds like." Still she didn't move or look at him, her voice alarmingly flat. "I'm doing something I should've done a long time ago. I'm putting an end to 'us.' I'm sorry."

Zelos blinked at her again. She'd been considering breaking up with him for a 'long time' now? Was that what had been bothering her this past week? He...he never would have thought that. In fact, he hadn't seen any indication this was even a passing thought in her mind. After all, what had happened to last week's incredibly direct, sincere, 'Can I keep you?'

He cleared his throat, needing more answers. "Um, can I ask why?"

But she'd apparently gone back to not answering him again, and finally unable to take the suspense, he leaned closer, needing to see her face. There was no way he would believe this was real until he'd seen her eyes, because Sheena had always been a horrible liar; her eyes always betrayed her. Still, though, she refused to give him what needed to see.

Zelos swallowed again, forcing himself to stay calm yet refusing to back off until she'd answered him. "Sheena, I think if you're breaking up with me this suddenly that I at least deserve an explanation, don't you?"

Sheena blinked again, her gaze still not lifting from her knees, but thankfully, after a long pause, she did answer. "Grandpa says it's time for me to become chief."

Okay...? He knew that much already - and it didn't answer his question. "Yeah, and...?"

"So I need to find a husband before that can happen."

Okay...? That still didn't answer his question...although his doubts were insisting this was making all the sense in the world. "Yeah, and...?"

"I'm sorry, Zelos."

And there, finally, was her answer: 'I need to find a husband who isn't you.' His gut twisted painfully, and another nervous, incredulous laugh burst out of him before he could bite it back. "Can't we, y'know, talk about this before we decide it's over?"

"There's nothing to talk about."

...Nothing to talk about? Zelos gaped at her, for the first time in over a year feeling himself losing his cool with her. "Yes, there damn well is!"

And finally, finally, Sheena lifted her head and looked at him - and it was then that he saw it. While her brown eyes were still sunken and distant, there was something else there, too, that terrified him: resolve. She was dead serious about this. "No, there isn't. It's over."

For a moment, Zelos just held her gaze, desperately searching for the joke in her words, anything that would tell him this wasn't real...but all he found was more of that damned resolve. "So...you're saying I'm not even an option, and you've never once during the past year thought otherwise?"

Without warning, Sheena turned away from him and stared ahead of her at the river, her face once again blank. "I'm sorry."

Zelos gaped at her, feeling completely...numb...at that confirmation. She had never considered him to be an option for her future husband. All this time he'd thought it had at least crossed her mind - and, more than that, that she'd been okay with it - because if it hadn't, then why had she stayed with him so long? A corner of his mind was viciously protesting that, refusing to believe she hadn't considered it - hadn't her 'Can I keep you?' said just that? - but he couldn't deny her words now. He sat silently a moment, frozen, frantically searching for the words to change her mind, but they weren't coming to him through the cloud of shock that was overshadowing his ability to think. He opened his mouth, suddenly tempted, out of desperation, to pop the question anyway, show her the ring, and beg her to change her mind, but she had already made her answer clear - 'No' - and he bit his tongue. After all, hearing her reject him even more directly than she just had would probably kill him, and he was too much of a survivor to put himself through that.

It wasn't supposed to play out like this. This had to be a nightmare, right? Maybe he'd fallen asleep last night after all, and now his fear of being rejected for good had caused him to experience the worst nightmare imaginable. Unfortunately, though, a quick, discreet pinch of his thigh dismissed that possibility. This wasn't a nightmare; this was real. Sheena was really breaking up with him, mere minutes before he'd been about to ask her to marry him. And now he was at a complete loss about what to do next. After all, not a single one of his plans had considered this possibility: being rejected before he could even ask her.

His heart couldn't sink any lower. He was starting to feel lightheaded. He couldn't comprehend it, how something he'd once believed was so real could now be revealed to be a lie. How could he have gotten it so wrong? How had he misinterpreted the entire year they'd spent together? He was pathetic, he'd always known that, but had he really missed this?

Or maybe Sheena was a better liar than he'd given her credit for. She had to be, because she'd certainly fooled him. 'It takes one to know one,' the saying went, and he knew he'd always been a masterful liar himself, but even he had missed this. And while he was sure wishful thinking had played a role in it, it didn't explain everything. He'd always been so keen to fakeness and lies, and Sheena had always been so honest and true that this...it didn't make sense. Something here just didn't make sense. He felt like he was missing something huge that was dangling right in front of his eyes, but he had no idea what it was and he couldn't deny the possibility that that feeling was merely a last-ditch grasp at straws by his aching, dying heart to save itself. And so he pushed that voice aside to focus instead on the current unexpected, devastating situation.

Several minutes later he was still sitting there, searching for a way to fix this, but he had too many questions yet to determine his next move. And while he recognized that his main question was the worst one he could possibly ask, he needed to. He had to know this. "So which is it? Is it that you don't think I'm good enough for Mizuho, that you don't love me, or..." he swallowed, barely able to say the words, "...or that you don't trust me?"

Sheena's eyes slid shut and her head sank downward, but a moment later she looked back up at the river, her face once again apathetic. "I'm sorry, Zelos."

The words were far worse than a blow to the gut. Zelos felt like she'd just pushed him off a cliff, only instead of dying swiftly upon hitting the bottom, he'd survived the fall but with his entire body bruised and broken beyond anyone's ability to heal. She didn't want him in Mizuho. She didn't love him. And, worst of all, she didn't trust him. After everything they'd been through, everything she'd said to him, every kiss and touch and hug and smile and laugh they'd shared, now, to find this out, that she didn't really love him or trust him, that everything he'd been certain was real about them wasn't, that it had all been a lie and he'd fallen for it, or if not completely a lie, then everything had changed right before his eyes and he'd never noticed it, never even suspected it...

"I...I had no idea you felt that way. Sheena..."

"Please go."

'Please go.' 'End of discussion.' She had rejected him. He knew now what he needed to know, and she had nothing further to say to him. He swallowed hard, struggling to breathe, desperate not to fall apart. He wanted to touch her, he wanted to kiss her, he wanted to hold her so, so badly, but he couldn't, because she didn't want the same. His voice choked as he whispered one last feeble, pathetic, "Sheena..."

"Please. Go." That flat, monotone, dead tone again. "I don't want to see you again."

...She didn't want to see him again. Of course she didn't; she didn't love him or trust him, so why waste any more time on him? She needed to find a real husband, not a selfish, pathetic, childish, irresponsible, arrogant, idiotic, perverted fool like him. This definitive rejection was what she should have done to him a year ago, and she was finally doing it. He had always known he deserved to be kicked to the curb at any moment, but he'd been so lulled into complacency by what he'd thought was a beautiful relationship that he'd convinced himself it wouldn't happen. But now...now, when he'd least expected it, it had. And he deserved to feel this awful, this trampled, this dejected. He did. What he'd done to her, hurting her like he had, required appropriate punishment. It had been delayed, and it was probably worse now than it would have been if she'd dealt him his sentence from the start, but he still deserved it. After all, what had he really expected? That he would ever make for a suitable husband for someone as amazing as her? Igaguri may have given him his blessing and professed to have faith in him, but Igaguri didn't know the real him. Sheena, on the other hand, did. And now, finally, she'd passed her judgment.

He really was a fool.

"If...if that's what you want, Sheena." She didn't answer, though...and that, in and of itself, was her answer. Zelos closed his eyes, focusing on breathing for fear he'd hyperventilate otherwise, then opened them again, his voice falling to a mere whisper. "I guess if I haven't been able to win your trust by now, then nothing I say or do will change that, will it?"

And again she didn't answer him, and after another minute, he released a shaky breath, his body trembling. Slowly, carefully, he rose to his feet, but still Sheena didn't look at him; she just kept staring blindly at the river. He continued watching her, waiting, hoping, praying that she would change her mind...but if that was truly how she felt, then he already knew she wouldn't - and as expected, nothing in her stiff demeanor changed to indicate she was wavering. Reaching deep within himself, Zelos tried to summon the humor he'd always relied on to serve as a defense mechanism, as a way to diffuse this gravity with some levity and make it look like he was unaffected by all of this, but he couldn't find it. That well had now run dry.

'They' were over. The best thing that ever happened to him had been an illusion all this time, and now it had been revealed for the ugly lie that it was. And here he'd thought...he'd been so sure...

Squeezing his eyes shut, he turned his head away. He felt lower than dirt. But obviously his presence here upset her, and so he had no choice but to do as she'd asked and hope his legs still worked so he could leave without making even more of a fool of himself than he already had. "Goodbye, Sheena," he whispered, opening his eyes again. "I'm sorry I wasted so much of your time. I hope when you find whatever it is you're looking for, you'll be happy."

She still didn't move or answer him, and with a low, shuddering sigh, Zelos finally turned and began slowly walking away, only stopping when his angel senses detected her whisper, "Goodbye, Zelos," words of finality that crashed down on the remnants of his heart like a sledgehammer. In all the time they'd been dating, Sheena had never once said 'Goodbye' to him. It was always 'See you later,' not 'Goodbye.' And it was then that the words floated up from the recesses of his mind to a better place and time when she'd assured him, 'I would never leave without saying goodbye first.' Now, finally, she'd said the words.

This was truly happening. It was real.

She had just told him goodbye.

Zelos wandered away from her, his footsteps slow and aimless, lost in every way he hadn't felt in over a year now, unsure what to do next. He couldn't go back through Mizuho - he wasn't welcome there anymore - and so instead he veered toward the east. He was trying extremely hard not to think in hopes of staving off the pain awhile longer, but the pessimistic, self-berating voice in his head was too loud to ignore.

You fool, it told him. You fool. What were you thinking? That fate would ever be that kind to a pathetic excuse for a man like you? That it would hand you everything you've ever wanted: a home, a family, purpose, acceptance, love? What rock have you been living under? Of course she doesn't love or trust you. Who could? You're an idiot, a womanizer, a traitor. Nothing you did during the past year makes up for all the mistakes you made. How could you have thought otherwise? Go back to the miserable, meaningless life in Meltokio that you deserve. Go shack up with some shallow, ditzy hunny for a few days, then discard her and move on to the next. Be a deadbeat dad to all the illegitimate kids you'll have while whoring out your body to every woman who wants her five minutes of fame. Be a lazy, unwanted bum. Squander your wealth on booze and gambling, everything that proves how pathetic you are, and get yourself fired as the Foreign Minister. You know you will. You aren't the Chosen anymore; you aren't loved or accepted; you aren't welcome anywhere. Who would ever 'love' you but an endless stream of phony tramps? You put all your eggs in one basket working toward this goal of being accepted by Sheena and Mizuho, then what did you do? You dropped the basket off a cliff. Where was your contingency plan? You always prided yourself on strategic thinking, on your ability to manipulate the pieces to your own benefit, but look at yourself now, cowering in fear of what'll happen to you, of the man you'll revert into without her. Karma's a bitch, and eventually you get what you deserve. Just try not to go psycho and kill anyone while you're self-destructing, okay? Oh, but if you want to kill yourself, go right ahead. After all, what else do you have left that's worth doing?

Zelos slumped against the nearest tree, desperately trying to silence that voice before it led him to do something rash and irreversible. He cast a glance back at Sheena, praying for a miracle, that she would come running to him and kiss him and prove this wasn't real, but she had yet to move, and he quickly looked away again, guilt and pain squeezing his heart like a vice, so tight that he couldn't breathe, tears he refused to let fall pricking his eyes. There was a single redeeming factor in this, one thing that might keep him going with an iota of dignity left intact, and that was that he hadn't actually asked her to marry him and found out the truth that way, because that...the only thing worse than being rejected like this would've been being rejected like that, if she'd shot him down knowing his plans. It would have been humiliating. While he seriously doubted he could recover after his entire perception of reality had crashed down on him like this, that...that he knew would have resulted in one thing: admitting defeat and falling on his sword to end the pain.

Go back, a second voice suddenly whispered to him from the dark recesses of his mind. You're still missing something here, a giant piece of the truth. This is all wrong, and not just because it isn't how you'd planned it to go. Right now, the worst thing you could possibly do is walk away-

The voice went silent, and Zelos closed his eyes, desperately trying to find it again, but it was gone. And, worse, the louder, self-berating voice quickly reemerged, stamping it out completely. Don't do it, it said. Listening to the voice of hope now would be foolish. All it is is your pathetic wishful thinking, foolishly daring to hope you misinterpreted something. But you didn't; the truth is as plain as day. Sheena never wants to see you again; her words were clear. Going back and pleading with her would mean sacrificing that remaining iota of dignity you have left - and it would mean torturing her with your presence again. And if he knew one thing, it was that even now after she had turned him away, he still loved her far too much to hurt her again. If she wanted him gone, he would go. As he'd told her once, he would do anything to make her happy, even if it meant this, walking away from her forevermore.

Even if he left her alone, though, the sad truth was that he was leaving his heart with her. She might not want it, she might not even realize she still had it, but he couldn't change that, couldn't even ask for it back, and so he wouldn't. With her was where it would stay for the rest of his empty, doomed-to-misery life. That was how it was. He had no choice but to accept that and move on without it. He thought he might be able to...he hoped he might be able to. One day...maybe. Or, then again, maybe not.

Zelos rubbed his face, wiping the moisture from it, then opened his eyes again, summoning his resolve. It was time. Taking one last deep breath, he pushed himself away from the tree. And then he did what she wanted for the very last time and walked away.

0~*~0

Somehow or other - she wasn't sure how, but she really was grateful for it - Sheena managed to wait to succumb to the emotion until her ninja senses told her Zelos was truly gone. At one point she'd heard him stop, and she'd been terrified he would turn around and come back because she hadn't been sure how much longer she could hold out before crashing completely, but he hadn't, and then he'd continued walking away. But once she was sure he was out of hearing range, she closed her eyes and let the tears finally fall, only to find them quickly building into uncontrollable sobbing that left her gasping for air and drowning in emotion.

And she let the torrent flow. She didn't even try to fight it because she knew it would be hopeless and she would only end up beating herself up even more for her weakness and her inability to control her emotions, especially over finally doing something she'd known from the start she would one day have to do. She'd been such a fool to let herself hope this day would never arrive, that their love could move mountains, that she could be with him forever, that fate would hand them a bright, promising future. Now, though, she knew better. Now, she would never make that mistake again.

Once, she had sworn that when this moment finally came, she would face it with resolve, she wouldn't second-guess her decision, and she would make sure it was a clean break, but now, after the fact, she knew the truth: she had failed. That had gone far worse than she'd ever imagined. She had desperately hoped it would be a mutual decision to end their relationship, or at least that Zelos would walk away furious at her and never wanting to speak to her again. But she hadn't expected him to show up this early - she hadn't expected him to show up today at all after how she'd seen him leave last night - and even after a sleepless night of thinking, she still hadn't found a good way to do this. The end result was what she'd wanted - he'd left for good and wouldn't be back - but how it had happened...she'd never wanted this, for him to walk away hurting and dejected, apologizing for 'wasting her time' yet still wishing her the best. And that, letting him walk away believing she didn't love him, trust him, or have faith in him, she would regret to her dying day. That, she would never forgive herself for. Because she hadn't been ready to have that conversation with him now, though, and because she hadn't known how to end 'them,' and because she'd been determined to make this meeting their last and she'd felt her willpower caving and her panic growing when he'd tried to pry the truth from her, when he'd asked her that question, she'd latched onto it, knowing it would do the trick. And it had. She'd made sure of that. He wouldn't be back.

She'd known what she'd had to do and she'd done it. Pitifully, despicably, but she had. It was too late now to change how it had happened. What was done was done. And oh, had it hurt, far worse than she'd expected. As a result, she had no doubt she would bear the scar from this devastating wound to her soul for the rest of her life.

The tears kept coming for what felt like hours. At times they would start to slow, but then she would remember something else, like his gentle touch, his tender kiss, or the way his eyes lit up whenever he saw her, and then she would remember the tremor of fear in his voice as he'd asked her why just now, or when he'd whispered her name, begging her to give him, give them, another chance, and the tears would start up again, worse than before - and still she let them fall. But in time, as all tears did, finally no more remained to be shed. She was dehydrated. Her head ached. And finally, exhausted in every way - mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually - she slid off the log to the forest floor and fell asleep there, on a bed of soft grass, leaves, and pine needles, curled into a tight ball, as if that alone could shield her heart from further pain.

When Sheena finally awoke in what the sun indicated was early afternoon and she pushed herself up from the ground, she found she didn't hurt anymore. She just felt empty and numb...and, for the first time in over a year, completely alone. But she was resigned to her fate, and now it was time to move on with life. The future, whether she wanted it to or not, began at that moment. The past year would soon become nothing but a faded, blurry dream of a time when she'd been young and foolish and had believed, against the facts, against all odds, that she could hold onto it forever. Perhaps one day, when the guilt and regret had dulled to a manageable knot in her chest, she would look back on that year with wistful fondness. But for now she had a life to live and responsibilities to accept, and dwelling on it would only hinder her ability to fulfill her duty to her village. And she simply couldn't have that. The sacrifice she had just made would be wasted unless she stood up and did what she had to do. And for Zelos's sake, she would.

Using the log to help her stand, Sheena absently brushed herself off, her body weak and shaky, only half aware of the forest around her. Once she was sure she was steady on her feet, she dragged herself back to Mizuho, her footsteps slow and her legs sluggish. She was hoping to make a beeline straight to her home without anyone seeing her, but as luck - and fate, she realized bitterly - would have it, Orochi was standing between her home and her grandfather's home, speaking with Sadako. She lowered her head, hoping to avoid detection as she circled around them, but to no avail, for only a moment later their eyes widened as they saw her. Orochi whispered something to Sadako, who quickly nodded and left. It was only then, as Orochi was rushing toward her, concern written on his face, that Sheena realized how rough she must look after falling asleep on the ground and crying for Jizou only knew how long.

"Sheena!" he said as he reached her, gently grabbing her arms and looking her over. "Are you all right? What happened? Are you hurt? Where..." His eyes narrowed and he looked around. "Where is the Chosen? He was looking for you earlier and I sent him in your direction." Without warning, his eyes snapped back to her, his gaze suddenly fiery and piercing. "Did he do this to you? Did he hurt you?"

Did Zelos hurt her? Oh, if he only knew. But the building anger and accusation in his tone made her defensiveness on Zelos's behalf flare to life. She gave him a glare that made him falter. "No. He didn't. I'm fine, Orochi."

In the blink of an eye, Orochi's anger exploded into all-out fury. "He did, didn't he? And after he swore he would never...! I always told you he would do this one day, Sheena. I always knew this would happen! I will kill him for this! How dare he-!"

Sheena wrested herself from his grasp, shoved him backward, and lifted a finger in his face. "If you so much as touch a hair on his head, Orochi, I will kill you, even if the punishment for it means my own death. Zelos didn't lay a finger on me, so either leave him alone or I'll make you leave him alone. Do you understand me?"

Orochi's face grew icy in a manner that, had she been thinking more clearly, she would have recognized as indicating he didn't mean what he was saying. "Yes, Sheena. I understand."

And just like that, the fire fled her and she felt herself deflate. Worse, though, she could feel another wave of tears building. Damn it, she couldn't think about Zelos right now. She couldn't. She had other things to worry about instead - like getting home before anyone else saw her looking like this. She tried to shove the tears away, but it didn't work. She had to retreat to the safety of her home, now, before the floodgates broke free again.

She quickly stepped around Orochi and continued heading toward her goal, only a short distance away now, but an instant later Orochi was standing in her path again, blocking her progress. "Chief Igaguri said he wishes to speak with you as soon as you returned."

Oh, crap. Grandpa. She briefly considered going to him...but then sighed, dismissing the option. Right now, dealing with Grandpa or her new duties as Mizuho's soon-to-be chief definitely wasn't her top priority. "Thanks," she muttered, then she walked around Orochi again, continuing toward her home.

But Orochi, damn him, followed her. "Chief Igaguri's home is that way, Sheena."

There was a hint of mocking in his voice as he pointed at her grandfather's house that nearly sent her over the edge, and she had to bite her tongue and dig her fingernails into her palms to prevent herself from lashing out at him again. "Yes, Orochi, I know that," she growled. "Thank you for reminding me." And again, she quickly resumed walking toward her home, her relief hollow as that time he didn't follow her. But, she reminded herself, what had just happened with him, that angry, physical outburst, couldn't happen again, because chances were...well, chances were Orochi was the man Grandpa wanted her to marry, the man he deemed to be the 'right choice' for her. And thanks to Zelos, she already knew Orochi had feelings for her, which she supposed was a good thing, and she didn't doubt he would be a wonderful husband and chief consort for Mizuho. He would, and she knew that.

Her heart, though, already knew the truth. As good of a man as Orochi was, he just wouldn't be good for her.

But she couldn't worry about that now. Sometime soon she would have to sit down with him, let him know what was going on, and start working out the details, but she just couldn't do that today, and it would be days before she could. She might be a cold-hearted, sadistic witch for doing what she just had to Zelos, but even she didn't have the heart to move on from him that quickly. She never would, but she would have to find a way to make it work eventually...somehow. Maybe. Oh, how she hoped.

Pointedly ignoring the brightly blooming iris outside her home, beaming at her, mocking her, reminding her of even more painful memories of Zelos, she quickly stepped inside and closed the door behind her. First things first: she needed water. She wasn't hungry, but she was parched, and she quickly downed her first glass of water before refilling it again and sipping from it more slowly. There, that was done. Next she had to spend the day avoiding the villagers, picking up the pieces of her life, and getting started figuring out what to do now that she had accomplished the impossible by ending things with Zelos. He didn't realize it yet, and maybe she would write him a letter one day, after Mizuho had moved and he couldn't hunt her down and force her to talk to him, that explained everything, but she really had done that for his benefit. One day he would be grateful for how she had set him free. Part of her still wondered if he would have married her if she'd asked him to stay, but thinking about that now that she couldn't change it was pointless and masochistic. Maybe he would have...but it was far more likely, especially after how she'd seen him leave last night, that he wouldn't have. It depended on which he sided with, his head or his heart, and if he'd realized the kind of life he'd be living here. Regardless, what she'd done was the right thing for him. He would find someone else; he was a wonderful, charming, good-hearted man, and someday he would meet another woman, one far more fun and interesting and better put together than her, who accepted him and loved him for the real him.

And that, knowing he would one day be happy again, happier than he could ever be with her, was all that mattered to her. As long as she knew he was happy, she could put up with anything, even being married to Orochi. As long as she never saw him again, she would never have to worry about him again. She would avoid him in Meltokio, maybe even resign her position as the king's emissary so she wouldn't have to report there again. Orochi would make a fine replacement for her, and she was sure he'd understand why she couldn't have anything to do with that place anymore. She would have to avoid their friends, too, she realized wistfully, because she didn't think she could handle answering their questions about what had happened between her and Zelos and then hearing their stories about him and about the fabulous new life he was living and the fabulous new woman he'd found who he adored and who adored him in return. Once Mizuho moved, their friends would never find her, and she'd refuse any jobs that required her to wander into his normal stomping grounds for fear of accidentally running into him again-

The knock on her door startled her so badly that she nearly dropped her glass. She quickly set it on the counter, her arm trembling, and took several deep breaths, trying to calm her racing heart, then she turned away from the door as it slowly opened and her visitor stepped inside. For a moment she was terrified it would prove to be Zelos, but she quickly relaxed as her grandfather's voice greeted her instead.

"Sheena!" A moment later she heard the door shut, then his footsteps shuffling toward her, and then there he was beside her, his eyes filled with concern. "Orochi said you had returned and were extremely upset. What...?" He touched her face, trying to turn her head toward him. "Sheena, what happened?"

Instead of looking at him, though, she turned away and picked up her glass again, clutching it to her chest like a life preserver. While it was only Grandpa, not someone she needed to worry about, she really hadn't wanted him to see her like this, knowing he would recognize she was upset and then push to figure out why. "Nothing. Nothing happened. I'm fine."

"You most certainly are not fine!" From the corner of her eye, she saw him motion at her. "Look at yourself, Sheena! You look like a tree fell on you!"

...And let the pushing begin. "I'm fine, Grandpa. Really."

She forced herself to give him a smile...and her heart plummeted further as she saw his face harden as he examined her, disbelieving - and disappointed. Yep, here it came, something she'd dreaded ever since she'd been a little girl. Being trapped in a Volt-induced coma for years hadn't changed how he treated her. "You lie," he stated, folding his arms to his chest. "Be grateful I am feeling generous today, child, or you would be punished for that. A chief cannot afford such dishonesty; I expected you would know this by now. Now, tell me the truth. What happened?" Sheena opened her mouth to reply, but she quickly closed it again, unable to say the words, her fake smile long gone. "Where is the Chosen?" Oh, crap. She set the glass on the counter again and closed her eyes. Please, Grandpa, don't bring up Zelos. Please. "Sheena, I will not leave until you answer me."

She rubbed her face as she heard his sharp intake of breath, indicating he was going to speak again, but before he could, she lowered her hand and whispered, "He's gone."

"...What?"

Taking another deep breath, Sheena turned toward him. There was no way to get out of this, so she was better off just telling him the truth. Besides, Grandpa needed to know this. He would be relieved to hear this; she knew he would. Chances were he would quickly list off a number of other potential suitors for her, too. "You heard me: I said he's gone. And he won't be back." Igaguri closed his mouth and watched her, his face neutral yet expectant, waiting for her to continue. "I finally did what I should've done a long time ago and ended our relationship. 'We' are over. I sent him away."

Instead of answering her, Igaguri just continued watching her. And Sheena waited, fully expecting - and, at this point, needing - him to say the words, 'I'm sorry, Sheena,' or maybe even an understanding, sympathetic, 'I know that was a difficult choice for you to make, but you made the right one.' What she didn't expect was his actual reaction, a harsh, whispered, "You foolish, stubborn child. What have you done?"

Instantly, her eyes widened and her fury flared. What the hell?! She took an incredulous step toward him. "What do you mean by that, Grandpa? I made the right choice! Zelos doesn't belong here; this isn't his home, and these aren't his people. I can't ask him to give up everything he's ever known and accept a life he doesn't want and will never be happy with. He deserves better than this."

For a long moment, Igaguri just continued observing her carefully, as if he was waiting for her to say more, but then suddenly he sighed, his face softened, and he closed his eyes, shaking his head as he hobbled over to her couch and sat down. "He was right," he murmured. "He knows you better than I thought, and I should have listened to him. This is my fault."

Sheena gaped at him, her brain struggling to comprehend that, but then she walked around her couch so she could see his face again. "What are you talking about, Grandpa? This was my decision. If it's time for me to become chief, then I need to find a husband. And if I can't ask Zelos to be that man, then I can't stay with him, not if I need to find someone else. I'm not going to carry on a covert affair with him just because I love him while I'm married to another man. He would never do something that awful to me, and I refuse to do that to him. I refuse!"

Igaguri's eyes were piercing as they snapped back up to hers. "So you admit that you love him."

What the...? What did that have to do with this? She threw her hands up in the air, no longer even trying to contain her confusion and frustration. "Of course I do! But love isn't the point here; finding a suitable husband to help me lead Mizuho is!"

"And you do not believe that man is him," he stated, his eyes narrowing as he watched her.

Sheena blinked at him, her lips parting. "Did you hear what I just said?"

Igaguri shook his head, his impatience visibly building. "You are not answering the question, Sheena. Do you think he would be capable of doing the job that would be required of him here?"

She couldn't believe her ears. Why was he so upset about this? She was the one who'd just broken her own heart for not only Zelos's sake, but for her entire village's! This was what Grandpa had wanted - for her to make the right choice! So why was he scolding her for it and trying to convince her it wasn't? "What does that have to do with this?"

Igaguri suddenly stood and looked down at her, and as she always had, Sheena felt herself cower a little. He had always been so much taller than her, and when he was upset and acted all authoritative and 'scolding grandfather'-ish like this, he was an intimidating man. "It has everything to do with this. Now quit evading the question and answer it!"

Reminding herself that she made the right choice, no matter what he was implying, Sheena pushed aside her childish fear and stood up to her full height. He wanted the truth? Fine, she would give him the truth. "Then yes, I do! Of course I do! Zelos is a smart, loyal, determined, good-hearted, capable man! He would do a great job with it! But I can't ask him to do that." She threw her hands up again and turned around, lost in anger and incredulousness over a situation she didn't understand and couldn't handle today, then whirled back toward him. "Jizou, Grandpa, I thought you'd be pleased with this decision! You said you knew I'd make the right choice, and that's exactly what I've done!"

His eyes narrowed sharply. "Is that was you truly believe, Sheena? That you made the right choice?"

And just like that, her anger escaped her. Her heart was telling her one thing, that she'd just made the biggest mistake of her life turning away the one man she loved with every inch of her being; her head was telling her another, that it had been the right thing to do. She hesitated, trying to recapture her certainty, and then nodded, not sure she'd found it again but having no choice but to pretend she had. "Yes."

Igaguri sighed and sat down again. "Then you really are a fool," he murmured. After a moment, he looked back up at her, but that time there was no anger in his eyes, just undeniable softness and sadness that managed to further exacerbate her confusion. "Let me guess, you never even let him ask you, did you? You just sent him away. And you must have said something extremely powerful and effective to him if he actually left, for he would not have done so otherwise."

And again, frustration over her inability to fathom this entire situation overwhelmed her. "What are you...? Ask me what?" He looked down at her irori, and Sheena knelt in front of him, blocking his view, and rested her hands on his knees, suddenly needing to know this. "Grandpa. Ask me what?"

Meeting her eyes again, he released a low sigh of defeat. "He will undoubtedly be upset with me for telling you this, but I am responsible for this mess and so I am responsible for doing what I can to fix it. Sit down, child. You need to hear this." She blinked at him, but he just patted the couch beside him, and so she did as instructed, her heart pounding, her mind floundering, and her gut telling her she would not like whatever it was he was about to say. Once she was seated, he began, eyeing her closely again. "One week ago, the Chosen approached me and asked to speak with me. He wished to know more about your future responsibilities as the chief and what requirements would be demanded of you - and of the man you chose to become your spouse. Therefore, I explained to him what would be required of the chief consort."

Sheena blinked again. Zelos had come here to talk to him last week already? She...she hadn't known that. Sure, she'd suspected they'd discussed the position at some point the past few days, based on how Zelos had been avoiding her, but she'd thought Grandpa had approached him about it, not the other way around. "Why would he do that?"

Igaguri grasped her hand and gently squeezed it. "He wanted to know, child, because he was considering asking you to marry him."

Her mind went completely blank, and it took her a moment to relocate her voice. "What? You're kidding, right?"

His dark eyes sharpened. "Unlike you, I make a point not to practice dishonesty. And believe me, I would not lie to you about this." Her face grew warm, but she couldn't stop gaping at him as he went on. "He intended to ask my blessing to marry you, but before he did that, he wanted to know what he was getting himself into so he could be sure he was making the right choice. And so I told him. We discussed it for awhile, along with his other duties in Meltokio. I then told him he had to think it over for a week before I would accept an answer regarding whether he believed himself capable of handling this life. Last night he returned and gave me his answer, and I gave him mine." He leaned toward her and, with the hand not grasping hers, squeezed her shoulder, forcing her wide-eyed, horrified gaze to hold his own. And suddenly, Sheena found herself dreading his next words more than she'd ever dreaded anything before. "Aya, he was going to ask you to marry him."

If she hadn't already been sitting, she would have just passed out. She felt faint; she couldn't breathe. His words were refusing to sink in; her mind was rejecting them, refusing to make sense of them. She tore her gaze from his. "A...a week..." No. Just no. She shook her head. "No, that can't be true. He's been avoiding me this past week! And lying to me and making excuses about why he's been avoiding me!"

Igaguri released a soft, sad laugh. "He admitted to me that he had done that. He did so because he knew you would be able to tell something was on his mind and force the truth from him, so he avoided you to prevent you from doing so before he had received my blessing."

And again, Sheena blinked at him. No. She would not believe this. "But last night, he just left without saying a word to me! I saw him leaving-" Her voice abruptly cut off as it hit her. Oh, no. Grandpa had said Zelos returned last night to give him his answer...

"Yes, he did, and he left without speaking to you as a courtesy to me, because I asked him to wait until this morning so I could speak with you first," Igaguri said.

She couldn't even look at him. There was no way he was lying about this, not right now. And Zelos was...and she had just...

Oh, great Jizou.

Her body was trembling. She felt sick, lightheaded, clammy. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned away from her grandfather, leaning forward and wrapping her arms around her stomach, trying to suppress a sudden wave of nausea. If that was true, then she had just...she had just...

She abruptly shook her head, frantically holding onto her disbelief, because if she couldn't do that, then that would make this a nightmare she simply couldn't handle. "But...but why?" She forced her eyes open. "Why would he agree to something like that?" She looked at her grandfather again, silently pleading for him to tell her the words she needed to hear: 'This isn't real.' "I don't understand it, Grandpa! He doesn't want this life - I know he doesn't! He doesn't want these responsibilities! Like I said, I can't ask him to accept that for me, not when we both know it would make him miserable!"

"Apparently you do not know him as well as he knows you," Igaguri replied with a wistful smile. "While I believe you should ask him that question, it seems to me that man loves you so much that he was willing to accept it all. He did not seem in any way distressed about his decision; in fact, I would say the opposite was true, that he was looking forward to this. And you weren't asking him to do this for you, Sheena; he was offering of his own free will - only you made his decision for him without consulting him about it first."

The knife in her gut twisted painfully, to the point where she wished it would just kill her instead of leaving her in agony any longer. This was not how this was supposed to be going! This was supposed to be a clean break, giving Zelos what he wanted without making him feel obligated to accept something he didn't want on her behalf, not...this! She buried her face in her hands and hunched over her knees. "No. No, no, no, no, no."

Igaguri placed a hand on her back. "Unfortunately for you, child, I would not make this up."

But still she refused to let go of her last feeble hope that he was making this up, because if he wasn't, then she had just...she had just... "And you...you were okay with that?" she asked, lowering her hands and looking up at him again. "You gave him your blessing?"

He nodded curtly. "Yes, I did."

Stunned, Sheena could only blink at him again. "But...but I thought..."

He sighed and gave her an empathetic look. "That, child, is the problem. You thought without asking anyone else for the truth, and as a result, you made the wrong choice. Yes, this decision is yours to make, but how do you expect to make the right one without knowing the full story and considering all the facts? The only way to do that is to ask others for their input - in this case, not only mine, but the Chosen's. The truth is that of course I approved of him; he is quite possibly the greatest thing, person or otherwise, that has happened to Mizuho in years. My goodness, Sheena, the Foreign Minister - the Chosen, ex- or not - choosing to make our village his home? Do you know how many advantages that could bring us? Protection and respect, definitely, but more than that, trust and a steadfast advocate, especially with the king, whom we have always had difficulty appeasing. Yes, he may have expressed concern about putting us in danger here because of the target he could become for radicals who detest the Church of Martel, but I cannot see that endangering us more than we already are, and any protection we provide him I am certain he will repay us tenfold with his impressive angelic abilities.

"And you, Aya...even as a child, you were always so serious, so driven to prove yourself. But when you are with him, you are happy, you relax, you smile and laugh. You love him, and he clearly adores you and treats you exceptionally well. If he did not, I would not have tolerated him here. And after speaking with him, I have no reservations about him - nor about his 'questionable past,' of which Orochi often used to remind me. He learned from the mistakes of his youth and became a fine, respectable man in the process. A grandfather could not ask for a better prospect for his granddaughter's hand in marriage." He leaned closer to her, forcing her to hold his gaze. "When I told you I believed you would make the right choice, I truly believed you would make the right choice. But this, what you have done, and especially for the reasons you have done so...this is definitely not the right choice."

Her heart tightened with excruciating pain. The situation was finally sinking in; disbelief was no longer possible. Zelos had been about to ask her to marry him, with her grandfather's full blessing. He'd known what he was doing; after thinking it over for a week, he'd decided to offer to fill that role in her life. She should have seen it sooner, when he'd asked if she had ever seen him as an 'option' for her husband because, impossible though it seemed, he had considered himself to be an option. He'd remembered what she'd once said, that she needed to be married before she became chief, and had taken it seriously. Raine had been right, too, that just because he hadn't talked to her about the future didn't mean he hadn't thought about it. And then she had just...she had just...

Oh, Jizou, she had just let him walk away believing she didn't love him, trust him, or have any faith in him, each of which had undoubtedly driven a stake through his heart. She had misinterpreted everything instead of seeking out the truth. She, the one who hated when others made her decisions for her, had just done that to the man she loved with all her heart. She'd broken his heart and, in the process, sacrificed not only their love, but any chance she had of making that idealistic future she wanted so much - him, with her, here, forever - happen, and for no reason since he'd been about to make it happen. He had heard her silent plea for him to save her from the future she dreaded and had been about to do exactly that. She'd lost faith not only in fate, which had been sending her a clear message, but in him, all because of her stubborn pride and determination to prove her independence. And his guilt as he'd apologized for 'wasting' her time, and his sorrow as he'd whispered her name, and his defeat as he'd said goodbye...

The tears were back, and with them was a knot of guilt that encompassed her body so tightly that she felt like she was suffocating. She wasn't sobbing yet, but she was in shock, and absently she could feel a hot, fat tear roll down her cheek. She had just given up the best thing that had ever happened to her. He was gone now, and he would never forgive her for this, and she would never forgive herself for this, and she would never again touch him, or kiss him, or hold him, or see that love and adoration in his eyes whenever he looked at her...

"Great Jizou, what have I done?"

Igaguri sighed at her whispered gasp and rubbed her back. "This was a lesson you clearly needed to learn, Aya, but I wish you had not had to learn it like this. And now I hope you realize what you must do."

She looked at him sharply, her vision blurry through her tears. 'What you must do?' There was nothing left for her to do; it was over. She couldn't go back in time and prevent this from happening. No, Zelos was gone, and he was never coming back.

Igaguri watched her, waiting for an answer she couldn't give him, and after a moment he frowned pointedly. "Aya, you must fix this."

Fix...this? But she'd just determined that the only way to fix it was impossible! "I...I can't."

His eyebrows rose challengingly. "You can't, or you won't?"

"Grandpa, he's gone," Sheena whispered, clutching her stomach tightly as she looked down at her knees. "There's nothing left to fix."

That time his sigh was more weary than empathetic. "Child, you have everything left to fix, and I know you can, but only if you are willing to do what is necessary to make it happen."

"Wh...what do you mean?" she asked, looking up at him again uncomprehendingly.

Igaguri leaned toward her, his face expectant. "Do you want to fix this?"

What kind of question was that? "Of course I do! Zelos doesn't deserve this! But...I can't, Grandpa. I told him I never wanted to see him again!"

"You lied to him too, then," he whispered in understanding. "And right now your pride is making you believe you are incapable of doing what is necessary to fix this." Sheena looked away as another tear rolled down her face. He was right, but she couldn't process how that knowledge helped her yet. After a moment, Igaguri placed his finger beneath her chin and tilted her head upward, forcing her to meet his gaze again. "Go, child. Find him. Tell him the truth. Fix this. If that man loves you even half as much as I believe he does, you will be able to. Remember, a relationship is not simply one person trying on their own to make it work. A healthy relationship is two people working together to make it succeed. If you try to make a relationship work on your own, you will fail, as you have now proven by your own actions. But if you let him work with you and are willing to ask for his help, you may just succeed." He smiled sadly. "If you truly do love him, then you at least owe him an apology for lying to him and hurting him like this, do you not?" She looked away again but nodded reluctantly. "And can you really tell me you'll be able to live with yourself if you don't?"

That answer, too, she already knew, but it still took her a moment to choke it out. "...No."

Igaguri nodded and touched her back again. "Then go. You know what you must do. I have faith that you can do this. And if you cannot yet take responsibility for your actions and work to make amends for them, then I suppose you are not yet ready to become chief after all."

Sheena nodded slowly. He was right about that, too. What she now had to do...she was dreading it, terribly. It would be horrible, awful, maybe even worse than the horrible, awful thing she'd just done to Zelos. But she had to do it. If she'd managed to do what she had to him that morning, then she would have to find the strength to manage this, too. Zelos deserved an apology and the truth - and then a whole lot more than she would ever be able to give him.

"You're right," she said. "I'm the one who messed this up, and I'll do what I can to fix it."

He gave her a gentle smile as she looked at him again, her tears still falling. "Good. I am relieved to hear that you recognize where you have erred with this." His eyebrows rose as his gaze trailed down her body. "Just be sure you look in a mirror before you leave, because you really do look like a tree fell on you." His eyes snapped back up to hers. "And by all means, Sheena, do not return to Mizuho until you have reached some level of resolution with him."

He continued giving her a pointed look until she nodded her promise that she would, then he rose to his feet and showed himself out the door. Once it had closed, Sheena released a shaky sigh, closed her eyes, and took several deep breaths, then she forced herself to stand. Right now she needed to finish drinking her water - more tears undoubtedly awaited her, and she didn't want to get sick from dehydration - and then she needed to clean up a bit. Once she'd gulped down her water, she headed into her bedroom, stepped up to the mirror, and gave her reflection a once over...but she couldn't bear the sight of herself for long, and really, she shouldn't be wasting her time on something as trivial as her appearance anyway, and so she quickly brushed the dirt from her clothes and retied her hair ribbon, then she pulled open the middle drawer of her dresser and grabbed the wing pack with her Rheaird. She needed to find Zelos, and that was the fastest way to do so.

She was about to shut the drawer when she saw it: her jewelry box. A sudden stab of pain pierced her heart, and her lip trembled, fresh tears rolling down her cheeks, as she gingerly pulled out the box and set it on the dresser. She closed her eyes, preparing herself, then opened it and pulled out her precious iris bracelet. She didn't deserve to wear it anymore, she didn't even deserve to have it anymore, but her heart wouldn't let her leave here without it. She needed this amulet now more than ever before. She pressed her lips to it reverently, then carefully placed it in her pocket - and then, on impulse, she grabbed the rest of the set, too, because right now she needed every bit of help and protection she could get. She never should have forsaken it - it really had been a sign from fate - but she had, and now she had to make up for it. She wasn't convinced she could, and even if Zelos were, by the grace of Jizou, to forgive her, she didn't deserve it, but she had to try. Then she put the box away, closed the drawer, hurried into the main room, slipped on her shoes, and headed out the door, soundly shutting off her mind.

She couldn't think too hard right now, after all. She needed to just do it before she couldn't, because she could not leave Zelos believing what he was currently believing even a second longer than necessary. As it was, too many hours had already passed since then, and he could have...he could have...

Oh, please, Zelos, don't do anything drastic. Please. I'm coming. Wait for me.

Please.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 4: The Beginning

Actually finding Zelos proved to be far more difficult than Sheena had imagined, even with the Rheaird cutting down her travel time. Her first stop was the obvious: his mansion. She had expected him to head straight home, but upon talking to Sebastian, she discovered he hadn't seen Zelos since that morning, and he'd thought Zelos would be with her all day. Had he not made it to Mizuho? She'd quickly assured him he had. He'd been relieved - but then he'd taken a closer look at her and all the other questions had begun. Had she been crying? Was she hurt? How could he help? He'd nearly forced her inside so he could make sure she was well, because he knew Zelos wouldn't have tolerated seeing her in such a distraught state without doing everything he could to help her, and in lieu of his master, he'd have to do it instead, but she'd resisted. Even then, though, it had still taken her too long to assure him she was fine when she really wasn't fine, but finally she'd gotten away, refusing to wait for Zelos to return because every second lost was another one he spent believing...that.

She then ran around Meltokio, searching for him in the gardens and every remote corner where he might have gone for privacy, asking people if they'd seen him - which, to her distress, no one had. Just before she'd been about to leave, another horrible but logical possibility had struck her, and she'd raced to every bar and alleyway in the city, just to make sure he hadn't buried his sorrows in alcohol and then passed out somewhere or draped himself all over some hunny (which, she had to admit, she would have deserved at that point). That time she was glad when no one had seen him. Finally she'd concluded he really hadn't gone back there and had moved on to other possibilities.

...Of which there were far too many. If he had a Rheaird with him, he could be anywhere - Altamira was a definite possibility - but she had trouble believing he would go anywhere he might run into someone he knew right now. That eliminated Iselia, too, because it wasn't his style to share his pain with their friends, and she couldn't imagine him wanting to face any of Lloyd or Colette's questions about her right now. So she checked the House of Salvation near Meltokio, she checked the beach, she even hiked to that spot where he'd taken her on their first date...which in retrospect had been a really dumb idea since he never would have gone there, to a place full of memories of them, after she'd just broken his heart. That meant he wasn't on this continent - or at least he wasn't in any spot she knew of. If he liked any other location here, he'd never told her, but she couldn't dismiss the possibility. Locations she knew that were special to him were her current priority, though.

So...Sybak, then? She couldn't imagine he would visit Seles right now, but it was between Meltokio and Mizuho, so maybe he had crashed at the inn there? Or maybe he was somewhere in the Gaoracchia Forest? Sybak was far less dangerous, though, so that was her next destination. She immediately turned her Rheaird north...and just like that, the answer hit her, so blindingly obvious that she immediately knew it was right. She almost couldn't believe she hadn't thought of it sooner...probably because she wasn't thinking straight, period. It was the only place that made sense: that 'spot' he'd once mentioned he used to go to on the Grand Tethe'alla Bridge. It was only as she was landing her Rheaird near the Meltokio end of the bridge that she realized just how vast the scope of this new search project awaiting her was going to be. Crap, the bridge was huge, and he could be anywhere on it. He had never shown her his 'spot' there; in fact, as far as she knew, he hadn't even gone back there since they'd started dating. But this was where he'd said he went when he needed to be alone and remember he always had a 'choice'...her heart wrenched in sudden fear. Oh, Zelos, no. Please, no. She didn't really think he'd jump, but after what she'd just done to him, she couldn't completely rule out the possibility, either. If she had hurt him even a fraction of what she was terrified she had...

Without another thought, Sheena took off running across the bridge, praying he was standing somewhere along the railing, but barely anyone was on the bridge, and the few people she did see weren't him. And then she was reaching the Sybak end of the bridge. Damn, he wasn't there...which meant he had to be somewhere else on it - down below, maybe, on a support beam. Rushing to the edge, she peered down but still saw no sign of him...and, worse, there were two sides to the bridge, so she had to check both. And so she did, running along the bridge, zigzagging across it, and peering downward in hopes of seeing him. The bridge was huge, though, and her gut told her the support beams extended far enough beneath the bridge that a person could easily hide there, and...well, if he really didn't want to be found, then he wouldn't be found.

Her heart twisted painfully as she once again reached the Meltokio end of the bridge, still without seeing him. Panic was creeping over her. He was here somewhere; she knew he was. There was nowhere else he would have gone. So then where was he?

...No, he wouldn't have jumped. Would he?

Or...would he?

A sob burst out of her, and she grabbed the handrail to keep from collapsing. She couldn't take much more of this. Her voice was still shaky, but she had to try. "Zelos?" she called out, then waited in hopes he'd answer her. His angel senses gave him incredible hearing, so if he was here, he would hear her. At least it was a mockingly beautiful day, not a cloud marring the bright blue sky, so no rain or wind would drown out her voice. But even with his angelic senses, he would still never hear her if he was on the opposite end of the bridge, so she had to take another trip across. She ran further down the bridge, still zigzagging and looking for him, and called out to him again...but still nothing. She kept going, kept running, kept calling...she had to keep trying. She had to find him. Giving up simply wasn't an option.

She was nearing the halfway point when the reality sank in: she really might not find him, and not just because he'd jumped. The fact of the matter was simple, and likely, and terrifying: even if Zelos did hear her, he had no reason to answer her. Heck, he had no reason to have anything to do with her ever again. And the thought of never being able to apologize to him, tell him the truth, and reassure him she hadn't meant what she'd said that morning...

"Zelos? Zelos, I know you're here somewhere. Please, answer me." She waited a minute, praying to hear him, but to no avail, and again her heart twisted as her hope continued dying. She sagged against the handrail, struggling to breathe and hold back the tears threatening to drown her, her energy nearly depleted. "Please, Zelos. Please."

...Still nothing. Sheena buried her face in her hands as hopelessness crashed over her, but she couldn't let it overwhelm her yet. Instead, she forced herself to take another deep breath, reasserting that she would not give up. Half of the bridge still remained to search, and then, if necessary, she would jump down to the lower rafters and search for him there - assuming she didn't collapse from exhaustion first. Reaffirming her decision with a nod, she resumed running along the bridge. She was just about to call out to him again when she heard it, a soft, subdued, "Down here, Sheena," from off to her left, coming from the lower rafters. For a second she froze, her heart nearly stopping in relief at having finally found him and knowing he hadn't jumped...and then it started racing even faster as the dread of actually facing him replaced all sense of relief. She closed her eyes, took another shuddering breath, wiped the moisture from her face, and then headed toward the edge and peered over. She still couldn't see him, but she knew now that he was there. Quickly scanning the bridge, she plotted her descent and began carefully climbing, thankful it proved to be easy to scale using the beams. Besides, it wasn't like she hadn't climbed to worse places as a child.

Only once she was standing on the lower beam did she dare look at him...and then she had to immediately look away as her guilt and fear flared again. He was sitting in a corner, his bare arms hugging his knees to his chest and his head leaning against a vertical metal beam, staring out at the ocean. He didn't acknowledge her, but she had no doubt he knew she was there. And the expression on his face...she choked back a sob. He looked completely empty, and lost, and...defeated. This wasn't like him, not at all. In fact, Sheena had never seen him like this before, and she would have had to be blind not to recognize the testament before her of how badly she'd hurt him, decimating a man with so much life into this devastated state. She carefully took a step closer, but then stopped again as his body tensed, her heart twisting painfully at the sight before her, especially knowing what had once been so close to happening that would now never be. And suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to run away and hide so she would never have to face him or her stupid mistakes ever again.

She had to close her eyes and literally will her legs not to succumb to that urge. She could not run from this. She was responsible for the sight before her, and now she had to fix it. And she would. She would, even if doing so killed her.

Taking another deep breath, she opened her eyes again, forcing back her tears. She couldn't cry yet, not until she'd said everything she needed to say. Unsure how else to begin, she simply asked, "Mind if I join you?"

Crap, her voice was too shaky. She had to control that better. After all, the last thing she wanted was to pitifully break down in front of him and make him feel bad for her when she no longer deserved his comfort. If he heard the tremor in her voice, though, he didn't show it, for his only response was a faint shrug of feigned indifference. But if he truly didn't want her here, he wouldn't have answered her call a minute ago; he would have just let her pass him by. He had answered her, though, and she chose to take that as his answer. She thought that was at least a safe assumption to make.

Still trembling, Sheena carefully stepped closer to him before sitting down, her stomach churning. For a long moment she just sat there, trying to determine what to do. The next move was hers, but she had no idea what to say. She'd been so focused on finding him that she hadn't taken the time to figure out what to say when she did find him...and now that she had, her brain was a blank except for the whirlwind of emotion ranging from guilt to fear to self-loathing. She felt naked and exposed, knowing he was waiting for an explanation as to why she was here, but instead of saying anything, she just mimicked his position, drawing her knees tightly to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. It was a feeble comfort, but it was all she currently had.

To her surprise, though, Zelos was the one who spoke first. "I thought you never wanted to see me again."

Sheena had to squeeze her eyes shut to hold back her tears at the sheer dullness and emptiness she heard in his voice. Her throat constricted and she hugged her legs tighter to her chest, but at least now she had something to respond to. "I...I needed to talk to you."

His soft, resigned sigh tore another piece from her heart. "You were right before, Sheena. There's nothing left for us to talk about." She bit her lip, nearly choking in her efforts to restrain her tears. Without warning, though, he shook his head. "No, that's not true. There's something I need to know." Sheena could see him turn his head toward her, but she couldn't meet his eyes or even face him as he went on, "Where did I go wrong? What did I do? What should I have done differently? I...I honestly had no idea you felt that way. Did you ever? Was any of it real? How did I interpret it all so wrong? Please, just tell me what I did."

He...oh, Jizou, he thought this was his fault. A sob burst out of her before she could stop it, and she quickly buried her face in her hands to silence any more, her body shaking with her effort to hold them in, but the tears were back again, and this time they refused to be silenced. She tried to keep her sobbing soft and her face buried to hide them from him, and then she tried to speak, to tell him everything before the emotional wave swept her away, but she couldn't. And the worst part was his strangled groan of distress that quickly followed that.

"Please, Sheena, don't," he said, his words desperate and muffled, as if he was roughly rubbing his face. "You know how much it kills me to see you upset."

The agony in his voice and his unspoken implication - how much it killed him to see her upset and not be allowed to comfort her - finally got her to lower her hands. Her heart couldn't hear any more of this. She had to stop him, to assure him it wasn't him. Swallowing hard, she forced herself to just say it. "I am so, so sorry, Zelos."

From the corner of her eye, she saw him take a deep breath and shake his head. "Don't be. You were only being honest. It's no big deal. You don't feel the same way I do. That's just how it is. I'll get over it." He paused, and Sheena peered in his direction as he let out a sad laugh, his gaze falling to his knees. "No, actually, I'm pretty sure I won't, but that's my problem, not yours, so don't worry about it."

Oh, Jizou, he was trying to put on a strong act for her, to pretend that what had happened this morning meant 'nothing' to him...and even he knew how miserably he was failing. And the confirmation that he believed what she'd said, that he thought she'd been telling him the truth... "But I wasn't!" she cried, unable to suppress another choking sob.

His brows furrowed and he turned his head toward her, albeit not looking directly at her. "You weren't...what?"

"I..." She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. C'mon, say it, she instructed herself, banishing her pride to the farthest reaches of her mind. Tell him the truth. Tell him! "I wasn't being honest with you."

Forcing her eyes open, she turned her head away, shamed, as he looked at her again. "I...I don't understand. Honest about what?"

Sheena swallowed again, struggling to compose herself. She thought she finally knew what she needed to say to get this started, and it didn't involve answering that question yet. No, Zelos needed to know that she knew first. "Grandpa told me."

For a moment he just blinked at her, clearly confused. "Told you...what?"

"That...that you were going to ask me to marry you."

A quick glance at him showed he was now outright gaping at her, horrified, but he quickly looked away again and buried his face in his hands, groaning before whispering a soft, strangled, "Shit." A moment later he lowered his hands and let his head fall back against the rafter, his eyes sliding shut. "He shouldn't have done that."

The knot of guilt in her gut tightened at hearing the embarrassment, the humiliation, in his voice. It took all her willpower to choke out her next words through her sobs. "Zelos, I am so sorry. I had no idea you were even...I thought..."

"Please, Sheena, stop. Leave me with a little bit of dignity intact. Please."

Another piece of her heart died. She gasped, struggling to breathe. He was waging a valiant battle to hide his pain, but the pure agony in his voice still rang through loud and clear, and hearing any more of it would lead her to jump off this bridge even if he didn't. She had to stop it, now. She could only imagine how horrible he was feeling, how he'd felt that morning, excited, nervous, hopeful about the future and confident about their love, only to have her reject him in the cruelest possible way. And now...now he believed she didn't love him and never had, and he now knew that she knew what he'd been planning to ask her...Jizou help her, she couldn't do this.

But she had to. He had to hear the truth. Answer his question already, Sheena. Just say it. Say it! "I didn't mean it, Zelos, that I didn't love you or trust you or have any faith in you."

Needing to know he'd heard her, Sheena finally looked at him...and again she nearly jumped off the bridge as his eyelids opened, revealing the wetness of unshed tears pooling there. In all the years she'd known him, she had never seen him cry, never seen him in that much pain - never. And knowing she was the cause of it...

She shoved that thought aside, knowing if she didn't, it would prevent her from saying everything else he needed to hear. And after a moment, Zelos finally peered at her again, his brows furrowed. "What?"

She was certain she looked like a complete wreck, but at least her sobs were currently manageable. The reprieve undoubtedly wouldn't last, but for now she needed to take advantage of it to get out as much of the truth as she could. Her voice was a mere whisper, but at least she knew he would hear the words - and, Jizou willing, he wouldn't just hear them but believe them, too. "I didn't mean what I said before, any of it. I do love you, and I do trust you, and I do think you'd be good for Mizuho."

Zelos gaped at her a moment. "You...do?" he whispered, stunned and incredulous...but Sheena could also hear faint but very real hope there, too.

She looked away from him, trying unsuccessfully to wipe the moisture from her face, and nodded, her voice still the softest of whispers. "Of course I do."

He continued watching her, speechless, but then suddenly his eyes narrowed and he shook his head. "Then what...why...?"

Sheena squeezed her eyes shut, but then she breathed in deeply, forced them open again, and let the words spill out of her in a long, rambling stream that grew progressively less understandable the longer she talked and the harder her tears fell. "I thought...I thought...you'd been acting so strangely this past week, so distracted and distant, and you were making excuses and lying to avoid me, and then last night I saw you leaving Mizuho and you didn't even stop by to see me, and I thought you'd finally realized you couldn't handle living that kind of life, and I've always known we didn't have a future together because of that, that one day I'd have to let you go because I couldn't ask you to stay with me and force you to live a life you didn't want, and I was so selfish in holding on to you for so long because I was so afraid of losing you, and I loved you so much, and I kept hoping Grandpa would name someone else to be chief instead, but then when he told me it was time, I knew I had to find a husband, and I..." She closed her eyes and bit her lip hard enough to draw blood, then forced herself to meet his gaze, needing him to see how much she meant this. "I am so sorry, Zelos. I never thought you would...that were even thinking of..." Unable to finish that thought, she squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away again, ashamed of all her incorrect assumptions and misinterpretations.

Even with her eyes closed, though, she could still hear his breath rush out of him and the soft thump of his head falling back against the rafter. "So you really don't think...?" She shook her head and opened her eyes as he let out a soft laugh, rubbed his face, and tilted his head forward again. "Wow, talk about a relief. I really thought you..."

His voice trailed off as he laughed again. And for a minute, they just sat there in silence - well, silent except for her soft sniffles as tears continued streaming down her face, and Zelos's deep, even breaths as the tension drained out of him. But now that he knew that much, her earlier confusion quickly returned. Unable to resist any longer, Sheena turned toward him, desperately needing to know this because it didn't make sense and she could never accept it until it did. "I don't understand, Zelos. Why?"

Zelos quirked an eyebrow at her. "Well, you were pretty convincing this morning..."

Sheena quickly shook her head, realizing he'd misunderstood her question to mean why he'd believed her when she'd broken up with him - and right now she couldn't handle thinking about how 'convincing' she'd been while making the worst mistake of her life. "No, that's not what I mean. I mean, why would you even consider this, let alone agree to it? You don't want these responsibilities; I know you don't! You spent your entire life trying to run away from everything that was forced on you as the Chosen, and then only a few months after you get what you wanted, you agree to this? Why? We both know living in Mizuho isn't the fun, easy life you've always want; this can't possibly match your Grand Master Plan for yourself. That's why I can't ask you to stay with me, because I don't want you to feel obligated to agree to it when I know in a few years you'd grow to resent being stuck there with me!"

His eyes narrowed, and Sheena quickly looked away again, unable to hold his intense gaze. "Wait, are you saying you dumped me because you were afraid if we stayed together, I'd eventually become miserable there, and so it would be better if we just ended it now, before we could reach that point?"

She looked down at her knees and nodded. He needed to know this. "I love you far too much to let you live the rest of your life in misery like that."

A glance at him showed that his eyes had narrowed further. "And so instead of talking to me about it, telling me your concerns, and letting me make my own decision, you thought you'd make it for me." Another tear rolled down her face as she nodded, recognizing what a hypocrite she'd been when she never would've wanted someone to do that to her, and she clutched her knees tighter, her guilt flaring again. Zelos sighed, his voice softening as he rested his head back against the beam. "Oh, Sheena. I thought we were past all of that. I should've known when you never talked to me about the future that you'd try to handle it on your own; all this time I'd thought your silence meant you were fine with me being a part of it. I guess I'd hoped you'd learned enough from my mistakes that you wouldn't make the same ones yourself."

...Huh? She blinked at him, trying to comprehend that, but her mind was still too fuzzy and bleary to do so, and she quickly gave up. "What...what are you...?"

Zelos sighed and gave her a wry, wistful smile, his blue eyes betraying sadness and empathy. "Pushing someone you love away, even if it hurts them, to spare them from potentially even worse future pain." His eyebrows rose. "Sound familiar?"

Sheena continued blinking at him, still not understanding. He sounded as if he was talking about something he had done to her...and just like that, she got it. Her eyes slid shut and her head sagged downward. Of course. Leave it to Zelos to make that connection, probably because of how long he'd been haunted by that very thing.

"That's exactly what I did to you all those years ago," he said, nodding. "Turns out it didn't have the intended effect then, either. Distancing myself from you was supposed to make you hate me, but instead all it did was hurt you, far worse than I'd ever anticipated. If we had a gald for every time we did something stupid with the best of intentions..."

More tears trickled down her face, and she closed her eyes and turned her head away from him. He was right. She hadn't wanted to hurt him; she'd wanted to spare him from further pain. She had always known what he'd once done to her, pushing her away to spare her from the future that awaited him as the Chosen because of how much he cared about her, made him feel immensely guilty, but now...now she was starting to recognize not only how it felt, but how deeply it could run. And it felt absolutely horrible.

"I am so sorry, Zelos," she whispered, forcing herself to look back at him. "I really am."

He smiled sadly, his eyes once again wet with unshed tears. "I know you are, Sheena. I know. And for what it's worth, if you're really serious about this and aren't just saying it out of pity because of what your grandfather told you, then I forgive you. I know that won't make you feel better about it, because it never made me feel better when you forgave me, but I do forgive you."

Sheena closed her eyes as another hot, fat tear dripped off her chin, collecting in a growing wet spot on her knee. Forgiveness, she had found from past experience, was often granted more for the forgiver's benefit than for the forgivee's, as a way for them to come to terms with what had happened, even if they could never forget it. Sometimes it helped the person on the receiving end, too, but only when that person could actually forgive themselves for it. And this...well, after what she'd done to him, she already knew ever being able to forgive herself for it was impossible.

"No, it doesn't, not really," she murmured. "And no, I'm not just saying this out of pity. That really was my reasoning."

Zelos nodded curtly, but then he let out a soft laugh and glanced at her again. "Heh. I guess we're finally even now, eh?"

'Even'? Her eyes snapped to his. How could he even think that? Comparing what he had done to her and what she had done to him was like...like...what was the saying? Comparing apples and oranges? She shook her head. "No, we're not. When you did that to me, I wasn't in love with you, so you couldn't possibly have hurt me as much as I just hurt you. I owe you far more for this than you've ever owed me for that."

"Maybe, maybe not," he said, shrugging. "But as far as I'm concerned, we're even."

There was no way she would ever agree with that, but she also knew when he shrugged something off like that, he couldn't be persuaded otherwise. Besides, right now she didn't feel like arguing with him about it. After all, he still hadn't appeased her confusion, and it was eating at her. Until she received an answer, her brain would never be able to fully comprehend any of this.

And so she would adopt his own tactic and change the subject. "You didn't answer my question."

Releasing his legs, Zelos stretched them out in front of him, letting them dangle over the edge of the beam. "Which one?"

"Why would you agree to this when it isn't what you want for your life?"

His eyes widened and his lips parted as he looked at her, as if he was shocked she didn't already know this. "Because you're worth it, Sheena," he said, his voice soft, intense, and loaded with conviction. It took her a moment to process that, but by the time she did and looked at him in alarm - because if that had been his reasoning, then she had just blown it, big time - he was already going on. "No, you're right, it isn't the life I would've chosen for myself under 'normal' circumstances. No, it isn't something I'd ever considered including in my Grand Master Plan for my life when I was trying to get rid of that stupid title. No, I can't say I'm excited about certain duties I'd be responsible for in Mizuho. No, I'm not convinced yet that I even can do this job as well as it deserves to be done or that the lifestyle will suit me and I won't end up whining incessantly about it. But there's a huge difference between being forced to accept something, like I was with the responsibilities of the Chosen, and being told what those responsibilities would be and then being given the choice to accept them. I asked my questions, your grandfather answered them, and he made me think seriously about it for a week so I had the chance to change my mind, but there wasn't much left to consider.

"This entire week, I knew what my answer would be - I knew because I'd spent six months thinking about it and coming to terms with it all. You made it clear from the start that there was no such thing as 'casual dating' with you, not when you'd be becoming chief, and when Orochi said your grandfather wanted to make you chief within the year, I took his estimation seriously and realized that was how long I had to make my decision. If I really hadn't thought I could handle it, I would've ended our relationship months ago. Because I had thought about it so long, though, there was never any real question in my mind. The alternative, giving you up for good..." He shook his head. "I could envision that future, and I didn't want it. It was depressing and fake and lonely and empty...it was meaningless. And yeah, maybe it would've given me the life I once believed I wanted, but the thought of actually living that life now, knowing what I'd have to sacrifice to get it...it wasn't even an option anymore. I don't want that future anymore if you're not a part of it. And even when I made a point to seriously entertain the doubts, that's what I kept coming back to: you. You were the determining factor in this. You were the one I never wanted to let go of. You were the one who hijacked my Grand Master Plan for my life that night at the king's regeneration party and left me no choice but to completely rewrite it to include you. I could live without that 'ideal life' I'd had in mind for myself, but I couldn't live without you. In the end, the choice wasn't that hard." He gave her a faint, wistful smile. "I meant it when I said I'd do anything for you, Sheena. Anything. Even this."

Sheena gaped at him, her heart pounding. Was he serious? He really didn't want that fun, carefree life if it meant not being with her? She had always known he loved her - he had proven it time and again - but to find out he loved her that much... "And then I..."

Guilt swept through her, and she burst out sobbing again. She quickly buried her face in her hands as her heart cried out at her stupidity and blindness at rejecting the help of the one man who had ever loved her enough to do something like this for her. "Oh, Sheena," Zelos murmured, then he slid closer, placed his arm around her, and pulled her to him so her head was resting against his chest - and despite the fact that she didn't deserve it, she couldn't fight him, either. She wanted it - she needed it, his warmth and comfort and love - and so she surrendered to him, burying her face against him, her fingers clutching his shirt as her tears fell. And he just held her to him tightly, trailing his lips over her forehead and letting her cry. "It's all right, sweetheart. Everything will be okay again. I promise."

"I am so, so sorry, Zelos," she choked out between sobs. "I can't believe I did that to you."

He pressed a tender kiss to the top of her head. "Hey, all that matters is you didn't really mean it, right?"

Sheena pulled away enough to gape at him - how could he think that was 'all that mattered'? - but then she buried her face against his chest again, more tears dampening his shirt. "But I hurt you! I misinterpreted everything and jumped to conclusions and ended up breaking your heart. It's inexcusable! You should be furious at me and want nothing to do with me ever again! I can't forgive myself for what I just did to you, Zelos. I can't trust myself after this. Even if you can, I can't."

Zelos nodded somberly as he tightened his hold on her. "I know. Believe me, sweetheart, I do. I'll never forgive myself for hurting you like I did, either. But you gave me a chance to make it up to you, and so it's only fair I do the same for you now." He shrugged. "Besides, I'd be far more miserable if I held this against you and refused to ever have anything to do with you again. Being mad about this or trying to punish you when you're already beating yourself up over it is pointless and cruel, and I love you too much to hurt you more than you're already hurting." He let out a soft laugh. "I mean, it's pretty obvious my heart wasn't the only one you broke this morning."

While Sheena knew he had a point, she still shook her head, realizing what he was saying. "I don't deserve a second chance after this."

She could feel his lips tug upward in a smile. "To quote something a very special, forgiving woman once said to me, 'Maybe you do, maybe you don't, but you're getting it regardless. Don't make me regret it.' Sound familiar?"

It took her a moment, but she finally recognized the words as her own to him a year ago. Sighing, she nodded reluctantly; he was implying, again, that she couldn't change his mind about this - because he'd never been able to change her mind about forgiving him. The words had been so easy to say to him back then, but actually hearing them spoken to her when the guilt was tearing her apart was far more difficult. Despite the fact that she didn't deserve it, though, he was giving her a second chance. More tears rolled down her cheeks, soaking his shirt further, but try as she might, she still couldn't pull away from him. His gentleness, understanding, and warmth were so welcome, so comforting...she hadn't thought she would ever feel this safety and all-encompassing love again. And she really shouldn't be feeling this now - in fact, now she really should be breaking up with him because she'd just proven she was still too immature to handle a real, serious relationship - but she couldn't say the words. Emotional weakness simply wouldn't let her.

Zelos pressed his lips against her forehead again. "You're human, love. So am I. And all humans make mistakes; it's in our nature. We regret our choices; we hurt people, intentionally or not. I've certainly experienced my share of both. But we also learn from our mistakes and do our best not to make them again. That's what sets us apart from animals or the angels on Derris-Kharlan: we have a conscience, one that can make us feel guilty as hell when we hurt someone we love. And that's why I refuse to hold this against you - because all it was was a beautiful, kind-hearted human being making a very human mistake and then experiencing very real human guilt afterwards. Trust me, Sheena, I know how horrible it feels, and I love you far too much not to help you through this however I can. So please, let me. Don't go getting any more stupid ideas, like that you aren't capable of maintaining a relationship anymore and should be dumping me again 'for my own good,' or something equally crazy, okay?"

Sheena froze, stunned that he'd addressed her thoughts so directly, then pulled away enough to gape at him. "How...how did you...?"

He grinned, but his blue eyes remained gentle. "Been there, done that, remember? And it really is a stupid idea because that would mean hurting me again, which I'm getting the feeling is something you don't want to do." He arched an eyebrow. "Am I right?"

Her eyes drifted down to his chest. He really had felt this awful about what he'd done to her back then, hadn't he? "Of course you are," she whispered.

"Thought so. That was my logic when it came to 'us,' too - and I couldn't do it knowing it would hurt you again. So just let those thoughts go now before you start seriously considering them." He gave her a pointed look. "Okay?"

Sheena observed him a moment, another tear trickling down her cheek, but then she sighed, lowered her head to his shoulder, and lifted her left hand to his chest, relishing in the feel of his steady heartbeat beneath her fingers. "No promises, but I'll try."

He pulled her body tighter against him. "That's okay, sweetheart. I won't let you fall again."

...Oh, Zelos. She squeezed her eyes shut as more tears filled them, that time at his insistence that the break-up was over and, in his mind, had never even happened, then she grasped his shirt and buried herself further into his arms. "Thank you, Zelos."

She wanted to specify exactly what she was thanking him for, but her thoughts were still a jumbled blur that silenced her voice. The kiss he pressed to her forehead, though, told her he already knew. And for a moment, she just let herself cry while he continued holding her, his warm breath against her skin making her shiver, reassuring her with his very presence that he truly did forgive her and refused to do what he should be doing by pushing her out of his life for good. Minutes passed, maybe hours, but eventually her tears slowed to a crawl, and then to a stop. And it was only then, once she had calmed, that she finally became aware they were still sitting there on the lower rafters of the Grand Tethe'alla Bridge above a clear, shimmering expanse of blue water, with Zelos still holding her to him, and that they hadn't moved or spoken in Jizou only knew how long.

...Which was why it startled her when Zelos suddenly shifted. Curious what he was doing, she turned her head enough to see that his right hand was feeling for something. After digging in his pocket a moment, he pulled something out...and her breath caught in her throat and another wave of tears hit her as he lifted a small, black, velvet ring box in front of them. He really had been planning to ask her, hadn't he? And then he opened it, and her heart jolted painfully and she had to squeeze her eyes shut at the sight before her: a beautiful, delicate, but strikingly simple silver ring, atop which sat three tiny amethysts carved into the shape of an iris...the final piece of her beloved jewelry set. When she finally managed to force her eyes open again, she sighed, dying inside, as the late afternoon sunlight caught on the tiny gemstones, making them sparkle brilliantly. This ring was supposed to be hers; there was no denying that. And the most amazing thing to her even now was that Zelos still had no idea just how right he'd gotten it by choosing to associate the iris with her. In fact, once again she was at a loss to explain the utter coincidence, beauty, and perfection of his choice except as a result of the guiding hand of fate.

"It's beautiful," she whispered as another tear trickled down her cheek. "It's perfect." With trembling hand, she reverently touched the ring, torn between awe, yearning, sorrow, and self-recrimination. Never again would a man figure this out about her, not without her explicitly telling him its meaning, and here she'd sacrificed all hope she'd had for a future with the only one who had, the man she'd known for months she wanted to spend forever with, because of her own damn pride and stupidity. But why was Zelos showing her this now? Didn't he realize how much it killed her to see it?

His soft sigh grazed her forehead. "It can still be yours, you know."

"...What?" It took her fuzzy, aching brain a moment to catch his meaning, but the instant it did, she bolted upright and pulled away from him, her alarm quickly building at the pointed look in his eyes. "No. Zelos, no. Don't even think about it. I don't deserve this anymore."

Not a single trace of humor lit his face as he met and held her gaze, though. "Yes, Sheena, you do."

Her heart pounded with building dread. He was dead serious about that. And she needed to stop him - needed to - before he did the unthinkable and actually asked her, because if he did, she would have to tell him 'no' again, and she was pretty sure neither of their hearts could survive that right now. "Zelos, no. No! Not after what I just did to you!"

He arched an eyebrow, but he still wasn't smiling, not even a little. "Sheena, you can't say 'no' if I haven't even asked you. You did that to me once already, and I'm not giving you another chance to do it again."

That stopped her short, but she quickly resumed her pleading, her fear and desperation building that she wouldn't be able to stop him in time. "Please don't do this. I can't..."

"Ah!" Zelos pressed a finger to her lips to silence her, his firm expression leaving no room for argument. He wouldn't let her talk him out of this; that was becoming dismayingly clear. "You aren't allowed to say anything yet. You have to listen to me first, because I have something to say, and this time you will let me say it. No more dumping me or breaking my heart before you even hear me out." His eyebrows rose expectantly. "I think you owe me at least that much, don't you?"

"...Oh." Her shoulders sagged. Damn it, he was right. He had every right to call her on that - and she couldn't even argue it because they both knew what had happened the last time she hadn't let him speak his mind.

His face softened. "Please, Sheena. Let me say this?"

Damn him. She owed him for this, big time, and he was going to take advantage of it to do something she would never let him do otherwise. She would just have to navigate this the best she could and make sure he didn't talk her into anything she knew was wrong for them - which her gut told her would be hard to do because the man could be extremely persuasive when he wanted something badly enough. She looked down at the ring again, then closed her eyes and nodded in defeat.

Zelos sighed in relief. "Thank you."

Sheena opened her eyes again as he breathed in deeply, then he turned to face her, folding his legs before him, resting his elbows on his knees, and leaning toward her, ring in hand. Fine, she thought, taking the hint and likewise turning to face him, drawing her legs to her chest. You're going to insist on doing this no matter what I say, so let's just get it over with. She might not be happy about this, but if he really had something to say, then she would at least hear him out. She refused to repeat the mistake she'd made that morning.

Once she was situated, Zelos met her eyes again, forcing her to hold his gaze. "Okay, here's the deal. I still want to give this to you, but under one condition. Before I ask you, you have to do something for me."

Uh oh. She didn't like the sound of that. "What?"

"I need you to promise me, right here, right now, that if I do ask you, you will talk to me, you will tell me when something's bothering you, and you won't hide your thoughts and fears from me again. I need you to promise me that what just happened, this breakdown of communication between us, won't happen again, that you won't make any more decisions for me, and that you'll consult me before you jump to any more wrong conclusions so I can help you try to figure out the right answer." He sighed, his face softening. "I want to help you, Sheena. The stuff you're gonna have to deal with as chief...I had no idea you'd have so many responsibilities. And I can help you. Like I said, no, it isn't the life I would've chosen for myself under 'normal' circumstances, but it is the choice I've made and I'm not backing out of it, not now and not ever, because I love you too much to let you deal with all of that on your own, and especially without someone you love and trust by your side to help you. But the thing is, I can't do that if you're always hiding things from me, if you don't tell me what you need, if you don't let me help you. I can't hope to be a good husband to you unless I know you'll let me be your husband. And unfortunately, if you're so determined to handle everything on your own that you already know you can't do that, then there's no reason for me to ask you this."

Tears pricked her eyes again, that time at his earnestness, but she just couldn't make sense of this yet. "But why, Zelos? I still don't understand. Why would you willingly take that on yourself? You hate responsibilities like those!"

He gave her a sad smile. "What I hate is being forced to accept responsibilities without being given a choice in them. This, though, is my choice, Sheena. If I really didn't want this, if it was really that big of a deal for me, like I said, I would've walked away. I've known for a long time now that getting involved with you came with a huge list of weird caveats, and believe me, if I really didn't think I could accept it, I wouldn't have let it reach this point. I refused to waste the time you'd need to find someone else if I knew 'we' were going nowhere. But I loved you too much to walk away even back then already, and so instead I worked to adapt to those requirements. And I have. I want this future with you. Because the fact of the matter is you're worth it."

A few more tears trickled down her cheeks, his words stabbing her heart like a knife, and she looked down at her knees. That was the second time he'd now told her she was 'worth it' to him, and each time he did, it hurt a little more. "No, I'm not," she murmured. "Not after what I just did to you."

"Yes, you are."

His voice was shockingly certain again, and a look up at him showed that his face matched it. And just like that, she could feel her incredulousness resurfacing. "Zelos, after what I just did to you, how can you still even be considering asking me this?"

True to his nature, though, he just shrugged, his face softening into a smile. "Easy. For one, because I know you, Sheena: you aren't one to cry over every little thing that happens, and especially not to let me see it when you do, so when you do cry, I know you mean it. And two, because what you did, misguided or not, you did out of love. You did it because you loved me enough to want to spare me from something you thought would cause me even worse pain. After having done the exact same thing to you once, it'd be pretty hypocritical of me not to do the same for you that you did for me." He grinned wryly. "Heck, I probably deserved it after that, anyway."

Now that just wasn't true. "No, you didn't," she murmured. "No one deserves to have their heart broken like that, especially when you did nothing wrong. And even if I did blame you for that - which I don't - you've more than made up for it since then anyway."

Zelos sighed, his smile falling. "Sheena, I'll never completely make up for hurting you like I did. But please believe me when I say I want to spend the rest of my life trying to."

...Oh. Right. Her gaze lowered to her knees as she absently rubbed her thumbs over them. That, too, she could understand, because she now wanted to do the same: everything she possibly could to make up for how horribly she'd hurt him.

His smile returned as she looked up at him again and nodded, then he arched an eyebrow. "So what do you say? Can you do that, promise me that you won't hide things from me anymore, that you'll talk to me, and that you'll let me help you? Because from what I can tell, the most important thing in a relationship is open, honest communication. I mean, I think we've seen now what happens if we don't communicate openly and honestly. And while I know you're capable of taking care of yourself and of making the right decisions - and believe me, I'm not trying to say you aren't - when you have as much on your plate as you soon will, there's only so much one person can handle before you end up completely stressed out and spreading yourself too thin and, ultimately, making rushed, bad decisions. I'm sure I won't always handle things perfectly myself, that at some point I'll slip back into being an arrogant, lazy, irresponsible bastard, mess things up, make bad choices, and piss you off so much that you'll want to strangle me, but I also know you have my back, and I trust you to smack me if I ever lose sight of myself. That's why I'm sure I can do this, despite all the stupid mistakes I know I'll make. You've always been there for me, supporting me even when you could barely stand me, and now that's what I want to be for you. Will you let me?"

For a long moment, Sheena just watched him, struggling to comprehend the scope of what he wanted...and feeling her pride resisting and insisting that admitting she couldn't handle something herself would make her look weak. Grandpa had been right, though; all of her life she'd been trying to prove herself to everyone she met, stubbornly denying she needed anyone else's help, to the point of even hating it when Zelos had tended to her during the poisoning. Maybe being that stubbornly independent had been her way of trying to prove to herself - or maybe even to her parents, wherever they were - that they'd made a huge mistake when they'd abandoned her as a baby. In fact, maybe that was exactly what she'd been doing all this time: trying to prove to them that if they could see her now, they would regret having left her, because, damn it, look at her and everything she'd accomplished! Wasn't she more valuable to them than being abandoned in a forest to become lunch for a passing monster?

But really, where were her parents, and what was she really trying to prove by being so stubbornly independent, anyway? Heck, if they were still alive, her parents wouldn't even recognize her as their own now, and all she was proving to everyone was that she was human because yes, while pushing herself so hard had resulted in some impressive successes, it had also resulted in some spectacular failures...like this. After all, when it had really counted that she make the right choice, she'd gotten cocky, hadn't asked for others' input, jumped to incorrect conclusions based on faulty perceptions, and made a horrible decision, one that had deeply hurt the man she loved most.

And that was when it hit her: she didn't want to do that again, not to Zelos, and not to anyone else, either. As Mizuho's chief, she really would need to seek others' input before she could make the best decision. She might be the leader, but making sure her village thrived was ultimately a team effort that required everyone's contribution. Like Zelos and her grandfather had said, relationships were also a team effort. Zelos, who naturally thought so differently from her, strategic thinker that he was, had always been good at playing devil's advocate, identifying other possibilities, and helping her determine the best solution. He wasn't always right, but he did at least help her see all the options. And that advantage, being able to deduce the truth and find the right solution...it was priceless. She coveted it.

As for their relationship, for months she'd been convinced it would naturally fall apart because of how different they were, because they rarely did agree on anything initially, but it never had. In fact, if not for her stupidity this morning, she almost thought it had continually grown stronger. Zelos, after all, challenged her to think differently by pointing out those things she didn't think of herself, and she, in return, challenged him by pointing out how his ideas didn't work. And in the end, because they respected each other enough to accept the other's viewpoint, even if they disagreed with it, they were usually able to find a middle ground that was not only effective, but that satisfied them both. Sure, sometimes they argued about it, because that was just how they were, but any anger or irritation she felt toward him never lasted beyond a few minutes. And Zelos, for his part, never actually seemed to get angry at her, either - probably, she now realized, because he had never forgotten how he'd once hurt her and was determined to never risk doing so again.

She couldn't help thinking, too, that even if they were such opposites, they still worked well together. She was hotheaded by nature; he was cool-headed and could serve as a calming force for her. He played too much and didn't always take things seriously; she was more serious and could ground him, yet without tethering his spirit - and the opposite held true, too, that he lured playfulness out of her. They drew things out of each other; they complemented each other. And suddenly she realized she wanted, she needed, that complement in her life. They would always argue - although thanks to his cool-headed nature and his ability to diffuse her temper, he never let it get too heated - because they never, by themselves, saw things eye to eye, but in the end, once they'd discussed the situation, compromised, and arrived at the middle ground, they were usually happy. When she tried to do things without that countering force, though...well, that was when everything fell apart, as this whole debacle proved. It didn't have to be that way, though. She could be stronger with his help and support. But he was right - that would only happen if she let him.

And just like that, she knew her answer. Accepting his help didn't make her weak; it made her stronger. And where was the problem in that? Her stubborn pride might always object, and it would take constant work on her part to remember to tell him things she took for granted she could handle herself, but she wanted to do so. She wanted to be stronger, and if it helped him become stronger in return by complementing his own shortcomings, then that was even better. And so she would. She would make a point to accept his help and never again take it for granted.

And that was that.

Decision made, Sheena met his eyes again. "Okay. I will. I'll talk to you and tell you what you need to know. I won't hide my thoughts or fears from you or try to handle everything on my own and jump to stupid conclusions again." Her eyes fell to her knees. "And I'm sorry I did that this time. I should've talked to you about this a long time ago already. I was just...I was so scared of having to let you go if you didn't see a future for us that I never could." She lifted her eyes back to his. "But I've learned my lesson now. I won't make that mistake again. The next time something like that is bothering me, I'll talk to you about it before I act on it. I promise."

Zelos searched her face a moment as if to verify her sincerity, but then he smiled faintly. "Thank you. So with that taken care of..." His eyebrows rose, accompanied by something in his eyes that looked an awful lot like nervousness, as he lifted the box. "Sheena Fujibayashi, will you marry me?" Her heart jerked in simultaneous excitement and dismay, but before she could so much as open her mouth, he lifted his finger. "Ah! And don't you dare say 'no.'" Without warning, he looked away, blinked a few times, and then shook his head and looked back at her. "Okay, that didn't come out right. Let me rephrase that. You're allowed to say 'no' if you really, truly mean it that you don't want to marry me, but you can't just say it because you think you don't deserve it or because you don't think I should be asking you in the first place."

Sheena sighed and frowned, her heart and mind racing. Damn him, asking her even after she'd told him not to and then refusing to let her voice her primary arguments. He really was a sneaky, manipulative bastard - and right now he was basically making up the rules to benefit his own end. And now...now she had to give him an answer - only she was no longer allowed to tell him 'no' because of those silly, made-up rules. On the one hand, she knew how her heart wanted her to answer, because Zelos, by her side, forever, was her vision of an ideal future and fate seemed to be pointing at the ring with huge, neon arrows, telling her to jump at the opportunity before she could mess it up again. On the other hand, though, her mind was still raising too many objections to let her do so. She'd promised herself she wouldn't let him talk her into anything unless she was absolutely certain it was right for them, and she couldn't say that about this yet.

Shaking her head, she looked up at him again. "This is completely crazy, y'know. I mean, Jizou, Zelos, I just broke your heart! You aren't supposed to ask someone to marry you this soon after they do something that awful to you!"

The smile in his eyes, though, made it clear that wouldn't faze him. "Okay, yeah, so you broke my heart. I can't deny that. But then you put it back together again. No permanent harm was done. It's as good as new again, maybe even better than before because now I know how much you really do love me." He shrugged. "And maybe it is crazy, but since when is anything not crazy with us? I'm an ex-Chosen with a past colorful enough to keep tabloids in business for a decade. You're a summoner who's going to be chief of a ninja village. We helped reunite two worlds that, until a year ago, were sucking the life out of each other. For years, we bickered like little kids because I'd fallen in love with you, refused to admit that, and couldn't let you go, even though I thought that was what I was doing, while you got off on calling me names and smacking the hell out of me. How does 'normal' fit into any of that when neither of us is 'normal'?" Sheena sighed but couldn't deny that, and Zelos's grin broadened. "Thought so. So then why should a marriage proposal between two 'crazy' people like us be any different?"

She couldn't help but chuckle. "Good point."

His grin softened as his eyes traveled over her face. "I won't pretend to know how this is 'supposed' to go since I've never done this before - and, well, to be honest, I really never want to do this again - but one thing I do know is that I love you, that I will always love you, and that I want to spend the rest of my life with you, helping you and making you smile. What happened this morning hasn't changed that, and I know I'm at least feeling a hundred times better about this whole thing, and you seem to be, too...sorta...so I see no reason to put off doing this any longer."

While he was right that she was feeling better about this - not a hundred times yet, but at least the guilt was only shredding her conscience into a thousand tiny pieces now rather than a million - her heart still sank as his words touched another nerve. She might believe him now that yes, he really did want this - her mind still had trouble grasping it, but she couldn't deny his sincerity - but that didn't erase all of her other concerns. Just because he felt that way now didn't mean he always would.

Releasing another sigh, Sheena lowered her chin to her knees, hugging her legs tighter to her chest. "You can't guarantee that, though."

His eyes narrowed. "Can't guarantee...what?"

As much as she dreaded spelling this out for him, she had just promised to be open and honest with him, and she couldn't back out of that now. She frowned and lifted her head. "Zelos, how can you know for sure you won't one day feel differently about this than you do now? I meant it when I said I think you'd do a great job in Mizuho, but what if a year from now you're bored stiff there? 'Forever' is a long time; what if one day you realize you made a mistake committing your entire life to it? How will you feel in five years? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? People change over time, and I don't want to trap you there with me if that happens to us. I mean, I don't doubt that you love me now, but what about then? What if one morning we wake up and find we've drifted so far apart that we don't even know each other anymore, that all we are is roommates? What if we have a huge fight one day and realize we were never meant to be on a permanent basis? What if I..." She cleared her throat as her voice cracked, and her gaze fell to her knees. "What if I can't keep your interest? What if I can't give you what you need to be happy for the rest of your life?"

When she looked up again, Zelos was still watching her closely, his gaze piercing, but then he sighed, leaned back, and carefully set the ring box on the beam beside him, his shoulders drooping and his voice falling. "So you really don't trust me, then."

Her head snapped upward and her eyes widened in alarm. "What?" Had she...had she just said that? She didn't think she had, but he seemed to think so, and she could not let him believe that. "No! No, that's not what I'm saying, Zelos, not at all. It's me I don't trust. I don't trust myself to be able to give you what you need."

Zelos shook his head, though, his face growing set. "No, you don't trust me to still love you in five, ten, twenty, fifty years, if we're lucky enough to live that long."

Oh, no, no, no. She had to make this absolutely clear to him. "That's not...I do trust you, Zelos, far more than I trust myself right now. You've more than proven I can trust you to be faithful to me. But I've heard the stories. I know how relationships can fall apart when you least expect it, how simple problems can balloon until next you know, nothing works right anymore and all we're doing is fighting and resenting being tied to each other. I know the feelings and...and passion..." she blushed at using such a word in connection to them, "...between us will eventually fade, when life gets to be too much. And when that happens, when I start getting old and wrinkly and ugly, I just...I don't know that I'll be enough to keep you happy, that I'll still be someone you want to spend 'forever' with. And I...I don't want to trap you in a place like Mizuho when that happens." She couldn't believe she'd just said all of that, and she was actually pretty embarrassed that she had, but once she'd gotten started, she couldn't stop. And he really did need to know that, because if anything would change his mind about marrying her, it would be that.

For a moment, Zelos just watched her closely again, his gaze still frighteningly intense, but then he sighed and leaned forward. "Sheena, look at me." When she didn't, still feeling too embarrassed to do so, he gently tilted her face up with his fingers...and the sadness in his eyes made more tears appear in hers. She tried to look away, unable to bear the sight before her, but he held her chin steady, forcing her to hold his gaze. "First of all, do you really think I didn't consider all of that before I made my decision? Yeah, maybe one day I'll find myself bored in Mizuho. It's hard to judge how I'll feel about it in ten years when I haven't even lived there one year yet. However, while I really do think I'll be okay with it because there are plenty of things about it I do like...Mizuho isn't your point at all, is it?" Sheena blinked at him, but then her eyes widened as she realized he'd caught her real meaning, and she quickly looked away again, blood rushing to her face. Zelos, however, just smiled faintly and guided her face back to his. "That's what I thought. You're more concerned about our odds of making a marriage work - and about how that affects the fact that as long as I'm with you, I can handle anything, even life in a 'backwater' village, because wherever you are, that's my home." His eyebrows rose. "Am I right?"

Oh, yeah, the man was perceptive. Frighteningly so, in fact, because in this case, she wasn't sure she had even consciously realized that was what was really bothering her until he'd said the words. She didn't know how he caught things like that so effortlessly, but she supposed she should just be glad he did. She nodded, her gaze once again falling to her knees.

"Thought so," he murmured before clearing his throat. "The truth is, I've heard all the stories about how easy it is to wreck a marriage, too, probably even more than you have. The married couples amongst Meltokio's noblemen are notorious for cheating on each other and being spiteful and cruel to each other once that initial fire fades, and the thought of something like that happening to us...yeah, I'll admit it, that scares me, too. I'd give anything to prevent that from happening to us, but right now there's just no way to know what life will throw at us and how we'll both change. But all of that is hypothetical. We don't know that's what the future holds for us. Is running away and not trying at all really the answer, just to prevent something that might one day happen? What if it doesn't? Is it really worth giving up something good, something that I, personally, find to be amazing and that we obviously both want, in the process?"

Her eyes lifted back to his, her heart twisting at the earnestness on his face, then she looked away again. There really wasn't much to consider. He was right; the future was an unknown, and no amount of speculation on either of their parts could change that. All of her fears about 'them' and what might one day happen to them could be completely unwarranted, and if they ended it now, based simply on the 'what ifs,' she would be denying them both what could prove to be their only chance at true love. The future would be so much more predictable if she married someone like Orochi, but would she ever really be happy with a life like that? Orochi was a dear friend, but she didn't love him, and while maybe over time she could grow to, would she ever really be happy with him, knowing what she'd had to give up for it? Her life would be stable and she didn't doubt Orochi would help her and take care of her, and she would undoubtedly have good times with him, too, but...no, she would never really, truly be happy with him. Orochi, after all, simply didn't complement her the way Zelos did.

She had admitted as much to Zelos months ago, back when he'd been worried about her crush on Lloyd, and the same held true for Orochi: like Lloyd, Orochi would never surprise her. He would never challenge her to think outside of her little box and see the world and other possibilities awaiting her outside her door. He would never make her feel and smile and laugh and enjoy life the way Zelos did. It would be an empty life - effective, successful, and sufficient, but empty. It wouldn't be living. Even if a marriage with Zelos only survived a year, life with him would still be living. It would be fun, and passionate, and challenging, and exasperating, and frustrating, and beautiful, and thrilling...it would be living. And that chance, that risk that everything could fall apart years down the road, was worth taking if it meant being able to die saying that she'd lived, that she'd experienced life, even if only for a short time. Of that, she was certain.

With another sigh, Sheena lifted her eyes back to his. "You're right. It's not."

Zelos observed her again, smiling softly, then sat up straighter. "So...I do have a few ideas that might help us out, if you're game to hear them."

Her eyes narrowed. She wasn't sure if she should be worried he would start cracking jokes soon or if she should be hopeful he might truly have some good ideas. Considering how seriously he'd taken this so far, though, he deserved the benefit of the doubt. "I'm listening."

Biting his lip, Zelos eyed her carefully a moment before nodding. "Okay. Well, for starters, you've mentioned the whole 'fighting' thing a few times now, and yeah, I agree, that could become a problem, because it's not like we've never fought before. Not lately, mind you - and a part of me almost wishes we had had a major fight this past year just to see how well we did with it - but it certainly happened before we started dating. And...well, we both know those fights weren't always fair and that it's unlikely we'll never fight again. I mean, give and take is how relationships work. We'll have our ups and our downs; we'll disagree and argue about things. And really, that's not necessary a bad thing since it proves we're still alive and are being honest with each other about our needs and our feelings. So if we accept that they're inevitable, that one day we will fight over something, that leaves us to figure out how we'll handle it when it happens, right?"

Hm. He was going somewhere with this; she just wasn't sure where yet. "Go on."

He quirked a smile that looked surprisingly nervous. "So...how 'bout before the first time it happens, we come up with a plan of attack to make sure we can weather it intact? Like, I dunno, a...a disagreement agreement or...something."

Her eyebrows flew upward. If he didn't look so serious - and nervous - she would have just laughed. As it was, she couldn't help smiling faintly. "A 'disagreement agreement'?"

Zelos, however, dismissed that with a wave of his hand. "The name itself doesn't matter. We can call it something better later on; right now I'm more concerned with the concept itself."

Okay...? "And what would a 'disagreement agreement' be?" she pressed.

He grinned and pointed at her. "Ah, I'm glad you asked that. I was thinking it could be a list of rules and reminders we came up with to guide us through any problems we run into. Y'know, like a contract of sorts. We'd each come up with our own list of 'rules' for ourselves, maybe shared, maybe individual, that are designed to calm us down and guide us through the situation if one or both of us is really pissed at the other. Like I might say something like, 'Fights are healthy, but only when I fight fair. I won't make it personal or try to hurt you again, and I will keep compromising until we're both happy.' Or maybe, 'I will not be afraid to apologize if I mess up and will do whatever it takes to make up for it.' Or maybe, 'If one of us calls a 'Time Out' over something, the other can't say 'no' to it. We then have to sit down together, talk it over, and keep working on it until we're on the same page again.' Or maybe, 'No matter how hurt or mad I am, or how hurt or mad you are at me, I won't walk away from our marriage, and I won't let you walk away, either.' Or maybe something as simple as, 'Zelos, you idiot, have you already forgotten how badly you once hurt her? Yeah, thought so. Well, don't. Don't ever forget that you promised yourself - and her - that you'd never do that again.'" He shrugged. "Y'know, stuff like that. Those are just some ideas off the top of my head. The key is we have to hold ourselves to whatever we come up with. If we notice we're getting too heated with each other, we have to stop, pull out our lists, and reread the rules before we keep going. Silly, maybe, but I'm afraid without guidelines it'll just get nasty, and then we will have problems. Personally, I don't want to take that chance. I'm sure we'll have plenty of problems to deal with as it is; why tack on even more?"

'Off the top of his head'? Yeah, right. There was no way he'd come up with all of that just now. No, it was obvious he'd given that some serious consideration. Well, that or he'd had some help. "Did you come up with all of that yourself?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.

His sheepish grin confirmed her hunch. "While I'd like to take credit for it, I can't. The details were mine, but the concept came from the Pericheks."

Sheena couldn't help smiling faintly at his mention of Robert and Eleanor. They truly were a lovely couple. Ever since the Princess's birthday party, she and Zelos had periodically dropped by their mansion to visit with them, and every time they did, she found herself liking them even more. For such a wealthy couple, they were extremely kind and down to earth, and while they were always curious about her and about her people, they never treated her as if she was anything less than a noblewoman herself. She'd especially loved watching Zelos interact with them, seeing how relaxed and happy he was when with two of the few people he'd ever trusted - people who had helped shape him into the man he now was. He still had trouble lowering the mask and acting like his 'real self' with most people, but that wasn't the case with them, probably because they had never treated him like the Chosen but rather like their own grandson, someone deserving of their time and respect.

"I should've known," she murmured, still smiling.

"Hey, I figured they had to be doing something right if they'd been married 37 years, so why not ask them for a few pointers?" Zelos said. "Seeing as I couldn't bug you this past week, I spent that time talking to the couples in Meltokio who'd been married a long time instead, asking what kind of tricks they used to stay so happy together. Needless to say, I spent the most time with the Pericheks, and that was an idea of theirs that I really liked. They say 'hi,' by the way."

Sheena let out a soft laugh and lowered her chin to her knees again. "I love those two."

His grin broadened even as his eyes softened. "They love you, too."

And the best part was that because the Pericheks were so completely real, she knew he meant that. She sighed but couldn't help smiling again. So that was what Zelos had been doing this past week - not flirting with his hunnies, as she'd thought, but talking to couples like the Pericheks. He really did want to make this work, didn't he? It gave her hope. And as for the idea itself...well, after hearing his suggestions, she could already think of a number of statements she would create for herself - starting with a list of all the reasons why she loved this man so damn much, just so she never lost sight of them. And she, too, would definitely put a reminder on there that she never wanted to hurt him again. Just because he'd forgiven her this time didn't mean he would a second, so why give him a chance to regret it?

"Well, for the record, I like the idea," she finally said.

His eyes widened slightly in surprise, but then he smiled, pleased. "I'm glad to hear that. But we can iron out the details later. Anyway, as for your fear that we might one day drift apart and start feeling like roommates...how 'bout this? Maybe what we should do is agree that every year on a set date, at least once a year but as many times as necessary if, say, we're going through a rough patch, we sit down together, examine where we're at, make sure we're both still on the same page, be brutally honest about what's bothering us - being sure to always keep our 'Disagreement Agreements' in mind - and try to work out any issues we have with each other, all while refusing to give up on 'us.' That should prevent us from waking up one morning and realizing we've turned into complete strangers, right? Y'know, if we make a point to grow and change and address our problems together, not apart?"

Her heart melted at the sheer hopefulness on his face. For a man who she had once been sure would never take a commitment like marriage seriously, he was really impressing her. "You really did give this a lot of thought, didn't you?"

"You have no idea, sweetheart," Zelos replied, giving her another grin. "It's amazing the places your mind goes when you're forced to consider something this huge for so many days before you can act on it. I mean, trust me, all the doubts you just expressed, I've already had myself. I've just had more time to consider them than you have."

Her gaze fell to his chest as she let out another soft laugh. "I guess Grandpa really did know what he was doing by making you wait so long."

He shrugged. "Well, he isn't infallible, but he is a very smart, crafty man who just wants what's best for his granddaughter and his village. I certainly can't fault him for that."

"Yeah, neither can I." Sheena watched him a moment, but then she cleared her throat and arched an eyebrow at him. "So was your second idea the Pericheks's, too?"

"Heh." To her surprise, Zelos actually blushed a little as he looked away from her. "Nah. That one's all mine. Just a little something I picked up while studying human nature and seeing how many promising relationships could've been salvaged if the couple in question had just sat down together and talked about their problems before they could become huge issues." Without warning, he met her gaze again, his eyes intense. "I want this to work, Sheena, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen, even it means setting up silly 'rules' like this for us. If it helps, I can't help thinking it's worth it."

Her heart skipped a beat. She would have to be blind not to see how much he meant that - and with each new idea he proposed, she could feel her reservations melting even further away. Resistance still remained, but it was far less than it had been a few minutes ago. Taking a deep breath, she met his eyes again. "Well, I like that idea, too, about setting a firm date for us to regularly touch base to be open and honest with each other."

His face lit up in heartwarming surprise and pleasure. "Really?"

Sheena gave him another soft smile. "Really."

The smile he gave her made her heart melt. "Heh. Well, I thought it had potential, at least."

"It does," she said with a nod. "At least we'd be doing everything we could to prevent a marriage from falling apart, right?"

His smile broadened. "Right. And since this would be our marriage, there's no reason why we can't create the rules for it ourselves, add to them, or change them however we need to, right?"

Seriously, what was with this man's incessant need to control all of the rules around him? But then, she supposed that was to be expected since he'd been forced to live under crazy, unfair rules his entire life. And how could she begrudge him that when he was creating and rewriting the rules for their benefit? So long as he consulted her first rather than just changing one of 'their' rules, she couldn't argue with it. And if he didn't consult her first, she would smack him. "...Right."

He nodded. "And as long as we both make a point to stick to them no matter what, they should get us through anything, right?"

"Right," Sheena repeated, more certainly that time. Her gaze fell to her knees again and her voice lowered. "After all, openness and honesty is what kept us going this long." Well, at least it had until this morning, when the one matter they hadn't been open and honest with each other about had ballooned into a huge issue for them - and she'd already determined to do everything in her power to prevent that from ever happening again.

"As did patience, love, trust, communication, and respect," Zelos added. Sheena gave him another faint smile and nod, both of which he returned as he looked her over again, the tender love in his eyes making her heart race. "Then that's settled. Now, as for the other concern you mentioned, that I might one day realize I don't love you anymore or find you to be just as beautiful as I do at this moment...that's not going to happen, sweetheart. Ever."

...And just like that, any progress she'd made toward coming to accept his proposal came to a screeching halt. Sheena sighed and looked away, her heart sinking at his idealistic refusal to accept the reality of life. I'm sorry, Zelos, but no matter how much you might love someone at one point in time, you can't be sure those feelings will always stay the same. Time changes emotions and, with it, relationships. In fact, from what she'd heard, love was usually the emotion hit the hardest, fading over time - or, worse, transforming into hate in the blink of an eye. Love and hate were flip sides of the same coin, after all.

"I appreciate the sentiment, Zelos, but that isn't something you can guarantee," she whispered.

"Yes, it is." Zelos touched her cheek, forcing her to look at him again - and shocking her with the unshakable certainty she saw on his face. "Sheena, you are the first person who ever saw me for me, who saw beneath the act and all the lies and found the part of me I never wanted anyone to see. And more than just finding it, you accepted it, you loved me in spite of it, you had faith in me that I could be more than what I was, and you made me want to live up to your faith in me and become a better man. The truth is, you saved me - not just my life, but me. I don't even want to think who I'd be right now if you hadn't, but whoever that man is? I guarantee you I wouldn't like him nearly as much as I like myself now. Without you, I probably would've self-destructed. Losing the title...yeah, it's what I always wanted, but who would I have become after that? Chances are I still would've been too scared to show my real self to anyone, and I would've embraced the man I'd always pretended to be, the one neither of us liked, and drifted aimlessly through the rest of my life. I wouldn't have had a reason anymore not to give in to my hunnies or to drink myself to death, and I most likely would've succumbed to the loneliness and depression of having nothing of any value left in my life - and of being of no value to anyone. Hell, I probably even would've started believing my mother's dying words again. But you..." he smiled, his blue eyes impossibly soft, "...you didn't let that happen to me. You gave me something good in my life worth pursuing. You gave me a purpose, a drive to do good, just by believing in me and insisting I could do it. Like that poisoning incident - if not for you, I don't know that I would've done what I did then, and to be honest, it still shocks the hell out of me that I did. It's one of the few things I've done in my life that I actually feel good about. And the thing is, I owe that not to me, but to you, because without your influence, your goodness and love and faith in me...I don't want to know what I would've done instead.

"And that, Sheena, that inherent goodness in you that draws more out of me than I ever thought myself capable of...that is what I find to be the most beautiful thing about you, not your looks - although those are pretty damn hot, too - but your heart. And even when time takes its toll on us - 'cause don't kid yourself, I won't be this gorgeous forever, either," she smiled faintly as he flipped his wavy red hair back behind his shoulder, "-that beauty in you is something time can never touch, and it's something I will never stop loving. Never. I'll still find that to be just as beautiful fifty years from now as I do at this very moment. And that much, I can guarantee you. You could be completely scarred and mauled or old and wrinkly, someone so ugly that kids run away from you screaming - which I seriously, seriously doubt will ever happen - and I'll still find you to be the most beautiful woman I've ever laid eyes on." He gave her another soft smile as he brushed his thumb over her cheek, and only then did she realize that not only was her blush back, but that tears were rolling down her face again. "Tell me, how can I not want to spend the rest of my life with that? A little mistake like the one you made this morning could never change that, because I know we're both human, and human beings make mistakes, and I know you'll learn from it and do your best to never let it happen again. And you know how I know that, how I can be absolutely certain about that?"

"How?" she whispered, mesmerized.

"Because I know your heart, Sheena, and I trust your heart. If you really do trust me like you say you do, then trust me when I say that I trust you and will always love you. Always." She bit her lip as it quivered, helpless but to gasp as he smiled warmly, lightly trailing his fingertips over her cheek. "So you can try all you like to change my mind, to persuade me that you don't deserve this and that I'm stupid for still loving you and for wanting to spend the rest of my life with you, but nothing you say will change how I feel. Nothing will, because nothing can."

For a moment, Sheena was helpless but to hold his gaze, her heart simultaneously soaring and pounding in awe and amazement, but the torrent of emotion and love churning within her at his words was too powerful to resist, and she soon succumbed to it. Releasing her legs, she climbed onto her knees and gave him a brief but immensely grateful kiss, then she wrapped her arms around him, tears still streaming down her face. "Thank you," she whispered, closing her eyes and clutching him to her as he slid his strong arms around her in return. "I love you so much, Zelos."

Lifting a hand to the back of her head, Zelos wove his fingers through her hair and held her to him tightly. "I love you too, Sheena," he whispered, his breath warm against her neck. And for what felt like hours, they just sat like that, wrapped in each others' embrace, her fingers gripping his shirt and his hand stroking her hair, her heart relaxing and the worst of her guilt ebbing away at the soothing, comforting action. It was something she had never been able to figure out, how one minute he could be making the most stupid, perverted comments imaginable and the next be saying the most beautiful, perfect words capable of healing the worst of wounds, but that strange dichotomy truly was one of the many things she'd grown to love most about him. She would probably never fully understand it, but she had no further doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life trying to do just that. And the best part was that he seemed determined to let her, so long as he got to try to figure out her quirks in return.

After a few minutes, her knees grew sore and their position on the narrow beam became awkward, and so Sheena pulled back enough to press one last grateful, amazed kiss to his lips and then sank back down onto the rafter beside him, resting her head on his shoulder and curling into him as he wrapped his arm around her again. She had always known he'd loved her, but to find out he loved her that much, that he was that certain about her and about his love for her, that he had that much faith in her...she'd had no idea. Her heart felt so full, so happy, so excited, so relieved, so touched by everything he'd said that she was afraid it would burst. Tears were still running down her face, but those she wasn't trying to stop. Despite her stupid, selfish, stubborn, misguided mistakes, despite the horrible thing she'd done to him this morning, she hadn't lost him for good - and, in the process, she had learned what would likely become one of the most invaluable lessons of her life. And now he was with her again, right where he belonged, and with her was where he would stay; that was something she no longer doubted. It was a moment she never wanted to end.

And for a time, it didn't; they just sat there like that, holding onto each other and looking out over the vast, beautiful, mysterious, unending expanse of ocean before them. But eventually she could feel him shift, and a moment later he held up the precious iris ring again, that time free of its confines in the box. "So what do you say?" he whispered in her ear. "Should we give this thing a shot?"

Sheena breathed in deeply, then sat up a little straighter so she could observe the ring better. The message fate was sending her was clear. It had been since New Year's, when he'd given her the rest of that set, and now this...a more powerful sign couldn't possibly exist than this. Fate, for some reason she might never understand, wanted this for her, for him, for them. She'd ascribed to his philosophy, 'Whatever will be, will be,' and this was where it had led her. But ultimately, fate wasn't the one making this decision for them; they were, and she refused to make hers until she was absolutely sure, because Zelos hadn't made his until he was absolutely sure. And no, just because all the signs were pointing at this and saying it was the right answer didn't mean it came with any guarantee they would live happily ever after. Fate had been wrong before, after all; that coin he'd flipped before choosing who to side with the day he'd betrayed them at the Tower of Salvation proved it by pointing him to the wrong answer. Zelos's decision to ignore it, on the other hand, had been the right answer.

But then, she realized, maybe that was yet another lesson from fate - not to forsake your own intellect and feelings by lazily letting it decide everything for you, but rather to do everything you could to shape the future into the one you wanted. Maybe the only things that should be left in its hands were the unknown variables, those unplanned circumstances life threw at you, like natural disasters or illnesses or chance encounters; maybe when it came to making a decision for yourself, like this one, or like Zelos's decision whether to betray them, fate didn't want to make that decision for you and, therefore, wouldn't. Maybe it was willing to point you in the right direction with a sign, but ultimately it was each person's responsibility, even if they had faith in it, to be brave, consider all the facts carefully, listen to their heart, and then make up their own mind. Heck, maybe that was why fate had given Zelos such an unmistakable but false sign in that coin flip that day: to lead him to question whether he was truly happy handing off such a critical choice to another, or whether he would rather be making that choice himself - and his decision to side with them in the end had said it all. And if that was true...well, she liked that, the thought that not everything in life was preordained and unchangeable, that the only things that should be left to fate were the ones humans couldn't control themselves. In fact, one day she thought she would share this revelation with Zelos and see what he thought about it, seeing as it had been his philosophy she'd been adhering to all this time. For all she knew, he'd already reached the same conclusions she just had.

But whatever his thoughts on it now, back at the Tower of Salvation, Zelos had had no way of seeing the future and knowing which choice was right, and so, despite the unknowns and the red herring from fate in that coin flip, he'd had to make his own decision, based on what his heart and his head were telling him, and leave the rest in fate's hands. It was the same thing she had to do now. No amount of planning, no matter how meticulous, could change the limitations of the future she could predict for them if they decided to walk this road. After all, just because fate had led them to this moment and given them the signs that this was meant to be didn't mean they would both live to be a hundred; for all they knew, one of them would die a year from now and leave the other alone and heartbroken for the rest of their life. Fate obviously had its reasons for how certain things played out, and they had no choice but to go with it. There was no guarantee, either, that no matter how hard they fought to make a marriage work that they'd succeed; sometimes things just happened, outside of their control, that wrecked everything they'd worked so hard for. But was it really the right answer to walk away from something good, something beautiful, something both her head and her heart were now convinced was the right answer, just to spare them from possible - but not guaranteed - future pain? What if nothing did interfere that tore them apart? What if she really was reading the signs correctly? Was she really willing to sacrifice this chance that they would live happily ever after by saying 'no' to him? Zelos was certain about this and was willing to promise to do everything he could to make a marriage between them work, even if it was difficult; could she promise to do the same?

And again, the answer stunned her with its simplicity and certainty: yes, she could. She wanted to make him happy. She wanted to make up for how badly she'd hurt him. She wanted to give him everything he'd always wanted from life but had never had before: love, a family, a future, a purpose. She wanted to complement him the way he complemented her. She wanted to continue helping him find, explore, accept, and embrace the 'real him,' the kind, goodhearted, giving man he'd always been but had hidden away from everyone for years. She wanted to give fate a chance to make her ideal future with him happen. She wanted to spend forever by his side. She wanted him. Just like he was convinced he would always love her, she was now convinced she would always love him, too. He trusted her and found her heart to be beautiful, even if she didn't see herself the same way; she trusted him and found his heart to be beautiful, too, even if he didn't see himself the same way. He had lured just as much goodness and beauty from her as she had from him, and nothing could ever change that. Against all odds, they had found the good in each other, and now they were able to persuade the other that it was there, even when they couldn't see it in themselves.

And it was that belief and a determination to leave the unknown variables to fate that could get them through anything, if they were willing to try; because they believed they could make this relationship work and because they were both willing to do whatever it took to make that happen, they would. They would make each other happy. They would do their best to run Mizuho. They would bring out the good in each other by believing in each other and doing their best to live up to the other's belief in them. They would adhere to a strict policy of open and honest communication and would put their all into their marriage to make it thrive. At times it would be hard, and painful, and exhausting, and frustrating, and chances were they'd both want to give up, because no matter how much they loved each other, every marriage would have its ups and its downs, but in the end, the struggle would be worth the effort so long as they never lost sight of who they both were, why they were doing it, and what they wanted. They wouldn't just give marriage a 'shot'; they would find a way, orthodox or otherwise, to make it work. Of that, she was now absolutely sure.

Tearing her eyes from the ring, Sheena turned her head and looked up at Zelos's nervous yet hopeful face as he watched her, waiting for her answer. Her heart was pounding with so much love and excitement that she almost couldn't contain it, but she didn't care anymore, not when she knew he would soon be sharing in it right along with her. Both her heart and her mind were in complete agreement about this, and that was why she was absolutely certain she was making the right choice. Now it was time for him to be certain of it, too.

Sheena gave him a smile that she hoped conveyed exactly how she was feeling. "Yes."

A set of red eyebrows flew upward. "Yes?"

She nodded curtly. "Yes."

He watched her another moment, his eyes narrowing a little. "You're sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

Still he didn't seem convinced, though. "You're positive?"

And again, she nodded. "Yes, I'm positive."

By that point, his brows were so furrowed that his eyes were mere slits. "You're absolutely, positively sure?"

Sheena burst out laughing. While she knew what he was doing and why, not wanting to get his hopes up only to have them crushed again in case she changed her mind and not wanting her to feel pressured into agreeing to something she really didn't want, she just couldn't help it. If he knew how certain she was about this, he would see, as she did, how ridiculous and unwarranted his fears were. "Yes, Zelos, I am absolutely, positively sure."

While hope began resurfacing in his blue eyes, uncertainty and nervousness still eclipsed it. "You're sure you're not just agreeing out of guilt or pity or anything like that?"

"No," she replied, shaking her head. She could understand his hesitation and his need for reassurance, but there was no need for it. Her grandfather had given this his blessing, fate had given this its seal of approval, and Zelos had fully addressed all of her concerns, leaving no further doubts in her mind. "I'm agreeing because I want to, because I love you, because I trust you, because I have faith in you, because I know you'll be a wonderful husband and chief consort...because I know, together, we can make this work." The smile that lit his face at that moment made her heart clench with so much love and elation that it nearly choked her. But she, too, had to be absolutely sure before her hopes could rise too high. "And are you sure this is what you want?"

His beautiful smile never faltered. "Yes, I am absolutely, positively sure, about all of it."

Tears pricked her eyes again, but she ignored them and grinned as she grabbed for the ring in his hand. "Then gimme that thing."

Idiot that he was, though, Zelos quickly pulled it out of her reach, his voice suddenly playful and teasing. "Uh uh. This is still my ring, and that means until I've relinquished it to its new, rightful owner, it's still mine to do whatever I want to with it." And then he gently grasped her left hand and lifted it, caressing it lightly and making her gasp before finally sliding the ring onto her finger. He observed it a moment, his smile soft and his eyes impossibly loving, then he lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed a reverent kiss to the ring that left her breathless. "There. Now it's yours."

Her heart pounding wildly and butterflies fluttering giddily in her stomach, Sheena lifted her hands to his face and guided his head down to hers, giving him a long, slow, tender kiss that he immediately sank into. Once momentarily satisfied, she pulled away, smiling excitedly at him through the new wave of tears building in her eyes as he beamed right back at her, and then she leaned into him as he wrapped his left arm around her and drew her against him again, her gaze quickly focusing on the simple but perfect iris ring sparkling on her finger, an incredibly powerful symbol of his promise to love her, trust her, help her, and stand beside her through whatever else fate had in store for them. And for the very first time, she could see that hazy, 'impossible' future she'd only let herself fantasize about once or twice becoming clearer as the clouds that had obscured it from her view finally melted away. The weight that had burdened her heart this past year, insisting 'they' could never last, was now gone for good, leaving her the happiest she was pretty sure she'd ever felt. And on a sudden impulse, she reached into her pocket to find the one thing that was now missing from this picture. Pulling out her neglected bracelet, she clasped it around her right wrist again, putting it back where it belonged.

She could feel Zelos's lips tug upward in a smile as he grasped her right hand and then, as he had the ring, pressed a kiss to the bracelet's pendant. "Much better," he murmured.

"Yeah, it is," Sheena replied, watching entranced as he continued running his fingers over her wrist in an intimate, erotic caress that sent enticing warmth surging through her.

And for a time, they just sat there like that, enjoying the peace and happiness of the moment and the absence of anything else pressing that they still had to do. There was no rush to get anywhere, no urgency to face the rest of the world yet. No, for the moment, there was just the two of them sitting together on the bridge, their hearts and minds soaring as they eagerly looked toward the future, with no further hindrances standing in their path.

But too much excitement still churned within her, too much guilt that, while soothed, still lingered, for her to stay silent long. No, there were far too many things she still needed to know and wanted to say, too many important discussions they now had to have, and so, after a moment, she sighed softly, albeit still smiling happily. "Heh. This is gonna go down in history as the worst engagement ever, isn't it?"

Zelos chuckled softly but shook his head. "Nah, definitely not worst ever. Trust me, sweetheart, it could've been a lot worse than this."

Somehow, she seriously doubted that. Not much could get worse than what she'd just put them both through. "Oh, really?" she replied, her eyebrows rising as she turned her head a little further toward him. "Care to share how? 'Cause I'm just not seeing it."

She could feel him grin against her cheek, his lips tantalizingly close to her ear. "Well, for starters, the ring could've fallen off the bridge."

Sheena blinked a few times as she considered that, but then she lifted her head so she could look at him, unable to resist laughing softly as she saw the smirk on his lips. "Okay, yeah, so that might've been worse."

His smirk broadened. "After all, nothing says 'I love you' quite like diving into the ocean and having to wrestle a hundred starving piranhas to find a missing engagement ring, eh?"

Still chuckling, Sheena lowered her head back to his shoulder. Well, okay, so that would have been bad - although part of her couldn't help thinking that would have been hilarious and oh-so-them, too. Zelos was the one, after all, who kept insisting 'crazy' was 'normal' for them. Regardless, such a 'crazy' scenario wouldn't have been as emotionally trying as this had been; it just would've been awful in a different way. But she suspected if she were to voice that doubt, he'd just find some other bizarre, 'awful' scenarios to suggest instead, so why bother?

"Yeah, I'm glad that didn't happen, either," she murmured instead. "I'd never forgive myself for sending my Guardian Knight up against a school of vicious piranhas to retrieve a missing engagement ring. I think I prefer my fiancé in one piece."

He stopped short at the 'Guardian Knight' reference, but then he laughed softly and pressed another kiss to the side of her head. "So do I, my lady, and I'm relieved to know fair maiden isn't so materialistic that she would force said knight up against impossible odds that could result in the loss of some beloved body parts." Sheena snorted softly and rolled her eyes but otherwise didn't respond. And while his voice lost its playful edge when he spoke again a moment later, it didn't lose its happiness. "No, but seriously, when put in proper perspective, other than the residual emotional effect on us both, this whole thing really didn't turn out all that bad."

...'Really didn't turn out all that bad'? What world was he living in? Sheena lifted her head again and gave him a disbelieving look. "Okay, you know I'm gonna argue that, right?"

Zelos shrugged. "Go ahead, but it really didn't. I mean, the conversation we just had would've been significantly different under 'normal' circumstances, and we probably wouldn't have discussed or even admitted any of the concerns we just did, nor would we have addressed them this thoroughly. I'd even go so far as to say this might just work to our advantage and make our marriage stronger since we do already have some tentative rules in place to guide it. Personally, I'm glad we addressed all of that stuff before it could become an issue and am happy with everything we decided."

While Sheena hated to admit it because of the pain her choice had caused him, he was right. He had just lured out an awful lot of her fears about 'them' and then addressed them head-on instead of dismissing them or ignoring them until they could become a huge issue. And their decision to make communication a priority...yeah, she, too, felt far more positive about the future knowing they would be doing everything they could to make their marriage last. She lowered her head back to his shoulder, then took his right hand in hers and gently squeezed it. "Yeah, so am I. And I hope you're right about that, that good will come of my stupidity anyway."

"It will, love," he whispered, lifting her right hand to his lips and pressing a kiss to the back of it. "I promise. Like I said, it's all a matter of perspective. Take everything that happened today for what it is: something we'll learn from and use to become stronger."

She nodded faintly. Maybe he was right; maybe fate had wanted this to play out as it did so it could equip them with the basic tools, mindsets, and rules they needed to survive the challenges of time. But still, the fact that she'd put him through such hell at all still made her feel immensely guilty. "I still think you should be pissed at me for wrecking everything like I did, though."

Again, though, Zelos just shrugged. "Positive end result or not, do I wish this had played out differently, yet with us still reaching the same conclusions we did? Sure, I do. This definitely isn't how I'd planned to ask you to marry me, and I still wish you'd talked to me instead of making my decision for me, but you realized your mistake, you promised you wouldn't do it again, and I know you, Sheena: you'll do whatever it takes to keep your word. And, well, to be honest, life is just too short to stay angry over something you didn't do maliciously."

Her fingers played over his. Normally they both wore gloves, but the day was warm enough that neither of them had put theirs on, and now, being able to feel these incredible, enticing sensations like this... "Well, I still feel terrible about it. I mean, I'm sure you had a plan and were nervous..."

"The Great Zelos doesn't get nervous."

She snorted. Yeah, big surprise. She should've expected a stupid retort from him now that the storm was over and he was feeling happy again. And oh, how nice it was to know that this happiness she was feeling was something he was currently feeling, too. "Yeah, right. You keep telling yourself that, buddy, but I know better. The Great Zelos may not get nervous, but Real Zelos sure does. And then I didn't even let you ask me..." She sighed, her heart sinking. "Like I said, I feel terrible about that."

He shook his head. "Eh, don't worry about it. Everything worked out in the end, didn't it?"

"Well, yeah, but..."

"I know," he replied, his voice soft and empathetic. "Been there, done that, spent so much time in Club Guilt that they gave me a free lifetime membership. It'll take you awhile to get over it. But time will take care of it - maybe never completely, but it will eventually become bearable, and I know you already know that because this isn't your first walk down Guilt Lane. And believe me, sweetheart, I'm not going to hold this against you. However I can help you get through this, I will."

She nodded faintly, watching his hand continue caressing hers, another wave of love, warmth, and safety washing over her. Knowing he really did know how she was feeling right now because he'd experienced it all himself was a comfort. "I know."

"Just let it all go, love," he whispered, his lips trailing over the shell of her ear. "It's over; it's done with. It's a part of our past now, and we have our whole future to look forward to. I know it's hard, and I know it hurts to know how badly you hurt someone you love, and I know how humbling and awful it feels, like you can never trust yourself again, but a single mistake made with good intentions doesn't invalidate the end result." He nudged her, and she felt his lips pull upward into another grin. "Just don't go changing your mind about this, okay? I doubt I could handle another break-up like the last one."

Sheena chuckled and snuggled further into his arms, that time lifting his hand to her lips and kissing it. "Don't worry, I won't. I'm not going anywhere anymore unless you're there beside me."

"Same here," Zelos replied, pressing a soft kiss to her hairline, but without warning, he pulled back and looked down at her. "Oh, hey, and while I'm thinking of it...I'm sorry, too, that I didn't talk to you about this before now. I'm just as guilty as you are of not mentioning my own thoughts about the future. If I'd told you I was at least considering this, you never would've jumped to the conclusions you did. I just...I didn't want to say anything until I was sure where I stood on it - and until I knew I'd even be welcome in Mizuho." He paused a moment, then sighed regretfully. "I'm sorry about how I acted this past week, too. Yeah, I was avoiding you, and I lied a few times to get away from you. I should've known you'd call me on how pathetic I've become at making up believable lies and excuses. You just have this uncanny ability to get the truth from me, and I knew I couldn't say anything to you about it until I'd gotten your grandfather's blessing. Heck, knowing me, if I'd spent any time with you, I probably would've pissed off your grandfather by jumping the gun and asking you too soon, and I really didn't want to do that. I hated lying to you, Sheena; I just didn't know how else to handle the situation."

"Hey, don't worry about it," she assured him, giving him a faint smile. "I understand now. I never should've lost faith in you; I should've trusted you instead of jumping to the wrong conclusions."

"Heh." He grinned wryly. "This whole thing really was a mess, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, it really was," she murmured, nodding forlornly.

Zelos shrugged and pulled her back down against him, resting his cheek against her forehead. "Eh, that's okay. In five years we'll look back on this and laugh, and in twenty we'll be amusing our kids with stories about their parents' infamously bad engagement."

Without warning, blood rushed to her face at his words: 'our kids.' Even after a year, instinct still told her to smack him and call him an idiot for thinking she would ever even consider having children with him...but she couldn't deny it anymore, could she? Kids, after all, were generally a natural byproduct of marriage. And the truth was, while she'd never let herself seriously think about it before, convinced as she'd been that they had no future together, the idea didn't sit badly with her, either. Quite the contrary, in fact, she realized, remembering the time they'd dropped off Michi in Sybak and the warmth and yearning she'd felt as she'd watched the two interact. Despite his feigned immaturity, Zelos was a man she knew she could have and raise children with. They would undoubtedly argue over parenting styles, workloads, and other parental duties, maybe even how many children to have, but she didn't doubt those issues, too, they would keep working through until they were both happy with their final decision.

And now, hearing his implication that, in his mind, it was a given they would one day have children...well, she wouldn't push the issue now since that was one of many important conversations they'd soon have to have, but she was glad to hear he wasn't opposed to it. Mizuho needed more children to strengthen its numbers, and since she would soon be its chief, whatever they decided regarding children would probably set the precedent for other married couples there. She'd known for a long time now that he had strong opinions regarding children thanks to his disappointment with the job his own parents had done raising him and his refusal to repeat their mistakes, and then especially after his encounter with that woman who'd tried to blackmail him into raising her child, and Sheena had no doubt those opinions would benefit them when that time came. And just like that, another piece of that hazy but much-desired future fit into place...and she liked the picture that was starting to develop.

And so instead of giving in to her outdated instinct to smack him, Sheena lifted her head, met his eyes, and whispered, "I hope so" - and thankfully, the beautiful smile that lit his face before he gave her another quick kiss told her he'd caught her subtle answer to his similarly subtle question. But they could discuss children later; right now she wanted to know a few other things first. "Hey, Zelos?" she said, returning her head to his shoulder and curling further into him, her gaze falling back to the beautiful iris ring on her finger.

Recognizing where her attention had gone, Zelos gently took her left hand in his and sensuously caressed it, creating even more tingles of fire everywhere their skin touched. "Yeah, love?"

Oh, Jizou, that felt so good - and that was just their hands. The action was so simple and innocent, yet it felt so intimate and erotic...she never would have thought that would be such a turn-on. Lips, definitely, but hands? She couldn't help wondering how sensitive the nerves in other parts of their bodies were...

Sheena quickly cleared her throat to refocus her straying mind. "What did Grandpa mean when he said this whole thing was his fault?"

His hand briefly stilled, but then he sighed and the oh-so-lovely caresses resumed. "Last night, when he asked me to wait to talk to you until he'd told you it was time for you to become chief, I said I thought it was a bad idea, that I was afraid you'd only accept my proposal out of obligation, because you needed to find a husband ASAP, or would get other 'strange ideas' stuck in your head. Honestly, I was just afraid if you thought about it too much, you'd realize you didn't want to marry me. In any case, he disagreed and insisted everything would be fine if he talked to you first, and I was just so glad to have his approval that I didn't argue it further. I mean, as much as I admire your grandfather, he is an intimidating man, and I really didn't want to risk pissing him off. That's probably what he meant."

Ah. That made sense. "Sorry I proved you right," she murmured.

"Hey, don't worry about it. It's water under the bridge now - and as you can see, there's plenty of that down there." He motioned at the ocean below them, and Sheena groaned and shook her head at his pun, albeit unable to resist chuckling, too - which, in turn, made him chuckle. "I'm just happy because in the end, you agreed to marry me anyway, so I can't hold it against him too much." While she couldn't see his face from her position, she could've sworn he was smirking. "Although I may have to hold this over his head for awhile..."

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, good luck with that. I know Grandpa, and letting anyone hold anything over his head is about as likely as Raine's cooking ever being edible." Zelos snorted, but before he could retort, Sheena pressed on with another question. "And speaking of Grandpa's blessing, how did you get that, anyway? I mean, I knew he never disliked you, but even I was surprised he was so eager to give it to you - no offense meant, of course."

Zelos let out a soft laugh. "None taken. And believe me, sweetheart, I wish I knew because I'd love to use those tactics on certain other people. I don't, though. I mean, for awhile there, I really didn't think I'd get it. When he started grilling me about my past and my reputation and all the rumors that have been swirling around me for years..."

...Oh, no. Her face fell, and Sheena quickly lifted her head and looked at him, her eyes widening in horror. "Oh, please tell me he didn't."

"Oh, yeah, he did," he replied, grinning wryly. "At one point I was positive he was gonna boot me from Mizuho for good, maybe even put out a restraining order on me so I couldn't get anywhere near you again. So imagine my surprise when he gave me a chance to defend myself - and then, in the end, pretty much said the opposite."

Laughing softly, Sheena lowered her head back to his shoulder. Yeah, that sounded like something Grandpa would do: punch his 'victim' in the gut only to turn around a second later, pull him to his feet, dust him off, and give him a proud pat on the back for 'taking it like a man.' She would never say this aloud for fear it would go straight to Zelos's head, but it impressed her that whatever he'd said that day had won Grandpa over so completely.

"Well, I'm sorry you had to go through that because of me," she said.

Zelos shrugged. "Eh, it was nothing. Really. Believe me, thinking you didn't love me, trust me, or have any faith in me was far worse than anything your grandfather put me through-" Without warning, he froze, his eyelashes fluttering against her skin, then quickly added, "Y'know what? Let's forget I just said that."

While he clearly regretted what he'd said, she couldn't just 'forget' it. Nuzzling her face further against his shoulder, Sheena sighed, the knot of guilt within her tightening again. "I'm really sorry about that, too, Zelos. I never should've let you believe that, no matter how desperate I was to get you to leave. I can't believe I did that to you."

In response, though, Zelos laced his fingers through hers. "Hey, it's not true, so it doesn't matter anymore. Let bygones be bygones. You know me; other than a few stupid people who deserve it, like Giannovio, do I really waste my time and energy holding grudges?"

She shook her head. That was one of the things she'd always loved most about him: how hard it was to get him truly angry. Hot-button issues like accusations of impregnating her notwithstanding. "No. You wouldn't have given me this if you did."

Zelos nodded curtly as she pulled her left hand from his and held it up, displaying the ring shining on her finger again. "Damn straight, and don't you ever forget it."

"I won't."

And again, Sheena was unable to resist smiling as she marveled over the ring, so priceless in its meaning that she suspected it would astound her for the rest of her life. She couldn't wait to see Grandpa's reaction to it; he was, after all, the only other person who would understand just how special it was. At least until she had a chance to tell Zelos...which she definitely would, because she couldn't wait to see his reaction to it, too. But it wasn't time for that yet. Having to wait months before they actually got married so she could tell him would be torture, but that was the rule. She would just have to be patient and see how things went.

Besides, right now she still had other questions for him. "So what did you and Grandpa decide about your responsibilities in Mizuho? What does he expect from you?"

Zelos quickly recaptured her hand, resting his cheek against the corner of her forehead. "Well, for starters, he wants me to keep my job as Foreign Minster. He really is a crafty old man, y'know, using my connections to Mizuho's benefit like that. Not that I can blame him; I'd probably be doing the same in his position. In fact, it's actually kinda scary how much everything he said made sense to me."

Sheena looked up at him and pulled a teasing face. "You're right. That is scary."

"Smart aleck," he muttered, poking her leg and eliciting a giggle from her. "Anyway, beyond that, he rattled off a long list of things that'll be required of us both and said we'll have to go through everything and split up the workload according to our individual strengths. But we can worry about that after we've heard all the details."

She nodded. "We can't make any decisions until we've talked to Grandpa. I mean, even I don't know everything I'll have to do yet; he gave me a basic rundown when he named me to be his successor, and since then I've been paying closer attention to everything he's done, but he does a lot I don't know about because it's 'top secret.'"

"You ninjas and your ridiculous need to turn everything into something ultra top secret," he replied, rolling his eyes, but then he waggled his eyebrows at her. "But then, I'll be privy to some of that cool stuff soon so...eh, I guess I can't complain too much, can I?"

Oh, yeah, this would be interesting. Probably annoying, too, listening to Zelos boast about all the 'cool stuff' he'd learned in Mizuho. She arched an unamused eyebrow at him. "You do realize that, husband or not, if you tell anyone any of that 'cool stuff,' I'll have to break your arm, right?"

Zelos burst out laughing and quickly pulled her back down against him. "Of course I do, sweetheart. I'd never share your precious secrets with anyone."

"Yeah, you'll just be infuriatingly childish and gloat about it," she muttered, smiling yet shaking her head at the quirks of the idiot she was now, incredibly enough, engaged to.

"Heh, you really do know me too well, don't you?" he murmured. "But then, you can't break my arm for gloating so long as I don't actually tell anyone anything, so...eh, my arm and your secrets will be safe, and I still get to have my fun."

This man had the most ridiculous logic at times. But then, how could she punish him for being playful when they were both so happy right now? Since she couldn't, she instead just smiled, shook her head, and muttered a fond, "Incorrigible idiot."

"That's me!" he replied brightly, making Sheena, against her better judgment, laugh again. In the blink of an eye, though, he grew serious again. "Anyway, your grandfather does expect me to start studying Mizuho's culture and traditions right away. Apparently I need to be an expert in them."

That made sense. "Yeah, well, I'll probably be studying all of that right along with you. I know a lot about Mizuho's culture and history, but because Grandpa was in that coma so long, I've never heard most of its oral traditions."

"No surprise there." He tilted his head, thinking. "I obviously need to master your language so I can read your records - good thing I already have a head start with that - and...oh! You're gonna love this. He wants me to train as a ninja."

For a moment, Sheena could only blink at that, but then she lifted her head and gaped at him, her eyes widening as she took in the knowing smirk on his face. Was he serious? She wasn't sure whether to be alarmed at that thought or to burst out laughing. "He wants you to train as a ninja?"

Zelos nodded curtly - and with way too much suave confidence. "Yup."

Oh, great Jizou. Despite his smarmy grin, the bastard was serious about that. "But I know I told him you were already an extremely skilled swordsman and magic user!"

"Calm down, sweetheart," he quickly said, chuckling again. "You did. He assured me I don't actually have to become a ninja, but he said to help you lead them, I have to understand how they think, so he wants me to see what's all involved with the training." He shrugged. "Hey, some of your skills are pretty handy. I wouldn't mind knowing how to do some of that fancy schmancy poofy-disappearing stuff."

'Fancy schmancy poofy-disappearing stuff'? This was going to be a complete disaster. Sheena groaned but couldn't resist smiling as she shook her head. "Grandpa has no idea what kind of monster he's creating..."

"Heheheh...I won't tell him if you won't."

She nudged him with her elbow, giving him a playful glare, but then she shook her head and lowered it back to his shoulder. Zelos Wilder trying to act like a stealthy, shadow-sneaking ninja. It was unthinkable, doomed to crash and burn in the most spectacular way imaginable. This man couldn't be inconspicuous if his life depended on it; if anything, he would be the one the ninjas used as the diversion so they could carry out their spying business! And then his smugness over it...

"I'm marrying an idiot," she muttered.

He abruptly pointed at her. "Hey, I distinctly remember giving you a chance to say 'no,' and I even more distinctly remember hearing you say 'yes.' Rather emphatically, too. So you aren't allowed to change your mind now, just because you now know it's inevitable that once I master these skills, I'll finally be able to say I'm cooler than you are!"

"'Cooler,'" she deadpanned, rolling her eyes again - but his sheer happiness made it hard to get annoyed at his childish giddiness. And oh, was that happiness beautiful. "Riiiight. Just be glad I currently don't have the heart to burst your delusional little bubble."

She could feel his grin broaden as he poked her leg. "Admit it - you love me and you know it."

Sheena lifted her head and tried to give him another warning glare, but she couldn't muster enough willpower to make it anything more than halfhearted. She quickly caved to another smile as she nudged him and murmured, "Yeah, I really, really do."

"And I really, really love you, too, Sheena," he whispered, his breath warm as his lips trailed down over her ear again, eliciting another shiver from her, the sensation intensifying as his lips lingered against her neck. Her heart melted, not only at the intimate gesture, but at the love and sincerity in his voice, and she burrowed further into his side, wrapping her arm around him and letting her free hand rest against his chest.

And then she couldn't help it; she closed her eyes, lowered her head back to his shoulder, and smiled. The very thought of it, of showy, carefree, free-spirited Zelos Wilder as a highly cautious, disciplined ninja, was too amusing. Physically, he would be a great fit - he was sharp, agile, and graceful, especially when he had his Cruxis crystal equipped - but the training itself...oh, she could hear the whining starting already. And lucky her, she would get to hear every word of it. But then, Zelos wasn't stupid, despite how he acted at times; he had to remember some of the stories she'd told him about her own training and knew what he was getting himself into with this. She would do everything she could to help him through the rigorous, at times torturous, training...but oh, did she hate that he'd have to endure that for her sake. Ultimately, though, as he'd said, this was his choice, which just reminded her of how utterly stupid she'd been...

"I really am sorry, Zelos, about everything," she said, tightening her hold on him.

Zelos sighed and grasped her left hand again where it lay against his chest. "Sheena, stop," he said, his voice a mixture of authoritativeness and gentleness. "Enough. If I really wanted to hear constant apologizing, I'd marry Colette - and trust me, as much as I adore my cute little Sylvaranti counterpart, I do not want to marry her, not when I have this beautiful, goodhearted woman I'd much rather marry instead."

Despite her precarious mood, Sheena chuckled softly before releasing a low sigh. He was right; she had already apologized and he had already forgiven her, and constantly repeating it was annoying and unnecessary. Heck, even she had gotten annoyed at times when Colette had constantly apologized for something, regardless of whether or not it had been her fault. She just wouldn't do it, then. "I'll make it up to you, y'know. For all of it. I promise."

Lifting her hand to his lips again, Zelos pressed another kiss to it. "You may not think so yet, sweetheart, but you already did."

Closing her eyes again, Sheena smiled faintly as his lips returned to her ear, trailing over it deliciously. "Maybe, but that won't stop me from trying anyway."

"Seeing as you could never stop me from trying to make it up to you, I guess I can't expect any differently from you, can I?"

"Nope."

She could feel him smirk a second before he lifted his head and looked down at her. "Y'know, this could actually be fun! I think I like this! Let's see...how thick can I lay on the guilt trip to get certain things from you before you catch on and realize what I'm doing...?"

...And just like that, the pervert was back. She should've figured he'd be rearing his infuriatingly endearing head eventually. And other than a few minor bouts of silliness, he'd been behaving so well, too. Sheena lifted her head and, seeing the evil smirk on his lips, gave him a mock glare. "Oh, don't you dare go getting any perverted ideas..."

His smirk broadened further, and he waggled his eyebrows. "Whoops, too late." She fought to hold back her grin, because encouraging his stupidity was a horrible idea after she'd just agreed to spend forever with him, and instead she pulled her hand from his and pinched his chest. Zelos yelped in pained surprise, then gave her an indignant look that was rendered completely impotent by his accompanying grin. "Hey! Hurting me is not an effective way of making it up to me!"

Sheena finally caved to a grin - and then, worse, to a giggle - and then she silenced them both by twisting her body upward and kissing him. A moment later she pulled back an inch, just enough to look in his eyes and whisper huskily, "How's that?"

Zelos bit his lip as his eyes traveled over her face, lingering on her lips, still grinning smugly. "Hmm...it certainly seems promising, my lady. And really rather creative. I kinda like it. But keep going anyway. Something tells me a few more of those might just do the trick - and maybe even win you some brownie points in the process."

She would roll her eyes at that only she really, really wanted to go back to kissing him, and so she knew which option she'd pick. She gave him another quick kiss, then pulled back enough to see his half-lidded eyes as they continued watching her, and then she succumbed to desire completely and kissed him again, longer that time, a kiss that grew increasingly passionate as she parted her lips to him, an invitation he quickly accepted. Twisting her body further, she rose onto her knees to get some leverage, which proved to be more challenging than she'd anticipated while taking care not to a) fall off the bridge, or b) disengage her mouth from his. Fortunately, his hands immediately went to her hips, steadying her, but then, without warning, they pulled her even closer, crushing her body against his, eliciting a moan from her - and, far more enticing to her ears, a low groan from him.

But despite the burning passion engulfing her at the breathtaking kiss, she could feel his hands tremble faintly, telling her he was still holding himself back. And suddenly, using the hands she hadn't even realized she'd woven into his hair, Sheena forced herself to break the kiss, licking her lips and savoring the taste of him on her tongue, her breathing quickening as she searched his face, seeing his fiery blue eyes searching hers in return. Oh, Jizou, that kiss had been incredible; she'd felt the resulting electricity tingling in every inch of her body. Whether it was a result of the kiss or their earlier hand-sex or his breath in her ear and his lips on her neck, one thing was becoming undeniably clear: there was an overwhelming heat, a throbbing ache, deep inside her that was suddenly yearning for this man like nothing she had ever felt before.

And just like that, she knew. There was no reason to hold back anymore. Tradition in Mizuho or not, she wanted this. She wanted him. He was going to be her husband soon; all of her reasons for holding back from him this past year were now non-issues. Nothing would change that fact anymore; at this point, neither of them would do anything to risk jeopardizing their upcoming marriage. For so long she had kept him at bay sexually, refusing to succumb to the desire, the need inside of her that cried out for him, believing there was no chance he would be the man she spent the rest of eternity with, but now...Zelos was the one. He had been all this time, and she'd just been too blinded by fear to see it sooner. And now that she knew that, she didn't want him to hold himself back for her sake anymore. Heck, she didn't want to hold back from him anymore.

Sheena gave him another quick but still heated kiss, then pulled back so she could see his eyes again, her hands untangling from his hair to cup his face. "It's time."

His eyes narrowed as he searched her face, his intense gaze igniting a blush on her cheeks - and that time not out of shyness. "Hm?"

"For this...for us," she replied, brushing her lips over his again. "I'm ready. I don't want to hide anything from you anymore, Zelos. I want to give you everything." Her voice lowered and she gave him another quick but pointed kiss. "I want you."

The fire in his eyes flared into full-blown hunger. To her shock, though, instead of cheering excitedly about that, he sighed, pulled back a little, and shook his head. "As thrilled as I am to hear that, I'm going to have to be a gentleman and respectfully decline, at least for tonight."

...Wait, what? He was turning her down? Sheena blinked at him, confused. "But..."

"No," he insisted, shaking his head again as she pulled back a little further, her hands falling to his shoulders. Lifting his hands from her hips to her face, Zelos brushed her hair behind her shoulders, his gaze focused on her lips a moment, betraying his own desire to resume their kiss, before lifting back to her eyes. "Not tonight, Sheena. The emotions are still running too high for us both, and if there's one thing I don't want, it's for our first time together to be clouded with guilt or any sense of obligation or because you think that will make it up to me. I don't want to feel like I'm taking advantage of you, even if I'm not. So let's sleep on it tonight, make sure you don't regret this in the morning, and then tomorrow we'll make sure we're both ready for it." He quirked an eyebrow. "Okay?"

"...Oh." Of all the times to be a gentleman, why did Zelos always pick the strangest ones? Here she was, finally offering him what she knew he'd been eagerly awaiting for a year now, and what did he do? He turned her down. But then, he had a point, too; she didn't want either of them to make any hasty decisions about this without being absolutely sure, and it would be too hard to be sure sure tonight while her emotions were still this volatile, jumping between happiness, excitement, guilt, and regret at the drop of a hat. And really, she realized, the emotions might be willing, but physically, she doubted she even could handle that; her head was fuzzy and aching, her stomach was starting to growl, she was parched, and her body was on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion. No, he was right; tonight wasn't the right time for that. She, too, wanted this to be a special moment for them both, not a hasty, poorly thought out moment that she couldn't follow through on as he deserved. She sighed but nodded. "Well, I can assure you I won't change my mind about this - I'm more afraid you will, actually - but...okay. We'll wait until tomorrow."

His smile returned and his eyes softened. "Tomorrow, then." Before she could extract herself from his grasp, though, his hand suddenly curled around her neck and he pulled her head back down to his, giving her another breathtakingly demanding and passionate kiss, one that sent heat, tingles, and pure, liquid need coursing through her veins and leaving her hands clutching onto him for dear life. And then, just as suddenly, he pulled back and grinned at her seductively. "Just a little preview of what's to come."

A deep blush settled on her cheeks, and for a moment all she could do was blink at him, dazed, as emotion and the accompanying sensations wracked her body, demanding so much more than just that kiss. Taking several deep breaths, trying to cool herself down since he'd made it clear he refused to go any further than that yet, she gave him a shy smile and slid back down to sit beside him, wrapping her arms around him even as he did the same, resting her head on his shoulder again. While they might not be ready to follow through on that yet, it would happen soon. She would make sure of that, because there was no way she could survive another day or two of kisses like that without spontaneously combusting.

"Idiot," she whispered fondly, which she just knew, even without seeing it, made him grin.

"Yeah, I am," he whispered back to her, pressing his lips to her temple and taking her left hand again in his. "But I'm your idiot."

She couldn't resist smiling happily. "Yeah, you are. And I wouldn't have it any other way."

And with that, silence finally fell upon them. With all of her immediate questions answered, Sheena settled in against him, admiring the rippling blue water beneath the cloudless blue sky before them, stretching out as far as the eye could see and sparkling and glistening in the sun as it began its slow descent toward the horizon. It was so calm, so peaceful, so soothing. But the best part was, by far, simply being held in Zelos's protective embrace and savoring his warm breath against her skin and his fingers caressing hers. While they'd enjoyed plenty of peaceful, intimate moments like this the past year, those moments had always been tainted by fear and dread of the future, certain as she'd been that it would never last and she'd eventually have to let him go. But now...now, finally, she could embrace it wholeheartedly and enjoy it like she'd always wanted. And for an indeterminable time, that was what they did: they sat there, simply enjoying being together, and looking forward to a future that could prove to be a never-ending stream of even more beautiful, serene, exhilarating moments exactly like this one.

The sun was past the midway point of its downward trek toward the horizon, casting its warm, gentle light on the world, when, without warning, her stomach growled plaintively, alerting Sheena to how late it was becoming. She had barely been able to choke down anything for breakfast, and then she'd slept through lunch, and now she'd missed dinner, too. No wonder she felt like she could eat a five-course meal.

As if reading her mind - or maybe just hearing her stomach growl - Zelos nuzzled his nose against her ear again. "We should get back soon," he said, his warm breath tickling her neck. "It's getting late, and you clearly need your beauty sleep, because...well, while you're still as hot as ever, you also look like you spent the entire day wandering around lost in a thicket."

Sheena blushed and let out a soft, shy laugh, her gaze falling to their still-joined hands. "Grandpa said I looked like a tree fell on me."

"Aha!" Zelos exclaimed, grinning broadly as she looked up at him again. "That explains it!"

Uh oh. That was always a dangerous tone coming from him. "Explains what?"

"Why there's a leaf in my face."

"What?" Sheena bolted upright and reached for her hair, trying to find it, but Zelos just chuckled, gently grasped her hand to stop it, and pulled out the offending leaf from her messy ponytail, holding it up and grinning proudly. She stared at it a moment, then laughed, embarrassed, as he released it, watching it catch in the breeze and drift out over the water. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't sleep well last night, and I...well, I kinda fell asleep on the ground by the river earlier. I tried to clean up a little before I came looking for you, but I guess I missed a few."

His blue eyes were sparkling in a bizarre mixture of sweetness and perverseness as they roamed her face. "Yeah. A few." He shrugged - and then suddenly the perverseness was far outweighing the sweetness as he smirked. "But it really doesn't matter. You're still the hottest, sexiest woman I've ever seen. In fact, I can't help thinking the leaves are a nice, primitive, earthy touch..."

Her eyes narrowed in the best glare she could currently manage given the fact that his fingers had begun trailing over her reddening cheeks. "You're being perverted again, aren't you?"

Zelos's eyebrows flew upward in a highly unconvincing mask of innocence. "What? Me? But I would never do that! Never!"

Her eyes narrowed further and she shook her head, but try as she might, she couldn't stop herself from grinning. "Don't make me smack you."

"But maybe I want you to!" That time, though, he didn't let her answer, for instead he shifted, disentangled himself from her, and rose to his feet, muttering something under his breath about sexy, earthy fertility goddesses rolling around in dirt and leaves. Since she was feeling generous, still being in the best mood she'd been in for weeks, maybe even ever, she let it go and accepted his hand as he offered it to her to help her up.

...And suddenly she staggered as she found herself standing. Her legs, having been curled up since she'd arrived here, were now cramped and wobbly as blood began circulating through them freely again. "Oh," she murmured, digging her fingers into his arms as she attempted to retain her footing. "I, ah, I think I was sitting too long. I feel..."

Releasing his arm, Sheena tried to stand on her own - but only a moment later she swayed and grabbed onto him again. Instantly, Zelos lost his playful, mischievous grin, growing concerned as he wrapped his arms around her. "Hey, sweetheart, you okay?"

Sheena stood still a moment, relieved to find her legs feeling sturdier and the accompanying head rush fading, then nodded, albeit still holding his arms tightly. As much as her pride hated relying on him, they were too high up to take any chances right now - and she refused to die now that she'd received the future she wanted. "I...yeah, I think so."

She released his arms again - that time thankfully not feeling like she would pass out - but Zelos's blue eyes narrowed as he observed her. "I think we need to get you some food."

Definitely. Now that the adrenaline rush was wearing off, she must be close to collapsing. "And some water, too. I'm probably dehydrated from all this crying."

"Okay," he replied, one arm still wrapped around her waist while his other hand brushed her hair back behind her ear. "Then let's head to my mansion. I'll have Sebastian cook up something for us. Unless, of course, you'd rather head back to Mizuho right away..."

Mizuho? Now? The very thought of going back there instilled nothing less than the utmost dread in her. She couldn't handle the rest of those changes yet. This one? Definitely. But not all the 'chiefly' changes. She quickly shook her head. "Not tonight. I know Grandpa will be worried, but I don't want to deal with that yet. Let's just enjoy having the moment to ourselves, because we both know it won't last."

Zelos eyed her a moment, but then he smiled faintly and nodded. "Probably a good idea."

And just like that, another realization hit her, and her gaze snapped back to his face, her heart sinking. Oh, yeah, Mizuho was definitely out of the question tonight. She smiled sheepishly. "Besides, I'm afraid if Orochi sees you right now, he'll try to kill you."

"Uh oh," he replied, his eyes narrowing warily. "Now what did I do to piss him off?"

Sheena really didn't want to tell him this, seeing as it was her fault he now had a furious ninja out to put his head on a platter, but she already knew he wouldn't let this go. Maybe employing his own diversionary tactics would work? "You mean besides convincing me to marry you, which puts you at a higher rank than him in Mizuho?"

...Okay, that obviously didn't work, since instead of biting at that, he gave her a pointed look. "Somehow I get the feeling that's not what you're talking about."

Her blush returned and her gaze fell to his chest as she lightly trailed her fingers over his Cruxis crystal. "Well, technically you did nothing. But he, ah, saw me upset before, and when he didn't see you, he...he kinda assumed you were responsible for it, so..."

Zelos groaned, his shoulders drooping. "Wonderful. So now he thinks I molested you this morning."

"Yeah," she whispered, her blush deepening. "I insisted you hadn't touched me, but I don't think he believed me." She lifted her eyes back to his and gave him another sheepish smile. "I'm really sorry, Zelos."

He sighed wearily, but then shrugged and slid his hands back down to her waist. "Eh, don't worry about it. It's not like I can blame him for jumping to that conclusion. Heck, if I'd found you looking like that, I would've wanted to kill the man I thought was responsible for it, too."

Yeah, she knew. If someone hurt Zelos, she wouldn't stop until that person had paid for it - preferably squashed into a blob by Maxwell's meteor storm. "I'll do everything I can to smooth things over with him. Or, if worst comes to worst, I'm sure Grandpa will step in. It's not like he doesn't know what really happened this morning."

"I know you will." Zelos took a deep breath, then nodded curtly. "Okay, definitely not going back to Mizuho tonight, so my mansion it is."

"Right."

Finally feeling steady on her feet again, Sheena looked around, first up at the bridge, then down at the rafters, then to her sides...how did he come down here and get back up, anyway? Getting down had been easy, but getting up looked quite a bit more difficult. Eh, she'd just have to climb it, wouldn't she? She could handle that. Before she could spot the nearest bars to start pulling herself up, though, Zelos grabbed her arm to stop her, a smirk toying on his lips. "Need me to carry you back?"

Her blush quickly returned, but before she could so much as utter, "No, of course not," he swept her up into his arms. Sheena yelped and glared at him - but, to her dismay, she was pretty sure her laughter completely ruined its effect. "Hey! I never answered that!"

His smirk broadened into a playful grin. "Tough."

Her eyes narrowed as she struggled to make her glare more convincing. "You just want an excuse to grope me again, don't you?"

...Yeah, that's what I thought, she realized as his grin broadened further. "Guilty as charged. But I won't need excuses for much longer, will I?"

He waggled his eyebrows knowingly, and her face grew even warmer. Encouraging him was a horrible idea, but she laughed and poked his chest anyway. "I. Di. Ot."

"Always," Zelos replied, beaming smugly as he gave her a quick kiss. "Now c'mon, sweetheart. Let's get back."

Sheena growled as he shifted, preparing to leave. "Hey! Didn't you forget something?"

Batting his eyelashes, he pretended to look around them. "No, I'm pretty sure I didn't..."

Agh, she was getting the most annoying yet endearing flash of déjà vu to the last few times he'd insisted on carrying her somewhere. While she'd hated it at the time, at least it had been understandable because she really had been incapacitated then, but this time...heck, there was no good excuse for this time! "Yes, I'm pretty sure you did," she replied, glaring at him again. "Maybe to, y'know, put me down?"

Zelos cocked his head, pretending to consider that, but then, as expected, he dismissed it with a shrug. "Eh...I'll pass." His eyebrows flew upward and he gave her a pointed look as she growled - and, frustratingly, laughed - at him again. "And if you don't want me dropping you off this bridge, I wouldn't recommend tickling me right now, either."

"Zelos!" she exclaimed, no longer able to control her laughter. "I am perfectly capable of walking back to Meltokio on my own! Now put me down!"

He beamed her a smug, challenging look, then suddenly held her out over the water, just enough to make the threat known. Sheena immediately squealed and curled into him, clutching onto him tighter. "Still want me to put you down?"

Oh, this bastard is so going to pay for this... "Of course not, you idiot!"

"Well, quit squirming, then!"

Agh! When I get my hands on you... "Zelos! Quit being such a stubborn idiot and Put. Me. Down!"

He shrugged again. "Well, okay, if that's what you really, truly want..."

Without warning, he smirked wickedly, and her eyes widened, instinct screaming she would not like what he was about to do. "No...Zelos, don't you dare!"

His smirk grew downright dastardly, and Sheena shrieked again, squeezed her eyes shut, and buried her head against his chest as he tightened his hold on her and suddenly stepped forward off the bridge. Their fall only lasted a split second, though, before it abruptly stopped, and next she knew they were they suddenly soaring up into the air. It was only as he finally slowed his ascent and whispered to her, "Look," that she managed to pry her eyes open. His breathtakingly beautiful golden-orange wings were now visible behind him, beating a steady rhythm, keeping them aloft in the air - and just as beautiful was the view she received when she turned her head and saw the expanse of sparkling water below them. She quickly relaxed, growing to enjoy the feeling of flying, safe in Zelos's arms...and a moment later her heart melted yet again as he softly added, "See? Told you I'd never let you fall again."

Looking back at him, all her lingering annoyance dissipated at the tender love shining in his eyes, and she smiled shyly, resting her head against his chest and settling in for the ride as he began leisurely flying them back toward the Meltokio side of the bridge. Soaring through the air like that was heavenly, and even better was the feeling of being held so securely in his arms, knowing that for all his childish stupidity, she could trust that he would never let any harm come to her. It made her feel as free as a bird. It made her feel overwhelmed by all-encompassing love. It made her feel like...like she could go anywhere and do anything and rest assured he would always be there beside her, letting her make her own decisions and do her own thing, yet was fully ready to catch her if she were to ever fall again.

It was the best feeling in the world.

Several minutes later, they were touching down on solid ground again. Zelos carefully lowered her to her feet, waiting until she was steady before releasing her and taking a step backward, his brilliant wings vanishing. "There," he said, grinning. "Much better."

Once confident her legs would hold her, Sheena lifted her eyes back to his and gave him an evil glare. Two can play at this game, buddy. "You're gonna die now. You know that, right?"

In the blink of an eye, his challenging smirk returned. "Oh, really? I'd like to see you try."

Her smile was completely betraying her and she knew it, but she really didn't care. This man was such a hopeless, unrepentant idiot...and she loved him for it so much that it made her heart ache with a pain that would be unbearable if not for the fact that she was now his and he was now hers for the rest of their lives. Her eyes narrowed and she wagged a finger at him. "When you least expect it..."

His grin broadened and he waggled his eyebrows. "Oho...you really think so, eh?"

She returned his evil, challenging smirk...and suddenly overcoming her exhaustion, Sheena lunged at him and began tickling him - a piece of information she'd always known would come in handy one day...one she especially loved because she was the only person who knew how ticklish he was. Zelos shrieked and burst out laughing, then he ran away from her, casting daring, taunting glances back at her as he went, and Sheena quickly followed him, always letting him stay a few steps ahead of her to prolong what would otherwise be an extremely short chase, until next they knew, they were back in Meltokio and were strolling hand-in-hand toward his mansion, panting and trying to recapture their breath, exhausted but grinning like idiots.

This was her future - it was their future. And Sheena wouldn't have it any other way.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 5: The Plan

When Zelos awoke the following morning, having only slept two hours even though he knew he needed far more than that after a full week of minimal sleep, and opened his eyes to determine the source of a warm, soft, distracting pressure on his bare chest, he was greeted by the most beautiful, breathtaking sight he'd ever seen.

For the first time ever, there was a woman in his bed, curled into his right side, her head on his shoulder, her hand on his chest, her leg draped over his, and her face the epitome of peacefulness as she slept. And it wasn't just any woman in his bed; it was the only woman he'd ever truly wanted in his bed: the fiery, kick-ass, beautiful, sexy, voluptuous, kind, compassionate, forgiving, stubborn, impatient, bossy, amazing love of his life, Sheena Fujibayashi. And not only was she in his bed, but she was wearing his ring and had pledged her hand to him in marriage - to him, the idiotic, perverted, unwanted, troublemaking, womanizing ex-Chosen of Tethe'alla. He - the last person even he had ever expected would find a woman who loved him enough to agree to spend the rest of her life with him - was now engaged. Despite some nasty, but perhaps necessary, setbacks, they had survived the storm and had, against all odds, made it to this point. And the best part was that she was now as certain about him as he was about her, and neither of them would ever seriously doubt that again.

It was astounding - and exhilarating. In fact, the way he felt at that moment, watching her sleep and feeling her resting so peacefully, so securely, against him, made his heart hurt with the best of aches and made him feel like he was drowning in this happiness, warmth, and love. He'd never believed himself worthy of experiencing this, and yet here he was...and now he wanted to hold on to it forever. He wanted to wake to this sight every morning for the rest of his life. He wanted to give her everything she deserved. He wanted to thank her for saving him; he wanted to make her happy, and help her, and enjoy loving her and being loved by her in return; he wanted, one day, to marvel over their children being born, help her raise them, and watch them grow and learn and live, carrying on as witnesses, in their very existence, to the love he and this incredible woman shared.

Naturally, it was possible that one day they might get so pissed at each other that they'd wonder if they had made a mistake deciding to get married - he was perfectly aware that their quirks and flaws would eventually bug each other, like his inability to keep his mouth shut, his occasional difficulty taking things seriously, and his laziness, not to mention her stubbornness, her insistence on being independent, and her easily roused temper, because that was how relationships worked - but he refused to ever let it get serious. And something told him Sheena wouldn't let it, either, especially if they planned their 'Disagreement Agreements' carefully enough. No, he was convinced that if they were alert to potential problems, never took each other for granted, and never lost sight of the fact that they loved each other and wanted to be together, then little annoyances - and hopefully the big ones, too - wouldn't be enough to permanently derail and threaten them. He had faith in them; if they fought to make their marriage work, they would make it work. The simple fact that they were here, despite everything that had happened and how close they'd come to losing it all, proved it to him. After all, if that hadn't stopped them, then what could?

Granted, yesterday really had been an emotional nightmare, at one point becoming his personal Worst Day Ever (complete with some suicidal thoughts that thankfully hadn't gone too far thanks to the faith he knew Lloyd and their other friends still had in him), only to turn around and become his Best Day Ever. (And man, he'd been having too many of those split Best Day/Worst Day combinations lately. Between yesterday and that day he'd lost the title only to find Mizuho poisoned, he was really getting sick of them. It would be nice to have a Best Day Ever that didn't also involve hitting rock bottom at some point. Maybe their wedding day could go off without a hitch? Pretty please with a peach on top?) And to think, he'd initially decided yesterday on the bridge, when he'd heard Sheena calling for him, not to answer her because he hadn't thought he could face her, terrified as he'd been that she would crush any tiny fragments that still remained of his heart.

But oh, was he glad he'd succumbed to the flicker of hope that had insisted he respond to her, because this, being able to watch her sleep in his arms for only the second time ever, was worth all the pain he'd endured yesterday. Like New Year's, there were still too many clothes involved, but eh, that next step was apparently coming soon, if Sheena's decision yesterday didn't change. Besides, if he'd waited this long for that, he could wait a little longer, especially now that he knew it was eventually coming. In fact, the future, their future, was looking so appealing at that moment that he was almost tempted to wake her so they could get it started. As it was, it took all his willpower not to kiss her but to instead just brush a few stray locks of dark hair off her face so he could better admire her beauty in the faint morning light.

No, right now, as tempting as rousing her was, he had to be patient since she direly needed the sleep. At times last night she'd been on the verge of passing out, to the point of reminding him of those days during their journey when she'd overexerted herself making a pact with a new summon spirit and had been dead to the world for hours afterwards. By the time they'd finally made it back to his mansion last night, she'd been running out of steam and had been clinging to him, as if afraid she would tip over if she let him go, and that hadn't changed while they'd been telling Sebastian the news and received his wholehearted, almost smug congratulations (along with his concern that Sheena was all right after how 'distraught' she'd been that afternoon - to which Zelos had told him to forget he'd ever seen that, considering the last thing he needed was her being reminded of that debacle while her wounds were still healing). After that she'd managed to take a shower by herself to 'rid herself of any pesky leaves left in her hair' while Sebastian made dinner, but Zelos could tell the minute she'd stepped out of the bathroom that she'd been verging on zombie status.

Once they'd eaten, he'd tried to get her to go to bed, but unsurprisingly, her stubbornness had surfaced and she'd refused, insisting she was fine. And so they'd talked for awhile instead, discussing what he would do with his mansion (which he suspected he would end up keep seeing as they both still worked for the king), what he needed to move to Mizuho (thankfully not much), and what they had to do to her home to accommodate him (also thankfully not much since the villagers had designed it for her entire family), but she'd soon started falling asleep on his shoulder, and at that point he'd put their conversation on hold. Knowing she would never go to bed unless he went to bed, he'd grabbed her hand and led her upstairs - but instead of leaving her at 'her' room, as she'd clearly expected, he'd guided her toward his, assuring her when she'd looked at him, alarmed and confused, that they were only going to sleep. She'd briefly hesitated at that, but then, with a beautiful smile and blush, she'd agreed, admitting they needed to get used to sharing a bed anyway. The desire to have her here with him so he could see her face in the morning and make sure she didn't get any more 'strange ideas' and run off during the night had been completely selfish, but she'd agreed to it so easily that he didn't feel guilty about it.

And he still didn't. Feeling her snuggle into his embrace last night while seeking a comfortable position, feeling her warm breath against his skin, feeling her sweet kiss and seeing the tired but tender happiness in her eyes before she'd fallen asleep...it felt right. It felt complete. And now, seeing her like this...no, he wasn't mad about anything that had happened yesterday. In fact, he'd give anything to know a variation of First Aid that could heal a heart that had hurt itself as badly as she'd hurt hers. After all, how could he be mad at her when the elation resulting from it was so much more powerful and welcome than the pain? He truly did know how awful she felt, and that was why he'd sworn to do everything he could to make her forget and prove he forgave her. No, as ridiculous as it sounded, everything that had happened yesterday had been worth it. Heck, he would endure the pain and devastation all over again if it meant being able to once again experience this very moment.

In fact, in a twisted way, the whole thing had actually been rather amusing and so very her. If he had walked up to just about any other woman in Tethe'alla and said, "Hey, hunny, let's get married!" they would've said 'yes' in a heartbeat, because marrying the Chosen would have be their dream come true. But Sheena? Nooooo, of course not Sheena. Heaven forbid it be that easy with her, the only woman he'd ever wanted to marry. Instead of just saying 'yes' and squealing and jumping in his arms and kissing him senseless, she had dumped him before he could even ask her and had then come crawling back to him, apologizing and crying her heart out. And even then, she'd still made him use every ounce of persuasion he possessed to convince her that a) yes, he really did forgive her, b) yes, he still loved her, trusted her, and wanted to marry her, c) yes, he was still entitled to ask her to marry him, d) yes, it was okay for her to let him ask her, and e) yes, it was okay for her to say 'yes' once he'd finally asked.

But really, that was relationships in a nutshell, wasn't it? Push and pull, give and take, truth and lies, stubbornness and compromises, mistakes and forgiveness, ecstasy and pain, guilt and compassion, love and heartbreak...all because humans were humans and had to balance wanting to be happy with wanting to be a good person and do the right thing. And really, a simple 'yes' from her, while far less painful, wouldn't have been nearly as productive and exciting. In fact, Zelos couldn't help thinking it would have been almost boring and anticlimactic. In the process of having both of their hearts broken and then having to painstakingly put them back together again, he'd learned an awful lot about himself, about her, about relationships, and about the importance of communication - and hopefully she had learned the same. Besides, he realized, unable to resist grinning, now they really did have a story to tell their kids. And what kid wanted to hear a boring story like, 'I asked her to marry me, and she said yes'? No, this would be far more entertaining, and he hoped one day Sheena would be able to see it in that light and accept it for what it was: the most painful of endings, followed by the most beautiful of beginnings.

Without warning, Sheena twitched, and soon after that Zelos could hear her breathing patterns shifting, becoming lighter and more erratic. She stilled again, but only a moment later she sighed and nuzzled herself further into his side, her bare leg sliding over his as smooth as silk and her fingers lightly curling against his chest. With a low moan, her hand lifted to her face and rubbed it, but then, finally, she tilted her head upward and her eyes slowly opened - and the unbelievable warmth that filled their brown depths and the tender, happy smile that accompanied it made his heart pound faster. Oh, yeah. Being able to experience this very moment had been worth all the pain it took to get here. Definitely.

Returning her smile, Zelos ran his hand down her arm where it lay exposed atop the sheet. "Morning, sweetheart."

Her smile softened further as she closed her eyes and nuzzled her face against his chest. "Mm...morning."

"Sleep well?"

She nodded sleepily. "That was the best night of sleep I've had in months."

Oh, good. No more zombie!Sheena. Hopefully she wouldn't be having any more nightmares after this, either. At least now he understood where they'd been coming from: she'd been scared of the future she'd been certain was awaiting them. Using his free hand, he trailed his fingers over her cheek, brushing her dark hair away from her face. "I'm glad to hear that."

After a moment, her eyes reopened and she tilted her face upward again. "You?"

"Well enough."

While that half-truth initially appeased her for her smile broadened and she closed her eyes again, a moment later she clearly caught the ambiguity of his words for one eye suddenly popped open again. "You were staring at me all night again, weren't you?"

Zelos snorted. And that was exactly why he hadn't told her the truth: because she got so adorably embarrassed whenever she realized he'd been staring at her. But then, she'd better get used to it fast because this would definitely not be the last time he'd be caught doing that, not when this was their new reality. Not that he would tell her that, either. After all, she was smart enough to figure it out on her own...eventually. And so instead, he quipped, "Since I value my life and don't want to jeopardize it now that I have a future worth living for...eh, I don't think I'm gonna answer that question."

She gave him a glare that, well, came across as pretty pitiful. "I was afraid of that."

"Hey, it's not like I've never caught you staring at me before!" he said, poking her arm.

Heh, perfect - Zelos could feel her face grow warmer. That was exactly the reaction he'd been hoping for, mainly because it meant she knew damn well he was right. "No, I don-"

"Yes, you do," he cut her off.

Sheena growled lowly. "Well, yeah, but..."

Talk about a pathetic response. "Hate to break this to you, babe, but staring is staring. No 'buts' allowed here - well, except the one I'd love to grope right now if only I knew my hands would still be attached to my body in an hour." Sheena rolled her eyes, but before she could reply, Zelos gleefully went on, "And seeing as you're even prettier than me, and you stare at me, that means I am fully justified in staring at the most gorgeous woman I've ever laid eyes on."

Sheena growled again, but finally she sighed and waved that off. "Fine, fine. You won't be of much use to me in Mizuho if you're dead anyway." Without warning, her eyes softened and she gave him a shy smile. "And I really would miss you far too much."

...Oh, Sheena. Zelos desperately wanted to kiss her for that, but at the moment her face was a little too far away from his. Soon, he told himself. Eventually one of them would have to move - and right now he'd rather enjoy this a little longer. "So how are you feeling this morning?" he asked instead.

"Much better," she replied - but alas, she apparently had a different opinion about staying curled up against him for she suddenly rolled onto her back, leaving coldness in her wake. She stifled a yawn and stretched - but then, thankfully, she scooted up the bed, turned onto her side, and settled her head on the pillow, her face mere inches from his when he mirrored her position and rolled onto his side facing her, her hand settling on his arm and her fingers igniting sweet little sparks on his skin. Okay, so while he missed having her lying half on top of him, he did like being able to see her better - and he especially liked the view he had of the warm smile she was giving him. "I feel like a human being again."

He grinned and shifted forward so his forehead was touching hers, his left hand gently caressing her cheek. Yeah, he was really kinda liking this position, too. "Good."

Sighing softly, Sheena leaned into his hand, her eyes sliding shut, but a moment later they slowly opened and focused on his face again. "So yesterday wasn't just a dream?"

"Nope." To emphasize that, Zelos grasped her left hand where it lay curled up near her head and pulled it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the iris ring shining there.

She smiled and, with her right hand, trailed her fingers over the bridge of his nose, then down to his lips. "And neither is this?"

He smirked faintly. "Could a dream do this?"

Unable to resist the urge any longer, Zelos placed his hand to the back of her neck and drew her closer, giving her a lazy, tender kiss that she made no effort to resist. When she pulled back a minute later, her eyes were shining. "Well, it could, but I somehow doubt it would be that good," she murmured, which, in turn, made his grin broaden right before he kissed her again, a little deeper that time, albeit making sure not to let it get too heated. And that time, when he pulled back and beamed at her, she grabbed his left hand and pressed her lips to it, her smile growing shy. "I could get used to waking to this every morning very easily."

Join the club, sweetheart. Zelos pushed himself up a little, pretending to furtively look around his room, then he laid down and grinned again. "I don't see anyone lurking in the shadows ready to stop you."

Her response, though, wasn't what he'd hoped for. Instead of laughing, she sighed, her smile fading, and tucked her hands - and his left, still trapped between hers - beneath her chin. "Unfortunately, I suspect Mizuho will try very hard to do just that."

Uh oh. His eyes narrowed as uneasiness grew within him, then he propped his head up on his right arm so he could see her better, admiring the wild, dark, tousled hair framing her face. "Why do I get the feeling I'm not gonna like this?"

"Because you won't," Sheena murmured, looking up at him. Instead of pushing, though, Zelos just waited for her to explain. Panicking before he knew why she was so unhappy right now wouldn't help anything. "We...we have this rule that says engaged couples aren't allowed to live together, nor even sleep under the same roof, until they're officially married."

Not allowed to...? Aw, crap. "Ugh. I should've known when your grandfather asked me if we'd had sex yet and then insisted it was 'extremely important' we didn't until we were officially married that it meant living together beforehand would be out of the question, too."

Her eyes widened as she lifted her head from the pillow. "He actually asked you that?"

He grinned wryly. "Oh, yeah, he did. Gave me some crap, too, about how if the engagement is called off for whatever reason, you need to be 'pure' for your future husband." He gave her a pointed look. "And for the record, sweetheart, I am not of the opinion that you losing your 'proof of innocence,'" he rolled his eyes at the term, "means you're no longer pure. And since I'm the one marrying you, I think my say is more important than some silly rule. But unfortunately, I'm not in a position to rewrite the rules or piss him off yet, either, so..."

"I know," Sheena mumbled, lowering her head back to the pillow. "Lovely."

Zelos sighed forlornly, but seeing how disappointed she was becoming at that thought, he forced himself to ignore his own irritation and to smile at her instead. "Hey, we've made it this long. We can make it a little longer."

"Not happily," she grumbled, and again, Zelos couldn't help grinning. Since when had they switched positions, where she was now the one eager for sex while he was the one trying to talk her out of it? Before he could comment on that, though, Sheena lifted her head and gave him a pointed look. "Well, for the record, I'm still not convinced we shouldn't do this. You're going to be my husband soon, Zelos. Nothing's gonna change that at this point."

His eyebrows rose. While he wanted to continue this particular discussion, there was something he needed to know first. "So I take it you have no regrets about yesterday?"

Sheena gave him a sheepish smile. "Believe me, I have plenty of regrets about yesterday...but none about how it ended up." Zelos grinned, relieved, and after pressing a kiss to his hand, she finally released it and mirrored his position, propping her head up on her arm, her face uncertain and her voice soft and hesitant. "What about you? Any regrets?"

Oh, Sheena. Did she really think he could regret anything that had happened yesterday? But then, if given the chance, he would do one thing differently. His smile faded, and he lifted his freed hand back to her face and brushed her hair behind her shoulder. "Just one."

Her eyes widened. "And what's that?"

Whoops, he was worrying her again; her face made it clear she was thinking, 'Uh oh, he's regretting having asked me to marry him.' Yeah, like that would ever happen. He gently traced her lips with his finger. "Letting my insecurities get the better of me and walking away yesterday morning instead of sticking around and figuring out what was really going on with you." Ah, good. There, again, was that beautiful smile he adored so much - and while it was wistful, it was also sincere. "And don't worry, love. I learned my lesson there, too. I won't make that mistake again."

Her smile broadened, and Sheena leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss before looking him over, her dark eyes soft. "Good. I'm glad to hear that."

Even now, it still felt weird at times to be sharing those kinds of thoughts and emotions that openly with her, but if it eased her mind and made her smile, then the discomfort was worth it. And now that that was taken care of, he could go back to their earlier topic. "Anyway, as for the whole sex thing...I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think we should still wait until we're actually married."

Her eyebrows flew upward in mixed amusement and amazement. "I can't believe you're saying that. I mean, I realize you don't want to upset Grandpa, but I trust you, Zelos. I know you'd lie for me if he asked you again - and for the record, I'd be extremely surprised if he did."

"Of course I'd lie for you," Zelos stated, glad she recognized that. "But I don't want to take the chance he won't ask me again, because I get the feeling your grandfather is extremely skilled at spotting liars. And obviously my lying skills have gotten rusty lately since you were easily picking up on them this past week." And really, as much as he wanted it - oh, did he want it, especially lying in bed with her like this and admiring her beautiful, enticing curves, visible beneath the low neckline of her sleeveless sleep shirt - once they'd taken that step, there was no going back. That meant when it happened, it had to be the right time for it. Sheena deserved no less. He shrugged, his fingers trailing down her neck, and bit back a smug grin as he felt her tremble. Heh, how ironic that he appeared to be unintentionally turning her on even while trying to convince her it wasn't time for that yet. "Besides, if they're gonna keep us apart until we're actually married-" He abruptly stopped, realizing something. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back up a minute. So they let me stay overnight in your house before this without raising any objections, but now that we're engaged, they're gonna put us in separate houses? How does that works?"

Sheena chuckled, her gaze drifting down to his lips. "Easy. 'Love is conducted in secret,' remember?"

That didn't answer his question. "Yeah...?"

"Well, in Mizuho, announcing an engagement is the moment you make your relationship public. It isn't a secret anymore after that. Before an engagement, most villagers recognize there's a relationship going on, but they're courteous enough not to ask what kind it is. But once they know you're engaged, it becomes obvious it's a romantic relationship, not just a strong friendship. So once we tell them we're engaged..."

"Ah. Got it. We're going public with the fact that we're madly in love." He wasn't necessarily happy about that, but at least it did make sense. Ninjas and their ridiculous rules. And now he was about to become one of them, live under their 'ridiculous rules,' and help their chief lead them. Would wonders never cease?

Sheena blushed again as she grabbed his hand where it was grazing her collarbone and brought it back to her lips. Heh, must be turning her on too much, he figured, unable to resist smirking. "Right."

"Anyway," Zelos began again, "as I was saying, if they're gonna keep us apart until we're married, I'm even more likely to say we should wait to take that particular step until after the wedding. I mean, the last thing I want is to be given a taste of what's coming and then have it taken away from me for a few months."

Her eyes narrowed, but a smile was toying on her lips again, too. "You'd rather not have that taste to give you something to look forward to during those months?"

...Did she have any idea what she was suggesting? "Sweetheart, that would be downright torture! That would be like...like handing a starving kid a lollipop, letting him take a single lick of it, and then, once he's realized how amazing it tastes and is addicted to it and wants more, threatening to snatch it away from him for good if he touched it again before he'd eaten the rest of his dinner. How is that better?"

Sheena's eyebrows flew upward, and Zelos was delighted to see that she was struggling not to laugh. "Wait, are you saying I'm a lollipop?"

Instead of answering that, though, Zelos grinned wickedly as he mulled over that comparison. Heh. This is gonna be fun. "And I can just hear the kindly old man who gave the cool kid the lollipop yelling at him for licking it and 'wrecking' it for all the other kids who wanted to eat it themselves should the kid not finish his dinner first, but the truth is ..."

Sheena groaned and buried her face in her free hand. "I am so not hearing this."

"...all the kid really wants to do is just eat his lollipop already - and savor it, nice and slow and guilt-free!" He was far too much on a roll now to even consider stopping. "And since he can't until he's finished eating dinner, he's better off not having any taste at all to know what he's missing or he'll become a stark raving mad lunatic who just wants his lollipop already!"

"Okay, okay!" she cried, laughing and waving her hand for him to stop. "Enough with the lollipop already! No more!"

His eyebrows rose, but he wasn't quite ready to quit yet. He was enjoying this way too much. "Unless, of course, the ever-so-tasty lollipop thinks the cool kid would be able to snatch it, run out of the house, and get in a few more licks without the kindly old man or any of the other kids noticing..."

Her face was beet red with embarrassment as she glared at him, but thankfully she still answered his subtle, albeit silly, question. "Not likely. Everyone will be watching the 'cool kid' and his 'lollipop' like hawks until they know he's completely finished his dinner."

Zelos nodded curtly. Just as I thought. "And then there are all the other factors the cool kid has to take into account before he takes a swipe at it, like the big bully who wants the lollipop for himself and is jealous that the kindly old man bestowed it on someone else and is threatening to beat the kid to a bloody pulp unless he gets that lollipop for himself - completely pure and unlicked, mind you..."

Groaning again, Sheena closed her eyes and shook her head. "Oh, great Jizou..."

"...And then there's the fact that the kindly old man who blessed the starving kid with this lollipop is trusting him to just hang onto it, not even taste it, until he's ready for it and would be extremely disappointed if the kid broke the rules, and the kid wants to live up to the trust and faith the kindly old man has placed in him and definitely doesn't want to have his precious lollipop taken away as punishment..."

"I get the point!" Sheena exclaimed, lowering her hand. "And this is way more than enough of this whole ridiculous lollipop ana-" Her face wrinkled in confusion. "Analo...?"

His eyebrows rose and his grin broadened. Yep, this conversation is amusing on every single level. "Analogy?" he offered.

She pointed at him. "Yes. That. No more of this lollipop analogy." Her eyes narrowed in another highly ineffective glare. "And if you start calling me your 'lollipop' on a regular basis, dear, well, I'd miss you terribly, but I would have to kill you."

Despite his amusement that she'd just called him 'dear' and he suddenly wanted to tease her about finally coming up with a pet name for him that didn't include the words 'idiot,' 'pervert,' 'idiot,' 'stupid,' or...oh, yeah, 'idiot,' Zelos chose instead to pout at her. "Aw, but sweetheart, you are my sweet, tasty, peach-flavored lolli...!"

That time she smacked her palm to his face, struggling again to contain her laughter. "No! I am not hearing this right now, because I really don't want to have to beat you up today!"

And finally, Zelos couldn't resist any longer; he burst out laughing. Sheena attempted, again, to give him a warning, 'shut up before I make you shut up' glare as she quickly pulled her hand back - damn, so much for licking her palm so I can tell her how 'delicious' she is - but that glare, too, failed miserably, her laughter eclipsing any real sense of threat. And oh, did he love this relaxed playfulness with her. "Okay, okay! Shutting up now about my delectable, mouthwatering - but at times really rather tart - lollipop."

Her eyes narrowed as she growled at him, but thankfully she let that go. "And for the record - and this is the last time I will ever use your ridiculous lollipop analogy - I seriously doubt the 'kindly old man' would throw a fit about the 'cool kid' 'licking' his 'lollipop' once if the kid didn't tell him he'd licked it, especially when the old man was the one who'd basically handed it to him and told him to enjoy it! And especially when the lollipop wants to be eaten by the kid just as much as the kid wants to eat it! Do you?"

For a moment, Zelos gaped at her, scarcely able to believe his ears, but then, seeing her eyes widen and an adorable 'O' appear on her lips, he burst out laughing again as she groaned, buried her face in her hands, and muttered, "Oh, Jizou, I did not just say that!" Heh, he really had been rubbing off on her if she was now using such explicit innuendo, hadn't he? That's my girl, he thought, entranced by how red her face was. I'm so proud. But as hilarious as this entire conversation was, there was no need to embarrass her more than she already was - after all, even he had his limits when it came to teasing someone he loved so damn much - and so he quickly reined in his laughter, pulled her hand from her face, and gave her a tender kiss.

"Maybe you're right," he murmured against her lips, but then he pulled back to observe her again. "But let me think about it a little longer, just to be sure. Okay?"

Sheena sighed and nodded reluctantly, her face still endearingly red, but at least she was smiling shyly again. "Okay."

Well, while she still wasn't happy about that, at least she wasn't arguing it anymore, either. But then a more promising thought struck him. "Or we could, y'know, get the ball rolling by starting to plan 'dinner' so the 'cool kid' can enjoy his 'lollipop,' completely guilt-free." Sheena rolled her eyes again, most likely at his continued use of the analogy, but that time she didn't stop him. In fact, her reaction was far from reassuring, with her face falling as she lowered her head back down to the pillow. Uh oh, Zelos noted, touching her cheek again. That doesn't look good. "What is it, sweetheart?"

Her hand lifted to cover his, holding it against her cheek before pressing a kiss to his palm, but then she sighed again, still not smiling. "Nothing, really. It's just...I don't know how much planning we will be able to do for this wedding - or how soon we'll be able to make it happen."

His eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

Sheena frowned, let his hand fall back to the bed, and pushed herself up so she was leaning on her elbow, giving him an even better view of her curvy body through her silky, skin-tight top. "Mizuho weddings are pretty...standard. Specific traditions are followed, specific rites are performed, specific vows are exchanged, and...well, you're gonna love this: the ceremony is long."

...A long ceremony. His eyes narrowed further. "Just how long are we talking?"

"At least two hours."

His eyes widened. "At least two hours?"

"And that's just for a normal couple. Then Grandpa will undoubtedly tack the chief-initiation ceremony onto it, too, and that one's just as long, with just as many ridiculous rites and traditions, so..."

Zelos's jaw dropped and he quickly sat up, gaping at her. Now they were up to a four-hour wedding? "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" he said, waving his hand for her to stop. "Are you saying this thing won't just be ridiculously long, but it'll be ridiculously boring, too? That I'm gonna be struggling to stay awake during my own wedding?"

Unfortunately, all hope he had that she would pull a 'Gotcha!' on him fizzled as she sighed and likewise pushed herself up into a sitting position, resting her elbow atop the headboard so she was facing him, the fingers of her right hand automatically reaching for his shoulder and playing over his bare skin as he backed up beside her. "Probably."

...She was serious. Four-plus hours, lots of boring rites and traditions to perform...what kind of wedding was that? Weddings were supposed to be fun, happy, promising occasions, not tedious and boring-as-watching-paint-dry occasions! "That's crazy!"

Sheena sighed but nodded. Well, at least they seemed to be on the same page about this 'long, boring wedding ceremony,' because she didn't appear particularly enthused about it, either. "I know. Like I've said, though, if I'm gonna be chief, I can't just waltz in there and change every tradition Mizuho has, especially before I've actually become chief." Her eyes met his as she poked his arm. "And neither can you."

Zelos frowned, but she was right: his hands were tied on this. And again - ninjas and their crazy, ridiculous rules and traditions. "No, I guess not," he grumbled. "But I have to admit that as the Chosen, I sat through more than enough long, boring ceremonies to know that's not how I wanted my wedding to turn out." Oh, wait. Maybe there was still a chance they could salvage this? "Is there at least a party afterwards?"

Sheena chuckled as she looked back down at his shoulder, her fingers resuming their enticing roaming over his skin. "Sort of, but not quite what you're thinking of. Mizuho's 'parties' are very...subdued...occasions compared to what you have here. Actually, they're like that memorial ceremony you came to a few months ago, only happier. Y'know, some music, some special ceremonial foods and blessings supposed to bring the couple luck and happiness and lots of children, the presenting of gifts, and so on."

Agh, that sounded stiff and boring, too! More tolerable than the ceremony itself, but still boring. His eyebrows rose. "Dancing?"

Sheena shook her head and arched an eyebrow. "Don't forget, 'Love is conducted in secret.'"

"Yeah, except for the fact that a wedding is in no way secret," he muttered.

"True, but the answer is still 'no.'"

Damn. Okay, next possibility? "How 'bout champagne?" he asked hopefully. "Wine? Saké? Any kind of alcohol?"

"Nope," she replied, grinning wryly. "They disapprove of anything that can make someone act inappropriately, especially at a wedding where it would be easy for someone to have too much to drink, start acting stupidly, and wreck the whole thing for the newlyweds."

"Oh, c'mon, where's the fun in that, in a party that goes off without a single hitch?" Zelos groaned, throwing his hands in the air. "It's those 'hitches' that make life interesting!"

"I know, I know," Sheena replied, pressing a kiss to his shoulder. "But it's tradition."

Zelos observed her a moment, but her face was somber, telling him she was serious about this, and he sighed, defeated. He really wouldn't have any say in this, would he? Heck, he couldn't even argue it. These were her people, after all - and they would soon be his people, too. Getting off on the wrong foot with them wasn't a good idea, not when, as Igaguri had said, a number of them would be highly suspicious of him for awhile as it was. "Yeah, yeah, and I promised your grandfather I'd let your traditions stand as they are rather than forcing my opinions on you guys," he grumbled.

Sheena smiled, tapping her finger against his arm. "There you have it, then."

Okay, so while he was not looking forward to any of that, he'd have to go with it. He refused to call off their engagement just to avoid sitting - or, more likely, standing - through a long, boring ceremony. At least...oh, wait. Sheena didn't know this yet. And, worse, he could already see a major conflict of interest arising from it. He smiled sheepishly. "Well, I guess now would be the time to tell you that when I mentioned to the king that I was planning to ask you to marry me, he, ah, kinda insisted that because I'm his Foreign Minister and the ex-Chosen and you're one of his emissaries, he was going to hold a huge party for us here in Meltokio."

Instantly, her face fell, her hand stilled, and her eyes widened. "Huh?"

...Yeah, big surprise there. She's already alarmed. And unfortunately, he already knew the rest of his news wouldn't help. "I, ah, got the impression he wants to preside over the ceremony himself because he's the king and is the only person above the Chosen in rank. And, well, if your grandfather wants me to maintain my close ties to the royal family, we'll have to do it." He rolled his eyes. "Besides, you know Meltokio: they're always looking for an excuse to throw a giant, blow-out party so they can invite everyone in Tethe'alla here and show off how rich and beautiful they are. And the king's just as guilty of that - probably even more so since he needs to 'keep up appearances' with his subordinates."

For a moment, Sheena just blinked at him, but Zelos could see the panic building in her eyes. Her hand slid back down to the bed. "So...wait. By 'giant party,' you mean...?"

Zelos grinned wryly. "Exactly what you're afraid of: a huge gala, complete with all the fixings. And not just a huge gala - we're talking all out, the likes of which I've probably never even seen before. He made sure to impress on me how fantastic he thought this was and how extravagantly he was going to insist Meltokio celebrate an event of this magnitude." He rolled his eyes. "I mean, what could possibly be more thrilling for his people than a giant celebration to honor the wedding of the Last Chosen of Tethe'alla?"

The abject horror that gripped her face mirrored what he'd felt at her depiction of Mizuho's plans for them. "So you're saying I have to invite hundreds of stuck-up, infuriatingly fake, rich snobs that I don't even know - most of whom probably hate me and my people, mind you - to my own wedding?"

"Well, you won't be inviting them - the king will - but...yeah, I know." Oh, did he know. He'd tried to talk the king out of it, insisting that if Sheena accepted his proposal, she would not want that, but the king had insisted they couldn't have less than everything for their wedding. Heck, he'd even offered to pay for the whole thing himself because it was such a rare, special occasion - using the taxpayer's money, of course. "Believe me, sweetheart, I'm not happy about it either. I'm sure I've met all of these people at some point in my life, but do I know them? Probably not. And I don't want to, either." He sighed forlornly at the fact that he still couldn't escape the Chosen's Curse, even now that the title was gone. "The joys of being a celebrity - and, in your case, of marrying one."

"Ugh," she groaned, reaching for a lock of his hair and twirling it with her finger. It would never fail to amaze him how touchy-feely she'd become this past year, how she was now the one unable to keep her hands off of him considering for years it had always been the other way around. For all he knew, his own inability to keep his hands to himself had finally convinced her she liked touching him like this. "And here I thought that 'celebrity' aspect was supposed to go away now that you're not the Chosen."

"Oh, it is; it just isn't happening fast enough." He gave her another wry grin. "Hence the giant wedding that I know you don't want, and that, to be honest, I'm not sure I want, either. I mean, I don't want a boring wedding, but over-the-top is just as bad. And I don't even want to think what my hunnies are gonna do when they hear I'm settling down."

"And with me, of all people," she said, smiling faintly, but it quickly faded as she looked down at the finger that was still twirling his hair. "It's not like they ever tried to hide their hatred of me."

Damn hunnies, he thought, scowling. Having fans eager to get your attention is one thing. Having fangirls who would happily tear out giant locks of your hair to complete their 'shrine' to you and who then make threatening, derisive comments at your girlfriend whenever they see her, despite your insistence that they cool it and leave her alone, is another. He offered her an apologetic smile. "Yeah. I'm really sorry 'bout that, sweetheart."

Her faint smile quickly returned. "Seriously, Zelos, don't be. It's not your fault. You can't control them all the time, and you've done the best you can. I know; I was with you quite a few of the times you tried to put them in line." She shrugged. "Besides, I think I can handle a few selfish, snotty, possessive women."

"Oh, yeah, you can kick their asses anytime you want to, babe," Zelos said, grinning broadly. "And they'd all run away screaming before you could so much as touch them, afraid they'd break a nail or scuff their shoes."

Sheena lifted her head proudly. "Yeah, I could, couldn't I? And it would be worth it to see them trip and fall and get mud all over their frilly dresses as they're running away." Both chuckled at that - Zelos would pay good money to see a match pitting Sheena against Greta in the Coliseum - but a moment later she sighed, her smile fading, and lowered her head to her hand. "Wonderful. So we're gonna have a huge power struggle over who gets to host our wedding, Mizuho or Meltokio, aren't we?"

His smile transformed into a frown. "Unfortunately, yeah, I think so." He was already dreading mediating between the two - and since he was the Foreign Minister, it was his responsibility to figure out how to get through that without Meltokio declaring war on Mizuho or vice versa. Mizuho would insist on holding the official wedding because Sheena was becoming their chief, and the king - and the rest of Meltokio, too - would throw a fit if they didn't get their fancy wedding and reception so they could show off in front of visiting dignitaries. Yeah, that was going to be fun. "We're probably just better off having two completely separate ceremonies, one to appease Mizuho and the other to appease Meltokio."

Sheena was silent a moment as she considered that, but then she nodded faintly. "Two weddings, all to keep the peace...great." Her eyes snapped up to his, but then a moment later she scooted closer to him so she could rest her head on his shoulder, her hand returning to his chest. "Is it bad of me to say I'm not looking forward to either one?"

He shrugged and slipped his arm around her back, pulling her closer to him. Martel, he was loving this increased physical affection with her. It was like she was craving it, especially since she was the one constantly initiating it this morning. He could understand now why she'd always held herself back, or at least significantly toned down any physical displays like this, but oh, was he glad that once that final barrier between them had fallen yesterday, it had led to this. He had certainly been craving this kind of physical intimacy with her - and for far longer than a year, too.

"Probably, but I'm in the same boat, so I'm certainly not going to hold it against you," he said. "I'm looking forward to actually being married, but not to the ceremonies themselves."

She fell silent again, but half a minute later she groaned and buried herself further into his arms. "Zelos, this is crazy. I shouldn't be dreading my own wedding!"

"Yeah, no kidding." Frowning, he grasped her hand where it lay against his chest. He could easily handle the Meltokio wedding if it didn't mean forcing her to put up with something she didn't want, but it did involve her. And he suspected she, similarly, wouldn't have trouble handling the Mizuho wedding if it weren't for him. But they didn't have a choice in this. And that...well, it pissed him off that they wouldn't have any say in their own wedding simply because they were 'big-wigs' in their respective hometowns. "Same here."

"Whatever happened to a wedding being about the couple getting married, not about living up to traditional expectations or impressing others? Why can't our wedding be what we want it to be?" She released an adorable, pouting sigh as he hummed in agreement, then laced her fingers through his, observing their joined hands. "Can't we just elope?"

Zelos opened his mouth to begin listing off all the reasons why that was a horrible idea and would never work...but then he shut it again. Running off and getting married without anyone knowing it...hm. "Well, I suppose we could. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least half a dozen priests who'd be happy to marry us if I asked them to." He tilted his head, mentally ticking off everything they'd need. "We could ask Lloyd and Colette to be our witnesses."

He could feel her eyelashes flutter against his shoulder. "I'd need a ring to give you."

"Not a problem. I'm sure the jeweler who made yours would be happy to help." He turned his head further toward hers. "What about you? Yours is technically an engagement ring; would you want another one? Like, a diamond or something more 'wedding ring'-ish?"

Her head snapped upward. "Are you kidding? This thing?" She lifted her left hand. "This is as perfect as perfect gets, Zelos. You can't get any more perfect than this." Her face softened and she smiled shyly. "No, I don't want another one; this is all I want. Besides, what would I do with two rings? I already have how many from the summon spirits that I don't wear!"

While Zelos had to admit he still hadn't figured out her fascination with the iris and her insistence, time and again, that it was 'perfect,' it made him feel good, too, to know that whatever it was, he'd made the right choice. "Okay, then we'd just use that one."

Sheena nodded curtly, then watched him again, her eyes narrowing. "I'd need a dress."

"No, you wouldn't. Either use that one you leave here for formal events..."

"That one is beautiful, and I love it, and I'm still grateful to you for buying it for me...but it's not really appropriate for a wedding dress," she said. "For a formal dinner with the king, yeah, but not for a wedding."

Okay, he couldn't argue that. It was gorgeous, and the style and color were perfect on her, and he loved seeing her in it every chance he could get, but it wasn't a wedding dress. "...Or, even better, just wear your regular clothes and save the fancy wedding dress for the Meltokio wedding. I certainly wouldn't care; as far as I'm concerned, you look hot no matter what you're wearing." Her blush deepened further, and Zelos couldn't help shrugging and smirking wickedly. "Personally, I'd prefer you in nothing at all, but I doubt you want to get married like that so forget I mentioned it."

With a groan, Sheena shook her head, pulled her hand from his, and playfully smacked his chest. "Pervert."

Zelos grinned but chose not to respond to that. Sometimes he just couldn't help himself. And since she didn't slug him for making those kinds of imbecilic suggestions anymore, he had no incentive to stop. "Heh. To be honest, I'd just be glad to be wearing normal clothes, not sweating and choking in a ridiculously overpriced tux on the most important day of my life."

She fell silent again as she watched him. "What about that woman you were engaged to?"

Okay, he couldn't resist that, either. "You mean you?"

"No, not me," she replied, rolling her eyes. "That one you were engaged to only because you were the Chosen and she had the right mana signature."

Heh. He'd actually been wondering how long it would take her to ask him about that. His grin softened. "Don't worry, love. It's all taken care of. I started the paperwork the morning I lost the title. Of course, then the Church sat on it, claiming they 'didn't want to take any chances that they'd still need a child with the proper mana signature until they were absolutely sure.' Yeah, right. I call that simple laziness because it didn't affect them. Anyway, last week I gave up waiting and forced everyone to get off their butts and just sign the damn piece of paper. At that point, I then turned it over to the king, and he approved it. So it's all done; my previous engagement is annulled, and I have the paperwork to prove it. No one can object to our marriage on those grounds."

"Good," Sheena replied, grinning as she rested her head on his shoulder and laced her fingers through his again. "I really don't want to share you with some woman you've never even met but could be forced to marry anyway."

Oh, Sheena, he thought, smirking. You make it so easy to tease you sometimes, especially when your jealous side rears its head like this. "Ooh, possessive. I like it."

She lifted her head again, her eyes narrowing warningly despite her persisting grin. "Watch it, buddy, or I'll have to tickle you again."

Zelos squirmed as she poked a ticklish spot on his side, but his smirk grew even more evil as he pointed at her. "Yeah, sure you will. Something tells me you'll want to rethink that. At least unless you plan on starting a battle you have no possibility of winning."

"Heh," she countered, mirroring his smirk. "I'm gonna choose to ignore that for fear of what might happen otherwise, especially since the cool kid is still insisting on denying himself a taste of his lollipop."

He burst out laughing again, followed a moment later by Sheena. Something told him they would be referring back to that whole lollipop thing for awhile. But then, she had a point. After all, starting a 'tickle battle' right now, on his bed, would risk letting passion get out of hand and potentially lead them to something they weren't quite ready for. Well, that he wasn't quite ready for, incredibly enough. "I think you're making a good choice."

"Maybe...but don't think you're off the hook," she said, her smirk growing wicked. "I will have to punish you for that later."

"Promises, promises," he challenged, giving her lips a quick peck. "Personally, I can't wait for my punishment, my dear, sweet lollipop."

Sheena snorted and rolled her eyes again, but thankfully she let that go. "Anyway, my dear, sweet idiot...getting back to the eloping thing." Softening, she lowered her head back to his shoulder. "How soon could we do it?"

Hm...when indeed? Zelos silently went through all the factors and possibilities, then shrugged. "Honestly? I don't see why we couldn't do it today already. Assuming, of course, that we could find Lloyd and Colette."

For a long moment Sheena sat silently, her fingers absently stroking his chest and her warm breath grazing his shoulder. "And until we go back to Mizuho, we're still free to do whatever we want, without everyone watching our every move to make sure we're acting 'appropriately'..." Without warning, she lifted her head and looked sharply at him. "Let's do it."

His eyes widened. He knew what his ears were telling him she'd said, but...really? "Hn? You serious?"

"Yeah, I am."

And now his eyes were narrowing. She wanted to just drop everything and get married? Today? "Really?"

Sheena looked him in the eye and gave him a shockingly certain nod. "Really. It makes no sense for us to have two weddings that we're both dreading. What about what we want? Why should we have to cater to rich, pompous people for our wedding? Why should I have to kick you a hundred times to keep you awake because of all the boring rites we'll have to perform? This wedding is supposed to be about us, isn't it? Not Mizuho, not Meltokio; us."

"Right...?" His eyes narrowed as he continued searching her face for any sign of doubt. "You do realize even if we did this today, we'd still have to go through with the other two ceremonies, right?"

"Of course. We don't need to tell anyone about this. But we would know, and isn't that what really matters?"

Zelos blinked again, stunned by how serious she was. What was he missing? He mentally checked off everything they'd need for a shotgun wedding, refusing to get her hopes up until he was positive this would work. After all, if he missed something that would put an end to this whole crazy idea that he was really kinda starting to like, he would never forgive himself. "Right...?"

Without warning, her face fell. "U...unless you don't want to...?"

His eyes widened. Whoops. She was misinterpreting his silence to mean he didn't want to do this. "Are you kidding? Of course I want to! Eloping sounds infinitely better than our other two options. Small, quiet, short and to the point, about us, not everyone else, no weird, boring traditions to follow, no obnoxious hunnies or gaudy decorations meant to impress everyone but us, no one scrutinizing our every move...believe me, sweetheart, I'm all for this. I'm just making sure we aren't missing anything." He grinned. "And to be honest, I'm still marveling over the fact that you're serious about this. You've never been the most spontaneous person. I mean, you have your moments when you shock the hell out of even me, but for the most part, 'spontaneous' isn't the first word that comes to mind when I think of you. Impatient, yes. Spontaneous, no."

Her blush returned and her head dipped downward as she smiled shyly...and, okay, so the way her fingers were playing over his was starting to make him reconsider his decision not to partake of his lollipop yet. If this conversation was going where it seemed to be going, though, he wouldn't have to wait much longer. "You've been a horrible influence on me, Mr. Spontaneity. You make all these grand plans for yourself, yet you're always looking for ways to shake everything up while still achieving your goals. I'll never figure out how you do that."

"Years of practice and of discovering that following a plan to the 'T' just makes life incredibly boring," Zelos said. "You always keep your goal in mind and keep heading in that general direction, but actually getting there...well, that's the best part, looking for all the ways you can have fun while not straying from your path. And for the record, I'm proud of you for thinking outside your little ninja box. In fact, I'm quite liking the newer, more spontaneous you and think I could get used to her hanging around more often."

Sheena chuckled. "I'd like her to stick around awhile, too."

He grinned, but it quickly fell as another thought struck him. He didn't want to bring this up for fear it would wreck their tentative plan to elope, an idea he was liking more and more the more he thought about it, but he had to be sure. He pulled away so he could see her face better. "Hey, you aren't, y'know, pushing this eloping thing because you're afraid if you wait too long, you'll change your mind about marrying me, are you?"

"What?" she replied, her eyes widening, but then she let out a soft laugh and shook her head, her gaze dipping down to his lips before returning to his eyes. "No, I'm not. I'm not changing my mind about us, Zelos. I'm sure about this." Without warning, her smile faded. "If anything, I'm more afraid if we wait, you'll change your mind about marrying me..."

Yeah, like there was a snowball's chance in Niflheim of that happening. "Not gonna happen."

She arched an eyebrow at him, her face still somber and unconvinced. "You might want to wait to say that until you've started ninja training."

Zelos shook his head. "Still not gonna happen, no matter what it all involves. This is the choice I've made, sweetheart, and I'm not going back on it, and especially not because of some crazy ninja training methods. I'll warn you that you'll probably be hearing a lot of whining from me about it, but whining doesn't mean I'm backing out on this." He pointed at her, his eyebrows rising. "So don't ever think otherwise, okay?"

Her face melted, and she gave him a shy smile and nod. "Okay. I won't." She shrugged. "Actually, the reason I'm pushing to do this now is because I know I won't change my mind about marrying you. There's no reason to wait months for this when I'm already sure about this now. I don't need time to determine if I'm making the right choice by marrying you; I know I am. And once we go back to Mizuho, we won't get another chance to do this. The next few months will be insane, and Grandpa will be watching us closely to make sure we behave ourselves."

Unfortunately, she was probably right about that. And the thought of not being allowed to spend time alone with her because of Mizuho's rules forbidding them to cohabitate before they actually got married... "Heh. I don't know that I could handle that on top of being forced to stay away from you until our first 'official' wedding."

Sheena bit her lip, looking down at his chest shyly. "And...well, I can't believe I'm using this horrible analogy again, but I want the 'cool kid' to be able to enjoy his 'lollipop,' free of any guilt." She nudged his side and met his eyes again. "The lollipop really is kinda looking forward to it, too."

Zelos couldn't help it; he burst out laughing again. He was pretty sure he was blushing, too - not as deeply as Sheena, because when she blushed, she blushed, but enough for his cheeks to feel warm. As much as he loved how forward she'd become about her attraction to him, he was still getting used to it, too, because she'd been hiding it away for, well, a long time now. And honestly, the 'real him' wasn't used to a woman coming on to him like this. Hunnies coming on to The Great Zelos? That was something he'd experienced every day since he'd come of age. But no one had ever come on to him before. And for all his flirting and innuendo with her, being on the receiving end of it was still strange and unfamiliar and made him feel surprisingly...shy. It was all strange in a good way, definitely, but it was still strange. And suddenly he couldn't help wondering how it felt for her. After all, she was navigating uncharted territory with this, too. Maybe later he would ask her that, but for now he would let the mystery drive him on.

He grinned wryly. "Of course, we'd have to tell your grandfather we eloped if we want to live together right away in Mizuho..."

Unsurprisingly, her face fell as she lowered her head to his shoulder again. "Ugh, if we do that, he'll be furious."

Zelos snorted. Somehow, he seriously doubted that. "Maybe, but what's the worst he could do, unmarry us? He's a powerful, intimidating man, sweetheart, but even he can't undo a legal, binding marriage without our consent. Or what, would he revoke your right to be chief? Would that really be the worst thing to ever happen to you?"

Sheena bit her lip again, considering that. "Well, no..."

Yeah, didn't think so. "And really, all things considered, your grandfather owes me big time for causing yesterday's fiasco anyway." His grin grew wily. "I'm just...choosing how best he can pay me back for it."

Lifting her head, she gave him a mild warning glare before chuckling and returning her head to his shoulder. "You're evil."

"Yeah, I know," he quipped cheerfully before shrugging. "Besides, we probably won't need to tell him. He seems sharp enough to figure it out on his own."

"Wonderful," she muttered, brushing her fingers over his again and sighing softly. "But you're right. He always knows when I'm hiding something from him."

Yeah, Zelos figured she already knew that. Not that she'd ever been good at hiding things, though - not that he would tell her that, seeing as she really had caught him off guard yesterday morning. He'd known last week that something was bothering her; he just hadn't known what. And if not for his insecurities, he would have paid more attention to the voice in his head that had insisted something was wrong and figured out what she was hiding. As he'd said, though, he'd learned his lesson there, too, and it wouldn't happen again.

"As for the rest of the world, well, let them think we're engaged," he said. "No one else needs to know about this until after the other two weddings. It'll be our little secret."

Sheena considered that a moment. "And I'm sure if we asked Lloyd and Colette to keep it to themselves, they'd be happy to do so, too..."

Zelos nodded. Those two would do anything for a friend, because that was just who they were. That loyalty had been inspiring - and life-changing. "I'm sure they would."

"Of course, that's assuming they're not still out collecting Exspheres..."

"Lloyd mentioned in Altamira a few weeks ago that they were planning to take a break this summer to help with the planting." He shrugged. "Whether they're actually in Iselia or not, though...well, we won't know until we get there. If they aren't, we'll figure out something else."

"Yeah, we will," she whispered, nodding faintly.

Zelos pulled away enough to see her face again. "So are we really gonna do this?"

Sheena gave him a shy smile and a certain nod. "Yeah. I mean, as much as I'd like Grandpa to be there for it, if we told him, he'd just try to stop it, and I don't want to argue with him over something we know is best for us. Besides, he'll be there for the Mizuho wedding. Probably the Meltokio one, too."

Okay, good. She was fine with her grandfather not being there to give her away. He really didn't want to take that moment away from Igaguri, but he agreed with Sheena's logic: Igaguri would never allow it. He would do everything he could to convince them to wait for the Mizuho wedding, and that would just lead to unnecessary conflict with him. Sure, he might be disappointed in them if they did this behind his back, but the alternative, of Sheena dreading her own wedding day, was far worse. Zelos would do anything to prevent that. And eloping...no, she definitely wasn't dreading that. She actually seemed pretty excited about it - and really, so was he.

"And there's no one other than Lloyd and Colette I'd even want to invite," Zelos said. "Well, the rest of the gang too, of course, but trying to find everyone would take too long, especially since your grandfather will probably start sending scouts out to look for us pretty soon. We just don't have time to spare right now. The Pericheks would be nice, but last week when I was talking to them, they mentioned they were leaving this week on their annual, month-long summer vacation, this time to see some of the new sights they've never seen before in Sylvarant, so it'll be awhile before we see them again. And Seles..." He frowned. Seles. She would probably blow a fuse when she learned they were getting married; he could hear the snide comments already. And that really wasn't something he wanted to deal with right now. If they were getting married today, then he wanted this to be a happy day, which simply wouldn't happen if Seles was involved. "Well, I'd like her to be there only if I knew for certain she wouldn't insult you, so I think we're better off saving that for the Meltokio wedding. The more witnesses we have around at the time, the less likely she'll be to try anything."

Sheena's face fell as she looked up at him and squeezed his hand. "Y'know, you can't avoid putting us in the same room anymore, Zelos. Once we're married, we're going to be family. I think we should try to work things out with her before the Meltokio wedding."

"Yeah, I know," he grumbled. Agh, he hated how poorly those two got along - and most of the blame he placed on Seles. She had never even tried to work things out with Sheena; all she did was cast furtive glares at her and make disparaging remarks about her. He'd seen it firsthand: the few times he'd brought Sheena with him to visit her, Sheena had tried to be polite and respectful to her, but Seles made it hard for her to do so, and once or twice Sheena's temper had gotten the better of her and she had snapped back, which Seles used as an excuse to throw another denigrating comment at her. Zelos had done his best to keep the peace, and he had talked to Seles about it repeatedly, trying to get her to cool it and be nice, but he never got anywhere with her. He just didn't get it, why she couldn't stand Sheena. And the thought of Seles treating his future wife like that...well, unfortunately, Sheena was right that they'd have to figure something out, soon, because otherwise the tension would lead him to avoid his sister altogether, which was something he really didn't want to have to do. "But that doesn't mean I'm looking forward to it."

"I know. Neither am I. But we can't keep running from her forever."

Zelos pressed a kiss to her hairline, breathing in her fresh, soothing, faintly floral scent. "I know. We'll talk to her. Just not today."

Sheena nodded, returning her hand to his chest and letting her fingers play absently over his skin, sending warm, enticing sensations through him. "It's just too bad I left my camera in Mizuho. I would've loved to have taken some pictures back for Grandpa."

And just like that, Zelos's wicked grin returned. Oh, she is so going to kill me for this... "Heh. I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but..."

She tilted her head upward to observe him curiously, but a moment later her jaw dropped and her head shot up as she clearly caught his meaning. She might not be the sharpest, most book-smart woman in the world, but she definitely wasn't stupid, either, and Zelos would cast Thunder Blade on anyone who said otherwise. She was plenty sharp, just not split-second sharp. "You didn't!"

"Heheheh..."

"You stole my camera?"

"Can't steal something from someone when it doesn't belong to them, love." If she weren't so stunned, she would undoubtedly be pointing out - again - that she didn't steal the camera since it was given to her as a gift. A forced gift, but still a gift...kind of. "Besides, it was my stalker's camera, with mostly pictures of me on it, so I technically have more right to it than you do."

He nearly burst out laughing at her still-shocked expression. Sheena, Sheena, Sheena. Did you really think I forgot my promise to get my hands on that thing so I could see all the pretty pictures of you? Well, granted, that wasn't why he'd taken it; in fact, he really had had a good reason for it at the time. He'd just...forgotten...to bring it back after that. And really, hadn't she checked her drawer since then?

Finally shaking off her shock, she poked his chest. "When did you manage that?"

"Well, it wasn't just yesterday, y'know! I have had it for awhile now!" She arched an expectant eyebrow at him, and he sighed in defeat. He hated bringing this up because, despite everyone's best efforts, the matter still was only partially resolved and didn't look like it would be fully resolved anytime soon, but he could tell she wasn't going to let this go. "I grabbed it during the poisoning incident. My plan was to take pictures of those balls that poisoned the water, and I did, but then I also took a picture of that melting freak after we'd caught him. So I brought the camera back to Meltokio and asked Sebastian to develop the pictures. I just kept forgetting to bring it back after that." He quirked a smile, hoping she bought it - because it really was the truth. "Honest, sweetheart. I didn't intentionally steal it from you."

She eyed him a moment, her expression one of vague disbelief. "Suuuure, you didn't. And you haven't looked at any of the other pictures since then, either, have you?"

...Yeah, she knows me too well. Zelos smiled sheepishly. "Well, I might have browsed through them all a time...or three..."

"Now that I'll believe," she muttered, but thankfully her smile returned - only to vanish again a moment later. "Did your picture of that creep turn out? I remember seeing that sketch you had the king's investigators make of him, but I don't remember seeing any actual pictures."

He shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. Bastard was too melted by that point, so all it shows is a blob of melted, mostly featureless, and highly disgusting human flesh, nothing we can use to help us."

"Oh." Relaxing, Sheena leaned into him again. "At least you tried."

Zelos grinned and pulled her closer again. "I just can't believe you hadn't notice your camera had been missing all this time."

She lightly smacked his chest, but her grin as she looked up at him still betrayed her. "And I can't believe you're still such an idiot after all this time."

"So you keep telling me," he replied, his grin broadening proudly. "But if I wasn't, you wouldn't have your camera for this momentous event, now, would you?"

Her eyes lit in triumph. "Aha! So you admit it is my camera!"

Ah, well, he could admit defeat this one time only. Not that it mattered whose it was anymore seeing as it would technically be both of theirs soon. He shrugged. "Well, you did steal it first, so I guess it makes sense to classify it as yours..."

"I'm not even going to dignify that with a response," she muttered, rolling her eyes - and yet despite her words, she still couldn't contain her smile.

"Wise choice," Zelos murmured, pressing a quick kiss to her cheek.

It was as a ray of sunlight snuck through his blinds and illuminated her face that it hit him, though: if they really wanted to get married today - him, getting married, and not just to any woman, nor to that chick he'd been engaged to his entire life, but to Sheena Fujibayashi, the woman of his dreams...the thought still boggled his mind - then they had things to do. He needed a shower, they needed to get dressed and eat breakfast, she needed a ring for him, they needed to find Lloyd and Colette, they had to actually get married - and then they had to properly celebrate it. Lounging in bed with her like this was heavenly, but every minute they spent here was a minute less they had left of the day, and they couldn't afford to run out. No, if they were going to do this, they were going to do it right. It was, after all, for them.

He pulled his arm from her back. "Anyway, c'mon, sweetheart. If we're really going to do this, we need to get going. We have a lot to do, and I don't want your clansmen finding us here and dragging us back to Mizuho yet."

Sheena smiled and nodded. "Right." Zelos returned her smile, then tossed the blanket off of them and slid toward the edge of the bed, making to stand. Before he could, though, she suddenly grabbed his arm. "Oh, and Zelos? One last thing."

Curious, Zelos looked back at her. "Hm?"

With a shy smile, Sheena climbed onto her knees, crawled toward him, cupped his face in her hands, and pressed a long, slow, sweet kiss to his lips. "I love you," she whispered as she pulled back, her brown eyes filled with incredible, breathtaking warmth and happiness. "So much."

Oh, Sheena. His heart simultaneously melted and leapt. Grinning, Zelos gently grasped her neck with his hand, his thumb playing over her cheek, then he gave her another quick kiss and whispered, "I love you too, Sheena."

They observed each other another moment, smiling, but then she leaned forward again, her hands snaking into his hair, and pulled him back in for one last kiss, one he could feel quickly escalating into something uncontrollable...one that sent fiery heat and tingles of desire racing through him. His hands slid down to her waist, pulling her body flush against his, and she moaned into his mouth, making no move to back away, her kiss becoming even more demanding. It was only as his hands began sliding upward toward dangerous territory that he realized just where this was going, and he had to literally force himself to break the kiss past the desire flooding him - and then, once he'd managed that, not to immediately return to it as he observed her moist, swollen lips and her dark, desire-filled eyes watching him. But he couldn't. He couldn't. They didn't have time for that now - and if there was one thing he knew, it was that the first time they did this, he wanted to take his time with it and do it right. He wanted it to be something special, something meaningful, something beautiful, something they would both remember with the warmest, fondest of memories for the rest of their lives, not just a quick tryst because they were too busy to give it the time it deserved. Besides, if they really did get married today...well, then, they wouldn't have to wait much longer to let desire consume them and take it to its natural conclusion. And suddenly, Zelos found himself impossibly eager to get the day underway. They had both waited this long; they could wait a few more hours.

He pressed a gentle finger to her eager lips. "Hold that thought. We'll get back to that later. And then...not even your grandfather will be able to yell at us about it."

A deep blush accompanied her excited grin and nod. "Okay. Then let's get going."

"Yeah. Let's." Zelos gave her one last quick kiss, then he climbed out of bed, grabbed her hand, and pulled her up with him. So much to do; so little time to do it. And since the clock was ticking, it was time to get started.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 6: The Preparations

Zelos showered while Sheena dressed - in newly cleaned clothes, thanks to Zelos's thoughtfulness last night in asking Sebastian to wash them - and then they ate a quick but delicious breakfast of blueberry pancakes. After that, they grabbed the camera, Sheena grabbed her jewelry set (she refused to get married without it), Zelos grabbed the documents proving the annulment of his previous engagement (just in case someone questioned him), and he instructed Sebastian to reassure any ninjas who showed up looking for them that they'd be heading back to Mizuho tomorrow. Somewhere in there, Zelos had also persuaded Sheena to 'humor a guy on his wedding day' by keeping her hair down, a request she'd only fought briefly, just to keep up appearances. And then, finally, they'd headed toward their first destination: the jeweler.

It was still early morning, though, and upon reaching the store, they found a 'Closed' sign hanging on the door, saying it wouldn't open for two more hours. When Sheena looked at him, curious how they'd handle the delay, though, Zelos just grinned and rapped on the door three times, waited a second, and then rapped three more times. A minute later, a man with short gray hair and glasses poked his head around an inside doorway. Upon seeing Zelos through the window, he smiled and headed to the door, unlatching it and holding it open for them.

"Ah, Chosen!" he said, closing and relocking the door once they were inside. "It is a pleasure to see you again." The man bowed to Zelos, then he turned to Sheena, his smile softening. "It is a pleasure to see your lady friend as well. Please, come in!"

"Master Elrickson," Zelos greeted him, grinning as he and Sheena followed the man toward the main counter. "You know I'm not the Chosen anymore. No need for such formalities."

"Ah, but respect and habit dictate I must," the man said as he stepped behind the counter, eyeing Zelos knowingly. "And if you wish to receive service outside of regular store hours, then the Chosen you must be, at least for today."

"Heh, yeah, I suppose you have a point." Zelos turned to Sheena and motioned at the man. "This is Gregory Elrickson, a superb jewelry maker. Gregory, this is Sheena." His eyes softened in a way that made her feel incredibly loved as he added, "My fiancée."

Sheena gave the jeweler a smile. "It's nice to meet you."

"You as well, my dear," Gregory said, bowing to her. "So this is the lovely lady who has stolen our Chosen's heart, hm?" He gently lifted Sheena's left hand from where it was resting atop the counter, eyeing first the ring, then the bracelet on her right wrist, and then smiling proudly. "And who is in possession of my finest craftsmanship, I see."

Her eyes widened. "You made this set?"

"Indeed, I did," he said, bowing to her again. "Every piece in that set, in fact."

'No way!' was what she was tempted to say, but then she remembered that such colloquial speech was generally frowned on in the upper-class section of Meltokio. Zelos excluded, of course, because the man broke every rule he could get away with just to prove he could. Instead, she murmured a more subdued, "Wow," her gaze falling to the iris ring as he released her hand. "You have no idea how impressed I am. It's an honor to meet someone capable of creating something so beautiful."

"Why, thank you. It was an extremely rewarding challenge to work on such a fine set - and I must say, I am pleased to see it in the possession of a lady as strikingly beautiful as you." Sheena let out a soft laugh, her blush returning, but she didn't know how to respond to that, and after a moment, Gregory turned back to Zelos. "So what can I do for the Chosen and his fiancée today - and might I say, congratulations to you both."

"Thanks," Zelos said, even as Sheena's blush deepened and she nodded her own gratitude. She still wasn't used to being referred to as his 'fiancée,' and considering how long it had taken her just to get used to the title 'girlfriend,' it would probably take awhile with this one, too. 'Wife' would definitely be the strangest, though. At least she had a lifetime to get used to that one. "As for what you can do for us...well, we're here for what you're hoping we're here for." He held up his gloved left hand and wiggled his fingers. "Well, at least for me. Sheena here is so happy with hers that she doesn't want another one."

"Ah, yes," Gregory said. "Very good. I promise to make the selection process as simple and painless as possible."

Zelos motioned at the glass cases along the back wall. "So whatcha got?"

"I have many fine possibilities to choose from." His eyes turned to Sheena. "But first, we must ascertain your preferred metal, miss. Silver, gold, or platinum?"

...Oh, crap. She was going to have to make a choice with this ring, wasn't she? Their decision to elope had happened so fast, though, that she hadn't had a chance to envision what she wanted for this, for him, yet. And unfortunately, she oftentimes had trouble being decisive about such things. That really would have to change when she became chief; she'd have to just make decisions and stick to them. At least Zelos was good at making decisions and sticking to them, so hopefully he could help her work on that. She just hoped this particular choice of a ring would be a matter of recognizing what she wanted when she saw it.

...Oh, right. She needed to pick a metal. Well, hers was really nice, so... "Um...silver, like this," she said, holding up her hand.

"That's not silver, love," Zelos quietly corrected her. "That's platinum. Your whole set is."

Her eyes widened. Really? And all this time she'd thought it was silver. Sure, she'd noted it was lighter in color than regular silver, but she'd just thought it was a difference in quality or...something. "...Oh." She let out a soft laugh as blood rushed to her face, then she bit her lip and looked down at her ring. "Shows how much I know, eh? Platinum, then."

And not for the first time, Sheena was reminded of how much she hated shopping with Zelos in Meltokio - not because he was terrible to shop with, because he wasn't (in fact, shopping with him was usually rather fun because he always made her see things in different ways), but because it reminded her of how unworldly and uncultured she was. It made her feel inferior and inadequate to be the girlfriend - now fiancée - of someone of his stature and reminded her that she was from a poor village and wouldn't even be allowed to enter shops like these if not for her so-rich-it-was-ridiculous companion. Zelos had never teased her about her mistakes since they'd started dating, after she'd mentioned how uncomfortable she always was in these situations, and she knew he would never hold it against her, but the others in the shop, sometimes even the sales clerk, often snickered or gave her condescending looks when she didn't know something they, with their high-class upbringing, took for granted.

Thankfully, most of the time Zelos noticed when they did that and glared at them warningly, and once or twice when someone had made an especially rude comment about her, he'd found a subtle but effective way to insult them while complimenting her in the process, but it still made her feel stupid when she got something like this wrong. She felt like...like an angel out of heaven when that happened, and it made her want to hide behind Zelos to avoid their disgusted glares. She never let herself, though, knowing her pride would never forgive her; she just did her best to pretend their scorn didn't bother her, because she wished it didn't, and she had learned long ago that acting like something was true was a good way to make yourself believe it. It didn't always work, but sometimes it did.

At least Gregory was polite enough to keep any such thoughts to himself, for he just smiled pleasantly as he turned to one of the cases, pulled out a display of rings, and set it on the counter in front of them. Sheena instantly gasped, her eyes widening and her lips parting. Oh, Jizou, talk about beautiful; every single one was gleaming, intricately carved, and perfect. But her eyes were immediately drawn to one in particular: a platinum band in which was etched a faint, delicate pattern that looked like curling, winding stems and leaves. In fact, she couldn't help thinking the pattern actually looked remarkably similar to the leaf and stem pattern etched into the band of her own ring, right around the amethyst flower. It was simple but beautiful, polished and perfect, and...

...Her heart plunged as she saw the price tag below it. So much for giving him that ring. She took a closer look at a few others, and her heart sank further as she realized every single ring was in the same extremely expensive price range. She'd known platinum cost more than other metals, but she didn't realize it cost this much more. And she really would have liked their rings to match, not just in the type of metal, but in the concept, too - and what better to match her iris than the continuation of its stem and leaves? That first one would have been perfect if only it weren't priced so very, very high. And unfortunately, judging from these prices, the lower-quality silver ones would still be way outside her price range, too. She hadn't realized wedding rings cost so much.

"...Oh," she murmured, disappointment settling over her.

Zelos leaned his arms on the counter, peering at her downcast face. "What's the matter, sweetheart? Don't see anything you like?"

A quick glance at him showed that his eyes were narrowed in concern. Gregory was watching them both, too, most likely trying to determine if he needed to pull out a different display. She looked back down at the rings. "N...no, it isn't that. They're all beautiful."

"Then what's wrong?" he pressed, grasping her hand and giving it a squeeze.

Sheena bit her lip and glanced first at Zelos, then at Gregory. She then took Zelos's arm and led him a short distance away from the counter, lowering her voice. It was embarrassing enough that she couldn't buy him a ring; she didn't need to announce her poverty to this jeweler, too, because it wasn't his fault these rings were so expensive. Thankfully, while Zelos seemed surprised and confused by her action, he didn't argue, either, clearly recognizing her need for privacy since he grasped her arms and leaned closer to her so he could hear.

"Zelos, I can't afford any of these," she whispered. "They cost more than Mizuho makes in a year. I don't have the money for this right now."

Zelos blinked at her a moment, eyeing her carefully, but then he shrugged and smiled. "Eh, no big deal. Don't worry about it."

And there it was: the typical, carefree Zelos she knew and loved and envied more often than she didn't. Only sometimes, like this, it was frustrating, too, when he didn't seem to be hearing her concerns. She knew he was, because whenever she made the mistake of thinking otherwise, he always proved her wrong, but he just didn't make it obvious at times. "I have to worry about it. I can't use what little Mizuho has for this. Doing that would be irresponsible of me. That wouldn't be a good introduction to my leadership style, to come back and tell them the village is broke because their future chief had to buy a wedding ring."

"Sheena, don't worry about it," he replied, squeezing her arms tighter. "I'll buy the ring. I was planning to anyway."

Sheena sighed and frowned, shaking her head. "Zelos, it isn't right for you to buy your own wedding ring. This is supposed to be a symbol from me to you, not from you to yourself."

Zelos, however, just shook his head, unperturbed. "I don't care."

It took considerable effort - and a glance at their audience - for her to keep from growling. "Well, I do care. I can't ask you to spend that kind of money on this!"

"I don't remember you asking, sweetheart," he quickly replied. "I remember offering. Kinda like that whole proposal thing, actually. Remember that?"

"...Oh," she whispered, her face growing warm again. She hadn't been able to ask him to stay with her in Mizuho, but he'd still offered to do so anyway, because he wanted to. Damn him, he always knew how to render her arguments completely ineffective.

Zelos lifted a gloved hand to her cheek, quirking a smile. "Okay, then think of it this way: I'm not buying this thing for me. I'm buying it for you. Y'know, as a gift for you to bestow upon whichever lucky stud muffin you want to give it to." Without warning, his face took on his characteristic pleading, innocent, irritatingly adorable puppy-dog expression. "Just...don't give it to Lloyd, okay? I'd rather shave off all my hair than watch you do that." Sheena let out a soft laugh - as if he had anything to worry about, and he knew that - but before she could respond, he shrugged. "If you really insist on compensating me for it, then you can pay me back later." And there, again, was the typical smirk. "With interest."

She sighed, her smile fading, as her hands lifted to his chest, her fingers playing with the loose fastener on his vest. "I somehow doubt I could ever pay you back this much."

He gave her a pointed look. "Sheena, my fortune is going to be your fortune very, very soon. And as you know, even without any money coming in from the Church anymore - although I have to admit I make a whole lot more as the Foreign Minister than I ever expected to...who would've thought having a legitimate job paid so well?" Without warning, he shook his head in a way that left her unable to resist grinning. Big surprise: he'd just distracted himself. He was good at that. "Eh, ignore me; getting off topic again. Anyway, even if I weren't getting paid anymore, I'd still have enough money left to last me five lifetimes, so yes, you will soon have enough money to pay me back."

Did money really mean nothing to him? He had no issue dropping it wherever and whenever he wanted, did he? Sheena couldn't fathom it, what it was like to have money to burn. Her entire life it had been drilled into her that Mizuho could only afford necessities and that whatever money they made had to go for the greater good of the village, so she'd never been able to spend freely. She somehow doubted that would change even now that she was marrying a man with more money than he knew what to do with; it was just that engrained in her. And really, she didn't want her attitude to change, because there were far better uses for it than how most people in Meltokio used it. At least Zelos had been spending his money with impressive prudence lately, the bulk of it going to extremely good causes, like that orphanage in Palmacosta. As it was, between him and Regal, they could have single-handedly funded the entire Ozette reconstruction project since they both donated so much to it, although fortunately the turnout from other donors had been equally impressive. Presea had been thrilled. Well, at least as thrilled as Presea ever got about anything, which wasn't saying much.

But still, despite that - and the fact that Zelos really didn't seem to care and was, in fact, making it clear she had his permission to spend his money however she wanted or needed - she still felt wrong letting him spend so much on this. "Yeah, but I'd only be able to pay you back with your own money. I'd feel terrible doing that, and if I used my own, it would take me fifty years to pay this back."

"...Which, mind you, is time we might very well have," Zelos replied, grinning. "But even if you can't, sweetheart, it doesn't matter. Really. Money isn't everything. I learned that from you and Lloyd and the rest of the gang, that sometimes the less we have, the happier we are, because then we're able to see those things that are right in front of us for what they really are. Honest-to-goodness love and friendship are worth far more than any amount of gald. You know that - and that's one of the many reasons I love you so much, because money doesn't impress you." He shrugged. "Personally, if I had to choose between you and my fortune, I'd pick you every time. You are far more valuable to me than all the money in the world." And again, Sheena melted, touched. What was more, though, was that she knew he meant that. After all, he wouldn't be moving to Mizuho if he didn't. He brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "And if you refuse to accept it as a gift, then you'll find another way to pay me back for it, one that doesn't involve money. I know you will, Sheena. I have faith in you."

Sheena let out a soft, shy laugh, but then she gave him a warning glare. "I think I'm afraid to hear what you have in mind for me to 'pay you back' for it."

Surprisingly, though, instead of rising to the bait, Zelos just shook his head, his eyes softening further. "I'm not going to tell you how to pay me back for this. That's up to you to decide. Be creative. Surprise me. Whatever it is, I'm sure I'll love it. And if you never do, if you just accept this for the gift it is...well, that's okay, too. But the fact of the matter is that if we don't buy a ring now, we won't be able to do this today, and, well, this is the only guy I trust not to rip us off or start spreading rumors about us the second we leave." She sighed again, knowing he had a point, and he leaned closer to her, his blue eyes pleading. "Let me do this for you, Sheena. Accept the gift for what it is - as my way of helping you. Please?"

Her eyes darted back at the ring display on the counter, then at Gregory, who was waiting for them patiently, and then finally back at Zelos. The prices were ridiculous, but if Zelos trusted that they weren't getting ripped off, then they had to be accurate - and that meant even if they went somewhere else, they wouldn't get a better price. Probably not a better selection, either. And really, she had now promised him that she would let him help her. After all, yesterday's disaster had been caused by the fact that she hadn't let him help her, and she didn't want to make that mistake again. While she still felt guilty about spending so much of his money like this, he obviously viewed helping her financially to be one of those ways of 'helping her' - and most likely her people, too, if his generosity with Michi was any indication.

She sighed, caving. "Okay."

Zelos smiled and gave her a quick kiss. "Okay. Then let's go take another look."

She nodded, and they headed back to the counter. This time she would pick one. They were all beautiful, but she kept going back to that first one, with the stem and leaf motif. The problem was, her eyes also kept drifting down to the price tag. She really shouldn't be choosing that one - she should at least try to make it look like she wasn't choosing one of the most expensive rings now that she knew she wasn't the one paying for it - but the others just didn't feel right to her. They were all beautiful, though, and she really shouldn't be that picky about choosing one of the less expensive ones. But none of those matched her own ring the way this one did...but it cost so much...

Her head sank downward. "Agh, they're so expensive. I can't ask you to do this, Zelos."

He gave her another pointed look. "Yes. You. Can. Find the one you like best. And by all means, don't just pick the cheapest one to save me a thousand gald. Pick the one you really want to give me. Don't forget, I'll be wearing this thing for the rest of my life."

Naturally, he would realize she was considering picking the cheapest one so she felt a little better about making him spend so much. He was obnoxiously perceptive like that. Sighing, she looked back at the display and eyed them all again, seeing if she could find another one she liked that was reasonably priced - not the cheapest, but at least cheaper. But, damn it, her eyes just kept going back to that overly expensive one she liked so much...

"As a special, just for the Chosen and his beloved, I am willing to give you any one of these rings at half price," Gregory suddenly said, smiling as Sheena's eyes snapped up at him.

"...Really?" she asked hopefully. Half price would mean...well, she was awful at math, but even she knew it meant Zelos would be saving a lot of money.

Gregory bowed his head. "Of course. I am extremely grateful for the Chosen's business. He has been an excellent customer, and his generous recommendations have proven to be priceless advertising for me."

Zelos nudged her with his elbow. "See? Now, no guilt, okay? Pick the one you really want."

While that helped considerably, Sheena's hope still faded as her brain struggled to do the calculations. Once she was sure she'd figured out the final cost, though, she sighed again. "Even at half price, they still cost more than I could ever afford."

Zelos groaned and his head sank downward, but then he suddenly looked up at Gregory again. "Hey, could you do us a favor?"

"Of course, Chosen."

He pointed at the display. "Remove all the price tags and mix up the locations of the rings."

Gregory bowed his head. "Certainly." He snatched the display, turned away from them, set it on a back counter, and worked on it for a moment, then he turned back to them and set it in front of her again. "Here you go, miss."

"Better?" Zelos asked, arching an eyebrow at her, but Sheena gave him an embarrassed glare - did he really think that would help when she still remembered the price all too well? - and finally he sighed and motioned at the display. "C'mon, sweetheart. Which do you like best? Or aren't you happy with any of them? Because if you aren't, we'll look elsewhere."

"No...no, these are all beautiful."

Frowning, Sheena looked back at the display. At least Zelos was patient, even though they really were on a tight timeframe today. But she wanted to do this right, too, because this really was something that, fate willing, he would be wearing for the rest of his life, and she wanted him to have something appropriate that told him every time he saw it how much she loved him...even if she couldn't afford it. Even with the rings in different spots, though, she still immediately picked out the one she loved most, with the stem-and-leaf pattern. She still remembered how much it cost, too, but at least now the price tag wasn't staring at her anymore, mocking her poverty. And finally, she succumbed to the urge to trace her finger over it. If she truly was going to start accepting his help, then she had to suck up her pride and start accepting his help. And this was a good way of proving to him that she would.

Looking up at Gregory, Sheena smiled faintly. "This one."

Instantly, Gregory beamed her a pleased smile. "A splendid choice, miss."

Zelos arched an eyebrow as she glanced back at him, blushing. Oh, she had just cost him so much money... "You sure?" he asked.

She nodded, looking back down at the ring. "I really like this one."

He grinned and nudged her with his shoulder. "Good. I was hoping you'd pick that one."

Her head snapped back toward him. Really? That had been his choice, too? "You were?"

"Yeah, I was." Zelos observed her another moment, grinning, then nodded at Gregory. "We'll take it." Gregory smiled, took the ring off the display, and set it on the counter in front of them. Oh, Jizou, she loved how it looked next to her own...and she especially loved the subtle meaning behind it. "So, Master Elrickson," Zelos began again as Gregory set the display on the back counter, "how fast can we get this thing?"

Gregory turned back toward them and smiled. "If you would like to wait, I could begin working on it immediately and have it ready for you in, say, an hour?"

Sheena gave her companion an uncertain look, letting her eyes ask the question: 'Do we have time?' He shrugged. "Not much we can do about it."

"You are in a hurry?" Gregory asked, eyeing them carefully.

"Yeah, actually, we are," Zelos replied.

"Then let us not waste any time." With one hand, the jeweler reached for something beneath the counter while his other hand motioned at Zelos's left arm. "If I may, sir?"

Zelos's eyes narrowed. "Hm?"

"Your hand?"

For a moment, Sheena didn't understand what Gregory wanted, either, but then he pulled out a small, thin tape - ah, for measuring his finger and sizing the ring, she realized. "Oh, right," Zelos said, pulling off his glove and giving the jeweler his hand.

...Which, naturally, raised the question of how Zelos had gotten the sizing on her ring so perfect without having measured her finger. She looked down at her ring and twisted it, then looked back up at Zelos, her eyes narrowing. "Zelos, when...?"

"Last week," he answered with a grin as Gregory wrapped the tape around his ring finger. Sheena had to resist the urge to roll her eyes. Gee, what a surprise: he was anticipating her questions again. He was good at that, too. "That morning you went to take your bath, I went digging through your jewelry box. I remembered you saying the sapphire ring always fit you perfectly, so I used that as a guide."

...Wait. Was he saying what she thought he was saying? "So you didn't just steal my camera, you stole my favorite summon spirit ring, too?" she replied, gaping at him.

He chuckled and shook his head. "Calm down, love. I didn't take your ring. It's still safe in your home where it belongs. I just traced it to record the exact size."

"...Oh." She couldn't resist smiling again. "I guess I can let you off the hook this time. Heh, in fact, I'm impressed you remember me saying that."

His grin softened. "I paid a lot more attention to everything you said back then than you thought I did."

Sheena let out a soft, shy laugh, her gaze falling first to her own incredible ring, then to the one that would soon be his. "Heh. I guess you did."

Gregory released Zelos's hand and jotted down a few notes on some sort of form. "Very good. I have what I need. Then please, if you would, give me half an hour and I will endeavor to make the appropriate adjustments as quickly as I can."

"Of course," Zelos said, pulling his glove back on. "Thanks."

Sheena watched Gregory take the ring from the counter and begin heading toward a workroom in the back...but then it hit her as she looked down at her own ring again. Zelos had had hers personalized specifically for her simply by the fact that he'd chosen to memorialize his love for her as an iris, and she suddenly wanted to do the same with his. The rings matched perfectly as they were, but she wanted more - and one look at her ring told her what. "Um...Master Elrickson? Can I...can I talk to you for a minute?"

Gregory looked back at her curiously, but then he motioned for her to step around the counter. "Of course, miss. Please, come with me so I can begin the adjustments."

"Thanks." She abruptly pointed at Zelos, giving him a warning look and ignoring the curiosity dancing in his blue eyes. "And you. Mr. Spendthrift. Wait here."

Zelos lifted his hands in a show of innocence and then headed toward a bench near the main door. He plopped down onto it, crossed his arms behind his head, and leaned back against the wall. "Waiting right here as instructed, my lady."

Sheena gave him one last glare to make sure he'd really stay put, but then, when he made no move to indicate he was scheming something, she walked around the counter and joined Gregory at the back door. He let her through into his workshop and then headed toward a desk along the far wall. "I must admit, I am extremely pleased that you chose this ring," he said, picking up a metallic, box-like machine from the desk.

"Really?" Heh, apparently she really had picked the right ring.

"Most definitely." Gregory placed the ring inside a circular groove in a small, sliding tray in the machine's side, then pushed it in and began adjusting the knobs on the front. "I created this ring special just a few days ago in hopes that once Lord Wilder had asked you to marry him, he might bring you here and you might find it to your liking, as a suitable companion to your own."

Oh, wow. No wonder she'd been so drawn to this one: it really had been designed as a mate to hers. She smiled shyly, feeling a blush settle on her cheeks. "I...I did really like the leaf motif you etched into it."

"As I said, miss, I was inspired to create that one based on your own," Gregory replied, sitting down at his desk and smiling up at her.

Sheena lifted her hand and again admired the perfection of the amethyst iris ring sparkling on her finger. And this was the man who'd made it - on Zelos's request, of course, but still, that didn't negate the fact that he'd made it. "Speaking of which...I wanted to compliment you again, Master Elrickson, on your work. Zelos said this set was custom made; he'd just never mentioned who made it. Your craftsmanship, your design...I'm in awe of your work." She smiled shyly. "I can't tell you how much I love it."

Gregory smiled and bowed his head, motioning for her to take a seat in a chair beside the desk. "Thank you, miss. As I said, working on that set was a pleasure, and, in fact, a highlight of my career. However, I am afraid I cannot take credit for the design itself."

...Say what? Her smile faded as she sat down, blinking at him a few times. "You can't?"

His eyebrows rose curiously as he leaned toward her. "Oh, he did not tell you?"

...Oh, Zelos, tell me you didn't. Her eyes narrowed. "Tell me what?"

"The design was entirely his. He came into my store one day many months ago, asking if I had anything in an iris design. I did not, so he left. However, two days later he returned with this." Gregory dug through a stack of papers on his desk, then pulled one out and passed it to her. Her eyes widened: on it was the iris pattern she was so enamored of, and below it were directions, written in Zelos's distinct, showy handwriting, detailing the pieces he wanted - a necklace, earrings, the barrettes, and the extra pendant. "He asked if I could make it for him so he could give it to a 'very special lady.' I said I would do my best, and he gave me two further instructions: one, to make sure the pieces were small, not gaudy, and two, that they be appropriate wear for an exotic, sublimely beautiful woman who would 'far outshine the result, no matter how beautiful it was.'" He sighed as he took the paper from her, looking it over sadly. "I wish I could make more of these, for I suspect they would quickly become popular amongst Meltokio's noblewomen, but he insisted the design not be shared. In fact, he paid me handsomely to promise I would never recreate it and made me swear to burn this sketch once I had finished the final piece - the ring, should he one day wish to give it to you - so I was not tempted to create any further pieces. However, perhaps you would like to keep his directions instead, in case you ever desire an additional piece for your set?"

Stunned, Sheena took the note back from him. "He...he designed it himself...?"

"Yes. I simply created the end product from his vision." Gregory smiled warmly. "And now I see what he meant about you - and about your beauty."

She let out a soft laugh at the compliment, her blush reigniting, but she couldn't tear her eyes from the sketch. All this time she'd thought Zelos had just asked a jeweler for something in an iris pattern; she hadn't thought he was the one who'd handed the jeweler the original design! "I...I had no idea. He never said he..." Her voice trailed off, and she cleared her throat. She would have to think about how best to express her awe to Zelos later, but right now wasn't the time for that. She smiled and folded up Zelos's instructions, placing them in a pocket in her robe. "Well, regardless of who designed it, I love it. And I still have to express my praise for how beautifully you crafted everything. This set couldn't possibly be more perfect."

"And that praise, miss, I will gladly accept," he replied, bowing his head to her. "It is one of the greatest joys of my profession, to hear that one of my creations had the intended effect upon its recipient. So thank you for your kind words." Before she could reply, he leaned toward her again. "Now, my dear, what can I do for you? You seemed to have something specific in mind when you asked to speak with me beyond simply expressing your gratitude."

Well, that had been one of her reasons - and oh, was she glad she had, because Zelos had obviously never planned to tell her this. He would've had a hundred opportunities to point out, boastfully or otherwise, that he'd designed the set she adored so much that she wore a piece of it every day, but he hadn't. And that...even if yesterday hadn't happened, that still would have told her everything she needed to know about the man she was about to marry.

But she really had had another reason to talk to the jeweler - and it was even more appropriate now that she knew Zelos had designed the pattern himself. She smiled shyly and motioned at the machine where the ring was resizing. "I...I was kinda hoping you might be able to inscribe something into his ring for me."

"I figured you might," Gregory said, smiling. "And of course. I would be glad to do so."

Sheena bit her lip, realizing that before she detailed what she wanted, she should check something first. "How much extra does an inscription cost?"

Thankfully, he dismissed that with a shake of his head. "Do not worry about that, miss. Just for you, I will do this for free."

Oh, good. She really didn't want to make Zelos pay more than he already was for this ring - but she really, really wanted a particular inscription there. And if she'd had to pay for this herself, she would have done everything she could to earn enough to make it happen. It simply had to be there. She smiled gratefully. "Thanks."

"So what is it you would like me to inscribe for you?"

...Oh. Right. While she knew what she wanted, she didn't want anyone else who saw the ring to catch what she'd written. So, how to do that...aha! Got it. "Um, it...it might be easier if I wrote it down for you," Sheena said, smiling awkwardly. "It's not entirely in your language."

"Ah, I see." Gregory opened a drawer and pulled out a pad of paper and a pencil. "Here you go."

"Thanks." On the bright side, at least this was one thing she was not indecisive about, and so writing it wasn't hard. On the other hand, she did feel awkward handing something partially written in Mizuhoan to someone she barely knew. As much as she wanted this inscription on the ring, if he didn't think he could do so, she would understand and change it. She bit her lip as she handed him the pad of paper. "Is that okay? I know you aren't familiar with the symbols, but..."

Gregory held it up, observing the writing a moment curiously, but then he looked up at her and smiled. "Of course. I believe I can manage this, and I will be extra attentive to make sure the symbols are accurate."

Sheena returned his smile. "Thank you. I appreciate it."

"Of course. Then if you would like to wait with your fiancé, the ring must cool a little before I can inscribe your message. I will then have you verify it to make sure it is satisfactory."

"Okay."

Sheena rejoined Zelos - who, true to his word, hadn't budged since she'd left - in the main room, and when he asked what she'd been up to, she'd just smiled enigmatically, sat down beside him, and wrapped her arms around him. She wasn't going to tell him yet, nor was she going to tell him she knew he'd designed the iris pattern yet, either. He'd find out soon enough. And after a few silly, halfhearted attempts to get the truth out of her, he finally gave up with an over-the-top sigh and a, "Fine, fine, be that way. I tell ya, you ninjas and your secrets..." And that had ended that. They then sat for awhile, occasionally talking, but mostly just enjoying the quiet moment. Sheena was just glad it was still early and the shop hadn't officially opened yet because it would have been awkward if someone had walked in and seen them sitting in a jewelry store with a ring on her finger. Talk about a guaranteed way to start spreading rumors that would ultimately prove to be true.

Some time later, Gregory reappeared in the doorway and motioned for Sheena to rejoin him in the workroom. Zelos watched her curiously as she extracted herself from his arms and rose to her feet, but she just smiled sweetly at him as she followed Gregory into the back room. Once the door was closed, he handed Sheena the ring and motioned for her to stand beneath a light. "How does it look?"

Her eyes narrowed as she turned the ring over - it really was beautiful, and while the price was still ridiculous, she was glad Zelos had talked her into choosing the one she wanted - and then looked even closer, examining the symbols carefully. "It's perfect," she said a moment later, giving Gregory an appreciative smile. "Now, can I ask you to do me one more favor?"

"Of course," he replied, returning her smile.

Spotting her note for the inscription on his desk, she walked over to it, picked it up, and held it up to him. "In place of the sketch Zelos wanted you to burn, could you burn this instead?" Because what she had written there was something only she and Zelos had any right to know, and the last thing she needed was word getting out that this existed and some curious person stealing it and figuring out how to translate it.

His eyes widened, but then he bowed his head, took it from her, and headed toward the furnace in the corner. "Very well. I will do it now so you can see that it is done."

Sheena stepped toward the furnace and watched the paper burn as he tossed it inside. Once the writing was destroyed, she smiled again. "Thank you. I just want to keep that private."

"I understand." Gregory closed the furnace. "Then do you require anything else of me?"

"No, I think I'm good." Oh, wait. "Actually, Zelos thought of something else he wants to get before we leave. I'm not sure what, but he wanted to talk to you before we left."

Gregory bowed his head, then he grabbed a small velvet bag from one of his shelves and handed it to her. Sheena took it, slipped the ring inside, and tied it. "Then let us get you and your ring back to your fiancé, and I shall see what it is he would still like from me."

He opened the door and let her exit first, which, after a brief hesitation, she did. It was something that had taken her forever to get used to: letting a man open a door for her when she was perfectly capable of doing so herself. She knew it was simple politeness and custom in Meltokio, but it still irritated her, especially knowing men did it because she was a woman. The first few times she'd complained about it, though, Zelos had insisted she at least let him treat her chivalrously, because if she didn't, he and his 'gentlemanly upbringing' would go crazy. He'd been so sincere at the time, saying he liked doing nice little things like that for her, that she'd quickly given up arguing it. And since chances were other men in Meltokio felt the same, she had no choice but to smile and accept it now.

And then they were back in the main room. Seeing them, Zelos immediately stood and grinned as Sheena rejoined him on the other side of the counter. "All set?"

She smiled and held up the velvet bag. "Yeah. I'm happy."

"Good," he said, slipping his arm around her waist. "That's the point."

Gregory, likewise, retook his position behind the counter. "Now, was there anything else you required from me, Chosen?"

"Actually, yeah. What kind of platinum chains do you have? Y'know, something to loop the rings through around our necks when we can't wear them." Seeing Sheena look at him curiously, he explained, "Our day jobs are gonna be pretty demanding, and I'd rather take mine off than accidentally lose it while training. And when I do that, I want mine, at least, to still be close to my heart."

...Oh, Zelos. And again, Sheena smiled, her heart melting. That would be corny if it weren't so sweet and sincere. Actually, that was a good idea; she didn't want to accidentally hurt someone with her ring or damage it while she was training, either. Fortunately, Gregory recognized what Zelos wanted, for he immediately nodded, went back to the glass case with the platinum rings, and pulled out a smaller display, then set it on the counter. Since there were fewer choices, Zelos quickly picked one out and held it up so they could see it. It wasn't fancy, but it did look long enough to tuck under their shirts - and it looked sturdy, too, which she hoped meant it wouldn't snap when they least expected it. After all, this ring was something she never wanted to lose, nor did she want Zelos to lose his, either, not when they were so priceless in their meaning. This chain seemed to promise that their rings would always stay with them, right where they belonged.

She shrugged. "Looks good to me."

Zelos nodded curtly and turned back to Gregory. "You got two of these?"

"Yes, I do. Wait one moment, please." Gregory returned to the glass case and pulled out another chain, then he handed it to Zelos. "Here you go, Chosen. Will there be anything else for you today?"

Zelos glanced again at Sheena, who shook her head. "No, I think we're good," he said, then he handed Sheena the two chains. "Sweetheart, you want to put these in your little bag there so we don't lose them?" Taking the chains from him, she did as instructed as he turned back to Gregory. "Hey, man, thanks again. I owe you big time for this. Just talk to my butler to get your payment. I've already told him to expect you."

"I will certainly do so." To Sheena's surprise, Gregory suddenly eyed Zelos carefully and leaned against the counter in a way that indicated he was still expecting something. "And about our previous agreement...?"

A knowing grin appeared on Zelos's face, and he reached into his traveling bag and pulled out a smaller bag, one that jingled - probably gald, she figured. "You kept your end of the bargain, and I, for one, am grateful you did."

Gregory accepted the bag from him and peered inside. His eyes widened, and he quickly looked back up at Zelos. "This is significantly more than we agreed upon, Chosen."

Ah, so there was gald in that bag. But what was Zelos doing? Before Sheena could ask, though, Zelos smirked. "Yeah, I know. The extra is another not-so-little bribe."

"A bribe for what this time, may I ask?" Gregory pressed, his eyes narrowing.

Zelos arched an eyebrow at him. "Think you could keep your mouth shut one more day? Until, say, tomorrow at noon?"

Gregory smiled and bowed his head. "I believe I can manage that."

"Good." Without warning, Zelos smiled, turned to Sheena, and extended his arm to her, ignoring the curious look she was giving him. "Then shall we get going, sweetheart?"

While she really wanted to know what that 'bribe' was about, he just smiled at her innocently, which told her that whatever it was, he didn't want to discuss it here. She'd just have to find out later, then. It wasn't like she didn't have ways of getting him to talk. "Yeah," she said, slipping her arm through his. "We still have a lot to do."

Using their linked arms to pull her closer, Zelos planted a soft kiss to the side of her head. "Yes, we definitely do."

"Then this way, please," Gregory said, motioning for them to follow him into the back room. "You may use my private entrance to avoid being seen."

A quick glance back at the window showed that numerous people were now mulling about out in the street, and Sheena sighed, relieved that they wouldn't have to deal with them, as he led the way through his workroom. Gregory clearly wasn't just a superb jewelry maker; he was understanding and accommodating, too. She could see why Zelos had picked him. Once at the back entrance, he opened the door for them, peered out first to make sure no one was around, and then, finding none, turned back to them and bowed his head.

Sheena smiled broadly. "Thank you, again, Master Elrickson, for all your help."

"Thank you, Sheena, Chosen. It is always a pleasure working with Lord Wilder, and now also with his beloved. Again, congratulations on your engagement. If you ever require any further specialized jewelry, please consider Elrickson's Jewelers again."

"We will," Zelos replied. He guided Sheena out the door, but just before Gregory could close it, he pointed sharply at him. "Just remember - tomorrow at noon."

Gregory bowed to him. "Of course. Tomorrow at noon."

Impressing even herself, Sheena managed to curtail her curiosity until Gregory had closed the door. Once he had, she gave Zelos a pointed look. "Okay, talk. What was that about?"

Zelos smirked but thankfully did answer the question. "Last week I bribed him not to tell anyone I'd bought an engagement ring from him until I reported whether or not you'd accepted. If you said 'yes,' I told him he could break the news to the rest of Meltokio. Anyway, I gave him half of the bribe then and promised I'd give him the rest if he kept his end of the bargain. I didn't want rumors spreading until after I'd actually asked you. I mean, for one, my hunnies would not have been pleased, and I would've had to spend the past week consoling them about the fact that I didn't want to marry them, which, needless to say, I really didn't want to do. And, well, you ninjas hear everything, so I didn't want word leaking to you guys about it, either - and especially not to you until I'd cleared things with your grandfather. You know how fast gossip spreads around here."

"Yeah, like wildfire," Sheena murmured as they began walking down the alley. She couldn't fault him for wanting to keep that quiet. She would've just threatened the person in question if they'd told anyone, but Zelos's method was just as effective - and, well, probably more humane, too. "And today's bribe?"

"Today I gave him a little extra so he'd wait one more day before talking." He shrugged. "If all goes according to plan, we should be out of Meltokio by noon tomorrow, before word starts spreading and everyone starts hounding us to see if the rumors are true." Without warning, his footsteps slowed and his eyebrows rose as he turned to look at her. "That is okay with you, right? Because if it's not, I'll go back and change my instructions to him."

Sheena quickly shook her head. "No, no, it's fine. Everyone here will find out about this eventually anyway, no matter how hard we try to hide it. And...well, I like that guy. If you trust him enough to come to him in the first place, then I trust him to be accurate when giving his 'report' about us."

"Yeah, I do. He's a good man. I wish there were more jewelers like him here...but unfortunately, there aren't, so all I can do is support the ones we do have." She returned his smile, but before she could reply, Zelos went on. "Anyway, next up is a stop in Iselia to find some old friends. So whataya say we head out of town and hop on a Rheaird?"

She smiled and nodded, letting him wrap his arm around her waist and pull her close as they resumed walking. "Sounds good. I just hope we can find them."

"Yeah, me too." A second later, though, he grinned evilly, his eyes sparkling in a way that told her something stupid was coming. "So would the lollipop like to drive this time?"

Egads, again with the lollipop? Sheena rolled her eyes and gave him her best glare, despite the grin and blush on her face. Oh, yeah, she knew what he wanted: the opportunity to finally get to hold onto her while they were flying. But then it hit her: he was going to be her husband soon, and that meant he was the only man she ever would let grope her without detaching his hands from his body. Heck, she'd been looking forward to it herself since she'd said 'yes' yesterday! So why not give him his thrills for once? She trusted him with his hands...mostly.

"Sure," she said, shrugging, but then she pointed sharply at him. "But you'd better hold on tight, buddy, because if you fall off, and especially if you fall off because you grope me and leave me no choice but to kick you, I can't guarantee I'd come back to get you."

As she'd hoped, Zelos burst out laughing. He then pulled her tighter and pressed a kiss to her temple. "I'm pretty sure you're asking the impossible of me, but it has been duly noted, so for you, I'll try," he murmured in her ear.

"You'd better," she whispered back to him, ignoring the shiver that ran through her at his husky tone and the feel of his warm breath against her ear and instead hopping up on her toes to give him a quick kiss. And then they were heading through Meltokio to the front gate, and soon after that, they were flying toward Iselia. And that time, she got to enjoy every second of feeling him hold her securely in his arms as they sailed across the sky on his Rheaird.

He kept his promise to keep his hands to himself, as Sheena expected he would, but she almost wished he hadn't. Oh, she couldn't wait until they finally had a chance to be alone and could start catching up for a year's worth of lost time due to her own shortsightedness and her regrettable lack of faith in fate and in Zelos himself.

It would happen soon enough. And then nothing could stop her from making sure he knew just how much she loved him and wanted him with her, always and forever.

0~*~0

It was a little before noon when they finally reached Iselia. Since Colette's house was closest to where they'd landed, they stopped there first, but only Phaedra was home, and she suggested they try Lloyd's house because Colette had gone there to visit him earlier that morning. While they hadn't found the two yet, Sheena was relieved to at least hear they were in town. She really did want them there for this, and judging from the way Zelos's face had lit up when Phaedra told them that, he felt the same. And so they'd thanked Phaedra and headed through the village toward Lloyd's house.

Iselia was quiet, with only a few people around, but nearly everyone they saw recognized her and greeted her with a smile and a 'Hello.' In response, she always made a point to introduce Zelos to them in his new capacity as Tethe'alla's Foreign Minister, which resulted in surprised yet pleased comments about how glad they were to meet him (which had been one of their biggest complaints about Giannovio, that they'd never actually had a chance to meet the man who'd been threatening their independence) and were looking forward to working with him. While she hadn't had to make many trips here the past year, there had been a few since the king's failed attempt to annex Iselia into Tethe'alla, mostly to keep relations open between the two, deliver a few letters, and determine and communicate each area's needs. Thanks to the excitement with Minister Giannovio's treachery and the transition of his position to Zelos, the king hadn't had a chance yet to figure out how best to deal with having so much Sylvaranti land in the middle of his, but chances were once he did, she would have to travel here more regularly. She had also started hearing grumblings of arguments arising between Sylvaranti and Tethe'allan villages, primarily regarding land disputes, but thankfully none had turned violent yet - although human nature being what it was, the possibility for future skirmishes couldn't be dismissed. At least now she had Zelos with her, not just as the Foreign Minister but as her soon-to-be husband, someone far more skilled in diplomacy than she would ever be, to help her deal with it. But still, it was very, very nice to come here and be recognized as a friendly face rather than as someone the villagers were wary would one day betray them, as she knew many had feared after that 'submit to Tethe'alla!' fiasco. It had taken time, but she now truly did feel welcome here.

She just hoped the same would eventually happen for Zelos in Mizuho. She knew her people were slowly warming to him, especially since the poisoning, and she knew her grandfather's approval would help, but she just wasn't sure yet how well this marriage would go over with them or how long it would take them to accept him as the Iselians had accepted her. Grandpa must think they would, though, or he never would have given Zelos his blessing. And for her part, she would do whatever it took to make sure Mizuho saw the same beauty and goodness in him that she did.

They had just entered the forest where Lloyd's house was located when her companion suddenly smirked in a way that made her internal 'stupid Zelos alert' start blaring. "So, if Phaedra is right, then our dear little Lloyd and Colette are all alone at Lloyd's house, eh?" he asked.

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Yeah, so?"

The idiotic smirk broadened and he nudged her with his elbow. "So what do you think the chances are that we'll catch them doing something naughty?"

For a moment, Sheena just gaped at him - yes, Lloyd and Colette were finally dating, something they'd announced a few weeks ago in Altamira, and yes, they'd admitted to being together since shortly after New Year's when Zelos had made his obnoxious, unorthodox comments that had essentially forced Lloyd to admit his feelings to Colette, so she supposed it was possible - but then she groaned and rolled her eyes. So now Zelos wasn't just being stupid; he was being perverted, too. Yippee. If she didn't love the man so much and hadn't gotten so used to his bizarre, abrupt mood shifts from being sweet and sensitive to perverted and stupid, she would have to smack him. He was joking - at least, she hoped he was - but she would still play along, because...well, she really did love seeing him so happy and having so much fun. Even if it was terribly inappropriate, idiotic fun.

"Oh, for the love of..." She poked his arm. "Just because that's what you would be doing right now if you could doesn't mean that's what everyone would be doing."

He batted his eyelashes at her. "So you're proposing to speak for everyone now? Can you really guarantee me that everyone would choose not to be having fun like that if they could?"

Sheena opened her mouth to reply, but they had gotten into this kind of stupid argument before, and she knew she couldn't win it - because no, she couldn't answer with absolute certainty what everyone would be doing right now if they could. "Well, of course not, but I'm sure-"

His smirk grew even more wicked, and that time he didn't let her finish before going on, "And after last night and this morning, can you really tell me even you wouldn't choose to be doing that right now if it was currently an option?"

Judging from how warm her face felt, she was most likely bright red again. This man was so going to die for this. "Well-"

Zelos beamed her a knowing and way-too-smug grin. "Didn't think so."

Yep, he was definitely going to die. But...well, not until after she'd had her way with him. Because the embarrassing truth was that yes, she really did want to be doing that with him right now, and tonight seemed like too far away to have to wait for it - assuming, of course, that the rest of their day went as planned. Heck, if they had the time and were already married, that probably was what they'd be doing right now: lounging in bed, making up for lost time, and getting to know each other in the one final way they hadn't yet. Not that she would ever admit that while this idiot was in stupid, 'make Sheena smile and blush' mode, because he would never let her live it down. Maybe it was time to tease him in return.

Folding her arms to her chest, she gave him another mild glare. "You really are hopeless, aren't you? I mean, seriously, is sex the only thing you ever think about?"

His face wrinkled in distaste. "Nah, that's not all I think about. I think about plenty of other stuff! It's just today that it is - which, I might add, is your fault, love, for being so frisky lately. Well, and...yeah, I suppose it's on my mind at some point every other day, too, but that's only because I have the hottest damn girlfriend-slash-future-Mrs.-Wilder a man could ask for!" Sheena rolled her eyes, and he quickly went on. "Besides, the only way to keep up my reputation is to take advantage of opportunities like these to prove I'm still the same infamous Casanova I was before having my heart swept away by one very special, lovely lady!"

"I thought you'd given up trying to maintain that reputation," she muttered.

Zelos arched an eyebrow at her. "Oh, didn't I tell you? I gave up trying to give it up when someone started coming on to me last night." Sheena gave him another glare, but not only was she still blushing, but her smile was back, too. Without warning, he poked her arm. "And besides, I distinctly remember turning down the lollipop this morning."

Sheena groaned and briefly buried her face in her hand. "Agh, again with the lollipop?"

His smug, overly bright grin instantly returned. "Yep!"

"Idiot," she muttered, but with every stupid thing he said, her grin was broadening even more.

Zelos shrugged. "Lloyd and Colette have been dating six months, love. Just because we haven't taken that particular step yet doesn't mean they haven't. I mean, since they are currently alone in his house, and since their hyperactive teenage hormones have probably started catching up to them by now, and since we know Colette has an affinity for smutty romance novels, it is possible they're currently engaging in a fun little roll in the hay, and so we could be catching them in flagrante delicto by barging in on them like this. That's all I'm saying."

Oh, he just had to put that image in her mind, didn't he? "Yeah, well, I'd rather not interrupt them if that is what they're doing," she replied, casting another warning glare at him. "There are some things you don't need to see your friends doing - and that's definitely one of them." She suddenly smirked. "Besides, I think it's pretty unlikely that is what they're currently up to. I mean, despite Colette's affinity for romance novels - which I will remind you, yet again, are not smutty - I'm not convinced Colette even knows what sex is yet, nor that she sees Lloyd in that way. She never did understand any of your perverted jokes and innuendo, and a few emotional - not sexual - romance novels aren't gonna change that."

"Eh, you might have a point there," Zelos conceded. "But by now I certainly hope that Lloyd at least knows, because otherwise...man, that would be pathetic to reach that age and still be clueless about that."

Sheena rolled her eyes, suddenly glad she could see Lloyd's house approaching because it meant this stupid conversation would be over soon. "If he didn't before meeting you, dear, I'm sure he figured it out pretty quickly afterwards. Very few things used to come out of your mouth that weren't sexual in nature. I might know better now, but you really did do a good job back then of making yourself look like a sex-crazed pervert. I remember him asking Raine and Regal a few times what you were talking about." Okay, she couldn't help herself; she just had to grin. "Heh. I also remember their faces being as red as his shirt every time he did. It didn't take him long to figure it out after that."

Zelos lifted a hand to his chest as if affronted. "Hey, I thought it was very generous of me to share my vast knowledge of women with him!"

"And I remember hearing you whining about how beautiful women flocked to him and yet paid you no heed when you were anywhere near him," she retorted, smirking again.

"Yeah, I remember that, too," he muttered, pouting. "Like you."

Sheena wrapped her arm around his waist and pulled him to her in the best hug she could currently manage given the fact that they were still walking. "Yeah, well, that was before I knew better about what an incredible man you really are."

Instantly, his face softened, and he smiled and whispered, "Thanks, sweetheart," before pressing a kiss to the side of her head. His smile, however, quickly reverted to the smirk as he pulled back. "Of course, I can't help wondering if I hadn't stepped in and played matchmaker when I did if they'd still be stuck in the same clueless rut, constantly dancing around each other without ever acting on their feelings."

"'Played matchmaker'?" she repeated with a snort. "Yeah, right. 'Were an incorrigible ass to them' is a far more accurate description."

Zelos gaped at her in mock horror. "Why, whatever could you mean by that?"

"Oh, like you don't know! There were other ways of nudging those two toward dating, y'know - ways that didn't involve embarrassing Lloyd in front of everyone and terrifying Colette that he was in love with another woman!"

"Yeah, but those ways wouldn't have been nearly as much fun," he mumbled, then pointed sharply at her. "And the truth is, Lloyd never would've said anything if I hadn't pushed the issue, and you know it! Besides, it worked, didn't it?"

Okay, so he had a point there. She reluctantly tilted her head and released him as they reached Lloyd's front door. "Well, yeah..."

Zelos dismissed that with a wave of his hand as he turned to face her, his smug grin reappearing. "See? Then there you go."

Folding her arms to her chest, she shook her head and glared at him - but, to her chagrin, she failed, yet again, to restrain her amused smile. "Even after all this time, you're still an incorrigible ass."

He lifted a hand to his ear as if telling her to speak up. "What was that? Did I just hear my dear, sweet, delectable lollipop say she loved my ass?"

When he started shaking his midsection showily, Sheena could no longer resist; she smacked his arm, her face flaring and her grin, irritatingly, returning in full. "You are such an idiot."

Said idiot had the gall to wink at her. "'Idiot' in lollipop-speak meaning 'smokin' hot, sexy stud muffin who I want to throw down on the ground and devour right now'..."

Oh, great Jizou! Sheena threw her hands up in the air in what would have been disgust if only his perverseness wasn't so completely Zelos that it was actually dismayingly endearing. And she would threaten to call off the wedding if he didn't start behaving himself, but...well, that was one thing she would not joke about right now, not after everything that had happened yesterday, for fear he would take it the wrong way and it would wreck their good moods. Instead, therefore, she settled for an exasperated, "Agh, just knock on the door already!"

Zelos burst out laughing and lifted his hands in an unsuccessful show of innocence. "Okay, okay! Knocking now, my beloved yet oh-so-bossy lollipop." Still laughing softly - and Sheena hated to admit it, but she was now, too - he rapped on the door.

After a moment of silence, Sheena folded her arms to her chest and leaned against the wall near the door. "I don't hear anything."

"No, they're here," Zelos said, still grinning. "I hear them."

Her eyes narrowed. "How...?" Oh, wait. She got it. "...Never mind. Angel senses."

He nodded curtly and, mirroring her stance, leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the door in a casual manner that...well, that showed off his physique very, very nicely. Oh, was he a beautiful man: the lean body, the gorgeous red hair, the toned muscles...and suddenly Sheena was having a hard time keeping her eyes - and her hands - to herself. This must be how Zelos felt every time he was with her: ready to jump her at the first opportunity that presented itself. She could feel heat and desire spreading through her as she watched him, starting at her face and working its way downward. If they had to wait too much longer, she was afraid she would ignite in flame and have to drag him into the forest to...

Fortunately, Zelos chose that moment to knock on the door again and then start talking, successfully distracting her straying thoughts. "'Colette, was that the door?'" he said. Sheena's eyes narrowed at his slightly lowered voice. A moment later, it rose to an amusingly high pitch, and Sheena couldn't help giggling as she realized he was mimicking their friends and repeating their words for her benefit. "'I'm pretty sure it was, Lloyd!' 'Hey, think you could get that? My hands are full carrying these boards upstairs!' Oh...too bad. Guess they're not in flagrante delicto right now." Sheena rolled her eyes, but she didn't get a chance to respond for he immediately went on, his voice rising and falling to indicate who he was mimicking. "'Uh oh, I can't, Lloyd! My hands are all sticky!'"

"'Sticky'?" Sheena repeated, arching an eyebrow at him.

Zelos shrugged innocently. "Hey, that's what she said! 'All right, all right, I'll get it. Hold your ponies, I'm coming!'"

It took all her restraint not to burst out laughing at that, even as Zelos buried his face in his hand and groaned. "'Hold your ponies'?" she said.

"Oh, Martel, he can't even get that saying right?" he muttered. Suddenly, he lowered his hand and stood up straight, his face brightening. "Ooh, footsteps! And it's show time in three..." he lifted three fingers, "...two..." Sheena pushed herself away from the wall as he folded one of his fingers, leaving two upright, "...one..." one finger...

The door opened right on cue, revealing Lloyd standing on the other side - and the instant he saw them, his face burst into a huge smile that Sheena was helpless but to return. His happiness when he was with dear friends always had been so sincere, so contagious, and so heartwarming. It was one of the things she'd once really, really liked about him - and she still did, just no longer in the same way. No, now she truly didn't feel anything romantic toward him anymore. The butterflies she felt whenever she was with Zelos, seeing him smile and laugh and kissing him and holding him and feeling his touch, was something she hadn't felt with Lloyd for a long time now. She liked Lloyd and always would, but she didn't love him. He wasn't the right man for her, not anymore, and really, he never had been. If she had wasted all these months pining over him, someone who would never be hers because his heart already belonged to another...well, she would have missed out on not only the best year of her life, but on the future she was currently facing, one full of hope and promise with the man she loved with all her heart. And seeing the sincere happiness on Zelos's face when he looked at her, the love in his eyes that told him she made him, someone who had likewise never experienced true happiness before, just as happy as he made her, was the best part.

Lloyd's surprise only lasted a second before he shouted over his shoulder, "Hey, Colette! Come see who's here! Hey, guys! Oh, man, this is an awesome surprise! Come on in!"

Zelos motioned for Sheena to enter first, both of them grinning, but before she could take two steps through the door, Colette emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. Seeing them, she squealed in excitement, dropped the towel, and rushed over to Sheena, throwing her arms around her in tight hug. "Oh my gosh! Sheena!" Releasing Sheena, she next tackled Zelos, eliciting an, "Oomph!" from him. "Zelos! It is so good to see you two again!"

Sheena accepted the friendly hug that Lloyd gave her. "It's good to see you guys, too," she said, pulling away before Zelos could worry about her nonexistent feelings for Lloyd.

"Yeah, definitely," Zelos said, shaking Lloyd's hand once he'd extracted himself from Colette's embrace. "It's been, what? Two months now?"

"Right, right, Altamira," Lloyd said. "That show you got us tickets for was so awesome! The Ozette reconstruction party was so much fun, too. Y'know, I ran into Presea last week, and she said they've already gotten started rebuilding some of the houses there. Hopefully within a few months people can start moving back."

"That's good to hear," Zelos replied. "Hopefully money won't be an issue for them anymore. They certainly got enough donors. No big surprise, though, considering how cute Presea is. As long as no one mentions her real age, she'll be able to milk it for anything she needs."

Colette grasped Sheena's arms, looking her over and smiling happily. "Sheena, you look so much better than you did then!"

"Thanks," Sheena replied. "I feel a lot better." The last time she'd seen them, after all, she'd still been recovering from that nasty kurinoku poison. Thankfully, she'd been mostly better by then, but it had still taken her a few weeks to fully recover her stamina. "It sure took awhile to get all of that poison out of my system, but ever since then, I've been fine."

"Oh, good," Colette said, giving her another hug. "I'm so glad to hear that!"

"Well, by all means, guys, come in!" Lloyd repeated, ushering them inside, and that time, without Colette tackling them, they made it into his living room. "So how've you guys been?"

Sheena smiled shyly as Zelos looked at her - and there it was, that sparkle of happiness in his eyes that she adored seeing so much. "We've been good," she said.

"We've been great, actually," Zelos clarified, his eyebrows rising.

She chuckled and, blushing, motioned at him. "What he said."

He observed her a moment, smiling softly, then turned back to their hosts. "And you guys?"

Colette's face lit up further, and she gave Lloyd a quick hug before pulling back, still looking up at him. "We've been really, really good!"

"Yeah, we're happy," Lloyd said, giving Colette a tender look, one that made Sheena's smile broaden as she recognized it as the same look of absolute love that Zelos always gave her.

Without warning, Colette turned back toward them and clapped her hands together. "Oh, you guys have to stay for lunch! I was just about to start making it!"

...Lunch? Sheena's eyes widened, only then realizing she really was getting hungry. With how busy they'd been all morning, she hadn't noticed how late it was getting. Zelos blinked several times as she gave him a questioning look, but then he shrugged. "Well, we have to eat sometime, right? I won't have you nearly passing out on me again like you did yesterday."

...Oh, right. She had almost done that, hadn't she? "Do we have enough time?" she asked softly.

He was silent a moment, considering that, then nodded. "I think so."

"Oh, you're not staying long?" Colette said, her face falling.

Zelos gave her an apologetic smile. "'Fraid we can't this time, angel."

"You guys have to be somewhere?" Lloyd asked.

Sheena cast a shy smile at Zelos, who grinned back at her. "Yeah, actually, we do," he said.

"Aw, that's too bad," Colette replied sadly, but her face quickly perked up again. "Well, I'm just glad you stopped by anyway! It's always exciting to see you guys again!"

"So what are you two up to?" Lloyd asked. "And what brings you all the way out here if you're so busy? More emissary work, Sheena?"

She and Zelos exchanged another knowing look, and when it became apparent Zelos was letting her answer the question, she turned back to them and shook her head. "No, not this time. Actually, heh, we have a little favor to ask of you."

"Ooh, a favor!" Colette said. "We'd do anything for you guys!"

"Definitely!" Lloyd added. "Name it and it's yours."

Zelos grinned at her. "Want to tell them our news?"

Lloyd's eyes widened as he looked between them. "And you guys have news?"

Colette's blue eyes brightened even further. "Is it good news?"

Sheena let out a soft laugh as gave Zelos another knowing smile. While she was eager to share this news with them, it felt so strange to be doing so, too. These were, after all, the words that, until yesterday, she had never believed she would be able to say: that she was marrying Zelos Wilder. Oh, was she glad she could, though. "Yeah, it's good news, Colette," she said.

But 'We're getting married!' wasn't something she felt comfortable actually saying yet, either, and before she could figure out how best to break this to them, Lloyd motioned for her to hurry up. "Well, c'mon, tell us already! We love hearing good news!"

She met Zelos's eyes again, and he smiled softly and motioned at her. "Go ahead. They'll never believe it unless they hear it from you."

And finally, she could no longer resist. Not even trying to hold back her excited smile, Sheena lifted her left hand so they could see the ring - and then hopefully figure it out so she didn't have to spell it out for them herself.

Colette's eyes widened and she grasped Sheena's hand. "Sheena, is that an...?"

"Yeah, it is," Sheena replied softly. She just knew Colette, for all her cluelessness, would understand, and the excited grin that lit Colette's face as she squealed in delight and tackled her in another hug proved she did.

"Oh, my gosh, Sheena! Zelos! This is so amazing! I'm so excited for you both!"

A second later, Sheena, still having the life squeezed out of her, felt a gloved hand grab her left hand and lift it. "It's a...ring?" Lloyd asked, his face wrinkling in confusion.

Zelos rolled his eyes. "Yes, wise guy, it's a ring."

Lloyd observed it a moment, puzzled, but then his face lit up with recognition. "Oh! This is the same as that jewelry set you gave her at New Year's! You completed the set!"

Egads, he still hadn't gotten it, had he? "Yes, he completed the set," Sheena stated, starting to have trouble breathing with how tightly Colette was hugging her. She gave Zelos a pointed look. "I still can't believe you were ever worried about a certain someone."

His face went blank and he lifted his hands innocently. "Hey, it was a completely legitimate concern at the time!"

Sheena grinned wryly. "No, dear, it really wasn't."

Releasing her hand, Lloyd reverted to looking confused again. "Well, I'm not sure what the big deal is...but it's really nice and really well made, Zelos!"

Colette finally released Sheena, who took in a few deep breaths to return the air to her lungs, and turned back to him, giggling. "Oh, Lloyd. Don't be silly! That's an engagement ring! They're getting married!"

Lloyd's jaw dropped as he looked first at Sheena, then at Zelos. "Seriously?"

Zelos grinned proudly. "Seriously."

Sheena blushed and nodded, her shy, happy smile quickly reappearing. "Yeah. Seriously."

Still gaping, Lloyd looked between them again, then grinned broadly. "Wow, congratulations, guys! When did this happen?"

"Just yesterday," Zelos replied, his gaze drifting back to Sheena, who returned his smile.

"This is so exciting!" Colette exclaimed, giving Sheena another tight hug that left her gasping in surprise as it knocked the wind from her lungs again. "The first of us is getting married! Oh, I'm so happy for you two!"

Sheena grinned, even as Zelos did the same. "Thanks, guys," she said.

Lloyd motioned at Zelos, his face wrinkling in mock confusion. "Although...him? Really, Sheena?"

Zelos pulled a face. "Hey! C'mon, bud, where's the love?"

Sheena rolled her eyes as Colette released her again. "Yes, Lloyd, him."

"Really?" Lloyd pressed.

Oh, for the love of... "Yes, really!"

Colette giggled and nudged Lloyd with her elbow. "Oh, Lloyd, be nice. Zelos is a nice guy!"

Zelos grinned cheekily, and Sheena rolled her eyes. Even after all this time, Colette still hadn't learned not to feed The Great Zelos's ego, had she? "Aww, thanks, Colette!" he said. "You're so sweet. I knew I could count on my cute little angel to back me up!"

Fortunately, the sly grin that crossed Lloyd's face indicated he was only joking. "True, he is a nice guy, sometimes, but he's also...Zelos."

"Hey!" Zelos countered, giving Lloyd an annoyed glare. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Sheena chuckled and looped her arm through his. For some reason she was getting the feeling they'd had this conversation before. At least this time, though, without Genis here, it was still lighthearted. After all, Lloyd really did like Zelos, and he clearly was glad for them; he was just teasing Zelos like Zelos always teased him. "Oh, you know Lloyd," she said. "He's just being stupid. Ignore him."

"Nah, seriously, I'm happy for you two," Lloyd replied, giving Zelos another bright grin - and, even more tellingly, a playful pat on the arm. "I just still have trouble thinking of you two being together without driving each other crazy or trying to kill each other."

Zelos rolled his eyes. "C'mon, bud, Sheena and I have been together nearly an entire year now, and yet you're still hung up on that?"

"You obviously didn't see yourselves at times," Lloyd deadpanned.

Zelos shrugged and slid his arm around Sheena's waist. "Well, Sheena is still sane..."

"Relatively speaking," she murmured.

His eyes darted at her and he arched an eyebrow. "...And I'm still alive..."

"Again, it's all relative, dear," Sheena said, grinning.

That time he ignored her. "So there. The proof is in the pudding."

Instantly, Lloyd and Colette's faces went blank. "...Huh?" Lloyd asked.

"What pudding?" Colette said, tilting her head.

Lloyd gave them a hopeful smile. "Is it chocolate?"

Colette's eyes light up. "Ooh, I know, lemon!"

Sheena closed her eyes, smacked her palm to her face, and shook her head. These were the people they wanted with them today to witness their wedding? Could anyone be more clueless? "Eh, never mind," she muttered.

Colette giggled again. "Anyway, you said you need a favor from us?"

"Oh, right!" Sheena said, lowering her hand. In the wake of their silliness, she'd forgotten about their tight schedule. "So after talking about it, we decided to elope because we aren't looking forward to the other two weddings our people are going to force on us..."

Zelos gave them a pointed look. "Long story. Don't ask; we don't have time to explain it right now."

"...And so we were wondering if you two would be willing to be our witnesses," Sheena finished.

"Are you kidding?" Lloyd said, his face lighting up again. "For you guys?"

Colette grinned excitedly. "Of course we would!"

"When are you planning it?" Lloyd asked.

Sheena gave Zelos a shy smile that he immediately returned. "This afternoon, actually," he said, pulling her tighter against him.

"If you're not busy, of course," Sheena added, looking back at them.

"Oh, Sheena, don't be silly!" Colette said. Sheena was getting the impression that if Colette was any happier, she would explode in a flurry of pretty, glittery confetti. Probably with some tiny hearts mixed in, too. "We're never too busy for you guys!"

Lloyd nodded. "Seriously, we'd be honored, guys."

Oh, thank Jizou; maybe this wedding really will happen today. Sheena smiled and leaned into Zelos's warmth. "We'd ask everyone else to be there, but, well, it kinda has to happen today..."

"Which is another long story we currently don't have time to explain," Zelos interjected.

"...And we don't want anyone else to know we're doing this yet..."

"...And so naturally we thought of you two."

Colette squealed and clapped her hands together again. "Oh, this sounds wonderful!"

"Yeah, this I have to see or I'll never believe it," Lloyd said, grinning cheekily.

Zelos rolled his eyes again - what, had he really expected Lloyd wouldn't tease him about getting married after he, Mr. Playboy, had teased Lloyd simply about asking Colette out on a date? - but Sheena just chuckled and patted his arm. "Then let's eat and get going," she said.

"Okay!" Colette said. "I have to finish baking this last batch of cookies for Lloyd first, but then Sheena, do you want to help me make lunch?"

Sheena couldn't help smiling. It had been ages since she'd last cooked with Colette - Colette, who was always so happy and bubbly and was as determined to make things fun for everyone around her as Zelos was. Maybe it was a Chosen thing. "Sure!" she said, pulling away from Zelos and heading toward the kitchen with her.

"Hey, didja hear that, love?" Zelos suddenly said. "Colette is making Lloyd cookies."

Uh oh. Sheena stopped and turned back toward him as her 'stupid Zelos alert' started blaring again, unsurprised to find he was smirking. "Yeah, so?"

The idiot's smirk quickly vanished and instead he batted his eyelashes at her. "So when was the last time you made me cookies?"

Sheena blinked at him, unamused. "Never. Why? Was I supposed to?"

He groaned and lifted his hands. "Aw, c'mon, I thought every woman knew her first duty as a girlfriend was to make her man cookies! There's even a written rule about it in the Dating Manual!"

"Dating Manual," she repeated, folding her arms to her chest. She knew he was only acting childish because they were with friends who were expecting the Idiot Chosen from him, so it was hard to get too upset at him. While he'd gotten significantly better about being himself around others, he wasn't quite there yet. Chances were if he'd seen their friends more often this past year, he would've tested the waters more to see how they reacted to the 'real him,' but he hadn't. The fact that Lloyd had been teasing him since they'd gotten here hadn't helped, either, sending the 'real Zelos' shying away again. But then, Sheena not only understood his reaction, but she'd grown to enjoy playing along with him, too. Besides, seeing him acting playful him like was far better than the devastated, empty man she'd seen too much of yesterday, and she would happily encourage him to stick around awhile longer. "Well, seeing as I'm your fiancée, soon-to-be wife, not your 'girlfriend' anymore, and this is the first I'm hearing of either this Dating Manual or this cookie rule, it makes me believe you just made up both right now."

Zelos batted his eyelashes again. "So?"

"So it's a little late for me to be making you cookies now, isn't it?"

"But you know me; I like sweet things like cookies! It's never too late for cookies!"

"So make them yourself," she said, arching an eyebrow. "I'll be busy training to be chief."

...And now he was giving her an adorable pout. "But I'll be busy training as a ninja!"

Sheena burst out laughing - that image, of Zelos as a ninja, would never get old - but she quickly bit her lip to hold it back. "Then I guess you won't be getting any cookies anytime soon, will you?" She grinned as he grumbled something that sounded an awful lot like, 'What the hell was I thinking getting involved with a ninja?' "Think of this as part of your training, dear. Y'know, the whole self-discipline thing you'll be getting to know very, very well, very, very soon."

"But I'm not training yet!" he whined.

"No, but you will be!"

That time his grumble had something to do with wanting to enjoy his last few hours as a free man. "Eh, forget it," he suddenly said, waving that off. "Knowing you, you'd put something weird like pineapple in your cookies like you do with your curry."

Sheena wrinkled her face. "Pineapple in cookies? Why would I do that? Cookies aren't supposed to have pineapple in them." She abruptly pointed at him, her eyebrows flying upward. "And I thought you liked my curry!"

Zelos blinked at her innocently. "I do, but curry isn't supposed to have pineapple in it!"

She groaned. "But you just said you liked my curry!"

"Yeah, so?" he said, tilting his head curiously.

Egads, the bastard was smirking at her again. "So if you like my curry even with the pineapple in it, then what's the problem with putting it in there?" she countered, glaring at him...or at least trying to glare at him, if only her amusement wasn't once again rendering her glare ineffective.

He threw his hands in the air. "Because it's not supposed to be there, sweetheart!"

"Agh, this is like arguing with a three-year old," Sheena muttered, shaking her head, to which Zelos grinned and stuck his tongue out at her. She growled and attempted again to glare at him. "Yeah, that's very mature."

"I thought so," he replied, beaming way too brightly.

If she didn't love the man so much, she'd have to smack him. Instead, she settled for rolling her eyes and shaking her head. "What's with you and your insatiable sweet tooth lately, anyway? Since when am I your personal dessert dispenser? First lollipops, now cookies...what's next, cake and ice cream?"

Oh, damn, I shouldn't have mentioned the lollipop, Sheena realized a second too late as he grinned wickedly. "Mm...those sound delicious, love, but personally, I prefer banana splits and peach cobbler. Maybe a popsicle every now and then, too. Oh, and lots of whipped cream."

She could feel her cheeks flare as he winked at her. Groaning, she shook her head and quickly lifted her hand to stop him. "Y'know what? I don't even want to know what your innuendo is referring to this time, so do us all a favor and don't tell me."

Naturally, though, the idiot waggled his eyebrows at her. "Or maybe I can show you later..."

Sheena covered her face with her hand as it grew even warmer. "Agh, you are impossible!"

His grin grew outright dastardly. "But the desserts around here are just so delectable!"

She lowered her hand and threw her arms out in exasperation. "You haven't even tried the lollipop yet to know whether or not you'll find it to be delectable!"

"Oh, don't worry, I will," Zelos replied with way too much suave confidence. "There's far more chance of the sun falling out of the sky than there is that I won't thoroughly enjoy my lollipop. And make sure my lollipop thoroughly enjoys me, too."

Sheena eyed him warningly, her blush deepening further, even though she had no doubt he was right about that. "Yeah, well, if you aren't careful, Mr. Sweet Tooth, your lollipop won't let you try it! Even lollipops have limits when it comes to kids constantly teasing them instead of just taking a damn bite already!" Zelos gaped at her a moment, but then he burst out laughing again, even as Sheena groaned and closed her eyes, realizing what she'd just said. "Oh, Jizou, I can not believe we're still going on with this stupid analogy!"

"You're the one who brought it up this time," he said between laughs. "I was just saying I'd like a cookie. I said nothing about lollipops. That was all you."

"Yeah, well, this whole stupid conversation is officially over," Sheena retorted, giving him the most pointed glare she could manage amidst her embarrassment and amusement.

Zelos beamed her another bright, cocky grin and bowed his head. "If my lollipop insists, then I must comply." He winked at her again. "For fear of not being able to partake of and enjoy said lollipop tonight - and of making sure said lollipop enjoys being partaken of."

"I'm marrying the world's biggest idiot," she muttered, shaking her head.

"That was entirely your choice, love," he quipped, giving her another bright, smug grin.

She rolled her eyes again, but before she could think of a suitable retort to that, Lloyd smiled sheepishly, rubbed his neck, and asked, "Uh...what are you guys talking about? What's with all the desserts? You're making me hungry! And...why is your face so red, Sheena?"

"And why wouldn't you let Zelos have a lollipop?" Colette added, tilting her head curiously.

...Oh, crap. Her eyes widened, her lips parted, and her face grew even warmer. Had she really just forgotten they had an audience for that whole double entendre-laced exchange? And not just any audience, but Lloyd and Colette? Good thing they were so clueless - but then, that would just make this even more difficult to explain, wouldn't it? "Uh..."

"Inside joke, guys," Zelos quickly said, giving them both pointed looks. "And no, we're not explaining it." His eyes darted at Sheena and his smirk reappeared. "And no, I'm not sharing my lollipop with anyone else here, either." Unsure how to respond to that, she just gave him an embarrassed glare and shyly returned his smile.

"Okay," Colette said, shrugging that off, but then she gave Zelos a sweet smile. "Oh, but if you really want a cookie, Zelos, and Sheena doesn't have time to make you any, you can have one of Lloyd's when they're ready!"

Lloyd looked sharply at her. "What? He can? Hey! Don't I get a say in this?"

"Nope!" Zelos replied, grinning broadly. "It's a written rule in the Cookie Baking Manual that the maker of the cookies decides who gets to eat them. And thanks muchly, angel."

"No problem!" Colette replied, always happy to share.

"See, sweetheart?" Zelos said, turning to Sheena and pointing at Colette. "Colette is nice to me! She'll give me cookies!"

Great Jizou, the man was insufferable. She almost wished she wasn't marrying him so she could properly smack him for being such an idiot. Almost...but not quite. "Oh, hush, you infuriatingly childish man," she said, but instead of smacking him, she walked up to him, wrapped her hands around his neck, and pulled his head down to hers for a long, slow, sweet kiss that effectively silenced him. When she finally pulled back, she couldn't help smirking at how dazed he looked. "There. Your cookie. Free of pineapple."

Zelos grinned, his eyes softening as they lingered on her lips. "Mm...those are my favorite kind."

Blushing again, Sheena chuckled and lightly smacked his shoulder. "Idiot," she murmured, then she hopped up on her toes and gave him one last quick kiss that he eagerly accepted.

"Wait," Lloyd said as they stepped apart. "Did you say you're training as a ninja, Zelos?"

It took all of Sheena's restraint not to burst out laughing again - not just at the visual his words evoked, but at the fact that Lloyd had finally caught something they'd said how many minutes ago. The amused expression on Zelos's face told her he felt the same. "Ah, yeah...?" he said.

Lloyd's lips parted and his eyes widened. "Since when?"

"Since I'm marrying Mizuho's future chief and pretty much becoming second-in-command there?" Zelos replied.

"He's kidding, right?" Lloyd said, turning to Sheena.

She shrugged. "Nope. He's not kidding. That's the nature of the role given to the chief consort, and since he'll be my spouse soon, that puts him in a position of leadership there."

By that point, Lloyd's jaw was nearly touching the ground. "And you're okay with that?"

She chuckled at the smug grin that appeared on Zelos's face. "If I wasn't, would I be marrying him and letting him move in with me?"

"You are moving to Mizuho?" Lloyd said, his head snapping sharply toward Zelos.

Zelos rolled his eyes. "Well, it doesn't really make sense for the chief of Mizuho to move to Meltokio and try to order around a bunch of crazy ninjas from there, does it?"

Sheena shrugged again as she resumed following Colette toward the kitchen. "Y'know, Lloyd, for as stupid as he acts sometimes, he does occasionally have some valid points. And that's one of them."

Lloyd gaped at her a moment, then looked back at Zelos. "And you...you're okay with that? With settling down in Mizuho?"

Zelos gave Lloyd a disbelieving look, his face wrinkling in confusion. "Well, duh? Do you really think I would've asked her to marry me if I wasn't? I mean, it wasn't like I didn't know she was becoming chief there." He shrugged and grinned, his eyes darting mischievously at Sheena. "Besides, my life just wouldn't be complete if I couldn't constantly pester my voluptuous beauty and get smacked by her every day for the rest of my life."

Sheena rolled her eyes but couldn't resist laughing. And again, he was only making stupid comments like that because they were with their friends. No, she knew why he was really marrying her; after all, his words yesterday couldn't have been clearer. Lloyd didn't know that, though, and he gaped at Sheena another moment before eyeing Zelos warily. "She isn't marrying you because you got her pregnant or something, is she? Or, y'know, forcing you to marry her to make an honest woman out of her?"

Abruptly, Sheena froze, her body going on the alert for any signs of a potential upcoming crisis, then she whirled back toward them, her eyes widening in alarm, all traces of amusement gone. Lloyd, please tell me you did not just say that. She watched Zelos carefully as he tensed, worried how he would react to that, but thankfully, while his face twitched, after a moment he rolled his eyes and groaned, shaking it off. "No, I did not get her pregnant...yet!" He pointed at Lloyd. "And just for that, you are now uninvited to the wedding. I'm not feeding you afterwards, either. Colette, you can still come with us, but I'm gonna go find Regal instead."

Despite his words, though, Sheena relaxed a little. She could see it on his face: the accusation still pushed way too many of his buttons, but because Lloyd had said it far more jokingly than Genis had at New Year's, he was forcing himself to respond appropriately, refusing to let it get to him and ruin his good mood. Lloyd wasn't really uninvited to the wedding...although the younger man's eyes did widen, indicating he hadn't realized that fact yet. "What? But I was only kidding..." Without warning, his face lit up. "Hey, you're really gonna feed us afterwards?"

Zelos folded his arms to his chest, watching Lloyd closely. "Maaaayyyyybbbbeeeee..."

Zelos glanced at Sheena as she continued watching him another moment, wanting to make sure they'd be okay while she and Colette made lunch, and she relaxed further as he gave her a faint smile that promised her he would let it go this time. Knowing him, he would make Lloyd sweat it out awhile, but in the end, they'd be fine. Once satisfied, Sheena returned his smile and then motioned at Colette, who was still watching them curiously, to tell her they should head into the kitchen.

The second the door had shut behind them, Colette tackled her again, pulling her into another tight hug. "Oh, Sheena, I'm so happy for you! This is so exciting! You're getting married!"

Sheena couldn't help grinning as Colette pulled away. Good news like this was so meant to be shared with friends - and Colette was one of the dearest friends she'd ever had. This impending wedding now felt real, not just like a beautiful dream, now that two of their closest friends knew about it. And to think, at one point she'd been trying to kill this girl. Oh, was she glad she hadn't. If she had...well, this past year would have played out very differently and she undoubtedly wouldn't be engaged to Zelos right now, because he would still be the Chosen and would have persisted in pushing her away from him. Heck, he'd probably soon be marrying that other woman he'd been engaged to, too. Honestly, if she'd killed Colette, they would both likely be miserable right now. Talk about putting the whole 'trust fate to handle those things you can't control and do your best to handle those things you can control' thing in perspective.

"Yeah, I am," Sheena said, blushing again. "Unbelievable, huh? And to him, of all possible men. If you'd told me a year ago I'd be here right now, about to marry that idiot, I would've called you crazy and beat you up - and maybe not in that order."

Colette giggled. "But you are here now, and you're happy about it, too."

"Yeah, I am," she whispered. Oh, was she happy. Madly in love, too. Far more than she suspected she had any right to be, in fact.

"And so is he," Colette added, tapping her shoulder.

Sheena's grin softened. That, too, she couldn't deny. While she'd seen him happy plenty of times before, it had never been quite like this. "Yeah, he is, too."

She was pretty sure Colette would start drifting off into la-la land soon, considering the dreamy hearts Sheena could see floating in her eyes, but she really didn't care. In fact, she was tempted to drift off right along with her. Without warning, though, Colette jumped up and down, nearly bursting with excitement. "Ooh, can I see your ring again?" Sheena nodded and held up her left hand, marveling along with Colette over the beautiful iris sparkling on her finger. "Ooh, it's so pretty! So is the rest of that set he gave you. And now it's complete!"

"Yeah, it is," she murmured. "It's perfect in so many ways...and it's so simple and subdued for someone as flashy as him. He knows me so well, that this is exactly what I would've wanted. He couldn't have given me anything better...I almost can't believe yet that he did."

Her gaze lifted back to Colette, who was biting her lip and watching her with so much glee in her eyes that Sheena was almost tempted to give her an excited hug. A moment later, Colette squealed again. "So how did he ask you? I bet it was soooo romantic! I mean, Zelos is that kind of guy..."

In the blink of an eye, Sheena's face fell, her heart plummeted, and the knot of guilt in her chest that Zelos had been working so hard the past day to untie tightened painfully. It was smaller now than it had been yesterday upon learning she'd made the biggest, most devastating mistake of her life, but despite Zelos's efforts, it was still there, and now that Colette had touched it, it was back. Sheena watched her a moment, kicking herself as Colette's face likewise fell, but she didn't know what to say, and finally her gaze fell downward. "Uh, well..."

Colette touched her arm, the concern building on her face. "Sheena, what's wrong?"

...There's no way I can get around this, Sheena realized with a sigh. And really, maybe that was okay. Maybe she should be talking about what had happened yesterday with someone other than Zelos. Colette would never pass judgment on her because of this...and really, Colette had experienced enough guilt in her life, too, mistakenly hurting people that she cared about, that maybe she could give her some pointers to deal with it.

Lowering her voice for fear Zelos would overhear her and scold her for bringing this up, Sheena pulled out a chair from the table and sat down. "Oh, Colette, it was awful."

Colette's blue eyes widened as she slid into the seat next to Sheena's. "What do you mean? What did he do? Did he mess it up?"

She shook her head. That was one thing she refused to let anyone believe - that Zelos was to blame for a mess she had made. "That's the thing. It wasn't him, not at all. I don't even know how he was planning to ask me. The problem was me. I messed it up, big time."

Surprise flashed across Colette's face, but thankfully she followed Sheena's lead and likewise lowered her voice. "What happened?"

Sheena glanced at the door and listened a moment, only relaxing once she heard Zelos's boisterous laughter coming from the adjacent room. Satisfied he was sufficiently distracted by whatever Lloyd was saying, she leaned closer to Colette. "Colette, please don't let him know I've told you this. I know he just wants me to forget it ever happened."

"Okay...?" Colette began, her eyes widening further. "Sheena, what did you do?"

She released a low sigh. Saying this would probably kill her good mood. And really, maybe it should kill her good mood, because she didn't deserve the happiness she'd been basking in all day. "I broke his heart."

Colette blinked at her, her eyes narrowing. "What?"

Sheena's eyes fell to the table as shame swept through her. "I dumped him before he could even ask me to marry him."

"Sheena, why?" Colette pressed, thankfully keeping her voice to an urgent whisper as she leaned forward and grasped her arm. "Why would you do that?"

She shook her head. "I'm not even sure I understand why I did it anymore...it was so stupid. I was so stupid. Last week I asked him, kinda jokingly, if I could 'keep him' because he'd done something so sweet for me, but he didn't answer me, and after that he started acting strangely, to the point of avoiding me and making up excuses to get away from me, and I...I'd always figured he'd pull away from me eventually because I never expected him to stick around once I became chief - I mean, you know Zelos, and does he really strike you as the kind of guy who'd choose to live the Mizuhoan lifestyle?"

Colette giggled softly. "It is kinda funny to think of him as a ninja."

"Yeah, no kidding," Sheena murmured, smiling faintly - but it quickly vanished again as she went on. "And so I assumed that's what he was doing, pulling away from me because he'd realized we didn't have a future together. And then two nights ago, Grandpa told me it was time for me to become chief, and I knew I had to find a husband before that happened, and I...I just couldn't ask Zelos and make him feel obligated to accept something he didn't want for my sake, so I...I decided to end our relationship. And I did." She sighed. "Letting him go was the hardest thing I've ever done. And what's worse is it all turned out to be for nothing, because then I found out Zelos had been acting strangely around me because he's been considering asking me to marry him for months now, and he'd talked to Grandpa about it last week but Grandpa was making him wait a week before he'd give him his blessing, and Grandpa had only talked to me about becoming chief because he and Zelos had already worked everything out, and..." She closed her eyes and shook her head, her heart aching. "Oh, Colette, I messed everything up so much. And I hurt him so badly, making him think I never loved him or trusted him...if only I'd talked to him first instead of jumping to so many wrong conclusions..."

"Oh, Sheena!" Her eyes flew open as Colette threw her arms around her in another hug. "But you guys obviously worked it out anyway, right?"

"Yeah, we did," Sheena whispered, forcing her tears to stay at bay as Colette pulled back, resting her hands on Sheena's arms. She would not let those tears fall, because for as guilty as she still felt, she was marrying him today, and she did not want to talk herself out of it, because that would mean dashing his hopes and hurting him again. "I just can't believe he forgave me and gave me this." She held up her left hand. "I mean, seriously, what kind of man does that after being hurt that badly?"

Colette smiled warmly. "A really wonderful, forgiving man who loves you very, very much."

Sheena blinked at her, taken aback by that...but a moment later she sighed, unable to deny it. Colette made it sound impossibly simple, but that didn't mean she wasn't right. She smiled shyly. "Heh. I don't think I realized just how much he loved me until yesterday."

"Well, you won't be forgetting it anytime soon, will you?" Colette replied with a giggle.

"No. Definitely not." Her smile broadened, but then she sighed again and shook her head, her head sinking downward. "But still...I feel so awful about it!"

Colette squeezed her hand, her smile never fading. "That's because you love him, too."

"...So much so that it terrifies me to think I could ever hurt him like that again," Sheena whispered. "I mean, I've hurt a lot of people before, but never like this. And the worst part is that I chose to hurt him. I was convinced I had to let him go, and I was too afraid to ask him directly and hear what I thought he would say, so I took matters into my own hands. He knew all along that I needed to find a husband before I became chief, and he never ran away from me. And yet what did I do? I ran away from him." She squeezed her eyes shut as tears pricked them again. "How could I do that to him?"

"I know," Colette whispered, squeezing her hand tighter, and once Sheena was sure she'd suppressed her tears, she opened her eyes again. "I've hurt so many people I love, too. So many people trusted me and put their faith in me as the Chosen, and then I let them all down, I let them get hurt, I let their families die..." She shook her head sadly. "I knew what I was doing then, too. That was the choice I made, to run from my responsibilities. I mean, I know it isn't the same as what you did to Zelos, but I still feel terrible about everyone who suffered because of me...like Palmacosta."

Sheena nodded and placed her other hand over Colette's. "Yeah, I know. I'm responsible for what happened there, too. I was the one who kept making pacts with the summon spirits without knowing what I was doing."

"We had such good intentions, though!" Colette said, determination clearly overwhelming her guilt. "We only wanted to help everyone! We thought we were helping everyone. What happened was our fault, but it was the Renegades' fault, too, for giving us the wrong information, and Kratos's, too, for not telling us the truth from the start. They made mistakes, and so did we because we didn't know the full story. If we had known it, we never would've done what we did. We should've found out more before it reached that point...but it's too late to change anything now. And so now everything I do is to make up for those mistakes I made. Whenever I start thinking I can't keep going, I remind myself of that. I would never forgive myself if I'd done it purposely to hurt people, but I only meant everyone well. I would never forgive myself if I'd quit, either - I mean, look at all the good that happened because I kept going! I just made a bad mistake. That's how I can keep trying to help others and make them happy. Sure, I might accidentally hurt them again, but then, I might not, either. And next time something like that happens, I'll be sure to get the full story before I make any more decisions so I know I won't hurt them again."

Sheena smiled. There were actually more similarities between her hurting Zelos and Colette's hurting those people than Colette realized - and as such, the conclusions Colette had reached, especially about why and how she could keep going, applied to Sheena, too. She would have to think on that more later, but right now it looked like Colette was on the right track. And the fact that she had reached those conclusions despite her guilt was something Sheena found impressive. "You're so strong, Colette."

Colette shrugged. "Not really. I just like making people happy, and I'd feel really bad if I stopped! And you're just as strong, Sheena. You never gave up during our journey, even when it was painful for you. I always admired that about you, how you faced your past and kept going no matter how hard it was. Like I said, I know what I did isn't the same as what you did to Zelos, but I know you'll do the same thing to make it up to him that I've been trying to do." She smiled. "Besides, Zelos is way too sweet to make you feel bad about it."

"Heh," Sheena chuckled. "Just don't let him hear you call him that or it'll go straight to his head."

Colette blinked at her, confused. "But Zelos is sweet!"

Sheena's face grew warmer. Well, yeah, he was. He might be a perverted idiot much of the time, but beneath that, he was the sweetest man she'd ever met, the one who had proven he would go to extreme lengths to make her safe and happy, whether she deserved it or not. "Yeah...I know. He is."

"And you are making him happy!" Colette replied, her face lighting up again. "I can see it in his eyes every time he looks at you. And it's not that fake happiness we always saw when we were journeying together, either. You know, where it showed in his eyes that he was never really happy even though he always acted like he was? Now he really is happy!"

Sheena's eyes narrowed. Had Colette really noticed that about Zelos long before she herself had? Had it been that obvious? Or could it be Colette had recognized it because she felt the same way he had? And the next logical question hit her like a blow to the gut: was Colette's perpetual happiness really real, or was it all an act, a fake happiness, like Zelos's was? And...she swallowed hard. Was it possible that what the Church of Martel had done to Zelos, forcing him to act cheerful all the time while hiding his pain behind the mask so people wouldn't feel bad for their Chosen, they had also done to Colette? It was an alarming, eye-opening thought, and suddenly Sheena wondered why she'd never considered that possibility before, that Colette had suffered the exact same way that Zelos had because of the Church.

But, she quickly reminded herself, right now wasn't the right time to pursue that thought. She had already dampened their spirits too much as it was, and deserving or not, she was getting married today and really didn't want to be feeling depressed when she did. She doubted Zelos would let her - he'd always been amazing at picking up her spirits - but she didn't want to make him worry about her or question how much she loved him or wanted to marry him. Not today...not ever. And she didn't want to depress Colette if her hunch was right, either. No, maybe she would ask Colette about her upbringing some other day, but not now. That could wait for a better time.

"Yeah, he really is happy, isn't he?" Sheena murmured instead, smiling shyly. It was incredible to think she had helped make that happen...and oh, was she glad she had. He deserved it.

"Of course he is!" Colette replied. "And I know you won't make the same mistake again, Sheena. Zelos knows that, too. He wouldn't be marrying you if he didn't!"

Sheena smiled, remembering Zelos's words yesterday about how he knew and trusted her heart. He had faith in her...all of her friends had faith in her. It was, and always had been, a powerful motivator. "Thanks, Colette. You're so good at putting things in perspective."

"No problem!" Colette said, beaming happily, clearly delighted that she'd been able to help. "And really, when you think about it, it's even more romantic that he proposed to you after everything else that happened. I mean, what could be more romantic than showing you just how much he really does love you by doing something that amazing for you?"

...Huh. Sheena hadn't thought about it like that. Actions really did speak as loudly and clearly as words sometimes, didn't they? Not, of course, that his words had been any less loud or clear. Maybe, unbeknownst to her, her actions had told him the same. "Yeah, you're right. Who would've thought?" She still wished she hadn't hurt him like she had, but maybe he'd been right. Maybe everything that had happened, and especially everything they'd discussed and decided before she'd finally said 'yes,' would make their marriage even stronger. Maybe unintentionally testing their love like she had had proven it was real and could be trusted to withstand future strains, so long as they communicated and worked together to overcome them. She hoped it never came to that, but she was hopeful that the lessons they'd both learned would prove beneficial. "Heh. And just a piece of advice, Colette, so you don't make the same mistake I did: if Lloyd ever starts acting really weird around you for no apparent reason, don't jump to conclusions in case he's considering proposing."

Colette looked down at the table and smiled - but that time it was a sad smile, not her usual happy one. "If he ever proposes."

Uh oh. She didn't seem sure about that - not that Sheena suspected she had anything to worry about. Lloyd adored her; Sheena had recognized that long ago. But then, she hadn't meant to touch on something that was clearly bothering Colette, either, and since her impending marriage was probably poking at Colette's doubts, she would do her best to reassure her. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, Colette. You guys haven't been together that long, nor do you have anything pressing on you to make a decision like we did. You're still young, too. You have your entire lives ahead of you." She squeezed Colette's hand. "Give him time. I'm sure he will when he's ready. Trust me, I've seen how he looks at you, too, and how happy he is when he's with you."

Hopeful blue eyes lifted to hers. "Really?"

Sheena smiled warmly. She couldn't believe she'd ever been jealous of what Lloyd and Colette shared. Colette made Lloyd happy, and Lloyd made Colette happy, too - and probably, Sheena suspected, in a way she and Lloyd never would have. She probably wouldn't be this happy right now if she'd been dating Lloyd instead, either. After all, for as great of a guy as Lloyd was, he just wasn't Zelos. Like she'd once said, she never would have been truly happy with Lloyd, not when Zelos complemented her strengths and weaknesses so much better: his sharp, quick mind, wit, and intelligence; his calm, even-leveled temper; his excellent strategic abilities and ability to see all sides of an issue; heck, even his insistence on making everything fun and making sure she had fun, too...they were all strengths of his that she coveted.

Now that she thought about it, Zelos would probably make for a better chief consort, too; after all, she just couldn't picture Lloyd doing some of the things Zelos would excel at. Lloyd was a natural leader, but she wasn't sure he could step back and let her lead like she knew Zelos would; Lloyd would want to do it all himself. Lloyd had trouble looking at things objectively and often made rash decisions, a problem Sheena herself often faced; Zelos sat back, observed everything carefully, and then made his decision. And Lloyd was too young yet at this point, not to mention too easily bored with repeated tasks; at his age, he wouldn't want to settle down yet, and waiting for him to grow up and reach that point wasn't an option for her. Zelos, while admitting this wouldn't have been his choice normally, had been at a crossroads in his life when they'd started dating, and so he was ready to settle down - and, even more incredibly, he actually wanted to do so in a quiet place like Mizuho where his presence would be valued. And oh, would he make a great chief consort; she didn't doubt that. Sure, he might often whine about things, and she was sure he would get plenty bored there himself, but all it had ever really taken to bring out his full potential was someone putting their faith in him and he always rose to the challenge. And Grandpa was right; the sheer amount of legitimacy and acceptance he, the Foreign Minister and Ex-Chosen, would bring to Mizuho would help it tremendously, too. Lloyd, for all his many strengths, would just never have those kinds of connections.

Fate really had sorted everything out correctly, hadn't it? And oh, was she grateful it had, that it had led her to approach Zelos at that party last year at a moment when his walls had been knocked down. And now...now the future looked bright, for both of them. She and Zelos, for all their differences in attitudes and upbringings and personalities, seemed right for each other, just as Lloyd and Colette were right for each other. Although in their case, they could probably stand to be a little less clueless...

But eh, she was getting distracted from reassuring Colette that Lloyd loved her and would eventually want to marry her. "Really," she replied, giving Colette another warm smile. "Lloyd has been looking at you like that for as long as I've known you. He loves you, Colette. Now it's just more direct than it ever was before. I mean, he's told you he loves you, right?"

"Of course he has! He tells me that all the time." Without warning, Colette's face fell again. "But he hasn't said anything about his thoughts on marriage."

Sheena waved that off. "Eh, Zelos didn't say a word about it the entire year we were dating, but then next I knew he was hitting me with it when I least expected it. Raine told me once that even if a man doesn't talk about marriage or the future, that doesn't mean he isn't thinking about it, and I...well, I should've listened to her and felt out his views before this. If I had, maybe we could've avoided this mess. I was just so afraid of having to let him go if he didn't see a future for us that I never could." She smiled wistfully. "Believe me, I learned my lesson the hard way about facing my fears head-on, even if I don't like what I find. It's better than jumping to the wrong conclusions and hurting someone you love like I did."

Colette observed her a moment, but then she smiled and nodded. "You're right, Sheena. Maybe I'll try feeling out Lloyd's thoughts on it sometime."

Good. Maybe one less couple would go through the nightmare Sheena had put herself and Zelos through this past year by burying her head in the sand and trying to pretend the issue didn't exist. "Just be subtle. Guys usually don't recognize what you're doing if you're subtle about it." Oh. Wait. She tilted her head, reconsidering that. "Well, except Zelos, who's so sharp and sensitive to people and everything going on around him that you can't sneak much past him. He tends to call me on things I never expected him to catch."

Colette giggled. "Must be all that time he spent chasing after women."

Sheena couldn't help but grin. "I guess he figured out how our minds worked anyway, despite his frequent bouts of lewdness and stupidity that made me want to smack him, didn't he?"

Colette leaned forward, her blue eyes alight with happiness again. "But he isn't really like that at all, is he?"

Sheena's eyebrows flew upward. "Would I be marrying him if he was?"

"Didn't think so," Colette replied with another giggle. A moment later, though, her face softened. "One day I hope he lets everyone see the man you get to see."

Oh, Colette. Now that was something Sheena wished Zelos could hear. And she'd be damned if she didn't do everything she could to get him to start letting down his guard more often with their closest friends. Her grin, likewise, softened. "Someday I hope he's comfortable enough in his own skin to let you see the man I get to see, too. He's getting there, slowly but surely, and he's come a long way this past year, but he isn't there yet. It all depends on how people treat him. If they tease him or treat him like he's a joke, he shies away and resorts to the stupid act. But if they treat him with respect, he's more likely to be his real self."

"Then we'll just have to get everyone to treat him with more respect!" Colette said, her smile brightening hopefully.

"Yeah...I know he'd like that," Sheena said. "I'm certainly doing my best to make that happen, and Regal's already onboard with it, and...well, I'd appreciate your help with that, too, Colette. Not everyone realizes there's more to him than just the Idiot Chosen yet."

"Of course! Anything for you guys. And I know when Lloyd finds out, he'll-" Without warning, her eyes widened, her face fell, and she jumped to her feet and rushed to the oven. "Oh, Lloyd's cookies! I hope they didn't burn!" Grabbing her oven mitts, she opened the door, pulled out the tray, and set it on the counter.

Sheena quickly joined her by the stove, looking the cookies over. "They look fine to me."

Colette bit her lip nervously, scraped one off the tray with a spatula, and held it up to Sheena. "Here, try one and see if it's okay. I'm not a good judge of my own cooking."

...Whoa, these are way too hot to eat yet, Sheena realized, pulling her hand back as she touched it. She blew on it to cool it off, then, once sure it wouldn't burn her, she accepted it and gingerly took a bite. Mm...oatmeal raisin. Delicious. She smiled broadly. "Perfect."

Relief swept over Colette's face and she smiled excitedly. "Oh, good! I didn't want to disappoint Lloyd. I've been promising him these all week!"

Taking another bite of her cookie, Sheena leaned back against the counter, chewing it as she watched Colette transfer the other cookies onto a cooling rack. It was really pretty sweet of her to make Lloyd cookies like that. And for as obnoxious as Zelos could be, she really did want to do something nice for him one of these days. He deserved it after all the sweet things he'd done for her lately. "Heh...maybe I will surprise Zelos with cookies."

"Or maybe you guys can make them together!" Colette suggested.

Oh, yeah, that would be interesting. She could already see the disaster awaiting her poor kitchen if they did...but then, it might just be worth the mess. "Yeah, that would be fun," she murmured, finishing her cookie and then looking back at Colette. She couldn't possibly emphasize this enough, but that didn't mean she couldn't try. "Hey, Colette?"

"Yeah?" Colette replied, tilting her head curiously.

Sheena smiled and gently grasped the girl's arm. "Thanks. You're a really good friend."

Dropping the final cookie onto the rack, Colette threw her arms around Sheena, giving her another hug that Sheena was helpless but to return. "Oh, Sheena, I'm just so happy for you guys! You're such good friends, too!" The hug continued a moment, but suddenly Colette pulled away and grasped Sheena's arms, squeezing them and beaming happily. "Now come on, let's make lunch so we can get you married!"

Sheena returned Colette's smile and pushed herself away from the counter. "You got it!"

And that was exactly what they did.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 7: The Perfection

They ate a quick lunch of miso stew, but by the time they'd finally finished cleaning up and headed out, it was nearly mid-afternoon. Zelos decided to ask the priest at the Hot Springs' House of Salvation to officiate the wedding, a decision Sheena had initially questioned (because as everyone knew, Zelos + Hot Springs = Really Bad Idea), but once he'd explained his reasoning (not only was it a lovely, secluded location close to Meltokio, but that particular priest was a personal friend of his), she couldn't argue it. Besides, he was right; it really was a beautiful spot, with plenty of trees and a gorgeous view of nature, and seeing as it was difficult to get to without a boat or a Rheaird, there wouldn't be many people there, meaning they shouldn't have to worry about too many rumors floating around and reaching people they didn't want to know about this - like the king. The last thing they needed, after all, was the king firing Zelos as his Foreign Minister for snubbing him from being able to officiate over their real wedding.

When they arrived, Zelos headed off to arrange things with the priest just outside the building while Sheena lingered nearby with Lloyd and Colette. She kept one eye on Zelos - it was a good thing they'd brought the documents annulling his previous engagement because she saw him hand them to the priest, who looked them over closely - but she trusted him to take care of this, and so she paid more attention to Lloyd and Colette's conversation about how perfect this setting was for a wedding. A few of Colette's comments she found amusing - 'Oh, this would be such a nice spot for my own wedding! It's so pretty! Although I wish more of our friends were here...' (to which Sheena had assured her everyone would be invited to their Meltokio wedding) - but she knew what Colette was really doing: 'feeling out' Lloyd's view of marriage. Sheena felt bad for her, though, because Lloyd wasn't being particularly responsive. In fact, he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that Colette's references to her own marriage even related to him. Apparently 'subtle,' when it came to Lloyd, really was ineffective. Whereas Zelos would have picked up on it in a heartbeat, Lloyd just didn't think that way - and when Sheena saw Colette frown in building frustration, she smiled encouragingly and mouthed to her to give him time. He would come around eventually, but only when he was ready for it. Pushing him too hard before then would just result in heartache for everyone involved.

And then came the question Sheena had been expecting ever since Zelos had announced his decision to get married here. "So, the Hot Springs, eh?" Lloyd asked, shaking his head. "I can't believe you agreed to that, Sheena."

She shrugged. "Zelos had good reasons for it, like the fact that he knows this priest extremely well and knew he could talk him into dropping everything to do this for us."

"You sure 'bout that?" Lloyd replied, smirking faintly. "Knowing Zelos, I can't help thinking his reasoning had more to do with getting you in the hot spring so he could see you naked."

Sheena was tempted to point out that Zelos didn't have to bring her here if that was what he wanted; she'd been after him to enjoy his lollipop nearly a full day now! She quickly bit her tongue, though, because Lloyd really didn't need to know that. Her face was red enough as it was; the last thing she wanted was to say something even more embarrassing and end up with a blush that made her look like a tomato in her wedding pictures.

Therefore, she instead decided that embarrassing Lloyd was a far more appealing option. "I dunno, I'd be more worried about our Peeping Tom here doing that than him," she motioned at Zelos, whose back was turned to them as he talked with the priest, "at this point."

Lloyd groaned, even as Colette gave him a surprisingly evil smile. Well, not really evil, because Colette didn't possess an evil bone in her body, but far more mischievous than was usual for her. "How many times do I have to tell you guys?" Lloyd said, lifting his hands defensively. "That wasn't me! That was him!" He motioned at Zelos. "He was the one peeking at you, not me! I was trying to stop him! Don't tell me you believe him over me!"

Sheena arched an eyebrow. She knew he was telling the truth; she'd caught Zelos in one of his more perverted moods a few months ago calling Colette an 'Ironing Board' and had figured it out then (and had appropriately smacked him for it, to which he'd sworn he had only been listening to them to get 'juicy gossip' to tease them with, not actually looking at them - and then he'd also sworn, in a way that told her he was being completely truthful, that nothing like that had happened since). But Lloyd didn't know that, and if he was going to tease Zelos when Zelos couldn't defend himself, then Sheena would have to defend him in his stead.

"Sorry, Lloyd, but you can't prove that. You are the one we caught here, not him, and that means you are the only person we can legitimately call a 'Peeping Tom.'" She shrugged again. "Besides, I'd expect something stupid like that from Zelos back then, but you...you should've known better!"

Lloyd's eyes widened in a way that Sheena used to find completely adorable...when she wasn't annoyed at him for all the hijinks he'd pulled with Genis and Zelos, of course. "But I didn't peek at you guys! I really was trying to stop Zelos!"

"Sorry, Lloyd, but Sheena has a point," Colette said, smiling apologetically.

He turned to Colette, on the verge of breaking out in a sweat. "Colette, tell me you don't really believe that! I would never..."

Her eyes widened and her face fell in something Sheena thought was fake sadness, maybe even horror...but then, it was hard to tell with her because she so rarely joked around. "You...you would never want to look at me like that, Lloyd?"

"No!" he exclaimed, but then his eyes widened further and his jaw dropped as he clearly realized what he'd just said. "I mean yes! I mean no! I mean...agh!"

Sheena smirked as he blushed deeply and covered his face with his hands, even as Colette giggled and gave her a knowing smile. Yep, Colette had been hanging around the rest of them way too long if she was now enjoying making her boyfriend squirm. And really, Lloyd deserved it for rehashing that not-funny 'pregnancy' joke earlier. But then, considering how red he was and the fact that he'd now started whining pitifully for them to leave him alone, maybe it was time to let him off the hook...kind of.

"Y'know, Lloyd, maybe if you had run away faster with Zelos back then, we wouldn't have caught you and you wouldn't have us girls ganging up on you right now," Sheena said.

"But I didn't even get to see anything-!" He abruptly froze, but then his hands fell from his face and his head snapped upward, his eyes widening further. "Wait, you know?"

She shrugged. Oh, he'd better be glad he hadn't finish his first sentence, because something told her he would've just hung himself with his feeble attempt to defend his reputation. "He told me the truth a few months ago."

Lloyd blinked at her stupidly. "He did?"

"Of course he did." She smirked again. "A little arm-twisting goes a long way with him. He has a perpetual fear of ninjas and our torture methods." Sheena turned to Colette, her smile softening. "You can let Lloyd off the hook for that, Colette. He really was trying to stop Zelos. Zelos admitted it to me."

Heh. Lloyd was outright gaping at her now. "But if you already knew that, why'd you bring it up again?"

Sheena batted her eyelashes at him innocently. "Because it was fun?"

"Because it was fun?" Lloyd stared at her a moment, then suddenly he turned toward the building and called out, "Zelos, what have you done to Sheena? Your fiancée is downright evil now!"

Zelos grinned cheekily as he looked back at them. "Yeah, I know. Ain't it great? I'm so proud of her."

"Great?" Lloyd countered. "That's not the word I'd use for it!" He pointed sharply at Sheena. "And no corrupting my girlfriend!" He slid his arm around Colette and pulled her closer, which Colette, unsurprisingly, didn't resist. "C'mere, Colette. I'll protect you from the evil, nasty, soon-to-be-married couple!"

Colette giggled again, even as she secretly gave Sheena a wink. "Thanks, Lloyd!"

Aw, these two really were cute together. In an adorable, dorky, naïve kind of way. "Well, okay, so I didn't just do it because it was fun," she said, realizing this was a good opportunity to explain herself further - and to further defend Zelos in the process. "I did it because you deserved it, too."

Lloyd's face blanked. "For what? I don't remember doing anything to deserve that!"

Sheena placed her hands on her hips. "Try teasing my fiancé mercilessly before!"

He blinked at her. "But he's always teasing me! And he's never minded when we've teased him before, too! Nothing fazes that guy. Everything rolls off of him like water off a goose's back!"

Her eyebrows rose. 'Water off a goose's back'? Wasn't that 'Water off a duck's back'? She would give him one point for effort but was deducting three for using the saying wrong. Either way, he was still at negative points. "Everything, huh? What about that 'I'm only marrying him because I'm pregnant' thing you threw at him earlier?"

"What?" Lloyd countered, his eyes widening. "That was just a joke! I was only kidding!"

Sheena sighed. Yeah, she understood people's urge to tease Zelos like that - because with his infamous, albeit wrong, Casanova reputation, it made sense to assume he had twenty kids running around Tethe'alla and another half-dozen women bearing his future progeny at any given point in time. But if she knew one thing about him well, it was how sensitive he was about that particular accusation. And suddenly, she wanted Lloyd to know that, too. If she was lucky, maybe it would even help the rest of their friends see Zelos as more than a joke.

"You may have only been kidding about that, Lloyd, but that's one thing Zelos doesn't take as a joke," she said. "You may not realize how much it bothers him, because very few things do, but that one does, and I know why it does - and please believe me when I say it's no laughing matter. Why it's not is Zelos's story to tell, not mine, but I assure you he has legitimate cause to be sensitive about it. There was a reason he reacted so badly at New Year's when Genis said that, and it wasn't just because of Genis's tone of voice at the time. So go ahead and kid him about other things, but leave jokes like those out of it. Okay? Please?"

For a moment, all Lloyd could do was watch her, wide-eyed, but then he let out a soft, humorless laugh. "Wow. I'm sorry, Sheena. I had no idea that bothered him so much."

"I know you didn't." She had figured he'd be apologetic, because that was who Lloyd was, never wanting to hurt his friends. Teasing someone who didn't mind it was one thing, which was why Lloyd had always gotten away with teasing Zelos before this - and, for that matter, why Zelos always got away with teasing Lloyd - but even with the thickest-skinned person, a line sometimes had to be drawn. And since she knew Zelos would never explain this himself, she just had to take matters into her own hands. "That's why I'm telling you now, because I know he won't tell you himself. So please, don't do it again."

"Don't worry, I won't," Lloyd said, rubbing his neck as he glanced again at Zelos, who was still talking with the priest. "So, um, do you think I should apologize for it?"

Sheena followed his gaze and frowned. She knew Zelos wouldn't be happy that Lloyd and Colette knew even this little bit about that particular subject, and if Lloyd just apologized for it out of the blue, he would be embarrassed, maybe even upset, about it. No, Zelos really did seem to be okay with Lloyd after that earlier incident, and as such, she didn't think an apology would help. Chances were Zelos just wanted to forget it had ever happened; that tended to be how he dealt with things like that.

"I don't think so," she said, shaking her head as she turned back to Lloyd. "Just don't say anything like that again. And if you can, don't let anyone else, either. Like Genis. When he said that at New Year's, I was afraid Zelos wouldn't be able to let it go and it would wreck your party. I don't want that to happen again."

Lloyd nodded curtly. "Right. I can do that." He watched Zelos another moment before tilting his head slightly. "Huh. I never thought something like that would get to him. Y'know, what with his reputation and all. I guess even he has his moments, huh?" Before Sheena could answer that, though, he turned back to her and grinned. "So teasing him about anything else is okay?"

Uh oh. Maybe that hadn't worked as well as she'd hoped. Lloyd was still caught up in seeing Zelos as an idiot. She'd just have to keep trying. "Well, I guess so..."

"Lloyd, why do you need to tease Zelos at all?" Colette asked, her face falling. Oh, good. Colette really had gotten the message earlier, that there was more to Zelos than met the eye, and she wanted to help with this daunting venture of getting him to lower his walls more often with their friends.

"Because he's Zelos!" Lloyd replied cheerfully. "He'd do it to me! And I know just what to tease him about. Before, I asked Zelos how he proposed to you, and all he'd say about it was that he'd messed it up. There has to be a story there, though. So what did he do?"

Colette's eyes widened as she looked at Sheena, who could feel the lump building in her throat again. Aw, crap. "Lloyd, don't," Colette quickly said, grasping his arm urgently.

But to Sheena's growing distress, Lloyd refused to be deterred. "No, really, this is perfect! I mean, Zelos, Lady's Man Extraordinaire, messing up a proposal so badly that he wouldn't even talk about it? This has to be good!"

"Lloyd..." Colette repeated, that time more warningly.

Sheena closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and shook her head. Damn it. Leave it to Lloyd to hit on the other thing that wouldn't go over well with Zelos. Heck, it wasn't going over well with her, and especially not with her persisting sense of guilt over the whole stupid thing. It was better now than it had been yesterday, especially after talking to Colette earlier, but not enough time had passed for it to fade completely yet. But now she could see how Zelos was planning on handling similar situations, too: he was going to take responsibility for the disaster, infuriatingly overprotective, chivalrous man that he was. And that was something she refused to let him do when he hadn't done anything wrong.

Sheena opened her eyes, determined to fix this. "Zelos won't talk about it because he wasn't the one who messed it up. I was."

Thankfully, that knocked the wind from Lloyd's sails, for his face instantly fell and his eyes widened. "What? You, Sheena?"

"Yeah, me. He's just saying it was him to protect me."

"My reputation doesn't have nearly as far to fall," Zelos suddenly said as he slid his arms around her waist, pulling her back against him and holding her tightly. Sheena quickly sank into his embrace, tilting her head so it was resting against his. She hadn't even realized he'd finished talking to the priest and had rejoined them, but she was glad he had.

Lloyd looked between them, clearly surprised by that. At least Sheena could tell there wouldn't be any more teasing. "So...what happened?" he asked, his face completely serious.

Colette shook her head, trying again to stop him, but to Sheena's surprise, Zelos answered the question before she could. "Sheena made a mistake; that's what happened. She jumped to a wrong conclusion."

Sheena sighed and draped her arms over his. "...I broke his heart..."

"She broke my heart," he conceded with a tilt of his head. "But then she put it back together again, we had a lovely little chat, worked everything out, and now we're getting married. So I'd appreciate it if you'd stop depressing my fiancée and making her reconsider this whole thing right before that's supposed to happen."

"...Oh," Lloyd murmured. "I'm really sorry, guys. I had no idea." His voice lowered further and he gave them an awkward smile. "Maybe I should just shut up for the rest of the afternoon. All I seem to be doing today is putting my foot in my mouth."

Sheena laughed softly. "It's okay, Lloyd. You didn't know that, either." She turned to Zelos. "And don't worry, Zelos. I'm not depressed or reconsidering this. You were right; what happened, happened. And it's over; it's a part of our past now. I'm going to learn from it and not let it stop me from doing something I know is right for us."

He smiled and pressed a kiss to her temple. "Good. I'm glad to hear that."

No surprise there. Zelos had made it obvious that yesterday's events didn't bother him, and that even if they did, they weren't enough to convince him to call off this wedding. No, he wanted this, and he sincerely trusted her to learn from it, and she would. But there was something else she needed him to know. "And while I appreciate that you want to protect my reputation, you don't have to. Grandpa said if I can't take responsibility for my actions and work to fix them, then I shouldn't be chief yet, and he's right. What happened yesterday was my fault, and I take full responsibility for it. I'll do everything I can to make up for it, prove that your trust in me is warranted, and prevent it from ever happening again."

Zelos's arms tightened around her. "I know you will, sweetheart - although like I said, I'm not entirely blameless, either. I shouldn't have lied to you and avoided you like I did, and I shouldn't have walked away yesterday morning. I knew something wasn't right with you, but I still left. If I'd stayed...well, it may not have changed anything, but maybe I could've pushed until you cracked and told me the truth."

"Maybe," Sheena conceded softly. "But everything worked out in the end anyway, so it really doesn't matter. We both learned what we needed to from it."

"Yeah, we did," he murmured, trailing his lips over the shell of ear, his warm breath on her sensitive skin sending shivers down her spine.

"Wow," Lloyd said, his eyes widening. "Who is this guy, and what has he done with Zelos?"

Sheena grinned as she looked back at him, trying to ignore what Zelos was doing to her ear and all the tiny tingles of fire it was sending through her. "Seriously, Lloyd, do you think if this guy was anything like the Zelos you always thought he was, I'd have agreed to date him, let alone marry him?"

"Well, I was surprised you suddenly started dating him so seriously after how often you used to beat him up..." Lloyd said as he eyed them, but then his attention snapped back to Zelos, his face betraying sincere curiosity. "So Zelos, if you aren't the guy everyone's always thought you were...who are you really?" Zelos froze, his lips stilling against her ear and his body tensing, but then he pulled her tighter against him, almost as if hiding behind a shield. He was definitely uncomfortable with this, having anyone besides her probing the 'real him.' "Seriously, I'd like to get to know this guy."

"Me too, actually, Zelos," Colette said, giving Zelos a sweet, hopeful smile.

Aha, Sheena thought, grinning in satisfaction. Gotcha. You're interested now, Lloyd, aren't you? You now know there's another Zelos hiding beneath the Idiot Chosen act and you want to know more. I can see it in your eyes. Now you just need to keep poking away at him until you uncover the truth. He'll resist - oh, will he resist - but you'll get there eventually, if you're patient and are serious about it...and I can tell by the curious, determined look in your eyes that you are. I'll help you out however I can, but this is your battle to fight. And I know you will, because that's just who you are. You won't give up until you succeed, and once you uncover him, you'll make sure everyone else sees and accepts him, too, and at that point, the rest of his walls will just come tumbling down. And believe me, Lloyd, I'm looking forward to the moment that happens already.

Even after half a minute, though, Zelos still hadn't responded, not even with a witty comeback, probably stunned that Lloyd and Colette were both sincerely interested in getting to know him, and when he buried his face further into her neck, Sheena realized he honestly didn't know what to say. Well, then, fine. She would answer for him...sort of. "That's a good question, isn't it?" she said. "I've spent the past year figuring it out, and it should say something that I'm now marrying the guy. I guess now it's your turn."

Zelos released a shaky breath, but then he lifted his head, still holding her tightly, and dismissed that with a, "Yeah, yeah, whatever, guys." One look at him confirmed her hunch: he was desperate to shift the subject off of him. But Sheena was also relieved to see he wasn't making jokes or denying what she'd said, either. That was a good sign. "Whatever prodding you want to do to me can wait until a better time. Right now Sheena and I are a little busy with, y'know, getting married."

Sheena turned so she could see him fully. "I take it he agreed?"

He grinned, relaxing. "Sure did. You really doubted me?"

She gave him a 'What do you think?' look. "Of course not."

"Didn't think so," he replied, flashing her his trademark smirk. "He said we should give him half an hour to clear out any visitors for a 'private party' and then we're good to go." His face softened, and he loosened his hold on her so he could slide around to her side. "Oh, and I need your ring back, sweetheart. I can't very well give it to you when you've already got it, can I?"

...Oh. Right. Sheena looked down at her hand. "I guess not," she murmured, reluctantly slipping it off her finger and handing it to him, then giving him a pointed look. "Just don't lose it or change your mind. I want that thing back."

"Wouldn't dream of it," he said, his eyes soft. "Rest assured you won't have to part with it again after this. Well, except for our other two weddings, but those are a ways off."

"I'd better not have to part with it again," she said, accepting the quick kiss he gave her.

Zelos observed her another moment, but then his eyes lit up as he looked back at their audience. "Oh, and I know what we have to do yet."

"What's that?" Sheena asked.

Releasing her completely, Zelos grabbed his bag and dug through it, then he pulled out her camera. "We need to show Lloyd and Colette how to use this thing so we can get some pictures of this momentous event for your grandfather. And for us, too."

"Ooh, cool!" Lloyd said, grinning broadly as he saw the metallic box. "Cameras are awesome! I've never actually played with one before!"

"Me neither," Colette said. "This'll be fun, Lloyd!"

...Yeah, big surprise, Sheena thought with a sigh. They're going to have way too much fun snapping silly pictures of each other and everything else they can find. Hopefully she and Zelos would at least end up with a few decent pictures of the wedding itself and not just silly pictures of Lloyd and Colette. "Of course, I'm not quite sure how it works..." she said as Zelos motioned at a nearby picnic table and they headed toward it.

He gaped at her as they sat down on the bench across from Lloyd and Colette. "Wait, are you saying you had this thing for months yet never even figured out how to use it?"

...Why is that such a surprise? "Well, it's not like I ever had a reason to take any pictures with it like you did! I mean, I know you have to push the button on top, but beyond that..."

Zelos burst out laughing. "And here you were upset that I'd stolen it from you! At least I actually played with the thing and managed to take a few decent shots with it!"

Sheena gave him an irritated glare, which elicited a teasing grin from him, but then he began explaining the camera to Lloyd and Colette - who, as expected, were delighted with it. They immediately started making silly faces and taking pictures of each other, at least until Lloyd grew annoyed with his new toy (after blinding himself with the flash and panicking that he would never see again) and then, soon after that, bored with it (especially after he realized he couldn't actually see the pictures he'd taken yet) and passed it to Colette, thereby designating her to be the official picture taker. At that point Zelos and Sheena explained why they had opted to elope instead of waiting for the other two weddings (and officially inviting them to the Meltokio wedding, whenever that happened, but not to the Mizuho one because of, to quote Zelos, the 'inherent boringness that I wouldn't be caught dead at myself except it's my own wedding'). And then, next they knew, the priest was approaching them and announcing that everything was ready.

The wedding was quiet and to the point, and everything, surprisingly, went smoothly: no interruptions, objections, monster attacks, kidnappings, or other life-or-death situations. The priest had even decked out the House of Salvation with flowers (with some iris mixed in, at Zelos's request) to make it more festive, and everything was beautiful. And simple. And them. And the best part was that Sheena didn't feel a single doubt as she said 'I do' and slid the ring onto his finger, vowing to love him and cherish him and spend her life with him - and the happy smile on his face as he, too, swore his vow to her and slid the ring onto her finger told her he had no doubts, either. Then he was giving her the sweetest, most reverent kiss she'd ever experienced, and she heard Colette "Awwww!"-ing behind them, and then she was married. And not to just anyone, not to Orochi or some other ninja she might have been forced to consider otherwise; she was married to Zelos Wilder, the perverted, idiotic, ex-Chosen...and only man she'd ever truly wanted and trusted to help her, love her, and stand beside her through whatever life threw at them. In spite of everything - his stupidity, her stupidity; his mistakes, her mistakes; his doubts, her doubts - fate had still led them to this very moment and laid before them this bright, promising future. Her heart was bursting with happiness, and Zelos couldn't stop grinning, and Lloyd and Colette were congratulating and hugging them, and everything was just...perfect.

And then it was over and they were flying back to Zelos's mansion, where Sebastian congratulated them (looking rather proud and claiming he was pleased with the role he'd played in fostering their relationship) and then cooked them up a lovely dinner of paella to celebrate. It was delicious, as was the small wedding cake he'd baked earlier that afternoon, and it was heavenly to be celebrating with their best friends rather than being surrounded by a hundred rich, snobby guests who were scrutinizing their every move. After all, wasn't being able to talk, laugh, and reminisce over the good old times with dear friends better than having to cater to everyone's unrealistic expectations? While Sheena still wished they could have had more of their friends and family there, she knew she and Zelos would make a point to do something quiet like this after one of their other weddings, too, so they could celebrate solely with those people they wanted to celebrate with.

After they finished eating and Sebastian cleared off the table (at which point Zelos had excused him and the other servants for the rest of the night as a token of his appreciation), the four just sat at the table and continued chatting, complete with typical bouts of silliness from Lloyd and Colette. (Like the time when Colette, after finishing her glass of champagne, had apparently decided 'subtle' wasn't working with Lloyd and had instead come right out and said, 'Oh, Lloyd, maybe we can get married one day, too!' - at which point Lloyd, similarly fuzzy from his celebratory champagne, had replied, 'Ah...yeah! We should!' Sheena hadn't been able to resist giggling as Zelos had, naturally, caught the exchange, looked at her, and mouthed, 'Did those two just get engaged?' Unsure how to answer him, she'd just shrugged. Heck, she didn't even know if Lloyd and Colette, who weren't used to drinking any kind of alcohol yet seeing as they'd only recently come of age, would even remember the conversation come morning, but it sure had been amusing at the time.)

As the night wore on, Sheena found herself increasingly unable to keep from smiling, blushing, and laughing. Not just from the champagne, either, but because she was just that happy - and because she was having trouble keeping her eyes off of her new husband, who, in turn, was having trouble keeping his eyes off of her. Despite her embarrassment and frequent scolding of him this past year for staring at her, she had gotten used to being the recipient of his longing, loving looks, probably because she was the only woman he'd ever looked at like that. Sure, his eyes still occasionally wandered to other women, because his male hormones would always notice when a beautiful woman was nearby, but they always quickly came back to her, and as long as they did, she would tolerate it. Right now, though, it was a step beyond simply staring at her; his gaze was lingering on her far longer at one time than he'd ever let it before. What really sent a thrill of excitement through her, though, was the hunger and fire raging in his blue eyes as he sipped on his champagne, and the longer the conversation continued, the quieter he became and the more she caught him watching her. All Sheena could do was smile shyly at him, her blush deepening, knowing what it was he wanted - something she definitely wanted, too - until finally she couldn't take the building heat and desire within her any longer and had to act.

After all, as much as she loved catching up with Lloyd and Colette, she also wanted to be able to enjoy the little time she had left with her husband before they had to return to Mizuho. And to make that happen, she needed this party to be over. She therefore did what she had to do: she yawned, a little more showily than normal since she needed to make her point to two clueless people, and then apologized for having to wrap this up, but it was getting late, they'd had a long day, and she was exhausted and wanted to curl up in bed with her husband (which was only partially true, but she refused to detail exactly what she wanted to do in bed with her husband so 'curling up' would have to suffice). Colette immediately accepted that and said they should be leaving anyway since they still had to fly back to Iselia, although Lloyd, proving he wasn't completely clueless, gave them a knowing smirk as they all headed toward the door. After a few more well wishes, a few more expressions of gratitude (with Zelos and Sheena thanking Lloyd and Colette for doing this, and Lloyd and Colette thanking them for asking them to do this), and a giddy Colette telling them to 'sleep really, really well!', Sheena finally found herself alone with her husband.

Once the door had closed, Zelos turned to Sheena and gave her a mischievous smirk. "Okay, I know Colette reads smutty romance novels, but-"

"They're not smutty," Sheena muttered, rolling her eyes, not that she expected him to believe that - and clearly he didn't since he waved that off and plowed onward.

"Whatever you say, love. Until I read one for myself, I'm maintaining that they're smutty. Anyway, despite the fact that she reads books of a questionable nature, is it just me or does she have no idea what married couples usually do on their wedding night?" Egads, I really did just marry an idiot, didn't I? Sheena thought, sighing, shaking her head, and elbowing him in the ribs, which elicited an ineffective look of innocence from him. "What? Tell me you weren't thinking the same thing!"

"Sorry, dear, but my mind isn't permanently stuck in Pervert Mode like yours is," she countered as she headed over to the couch. Quickly kicking off her boots, she sank down into the cushion and rested her head on Zelos's chest as he followed her and did the same, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her to him. Of course, despite his stupid comments, he did have a point. "But then, I'm not sure she's put those pieces together yet, either. I guess it's a good thing Raine did let her read those books. At least it won't be a complete surprise the first time she and Lloyd find themselves in that kind of situation."

Zelos murmured his agreement. "I love them both dearly, but they really are clueless."

Without a doubt. "I'd defend them because, y'know, they are such incredible friends, but you're right. They're both completely clueless."

He arched an eyebrow at her as she lifted her head so she could look at him again. "And what was with that whole, 'Oh, Lloyd, let's get married!' thing from Colette earlier? Are they or are they not engaged now?"

She chuckled. "I have no idea. All I know is Colette said this morning that she was gonna try to feel out Lloyd's thoughts on marriage. I told her to be subtle. Granted, I have to admit every time she tried 'subtle' with him today, he didn't bite and give her any real answer to her question."

Zelos snorted. "Lloyd? Subtle? Lloyd couldn't catch 'subtle' if it stabbed him in the foot."

"Yeah, no kidding. I think she was getting so frustrated with not getting any direct answers from him that she opted to skip the 'subtle' part."

"Now that makes sense." He smirked. "Of course, I'm not sure Lloyd realizes yet how he responded to that..."

Sheena couldn't help laughing at the memory of Lloyd's oblivious expression at the time. "Well, Colette's grin afterwards made it clear she sure did!"

"Yeah, no kidding." After a moment, though, he pulled her down to rest against him again and pressed his lips against her temple. "Eh, they're still young. Hopefully they'll wait awhile before jumping to the 'wedding bells' part."

He had a point since they really were young - after all, she and Zelos had both changed and matured drastically since they'd been Lloyd and Colette's age, and chances were those two would do the same during the next few years - and hopefully they wouldn't jump into this until they were both certain about it. On the other hand, even if they did, she suspected it wouldn't be a problem for them. "Yeah, but young and clueless or not, I have a feeling those two wouldn't have trouble making a marriage work. They really do love each other - and they're good for each other, too."

Zelos shrugged. "Okay, I'll give you that, although I fear if they ever have a major fight, Colette will just apologize profusely for it whether she's to blame or not."

"Eh, that's okay, because Lloyd would feel so bad about it that he'd never get too upset at her or let her over-apologize for it," Sheena pointed out.

"True. But I still hope they wait awhile."

Sheena snuggled further into his arms, resting her hand on his chest and savoring the feel of his strong, steady heartbeat beneath her fingertips. "Me, too."

They fell silent, just holding one another and enjoying the peaceful moment, her fingers drifting over his chest while his played over her arm. After a minute or two, though, she felt him smile against her. "Mm...it's about time."

Curious, Sheena tilted her head upward, surprised to see a soft, happy, content smile on his face that betrayed no hint of lecherousness. Okay, so if he wasn't talking about sex, then...what? "Time for what? That Lloyd and Colette left?"

Zelos chuckled and shook his head. "No. That I finally experienced a 'Best Day Ever.' Y'know, one that doesn't start out great and is wrecked by something awful, like the day I lost the title only to find Mizuho poisoned, or that doesn't start out awful and end up great, like yesterday. Before this, it seemed like all my really good days always came with exceptions, but this one didn't. This one was completely good, from beginning to end."

"Yeah, it was," she murmured, smiling. "It was a wonderful day...the best day I've ever had, too. Well, at least so far, although that doesn't mean we can't keep trying for more great days like this."

"Definitely." He kissed her forehead again. "We should aim for great days like this every day."

And the best part was that, together, days like this really could happen again, Sheena realized as she tilted her head upward and gave him another soft smile. This man really was gorgeous...and now he was all hers. "I'm glad we did it this way, Zelos."

"Me, too," he replied, gently grasping her hand where it lay on his chest and pressing a kiss to it. "Everything worked out well today."

"Yeah, it did," Sheena whispered. "Today was perfect." Her eyes slid shut and a soft sigh escaped her lips as he pressed a tender kiss to each of her fingers, then he lowered her hand back to his chest and held it there with his own. After another moment of comforting silence, he breathed in deeply, then slowly released it, and Sheena's eyes opened as she felt his head slowly turn, looking around the room. Without warning, he let out a soft laugh, and she lifted her head again. "What is it?"

His eyes fell back to hers and he gave her a smile so warm and happy that it made her heart melt. "Eh, it's nothing. I was just thinking how good it feels to finally be free."

...'Free'? But hadn't the ring she'd slid onto his finger that afternoon proved he wasn't 'free' anymore? Her eyes narrowed. "Free from what?"

Releasing her hand, Zelos motioned at the picture of his mother on the wall behind them. "From her. And from this damned gilded cage I've been kept in my entire life."

Sheena observed him a moment before lowering her head back to his chest. She knew what he was talking about - this mansion, this life, the responsibilities, and everything else that came with being the Chosen - but her heart still sank. Freedom from this life was what he'd always wanted, but what kind of freedom had he really attained? Only two months after he'd gotten it, he'd talked her into marrying him, something she'd been determined not to let him do so he could have real freedom, and in the process, he'd sacrificed all the 'freedom' he'd just acquired. How could he be so happy about that?

"Yeah, but you escaped it only to end up trapped in my cage instead - and mine isn't nearly as gilded as yours was," she murmured.

He pulled back a little so he could see her face again, his eyes soft as they met hers, his fingers trailing lightly over her cheek. "Maybe. But no amount of gilding can make a cage like this bearable when you have no one to share it with. Believe me, sweetheart, I lived in it long enough to know that. And this other nearby cage...well, let's just say the pretty little songbird trapped in it was far too irresistible for me not to go flying over there instead. I'd much rather spend my life trapped in her not-as-gilded cage if it meant being with her than trapped in a gilded cage alone for the rest of my life. The cage itself might not always be the nicest, but its inhabitant is all I've ever wanted. I may have just started out visiting it because I wanted to spend time with her, but over time, as I fell madly in love with her, I came to realize her cage really wasn't that bad. It came to feel like home. As long as that's where she is and as long as she wants me there with her, then that's where I've chosen to be. Nowhere else interests me after experiencing what I have there...nowhere else ever will."

Tears pricked her eyes, and she had to squeeze them shut before they could fall. Her heart was soaring at his words, but a corner of her mind kept insisting, even after he'd made it clear this was what he wanted, that dragging him into her world with her had been cruel. It was too late to change that now, though, and the fact of the matter was that she had let him go and given him a chance to soar freely and he hadn't taken it. That didn't stop the part of her that was convinced she'd been right to set him free from still having trouble accepting their new reality, though.

Leaning forward, Sheena pressed her forehead to his cheek. "You could've really been free, though. You weren't trapped in your cage anymore; you could've gone anywhere and done anything you wanted. You didn't have to settle down anywhere yet, let alone in a primitive, rudimentary cage like mine."

Zelos nodded and tightened his embrace on her. "I know. But other than the pretty little songbird's cage, the world outside my gilded cage really wasn't all that appealing. I looked around enough to know that, and the truth is, if I'd flown off anywhere else, I probably would've just gotten myself lost or hurt or killed or captured by someone awful. I know me, Sheena, and I know that's what would've happened without someone like you tethering me to reality...to goodness. I would've ventured into areas I didn't belong, areas that might look fun and exciting on the surface but that were dark and dangerous and nowhere I should want to be. No, the pretty little songbird over here was the one who kept me from falling too far and who refused to let me sink to those depths. She is, after all, the one who helped me find the part of myself I actually like." He pressed a tender kiss to the top of her head, causing even more tears to flood her eyes. "The cage itself doesn't matter to me anymore. All that matters is the pretty little songbird inside the cage. So you tell me, how could I want to spend the rest of my life anywhere but by your side?"

A tear she'd been trying to restrain rolled down her cheek, and Sheena lifted her head and reverently touched his face, her heart pounding so hard and filled with so much love and desire for him that she was afraid it would burst unless she quelled it. And so she did the only thing she could: she wrapped her hand around his neck, pulled his head down to hers, gave him a quick kiss, and whispered, "I love you so much, Zelos," against his lips before kissing him again, longer that time as he kissed her back. The kiss started out tender and gentle, but it soon grew exploratory, and then, shortly after that, as he cradled her face in his hands and she shifted to straddle his lap so she had better access to his mouth, reveling in the feel of the cool platinum wrapped around his finger where it was pressing against her cheek, a reminder that he was now hers and she was now his and that there was nowhere else they wanted to be but right here, she could feel the heat begin building within her again, quickly spreading into the kiss itself.

Without warning, Zelos pulled his lips from hers, his hands lowering to her waist, the hunger and desire in his eyes as he looked her over causing something deep within her to clench tightly. "So, just to verify, you aren't really as tired as you told Lloyd and Colette you were, right?"

Her face flushed at the huskiness of his voice - and at his implication. "No, I'm not," she said, holding his intense gaze and giving him a shy smile, savoring the taste of him on her tongue.

Another flame started flickering in his blue eyes as he arched an eyebrow at her. "Because if you were, I'd understand, and wedding night or not, you know I would never..."

...He would never force me to do something I'm not ready for, which is yet another reason why I love this man so damn much, Sheena recognized, shaking her head and giving his lips another quick nip, her eyes never leaving his as her hands fell to his chest. "I'm not."

Still, though, Zelos continued searching her eyes, even as his hands pulled her tighter against him, leaving Sheena to wonder if he even realized he was doing that. "So...yes?"

Oh, Jizou, yes. Right now she was pretty sure saying 'no' to him would result in her entire body igniting in flames. She nodded shyly. "Yes."

His eyes narrowed further, but she could see it: his gaze had started dipping to her lips, indicating his control was slipping, before meeting hers again. "You're sure? Because you can still change your mind..."

Sheena swallowed, her heart pounding faster with building anticipation. Finally, it was time for this, for them, for something he had graciously held back from until she was ready for it. He would probably never understand how grateful she was for that, how much that generosity alone had intensified her love for him, knowing he'd deferred this decision solely to her. But as thrilling as that thought was, it was a sobering one, too, because now it was finally time for something she'd always believed was never meant to be. She wasn't sure what to expect, how it would feel, what she should do, or how this would change their relationship, if it would strengthen them or cause them problems...but she wouldn't let fear of the unknown scare her off, either. She wouldn't run from him anymore. She wanted to give him all of herself, her heart and soul and body and love. She wanted this for herself, to connect with him in the final way they had not. And so she would take a step off of the cliff into the unknown and trust that he would catch her and bring her safely with him to the bottom.

"I'm sure," she whispered.

A faint smile lit his face as he gently stroked her cheek, his touch eliciting even more tingles of heat and desire in her. "You nervous?"

Her soft, shy laugh probably answered his question better than words ever could. It would never fail to amaze her how well he knew her, how he could see into her and accurately peg how she was feeling. "A little," she admitted, her gaze falling to his lips and her blush deepening.

Lowering his hand to her chin, Zelos gently tilted her head back up to his, his smile surprisingly shy. "Honestly? Me, too."

Wait. Was he, Mr. Gigolo, Mr. Casanova, saying he was nervous about this? As nice as it sounded, it almost sounded too nice. Sheena arched an eyebrow at him, even as her hands began roaming over the smooth muscles of his chest. "At least you've done this before."

To her surprise, though, his smile vanished and his voice lowered as he shook his head, his fingers trailing from her chin down to her neck. "No, Sheena, I haven't. Not this. Yeah, I've had sex before, but that's very different than making love to a woman I love so much that I made her my wife. This...this I have definitely never done before."

Her eyes widened and her heart pounded a little faster. Incredibly enough, he really was nervous about this, too - maybe not of the unknown, like she was, but of living up to her expectations, of hurting her, of embarrassing himself, or of in some other way ruining what was supposed to be a beautiful, special moment between a man and a woman in love. And suddenly, Sheena wasn't feeling so nervous anymore. She wasn't in this alone, with someone far more confident and experienced than her; they would be fumbling through this and learning about it together. His admission of his own fear, uncharacteristic though it might seem to anyone else, was actually an intimate expression of his own insecurity, something he would never let anyone but her see. More than that, though, it was an expression of his trust in her and his willingness to ask for her help, understanding, and patience as, together, they explored this next step of their relationship.

If there was one thing Sheena knew with all her heart, it was that if he was willing to help her out however she needed it, then she would do the same for him. And right now she knew exactly what he needed to hear, so she would give it to him. With a faint smile and a deep blush, she traced the edges of his Cruxis crystal with her fingers, making him shiver, then lifted her eyes back to his. "I trust you, Zelos."

She could see him swallow hard as he watched her, but then, with trembling hands and so much love in his eyes that it left her breathless, he cupped her face and leaned forward, giving her a chaste kiss. "C'mon, sweetheart...let's go upstairs," he whispered against her lips, then he carefully slid her off his lap, rose to his feet, turned back to her, and silently offered her his hand. For a moment she just observed it, taking a few deep breaths, her body likewise beginning to tremble in building anticipation, but then she placed her hand in his and let him pull her up. He offered her one last loving, encouraging, excited smile that she returned, and then, hand in hand, led her up the stairs and toward his room.

It was beautiful, it was passionate, it was special, it was perfect, something she would always remember with the fondest of memories, so different from what she'd always expected from him and yet exactly what she expected from him. Zelos took his time, alternating between being tender and gentle, loving and giving, and passionate and needy; he flew her up to touch the stars before joining her there himself, and then he gently brought them both back down to earth, never letting her fall, just as she knew, as she trusted, he would. The whisper of her name on his lips, the need and heat and love in his kiss that said far more than words ever could, the feather-light touch of his hands and his lips as he caressed and explored and tasted her skin with painstaking care, finding every spot that made her writhe in pleasure...he made her feel worshipped, and adored, and loved. And the way he'd looked at her, with equal parts love, awe, and lust, made her feel as wanted and needed and beautiful and special as his words told her she was. There were no inappropriate jokes, there was nothing demanding or arrogant; there was just careful love and unquenchable passion and consuming desire and heavenly pleasure. For a time, the rest of the world faded away, leaving just the two of them together, without another care in the world, enjoying each other and expressing the depths of their love for each other in the most timeless of ways. Her only regret was that she didn't get a chance to reciprocate and do the same for him, to give him the same amazing love that he had given her...but this was just the beginning of forever, and she already knew, without a doubt, that next time she would.

And when passion was finally expended and he pulled her to him, urging her to lie beside him, both of them exhausted and trembling, Sheena clung to him, curling up against him and reveling in the moment of quiet intimacy, in the pleasure coursing through her veins, in the heat of his lips pressed to her hairline, in his broken breaths against her skin, and in his heart pounding rapidly beneath her fingers where her hand lay atop his chest. And in return, he just clutched her to him as if he was terrified she would dissolve into mist if he let her go, his right arm wrapped securely around her and his fingers lightly stroking her arm.

"Hey," he whispered delicately against her skin, trailing his left hand down her cheek and brushing her damp hair out of her eyes. "You okay?"

Sheena breathed in deeply, then slowly tilted her head upward so she could see him, leaning further into his hand and letting out a soft moan at his gentle touch against her impossibly sensitized skin. His eyelids were drooping, but he was fighting to stay awake with her a little longer, and after a moment she bit her lip and offered him a shy, happy smile and nod. Oh, yeah. She was okay. She was far more than okay. He'd made sure of that. "Yeah. I'm okay."

Zelos mirrored her smile just as shyly and happily. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"No, you didn't." Sure, it had hurt at first - quite a bit, in fact - but not only had he been so gentle, warning her in advance what was to come, but the instant she had gasped in pain, he'd pressed his hand against her and whispered the spell for Healing Stream, and immediately her pain had transformed into pleasure. If she hadn't loved the man so completely before that moment, then that selfless action alone would have sealed the deal for her, as would his determination to make sure she enjoyed the moment just as much as he did. As it was, her heart was swelling and tears were pricking her eyes again at the memory of the sheer love he had just given her, and she leaned up and kissed him again, and then again, lacing the fingers of her right hand through his left, before pulling back to look at him. "Zelos?"

His eyelids were heavy as he struggled against his fatigue to look at her, but Sheena needed him to hear this before he succumbed to sleep. "Yeah, sweetheart?"

"Thank you."

His sleepy blue eyes narrowed curiously. "For what?"

For yesterday and for forgiving me and for giving me a second chance, was what she wanted to say. For everything you gave me today and the love you just gave me tonight. For being so patient and waiting for this moment until I was ready for it, and then for showing me, with and without words, how sincere you are about me, about us, about your love for me, and about making this marriage work. For making me see the beauty in myself where I thought there was none. For giving me the incredible, humbling privilege of being able to see the man you truly are. For loving me so much that you chose to make my cage your own and then for talking me into letting you inside before the door closed for good, even when I didn't deserve you. And most of all, for every single thing I know you're going to give me tomorrow, and then the day after that, and then every day after that for the rest of our lives.

She wanted to say all of that, to make him see just how grateful she was for him and how hopelessly her heart was his, but the words refused to come, and all her fuzzy, relaxed, bliss-soaked mind could manage at that moment was a simple, whispered, "For everything." It in no way expressed the depth of the emotion she was feeling, but she could see it in his eyes and in the warm, loving smile he gave her in return: he already knew. She would do a better job of finding the words later, but she just couldn't right now - and judging from how his eyelids were sagging, maybe that was okay, since even if she did tell him now, she doubted she could find a way to express it all before the urge to sleep became unbearable and he drifted off.

His face grew serious as he continued watching her, and after a moment he released her hand, reached upward, and touched her cheek again, then drew her head back down to his, giving her another sweet, loving kiss. "You're worth it all, Sheena, and then so much more," he said, nuzzling her nose with his. "In fact, I'm the one who should be thanking you. I never...I never dreamed I would find something like this, someone like you. You...you're everything I never even knew I wanted. I can only hope to ever give you back even a fraction of everything you've given me. I've said this before, and I'll say it again to my dying day, but anything you want, anything you need, anything it's in my power to give you, I will. You deserve it all, and then so much more."

A single tear broke free, and she kissed him again as it burned a trail down her cheek. "I love you so much, Zelos."

"I love you, too, Sheena," he whispered, giving her one last slow, languid, sensual kiss, but then his head rolled back onto the pillow and his eyes slid shut, a weary sigh escaping him. That time it took a moment before they finally opened and met hers again. "I'm sorry, sweetheart...I'm just so tired. I haven't had a full night's sleep in days...guess I'm reaching my limit."

"Sleep," she said, smiling as she stroked his face. "I'll still be here in the morning."

Zelos observed her another moment, returning her smile sleepily, and that time when his eyes slid shut again, they stayed closed. "I know. Good night, love. Sweet dreams."

Sheena watched him a little longer, until she could see and feel his breathing even out as sleep claimed him, and then she settled against him, letting her eyes drift shut as her own fatigue washed over her. He was so warm and so comfortable, and she sank into it, letting the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest and his heart beating steadily beneath her fingers lull her to sleep along with him. And in her final conscious moment, she whispered, "You too, Zelos," and then succumbed along with him into the blissful peace of sleep.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 8: The Reality

It was the feel of gentle fingers tracing the lines of his face that lured Zelos back to the land of consciousness the following morning. For a moment he just enjoyed the sensations as he slowly woke, realizing there was a smooth, soft, naked, decidedly feminine leg curled over his own, but when the fingers reached his lips, he could no longer resist, and he pried his eyes open, unsurprised to find in the faint morning light that Sheena was already awake, her head propped up on her left arm, her dark hair hanging loose around her face, and her brown eyes so warm and full of love as she watched him that it made his heart skip a beat. The moment she saw he was awake, her fingers stilled, but then she offered him a shy, happy smile and they started up again, moving down to his chin and then further downward to his neck.

As nice as it had been these past six months to wake to that picture she'd given him for New Year's, this, waking to the real thing, was infinitely better. Infinitely.

"Morning," she greeted him.

Zelos breathed in deeply and stretched as much as he could without making her move, then he let the grin creep onto his face. "Morning, sweetheart." Her smile broadened further as she leaned down and pressed a sweet kiss to his lips that he was more than happy to return, his left hand lifting to her face to hold her there so he could savor it a moment. Oh, yeah, this was a lovely way to wake up in the morning. He had always known that, but now, having no further barriers between them and knowing she was his wife - oh, Martel, she was his wife! - and that this was their new reality sent an overwhelming wave of warmth, love, and excitement crashing through him. When she finally pulled back, barely an inch, he let his gaze drift down over her flushed face, over her moist lips, and then down further...yep, as he'd thought: not a single barrier remained between them this morning. And what a beautiful, enticing sight it was. His eyes slowly rose back to hers. "Sleep well?"

"Mm hmm," she murmured, her eyes slowly roaming his face as his just had hers. "You?"

"I'm pretty sure that was the best night of sleep I've ever had." Sheena smiled shyly, leaning into his hand as he brushed her hair away from her face. A moment later he looked sharply at his bedroom window. "What time is it?"

"The sun just came up."

Ah. No wonder it was dark enough for him to wonder but light enough to make out her gorgeous, voluptuous curves. He looked back at her. "How long have you been awake?"

"Awhile."

Hmm. Between the building flush on her face and the fact that she wasn't saying much, he couldn't help thinking that was trying to tell him something - and definitely not something bad. No, he was pretty sure that was a good thing...and he could feel a flame begin burning within him at the thought that his impression might actually be right. He arched a seductive eyebrow at her. "Just staring at me like I'm always staring at you, eh? I know, I'm so very pretty and sexy. Not nearly as pretty and sexy as you, though. And the best part is the distinct lack of clothes getting in our way, isn't it?"

As he'd expected, Sheena rolled her eyes and her flush deepened, but she was grinning, too, as she flicked his shoulder with her finger. "Idiot."

Zelos chuckled, noting that she didn't even try to deny his insinuation, and grinned wickedly. "And you love me anyway."

She growled lowly and her eyes narrowed in a highly ineffective mock-glare. "Have I ever mentioned how much I hate it when you're right?"

"Yes, you have, at least twenty times now this past year, and I fully expect there to be a hundred more before we hit our five-year anniversary," he quipped, biting back a laugh as she shook her head in exasperated fondness but otherwise didn't respond to that.

After a moment, he lifted his hand to his mouth as he yawned again, but his gaze quickly snapped back to her face as flashes from the previous night rolled through his mind. Her soft gasps and moans, the heat and desire in her brown eyes, her dark hair framing her face against the pillow, the flush on her cheeks, her fingernails digging into his back, her fingers weaving through his hair, her smooth skin beneath his lips, her beautiful curves and welcoming arms, the warmth of her body cradling his, the beautiful pleasure on her face, his name whispered like a prayer on her lips...oh, Martel, he loved this woman so much - her taste, her touch, her kiss, her strength, her gentleness, her love, her soul. He'd been right before: just a single taste and he was now addicted for life. He would never get enough of this, of her. Never. In fact, he had no doubt he would be daydreaming about this, about her, about them, more now than ever before, because this, her, them, was just that incredible.

He smiled knowingly as his gaze traveled down over the perfect skin he was able to see, hidden only beneath a light sheet, then back up to her flushed face. "You should've woken me sooner," he murmured. "We could've had some fun before the day got going."

Sheena bit her lip and, as he'd just done, her eyes traveled down over his chest, her hand following her gaze and setting alight tiny blazes on his skin, then she looked back up at his face and arched a seductive eyebrow that made those little blazes pale in comparison to the jolt of electricity it sent careening through him. "Who says we still can't?" Her voice was husky and suggestive, promising delicious ecstasy yet to come, and that, accompanied by her sliding her leg upward over his, just confirmed his hunch that she'd been watching him like that all this time, waiting for him to join her...wanting him as much as he wanted her. Oh, yeah, he could definitely get used to this in the morning. Definitely. Zelos moved to sit up so he could kiss her, but she quickly placed her hand on his chest, stopping him, and then leaned down and gave him a quick but heated kiss. "Uh uh," she said, her lips still grazing his, her eyes nearly black with desire. "You had your fun last night. Now it's my turn."

His eyes narrowed, and he couldn't resist grinning wickedly. Okay, he was really, really liking this, and the part that turned him on most was the revelation that Sheena had been plotting to have her way with him ever since she'd awoken. "Who are you and what have you done with my wife?" he murmured to her between kisses, and she smirked - but she was still blushing, too, betraying how new and unfamiliar this territory was for her. Instead of answering him, she kissed him again, parting her lips and inviting him in, an invitation he quickly accepted, and then she shifted even closer until she was straddling him, placing her arms on the bed on either side of his head. His hands immediately went to her waist, holding her steady, and after a moment he detached his mouth from hers just enough to add, "Ooh, the lollipop is feisty again this morning. I think I like this."

"Zelos?" she whispered against his lips.

He was totally and completely entranced, not just by her sexy tone and by her assertiveness and initiative, but by the darkness and undeniable lust burning in her eyes. "Yeah, love?"

"Shut up."

He chuckled softly and whispered back to her, "Shutting up now," and then she was kissing him again, and he was kissing her back, and her hands were on him, and his hands were on her, and soon enough, their passion had escalated back to its heights from the previous night, and for only the second time ever, neither made any effort to stop it.

Afterwards, they dozed, holding each other and basking in the afterglow of pleasure as their bodies slowly cooled, but eventually Zelos became aware of the sunlight streaming in through the blinds of his window and the pressure of her body lying against his side, and he turned his head toward her, only to find she was awake and watching him again, a faint, slightly dazed smile toying on her lips. "Damn, that's good," he said, returning her smile.

He could feel her face grow warmer where it was pressed against his arm, and her lips curled further upward. "I can't argue with that." She lifted her head a little so she could see him better. "For someone with such little practical experience, you sure know what you're doing."

Ooh...Sheena. Now that was what he liked to hear: that he'd pleased his woman. Now he just had to figure out how to make her purr and his male pride would be satisfied for a year. He smirked. "Is that a compliment?"

"Mm hmm." She shifted herself upward, pressed a quick kiss his cheek, and whispered sexily in his ear, "Definitely a compliment."

"Heh, you know how to stroke my ego." He turned his head, unable to resist his wicked grin. "And certain...other...parts, too." In the blink of an eye, she groaned, rolled her eyes, and pinched his side, leaving him yelping as she hit a spot that she knew damn well was ticklish. He pulled back and gave her a mock-indignant look. This woman was so quick to violence...and he loved her all the more because she was. "Hey! What was that for?"

Her eyes narrowed, but she couldn't conceal her grin. "Tell me you did not just say that."

"Oh, but I did!" he replied smugly.

"You want me to beat you up, don't you?" she countered with a long-suffering sigh.

Zelos waggled his eyebrows. "You can punish me anytime you like." It took all his restraint not to laugh as she rolled her eyes again, and he quickly went on. "However, something tells me you'd rather have me in one fully functioning piece. After all, I can provide you far more pleasure like that, my lady."

She lifted her head again, just enough to glare down at him. "You're going to be even worse now than you ever were before, aren't you?"

Oh, Sheena, you have no idea. He was ridiculously happy and he had a sexy, amazing, kick-ass wife who could turn him on like no other woman ever had. How could his mind not regularly stray into the gutter? He shrugged. "Probably. I mean, I am now completely addicted to my dear, sweet, delectable lollipop, and no matter how many times we do that, I'll never get enough of it. You do realize that, right?"

Sheena watched him another moment through narrowed eyes, but then she sighed and lowered her head to his shoulder again, her voice lowering. "I should've known. Not that I'll be much better because, well, the 'kid' really is good at that."

Oh, thank Martel. He was relieved - and pleasantly surprised - to hear she really did want to do that with him again. Considering how shy and embarrassed she was about sexual matters, hearing her say that just fanned the unquenchable flames of love and desire within him that he had no doubt would burn eternally for her. "Heh. Just because I'm lacking in hands-on experience doesn't mean I haven't done my research. I mean, I had to live up to my pervert reputation somehow, right?"

She snorted, then grasped his left hand and pulled it toward her, amazement shining in her eyes as she observed the ring on his finger. "If you say so."

Zelos grinned and lightly caressed her fingers with his. "Although can you still call it perverted when the not-so-pure thoughts you're having are about your own wife...?"

She chuckled again...and he was pretty sure he was addicted to this, too, to hearing her laughing, acting playful, and being so happy. "Yes, you can, and you're the proof of it," she deadpanned, giving him a pointed look.

"I try." But the truth was, Sheena wasn't the only one who was impressed. "Y'know, considering how new the whole 'sex' thing is for you, you're pretty damn good at this, too."

She nuzzled her face further against him, her cheeks growing warmer, clearly unsure howto respond to that. When she did finally speak a moment later, her voice was soft and shy. "Well, I'd be lying to say I'd never fantasized about this before."

Really? Well, well! He'd never expected to hear her say that. He smirked. "With me, I hope."

Sheena pushed herself up a little and swatted lightly at his chest, giving him a mild glare. "Of course with you! Who else would there be?" Before he could open his mouth, though, she lifted a finger. "And don't answer that, because whoever you say, you're wrong!"

"Then don't ask questions you don't want me to answer," he quipped. A moment later, though, his eyebrows rose as he realized what she was saying. Sheena had fantasized about him. Until two days ago, she'd only ever admitted her physical attraction to him once, back when they'd first started dating (although he'd taken the heated kisses they'd shared since then to be reinforcement of that attraction), and so, in all honesty, he hadn't been sure she'd ever fantasized about him. The revelation that she had made his grin broaden. "So did I live up to your expectations?"

Her face quickly turned red again as she lowered her head back down to his shoulder. "To be honest, you blew them out of the water."

For a moment, Zelos was tempted to cheer or do something equally stupid, but he forcefully stopped himself, because as thrilled as he was to hear that, he didn't want to scare her off from being that open and honest with him about her feelings again. Instead, therefore, he just smiled softly, cradled her face in his hand, and gave her another tender kiss. "I'm just glad I could please you, my lady. And if you ever want to try any of those fantasies, rest assured I am always game."

Thankfully, he could feel her relax, clearly relieved he hadn't taken the idiot route, as she smiled shyly again. "Well, I do still remember promising once to play with your wings..."

Oh, Martel. Yes, he remembered that, too. In fact, if he wasn't still recuperating from Round 2, he would be game to try that one immediately. Instead, he released a showy sigh. "Unfortunately, that'll have to wait. I'm not up for something that intense right now."

"Yeah, I know. It's not like we won't have plenty of time to try that later." Without warning, though, Sheena gave him a wicked smirk. "We'll have to play with those edible body paints of yours sometime, too. I still have a masterpiece to paint on you!"

Zelos burst out laughing. "Damn, woman, how many fantasies have you had about me?"

She poked his chest and arched a knowing eyebrow. "Probably not as many as you have had about me."

Okay, he'd give her that. He had years' worth of fantasies about her. "Yeah...probably not." And he could already tell she would be game to try some of his fantasies, too. He had certainly figured that out about her this morning: Sheena was a lot more fiery in bed than he'd expected. She might still be shy about her sexuality, probably because it was still so new for her to be embracing it like this, but looking back now at those heated kisses they'd shared while dating, he already knew a slight edge and roughness turned her on, too. And oh, was he looking forward to experimenting, to seeing what she liked and finding out what turned her on most - and what turned him on most, too. After all, he wasn't exactly Mr. Experience himself. And now...now the rings on their fingers were proof that they had the rest of their lives to figure it out. Those edible body paints would be a good starting point. If his hunnies had known who he'd one day be using them with, he somehow doubted he'd have three full boxes of them in his closet. "And don't worry, I'll be sure to bring a few bottles of those paints back to Mizuho. I've been looking forward to trying those out since our first date, too."

"Good." Sheena watched him another moment, smiling softly, but then her face fell a little as she settled against him again, draping her arm over his chest and holding him to her. "If I'd known back then that this would be our future and that you would one day become my husband, Zelos, I never would've held this back from you for so long. We could've been enjoying this months ago already. I never should've doubted you, and I'm sorry I did."

Zelos turned his head toward hers and pushed himself further up his pillow so he could see her better. There was no way he was letting her believe that. Because the truth was...well, the truth probably wasn't at all what she was expecting. Heck, he hadn't expected it, but he couldn't deny it, either, and he wanted her to know that. "Hey, don't be sorry, sweetheart. Believe me, I'm not upset we waited for this. When I promised not to push you until you were ready, I meant it. And also like I said then, it was worth the wait."

Sheena let out a soft laugh and nodded faintly. "Yeah, it was."

...But he could tell she still wasn't convinced that she'd made the right decision to wait this long with it. He brushed his fingers over her arm. "The truth is, Sheena, I'm glad we did wait."

Her eyebrows flew upward as she looked up at him again. "You are?"

"Yeah, I am. For starters, it made your grandfather's 'truth test' regarding whether or not we'd slept together a whole lot easier to pass. More than that, though, waiting this long kept me honest, not only with you, but with myself."

"How so?" she pressed, her eyes narrowing curiously.

Zelos smiled faintly. "It kept me honest about my reasons for dating you - not just because I lusted over you, although that was always there, too, but because I really did love you. If we'd slept together before this, it would've confused my motivations. In fact, it was the moment I realized that even if we could never do this, I'd still want to spend the rest of my life with you that I knew I wanted to marry you for the right reasons, regardless of the life that came with you. If I'd only been marrying you for the sex, well, when the novelty wore off, then yes, I would probably end up miserable. But that's not why I just married you, Sheena. I married you because I love you, not because I love having sex with you. I'll never tire of you, and that's why I know I'll never tire of this life with you, either. Even if we could never do this again, I'd still stay by your side. And I only know that, without a doubt, because we did wait until I was certain about that." He could see her brows furrow, tears building in her eyes, and he grinned and shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, sex is just the icing on the cake - some extremely tasty icing, I'll admit, but it's not the cake itself. And trust me, no amount of icing can make a slice of cake taste good if the cake itself is rotten. But when the cake itself is as perfect as what we've got, well, then, the whole piece together is just incredible."

Sheena chuckled shyly and lowered her head back down to his shoulder as he trailed his fingers over her right hand. "You and your ridiculous - yet surprisingly appropriate - dessert analogies," she murmured.

He let out a soft laugh and grinned proudly. "Yeah, I'm good at those. In any case, the bottom line is no, I'm not upset we waited this long, and don't ever think otherwise, okay? Everything worked out like it was supposed to. No, it wasn't always easy to wait - hell, it was damn hard at times to wait...er, no pun intended - but it really was worth it. And now...now we're both sure this is where we want to be, and that's why we have such a perfect piece of cake to enjoy for the rest of our lives."

Lifting her head again, Sheena gave him that lovely smile that he never tired of seeing, the one that told him just how touched she was - and how much she loved him. "Yeah, we really do, don't we?" she whispered, pushing herself up to give him a quick kiss. "And I'm glad we do."

"Me, too," Zelos murmured against her lips, giving her another kiss.

Sheena beamed him another incredible smile as she pulled back, her eyes soft and loving, then she grasped his hand and gave it a squeeze. "Thank you, Zelos. You have no idea how much I appreciated your patience with this."

"Like I said, sweetheart, it was definitely worth the wait."

And for another moment, they just watched each other, both still smiling shyly, but then Zelos sank into the pillow and pulled her down to rest against him again, his fingers playing over hers while his other hand lightly grazed her bare arm. Without warning, though, a semi-related thought struck him like a blow to the gut, and he froze, his eyes widening and his heart plummeting as the realization sank in. A moment later he groaned, disentangled his hand from hers, and smacked his palm to his face. "Aw, crap." That had been a really, really stupid oversight on his part. He, the one who'd always been overly sensitive to this very subject, had just completely forgotten something he'd had no business ever forgetting in the wake of his love and lust and excitement of being married to the woman he loved more than life itself.

Sheena lifted her head again to look at him, her eyes narrowing in concern. "What is it?"

His eyes flew open and then widened further. And again: aw, crap. Since she hadn't said anything about this subject herself, chances were she hadn't realized it yet, either...in which case he had to point it out to her. They had to have this conversation eventually no matter what happened, and the sooner they had it, the better. After all, for all they knew, it might already be too late.

"I just realized we forgot to do something last night before we ended up in bed," he said, letting his head flop back on the pillow as he stared up at the ceiling.

He looked down at her in time to see her eyes narrow further. "What?"

"Have a little talk about whether or not we want kids." Instantly, her body stiffened and her eyes widened - yep, she'd definitely forgotten about that, too - and Zelos closed his eyes again, shaking his head. "I can't believe I, of all people, forgot that." Well, he could believe it, seeing as his subconscious mind had most likely already realized that any kids they had would be legitimate and that the Church couldn't punish them, and so when the opportunity had presented itself, he'd jumped at it eagerly without thinking all the details through first, but that didn't let him off the hook for this. After all, even if they could legitimately have kids now, that didn't mean it was what they wanted, and even if they did, that didn't mean right now was when they wanted them.

Sheena laid there silently a moment, her body still stiff, clearly thinking that over, but then she sighed and relaxed, her head lowering back to his shoulder and her breath tickling his neck. "You're right, we did forget. But it's not just your fault, Zelos. I should've thought of it before this, too. Everything just happened so fast yesterday that it didn't even cross my mind."

"I know." Crap, crap, crap. While he was glad she wasn't pissed about his glaring oversight, how could he not have even considered it sooner? Especially after Lloyd had thrown that stupid 'pregnancy' accusation at him yesterday? Ultimately, though, it was too late to change anything now. The rest he had to leave in fate's hands. But regardless of the outcome, this conversation was still critical for them to have, and so he looked down at her again. "So, do we want kids?"

Sheena was silent another moment, but then she breathed in deeply, propped her head up on her arm, and offered him a faint, hopeful smile. "Well, yeah, someday I do. Of course I do. I'm not sure how many yet, or how many we should have to set an example for the rest of Mizuho, but I do know I want at least one or two." Her smile faded as she continued watching him, her expression growing almost nervous, Zelos thought. "What about you?"

His eyes widened. She had to ask? "With you? You bet I do. I've never been opposed to having kids of my own one day; I've just had issues with the women who wanted to have my kids. Well, that and with people who insist there's no chance you'd ever date me, let alone marry me, unless I'd already gotten you pregnant and you were only doing so because you had to."

"I know," she replied, her voice lowering. She fell silent again, just watching him, but suddenly her eyes softened and she touched his cheek. "I don't think this is the right time for that, though. We have too much to do first, like learning to run Mizuho. I don't want to complicate things until we're more settled in there."

Zelos nodded, relieved to hear her say that. He couldn't imagine that, either - studying Mizuho's culture, language, and traditions, training as a ninja, figuring out how best he could help Sheena, and taking care of a needy little tyke. There would come a time for kids, but this wasn't it. "I agree. We have enough other stuff to worry about right now." He grinned craftily. "Besides, I think I want to keep you all to myself for awhile and just enjoy having it be the two of us, because once kids enter the picture, we'll never have this time to ourselves again. At least not until they grow up and move out, which...well, is a really long time to wait."

Her blush quickly reappeared, accompanied by a soft laugh. "Yeah. That, too." Her eyes fell to his lips as she thought another moment, but then suddenly she met his gaze again. "One of the women in Mizuho makes special charms that protect against pregnancy, and from what I've heard, they're pretty effective, so I'll get one of those from her. Maybe in a year or two we can reevaluate where we're at and decide if we're in a better position than we are now."

"By then we might be ready for it." He gave her a sheepish smile. "Of course, that's assuming last night and this morning don't change our plans..."

She shook her head. "If I'm calculating this correctly, it shouldn't become a problem, but if it happens, it happens. We'll deal with it." Giving him another warm smile, Sheena pressed a sweet kiss to his lips. "Like you always say, 'Whatever will be, will be.'"

He mirrored her smile. He was really liking hearing her quote his philosophies like that. And she was right: what was going to happen, what was meant to happen, would happen, regardless of how much they worried about it. It was no longer under their control; all they could do now was leave it in fate's hands. "You're right. Life might never go according to our plans, but that's okay. No matter what it hands us in this case, it'll be fine. My life has certainly never gone completely according to my Grand Master Plan, yet it's turned out far better than anything I could've planned. And one thing I can promise you, Sheena, is that whatever happens from here on out, I won't run from it."

Her smiled broadened and she trailed her fingers over his lips, sending incredible warmth and love seeping through him. "I know. And neither will I."

Zelos had no doubt about that. If she hadn't run from what she'd done two days ago and had instead hunted him down and told him the truth, something that had to have been extremely difficult for her, then she wouldn't run from anything else, either. He trusted her to see this marriage through, just like she trusted him to do the same. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he gave her another quick kiss before lowering himself back down to the bed. "You'll make a great mother one day, y'know."

She smiled shyly. "I hope so. I'm not sure I know how to be a mother, seeing as I never knew mine, but hopefully I'll be ready for it by the time it happens."

And that, too, he didn't doubt. "Oh, I know you will. You're such a nurturer and a fighter that I'm sure being a mother will come naturally to you."

Sheena let out a soft laugh. "We'll see. And you..." Her eyes snapped up to his again and she smirked. "Well, you're childish enough that I'm sure you'll get along great with kids."

Zelos snorted softly and poked her nose. "Now, how did I know you were gonna say that?"

"Because it's true?" she countered with over-the-top - and quite obviously fake - innocence, but then she chuckled again. "No, seriously, Zelos, you'll be a great father one day, too."

...Seriously? "You really think so?" he asked, sincerely curious about that.

She nodded and lowered her head to nuzzle her nose against his ear. "Yes, I really do."

Her confidence in him made his heart pound faster, and he likewise offered her a shy smile. Sheena had chosen him and was trusting him to help her raise her children...wow. Talk about humbling. And encouraging. And terrifying just thinking about one day having to live up to her trust in him for something as important as that. But he would do everything in his power to rise to the occasion when it happened. It was just too bad the only example he had to follow had been awful. "I just hope I do better job with it than my father did."

"You will," Sheena replied, pulling back so she could see his face. "You're smart, and you're patient, and you're understanding, and you're funny, and you're giving, and you're good at thinking outside the box and finding the best options...I can see all of those being good qualities for a father." She grinned and poked his chest. "Look how well you did with Michi."

Zelos let out a soft laugh. He really hoped she was right about that. "Well, on my own, I'm not so sure about that, but together...yeah, I think we can handle a few rug rats."

"Yeah, me too," she whispered, giving him another kiss before settling against him again.

Well, good. At least now they were both clear on that. He still wished he'd considered it sooner, before a child became a real possibility, but hopefully Sheena was right about the timing being safe. And at least if it did happen, it wouldn't be quite the shock it would have been otherwise. Besides, starting now, they would be more careful. And satisfied that that was that, Zelos relaxed and stretched again, stifling another yawn. Unfortunately, though, another look at the window told him the sun was quickly rising, and the higher it got, the more he realized that this moment, lovely though it was, couldn't last forever. As much as he dreaded ending the moment, it was time to start considering that more seriously, because...well, a certain interruption would undoubtedly happen any moment now, and he'd really rather not be caught like this when it did.

Like it or not, they had to get going - or at least start planning their day. "Anyway, what all do we have to do today?" he asked. "As much as I want to lounge here with you forever, sweetheart - or at least until we're ready for Round 3 - something tells me that won't be possible. As it is, I'm expecting a ninja to show up any minute now and drag us back to Mizuho with them. We're lucky we dodged that particular bullet yesterday, because Sebastian mentioned one did show up looking for us, but we won't get away with playing hooky another day."

"...Oh. Right." Sheena released a wistful sigh. "Unfortunately, you're probably right about that. We have to face Grandpa today and start figuring out the details of how this is all going to work. We can't hide here forever, no matter how much I'd like to."

"Heh. So much for the honeymoon, eh?"

"Yeah, but that's because we decided to elope instead of publicly announcing our marriage," she replied, giving him a wry grin. "We can't very well tell everyone to leave us alone for the next two weeks so we can enjoy being married when we don't want everyone to know we're married yet. We'll have to wait for an actual honeymoon for that."

He shrugged. "Eh, at least we had some time to ourselves. Granted, it's not nearly enough - no amount of time alone with you will ever be enough - but it's better than nothing."

Setting her chin on his chest, Sheena looked up at him and smiled shyly. "Yeah, well, little time together or not, I quite enjoyed it."

...And the best part was that he knew she meant that. She was happy being married to him and spending time with him like this...and as long as she was happy, then so was he. "Yeah, me too." He waggled his eyebrows. "And until we actually leave my mansion, it's not quite over yet, either."

Heh...and there was that lovely smile and blush that he adored so much. "We'll see."

He couldn't resist grinning lecherously. "And I'm sure we can figure something out while we're in Mizuho. I'm creative. And adventuresome."

As he'd expected, her blush deepened and she gave him an embarrassed glare as she swatted at his chest. "Perverted idiot."

"Always." But they were getting off track again, and they had too much to do today to indulge in such distractions. Zelos sighed, sobering. "So, back to Mizuho to face our new reality, huh? Before we do that, though, I need to take care of a few things first."

Sheena propped her head up on her arm again, her eyes narrowing. "Such as...?"

"Well, first of all, we need to swing by the king so I can tell him you accepted my proposal. We just have to be careful not to tell him we went behind his back and had a 'lowly priest' marry us rather than going directly to him. He also needs to know that I won't be back here for awhile, and we have to figure out some way that he can contact me in case an emergency comes up and I need to drop by and earn my pay as Foreign Minister."

"Right. We'll have to keep a ninja in Meltokio at all times so he can get messages to us. The last thing we want is to be completely unreachable when he needs you for something. That would reflect poorly on Mizuho."

Yes, it would, and that was one thing Zelos refused to do: give the king any cause to distrust Mizuho. He had even more reason to protect the village now than he ever had before, seeing as it was his new home and Igaguri had made it clear he was counting on him to use his influence to improve relations between the two. "Besides, I'm sure he wants to get started planning the obnoxiously big shindig - oh, excuse me, wedding - for us. So that's first. After that...well, after that I need to pack up a few things to move to Mizuho, and we should have Sebastian develop those pictures from yesterday so we can show them to your grandfather. I just hope Colette got a few decent ones."

"Me, too." Sheena laughed softly. "Heh. I'm almost afraid to see what ended up on there."

Zelos grinned, remembering the craziness that had transpired before the wedding. "Yeah, those two were having a little too much fun with your camera, weren't they? Something tells me we'll end up with more goofy pictures of them than we will decent pictures of us."

She shrugged. "Eh, they had fun. And isn't that all that really matters?"

He arched a disbelieving eyebrow at her. Had she been paying attention to some of the pictures those two had taken? Like Lloyd making the weirdest faces imaginable and Colette thinking they were all worth taking pictures of? Of course, those pictures could come in handy as blackmail material one day... "Let's see how the pictures actually turn out before we decide that." Taking another deep breath, Zelos considered everything else that really needed to go onto his to-do list...and just like that, his heart sank. Oh, right. That. Talk about awful...but since the rumors would start spreading today at noon, he couldn't wait another day to do this. He just had to hope Sheena didn't immediately divorce him because of it. "After that...well..."

Her eyes narrowed as his voice trailed off. "Zelos?"

But there was no other option. Ignoring the situation as he had this past year hadn't fixed anything; it had only made the problem that much worse. And Sheena had already promised to do everything she could to work on this, which meant he had to give her a chance to do that. With another low sigh, he met her questioning gaze. "I should swing by Sybak and tell Seles we're engaged. Not married, mind you, but engaged."

As expected, Sheena bristled and her face fell, but then she sighed and nodded, her gaze falling to his chest and her fingers lightly roaming over his Cruxis crystal. "...Right. She won't be happy about this, will she?"

"No, I'm sure she won't," he mumbled, once again cursing his sister's stubborn refusal to see the good in this incredible woman...one he would now be spending forever with. "But once Master Elrickson starts telling people his story, news about us will spread fast, and I'm sure she'd be even more upset if she learned about it from a gossip column in the newspaper rather than directly from us. And really, it should come from us. I mean, she's my sister. This is a family matter - and like it or not, you're now a part of it."

And for the life of him, Zelos just didn't get it, why Seles always got so angry at him every time he mentioned Sheena. Would she really rather he'd kept it a secret from her and then blindsided her with it now by telling her they were getting married? Somehow, he doubted it. He hated it, that no matter what he did, it couldn't please her, but he was starting to suspect that was just the way it was and would always be. He'd tried to change it and had repeatedly failed. They'd been such good friends when they'd been young, too, but ever since their mothers' deaths, she'd been cold and distant toward him. Between last year's coliseum incident and their three-week world trip, though, he really had thought things had been improving between them. And then he'd missed that one visit to see her when he'd gone to Iselia with Sheena instead and had announced they were dating and she'd practically disowned him. It didn't make sense; he adored Sheena, so why couldn't Seles even try to get to know her better? He knew she would like her if she'd only give her a chance! But Seles seemed determined not to, and this...well, his gut was telling him this would actually make the problem worse. Much, much worse.

"Hey, it'll be okay," Sheena suddenly said, giving him a reassuring smile. "She'll get used to the idea eventually."

He nodded faintly, but try as he might, he couldn't summon a smile for her. "I hope so."

"Like I said, I'll do my best to work things out with her," she replied.

Zelos sighed. Damn it, she shouldn't have to 'do her best' to work things out with Seles! If it weren't for his sister's inexplicable, unwarranted hatred for her, everything would be fine! But then, right now there really was only one way to try to fix this: let Sheena do her thing and hope Seles didn't butcher her in the process. "And like I said, sweetheart, I don't doubt you will, but it's not you I'm worried about refusing to give someone a chance."

Sheena smiled again. "Don't worry, Zelos. I can take care of myself."

"Yeah, I know you can," he quickly replied, needing her to know that he knew that. "You're more than capable of defending yourself - although you need to know that if someone or something ever threatens you, I will step forward and protect you because it would kill me not to. I'm sure you're gonna hate that, but tough. I'm your husband, and protecting you is my job." She frowned at that, but he shook his head before she could reply, realizing he was getting off topic again. "But that's neither here nor there right now. My point is you shouldn't have to take care of yourself, especially not with my sister."

She gave him a quick kiss. "It'll be all right. I promise. Just let me talk to her, okay?"

He sighed, still not convinced, but he didn't see another alternative, and so he nodded reluctantly. Besides, Sheena was right; until she had seriously tried talking to Seles, nothing would change. He'd tried excluding Sheena from the conversation before, and it had always failed. And really, he would like them to be friends one day. To that end, he just had to trust Sheena to see this through and hope for the best.

But that wouldn't happen for a few more hours yet, and they had other things to tackle first...like finishing figuring out everything they had to do today. "In any case, after that oh-so-fun prospect, there's one more stop I want to make before we actually hit Mizuho."

"And where's that?" Sheena asked.

Instead of answering her, though, Zelos just grinned and sat up, amused by the fact that when Sheena likewise pushed herself up into a sitting position, she still held the sheet against her chest. Heh. Even now after he'd seen everything there was to see of her (this time with her permission), she was still being modest with him, eh? While it was disappointing that she wasn't letting him gaze upon her gorgeous body again now, her modesty was also endearing and was exactly what he expected from her. Eventually maybe she'd become more comfortable with it and would display it for him more readily, but until she did, he would still take pleasure in that modesty - and in her flushed cheeks as she saw his eyes traveling down over her curves.

"What, you aren't gonna tell me?" she pressed after a moment.

Zelos shrugged, his eyes snapping back up to hers. While he could tell her since it really wasn't a big deal, keeping her guessing was far more entertaining. The 'not yet' approach it is, then. "Nah...but trust me, you won't mind this stop. And don't worry, it's on the way so it shouldn't take real long." He tilted his head, reconsidering that. "Well, for the most part it's on the way...er, at least it's not far out of the way..."

Sheena let out a soft, uncertain laugh. "Zelos, what are you scheming now?"

Heh. He still remembered when nearly everything he'd said had elicited that question from her. Instead of answering her directly, though, he grinned and gave her a quick kiss. "You'll see. Now c'mon, love. We have too much to do today to stay here forever."

Her eyes narrowed, albeit with a smile toying on her lips that indicated she wasn't really concerned, but then she sighed, relenting. "I suppose. First things first: I need a shower."

Okay, that was simply impossible for him to resist. Zelos waggled his eyebrows. "Want some company? I mean, I need a shower, too..."

And for a moment as her eyes trailed down over his bare chest, admiring the view, Zelos thought she might actually take him up on the offer. "Mm...tempting. But it would probably take too long, and I'd really rather not start something in case someone from Mizuho shows up. We can't afford to be caught like that right now."

She was right...but oh, how he wished she wasn't. He was just about ready for Round 3 now. "I suppose," he replied with a mournful sigh, but then, on impulse, he grinned and winked at her. "But rest assured the offer is always open."

Sheena snorted softly and rolled her eyes, but to his pleasure, her gaze soon fell back to his chest. Heck, at least she was now considering it instead of smacking him and/or throwing soap and wet sponges at him for simply suggesting it! "Duly noted."

Zelos smirked and stole another kiss from her, then he slid to the edge of the bed and grabbed his pants, which had landed on a chair near his bed. He quickly pulled them on and got up, locating his black shirt - that particular article of clothing had ended up on a dresser on the other side of the room - and slipping that on, too. Once semi-dressed, he grabbed a robe from his closet and tossed it to her, then he picked up a brush and began working on his hair. "Go ahead and make yourself all nice and clean and pretty, sweetheart. I'll have Sebastian get started working on breakfast."

"Thanks," she said, slipping into the robe as she climbed out of bed. "That's another reason why we should keep your mansion: not just so Sebastian still has a job, but so we always have easy access to a shower."

He snorted. Sheena really did love her showers, didn't she? But then, he felt the same, so... "Yeah, showers are a powerful draw, aren't they?"

"Yes, they are," she said, grinning. "Besides, we'll be spending plenty of time in Meltokio. I'm still the king's emissary, and you're still his Foreign Minister, so it makes sense that we have a base of operations here. Maybe not even just for us, but for any of Mizuho's scouts." She looked over her shoulder at him as she tied the robe around her. "I really do think you should keep this place, Zelos. Mizuho may be your new home now, but you shouldn't have to give up everything 'normal' and 'familiar' to you. I mean, gilded cage or not, even I have quite a few good memories of it now, so I can only imagine how you must feel. I'd hate for your family to lose it."

He nodded thoughtfully. It would feel so wrong to stay at an inn when they were in Meltokio when his mansion was so much nicer. Besides, it wasn't like he couldn't afford the upkeep. "And having a vacation home, somewhere we can escape to whenever we need to get away, would be nice..."

Sheena stepped up to him and shrugged. "It is a nice place to get away to for awhile, especially now that you don't have hunnies constantly knocking on your door. And something tells me there'll be quite a few times we'll find ourselves needing to unwind from ruling a bunch of stubborn ninjas."

Zelos laughed softly, his gaze drifting around the room. Oh, yeah, he had good memories of this place, too - and especially now, after the past few days. Leaving it permanently would be difficult. "Yeah, you're right. I probably will keep it. Maybe if we can work things out with my sister, I'll even give it to her one day. But there's no rush on that, either."

"No, there isn't." Smiling softly, she lifted herself up on her toes and gave him a tender kiss. "I love you."

Those were three words he would never tire of hearing. "I love you, too," he whispered, mirroring her smile and touching her face. She gave him one last smile and kiss and then padded barefoot to the door and headed out into the hallway.

Zelos watched her until he couldn't see her anymore, then he tossed the brush on his dresser and fell backwards onto his bed, smiling broadly as he folded his arms behind his head. Damn, he loved this. He was married. There was a ring on his finger - her ring to him, one that complemented her own perfectly - and he loved how it felt there. And, topping that off, he'd just had the best day of his life yesterday, with only a few minor blips along the way that had been in no way bad enough to derail its perfection, and this morning had started off beautifully, and now he was just so happy. He was pretty sure he was turning into a romantic sap, but he was also pretty sure he didn't care. Being with her like this, knowing this was permanent so long as they both did whatever it took to make this marriage work, was heavenly, and after this brief taste of it, he never wanted it to end. This particular moment would eventually have to end because that was how life worked, and he accepted that because he knew they would strive to achieve as many more happy moments like this as they could, but for now he couldn't help the stupid, goofy grin that was plastered on his face as he mulled over the amazingness of everything that had just happened.

Without warning, his happy little bubble popped as an insistent pounding suddenly came from downstairs. He froze, listening carefully as he heard Sebastian open the front door, and then...aw, crap. The loud, familiar voice currently demanding entrance belonged to none other than the man who apparently wanted to rip his guts out and strangle him with them. Of all the ninjas Mizuho could send to check on Sheena, had it really had to be Orochi, the man who was now apparently convinced Zelos had broken his promise never to 'hurt' her by molesting her two days ago? This was bad, and his heart pounded faster as he tried to determine whether he should climb out the window to save his own skin or just suck it up, face his executioner, and hope he could hold off Orochi until Sheena could step in and save him. For a moment, Zelos just laid there, listening - Orochi was demanding to know where Sheena was, saying he would not leave without her, and Sebastian was insisting that Sheena and 'the master' not be disturbed, his voice becoming increasingly frantic as Orochi began threatening him - but finally he groaned and sat up. Sebastian had always been an excellent servant and friend to him, after all, and he really didn't deserve to suffer just because Zelos was worried about what Orochi would do to his guts.

Rising to his feet, Zelos headed to the door, breathed in deeply, and stepped outside. "Orochi," he stated, walking over to the railing and looking down at his guest.

Orochi immediately looked up at him and gave him a simultaneously fiery yet icy glare. "Chosen," he growled. "Where is she? What have you done with her?"

Zelos closed his eyes and sighed, then opened them again. He headed toward the stairs to head downstairs and join them, only to find Orochi already charging up them toward him. Sebastian's eyes widened. "I...I apologize for the interruption, Master Zelos, but this man insists..."

"It's okay, Sebastian," Zelos interrupted, motioning to him that he was free to leave. "I'll take it from here."

Sebastian bowed his head. "Very good, sir."

Good. At least he would be safe...well, at least until Zelos was dead and Orochi sought out someone else to vent his anger on. Making sure Sebastian was occupied elsewhere was probably his best option right now. "Hey, Sebastian, could you get breakfast started for us? We'll be down soon."

Relief flooded the butler's face, undoubtedly that he could get away from Orochi. He bowed his head, said, "Of course, sir," and quickly escaped into the kitchen.

...And then Orochi was standing in front of Zelos, his face red and his dark eyes flaring with anger. "Where is she, Chosen?"

"Sheena is just fine, Orochi."

"What have you done to her?"

I sold her to a slave trader. Seriously, Orochi, what do you think I even could do to her? Do you really have no confidence in your future chief's ability to beat me up if I did something really stupid to her? "I did nothing to her," Zelos replied, lifting his hands in a show of innocence. "I swear. She's taking a shower."

"I demand to see her."

Yeah, right. Over my dead body. As her husband, there isn't a snowball's chance in Niflheim that I'd let you into my bathroom to see her like that. Sheena is my wife, not yours, so if you really want to see a naked woman taking a shower, go find a wife of your own to gawk at. And besides, I really don't think Sheena would be too pleased about you barging in on her in her current state, either. Zelos tilted his head. "Ah, I don't think that's a good idea."

Orochi continued closing in on him, his jaw set. "I demand to see her, Chosen."

I heard you the first time. Really, Orochi, my hearing is just fine. Heck, I can hear Every. Little. Thing. that happens in a two-mile radius. You don't need to repeat yourself. "Not until she's done with her shower."

"I will not believe you until I see her."

It took every ounce of strength in him not to roll his eyes. That much is painfully obvious, Orochi. But the fact of the matter is that I won't let you, so just summon your super duper self-discipline ninja powers and wait until Sheena is done. Capisce? "Well, then, I guess that's your problem, isn't it? It's not gonna happen until she's done."

Without warning, Orochi grabbed his arms and slammed him into the wall, right beside the bathroom door. Apparently Irrational, Crazy Ninja Mode was preventing him from figuring out that the room directly beside them was the bathroom, something that should be blatantly obvious since the sound of running water was coming from there. "Now."

Part of him wanted to push Orochi away and gloat that Sheena had just married him, which meant Orochi no longer had any right to act this overprotective of her and try to 'defend her honor' against the 'irreverent, manipulative, womanizing Chosen,' but he forced that urge aside. He would soon be in a position of authority over Orochi and would most likely have to rely on him at times for backup, and so he simply could not let Orochi get to him. He couldn't cower in fear, either, which was what Orochi clearly wanted. Orochi would never respect him if he reacted like that, since that was apparently a hallmark of the ninja's code of operations: don't show your enemy any weakness or they'll use it to stab you in the back.

Instead, therefore, Zelos smirked and arched an eyebrow at him - which, granted, probably wasn't much better than cowering or fighting back, but hey, inappropriate, smug humor was his forte. "You've obviously never interrupted Sheena while she's showering, have you? Take it from someone who has: she really, really doesn't like that."

Unsurprisingly, Orochi slammed him against the wall again, that time with enough force to make a picture on the wall rattle. "Now, Chosen!"

For a moment, Zelos just returned his gaze, still smirking defiantly, but then, without warning, the bathroom door opened and Sheena poked her head out, her face and hair dripping wet. "Zelos, what's going...Orochi!" She rushed out of the bathroom and grabbed Orochi's arm, trying to force him back. "Orochi, stop it! Let him go!"

Zelos sighed, relieved she was there...but his eyes quickly widened as he realized what he was seeing: Sheena only had a towel wrapped around her torso. Unsurprisingly, the second Orochi looked at her, that was what he, too, first noticed. "Sh...Sheena!" Orochi exclaimed, his face going bright red as he quickly released Zelos and averted his eyes.

...Okay, this is the epitome of the word 'awkward.' And suddenly, Zelos's possessive side did not want to share this current lovely, revealing view of his wife - or of her cleavage - with another man, especially one who had a thing for her, was convinced Zelos had hurt her, and was now determined to fulfill his own promise to 'kill' Zelos for doing so, despite all the strides Zelos had tried to make toward earning his trust. Zelos motioned at her toweled body. "Ah, sweetheart, you're, um..."

Her eyes narrowed and she looked down at herself...and instantly she shrieked and retreated into the bathroom, her face bright red as she peeked around the crack in the door. "Um, Zelos, could you please...?"

"Right. Getting. Now. Excuse me."

He quickly brushed past Orochi, unable to meet the other man's eyes as he returned to his bedroom and began retrieving her clothes from where they lay scattered around the room. It took him a minute to locate a few articles - they hadn't been paying attention last night to where everything had ended up in their need to be rid of them - and a few pieces he couldn't find at all...like her obi. Damn. Fortunately, that was also the least important piece, so it would just have to wait. Once he'd grabbed everything he could find, he returned to the bathroom, not failing to notice that Orochi was watching him closely again, his face red, not only from embarrassment that time, but from growing anger. Aw, crap...Orochi was putting the pieces together, wasn't he? He knew damn well that the room Zelos had just brought Sheena's clothes from was his bedroom, not hers...and, just as damning, her clothes were in a definite state of disarray, considering the messy pile Zelos was currently holding in his arms.

Zelos gave Orochi a tight, uncomfortable smile as he knocked on the bathroom door and handed Sheena her clothes through the crack when it opened. "I, ah, couldn't find your obi. Sorry."

Her head appeared behind the crack and she smiled gratefully. "That's okay. Thanks."

"Welcome," he murmured, then he took a deep breath and turned back toward Orochi, who was, unsurprisingly, glaring daggers at him again. Oh, yeah, this was definitely awkward. Zelos could feel his face grow warm, positive he could see steam coming off the top of Orochi's head. Neither said anything, but it was obvious Orochi had figured out where Sheena had slept last night, and undoubtedly that they'd done more than just 'sleep' - and he was definitely not happy about it. But since Orochi was too busy fuming to ask the question directly, and since Zelos sure as hell wasn't about to say anything for fear of implicating himself further and having his throat slit, he just forced another smile and leaned back against the wall to wait for Sheena to finish dressing.

A minute later the door opened and she reemerged, her hair still wet and hanging loose around her face and a blush still coloring her cheeks, but at least she wouldn't elicit further inappropriate stares from Orochi. "All right, Orochi," she said, placing her hands on her hips as she stopped in the hallway. "What is it?"

While Orochi still couldn't look her in the eye, at least his face softened a little now that he wasn't glaring at Zelos. "I have orders from Chief Igaguri not to return to Mizuho without you. You must come with me."

"No."

Orochi's eyes finally darted up at her again, but her face hardened further with that stubborn, unshakable determination that told Zelos she would fight anyone who opposed her to the death. Orochi, however, either hadn't figured that out about her yet or just didn't care, for he replied, "I am sorry, Sheena, but that is not an option."

"Zelos and I need to take care of a few things first," she replied, her voice betraying barely contained restraint behind the calmness. "Once we've finished, we'll come back to Mizuho. That was our plan, and the things we need to do can't wait."

Orochi folded his arms to his chest, his face set. "I am not leaving here without you, Sheena. I do not trust you with him."

Zelos rolled his eyes as Orochi motioned at him. Apparently they'd now reverted back to how things had been between them pre-poisoning. He could understand why Orochi was upset if he thought Zelos had 'hurt' her two days ago and had now 'defiled her purity' by seducing her last night, but neither of those counts was true - only chances were that nothing he said now could convince Orochi of that. He was just glad Sheena's quickly building anger, judging from how her face was twitching,wasn't aimed at him. She never had been good at accepting it when someone told her 'no,' especially when that person was also insisting she do something she really didn't want to do.

She took a step toward Orochi that would have once left Zelos cowering in fear, but Orochi staunchly stood his ground. "Not happening, Orochi."

Orochi blinked at her a few times, clearly stunned, but then he motioned again at Zelos. "After what he did to you two days ago, and then after kidnapping you from Mizuho for so long, and now he has...he has..." he shook his head and motioned incredulously at Sheena, unable to verbalize that thought, "...you still insist on defending him?"

Sheena took a deep, controlling breath and closed her eyes - and oh, was Zelos proud of her for remembering to use that ever-helpful 'count to five' trick to keep herself semi-calm - but then she opened them again, pursed her lips, and met Orochi's gaze. "This is the last time I'm going to say this, Orochi: Zelos didn't hurt me. He never would, and he never will. I trust him implicitly, and that won't ever change. Just ask Grandpa. Grandpa told me not to return to Mizuho unless I'd reached some level of resolution with him, and I have now, so we'll be returning soon - but only after we've taken care of a few things first."

Orochi's eyes widened; clearly he hadn't known Igaguri had told her that. "Chief Igaguri is the one who insisted you return with me, Sheena." Which obviously couldn't be true, Zelos noted, since it contradicted what he'd told Sheena, and since Igaguri really had given Zelos his blessing to marry her, Sheena's story was far more likely. Orochi had probably just heard what he'd wanted to hear...which wasn't necessarily what Igaguri had actually said. Igaguri had most likely asked Orochi to check on Sheena and make sure she was all right, only Orochi had interpreted that to mean 'bring her back.' But Orochi would just have to accept the truth, because Zelos knew damn well that Sheena wouldn't be going back to Mizuho with Orochi. She would be going back with her husband.

"It's still not happening, Orochi," she stated. "Tell Grandpa everything is fixed now, and we'll explain the rest once we get back this afternoon. He'll understand the message."

Something resembling panic flickered in Orochi's eyes as he watched her. After a moment, he looked at Zelos, anger smoldering beneath his growing desperation, then finally turned back to Sheena. "Sheena..."

"No."

To emphasize her point, Sheena folded her arms to her chest, making sure her left hand, the one with the ring, was clearly visible - and a moment later it sparkled in the light, catching Orochi's attention. For a moment, he just blinked at it, confused, but then his eyes widened and he looked sharply at Zelos, who nodded faintly. Yes, Orochi, that is an engagement-slash-wedding ring you see on her hand. And yes, I am the one who put it there. If you weren't currently mimicking your brother by going into crazy, gut-threatening ninja mode, I would have told you that I'd 'made the right choice' and asked her to marry me and that she'd said 'yes.' So just listen to the woman already and leave her alone so I don't have to go all protective angel-husband on you and make you leave her alone.

Swallowing hard, Orochi finally looked back at Sheena, his expression faltering. "Fine," he whispered. "But he will not be happy about this."

Sheena arched an eyebrow at him. "Yes, Orochi, he will."

Orochi's shoulders sagged as he deflated further. Good, he'd finally admitted Sheena had won this battle. He looked back at Zelos, who kept his face carefully schooled. As good as it might feel to gloat that Sheena had chosen him, Orochi was a good man (even if he'd proven this past year that he needed to work more on his emotion-hiding ninja skills), and they really would have to work together after this, and so there was no reason to kick the poor man when he was already down.

After a moment, Orochi sighed, looked back at Sheena, and bowed to her. "Very well. For your sake, I hope you are correct about that. I will tell him to expect you this afternoon."

And with that, Orochi turned, hurried down the stairs, and left, pulling the door shut behind him a little too loudly. Zelos watched it a moment to make sure Orochi wasn't going to come barging back in, suddenly glad they'd decided against that joint shower earlier, because as bad as this run-in had been, being caught like that would have been far worse, but when he heard Sheena release a shaky breath and saw her face fall, he quickly walked over to her and slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her against him. Time to lighten the mood a bit. "Well, that went well," he joked, quirking an awkward smile at her.

She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, but then she opened them again and shook her head, her face softening as she looked up at him. "I'm really sorry about that, Zelos. I knew he wouldn't be happy about this, not when he's convinced himself that you hurt me, but I wasn't expecting it to be that bad."

"Hey, don't worry about it," he quickly replied, giving her a pointed look. "It's not your fault. We knew we'd have to deal with reality eventually - and the reality is that he's been threatening to kill me if I ever 'hurt' you nearly as long as we've been dating. But to be honest, the fact that I am still alive means that actually went better than it could have. So let's just take advantage of the fact that he left me in one piece to do what we need to do before we face the music in Mizuho. We've done nothing wrong, and he'll just have to accept that."

She sighed, her brows furrowing further. "I know, but..."

Zelos cut her off with a quick kiss. "We'll get through this, sweetheart. I promise. Remember, your grandfather is on our side."

Releasing another soft sigh, Sheena lifted her hand to lightly trace his Cruxis crystal. "Of course, that's assuming he doesn't kill us for eloping," she murmured.

"Trust me, he won't," Zelos replied, grinning. "Killing the Foreign Minister or his wife - who also happens to be his own granddaughter and successor - wouldn't be in Mizuho's best interests." He took in her wet hair as she nodded, but then he smirked, released her, and motioned at the bathroom. "Now, I believe you were in the middle of a shower?"

Her blush quickly returned. "...Right." To his surprise and pleasure, though, instead of heading back into the bathroom, her brown eyes drifted downward, first to his lips, then to his chest, and then even lower before lifting back to his face, her lips quirking upward in a mischievous smile. "So now that we shouldn't have to worry about anyone from Mizuho interrupting us...is that earlier offer still open?"

Zelos's smirk broadened as his eyes mimicked the trail hers had just made over his body, lingering on the voluptuous curves that he'd now had the privilege, on multiple occasions, to admire and fondle as they deserved to be admired and fondled - and without being smacked for it, too! And judging from her tone, it looked like he would soon be adding another occasion to that list. "Well, I do still need a shower myself..." he replied, tapping his chin with pretend thoughtfulness, which made her grin broaden. Oh, yeah, he knew what she wanted: not just him, now that they could, but to get her mind off of Orochi for awhile. His smile faded, though, as he thought of something - because this time he wouldn't not think about this. "But what about that whole 'no kids yet' thing?"

Sheena, however, just arched an eyebrow at him, her smile growing even more seductive. "After last night and this morning, will it really make a difference?"

Zelos bit his lip, considering that, but there wasn't anything to consider. He was, after all, hopelessly addicted to his lollipop. His smirk quickly broadened into a full-fledged grin. "Probably not. And we don't know when we'll get another chance like this, so..."

He slowly advanced on her, and Sheena's grin broadened as she backed into the bathroom door. The instant he was close enough, she grabbed his shirt, pulled him to her, kissed him hard, and then, with a low, impossibly sexy and enticing, "Get in here," dragged him inside with her, locking the door behind them.

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 9: The To-Do List

The morning passed quickly. After the shower (which Sheena had to admit probably did take too long, not that she cared since it was just...wow) and a quick breakfast, Sebastian worked on getting the pictures developed while she and Zelos headed to the castle to announce their 'engagement.' Naturally, the king congratulated them and insisted on hosting the wedding and throwing them a party worthy of the last Chosen of Tethe'alla, to which they both just smiled and nodded, because what the king wanted in matters like these, it was best to just give him. Despite their best efforts to leave quickly, it had still taken awhile because he'd immediately begun detailing all the lovely plans he had for them and all the lovely people he would invite to the wedding, giving Sheena the impression he was far more excited about the party itself than he was that they were getting married. By the time they'd returned to Zelos' mansion so he could pack up a few things, the pictures were developed (all of which had turned out beautifully - thankfully, Colette had done an excellent job taking them, and once Grandpa saw them, Sheena had every intention of framing a number of them). And with those tasks completed, they'd left Meltokio and headed toward Sybak to tackle the next item on their to-do list.

By the time they reached Sybak, it was already noon, and Zelos suggested they grab some lunch before visiting his sister. While Sheena wanted to get that conversation over with - well, she didn't want to deal with Seles at all, but since they had to, she just wanted it done - she was getting hungry by that point, and so she'd agreed. Zelos had been in an extremely good mood the entire morning, constantly smiling and either staring off at nothing, clearly daydreaming, or casting knowing, happy glances at her that told her exactly what he was daydreaming about. (Not, of course, that Sheena could fault when she was just as guilty of doing that as he was. After all, last night and this morning really had been incredible, and how could she blame the 'kid' for having enjoyed his 'lollipop' when the 'lollipop' had enjoyed the 'kid' just as much?) The closer they'd gotten to Sybak, though, the quieter he'd become and the more his mood had darkened. She knew he would never admit it, but he was worried about telling his sister this. But he'd also been the one who suggested they do this, and his reasoning for wanting to do so now, before the rumors started spreading, was sound, and so she refused to suggest they wait until another day.

So they'd grabbed lunch at the cafeteria and had a quick, impromptu picnic beneath 'their' tree, which had picked up his mood a bit (especially as he'd watched her enjoy a peach, an obsession of his that she still found to be embarrassing), but then no further legitimate procrastination methods remained and they'd finally headed to the large, fancy house Zelos was renting for Seles while she was studying there. Upon reaching the door, though, Zelos stopped and just stared at it. Sheena watched him a moment, letting him gather his nerves, but when the moment turned into a minute, she touched his arm, reminding him she was there with him.

Thankfully, that broke the spell that had settled over him, and he finally looked at her, giving her an awkward smile. "Have I mentioned yet how much I'm dreading this?"

Sheena squeezed his arm. "I'm not looking forward to it either." Which was an understatement - she was dreading it, too, albeit probably not as much as he was - but since she was trying to encourage him, she would resist expressing the depths of that sentiment. "But you were right before. It's better if she hears this from us. We both know how drastically gossip of this magnitude could mutate before it reaches her."

Zelos sighed but nodded. "I know, I know. So just suck it up and get this over with, right?" She smiled faintly and nodded, and after a moment, he quirked a grin. "Y'know, I think I liked yesterday better. It was far less stressful than today's turning out to be."

She chuckled. "Yeah, well, something tells me yesterday will be hard to top, ever."

"Probably. But like you said, that doesn't mean we can't try." She smiled shyly as he nudged her arm with his, but then he sighed again and turned back to the door. "Ah, well. Let the roller coaster ride continue, eh?" Taking a deep breath, he lifted his hand to knock on the door...and it was only then, as a glint of silver caught in the sunlight, that Sheena realized something. Zelos had taken off his gloves while they'd eaten lunch...and had then opted to leave them off because it was such a warm, beautiful summer day. She quickly grabbed his arm before he could knock, eliciting a puzzled look from him. "What is it, sweetheart?"

She motioned at his left hand. "Your ring. I don't think you want your sister noticing that."

His face fell as he looked down at the indicated ring. "Oh...right. Yeah, that would be a problem, wouldn't it?" With a disappointed frown, he pulled off the ring, then retrieved one of the chains he'd bought yesterday from his bag, looped the ring through it, and fastened it around his neck, hiding it beneath his shirt. "And here I was just starting to get used to wearing it. I really wish I didn't have to do that."

So did she. She loved how it looked on him, what it symbolized, and the simple fact that he was wearing something she'd given him. In fact, seeing his hand without it now looked wrong. But they couldn't risk straining relations between Meltokio and Mizuho by letting anyone else see it. As it was, they were lucky Orochi hadn't noticed it this morning. Hopefully no one had seen it while they'd eaten lunch, either.

"I'm not happy about it either," Sheena replied. "But you should only have to do that for a few months." She offered him a faint smile as she reached up to run her fingers over the chain where it was visible around his neck. "Besides, I know even if it isn't on your finger, you'll always have it with you. And right now, that's good enough for me."

He smiled softly, then grasped her left hand and lifted it to his lips, kissing her ring. "At least you can wear yours without eliciting any suspicions."

"Yeah, I can," she murmured, her gaze drifting back down to her beautiful iris ring. She'd been hoping to explain its significance to him last night, how incredible it was and how much it meant to her, but they'd gotten...distracted...before she could. As soon as the opportunity arose, though, she would do so, and then hopefully that knowledge would satisfy them both and keep them patient until he could wear his freely. After all, the main part was already taken care of: they were married and could prove it. His ring was just the final piece, one that would signify their patience had paid off and that everyone else finally knew what they already did.

As if reading her mind, Zelos dipped his head down to give her a quick kiss. "Man, am I glad we decided not to wait to get married."

Blushing, Sheena returned his smile. "Me, too. But since only a few people know that..."

"Yeah, I know." His smile faded and he breathed in deeply, then he released her hand and turned back to the door. "Anyway, let's do this. Waiting won't make it any easier." He bit his lip, observed the door another moment, and then finally rapped on it a few times. They stood silently, waiting, and a minute later it opened, revealing Tokunaga on the other side.

"Ah, Lord Zelos, Miss Sheena," the butler said, bowing to them. "I presume you are here to see Lady Seles?"

"Sure are," Zelos replied, beaming him an overly cheerful - and definitely fake - smile. "Is the little bundle of joy here today?"

Tokunaga bowed his head again. "Yes, she is. Please, come inside. I will announce your presence immediately."

Sheena breathed in deeply and looked around as they followed him inside, setting their bags on the floor near the door. Zelos really had found a nice place for his sister - not as big or showy as his mansion, but it was still nice. In her estimation, though, the interior seemed considerably...colder...than his. Seles had done a bit of decorating during the six months she'd been here, but it was still sparse, leaving the house feeling big but, well, empty. Sure, it was lovely, but Sheena would take her own small but warm home, or even Zelos's welcoming mansion, over a grand but empty house like this any day. And the thing was, considering Seles's health problems, she was surprised Tokunaga hadn't tried to make it more cozy and comfortable for her to live in. Maybe she was lacking the money to properly decorate it? Or maybe she didn't care because she knew it was only temporary? Or maybe she'd been hoping Zelos would take the initiative and help her do so, which he obviously never had, probably because he didn't spend any more time with her than he had to? Sheena wasn't sure, but whatever the case, she had never felt comfortable here, and today was no exception.

Her discomfort became even more pronounced when, a minute later, a door along the back wall opened and Seles stepped into the living room, her face brightening as she saw Zelos. "Big broth-" In the blink of an eye, her building smile transformed into a scowl as her gaze fell on Sheena. "Oh. You brought her. Again."

Well, excuse me for setting foot inside your precious domain, Sheena's mind retorted, but she bit her tongue and instead offered the girl a tight smile, reminding herself that she'd promised Zelos she would try to work things out with her. "Good to see you too, little sister," he said, giving her a wry grin.

Seles glared at Sheena a moment before looking back at him. "What are you doing here?" she asked curtly.

Zelos blinked at her innocently. "What, I can't just drop by to say 'hi'?"

"You don't drop by just to say 'hi,'" Seles stated, her scowl deepening as she folded her arms to her chest. "You wouldn't have come here, especially with her, unless you had a reason for it."

"So much for pleasantries," Zelos muttered to Sheena before giving Seles another wry smile. "Okay, fine, so you're right. I do have a reason for being here."

"Go on," Seles said, tapping her foot on the ground impatiently.

Zelos glanced uncertainly at Sheena, but she just smiled and nodded, telling him to get the truth out there so it was said and they could leave before the building tension and negativity in this room wrung all happiness out of them both. He took another deep breath, then turned back to Seles. "Well, I guess I kinda figured you'd rather hear it directly from me that Sheena and I are getting married. Y'know, so you don't hear it first from rumors and then get pissed at me for not telling you about it myself."

For the briefest of instants, Seles's eyes widened in surprise - whatever she'd been expecting him to say, it clearly hadn't been that - but then they quickly turned back to Sheena and her scowl deepened into something bordering on seething disgust. Despite being the recipient of a glare that could shatter ice, though, Sheena just offered her a faint smile and waited, even as her heart sank at the confirmation that Seles was definitely not happy about this. This certainly wasn't the first glare she'd had leveled at her, though, and since Sheena had had years of practice holding her ground, she would do so again now.

Or at least that was her plan until Seles huffed and, still giving Sheena a scathing look, spat out, "So, got your whore pregnant, huh?"

Sheena flinched, feeling as if she'd just been slapped. For a moment she just gaped at Seles, stunned, unable to believe Seles had just said what she thought she'd said, but it quickly became apparent from the unnatural silence that fell on the room that she hadn't misheard her, and all her shock and disbelief quickly transformed into fury. In fact, the only thing that held her back from caving to instinct, walking over to Seles, and punching her in the face was Zelos's even more alarming response. He immediately stiffened, staring at his sister as if she was being eaten alive by a zombie, but an instant later his face grew just as icy - and as dangerous - as hers. "Tell me you did not just call Sheena what my ears are insisting you did," he demanded with frightening calmness.

Seles's cold gaze snapped back to him. "Yes, I did."

Zelos blinked again, but then his eyes narrowed angrily, his jaw locked into place, and he folded his arms tightly to his chest. "Apologize to her. Now."

Seles, however, just lifted her head and fixed him with a defiant stare. "No. There's no reason to apologize for something that's true."

For a moment, all Sheena could do was blink at Seles, once again tempted to walk over to her and beat some sense into her, but then she looked back at Zelos...and in the blink of an eye, all of her anger vanished. He was absolutely furious; Sheena could see it in the growing redness on his face and in how dark and deadly his blue eyes were becoming. And, worse, she could already see where this was heading: unless this situation was diffused, immediately, this would be the straw that finally broke the camel's back and his relationship with his sister would be forevermore shattered. And that was something Sheena simply couldn't have, not over her. She had to stop this before it could reach that point.

And so she did the only thing she could: she grabbed his arm, her sense of urgency quickly rising, needing to distract him before he could explode. "Zelos, it's okay."

Instead of looking at her, though, he shook his head, still glaring furiously at Seles - who, in turn, kept glaring right back at him. "No, Sheena, it's not," he said, his voice terse and dangerous. "No one has the right to speak to you like that, and especially not my own sister. I thought she was raised better than that, to be polite and respectful to people,even someone she doesn't like."

"This coming from the man who was raised so well that he goes around throwing his body at every whore he meets," Seles spat right back at him.

Sheena squeezed his arm to stop him as his blue eyes flared and he took a threatening step forward, jumping from furious to outright livid. This was the New Year's Genis incident all over again, only far worse because it was his sister who was leveling that accusation at them - and because, unlike Genis, Seles had chosen to insult Sheena as nastily as she could. Seles may have used some harsh, derogatory terms to describe her in the past, but it had never been like this, and especially not within Zelos's earshot. Pushing aside her own anger - because right now he was angry enough for them both - Sheena instead focused on trying to calm him down. It took a lot to make Zelos this mad, and Sheena was terrified of what he would do, because when he was truly mad, he was irrational and unpredictable. In fact, this cold house could easily turn into a fiery inferno if the upcoming explosion wasn't stopped, now.

"Hey, calm down," she instructed, adopting her best 'listen-to-me' voice. "Let me talk to her alone for a few minutes."

Seles turned disgust-filled eyes toward her. "I have nothing to say to the likes of you."

Sheena gave her a cold grin, once again forcing herself to stay calm rather than letting her anger consume her. "Well, like it or not, Seles, I have something to say to you."

"No," Zelos said. "I'm sorry, Sheena, but I'm not leaving you alone with her."

She squeezed his arm tighter and leaned closer to him, lowering her voice. How ironic that he was usually the one trying to calm her down, and yet now their positions had been reversed. The problem was that she'd never figured out how he managed to calm her down so effortlessly, and so she had no idea how to do the same for him now. One thing was sure, though: she'd be damned if she didn't try. "I can take care of myself, Zelos. And it's not like I haven't been called worse by your hunnies." Which might not actually be true, but at least it did get him to look at her again...oh, yeah, that was dangerous, frightening, deadly fire smoldering in his eyes. She hadn't even realized he, the one who was always so calm and level-headed, was capable of anger this deep. She wouldn't be able to calm him down this time, and that meant she had to get him to leave so he could calm himself down before his fuse blew completely and he did something he regretted for the rest of his life. "Please, Zelos. Just give us a few minutes alone. That's all I need."

The standoff continued another moment as Zelos watched her, considering that, but suddenly Tokunaga, bless his heart, cleared his throat and motioned at the kitchen door. "Lord Zelos, I truly apologize for asking something so menial of someone of your status, but I pulled a muscle in my arm last week. If you would be so kind as to assist me in moving a particularly troublesome piece of furniture in the kitchen, I would greatly appreciate it."

Sheena gave Tokunaga an appreciative smile, then looked back at Zelos, needing him to take the 'out.' "Go ahead," she said. "I'll talk to Seles."

Zelos watched Tokunaga a long moment, but finally he turned to Sheena and eyed her carefully. "Are you sure?"

"Please." She squeezed his arm, holding his gaze while he silently debated that, but finally he nodded unhappily and headed into the kitchen, followed closely by Tokunaga, refusing to even glance at his sister on his way.

Seles watched him go, her face still icy, but once the door had closed behind them, she turned spite-filled blue eyes back to Sheena. "I meant what I said. I don't want to talk to you, you...you witch!"

Sheena closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, forcing herself to count to five. She knew what she had to say; she'd figured this out yesterday when she'd seen Zelos's eyes darken and his entire demeanor fall upon mentioning how hesitant he was to invite Seles to their wedding. Now she just needed to stay calm so she could say it instead of blowing a fuse of her own and wrecking all hope for a peaceful future with Seles. She'd promised Zelos she would try to fix things with her, and for his sake, she would fix things with her, no matter how rocky, unpromising, and infuriatingly frustrating of a start this might be.

"Then don't talk; just listen," she said once she was certain she'd regained control of her emotions, opening her eyes and looking back at the girl. "Look, Seles, it's no secret we've never gotten along. I don't know what I did to make you hate me so much, why you hated me before you even knew me, or why you stalked me and attacked me that one time before Zelos and I even started dating. And for what it's worth, whatever I did to you, I'm sorry about it. Without knowing what it was that pissed you off, though, I don't know how to change how you feel about me. Every time I try, I get nowhere, and I know Zelos hasn't had any more luck with it than I have. So y'know what? I'm giving up. If you want to go on hating me, calling me names, and mocking me, fine. Go ahead. I don't care what you think of me anymore. But whatever you want to do to me, don't do it in front of your brother. Wait until we're alone." She shook her head and took a step closer to Seles, her face softening. "You have no idea how much it hurts him when you treat me like that, do you?"

Seles huffed and rolled her eyes. "Like you have any idea what hurts him."

Needing Seles to understand this, Sheena took a step closer to her and grasped her arm. "Yes, Seles, I do. What I don't get is why you don't."

Without warning, Seles shook off Sheena's hand and fixed her with another furious glare - but surprisingly, Sheena noted, there was something else in her eyes that she hadn't expect to see: desperation and fear. "Don't touch me, you filthy witch!" she shouted angrily. "You're all the same, all of you! My brother has always been weak around women, and all you whores want is to use that weakness to manipulate him, seduce him, and then force him to marry you once you're pregnant so you can get all of his money for yourself, because you know you can! So don't you dare tell me you care whether or not he's hurt! All you care about is his money!"

Sheena quickly retracted her hand, unable to do anything but gape at Seles for a moment. No, she couldn't be saying what Sheena thought she was saying - couldn't be. "Is that...? Is that really what you think I'm doing? Seducing him to get pregnant so I can get at his money?"

Seles's eyes narrowed. "It's true, isn't it? I've heard the stories; I know about the women he's gotten pregnant and then cast aside when they tried to get him to take responsibility for his actions!"

Sheena's jaw dropped. Oh, great Jizou. She couldn't believe this. It couldn't be...could it? But Seles's words were too specific, and the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. She took a tentative step forward. "Seles, what have you heard about him?"

"Oh, don't try to tell me you never heard the stories," Seles muttered, rolling her eyes.

"Of course I have," Sheena quickly replied. "I'm a ninja who lives for gathering information; I've heard plenty of stories about him. But what exactly have you heard that makes you think the only reason he's marrying me is because I'm pregnant?"

Seles eyed her warily another moment, but then she huffed, folded her arms to her chest, and turned away from her. "I know all about that one girl he got pregnant. He sent her away to an isolated village somewhere so he didn't have to deal with her or take responsibility for the child, and she died there, and he never even went to see her."

Sheena was stunned. That was what she'd been afraid Seles was talking about. Did Zelos know she knew about that? And, more importantly... "Seles, where did you hear that?"

"Does it really matter?" Seles muttered.

"Yes, it does."

"I fail to see how it's relevant," Seles said, lifting her head defiantly.

Sheena breathed in deeply as impatience and frustration once again threatened to overwhelm her. Remember, you're doing this for Zelos's sake. "Just...answer the question." And then, remembering her manners, she added, "Please."

Seles turned around and glared at her again, but then she pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. "At the abbey several years ago. I overheard that girl's ex-boyfriend telling the priest how she'd dumped him to go chasing after the Chosen and how she'd then suddenly vanished shortly after the Chosen impregnated her. By the time her boyfriend found her in that village, she was already dead. The priest said the Chosen caused trouble like that everywhere he went, especially when it came to women."

Oh, Jizou. Oh...Jizou. Zelos didn't have a clue Seles had overheard that story. Sheena gaped at her. "And you...you never asked Zelos about it?"

"Why should I?" Seles snapped. "He would just lie about it or boast about his conquests again and about how much women adore him."

"You really...?" Oh, Jizou, Seles truly believed that. Sheena closed her eyes and let out an incredulous laugh. So much suddenly made sense - like Seles's sudden coldness and disapproval toward Zelos when he'd announced he was 'seriously dating' someone and her intense, unyielding distrust and hatred for Sheena this past year if she'd deemed her to be another one of his manipulative, money-grubbing, attention-seeking 'whore' hunnies. And all because Seles had overheard false gossip about her brother from the bitter ex-boyfriend of one of Zelos's most regretted female encounters. Sheena opened her eyes and shook her head, once again forcing herself to remain calm. This whole situation might be Seles's fault for accepting that story as true instead of asking Zelos about it, but Sheena could understand why she'd jumped to that conclusion. Heck, she probably would've believed it herself if she'd heard the story from anyone other than Zelos himself. "You know it isn't true, don't you? That baby wasn't his."

Seles snorted and rolled her eyes - but Sheena was sure she saw a hint of uncertainty there, too. "Yeah, like you would know that."

Sheena took another step closer to her. "Yes, actually, I would, because Zelos told me it wasn't true."

"And you believed him," Seles mumbled, eyeing her in disgust. "Of course you did."

Taking another deep breath, Sheena had to fight back the urge to tell Seles what had really happened to Shirley. As much as she wanted to, she couldn't do that. She couldn't. That was Zelos's story to share, not hers, and he would never trust her again if she suddenly started telling others about it, even if she was only doing so with the best of intentions. No, if Seles was going to hear the truth about that story, it had to come from him. Before Zelos even could tell her, though, Seles had to be receptive to the truth or she'd never take him seriously when and if he did. And to that end, Sheena had to tell her something to try to clean up this mess. On the bright side, she didn't think Zelos wouldn't be too upset if she told Seles the basics of what had happened. After all, it wasn't like she was volunteering this information out of the blue to a random stranger; she was simply addressing an issue that his sister had already brought up. Whether it did any good or not, she didn't know, but it was at least worth a shot.

She gave Seles a pointed look. "He never slept with that girl, you know. She got pregnant with some other guy - maybe her ex-boyfriend, maybe someone else - and tried to blackmail Zelos into marrying her and raising her child because she knew he had money. And he didn't cast her aside to die; the Church did for fear she and her illegitimate child would only cause him trouble later on. Zelos didn't even know they'd done that to her until after she'd died."

Seles's eyes narrowed. "Is that what he told you? Typical. Him and his lies..."

"He wasn't lying, Seles," Sheena cut her off. "Not about that. You weren't there; you didn't see the pain on his face or hear the hurt in his voice when he talked about her. Whatever happened with her scarred him badly - so badly that he had trouble ever trusting women again. In fact, what happened with her was the whole reason why he didn't sleep with every woman he met after that, for fear something like that would happen again, to him and to the woman."

"I don't believe you," Seles said, refusing to look at her - but her voice, Sheena noted, was a bit softer than it had been a minute ago. "He's a liar, and you fell for it."

Sheena sighed in growing exasperation. Every now and then Seles's body language seemed to indicate she wasn't as certain about this as her words seemed to imply she was, that she was maybe even hopeful her impression about her brother was wrong, but she just refused to acknowledge any doubts she might have. But what could Sheena say to get her to embrace that doubt? She'd never been good at conversations like this, usually because her frustration quickly got the better of her and she became overly defensive...which was exactly what she could feel happening now.

"Why would he lie about that?" she asked, her voice rising. "I'd never even heard that story about him before he told me; the Church did an extremely good job of covering it up. So tell me, why would he volunteer it to me when he didn't have to? I didn't ask him about that incident; he offered it. What could he have benefited from doing that? Nothing. By telling me what he did, he lost a whole lot more than he gained. And honestly, I'd take his word over some jilted ex-boyfriend's any day." That time Seles didn't answer at all, something Sheena wasn't sure how to interpret. Did it mean she'd deemed herself above responding? Or did it mean she was considering that, wanting to believe it was true? Whatever the case, Sheena lowered her voice again, needing to impress this on her. "He wasn't lying, Seles, not about that. Believe me, I've heard more than enough of his lies to know when he's lying about something. I'd have known if he was - and I promise you, he wasn't." Seles huffed and looked away again but otherwise didn't respond. Sheena watched her a moment, hoping for any sign that indicated she was reconsidering her stance, but when she didn't see any, she sighed and shook her head, her heart sinking further. "You don't know the first thing about him, do you? You've bought the act just as much as everyone else has."

Seles's eyes snapped back to her. "What are you talking about? What act?"

That indirect confirmation left Sheena feeling not so much smug at having pegged it, but sad and empty, because yet again Zelos was suffering because of that damn act the Church had forced on him...the same one he was still too scared to fully let go of with anyone but her. Oh, how she wished she could solve that problem for him. She was working on it, but it would take time, not just with Lloyd, but apparently with his sister, too - someone who should know him better but obviously didn't. And unfortunately, Lloyd had been far more receptive to Sheena's hints that there was more to Zelos than Seles appeared to be.

She sighed again. "I'm sorry, Seles, but it isn't my place to explain that to you."

Anger, maybe even a touch of desperation, flared on the girl's face. "What act?"

No. No matter how much Sheena wanted to tell her, she couldn't. It should be Zelos's decision whether or not to explain that to her. He was the one who'd spent most of his life pushing Seles - and everyone else he knew - away from the 'real him,' after all, and if he really wanted to fix things with those people he cared about most, then he had to start letting down those walls and allowing others to see inside. Besides, even if Sheena did tell her the truth, Seles would never believe her based simply on the fact that she viewed Sheena to be an 'evil witch' who was scheming to seduce him into marrying her. And that left only one thing Sheena could tell her now.

"If you really want to know, then you need to ask him that yourself. I could tell you that everything you've heard about him is wrong, that he hasn't slept with every woman in Tethe'alla and isn't the immature, irresponsible, lazy, troublemaking playboy everyone believes him to be, but you won't believe me no matter what I say. That's why you need to ask him. At least if you hear it directly from him, you might actually believe it."

Seles shook her head and looked away - and Sheena's eyes widened in surprise as Seles's lip suddenly quivered just before she bit it, giving Sheena the impression that she wasn't so much angry anymore as she was upset. It was obvious she was trying to hide her emotions behind a mask of anger, disgust, and indifference, but the longer she hesitated to respond, the more convinced Sheena was becoming that her impression was right. "Even if I did ask him, he wouldn't tell me," Seles finally said, her voice lowering. "He doesn't deem me worth talking to about anything important like that."

And just like that, empathy washed over her, erasing all remaining anger. Zelos had hidden his real self from his sister, too - but unlike most people, at least Seles recognized that fact...and his rejection of her hurt. It was a feeling Sheena knew well. She'd spent years nursing her pain after Zelos had suddenly, inexplicably pushed her away from him, and it hadn't stopped until the day he'd told her he loved her. Seles obviously cared about him deeply and was extremely protective of him, but Zelos still hadn't seen that protectiveness for the love it was and reciprocated by telling her his true feelings. It hurt, and it was frustrating, and it probably made Seles want to punch him - because that was how Sheena had felt. And even then, it was a fluke, an act of fate, that their relationship had changed so drastically that night at the king's regeneration party. She wished she could set up a similar situation for these two, where Zelos's walls were knocked down and Seles could see that and respond to it, because it was sad and frustrating that things were this way between them when they didn't have to be, but ultimately she suspected that, too, would require an act of fate to attain.

Well, it might be entirely up to fate, but there was something Sheena could tell her now that might make her more receptive if fate should one day hand them such a situation. "You want to know why Zelos doesn't talk to you about things like that?" she said, careful to keep her voice soft. "It's because he's extremely guarded with his emotions. Extremely. He's been hiding behind the Chosen One mask for so long that seeing the 'real Zelos' through it and getting the truth out of him is nearly impossible unless you truly want to. And good luck doing that if you don't have his trust. Trust me, even his best friends haven't figured it out yet, that what you see with him isn't really who he is." She released a low sigh, suddenly feeling exhausted. It seemed like all she'd been doing lately was trying to convince people to give Zelos an honest-to-goodness chance. "I suppose it isn't surprising he's done the same thing to you that he's done to everyone else."

Seles's eyes narrowed, but Sheena was certain she could see a flicker of hope in them again. "And I suppose you think you have seen the 'real him.'"

"Yeah, I have," Sheena replied with a curt nod. "But it took a lot of work on my part to reach the point where he trusted me enough to let me in. I will tell you this, though: he was worth the effort. If you really do care about him, Seles, ask him about those rumors; don't just take my word for it that they aren't true. Get to know him and don't just dismiss everything he says as a lie, because even when he's lying or trying to divert your attention elsewhere, there's always truth beneath it. Don't see him just as the Zelos you think you know, the Zelos he wants you to see; see him for who he really is. It'll take a long time, and you'll probably fail more often than you succeed, but if you keep trying, I think you'll be surprised what you find."

Folding her arms to her chest, Seles looked away and released a soft, disbelieving, "Hmpf" - but she didn't counter that, either, and, even more telling, her face softened further. Choosing to take that as a positive sign, Sheena pushed onward. "So to answer your questions, no, I'm not pregnant, so that's not why he's marrying me, and to be honest, I couldn't care less about his money. If that was all I was after from him, then why would he be moving to Mizuho with me? Wouldn't I be moving into his mansion to live a life of luxury in Meltokio?" Instantly, Seles's eyes widened and snapped to her. Ha, gotcha, Sheena thought smugly. You weren't expecting that, were you? But as clear as that particular message was, Sheena still wanted Seles to hear these words directly from her. "I'm marrying your brother because I love him, because I want to make him happy, and because I want to spend the rest of my life with him, and he's marrying me because he loves me, because he wants to make me happy, and because wants to spend the rest of his life with me, too. I won't call off this engagement no matter what you say or do. So if you never accept me, fine. It is what it is. Just please, please, don't let him see it anymore, because I know it kills him that we don't get along, and I love that man far too much to see him hurting and not try to prevent it."

Seles watched her a moment, her blue eyes - so similar to Zelos's, and yet so much colder and sadder than his - still wary, but suddenly she looked away again, her arms tightening around her chest. "You're wrong. Nothing hurts him. He doesn't care about anyone or anything."

The hurt in Seles's voice took her aback. Seles didn't really believe that, did she? Or did she? Was that what she thought she'd seen from him all this time, that he didn't care about her? Sheena's heart fell. Oh, Zelos. You're always so determined to act 'cool' and 'tough' around others...do you realize what that's done to those people who care about you? Why do you need to do that? Why can't you just tell people how you really feel, what's really going on in your head, why you make the choices you do? Why can't you just be you? And again, Sheena was reminded of how lucky she was that he had trusted her enough to let her see so much of his inherent beauty and goodness. It was a gift from fate that she would never take for granted. She just wished she could share what she'd seen with those people, like Seles, who needed it most.

Sheena sighed wearily. "Yes, he does. He hurts. He cares. Very, very deeply. Especially about you. He would do anything to make you happy and keep you safe...he nearly gave up everything for you once because he thought it would make you happy and keep you safe. I've seen it, even if you haven't. He's just too scared to let you see it for fear you won't accept him for who he is." Seles didn't respond to that, but her gaze did finally return to Sheena, her face softening a bit further. Oh, how Sheena hoped that was a good sign. "He's a good man. If you truly give him a chance, I know you'll find that to be the case, too."

For a moment, Seles just observed her again, her glare thankfully not as cold or disgusted as it had been a few minutes ago, tempered instead by something Sheena still thought looked an awful lot like hope. Finally, she uttered another, "Hmpf," and lifted her head. "You really care about him?"

Sheena was disappointed Seles still hadn't answered that question for herself, but she supposed she couldn't expect a miracle, either. "Yes, I do. I love him. And not for the shallow reasons his hunnies always did; I actually love him."

Even more spitefulness seeped out of Seles' face as she considered that, but then she nodded curtly. "Fine, I'll talk to him, but I don't expect to find what you're saying."

Oh, thank Jizou. That was all she wanted - for Seles to make that effort to connect with him. "Just give him an honest chance, Seles. You may not get anywhere with him now, or maybe even the next time you see him, but if you keep at it, eventually you will. He wants to trust you; I know he does. It's just extremely hard for him to do so, especially when it comes to telling you the truth about issues like these."

Seles frowned, but a moment later she sighed and lifted her head in what Sheena thought looked like feigned haughtiness. "I still don't like you, you know, and I still don't want you marrying him."

"I know," Sheena replied. Because she did know; she truly hadn't been trying to change Seles's mind about that. "And honestly, that's okay. I'm used to people not liking me. As far as I'm concerned, you can like or dislike whoever you want. Just don't expect me not to marry your brother, because that's not an option. I love him far too much to walk away from him."

"Fine," Seles grumbled - but when she spoke again a few seconds later, her voice had lowered to a surprisingly soft whisper. "But if it really does hurt him when I'm honest about what I think about you, I'll try not to let him see it anymore."

And again, thank Jizou. The thought of Seles detesting her and just hiding her feelings behind a mask of cheerful acceptance still made Sheena feel empty, but at least Zelos hopefully wouldn't be exposed to it every time they were together anymore. He was sharp enough that he'd probably catch on to it anyway, but at least it was a start. "Thank you, Seles."

Instead of replying, though, Seles abruptly turned and headed toward the kitchen. "I'm going to talk to him. Don't bother us."

"I won't. Tell him I'll be outside." Sheena waited until the kitchen door had closed behind Seles, then she closed her eyes and sighed. She had played her part by giving Zelos the opportunity to win his sister over; now the rest was up to him. Taking one last deep breath, Sheena opened her eyes, headed toward the front door, grabbed their bags, and quietly slipped outside to wait, praying Seles really would give Zelos the chance he needed to prove he wasn't the man she'd always thought he was - and that if she did, he took advantage of it to do what he should have done years ago by finally being honest with her.

0~*~0

Agh! That woman was, without a doubt, the most impossible, infuriating, bratty, barb-tongued, stubborn person Zelos had ever had the misfortune of knowing, all wrapped up in a cute little package of innocence that lulled all who met her into a false sense of security only to be smacked with the reality the second she opened her mouth. If she weren't his sister, he would disown her for this. But she was his sister, and despite the fact that he couldn't stand her far more often than he could, he couldn't disown her entirely, either, because if he did, all he'd do was worry about her and wish he knew if she was safe. And that, too, infuriated him, that the one person he had left in his immediate family was her, and yet she couldn't stand him and he could never do anything right in her eyes, no matter how hard he tried to give her what she wanted. And he was stuck with her. Nothing would ever change the fact that she was his little sister. He knew she'd had an extremely difficult, lonely childhood and that he'd never been the best brother to her, but still, shouldn't she at least try to be a pleasant human being once in a while? He loved her - really, he did - but she was just so...so...agh!

And that question everyone kept asking him...that was the worst. First Genis at New Year's, and then Lloyd yesterday (although in Lloyd's defense, he really had seemed to be just joking about that), and now his own sister. He was so damn sick of it. It hit every remaining insecurity he had over that awful Shirley incident and made him feel like a complete and utter failure who could only score a wife if he accidentally - or, worse, intentionally - got a woman pregnant, thus forcing her to marry him. No one had any faith in him, did they? Except Sheena, thank Martel. He didn't want to think where he'd be right now if not for her - probably depressed out of his mind and lonely and overindulging in everything he shouldn't, like gambling and seducing women and drinking in an attempt to drown out the pain.

And now he was stuck here, sitting at the kitchen table with Tokunaga blocking the doorway, while the love of his life was in the next room, dealing with his psychotic monster of a sister, and he had no idea what they were saying or if they were even still alive since this wall was nearly soundproof. At one point he'd heard Seles shouting and had tried to rush in there, but before he could even stand, Tokunaga had pushed him back into his seat (which that bastard servant had been able to do because his arm was perfectly fine - and, even more infuriating, the only piece of furniture he'd made Zelos move was a not-heavy cabinet two inches from its original location, into a spot that actually looked worse than its original location, thus confirming Zelos's hunch that that had been a pitiful excuse to get him out of the living room while the women talked). It had pissed him off, but Tokunaga had insisted he let them work out their issues, and so unless he wanted to kill the butler to get him to move, which he didn't, all he could do was wait.

But that just left him worrying about Sheena, angry at Seles and Tokunaga, regretting his decision to tell Seles this supposed-to-be-happy news in person, and basically just wanting to grab Sheena and get the hell out of here so they could start settling into their new life in Mizuho. But no, he couldn't, because Seles had the world's most inexplicable, unnatural, unshakable, vitriolic hatred for his wife and was undoubtedly giving her what she thought was a piece of her mind but that was really just another way for her to express her puerile insistence that everything in the whole damn world bow to her desires and be the way she thought it should be. It made no sense to him. Why did she hate Sheena so much that she, someone raised to be a perfect little lady, stooped to using such vulgar language while insulting her? Why, why, why? Why couldn't she at least try to see in Sheena what he did? Why did-

"So you really didn't get her pregnant?"

His fingers, which had been tapping an angry rhythm on the table, froze as the cause of all of his frustrations suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway and Tokunaga, freed of guard duty, hastily retreated into the adjacent room. And there again, naturally, was that damn question that made him want to punch a hole in the wall. But he refused to let her see how much it bothered him, either, because that would just lead to even more questions he didn't want to answer.

Therefore, instead of acknowledging it, Zelos pretended not to hear it. "Where is Sheena?"

"She went outside."

Of her own free will? Or because you chased her out of there with a broom, screaming like a raving lunatic, my darling little sister? "What did you say to her?" he demanded.

"I told her the truth," Seles replied matter-of-factly. "Now answer the question."

Zelos released an exasperated sigh. Right, that whole, infuriating, 'Are you only marrying Sheena because you got her pregnant?' question. How could he forget that? "Seles, really, what kind of man do you think I am?"

Seles walked toward the table, folding her arms to her chest. "I don't know, big brother. Why don't you tell me what kind of man you are?"

Oh, Martel. The brat was goading him - and he doubted he had the willpower to resist rising to the bait. He bit his tongue and glared at her. He could not believe he had to spell this out for her, that she didn't know him well enough to answer the question herself. "No, my dear, sweet, little sister, Sheena isn't pregnant," he ground out through clenched teeth.

She nodded curtly. Well, go figure. She actually seems to accept that. "And what really happened to that girl you sent away after she claimed you'd gotten her pregnant?"

The only thing that could have stunned him more right then was if she'd slapped him across the face. For a moment, all Zelos could do was gape at her and utter a shocked, "What the...? Where the hell did you...?" but then he realized he was stammering and quickly shut his mouth, his eyes narrowing as he pointed sharply at her. "Okay, I know Sheena wouldn't have told you that, so you must've heard it somewhere else. Where?"

"Zelos, just answer the question!" Seles suddenly shouted, her face growing red. "Did you really get her pregnant and send her away like that?"

Zelos was flabbergasted. How the hell had she heard about that? When had she heard about that? And...oh, Martel, had she really believed it? She had, hadn't she? All this time, she'd thought...he couldn't believe this. "No!" he finally said, throwing his hands up in the air. "I never touched that girl! She just tried to blackmail me into taking care of her and raising her kid!" His eyes narrowed as he rose to his feet. "Seles, when did you hear about that?"

"A long time ago," she stated, looking up at him coldly.

...A long time ago?! This was incredible - and horrific. If that was true, then all this time she had...oh, Martel. Please, Seles, tell me isn't true. "You didn't...tell me you didn't really believe that about me!"

Seles huffed and looked away from him, folding her arms to her chest. "I never knew what to believe about you. The priests at the abbey were always saying what a troublemaker and a womanizer you were, how you flirted with every girl in Tethe'alla and let women of questionable repute seduce you into bed with them, and how you were always drunk and gambled away the family fortune in Altamira. That story seemed to fit their description."

Zelos continued gaping at her a moment, but then he huffed and closed his eyes. 'Gambled away the family fortune'? Yeah, that was a good one. He'd gone gambling in Altamira all of a dozen times, and every single time he'd left the casino 10,000 gald richer because he was just that good at math and knew how to win. Heck, mostly he'd done it not for the money, but because he was bored and wanted to impress the ladies! No, when he'd gone to Altamira all those winters, he'd spent nearly all of his time on the beach, or occasionally at the amusement park, people watching (well, hunny watching and having fun perfecting his flirting techniques and making women blush), not gambling away his fortune! Seriously, had she seen how much money their family still had? He could probably buy half of Tethe'alla with what had amassed there the past 1,000-plus years! And while he had to admit he'd spent more than a few nights at Altamira's bar, fine-tuning his playboy reputation by flirting with the bunny girls while drinking golden-colored club soda, he'd never walked away from there drunk. Any serious drinking he'd ever done had been when he was alone in his mansion. And yet Seles was now accusing him of acting like that?

"I can't believe you really..." He opened his eyes and motioned sharply at her. "Of all the people I've ever known, you were the last one I expected would believe those rumors! I thought you knew me better than that! I thought you trusted me!"

Her eyebrows flew upward, her lips pursed. "So you're saying those stories aren't true?"

Zelos turned away from her and rubbed roughly at his face, trying to curtail his frustration, but then he lowered his hand, shook his head, and stalked past her, heading toward the door, biting his tongue to keep from saying anything else. He couldn't believe she was questioning this. It was ridiculous. It was absurd. And he couldn't stomach any more of it. He didn't have to take this from anyone, especially not from his own sister. For the love of Martel, he just got married yesterday! All he wanted to do was get back to his wife and get away from this stupidity and find some way to recapture his lost happiness instead of dealing with a sister who had known him her entire life and yet still didn't know the first thing about him.

"Where are you going?" Seles called after him.

"I'm leaving," he stated. "This conversation is pointless. You've obviously made up your mind about me already and won't believe me no matter what I say."

"Try me," she retorted.

He'd just reached the door when he realized he had never gotten an answer from her, and so he whirled back around and pointed angrily at her again. He'd be worried about how red her face was except he really wasn't right now. "Tell me, Seles, what does any of this crap have to do with Sheena? Did you apologize to her for what you called her?"

"Zelos, for once in your life, just tell me the truth!"

He froze, feeling as if she'd just slammed a knife into his gut. Those...oh Martel, those couldn't be tears building in her eyes. They couldn't be. And since he'd never be able to handle this situation if he knew they were, he instead focused on what she'd just said. "You think I've been lying to you my entire life?" he whispered.

She pointed back at him angrily. "You've never been truly honest with me!"

Zelos gaped at her. Never been...honest...? All this time, she thought he'd been lying to her? But...but hadn't she...after that coliseum incident, hadn't she...hadn't she said she believed he'd always been truthful with her? She had said that; he was sure of it! That was the only thing that had gotten him through that fiasco, knowing she'd believed him when he'd told her she was important to him. Now it turned out she had lied to him - even though she was the one now accusing him of lying to her. And that realization hurt. It took every ounce of strength he possessed not to scream in frustration.

"Yes, Seles, I have," he said, his voice low, defeat threatening to consume him. "You're the only person I have been honest with my entire life. If there was ever something I didn't want you to know, I didn't lie to you about it; I just didn't tell you. You're the one who's chosen to see and believe only what you want to see and believe about me."

Aw, crap, that was a tear trickling down her cheek. Damn it, he couldn't deny that she was crying any longer, could he? And again, the urge to get out of there nearly overwhelmed him; running, in this case, would be better than the pain his presence was causing them both. "Why won't you talk to me, Zelos?" she pressed. "Why won't you just answer me?"

Zelos closed his eyes, folded his arms to his chest, and took a deep breath, then he opened them again, forcing his face to stay blank to hide his pain at feeling so betrayed. "You want me to answer your question? Fine. No, those stories aren't true. One or two of them, maybe, but certainly not all of them." He spun away from her and threw his hands up in the air before turning back to her. "Martel, Seles, if that was really bothering you so much, why didn't you ask me about it sooner? You really just believed it all, didn't you?"

Without warning, Seles advanced on him and poked a finger into his chest. "How could I ask you? You never came to see me to even let me ask you, not unless you needed something from me! I was just that stupid little sister you wanted nothing to do with!"

His eyes widened. "You're kidding me, right?" He let out an incredulous, nearly crazed, laugh and turned away from her again, shaking his head. "I can't believe this!"

But Seles quickly jumped in front of him and poked his chest again. "Don't walk away from me, Zelos! And don't try to tell me it's not true!"

This wasn't happening. They weren't having this conversation. She wasn't saying what he thought she was saying. He was just having a nightmare. Right? Right? When he didn't answer her, though, unable to express how shocked, horrified, and frustrated he was, Seles poked his chest again, forcing his attention back to her. She wanted the truth? Fine. He'd tell her the truth, whether she liked it or not.

"You want to know why I stopped coming to see you at the abbey? It was because every time I did, all you did was get mad at me and start yelling at me for being such a stupid, lazy, bastard Chosen, and every time you did that, you got yourself so worked up that you'd start coughing again, and next I knew you'd be sick and it would be my fault for having tried to be nice and brotherly by dropping by to see you! So yes, I stopped coming to see you, but that was only because I didn't want you getting sick again over how much you despised me and how much my presence there upset you!" Her eyes widened and she blinked at him, stunned - and right then, Zelos just couldn't bear to see her like that. He needed to get out of here, now, because if he stayed any longer...well, he didn't want to know what would happen to either of them. "Now excuse me. I have to go find Sheena and get out of here before you get sick yet again because of me. I knew I shouldn't have come here today."

Zelos quickly sidestepped her and headed toward the door again, but before he could take even half a dozen steps, Seles grabbed his arm to stop him. "Zelos, wait!"

"What?" he snapped.

"Are you telling me the truth?"

And again she was questioning him, and it hit every raw nerve he'd never wanted hit again. Learning that she, of all people, had never believed anything he'd said, despite what she'd told him, was one of the worst forms of torture he'd ever experienced, second only to believing for those few hours that Sheena had never loved or trusted him. He knew he'd done a lot of stupid things in the past, but he sure didn't remember doing anything to Seles to make her distrust him like this. Other than, of course, her mother being killed for trying to kill him and her being sent to the Abbey because of it, but that hadn't been his choice, and she knew that.

"Seriously, Seles, why would I lie to you about this?" he said, whirling back to her.

Folding her arms to her chest, she held his gaze. "I don't know. That's why I'm asking!"

For a moment, Zelos just watched her, his heart sinking even lower. She really didn't know, did she? All these years, and she still didn't know. And just like that, his anger drained out of him, leaving him feeling utterly exhausted, like he'd just run a marathon. "Yes, I'm telling you the truth."

"What if I'd asked back then?" she demanded. "Would you have told me the truth then?"

What did that matter now? What he would or would not have done no longer had any relevance. "Honestly? I don't know. I'd like to think I would have, but I just...I don't know."

Her face fell, as if he'd just slapped her. "You would've lied to me?"

Zelos released a low, weary sigh. "No, but I probably wouldn't have told you anything."

Without warning, Seles shoved his chest, forcing him backwards. "Why? Zelos, why?"

"Why? Because I was sca-!" He abruptly cut off that thought and turned away from her, refusing to voice that truth aloud. He was simply incapable of saying it. And besides, why should he have to? Why were they discussing this when the real issue here wasn't his relationship with Seles, but rather her relationship with Sheena? He turned back to her. "Y'know what? Forget it. I quit. You just go ahead and keep on believing whatever it is you want to believe about me. I'm getting Sheena and we're leaving. Coming here was a mistake."

Seles tried to grab his arm again as he walked past her, but the second he noticed more tears streaming down her cheeks, he tore himself away from her, his heart breaking, and hurried to the door. They were both too upset right now to be discussing this and, therefore, he simply shouldn't be here right now. He wasn't capable of fixing this anymore if she didn't believe anything he said. "Zelos, wait!" she called to him, but that time he ignored her, desperately trying to hold in all of his emotions until he'd reached Sheena, and kept going. "I'm sorry!" Abruptly, his eyes widened and he froze, unable to believe his ears, but still he didn't look at her as she repeated, "I'm sorry." The words were a mere whisper that time, but the tears still rang through in her voice loud and clear. Unsure how to respond to that, he just stood there, waiting, and finally she went on. "I just...I didn't know what to believe, and I...you always acted like...like nothing ever bothered you, and I...I should've asked you, I shouldn't have yelled at you all those times..."

Zelos squeezed his eyes shut as her voice trembled, feeling like his heart was being torn into a million pieces. He couldn't hear any more of this. He couldn't, not without breaking down in tears himself. He had to stop her. He was just so, so tired. And sad. And hurt. And while her apology should make him feel better, it didn't; it just made the pain that much more unbearable, and right now, he couldn't deal with that. And so, before he admitted defeat and left, he would try one last time, now that she wasn't yelling at him, to get an answer to the one question he needed answered.

"Seles, why do you hate Sheena so much?" he asked softly, turning back toward her. "What did she ever do to you?"

He could see her lip quiver an instant before she turned away from him, and when she spoke, her voice was so soft that he never would have heard her if not for his angel senses. "She took you from me."

His jaw dropped, and for a moment, all he could do was gape at her, speechless. Was she for real? She thought...she hated Sheena because...oh, Martel, he couldn't believe this. "What the...? Where did you...? How in Tethe'alla do you figure that?"

She spun around and pointed at him again, her anger returning even as the tears kept streaming down her face. "Everything you've done has always been about your hunnies. Hunnies this, hunnies that...then you finally start being nice to me and going places with me and doing things with me again, and next I know you're dating her and I never see you again! Since then, all you do is spend time with her!"

And again, Zelos was could only gape at her. After a moment, though, he finally groaned, buried his face in his hands, and turned away. So that was how it was. This wasn't about Sheena at all; it truly was about him. Apparently it had started that time he'd chosen to go to Iselia with Sheena rather than meeting with Seles - and even though he'd explained his very legitimate reasoning for doing so, Seles had just seen that he'd chosen Sheena over her. This whole mess was because of something he had tried to make up to her for afterwards by explaining what had happened, apologizing, and then spending more time with her than he'd originally planned to. And come to think of it, that was when Seles had started subtly badmouthing Sheena, insisting he have nothing to do with her because she was 'bad' for him. He should have seen it then, but he hadn't, because comments like those were typical from Seles about any woman he mentioned; he'd only really started noticing how badly she disliked Sheena when he'd told her they were dating. Agh, this whole thing really was his fault for not noticing the truth sooner, wasn't it?

...But no, this wasn't entirely his fault. He should have noticed, yes, but Seles should have told him her concerns earlier, and in a far less vitriolic way, because from his perspective, her hatred really had been irrational and unwarranted. And really, it still was, because just because he'd chosen to spend so much time with Sheena did not give Seles the right to hate her - or, for that matter, to stalk her and attack her and call her an 'evil witch' as she'd done before they'd even started dating. She hadn't even known Sheena back then to pass that kind of judgment on her - hell, she still didn't! And the fact of the matter was that it had been Seles's never-ending slurs against Sheena that had made him reconsider dropping by to see her any more than he absolutely had to this past year. She did realize that, didn't she? Or maybe she didn't, in which case, she should.

Lowering his hands, Zelos spun back toward her. "You really want to know why I stopped coming to see you after our trip, and then especially after I told you Sheena and I were dating? It was because every time I saw you, you made it clear you couldn't stand her, and then you kept belaboring that point, over and over and over again. And to be honest, I couldn't stand to hear you talk trash about her like that, especially when my attempts to tell you how amazing of a woman she was got me nowhere, so I didn't give you the chance to!"

Without warning, Seles's lip quivered and another tear rolled down her face. "I thought she was like all your other girlfriends, shallow and ditzy and slutty and only after your money," she whispered, her eyes falling to her hands.

Zelos blinked at her, trying to comprehend that and how it fit in with everything else she'd just yelled at him about. She'd really thought...? Agh, this was such a mess. She had made up her mind about Sheena long ago, probably before she'd even stalked her last year, without even trying to get to know her, based simply on the kind of women she 'thought' he went for. Absently, Zelos couldn't help wondering if she would have reacted the same way if he'd been dating Raine or Colette instead or if there was something in particular about Sheena that bothered her, like maybe how beautiful Sheena was, the fact that she was a ninja, or maybe even something as simple as how Sheena dressed.

But whatever Seles thought she knew about Sheena, she wasn't right. She didn't know anything about her, and as such, she'd had no right to judge her as she had. "Well, she's not. Sheena is nothing like them, and she never has been. She's one of the only people in this world who's been able to keep me honest, both with myself and with others. Why do you think I love her so damn much that I marr-" whoops, can't say that "-want to marry her?"

Thankfully, judging from how Seles's head sank further downward and her voice reverted to a whisper, she hadn't caught his near-slip. "I know that now."

...Wait, what? Her sudden about-face rendered him speechless beyond a stunned, "What?"

"She actually cares about you," she whispered. "She doesn't just say she cares; she really does." And again, Zelos could only gape at her. But if she knew that, then why would she...? Damn it, he didn't understand what Seles was thinking. And before he could question her about why she insisted on treating Sheena so horribly if she recognized that fact, her eyes suddenly widened in alarm and lifted back to his. "D...don't get me wrong, I still don't like her! But...I can tell she's different than your other hunnies."

Still unsure how to respond to that, though, he just uttered, "I...I don't..."

Without warning, her face grew set and disapproving again, although her persisting tears ruined the effect. "Are you really moving to Mizuho?"

...And there was yet another abrupt change of subject. On the bright side, at least that question was easy to answer. "Yeah, I am."

"You don't belong there, you know," she quickly countered, lifting her head haughtily. "You were the Chosen, and now you're the king's Foreign Minister; you belong living a nobleman's life, not the life of some savage, primitive barbarian who sneaks around in the shadows making underhanded, underworldly dealings for a living."

Zelos sighed and shook his head, taking a step back toward her. Gee, what a shocker: she disapproved of his choices. Again. Because Martel forbid he ever do anything that she deemed to be a 'good choice.' If she wanted to win any points with him, though, insulting his new home and his new people was not the way to do it. "No, you're right, I probably don't belong there. But it's the choice I've made, because I love Sheena and I want to help her out however I can with her duties when she becomes chief there. I don't require your approval to do that."

Unsurprisingly, she didn't look at him again...but at least she did seem to be listening. Well, at least he hoped she was, because this was something he wanted her to know. "Y'know, Mizuho isn't as bad as you think it is," he went on. "Yeah, it's primitive compared to Meltokio, and yeah, their dealings can be shady at times, but they aren't savage, primitive barbarians; the villagers are actually very polite, smart, respectable, and skilled people. They're a good people. It may be a quiet lifestyle, but 'quiet' isn't necessarily a bad thing. At the point I'm at in my life, 'quiet' actually sounds pretty attractive. And while it might be hard work there, it's also valued work. The thought of actually being useful to someone is...well, it's appealing. After the hell I went through as the Chosen, having to deal with high society's never-ending parade of fakeness and shallowness, I'm actually looking forward to Mizuho's 'realness.' Just because they're ninjas doesn't mean they're bad people; it just means they're different from us. Hell, you and I are 'different' because of who our father was; does that make us bad people? To some, sure, but I don't think so. It's the same with ninjas; they don't deserve the bad rap they get, just because they're spies. Being a half-elf who's dealt with unwarranted biases yourself, I'd think you'd know how that felt." When she still didn't look at him, Zelos sighed again. He could never convince her of this unless she saw it for herself. And suddenly, he wanted her to see it, even if it meant blindfolding her to take her there. It was his new home, after all. "If I offered to bring you there sometime, would you at least come see it for yourself?"

Seles observed him a moment, considering that. While the wariness Zelos saw there concerned him, he couldn't deal with everything at once, so he'd worry about that later. And finally, thankfully, she sighed and whispered, "...Maybe."

"Well, I guess that's better than a 'no,'" he murmured, although a 'yes' really would have been better. At least it would have shown she was making a sincere effort to accept this.

Her eyes darted down at the table. "We'll see."

That was obviously the best he'd get from her for now, though, so he'd take it. Now, to address her other issue with Sheena. "And as for Sheena taking me away from you...if that's how I made it look to you, I'm sorry. I certainly didn't mean to make you think I only cared about her anymore, not you. And whether you believe this or not, the truth is I do care about you, Seles. I mean, c'mon! You're my little sister! How many people can I say that about?"

She didn't respond to that, though - didn't even look at him - and Zelos sighed again. Okay, so that wouldn't cut it with her this time. She needed more - and, well, he really did owe her this. As much as it might kill him to say the words, after all his other failures as a brother and how they'd obviously made her feel, nothing less than the truth would have the appropriate effect. She should know this already, but she clearly didn't, and so he had to suck it up and do it. For both of their sakes.

"Look, I'm sorry," he said. "I know I've messed up a lot with you. I did things I shouldn't have done; I didn't do things I should have. But I never wanted to hurt you or make you doubt me like this. I do lo..." His voice caught, and he quickly cleared his throat. He knew he had to say this, too, but damn, it was hard to do. "I do love you, Seles."

Her eyes snapped up to him and widened, something new there that was even more apparent than the shock: hope. And it was that hope that gave him hope that maybe, just maybe, one day things between them would be okay again. "Really?"

"Yes, really." He couldn't believe she'd ever doubted that, but she had. All he could do now, though, was try to patch things up with her as best he could. "I just...I wanted you to be happy, but you never were when I was with you, so I..."

"But I was!" she cut him off, her urgency shocking. "I liked it when you stopped by because it made me think you cared."

"I did care," Zelos quickly said, needing to make that clear to her. "And I still do."

Seles looked down at her hands awkwardly. "And I...I cared, too. I just didn't..."

...She didn't know how to show it, either. Yeah, he'd caught that. It wasn't like they'd had good examples of honest, open, familial relationships to look back on; honest emotions had been discouraged by everyone he'd known: his mother, her mother, and then the Church, insisting he have no connection with his mother's murderer's daughter, even if she was his own sister. It didn't help, either, to know that both of their mothers would be alive right now if he hadn't been the Chosen. 'Awkward' really was the norm in their family, wasn't it? But nothing would ever change if they just accepted that and didn't try to reinvent a new 'norm' for themselves. It wouldn't be easy, and it would probably take the rest of their lives, but maybe it would be worth the effort. And this...this was probably the closest to a new start that they would ever get.

"Heh, I know. Believe me, I know." Seles fidgeted and folded her arms to her chest again, her face still red, but she didn't look up at him again, and it was then that Zelos realized today wasn't the right time for that 'new start.' No, right now it was time for him to leave, because this conversation was verging on becoming sappy, and 'sappy' was something he was way too uncomfortable with her. With Sheena, sure, at least as much as she could tolerate 'sappy,' but not with Seles. But first, he needed to make one more thing clear to her. "Listen, about Sheena..."

"I'll give her a chance."

His eyebrows flew upward. "...What?"

Seles looked down at the ground as she rubbed the toe of her shoe against the floor. "I still don't like her...but I'll give her a chance."

For a moment, Zelos faltered, at a loss for words. Did he dare let himself hope she meant that? Because if he did and then she didn't follow through on it, he was afraid he really would disown her for lying about something as important to him as this. "Really?"

She nodded but still didn't look at him. "She says she loves you..."

"She does," he replied before she could finish. "I have no doubt about that."

Her eyes darted up at him again before falling back down to the ground, but then she nodded. It was reluctant, but at least it was a real nod. "And you really love her?"

And this, too, he needed to make absolutely clear to her. He took a step toward her, and thankfully she looked up and held his gaze again. "More than life itself."

She watched him silently another moment, but then she nodded curtly. "Then I'll give her a chance to show me what it is about her you love so much."

Zelos released a low sigh of relief. That was all he'd wanted: for Seles to give Sheena a real chance. He trusted Sheena to win over anyone, even his stubborn sister, if she put her mind to it, and he had no doubt she would. "Thank you."

"Whatever," Seles muttered, looking away from him again.

Heh. He'd figured she would say that - because that was what he would have said in her position. He knew what it meant, too: 'You're welcome.' For a moment, Zelos just watched her, waiting to see if she would say more, but when she didn't, he sighed. This, too, needed to be said. "Y'know, Sheena is going to be your sister-in-law soon; she's going to be your family now, too. And the last thing I want is to see the two most important women in my life hating each other's guts. You're gaining family with this, Seles, not losing it. I'm not going anywhere; I'm just switching gears a little and trying to be more responsible with my life. Sheena makes me want to do that, to be better than the stupid, lazy Chosen I was before."

"I'll try to get along with her better," she mumbled, glancing briefly at him before looking back down at the ground.

He nodded. He was going to hold her to that. "So if I were to, say, swing by in a few days, just to say 'hi,' we could actually try to act like siblings who can occasionally tolerate each other rather than getting into another shouting match? I really would like to see you more, but I need to know you won't get upset if I'm here. You don't have your Exsphere anymore, and I don't want you getting sick again because of me."

Seles continued eyeing the ground as she considered that. "...Maybe."

Agh, he was so damn sick of the word 'maybe.' Her answer, especially for this, needed to be concrete or he'd never be able to convince himself to come here again. And to that end, he would decide her answer for her. "I'm taking that as a 'yes.'"

Her eyes darted up at him again. "Are you actually going to do it, stop by to see me? Or are you going to forget again?"

Zelos sighed. While he had never forgotten to drop by and visit her, he had intentionally skipped out on a few times he'd planned to come here, when he didn't think he could handle hearing her scolding or disapproval, or when she hadn't been feeling well and he was afraid his presence would make her feel worse. And after every time he'd done that, he'd apologized the next time he'd seen her. From her perspective, though, he could see why she thought he'd 'forgotten' about her - and why she no longer trusted him to follow through on his promises. This time he wouldn't make the same mistake. If it really did upset her when he didn't show up...well, he couldn't have that, either. And, shockingly enough, despite the nightmarish start, this conversation was actually the farthest they'd gotten in working things out between them in...well, longer than he could remember. She'd been honest with him, and he'd been honest with her, and as a result they'd ironed out a few long-standing misunderstandings between them. Maybe now they stood a chance of starting over and patching things up - and if that was true, then he didn't want to mess this up. He wanted her to be at his wedding; he wanted her to enjoy the party, meet people, and experience life in a way she hadn't while she'd been stuck in that abbey. And if periodically stopping by to see her helped make that happen, he would do it.

"Well, I'm not sure when I'll be able to get away from all the training I'll be doing in Mizuho, but as soon as I can, I'll swing by," he said. "I promise."

"You'd better this time," she said, still eyeing him warily. "Or I'll never forgive you."

Okay, he deserved that. And chances were he wouldn't forgive himself if he let her down like that again. "Can I bring Sheena with me? Not every time I come here, but at least some of the times? Preferably without having to worry about you calling her nasty names to her face again?"

That one Seles thought about a little longer, but at least when she replied, Zelos knew she meant it because she had thought it over. "I guess."

"You'll never get to know her until you spend some time with her, Seles," he prompted.

"Fine," she said, sighing again, but suddenly she pointed at him. "But I'm not ready to apologize to her yet! Maybe...maybe next time I see her."

As much as he wanted Sheena to get her apology, pushing Seles to do so before she was ready would most likely just shatter the tentative agreement they'd reached here. At least Seles was acting more civilly now, which gave him hope that she would eventually apologize, and so he'd be patient until that happened. "Okay, but I will make sure she gets one. I just..." He bit his lip, choosing his words carefully. "Sheena makes me so happy, Seles; she is, by far, the best thing that's ever happened to me. I just wish you could be happy for me that I found someone like her. She's the kind of person I hope you find for yourself one day."

Seles looked away again, folding her arms to her chest. "Like I said, I'll give her a chance."

Zelos sighed, but that seemed to be the best he'd get out of her, at least for now. "Thank you." That time she didn't respond at all, though, and after a moment, he nodded to himself. Enough was enough. He and Sheena had lost too much time here as it was - at least now he thought he might be beginning to understand Seles's extreme reaction to their announcement earlier - and they needed to get back to Mizuho before Orochi took it upon himself to hunt them down and strangle them for 'failing to keep scheduled appointments.' "Look, Sheena and I really have to go. I just wanted you to hear about our engagement from me, not from more twisted gossip and half-true rumors. So I'll see you in a few days?"

She nodded but didn't say anything, and after waiting a minute to see if she'd at least offer him a 'goodbye,' he finally gave up and began heading to the door. "Zelos?"

He stopped and looked back at her. "Yeah-?" But before he could even finish, Seles rushed at him, threw her arms around him, and gave him a tight hug. Barely a second later, though, she pulled away again and rushed out the door, leaving him standing alone in the kitchen, his heart pounding. It took him a moment to comprehend what had just happened, but once he had, he couldn't resist sighing and smiling wistfully. It wasn't much, and they still had a lot to work out yet, and she still needed to prove she really meant it that she'd give Sheena a chance, and he needed to prove he really meant it that he wouldn't miss any more scheduled visits with her, but still, it felt like a fresh start, something they'd desperately needed since their world tour. And he'd be damned if he didn't take it and use it to not only his own advantage, but to Seles's and Sheena's, too.

Once he could move again, Zelos showed himself out, relieved to find Sheena sitting on the top step outside the front door, staring at her left hand as she played with her ring. With an exhausted sigh, he sat down beside her, and she immediately abandoned the ring, looked up at him, and gently grasped his arm. "Hey," she greeted him, her brows furrowing in concern. "You okay?"

"Other than feeling like I just singlehandedly fought my way through Derris Kharlan? Yeah, I think so." He gave her a faint smile and wrapped his arm around her, drawing her close and pressing a kiss to the side of her head before resting his chin on her shoulder. "You?"

She tilted her head so it was resting lightly against his. "I'm fine - just worried about you." Abruptly, she pulled back and looked him over. "What about Seles? Is she okay?"

He considered that a moment before nodding. "I think she will be. She refuses to apologize to you today, but..."

Sheena shook her head. "Don't worry about it, Zelos."

'Don't worry about it'? Oh, how he wished he could get away with that - only 'not worrying about it' before this was what had caused this disaster. It was a mistake he refused to repeat. "I have to worry about it, Sheena," he said, giving her a somber look. "We can't go through the rest of our lives walking on eggshells every time we're around her. I won't have her treating you like that again. You don't deserve that from anyone."

"Give her time," she replied, smiling faintly. "I really do think it'll be okay."

...And for the first time since they'd started dating, he thought she might actually be right about that. Whatever she'd said before Seles had interrogated him had obviously had some kind of impact if Seles now recognized that Sheena really did love him and wasn't like his floozy hunnies. "Well, she said she's willing to give you a chance. That's a start, right?"

Her smile broadened as she rested her head against his again. "Definitely. And I'm going to try very hard not to give her any reason to doubt me. I don't want to become a stumbling block between you two again."

"You won't," Zelos said - and he truly did believe that, especially if Seles was finally going to make an effort to be more receptive toward her. He sighed, then let out a soft, wry laugh. "To think, all this time she was jealous of you and of how much time I spent with you. I should've seen it sooner. I always thought she hated you, that she had something specific against you, but she didn't, not really. She just wanted me to spend more time with her and thought you were keeping me from her, that I was so blinded by you that I didn't see her anymore. And when she started badmouthing you, I was even less inclined to spend time with her...which then made the problem that much worse. We're both to blame for this. She should've told me what was bothering her, and I should've noticed and asked about it sooner."

"Well, I'm not denying jealousy was a part of it, but it was more than that," Sheena said, pulling back so she could see his face again. Zelos's eyes narrowed, silently prompting her to go on. Now he was curious what she and Seles had talked about. "She was also overprotective of you. Y'know, making sure the woman you were dating wouldn't hurt you or use you to get at your money." Without warning, she grinned and nudged him with her shoulder. "I mean, you have to admit, before we started dating, you did have a bad track record with women, and the fact that she stalked me and accused me of being an 'evil witch' trying to 'seduce' you back then already makes it pretty clear she knew it."

"Never mind that you were the last person she needed to protect me from and that you're nothing like my hunnies," he muttered, even though his gut was telling him she was right.

Sheena smiled sheepishly. "Well, after what happened two days ago, I can't say her concern about me wasn't warranted."

Zelos sighed again and gave her a pointed look. She'd better not still believe that, because he'd been going out of his way to try to show her that he didn't believe that. "Sheena..."

"I know, Zelos," she quickly replied. "I do. And it won't happen again."

He watched her another moment, making sure she wasn't sliding back into the Guilt Pit, but then he nodded, accepting it. "I know."

"Besides, I'm sure I never made a good impression on her," she went on. "I mean, I was pretty violent toward you for awhile there. Even if you did deserve it."

"Heh, I really did, didn't I?" he murmured, chuckling as she smiled brightly.

"Yes, dear, you really did."

"Little did you know that by smacking me, you really were seducing me," he replied, grinning and pressing a kiss to her neck, just below her ear, eliciting a giggle from her, then he pulled her tighter against him, breathing in the soothing floral scent of her hair. So Seles had been jealous and overprotective, eh? Obviously she'd been afraid of losing him, too. And if he'd learned one thing over the years, it was that fear could manifest itself in weird ways - like hatred directed toward an innocent person deemed to be a 'threat.' If everything went well from here on out, though, it shouldn't happen again. But one thing was still bothering him. "I just don't get it, though."

"What?" she asked, looking up at him curiously.

"How she heard about Shirley. The Church completely sealed up all those records immediately after it happened. Even I never heard any rumors about it after that. And if she believed that..." Zelos shook his head. Even now, he could hardly believe she had. "It's no wonder she believed all those other rumors about me."

Sheena placed her hand over his where it was resting on her waist and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Well, you're in luck, because I asked her that. She said she'd overheard that girl's ex-boyfriend telling one of the priests at the abbey about it. Or at least she overheard his biased - and obviously inaccurate - side of the story."

His eyes slid shut and his head sank downward until his lips were touching her shoulder. He should've known. Jilted ex-boyfriends had trouble keeping their mouths shut when it came to wrecking the life of the man they thought was responsible for wrecking their own, threats from the Church be damned. Wonderful. And to think, he hadn't even known Shirley had had a boyfriend at the time - although he probably should've realized it sooner because she hadn't gotten pregnant by him, so she had to have gotten pregnant by some other guy. Well, that or she'd had a one-night stand around the same time. Or maybe both, which just confirmed his conclusion after the fact that Shirley had been bad news and he never should've gotten involved with her. But obviously she'd left family, friends, and lovers behind who had believed the rumors about him knocking her up and tossing her into a tiny village to die - a fact that just made an already awful situation, one he still regretted sorely, that much worse. It would always amaze him that Sheena had believed him about that. He had told her the truth about what had happened - he really hadn't slept with Shirley, no matter how close they might have come to it - but Sheena had only had his word about that, something that, at the time he'd told her, hadn't been worth a hill of beans to her.

"That makes me wonder how many others know about it and just never told anyone...and how many may decide to start talking now that I'm not the Chosen and they don't have to worry about the Church punishing them for it anymore," Zelos murmured, opening his eyes.

"I don't know," Sheena whispered, nuzzling his cheek with her nose. "We'll just have to keep our ears open. I doubt it's many, because I'd never even heard that story until you told me, and I'd heard an awful lot of stories about you before that, so it can't be common common knowledge. At least if any rumors do start spreading now, we'll be the first to hear about it because the Mizuho Information Network hears everything - and we'll be paying even more attention if the rumors are about one of our own, which you are now."

"Yeah, well, I'd be perfectly happy to never hear about it again," he replied, tightening his hold on her. "As far as I'm concerned, the fewer people who know about that, the better."

Smiling wistfully, Sheena nudged his head with hers. "I know."

And to that end he would stop thinking about it - and about this entire situation with Seles, too. Nothing else needed to be said about it right now, and worrying and wondering over it would just waste time they needed to finish the remaining tasks on their to-do list. Besides, he just got married yesterday, and the love of his life was currently sitting in his arms, and, well, his life really was pretty damn good. "Anyway, right now I really don't want to think about this anymore."

"That's okay," she said, giving him reassuring smile. "If you want to talk about it later, I'll be here."

And that was, by far, one of the best things about this marriage: she was now here for him, at any time, to discuss those things that were bothering him, and he was here for her, at any time, to discuss those things that were bothering her, too. "I know you will, sweetheart," he murmured, returning her smile and kissing her neck again, delighted to feel her shiver in his arms. "So anyway, whataya say we move on to our next destination?"

Sheena abruptly pulled back and gave him a mock-irritated look. "Wherever that is."

Zelos chuckled and released her so he could rise to his feet, choosing not to answer that. "C'mon, love," he said, pulling her up as she accepted the hand he offered her. "This won't take long, and I guarantee our next stop will be less stressful than this one was. Money back guaranteed, in fact."

"Money back guaranteed," she repeated, rolling her eyes as she grabbed their bags and handed him his. "I don't remember paying you to take me to some mysterious, undisclosed location so you can do something that you're refusing to tell me about."

"Heh." He wrapped his arm around her waist as they headed down the steps. "Then how 'bout this, my dear, sweet, delectable lollipop: if you're really upset about this stop afterwards, I will be more than happy to make it up to you tonight, however you please. In fact, even if you don't have any problems with it, I'd still be delighted to make sure you get your money back. Hell, I might even insist on it!"

Zelos waggled his eyebrows, knowing she'd been hanging around him long enough to recognize what he was referring to - and as expected, Sheena snorted. "I think I'm gonna have to put my foot down about sexual favors counting as 'money' now or something tells me you'll make sure one or both of us owes the other for every ridiculous little thing if I don't."

...Yep, she knows me too well. "Aw, but where's the fun in that?" he countered, pouting.

"Hey, no one said anything about fun!" she retorted cheerfully before waving a finger at him. "And no amount of whining or pouting on the kid's part will change his lollipop's mind."

He pointed back at her, his eyes narrowing challengingly. "I reserve the right to appeal this decision and prove what a splendid idea it would be. Tonight, in fact. In bed."

"Mm," Sheena murmured, a smirk toying on her lips as she watched him. "I could possibly be persuaded to hear your appeal. I won't offer a money-back guarantee that it will change my mind, but...okay, the kid is welcome to try his hardest."

Zelos grinned wickedly. Heh. She was outright flirting with him now, wasn't she? Oh, did he love seeing her playful like this. "The kid hereby promises to make it worth his lollipop's time to appeal her decision not to allow the substitution of sexual favors for money owed. And I money-back guarantee you, you will be convinced."

She snorted and poked his chest. "We'll see if the kid can meet his lollipop's expectations."

"Sounds like a challenge to me," he whispered huskily in her ear. "And if there's one thing the kid knows how to do, it's rise to the challenge of his delectable, mouth-watering lollipop."

"Ugh," she groaned, smacking her palm to her face as it turned bright red at his thinly veiled innuendo. "You really can twist anything into something perverted, can't you?"

"Yes, I can," he said proudly. "And you, my dear, sweet lollipop, love me anyway."

She gave him an embarrassed glare, but her shy smile told him all he needed to know - and, even better, his happiness had now completely returned thanks to his gorgeous, playful, quick-to-blush wife's willingness to humor him. He and Seles still had a lot to work out, but maybe now they were heading in the right direction again instead of moving backwards. For that, he would be eternally grateful to Sheena for whatever it was she'd said to Seles that had helped make that possible. And as Sheena hopped up on her toes, planted a kiss on his lips, and whispered, "Yeah, I really, really do," he couldn't resist returning her smile. For the moment, life was good. It could all change at any time, but for now he would take this moment and enjoy it for all it was worth. And then they were leaving Sybak, on their way to tackle a task on his list that he really was looking forward to doing.

0~*~0

The walk through Gaoracchia Forest was surprisingly bright considering the forest's darkness and dreariness - but then, this wasn't the first time they'd walked this path together, and Zelos had a knack for making even the darkest, dreariest places fun, and this time was no exception. All he had to do was start acting stupid, throw around his characteristic innuendo, and make her blush, and Sheena found herself laughing and play-smacking him, and suddenly she'd forgotten all about the darkness and dreariness. He'd been doing that since the day they'd met, actually: making her smile even in the direst of circumstances. His optimism, perseverance, and determination to do so impressed her, and it was one of the many things she was looking forward to having with her in Mizuho even when her job as chief became stressful and exhausting: Zelos there with her, never letting those things consume her, and insisting on pulling her out of whatever dark, dreary hole she'd fallen into. And if he couldn't pull her out, he would jump in with her until they could determine a way out. No matter what was challenging her, he would make sure she never faced it alone. And as weird as it might feel to do so, she would make a point to let him.

Despite his distracting silliness, though, Sheena grew even more confused the further they walked through the forest, especially when instead of taking the path leading south to Mizuho, Zelos pulled her onto the path leading north. Asking him repeatedly where he was going quickly proved to be futile, though; each attempt ended with him smirking and telling her to figure it out for herself. Fifteen minutes later they were leaving the forest and walking east, and another fifteen after that they were approaching a small village nestled amongst the forest's northern edge, one Sheena had never visited before nor even knew the name of. Living in Mizuho, she'd always known there was a village here, but it was small and unimportant in the grand scheme of things (other than one time Mizuho had traded with them during an exceptionally difficult winter), and so she'd never had a reason to visit it. And as they approached it, she could see why no one came here: because there was nothing special about it. It was just a small, typical village, like Iselia and Ozette, of which there were dozens scattered across Tethe'alla. So why did Zelos need to come here? And, more infuriatingly perplexing, why wouldn't he answer that question for her?

Upon entering its outskirts, Zelos pulled away from her and approached a man standing near an animal pen, feeding some sheep, and asked him something she couldn't hear amidst a gust of wind that drowned out his voice. The man responded by pointing down the road at the village. Zelos thanked him, then returned to Sheena where she still stood on the path, her arms folded to her chest, uncertain whether she should be amused or frustrated by this. "Zelos...?"

"Ah!" he cut her off with a mischievous grin as he grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the village. "You'll figure it out soon enough."

"You'd better hope I do or I'll have to beat you up for this," she muttered.

Naturally, that elicited another chuckle from him. "Y'know, if you'd like to wait here until I'm done, you're welcome to do so." He arched an eyebrow at her, but his knowing smile indicated he already knew her answer.

"Are you kidding?" The man truly was certifiably insane, wasn't he? "After this kind of buildup, dear, I'm expecting something huge from this...although I'm not sure how you'll manage that in a village like this."

He sighed. "I was afraid of that. Sorry to disappoint you, sweetheart, but this really won't be that interesting. It's just something I need to do, and the sooner the better." Before Sheena could reply to that, though, Zelos steered them off the path toward an uninteresting wooden house secluded amongst a patch of trees.

Releasing her hand, he walked up to the door and knocked. A moment later a short, stout, middle-aged woman peeked around the side of the house, holding a clump of weeds in one hand and a trowel in the other, her face streaked with dirt. "Yes?"

Zelos smiled charmingly. "I was told Madeline Baker lived here. Is she available?"

Sheena's eyes narrowed and she gave him a questioning look - Madeline Baker? Who is she and why is he looking for her? And, more importantly, should I be concerned about it? - but Zelos just glanced back at her and shook his head, his message clear: 'Wait.' The stout woman's eyes, however, narrowed at him. "Is something wrong?"

"Oh, no, no, not at all," Zelos quickly assured her. "I just need to talk to her."

The woman continued eyeing him another moment warily, but then she pointed at the forest a stone's throw behind the house. "She headed that way an hour ago." Turning back to him, she gave him a pointed look and added warningly, "With a friend."

Instead of paying the woman's tone any heed, though, Zelos bowed his head. "Thanks." He quickly returned to Sheena, grabbed her hand again, and began dragging her toward the forest. "C'mon, sweetheart."

What, still no explanation? Why was it crazy people insisted on driving everyone around them crazy, too? She really would have to beat him up for this. "Zelos, who is...?"

"Ah!" he cut her off, pointing at her with his free hand and grinning mischievously again. "You'll see." Sheena couldn't help herself; she growled at him...although that, naturally, just made him burst out laughing. "Are you growling at me, love?"

"Yes, I am! Can't you at least tell me who Madeline Baker is and what you need to talk to her about? And I swear, Zelos, if you start flirting with her..."

Zelos shook his head. "You really are an impatient, overly curious lollipop, aren't you?"

"And you are a stubborn, irritating tease," she grumbled under her breath.

The bastard had the nerve to waggle his eyebrows at her, and she was pretty sure the sparkle in his eyes would be downright infuriating if it weren't so endearing. "Oh, you think this is a tease? Just wait until tonight. You want a tease? I can show you a tease."

He was going to die. And the worst part was, he knew it - and he didn't care. In fact, the idiot would enjoy every second of it. Okay, so as a ninja, she knew threats worse than death. "Not if you want to be able to account for all of your body parts in the morning," she muttered.

"Oh, so violent this lovely wife of mine is," he quipped, smirking as he wrapped his arm around her. And despite the fact that he would soon die, Sheena let him. "Just think of this as patience and deductive reasoning training. It'll make it more bearable."

"Only I never asked for patience and deductive reasoning training," she countered.

Zelos arched an eyebrow. "But can you really deny those are good qualities for a chief to have?"

She growled again. Of course they were good qualities for a chief to have. But why did he have to be so damn irritating while making his point? Okay, time to try a new tactic. "C'mon, Zelos, please? Can't you at least give me a hint? What do you need to do here?"

He eyed her a moment, but finally he sighed and nodded. "All right, all right, I'll throw you a bone. I'm not here to flirt with this woman. Trust me, there's no way she could ever compete with my sexy, voluptuous, kickass wife. I just have to give her something."

For a moment, Sheena just blinked at him. "Wait, are you saying you're here playing delivery boy? Couldn't you have paid any of a hundred kids to do this for you?"

"Nope. This is something I need to do myself."

Her eyes narrowed and her confusion rose at how serious he'd suddenly become. "Zelos..."

In the blink of an eye, all seriousness vanished and he flashed her a grin. "You'll see. And trust me, you'll understand in a minute." Without warning, he pointed at a patch of foliage in the distance. "Ooh! That looks promising. C'mon."

Not seeing anything worth being excited about, Sheena growled again, but she did let him take her hand and lead her further into the forest. Soon she could hear a woman giggling, followed by the low murmur of a man, followed by more feminine giggles. A minute later, the man and woman came into sight in a small clearing, sitting atop a fallen log, holding each other and exchanging playful kisses. They were clearly lovers, Sheena deduced, blushing, suddenly feeling awkward at walking in on strangers enjoying a private, intimate moment.

Zelos dropped her hand and beamed her another smug grin. "Wait here." Her eyes narrowed and she folded her arms to her chest, but naturally, instead of answering her silent question, he turned away from her, approached the embracing couple, and cleared his throat. "Excuse me, I'm looking for Madeline? I was told I could find her here."

So Zelos didn't know this woman, yet he still had to give her something? Sheena still didn't know what going on, but the fact that the woman - a pretty lady in her mid twenties with long, curly blonde hair - looked up at him without a hint of recognition in her eyes and made no effort to separate from her handsome, dark-haired significant other indicated that not only didn't she know him, but she wasn't expecting anything from him, either. "I'm Madeline," she said.

Zelos's face lit up. "Ah! It's nice to finally meet you, Madeline. My name is Zelos Wilder. I'm assuming you've heard of me?"

Instantly, her eyes widened and all color drained from her face. "Ch...Chosen!"

"Ex-Chosen, actually..." Zelos began, but he was quickly cut off as the couple jumped to their feet.

"Please, I beg of you, don't hurt Garland!" Madeline cried, stepping protectively between Zelos and her now-alarmed male companion. "I didn't know you were coming...I didn't mean to...I would never hurt you..."

"Whoa!" Zelos said, lifting his hands, his eyes widening. Seriously, Sheena thought, what in Tethe'alla is going on here? "Hey, it's okay. Calm down. I'm not here to hurt anyone. In fact, I'm here to give you a present." The woman watched him, confused - maybe even a bit scared, Sheena thought - as Zelos knelt and dug through his bag for something, then he stood again and handed it to the woman. He's giving her a...paper? Sheena wondered, her face wrinkling in confusion. What kind of paper would he be...? Wait a minute, that looks like the document he'd gotten from...no. This woman can't be, can she? "It's okay," Zelos said when the woman just stared at the paper. "Go on, take it. It won't bite, I promise."

Madeline's eyes snapped back up to Zelos. For a moment she just hesitated, watching him carefully, while the man - Garland, she'd called him - looked between Madeline, the paper, and Zelos with narrowed, distrustful, possessive eyes, but finally she ventured, "Wh...what is...?"

"Read it," Zelos instructed, shoving the document closer to her.

Madeline cast a worried glance at her boyfriend, but then she took the paper from Zelos and began reading. Grinning smugly, Zelos motioned for Sheena to join him, which she did. Disbelief slowly broke out on Madeline's face while she read, even while hope was dawning on Garland's as he peered over her shoulder at it. And it was as Sheena saw that hope turn into full-blown excitement that Zelos's intent here became clear and she smiled broadly. Oh, yeah, she'd figured out exactly what he was doing here, and he was right: she didn't mind one bit.

Once finished reading, Madeline cast an uncertain glance at Garland, who beamed at her excitedly, then finally back at Zelos. "This...this must be a joke, Chosen."

"Oh, trust me, it's no joke," Zelos said, grinning again as he placed a hand to Sheena's back. "In fact, let me introduce you to this beautiful lady by my side, Sheena. My wife. Sheena, this is my ex-fiancée, Madeline Baker."

Sheena bowed her head in greeting. "It's nice to finally meet you, Madeline."

The woman gaped first at Zelos, then at Sheena. "Your...wife?"

"Just got married yesterday - although I have to ask that you keep that information to yourselves since very few people know that yet," he replied.

Madeline watched him another moment, then looked at Sheena, who smiled pleasantly as Zelos wrapped his arm around her waist. "You...you are serious...?"

Zelos nodded curtly, his face growing somber. "Dead serious."

"And so this..." Madeline's eyes fell to the document. "This is real?"

His grin quickly returned as he motioned at the paper. "That's your copy, in case anyone questions it. And if they give you any hassle, have them talk to me. I'll take care of it for you."

Slowly but surely, Madeline's blue eyes were growing brighter, and after a moment, she glanced again at Garland. "So...so Garland and I can...?"

"Knock yourselves out," Zelos said. "Sheena and I sure did."

Madeline bit her lip as she looked back at Zelos and watched him closely a moment, probably to make sure he wasn't joking, but then she turned to her boyfriend and released a sob of pure joy, the smile that appeared on her face - and, a second later, on Garland's - so utterly happy that Sheena couldn't help but grin again. The two then threw themselves at each other, smiling and hugging and laughing excitedly. So Zelos really wasn't the only one who hadn't wanted to be forced to marry a complete stranger, was he? This woman clearly hadn't, either. The sight before them was incredible. And as Sheena looked at the man by her side who'd fought to make that possible, not only for himself, but for Madeline, too, only to find him smiling softly as he watched them, she could feel herself fall in love with him all over again. Her heart hurt, it ached, with the sheer depth of the love she felt for him - for this incredible, perverted, thoughtful, infuriating, beautiful man who she had now promised to spend forever with. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

The moment he noticed her watching him, Zelos stretched, his grin broadening again even though his blue eyes remained soft. "Well, I guess my work here is done."

Sheena laughed softly and nudged him with her elbow, shaking her head. "You are unbelievable. You know that, right?"

Zelos released her and gave her a gentlemanly bow. "I try my hardest, my lady."

"Smug bastard," she murmured. And while he really was a smug bastard, she knew the truth: deep down, in a part of her he had so far only felt comfortable letting her see, he was one of the sweetest, most kind-hearted, amazing men she'd ever met. Who just happened to be an idiot more often than he wasn't, but that didn't matter when there was so much goodness in him that it left her breathless every time she saw it.

But naturally, the smug bastard beamed her a cheeky grin. "That's me!"

Sheena rolled her eyes and poked his side as he placed his hand to her back and guided her away from the still-embracing couple. "Why couldn't you have just told me what you were planning to do here? I wouldn't have questioned you if you had!"

Unsurprisingly, his grin grew downright devilish as he shrugged. "Eh, but keeping you guessing is much more fun, sweetheart. I'd have thought you'd figured that out by now."

"Fun," she muttered, shaking her head. "Your definition of fun needs some revision. Fun requires that all parties involved be enjoying something, not just one person at another's expense."

"You were having as much fun devising painful ways of torturing me as I was in keeping you guessing, and you know it," he whispered in her ear, making her shiver.

Damn him. And again, the smug bastard was right. He loved keeping her guessing - because she was the one who'd told him she loved that he did that. He knew he wouldn't be the man she loved if he didn't, and so of course he'd keep finding little ways to surprise her. And really, how could she argue that? She couldn't, especially when his 'surprises' usually were things she really did enjoy and appreciate. Like the time on their first date when he'd suddenly surprised her with a peach with her name carved into it. Or when he'd helped her plant iris in front of her house and then gave her even more so she could get it to look exactly like she wanted. Or when he'd dropped everything to create an antidote that had saved her and her people from certain death. Or when he'd offered, with astounding, humbling sincerity, to give up everything he'd ever known and spend the rest of his life with her, in her not-gilded cage, helping her in every possible way that he could.

But Sheena would still give him a hard time about it because that was what he expected from her. "I'm getting the most annoying sense of déjà vu here," she grumbled.

Chuckling, Zelos wrapped his arm around her waist again and drew her back to him. "C'mon, was this that bad? I mean, yeah, it was a little out of our way, but..."

"No, Zelos, it wasn't," she cut him off, her voice softening as she leaned closer and wrapped her arm around him in return. "In fact, that was one of the sweetest things I've ever seen you do - and I've seen you do a lot of really sweet things."

Also as expected, he let out a soft, uncomfortable laugh and shrugged that off - because for all his outwardly showy, cocky arrogance, deep down he was also incredibly insecure about his own goodness. "Nah, not really. She's even older than I am and has spent most of her life believing she'd never be happy or marry for love because she'd been 'blessed' with the 'privilege' of being selected to marry the Chosen; how could I hold up the life she really wanted even a day longer than necessary by letting her believe she was still engaged to me? And I didn't think she'd believe it was real if I just sent the document with some random messenger, so I figured I should do it in person."

Oh, Zelos. Of all the people to understand how this woman felt, it would be him. Her heart warmed further at the fact that even after he'd achieved freedom for himself, he hadn't forgotten about this woman's similar plight. Sheena opened her mouth, searching for the words to articulate her feelings, but before she could find them, Madeline called out, "Chosen!"

"Hm...?" Zelos started, releasing Sheena and turning back toward them, only to utter a sharp "Whoa!" a second later as Madeline threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly.

"Thank you, Chosen," she whispered against his chest. "Thank you so much."

His face softened and he patted her back, giving Sheena an awkward look, but she just smiled reassuringly. No, she really wasn't worried he would get any 'ideas' having a pretty lady in his arms. He'd just handed her the papers annulling their engagement, after all. "Heh. No offense meant to you, hunny, because you seem like a perfectly lovely lady, but I really didn't want to marry you. It never would've worked between us anyway because my heart has belonged to Sheena here for a long, long time now."

Madeline pulled away from him, smiling happily. "No offense taken, Chosen. To be perfectly frank, I really didn't want to marry you, either."

Zelos gave her a bright grin that she mirrored. They were both literally beaming, Sheena noted, unable to contain her own smile. Heh, this will probably go down in history as the happiest broken engagement ever. And the best part is that, thanks to Zelos's determination to be rid of all need for a Chosen, and thanks to Lloyd and our friends' identical determination, no one should ever find themselves in this position again.

After a moment, Zelos took another step backward, looking between Madeline and Garland as Garland rejoined his girlfriend. "Well, you guys take care of yourselves," Zelos said.

"We will," Garland replied, taking Madeline's hand in his. "Thank you, Chosen."

"You two as well," Madeline said. "Good luck to you both."

"Thanks," Sheena said. "You, too."

"Enjoy your life and your freedom," Zelos said, grinning again at Sheena. "I know we sure will." Madeline and Garland bowed their heads, and then they headed back to the log where they'd been sitting before, talking excitedly - undoubtedly already making their wedding plans, Sheena figured. Zelos looped his arm through hers and interlaced their fingers, and then the two turned and began heading back out of the forest. "Ahhh," he said once were out of the couple's hearing range. "That felt really, really good."

"I bet it did," Sheena said, chuckling softly. "Did you see that smile? She was beaming."

"Oh, yeah, I saw it...and I know how she feels." He smiled knowingly. "The sweet taste of freedom - to do what you want to do, to love who you want to love, to choose the life you want to live."

Sheena leaned into him as he released her hand and slid his arm around her again, pulling her back to him. She could only imagine what it must feel like to make someone's day as he'd just made Madeline's. "Yeah, well, I know how Garland feels, too, to be allowed to love someone who was never meant to be loved, who was born simply as a pawn in a twisted, genetic breeding project. Believe me, Zelos, I'm just as glad that you're free as you are." She nuzzled her face against his side and smiled as he pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. "And as selfish as this may be, I'm glad that of all the possible places you could've gone once you were freed, you chose my cage to spend the rest of your life in."

She could feel his lips pull upward in a smile. "Like I said, sweetheart, there's nowhere else I'd rather be. Nowhere."

She lifted her head and gave him a soft, happy smile at the warmth she saw shining in his eyes. He meant that, and she had no doubt they would both do whatever it took to make sure nothing could ever threaten that. There might never be any guarantees, because life could still throw more at them than they could handle, but they would both do everything in their power to protect this marriage - communicate, set up that 'disagreement agreement,' force themselves to work through their issues instead of running from them, and readjust whatever was necessary when new problems arose - and as long as they did that, then no matter what happened, no further regrets would stand in their way. She trusted him to make that happen, and he trusted her to make that happen. And so, in doing their best to live up to each other's trust, it would happen.

"I love you, Zelos," she whispered.

"I love you, too, Sheena," Zelos whispered back to her, pressing a kiss to temple before pulling back and clearing his throat. "Anyway, that takes care of that. I guess now it's time for the final item on our to-do list, eh?"

Her smile fell. Oh, right. The confrontation that could prove to be even worse than the Seles one had. If not for the man by her side and the ring around her finger that served as a reminder of his promise not to run no matter what life threw at them, she would probably be panicking. But he was there, and he wasn't going anywhere, and so as much as she dreaded this, she would face whatever was yet to come with all the courage she could muster.

"Yeah. Time to go home and face Grandpa."

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Part 10: The Return

It took well over an hour to reach Mizuho after leaving Madeline and her undoubtedly soon-to-be fiancé, but still, as Zelos started seeing the familiar landmarks that indicated they were getting close, he couldn't help thinking the walk hadn't taken long enough. He wasn't necessarily dreading reaching Mizuho, but he wasn't looking forward to it either, especially since it would signal that their 'honeymoon,' questionable though it had been at times, was officially over. The closer they got, though, the more obvious it was becoming that Sheena's feelings regarding their return were even stronger than his own, her body becoming stiffer with each step they took. In fact, part of him was growing tempted to drag her off the path, pin her against a tree, and try to relax her building tension with one last quick romp...but as appealing as that option was, he reluctantly had to dismiss it. They had already procrastinated returning here too long - it was nearly time for dinner - and besides, one look at the concern on her face told him she'd never go for it. Although he would have to keep that in mind for the future when he needed some private time with her, away from crazy ninjas, now that Mizuho was his new home...

...But such scheming could wait until a better time. Right now he had to find a way not involving sex to relax her before they reached the village so she didn't lose her nerve and try to bolt. And so, as he spotted the final turn in the path ahead of them, Zelos grabbed her hand to stop her. "Hey," he said, giving her a faint smile as she turned to him, her eyes wide. "Just remember, whatever happens, it'll be okay. I'm right beside you."

Her face softened a little, but the smile she gave him as she squeezed his hand was clearly forced. "I know. I'm just...I'm not looking forward to this."

"Hey, I'm not thrilled about it, either. But we aren't going on the run from Mizuho, love. I would never ask you to do that, nor would I ever let you do that."

Sheena arched an eyebrow at him, a glimmer of playfulness flickering in her eyes. "Are you sure? Because that sounds really appealing right now..."

Zelos chuckled and lifted his hand to her cheek, lightly running his fingers over it. "This is your home, sweetheart. This is my home now, too. I'm not running from my responsibilities anymore, and neither are you. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can start settling in." Sheena sighed but nodded, her forced smile vanishing. And then he thought of something else she needed to know. This wouldn't help her mood, but she had to be aware of it since they'd undoubtedly be facing a certain person soon. "Just be careful what you say around Orochi."

"Why?" she asked, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.

Hm, how to break this to her gently... "Because the 'big bully' figured out that the 'cool kid' has now partaken of his 'lollipop,'" he said, making quotes around each term with his fingers.

Unsurprisingly, her eyes widened and her lips parted. "What? Are you...are you sure?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm positive about that...although believe me, I wish I wasn't."

Sheena blinked several times, clearly praying he was mistaken. "But how could he know?"

"You didn't see the look on his face when I brought you your clothes this morning, but I sure did," Zelos explained. "That was the look of a man who knew the 'lollipop' he'd been protecting in hopes of one day getting it for himself had been 'licked' by another man and was no longer 'pure' for him."

"Oh, no," Sheena whispered, her face falling farther. "Do you...do you think he told Grandpa?"

Unfortunately, that, too, Zelos was positive about. "I'm sure he did. Slighted 'bullies' tend to turn into tattletales when they don't get their way in hopes the 'kid' will be punished and have to give up their 'lollipop.' Little does he know the 'kid' and the 'lollipop' did nothing wrong and that their tasty sessions together were completely legitimate."

Sheena gave him an exasperated glare, but the makings of a smile were toying on her lips, too. "Have I mentioned lately how much I hate your ridiculous 'lollipop' analogy?"

"Heh." He grinned wickedly. "Yes, I'm pretty sure you have, quite a few times now."

"And yet you still persist in using it," she stated, folding her arms to her chest.

Zelos batted his eyes at her. "But sweetheart, you are my delectable, mouth-watering-"

"Ah!" she cut him off, lifting a hand at him. "I don't want to hear it."

He chuckled as she glared at him again, embarrassed, but her lips were quirking upward, betraying her amusement. So far, so good. Her mood was improving. Now to get a full-fledged smile out of her. "Or if you really don't want to be the lollipop anymore, we can always switch places for awhile, and then you can be the kid and enjoy your lollipop, and your lollipop can enjoy you, too. Just think of it, being able to slowly lick up and down-"

"By all means, dear, keep going with that thought," Sheena cut him off, arching an eyebrow and visibly struggling to resist the smile he was dying to see. "I'm looking forward to being able to carry you back to Mizuho in a bucket sliced into a thousand tiny pieces."

...Maybe I shouldn't finish that thought. Zelos couldn't resist sticking out his lower lip and pouting. "Will you put me back together again once we get there?"

She tilted her head, her face wrinkling in mock thought. "Currently undecided."

Didn't think so. "Okay, we'll leave you as the lollipop and me as the kid awhile longer."

Sheena rolled her eyes, but there, finally, it was, the whole point of his ridiculous innuendo: her grin was now out in full. "Good choice."

"Yeah, I thought so too." He smirked. "Can't have the lollipop deciding the kid is completely hopeless and dumping him for the big bully or another kid obsessed with wearing red and wielding two swords-" Her eyes narrowed and she growled at him, and Zelos lifted his hands in a show of innocence. "Y'know what? I'm going to shut up now."

"That would be another good choice," she said, still grinning, but her face quickly sank again. Damn. Apparently the moment had now passed and she'd returned to thinking about what was soon to come. Ah, well, at least he'd distracted her for a few minutes. "If you're right about Orochi 'tattling' on us, then we really will have to tell Grandpa we eloped."

Zelos nodded. While he wasn't eager to break it to Igaguri that they'd run off and gotten married yesterday, he couldn't see another way around this. Not that trying to conceal the truth from someone as sharp as Igaguri had been on his agenda for today anyway. "Yeah. Or at least we won't hide it from him. We don't have to tell him right away; we just won't deny it if he asks us." Biting her lip, Sheena eyed him again, and he sighed, touching her face and smiling reassuringly. "Sheena, it'll be okay. Well get through this. I promise. Trust me."

She watched him another moment, her brows furrowed, but finally she, too, sighed. "Okay."

Good. She really did trust him. That fact would probably always amaze him, but as unwarranted as it seemed from his perspective, he would not let her down. Once again unable to resist, though, he shrugged and smirked. "Besides, I did enough smooth talking during my time as the Chosen that I can now talk my way out of pretty much anything."

Her eyes narrowed further, but there, again, was that smile he adored so much. "And that is supposed to reassure me?"

His smirk broadened and he placed his hand to her back, choosing to ignore that. "C'mon, sweetheart," he said, urging her toward Mizuho. "Let's get this over with."

Sheena nodded faintly, but before Zelos could so much as take a single step, she hopped up on her toes, cradled his face in her hands, and pressed her lips to his in a breathtaking, almost desperate, kiss. Her sudden, unexpected passion surprised him, but he quickly surrendered to it, his hands falling to her waist and pulling her body taut against his. And again, he found himself tempted to grab her, haul her off the path, and have his way with her, because based on the neediness and hunger in her kiss, she actually might be game for it right now - but again, he dismissed the notion. After all, the one thing that would make this already dangerous upcoming situation infinitely worse was if the 'kid' dragged his 'lollipop' back to Mizuho in a complete, albeit well-satisfied, disarray and covered with dirt, leaves, and tiny twigs that made it obvious what they'd been doing out here. He couldn't do that - not to himself, knowing what Orochi would do to him, and not to her, knowing the embarrassment and punishment that would await her.

And so instead Zelos just went with it, enjoying it and giving her what she needed right then, the comfort and reassurance that he was real and that he was with her and that he wouldn't let her fall, until finally she pulled back, her brown eyes full of both love and fear as they opened and met his. "Just because I don't know when I'll be able to do that again," she whispered, giving him a shaky smile.

Zelos smiled, resting his forehead against hers and brushing her nose with his, then he gave her another quick kiss and pulled her into a tight hug, placing one hand to her back and weaving the other into her hair, holding her to him. "I'm not going anywhere, sweetheart," he whispered in her ear.

"I know," she said, sinking into his embrace. And for a long moment they just stood like that, clinging to each other, until finally Sheena took a deep breath, stepped back, and nodded. "Okay. Let's do this." Releasing each other completely - as hard as it was to keep his hands off of her, especially now that she was his, Zelos wouldn't risk pissing off his new people by flaunting 'illegal' displays of affection in front of them - they gave each other one last smile, then turned and continued walking toward Mizuho.

A few minutes later they were entering the village, where Atsuo bowed his head to them, and then they were heading toward Igaguri's home, everything around them, thankfully, seeming to be business as usual. While most of the villagers greeted them, no one seemed surprised to see them or started murmuring about them, either, which told Zelos that any drama that had surrounded Sheena's 'disappearance' from here two days ago had been limited to Orochi and Igaguri. And then it hit him as he looked around, taking in everything: this village was his home now. He wasn't sure he'd ever had a home before, a place he'd always associated with family and love and a feeling of comfort and acceptance, but now...as uncertain as the future might always be, this place really did feel like home to him, because for the first time ever, he actually had those things here. Well, the acceptance part would undoubtedly still take some work, although he hoped he at least had a head start with that, but he did have a family of his own now, and he did have love, and if he was lucky, acceptance would eventually follow. It was a small, quiet village, but it was his small, quiet village. And he was okay with that.

They were a short distance from the gate when Zelos heard his name, followed by Sheena's, and next he knew, a smiling Michi ran up to them. "Hey, kid," Zelos greeted him, grinning.

"Hi, Michi," Sheena said, likewise offering Michi a smile.

"How's it goin'?" Zelos asked.

"Really good!" Michi replied excitedly. "Those books my instructors gave me to get me caught up for next season are really interesting!"

"Yeah, thought you might like those." Zelos gave Sheena a knowing grin. "What a shocker, eh? Our little ninja prodigy here likes books."

Sheena chuckled. "No, I am definitely not surprised by that."

"Didn't think so." Zelos gave Michi a pointed look. "And your training?"

Michi's smile faltered, but he did nod. "It's okay." Oh, good. He still might not be enthused about having to do it, but at least he is doing it, Zelos noted. Before he could push that further, though, Michi's face fell further. "I was worried you wouldn't be back, Zelos. I haven't seen you in days! And then yesterday Orochi said you weren't welcome here anymore and that if he ever saw you here again, he would..."

Michi's voice trailed off, which told Zelos everything he needed to know, and a quick glance at Sheena's darkening face told him she'd deduced the same: Orochi was willing to use force to make him leave. He quickly shrugged, though, wanting to alleviate Michi's concern. "I just had some stuff to take care of in Meltokio; that's why I haven't been around much lately. And whatever Orochi said about me, don't worry about it." He looked around furtively to see if anyone was watching them, then he leaned closer to Michi, his voice lowering conspiratorially. "The truth is, I'm here for good now."

Michi's eyes widened as Zelos grinned. Heh. Thought you'd like that, kid. "You are?"

"Yep, yep!" He motioned at Sheena. "Sheena can vouch for me."

Michi looked hopefully at Sheena, who smiled and nodded. "Yeah. He really is here for good this time, Michi."

Zelos arched an eyebrow as Michi looked back at him, amazed. "Remember what I said I was considering doing one day?"

Unsurprisingly, Michi's eyes lit up even further. "You're moving here!"

"I sure am," Zelos said, giving Sheena a knowing grin that she shyly returned.

Michi looked between them excitedly. "Does that mean you two are...?"

Yep, he's a sharp, perceptive kid all right. "Heh, that's exactly what that means."

Sheena blinked a few times, then looked sharply at Zelos, her eyes narrowing. "Wait, are you saying Michi knew you were planning to ask me to marry you before I did?"

Zelos chuckled. "No, no, Michi didn't know that; he just knew I was considering moving here." He shrugged again. "It just happened to come up in one of our chats, which was around the time I started seriously considering doing so."

"Good," she murmured, smiling teasingly. "I'd hate to have to beat you up for telling everyone else about this before you actually told me."

Michi's eyes narrowed in confusion, and Zelos waved that off. "Eh, don't worry about it, kid. Sheena is just feeling violent toward me today. In any case, I'm sure Chief Igaguri will make an announcement about that soon, so think you could keep this our little secret until then?"

"Okay!" Michi said brightly, but his face quickly fell again. "Does Orochi know that? Is that why he's so upset with you? Because he sounded really sure you wouldn't be back..."

Zelos cast another uncertain glance at Sheena, whose face darkened further. "We aren't sure what Orochi knows yet," she said. "But I won't let him hurt Zelos. I know Grandpa won't, either."

Michi watched her a moment uncertainly, but then he smiled again. "Okay. Please don't, Sheena, because I'm really looking forward to having Zelos here!"

Sheena looked back at Zelos, her smile instantly returning. "Yeah...so am I."

And despite the uncertainty of the situation awaiting them here, Zelos smiled. It felt so damn good to be wanted here, and not just by Sheena. Even if only a few people here ever accepted him like this, it was still one of the greatest feelings in the world. "And I'm looking forward to being here," he said - and he meant it. Oh, did he mean it. He opened his mouth to try to express that, but before he could, a familiar figure in the distance caught his attention, and he shut it again, frowning. Aw, crap. So much for going straight to Igaguri's house. He motioned discreetly at Orochi, who had spotted them and was heading toward them, looking, as expected, irritated. Yeah...peachy. "Speaking of the devil...you'd better get out of here before he makes it here, kid. No reason to get you involved in this when he only wants Sheena and me."

Michi quickly turned and looked...and his face fell again. "...Oh. Right. Okay." Turning back to them, he gave them a shy smile. "Then I'll see you later, Zelos?"

Zelos grinned. "I'll be here."

"Bye, Michi," Sheena said, waving to him as he ran off.

"Here we go," Zelos muttered, giving Sheena a faint smile as she glanced nervously at him.

And then Orochi was stalking up to them, his face terse. "Sheena," he greeted them coldly. "Chosen. So you've finally returned."

Sheena folded her arms to her chest, all visible nervousness gone as she met his glare. "Afternoon, Orochi, just like we promised."

Orochi arched an eyebrow. "You won't be leaving again in an hour to take care of 'more important business' elsewhere?"

Her lips pursed in building anger, and Zelos briefly considered touching her arm to calm her down, but afraid Orochi would accuse him of 'indecently touching her' and slice off his hands, he resisted the urge. "No," she said. "We're back for good now."

"I will believe that when it happens," Orochi stated, eyeing them both disapprovingly. "By the way, Chief Igaguri wants to see you both. Immediately."

"That's where we're heading," Sheena replied, mock-cheerfulness dripping from her voice.

Orochi lifted his head and gave them, to Zelos's surprise, a faint smirk. "Do you require another reminder of where his house is located?"

Without warning, fire flared in Sheena's eyes, taking Zelos aback. Whoa...that was not how he'd expected her to react to that. He quickly stepped toward her as he saw her fists clench. He might not know why that had pissed her off so much, but he could hear Orochi's mocking tone, and that was obviously fanning the flames further. C'mon, love, calm down, he silently pleaded with her. Don't lose your cool before we've talked to your grandfather. "Let it go," he said, lowering his voice as he leaned closer to her. "Let's just get going."

Sheena glared at Orochi another moment, silently considering that, but then she breathed in deeply and nodded. "We're going now."

Zelos hung back as she sidestepped Orochi and headed further into the village, then he gave the ninja a warning glare. "Be careful, Orochi. Push her too hard and she'll snap. And trust me, you do not want that."

Orochi took a menacing step closer to him. "You will pay for what you have done to her, Chosen."

Oh, Orochi, if only you knew. "No, I won't."

Fury flared again in Orochi's eyes. "Yes, you will. I do not understand why Sheena persists in defending you after everything you have done to her, but she cannot protect you much longer."

Zelos arched a challenging eyebrow, refusing to be cowed when he and Sheena hadn't done anything wrong. "Maybe we should let Chief Igaguri decide that."

And there, again, was that atypical smirk. "Yes. Let us do that."

Yep, Orochi had definitely told Igaguri about this morning. And while he should leave it at that, Zelos couldn't resist returning Orochi's smirk. "I think you'll be surprised."

"Oh, I do not believe so, Chosen," Orochi stated, a little too confidently.

Zelos took a step forward, his smirk broadening. "Yes, Orochi, you will." Instead of letting Orochi respond to that, though, Zelos jogged around him toward Sheena, quickly catching up to her, and they walked the rest of the way to Igaguri's house in silence. As she went to open the door, though, he stepped in front of her, stopping her. With a quick look to make sure no villagers were nearby, he grabbed her shoulders and spun her around until her back was pressed against the wall by the door, then he released her and took a step closer to her, placing his hands on the wall on either side of her, careful not to touch her again.

"Hey," he said, keeping his voice low. "Calm down, sweetheart. Ignore him."

Her brown eyes widened in surprise at his sudden, forceful change of position, but then they flared again. "I'm trying, Zelos. It's just he..."

Oh, yeah, that was a scream of frustration she'd just bitten back. Zelos nodded. "I know. Take a deep breath and count to five. There's no need for anger with your grandfather. He likes us, remember? Both of us."

Thankfully, she did as he'd instructed - and, even better, when she opened her eyes again, a good portion of the fire there had died out. Not all of it yet, but it was significantly better than it had been. "Okay."

So he still had a little more work to do to calm her down completely before they approached Igaguri, eh? He could do that. He grinned cheekily. "I'd kiss you right now but I'd probably be swarmed by a hundred crazy ninjas and either dragged out of the village by my hair or thrown in the well."

Sheena sighed as she met his eyes again, but thankfully even more of the fire raging there died out. A moment later, she even graced him with a faint smile. "How are you able to do that? Calm me down so quickly?"

His grin broadened. Ooh, Sheena, you just like inviting trouble, don't you? And believe me, I'm gonna take advantage of it. "I have excellent Sheena Sense."

Her face contorted in confusion. "'Sheena Sense'? Do I even want to know what that is?"

Getting her to walk into his traps was almost too easy. Zelos really thought she would've learned by now how to prevent him from slipping into stupid, 'make-Sheena-smile' mode, but obviously she hadn't. "It's my sixth sense. I've had it since the day we met. I instinctively know all your buttons, both the good ones and the bad. Push this one...instant slap on the face. Push that one...instant anger deflate-o-matic." Smirking, he leaned closer, pretending as if he was going to kiss her only to divert his lips to her ear at the last second, his voice lowering to a husky, suggestive whisper. "I'm pretty sure I discovered a few new buttons last night and this morning, too, buttons with some rather...explosive...results..."

Exactly as he'd wanted, Sheena turned bright red and smacked his shoulder, venting even more of her frustration out onto him - but, Zelos also noted, she was grinning again, too, despite her embarrassment. "You are an impossible, perverted idiot."

"And you wouldn't want me any other way," he murmured, his male pride beaming as she shivered at the feel of his warm breath on her ear. A moment later he pulled back, still grinning, and arched an eyebrow at her. "Feeling calmer now?"

She chuckled shyly, her gaze drifting down to his lips. "Yeah, much. Thanks."

Zelos took a step backward, releasing her, his grin softening as he playfully bowed to her. "It was my pleasure. I quite enjoy flirting with my lovely wife." She laughed softly again, her head sinking downward, but then she looked back up at him as he motioned at the door. "Now c'mon, sweetheart. Let's do this."

"Right." She took a deep breath, then turned to the door, knocked, pulled it open, and stepped inside, Zelos following her and closing it behind them. "Grandpa?" she called out. "We're back."

"Sheena!" By the time they'd taken off their shoes in the genkan, Igaguri was standing in the main room, waiting for them. The instant he saw them, he smiled warmly and walked toward them, engulfing Sheena in a hug. "I am glad to see you have returned safely. You have no idea how worried I was when I heard nothing from you for so long."

"Sorry 'bout that, Grandpa," she said with a sheepish smile. "We had a few things we needed to take care of before we could come back."

"So I understood from the message you sent with Orochi." Releasing her, Igaguri turned to Zelos, still smiling. "Chosen. And you have no idea how relieved I am to see you here."

Zelos grinned and bowed to Igaguri as Sheena had taught him was the customary greeting here. "Heh. You can't get rid of me that easily, Chief Igaguri."

"And thank Jizou for that." A moment later, though, his smile faded as he watched Zelos. "I owe you many apologies for causing such a difficult, painful situation for you both. Rest assured that the next time you voice your opinion about what is best for my granddaughter, I will listen far more attentively."

"Eh, don't worry about it," Zelos said, waving that off. Igaguri hadn't done it intentionally; what had happened was a combination of a lot of factors - Sheena's doubts about the future, Zelos's doubts about himself, and then, finally, the timeframe that Igaguri had imposed on them. "Everything worked out fine in the end. No permanent harm was done."

Instantly, Igaguri's smile returned and he bowed his head. "I am glad to hear that." He arched an expectant eyebrow at Sheena. "And I trust you have learned your own lessons from this, dear child?"

Sheena gave Zelos a brief but embarrassed smile before turning back to him. "Definitely, Grandpa. Believe me, I won't make the same mistake twice."

"Very good," Igaguri said, but his smile faded again as he looked back at Zelos. "And for being so forgiving and for giving her another chance, Chosen, I owe you many thanks."

That, too, Zelos waved off. How could he not have forgiven her? She'd done what she had with the best of intentions, to try to spare him from what she thought would be a life of misery, and when she'd realized the truly miserable life for him would be one that didn't include her, she'd been sincerely sorry for it. Besides, she'd more than made up for it already. "Sheena deserved it," he replied. "What happened was a simple, mistaken assumption made with good intentions. I can't very well hold that against her, can I?"

"No, I suppose not. But still, I do thank you." Zelos smiled and nodded, accepting that, even if he still didn't think it was necessary, but then Igaguri looked back at Sheena, his smile softening. "So, he must have given you proof of engagement...let me see it!" Sheena bit her lip, her blush returning, then she lifted her left hand, showing him the ring. Igaguri's smile broadened as he leaned closer, observing it. "Ah, stunning. Classy without appearing as if he is attempting to buy your love. An excellent choice, Chos-" Without warning, his eyes narrowed and he lifted her hand closer to him. "Sheena. Is that an...?"

"Yeah, it is," she whispered, her blush deepening further.

"He gave you an...?" Igaguri stared at the ring another moment, but then his eyes snapped up to hers, his gaze intense. "Does he know?"

Sheena beamed Zelos one of the shiest, most loving smiles he'd ever seen...which only served to confuse him further. Why were they reacting like this over a ring? Sure, he was extremely proud of it, as he was of that entire set, but it was a ring, not something he would've expected someone like her to get so excited over. Hell, he hadn't been certain back at New Year's that she'd even accept such an expensive jewelry set, let alone wear it!

"No, he doesn't," she said softly, turning back to her grandfather. "Not yet."

Zelos blinked at them blankly. Okay, this really wasn't making sense. What was the deal with her ring? And what didn't he know yet? "I'm missing something here."

Igaguri cast a sharp glance at him before turning back to Sheena, his eyes narrowing sharply. "Sheena, you are telling me he gave you this without knowing?" Furthering Zelos's confusion, though, Sheena nodded shyly and bit her lip, and Igaguri shook his head, smiling in amazement. "Well, well. Won't he be surprised when he finds out?"

All right, that was enough. Zelos's curiosity couldn't take this anymore. "Okay, would someone please just fill me in on whatever it is I'm missing here?"

Sheena gave him another soft, loving smile, her face still beautifully red. "I'll tell you later."

He eyed her a moment, but she truly seemed to mean that, so he'd let it go. Chances were she would tell him once they're returned home. He wasn't sure his curiosity could wait that long, and he again considered pushing now, but before he could decide, Igaguri smiled and grasped Sheena's shoulders. "You, dear child, have made a very good choice."

Still blushing, Sheena smiled happily and glanced again at Zelos. "Believe me, I know."

"I do not doubt that." Igaguri looked between them one last time, but then he released Sheena and motioned at the mats on the floor. "Anyway, now that that is settled, please, have a seat. We have much to discuss." They did as instructed, and once everyone was situated, Igaguri took a deep breath and observed them a moment, his smile falling. And just like that, Zelos knew what was coming. Only one thing could make Igaguri that unhappy right now. "Unfortunately, before we can begin examining your new duties here, I am afraid I must address certain accusations that have recently been brought to my attention."

"Orochi," Zelos mumbled.

Igaguri bowed his head. "Mizuho law states that an engaged couple is not permitted to share a bed, nor even a home, until they have been officially married. However, this morning Orochi returned from Meltokio swearing he had caught you two doing something meant only for married couples. Is this true?"

Aw, damn, Zelos thought as he glanced at Sheena to gauge her reaction. Not only was her face bright red, but her eyes had widened, giving her a classic 'Uh oh, busted!' expression. And he'd tried to warn her this would be coming, too. But eh, the cat was out of the bag now. He might as well just have fun with it - because they really hadn't done anything wrong, and he had no doubt Igaguri would soon recognize that.

Groaning, he shook his head. "Sheena, remind me to never let you use my money to play poker."

Sheena blinked a few times, then turned sharply toward him, her brows furrowing. "What?"

Zelos motioned at Igaguri. "You just answered his question."

Her eyes widened. "I...I didn't say anything!"

He chuckled. Oh, how I love this woman. "Sweetheart, you have the worst poker face I've ever seen."

Naturally, her blush deepened and her shoulders sank. "...Oh. Sorry."

"Eh, don't worry about it," Zelos said, shrugging. "It's too late now. The damage is done."

"I was afraid of that," Igaguri murmured sadly.

"Well, for the record, he didn't catch us doing anything," Zelos quickly said, lifting his finger. "He just inferred based on the fact that he saw me retrieve Sheena's clothes from my room, in an unfortunate state of disarray, and take them to her in the shower."

"I see." Igaguri eyed him carefully. "However, you have now confirmed that there was, in fact, legitimate cause for his concern."

Zelos nodded curtly. Might as well be upfront about this. "Yeah. Not denying that."

Igaguri looked between them, clearly hoping they would provide an alternate explanation, but when neither did, he frowned. "You do realize that I cannot permit this, do you not? Any sexual activity between a man and a woman before marriage is strictly forbidden here, as I thought I had made clear to you, Chosen. That is why I inquired regarding your physical relationship with my granddaughter and emphasized the importance of keeping her pure for her husband, even if that man should one day be you. I am afraid Orochi will not let this go quietly and I will be forced to punish you both to set an example for the other villagers."

"Grandpa, don't blame Zelos," Sheena suddenly said, her face an odd combination of panic, pleading, and embarrassment. "Yes, we slept together, but we didn't do anything wrong, even according to Mizuho's strictest laws!"

Unsurprisingly, Igaguri's eyebrows flew upward. Zelos slapped his palm to his face, briefly considering groaning, but then he succumbed to the far more appropriate laugh instead. "Y'know, Sheena, it's a really good thing we weren't planning on hiding the truth from him."

Her head snapped toward him as he lowered the hand from his face. "Now what did I say?"

"You just told him the rest of the story." He grinned at the cute, confused expression that crossed her face. She hadn't even realized what she'd done, which just made it all the more endearing. A moment later, however, her eyes widened as she clearly caught his meaning, and she quickly looked back at Igaguri - who, Zelos noted, was now looking far more amused than he was angry or disappointed. Yep, the man was definitely putting the pieces together. "Eh, don't worry about it. Might as well just be honest with him."

Igaguri looked at him expectantly. "Chosen?"

"Yes, we did," Zelos said, having no doubt Igaguri would catch his meaning - which he clearly did, seeing as he immediately relaxed.

"Ah, I see." His eyebrows rose. "So that is why you did not return to Mizuho yesterday?"

"Yeah," Zelos said. "We were a little...busy."

"Yes, I suppose you were," Igaguri replied, observing them thoughtfully. "So may I ask why you two chose to elope?"

Sheena's eyes widened and snapped back to Zelos. "How did he know that?"

Zelos chuckled. "Ah, Sheena, I love you, you know that, but for someone whose business is dealing in secrets, you're terrible at keeping secrets when they involve you. Rare instances where you're breaking my heart excluded, of course." He cocked his head, reconsidering. "Although even then, you didn't do the best job of it because it was still obvious something was wrong with you..." Whoops, getting distracted again. He quickly shook his head, forcing himself back on topic. "In any case, next time, if you want to keep something a secret, let me do the talking."

"Yeah, because that worked so well the last time, dear, when you were trying not to let me know you were thinking of proposing," she countered, grinning wryly.

"...Oh." Yeah, okay, so she had seen through his pathetic lies to avoid her, hadn't she? He'd have to work on that and try to keep up those skills...just not with her. "Good point. But still, I'm better at lying than you are. Y'know, years of experience as the Chosen, manipulating people and circumstances to my own benefit."

Igaguri's eyes narrowed. "I fail to see that as a good thing, Chosen."

"...Oh," Zelos repeated, smiling sheepishly as he glanced back at Igaguri. Whoops. Forgot Sheena's grandfather was listening. "Yeah, I suppose you wouldn't, would you? Heh."

Igaguri sighed again, but thankfully the smile toying on his lips told Zelos he was letting him off the hook this time. A moment later, though, his face grew somber as he looked between them again. "Now, would one of you please explain your reasoning behind eloping rather than allowing me to marry you in the traditional Mizuhoan fashion?"

Zelos glanced at Sheena and nodded faintly, deferring the question to her. "Well, originally we were going to wait, Grandpa," she said. "But then we started talking about it, and we realized both Mizuho and Meltokio will want to officiate the ceremony - Mizuho because I'm becoming chief here, and Meltokio because Zelos is a big name there - and, well, neither wedding really fit us so we started considering other options. And to be honest, I didn't want to wait months to get married while we worked out all the tedious wedding details. I knew I wouldn't be changing my mind about marrying Zelos, and...well, we both wanted a quiet wedding for us and were afraid we wouldn't get another chance to make that happen once we came back here, so we decided to do it yesterday. It was my idea..."

"I'm the one who made it happen, though," Zelos quickly added.

"...But I'm the one who pushed to do it." She gave Zelos a soft smile. "And I don't regret it. I'll never regret it."

The sheer happiness in her eyes sent a wave of warmth and love washing over him. "Me neither."

"Mm," Igaguri murmured, lifting his head a little. "I see."

"And keep in mind that by doing it this way, we eliminated the undoubtedly volatile situation that would've arisen between Mizuho and Meltokio as they fought over where our wedding would be held and which would be considered 'official,'" Zelos said. "I know you want to use my connections to Mizuho's benefit, Chief Igaguri, so I seriously doubt you'd want to start an incident with them over this." He shrugged. "Now it won't matter who holds our wedding first since neither is technically official. Not that either city needs to know that, of course."

Igaguri's eyes narrowed. "So you still plan to go through with these other two weddings?"

Sheena nodded. "Of course. We don't plan to tell everyone we're married; only a few people know that. Lloyd and Colette, the priest who married us, Zelos's butler, and now you."

"And like I said, we never planned to hide it from you, Chief Igaguri," Zelos added for emphasis.

"Mm," Igaguri repeated. He observed them thoughtfully a moment, but then his eyebrows rose. "Do you have proof this wedding occurred? I believe you, but I must be certain."

"Of course. Here's our marriage certificate..." Zelos grabbed his bag and rifled through it until he located the indicated document. Igaguri took it from him and looked it over, then nodded in approval. "Oh, and we had Colette take these pictures so we could show you." He dug through his bag again, pulled out the pictures, and handed them to Igaguri. "And, of course, there's my ring." He pulled out the chain around his neck as Igaguri looked up from the pictures at him. A moment later Igaguri nodded again, and Zelos let the ring fall back down to his chest.

Igaguri flipped through the pictures, his face softening a little further with each new one he saw. Zelos had been impressed by their quality; every picture had turned out perfectly, exactly what he'd wanted to commemorate the day, and Sheena had indicated she felt the same about them. Colette really did have an artistic eye, and he was glad she was starting to explore it. He and Sheena had decided earlier that they really would have to thank her properly for that and do their best to encourage her to keep developing that talent.

"Ah, these are beautiful," Igaguri said after a moment, his smile growing even more grandfatherly the more he saw. "You look lovely, Sheena-" Abruptly, his voice cut off and his eyes narrowed as he lifted one of the close-up pictures so he could see it better. "Sheena, the necklace you are wearing in this picture...does it match your ring?"

"Yeah, it does." She reached into her pocket, pulled out the necklace, and handed it to him, then held up her right hand. "My bracelet, too."

For a surprisingly long moment, Igaguri observed first the necklace, then her bracelet, before nodding thoughtfully. "I have seen you wearing this bracelet for several months now, but I never saw the pendant up close. When did the Chosen give you this?"

"New Year's," Sheena said, giving Zelos another surprisingly shy smile. And again they were going on and on about the iris set, but still no one was telling him what they were talking about. He was starting to get frustrated, feeling like he was being intentionally excluded from the punch line of a particularly funny joke.

"You have had this that long," Igaguri murmured. His eyes snapped up to hers and he gave her a pointed look. "If I had known what this was, child, I would have scolded you far more harshly for your choice two days ago than I did."

Sheena let out a soft, self-deprecating laugh as she took the necklace from him and put it away. "Believe me, Grandpa, I've scolded myself enough for the both of us."

Igaguri smiled faintly. "Yes, I believe you have." His eyes darted at Zelos. "And you are certain he does not know?"

Note to self: taunting people with something you know that they don't is downright infuriating. That must be how Sheena felt every time he refused to tell her one of his schemes. Now he could understand why she was always ready to strangle him whenever he did that to her. "Know what?" he said, lifting his hands in the air.

Sheena, however, just chuckled and gave Zelos another happy, loving smile before turning back to Igaguri. "Positive, Grandpa."

Igaguri shook his head in obvious amazement as he, too, gave Zelos another smile before turning back to Sheena. "Then I am doubly impressed by your choice of a spouse, Sheena."

Okay, this was crazy. Zelos decided he was never tormenting her by dangling a carrot in front of her like this again. "Sheena..." he began, but she quickly shook her head, cutting him off.

"Later, Zelos," she said, the softness of her eyes telling him she meant that. "I promise."

Before he could argue that further, though, Igaguri cleared his throat and handed the photos back to Zelos. "In any case, thank you for taking these for me. My only disappointment is that I was unable to witness the event myself and to give away my granddaughter."

"I wanted you there, Grandpa," Sheena replied wistfully. "I really did. But would you really have let us go through with it if we'd come back here to get you?"

Igaguri sighed. "No, most likely not. Despite that, I understand why you made the choice you did and am very happy for you both. Chosen, I welcome you into my family. May you both be blessed with great happiness and success."

Zelos breathed a sigh of relief. Oh, good. That was how he'd hoped Igaguri would react to this news: with understanding and acceptance. He really hadn't wanted to get on his intimidating grandfather-in-law's bad side when they couldn't change what they'd done yesterday. He smiled. "Thank you, Chief Igaguri. I'm glad to be here."

Sheena's eyes widened in surprise. "So you're not mad at us for eloping?"

"How can I be?" Igaguri replied. "You are both adults; this was your choice to make, and you made the one that was right for you. If neither of you regrets your decision, which you clearly do not, then I cannot be upset about it. As I said, I am disappointed solely that I was unable to attend myself. However, you thought to bring me these pictures, and for that I am very grateful." He motioned at Zelos. "Additionally, the Chosen speaks truly; in doing this, you have eliminated conflict between Mizuho and Meltokio over the 'rights' to your official wedding. Mizuho will allow Meltokio to hold the first ceremony in the spirit of peace and harmony and in hopes of a new future of cooperation. I am also glad you still intend to participate in our traditional ceremony. Certain rites are performed for a reason, especially when the couple in question is accepting such important leadership roles in the village, and I would have been disappointed had you eloped solely to avoid it."

"I won't lie to you, Chief Igaguri," Zelos said. "I'm not looking forward to it, but I also know that's the kind of thing I've signed on for by marrying Sheena, so I won't run from it."

"Just like I'm not looking forward to the Meltokio wedding, but I know I signed on for those kinds of events when I married Zelos, so I'm not running from them, either," Sheena added, giving Zelos an appreciative smile. "He may not be the Chosen anymore, but Tethe'alla will always view him as such. Besides, he still has a high position in the government, and like you said, Grandpa, it fosters goodwill with Meltokio. I can't deny that to Mizuho."

Igaguri gave them both pleased smiles. "As I said, Chosen, love is an amazingly powerful thing that can lead us to do things we would never consider doing otherwise for the sake of the one we love." Without warning, though, he sighed, his face falling. "Your choice to do this, however, places me in the awkward position of having to explain to the villagers why I am permitting you to live together before your 'marriage' here."

Zelos's eyebrows rose. That sounded promising. He'd been afraid he would have to grovel to get Igaguri's permission to do that. "So you won't object to that?"

"How can I?" Igaguri replied, looking between them. "You are now legally - and physically - married. You have every right to spend your time together as you wish. I cannot stand between a husband and his wife, nor would I even try to do so, especially when the couple in question has proven to be inseparable anyway, as you two have. And truly, I do owe you, Chosen, for causing such a difficult situation in the first place. I suspect this would have played out very differently, and perhaps more traditionally, had I listened to your opinion from the start."

"Like I said, don't worry about it," Zelos assured him. "Sure, it was painful for awhile there, but in the end everything turned out fine." He gave Sheena a knowing smile, relieved to see that instead of being distressed by their mention of the break-up, she returned his smile shyly. "Heck, as far as I'm concerned, everything turned out great."

"Good. And I assure you I will do everything in my power to aid your transition into your new roles here, including granting you permission to live together starting immediately." Without warning, Igaguri gave them both a pointed look. "However, in return I must ask that you not make it...obvious...when you are engaging in the sexual rights granted to married couples."

It took all of Zelos's restraint not to burst out laughing as Sheena's eyes widened and her face flared at his insinuation. "Grandpa..."

"Keep it quiet," Zelos answered for her - and while he managed to hold back his laughter, he couldn't resist grinning. Yeah, okay, so discussing sex with Sheena's grandfather was weird, but he had to admit, it was pretty damn amusing, too. "Got it. I think we can manage that."

Igaguri bowed his head. "Thank you. There is no reason to lead the villagers to believe you are doing something inappropriate when, in fact, you are not." His face grew somber as he looked between them. "Then regarding that matter, I have one final question to ask you, Chosen. I am sure you will not be happy about it, but since you admitted you have now consummated your marriage, I am afraid it must be asked." He gave Zelos a pointed look that made him cringe. Aw, crap. Don't ask it, Igaguri. Just don't. Please. "Was Sheena pure for you?"

Zelos groaned and buried his face in his hand. Yep, that was exactly what he'd been afraid Igaguri was going to ask him. While he knew he could give Igaguri the answer he wanted, because it was true, damn it, he shouldn't have to answer that question. Mizuho wasn't a barbaric village, not by a long shot - in fact, it was one of the most progressive cultures in Tethe'alla seeing as they were making a woman their chief - but on this particular issue, it almost seemed that way. He didn't even care anymore about their restriction against premarital sex, because he really was glad they'd waited for that (although granted, if it were up to him, he wouldn't punish infringements so severely), but what was with their obsession with female virginity? That was one thing he was definitely going to hate about Mizuho, and once Sheena became chief, he'd have to talk to her about toning down those laws a bit.

But right now, Igaguri had asked him the one question he had no business asking. "I can't believe I have to answer that," Zelos mumbled, lowering his hand and pursing his lips as he met Igaguri's gaze - and a quick glance at Sheena showed that not only was her face bright red again, but she was looking down at the table with obvious discomfort, her arms wrapped around her chest as if she was trying to curl in on herself. And that, her current humiliation, as he was sure any woman in her position would be feeling, was exactly why it was no one's business but theirs alone. And if Igaguri really had to ask him that, why couldn't he have done it in private, when Sheena wasn't here? It took all his restraint not to growl in frustration. "Have I mentioned lately how much I hate the way Mizuho views its women's so-called 'purity'?"

"I understand that, Chosen," Igaguri replied. "Your culture is significantly different from ours on this subject, so your views are understandable. And it is possible that one day you and your wife will change our views. However, until that happens, Mizuho law states that a woman must be pure for her husband on their wedding day. Believe me, I am not happy to be asking you this, either, but unfortunately, Sheena's purity has been brought into question by one of the villagers, and as Mizuho's chief, I have no choice but to seek an answer to it. If Orochi had not voiced his concerns, I truly would not have asked this. However, he has, and, therefore, I must. So please, Chosen, answer the question. As her husband, you are the only one other than Sheena herself who would know this. Was she pure for you?"

Agh, he hated this so, so much - and he especially hated that Igaguri would only take his word for it instead of taking Sheena's word. But he believed Igaguri, too, that he really wouldn't have asked if Orochi hadn't pushed the issue. Then, fine. He wouldn't get out of this without raising a fuss - and raising a fuss would only make it look like he was trying to hide something, so he wouldn't do it for fear of casting unwarranted suspicion on Sheena herself.

He looked Igaguri in the eye, determined to sell the truth for what it was. "Yes. She was."

"Very good," Igaguri said, bowing his head. "Thank you, Chosen. That is all I need to know." He relaxed and sat up straighter. "In any case, now that that is addressed-" Without warning, a knock came from the main door, and his face brightened. "Ah, that would be Orochi. I asked him to join us half an hour after your return. Naturally, he is right on time."

Sheena looked up sharply, her face paling and her eyes widening. "Grandpa..."

Igaguri shook his head. "Do not worry, child. Orochi will understand and accept the truth - although I must warn you that we will have to inform him you are now married. I am afraid there is no other way around this. He was quite upset before, believing you two had violated our laws, and the only way to convince him you have done nothing wrong is to explain to him why it is you have done nothing wrong."

Zelos sighed, suddenly feeling exhausted - and terrified. Igaguri was going to tell Orochi they'd gotten married. Wonderful. "And here I was starting to actually, y'know, like my life."

"He will not harm you, Chosen," Igaguri said, chuckling. "If he does, he will be severely punished for it since, by marrying Sheena, you are now one of our people." His eyes narrowed knowingly. "And since you appear to be aware of the same thing regarding Orochi that I am, you will understand why I say he must learn to let it go, accept you, and find someone else. That will not happen until he realizes he no longer has another choice."

"I really hope you're right about that," Zelos murmured. Oh, yeah, an angry Orochi out for his blood was so much fun. At least Igaguri knew the truth now - and hopefully Orochi had meant it when he'd said he would let Igaguri decide Zelos's fate for 'doing what he had' to Sheena.

"You shall see."

Igaguri called out for Orochi to enter, and a minute later Orochi stepped inside. While he didn't look at Sheena, who kept her eyes carefully trained on Igaguri's table, he did glare smugly at Zelos. Oh, yeah, this is already as much fun as a barrel full of monkeys, Zelos thought, biting back a sigh. "You wanted to see me, Chief Igaguri?"

"Yes, I did. Please, Orochi, have a seat." Igaguri motioned at a mat on the floor beside him, and Orochi knelt on it, his glare never leaving Zelos. A moment later, though, Igaguri sighed wearily. "However, I must insist there be no more of that, Orochi. The Chosen is welcome here, and I will not permit any further glaring at him."

Orochi's lips pursed, but he did finally look away from Zelos. "Chief Igaguri, how can you say that after how badly he has hurt Sheena? First two days ago, and now he has-"

"Oh, did he, now?" Igaguri cut him off, arching an eyebrow at him. "Do you have proof that he hurt Sheena? Start with what happened two days ago."

Orochi turned his gaze first to Sheena, who still couldn't look at him, then back to Zelos. "Two days ago, Sheena returned to the village in a state of disarray and distress that made it obvious she had been seriously hurt. It appeared the Chosen had either molested her or had attempted to molest her and she had fought him off."

"So you are saying you did not actually witness the Chosen abusing her," Igaguri clarified.

"No, Chief Igaguri, but the Chosen was the last person to see her before she returned to Mizuho like that, and so the conclusion is logical," he said.

Igaguri's eyebrows rose again. "Is it, now? Did Sheena tell you that is what happened?"

Orochi blinked once, then twice, as he looked back at Sheena. "No, but..."

"Did the Chosen tell you that is what happened?"

Orochi's face hardened. "Of course not. He has said nothing about the matter. However, even if he had, I would not believe him, for all he speaks are lies."

"Calling someone of a liar is a serious accusation, Orochi," Igaguri said. "Be careful what you say if you do not have proof of it for it could result in serious consequences for yourself."

"But Chief Igaguri, he is a liar!" Orochi replied, his dark eyes flaring. "It is what he has always done, concealing the truth behind his actions with a constant stream of lies!"

Zelos closed his eyes and shook his head. Agh, it was that fight with Seles all over again, when she'd insisted that every word he said was a lie - which at one particularly low point in his life probably had been true, but since then he'd been making a concerted effort to be honest in his dealings. And he'd been doing so well with Orochi the past two months, too. Now it was looking like, despite Igaguri's reassurances, he would have a perpetual enemy here, one who would kill him in a creative, painful way if only he could do so without pissing off either the current chief or the future one.

All right, fine. Orochi would never believe him about this, but he had to try. "Orochi, I didn't-"

"Orochi, Zelos isn't the one who hurt me that day," Sheena cut him off, her face still pale but her determination obvious. "He didn't hurt me then, and he never will. I'm positive about that."

Orochi's eyes widened. "After everything he has done to you, Sheena, you still insist on defending him?"

Zelos sighed. He couldn't keep his mouth shut any longer. "Orochi-"

"No, Zelos," Sheena said, her eyes softening as she looked at him again. "I know it's your instinct to protect me, but I'm responsible for what happened two days ago, and so I'm responsible for cleaning up the mess that came from it." Zelos frowned but couldn't argue that, and so he nodded reluctantly. She smiled faintly, then turned back to Orochi, determination reappearing in her eyes. "Orochi, I'm not defending Zelos from something he did wrong; I'm simply telling you the truth. Zelos isn't the one who hurt me. What you saw that day wasn't because he had hurt me. It was because I had hurt him."

Instantly, Orochi's face fell. "You, Sheena?"

She nodded curtly. "Yes, me. And in the process of hurting him, I hurt myself. That is what you saw: me after I had severely hurt us both. So if you really need someone to 'pay' for hurting me, Zelos isn't the one you should be pointing fingers at. I am."

Orochi's lips parted and, for a moment, all he could do was gape at her. "Sheena..."

"Sheena speaks truly, Orochi," Igaguri interrupted. "I am aware of what happened between them that day, and I assure you, she is telling you the truth. The Chosen did not hurt her; rather, Sheena hurt the Chosen. Sheena left Mizuho two days ago because I told her to find him and fix the situation with him - and I was the one who told her she should not return here unless she had achieved resolution with him. As far as I am concerned, we are extremely fortunate the Chosen is kindhearted enough to forgive her and give her a second chance after what she did to him."

That clearly took Orochi aback, for his face fell further. "I...I see."

"As I said, be very certain of the circumstances surrounding a situation before you make such accusations, for unless you witnessed what happened yourself, it is likely your conclusions, based merely upon conjecture, will prove to be incorrect and will backfire on you," Igaguri said.

Orochi swallowed hard, but then his eyes lowered to the table and he bowed his head. "I understand. Chief Igaguri is correct that I reached an incorrect assumption regarding what happened two days ago. I apologize, Chosen, for assuming you were responsible for Sheena's distress. And I...I also apologize for accusing you of being a liar."

Zelos observed him closely. He wasn't sure anything had been fixed here yet, but he couldn't deny that Orochi seemed sincerely apologetic about that, so he'd give him the benefit of the doubt in hopes of preventing a truly unsalvageable situation. "Don't worry about it. You're not the first person who's thought that about me, and I'm sure you won't be the last."

Orochi bowed his head, but then his face grew cold as he looked up at Igaguri again. "However, that still does not excuse what I saw this morning. The Chosen has corrupted Sheena's purity, Chief Igaguri, and that is inexcusable. He may be an outsider here, but he knows our laws, and he is bound to obey them when he is with our people. Clearly he has not."

Igaguri released a low sigh and shook his head - and Zelos could already tell what was coming: a reiteration of the admonishment he'd just given Orochi about jumping to incorrect conclusions. Zelos just wished everyone would stop talking about his wife's purity, especially while she was right there listening, being humiliated by everyone talking about her as if she were a trinket Zelos had left out in the rain that was now rusting junk...as if she had no say about her own choices. Oh, yeah, that rule would definitely be changing, because Zelos never wanted to hear Orochi discussing Sheena's purity like this again. He was apparently just possessive and protective like that.

"Yes, regarding that," Igaguri said. "I have now addressed your concerns with them."

"Yes?" Orochi replied.

Igaguri gave him a stern look. "They have done nothing inappropriate and, therefore, will not be punished."

For a moment, Orochi blinked at him blankly - heh, you weren't expecting that, Orochi, were you? Zelos thought, smirking - but then he shook his head and his eyes narrowed. "But Chief Igaguri, I know what I saw this morning. I am positive they were-"

"Orochi," Igaguri interrupted. "They have done nothing wrong and will be permitted to live together, effective immediately. Interfering in their ability to do so truly would be inappropriate." He arched an eyebrow, ignoring Orochi's stunned gape. "Unless you now claim a husband and wife are no longer entitled to enjoy their free time together as they choose?"

Zelos schooled his face into a blank, neutral visage as Orochi looked back at him, his face pale and eyes wide. And still, Zelos noted, Sheena just kept her eyes carefully trained on the table, blushing deeply again as Orochi sputtered, "H...husband...? W...wife...?"

"As of yesterday afternoon," Igaguri said. "And again, I must point out that these accusations of yours were based merely on conjecture, not on fact. You did not witness them doing anything inappropriate, nor did you ask them directly for the truth, and yet you have accused them both of a serious offense. Mistaken assumptions like this were what resulted in Sheena hurting the Chosen two days ago. Clearly, the people of Mizuho require a lesson in not jumping to such errant, dangerous conclusions for it is becoming an epidemic here. I must make a point to remedy this problem before Sheena becomes chief."

And again, all Orochi could do was gape at them, stunned, but then he shook his head and looked back at Igaguri. "Are you certain, Chief Igaguri? They could be saying this simply to avoid punishment..."

Igaguri handed him their marriage certificate. "See for yourself."

Orochi's hand trembled as he took the document from him, his face sinking further as he read it. Once finished, he stared at it another moment, then set it on the table and humbly bowed his head to Zelos and Sheena, unable to look at either of them. "I deeply apologize for my slanderous, incorrect assumptions, Sheena, Chosen. I was unaware this event had occurred. I had noticed your ring this morning, Sheena, but I did not realize what it meant. It was wrong of me to make such accusations without knowing the full story."

Sheena finally lifted her head and nodded faintly, but instead of saying anything, she just continued staring at the table. Zelos, on the other hand, eyed Orochi warily, unsurprised to see that Orochi couldn't look at them - although like before, he did seem sincerely apologetic about that. Zelos could only imagine how mortified he must feel at having both of his theories and accusations debunked like this. And again, while Zelos was sick of being the butt of incorrect assumptions that resulted in major stress for him, he didn't want to dwell on the past, either, not with a positive future waiting for him. If both Sheena and Orochi had learned their lessons from their mistakes, then that was all that mattered. It wasn't like he'd never made incorrect assumptions that had hurt others, either - Sheena included, especially all those years he'd assumed he could push her away and make her hate him without hurting her in the process. Chances were that wouldn't be the last time he did something like that, but at least now, after learning his lessons the hard way, he was more likely to realize that just because he was convinced something was true based on his perception of reality didn't mean it was true. That was why he now dug deeper before making such decisions.

And so for now, because he really did want his life in Mizuho to be as stress-free as possible, he would accept Orochi's apology. "It's okay, Orochi. Just please, don't do it again." He grinned wryly. "One of these times I'm afraid incorrect assumptions are gonna kill me, and I'd really rather live awhile longer now that I finally have a life worth living."

Orochi bowed his head, his eyes still downcast. "Understood. It will not happen again."

Igaguri nodded curtly. "Good. I am pleased to hear this has now been resolved without further incident. However, we must ask that you keep this knowledge about their marriage to yourself for now, Orochi. They have opted not to make this news public yet and will instead hold a ceremony in several months to make their marriage 'official' here."

"I...I understand," Orochi said, his face still subdued, clearly still shaken. No surprise there, Zelos thought wryly. Finding out you were dead wrong about something you'd been certain you were right about is never easy to deal with.

"Very good," Igaguri said, smiling faintly. "At that time, I will officially transfer the position of chief to Sheena, and the Chosen will become the chief consort." His smile vanished and he arched an expectant eyebrow. "Will this be a problem, Orochi?"

Orochi blinked several times, his eyes darting back at Zelos, who once again schooled his face into a neutral expression. It took Orochi a moment - he was clearly hesitating to speak his mind after the last two times Igaguri had shot him down - but finally he sighed. "With all due respect, while I realize the Chosen has been considering accepting this role for some time now, he does not know our ways and, therefore, is not prepared to assist Sheena in leading Mizuho. Knowing pieces of our language is not enough to also know our people, our beliefs, and our values."

"No, you are correct, he is not currently prepared for the role that awaits him here," Igaguri said. "That, Orochi, is why he will be spending the next few months studying our ways and our people, so that when he does step into this role, he will be ready for it. His training will be intensive, but he has agreed to undertake it, and I am fully confident that, given enough time and experience, he will excel in the role he has accepted."

"I...I see," Orochi whispered, his head sinking downward again.

Igaguri watched him closely again, then arched an eyebrow. "You still have doubts, either about the Chosen's qualifications or about Sheena's choice of spouse?"

Orochi lifted his scrutinizing gaze back to Zelos, who had to fight the urge to fidget; he might not be 'qualified' to help Sheena lead these people yet, but he did know that ninjas demanded confidence or they'd be deemed weak and, subsequently, shunned, and so that was what he would give Orochi now. Even if he still wasn't a hundred percent certain what he was getting himself into here or how good of a job he could do with it, he had to show Orochi he was sure he could do this. And the bottom line, he was surprised to find, was that he was. Igaguri had faith in him to do this well - and, more importantly, Sheena had faith in him to do this well. She wouldn't have married him if she didn't. And so, knowing that, he would live up to their faith in him. And when he failed, which he would, he would pick himself up, dust himself off, learn from his mistakes, and try again.

After a long moment, Orochi looked at Sheena, who was still staring uncomfortably at an invisible spot on the table, and shook his head, sighing. "No, Chief Igaguri."

Igaguri nodded his approval. "Good. It has become apparent to me, both in speaking with him and in viewing his actions here this past year, that the Chosen is no longer the troublesome youth the stories depict; he has matured into a good, kind, respectable, responsible, highly capable man. I believe, in time, you will come to see how beneficial their union will be for Mizuho, but only so long as you judge him for who he is now and not for who he used to be."

"I understand." Orochi turned back to Zelos. "I apologize, Chosen, for repeatedly assuming the worst of you this past year. You truly meant neither Sheena nor Mizuho any harm, but I remained trapped in the past and refused to see that. As a result of my inability to see the truth, I made life more difficult than it should have been, both for you and for Sheena."

"Don't worry about it," Zelos replied. That, too, Orochi really did seem to mean. "I'd be questioning my motivation too in your position. I don't have a squeaky clean past or reputation, and believe me, no one knows that better than I do. But I assure you, Orochi, I'm going to do the best job here that I can. I wouldn't have agreed to this unless I knew I could handle it, and I was determined to make the right choice. If you give me a chance, I'll prove to you that I did. If I don't know how to do something, I'll ask for help, and I'll learn. And I assure you, I won't run, not from Sheena, and not from Mizuho or my responsibilities here." He gave Orochi a pointed look, needing, hopefully for the last time, to impress this on. "And I promise you, again, that I won't hurt Sheena."

Orochi bowed his head. "Understood. And I, in turn, will judge you based on your choices starting now, not on the choices of your past."

"Thanks, man," Zelos said, smiling faintly. "I appreciate it."

And for the first time, Orochi's nod indicated he was actually agreeing to that for Zelos's sake, not just for Sheena's - and the fact that Orochi didn't growl or snap at him reinforced that impression. In fact, Orochi actually bowed his head again, accepting the thanks in a gesture Zelos chose to interpret as, 'You're welcome,' before turning to Sheena, his face softening further. "And Sheena, I apologize for repeatedly questioning your choices this past year, especially those regarding the Chosen. I have been harsh with you, and I am sorry for that. My stubbornness prevented me from seeing in him what you did. I promise I will do all I can to assist you and your...husband...in leading Mizuho into the future."

And finally, Sheena looked up at Orochi, offering him a faint smile. "Thank you, Orochi. You've been one of my closest friends my entire life, and it hurt that you doubted me so much. But that's in the past now, and I choose to believe you really will give Zelos a chance. And the truth is, since Zelos is keeping his job as the Foreign Minister, we'll need your help taking care of everything we can't handle ourselves. There's no one I'd trust more than you to do that."

"Understood," Orochi repeated. "Tell me what you need, Sheena, and I will gladly do it."

Igaguri smiled, pleased. "That is kind of you, Orochi. Thank you. We appreciate your understanding in this. And now, with that taken care of, I have a request to ask of you."

While Orochi's face was mostly impassive as he turned back to Igaguri, Zelos was positive he saw eagerness lurking there, too - most likely hopeful he could win back some of the points he'd just lost. "Yes, Chief Igaguri?"

"In an effort to help the Chosen begin understanding the mindsets and skill sets of our people, he must begin training as a ninja immediately," Igaguri said. "To this end, I would like to place him under your charge and ask you to become his sensei."

Zelos was pretty sure his jaw dropped - as did Sheena's - but he quickly closed it again as Orochi looked sharply at him, his eyes wide in surprise, and said, "Me, Chief Igaguri?"

Igaguri bowed his head. "Yes, Orochi, you. You are a fine ninja and an excellent teacher. I believe you are the best equipped of our ninjas to train him. You two have worked together effectively before, and you are also aware now of his marriage to Sheena. Be forewarned, however, that he is not undergoing strict ninja training; from what Sheena has told me, he is already an exceptionally skilled swordsman, and there is no reason for him to become a ninja himself unless he chooses to do so. He is simply learning our techniques, our methods of training, and our mindset. I will also concurrently be teaching him our history, laws, and culture, so I do not want to hear of you overwhelming him, allowing harm to come to him, or doing anything else that would hinder his ability to study with me. Is this acceptable?"

Orochi observed Igaguri a moment, still clearly struggling to wrap his head around that, but then he looked sharply at Zelos, uncertainty flickering in his eyes. And really, Zelos didn't know what to make of the request, either. On the one hand...well, he wouldn't put it past Orochi to take out any lingering frustration he felt over this whole situation during their training sessions, despite Igaguri's warnings, and since these were ninjas Zelos was dealing with, he didn't doubt Orochi could do it in a way that made it look accidental. On the other hand, though, if his suspicion about Igaguri's motivation was correct - that he was hoping by working together again, their relationship would improve - then it wasn't an unappealing thought. Orochi really was a good man; he just had a tendency to jump to conclusions and occasionally be as hotheaded as his brother. But the thought of getting to know him better, which would help them work together better to help Sheena lead Mizuho, wasn't unappealing. Getting along with him would be far better than holding grudges, after all. And if Sheena wasn't in Mizuho at some point, he wanted to know Orochi would be willing to help him out and watch his back should something arise. He was certainly willing to give Orochi a chance, but was Orochi willing to give him one?

After observing Zelos closely a moment, silently debating that, Orochi finally bowed his head. "I would be honored to assist the Chosen in his training."

Zelos released a soft sigh as relief swept through him. Oh, thank Martel. This was more than just the temporary truce they'd formed during the poisoning incident; this was an actual peace treaty. Maybe, in time, they'd find they really didn't have to be enemies, that they were working together for a common cause: to protect their home and help it thrive.

"Thank you," Igaguri said, then turned to Zelos. "Chosen, is this acceptable with you?"

Sheena turned to Zelos and watched him hopefully, and he gave her a soft smile before nodding to Igaguri. "Of course it is, Chief Igaguri. I'd be honored to learn from the best."

Igaguri smiled. "I am glad to hear that, Chosen."

"So am I," Sheena said, likewise giving him a relieved smile. "Thank you, Zelos." She looked back at Orochi. "You too, Orochi." Without warning, she smirked. "Although I am amused by the fact that Zelos will now be undergoing ninja training with Michi. Michi's gonna be thrilled when he finds out."

Zelos couldn't help it; he burst out laughing. Oh, right. Michi was training under Orochi this summer, wasn't he? He hadn't even thought of that - but suddenly, this whole thing was looking far more appealing. He couldn't wait to see the look on Michi's face when he suddenly showed up at his training. "Oh, this is gonna be fun."

"Fun?" Orochi repeated, horror flashing in his eyes. "Jizou and all the guardians help us. This may be fun for you perhaps, Chosen, but not for me. As if I wasn't already having enough trouble keeping that child focused. Now he will have yet another distraction while training."

"Eh, don't worry about it, Orochi," Zelos said, shrugging. "I'll behave - and I'll make sure he stays focused, too. After all, the sooner I can finish my training, the sooner I can take over my duties here. I don't plan on letting that kid hold me back."

Sheena shrugged. "Michi listens to Zelos without question, Orochi. Maybe it'll be for the best for him to have someone he admires so much keeping him in line."

"I hope you are right about that, because I do not have much time to train him before he returns to Sybak," Orochi said.

Igaguri nodded. "I agree. Our time is limited in many respects. Then to that end, mornings, starting tomorrow, I expect you will train with Orochi, Chosen, while Sheena trains with me in matters solely concerning the chief. Afternoons I will teach you both about Mizuho's laws, customs, and culture. Once you have reached a sufficient level of knowledge, I will begin training you directly in your duties. You will most likely find this schedule to be exhausting, but if we can continue without major interruption, you should be prepared for the job in three to four months. We can set an exact date for your wedding ceremony then, once we know when Meltokio plans to hold theirs. Sheena, Chosen, is this acceptable?"

Sheena smiled and bowed her head. "Yes, Grandpa."

"Yeah, of course," Zelos said. And it was. Training would be stressful, exhausting, frustrating, and maybe even sometimes fun and interesting, but as long as he was able to go home to his lovely, incredible wife every night and wake to her smiling face in the morning and know he was helping her and making her happy, it would all be worth it.

"Good," Igaguri said, smiling again. "Then Orochi, could you please gather the villagers outside my home? I wish to announce these developments immediately."

"Of course, Chief Igaguri." Orochi rose to his feet and made to leave, but suddenly he stopped, turned back to them, and bowed his head. "Again, I apologize for my conduct this past year...and I offer you my congratulations on your marriage. May Jizou look favorably on you both." And then, before either could respond, he headed into the genkan and, a minute later, left Igaguri's home.

Zelos watched him go, waiting until he'd heard the door close before turning back to Igaguri. "Hey, thanks for smoothing things over with him."

"Of course, Chosen," Igaguri said. "As Mizuho's chief, I would be remiss not to do so, especially when the matter concerns two of our own. Orochi is a good man and an excellent ninja. I knew he would come to the proper realization eventually."

"Well, it's not like this marriage should come as too big of a surprise to him," Zelos said. "I mean, he has known I've been thinking about it for a few months now."

Sheena's eyes narrowed as she looked sharply at him. "What? He has? Since when?"

Zelos grinned. "Since the poisoning incident."

Her lips parted. "You told him you were thinking about asking me to marry you then already? You really did tell everyone but me, didn't you?"

"No, sweetheart, I really didn't," he quickly replied, chuckling. "That one just happened; I certainly wasn't planning on telling him anything. He asked me pointblank what my intentions toward you were, and since I'd made my decision by that point, I told him the truth, that yes, I was planning on pursuing this."

For a moment, Sheena just watched him, her eyes softening further and her lips curling upward. "You really were thinking about this a long time, weren't you?"

"Yeah, I was," Zelos said, returning her smile. "New Year's was when I started thinking seriously about it. It just took me this long to be sure it was what I wanted and that I'd be able to handle it."

She sighed, and Zelos could almost hear her thoughts: I can't believe I missed seeing it for so long. If she'd seen it sooner, chances were the break-up two days ago wouldn't have happened - but then, it was also possible his thoughts would have headed in a very different direction than they had. He would have felt pressured to make a decision, knowing she was waiting for him to make one, and he might not have made the same one he did. Or it was possible she would have dumped him months ago for the same reasons she'd used two days ago, and since he wasn't at the point where he was now, he might not have given her a second chance. Heck, if that had happened, he might not have even come to Mizuho that day they'd been poisoned and she'd be dead right now. There was just no way to know how things would be different. All he knew was that where they were now, despite the hellish road they'd had to walk at times to reach it, was right where he wanted to be. He was happy, and he was ready and eager to do this, and so was she - and he would do it all again in a heartbeat if it meant bringing him back to this very moment.

"So...wait," Sheena suddenly said, her brows furrowing. "If Orochi knew about this since the poisoning...is that is why his attitude toward you changed so drastically back then?"

He shrugged. "I'm sure that had a lot to do with it - that combined with the whole 'working together to save your people' thing, probably. Hopefully this attitude shift will be more permanent than that one was."

"I am certain it will be," Igaguri said. "You are now his fellow clansman, and if he has not fully grasped that fact yet, he soon will. And one thing that is demanded of the residents of Mizuho is to treat all other villagers here with respect. That was undoubtedly one of the main reasons behind Kuchinawa's self-imposed exile: because he had lost his ability to treat Sheena with respect."

Sheena's face darkened at the mention of Kuchinawa, but then she shook her head, brushing it off, the darkness quickly replaced by determination, most likely to turn Mizuho into a place Kuchinawa would one day want to return to. Assuming he didn't go off the deep end being on his own, of course. And no matter how concerned Zelos was that Kuchinawa would one day become a problem for them again, he would help her do that.

Without warning, though, Sheena's head snapped back to him. "So is that why Orochi gave you that book on our language?"

"Heh." He'd wondered when she would make that connection. "Yeah. He said, and I quote, 'so we don't have a completely incompetent fool in the position.'"

Sheena snorted and shook her head. Without warning, though, she looked at him again as another piece clearly clicked into place. "This is why asked me for that book, too, isn't it?"

Zelos grinned. "Yeah. I figured if Orochi's guesstimated one-year timeframe before you became chief was right, then I should at least get started with that, regardless of what I ultimately decided for my future. And believe me, I'm glad I did, because otherwise we wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation right now."

Her face softened. "Yeah, me, too. I just never suspected that was why you did that."

"That's because you weren't supposed to, sweetheart," he murmured, grinning.

For a moment, Sheena just shook her head, a soft, incredulous smile on her face as she watched him. "Fate never fails to amaze me sometimes," she said. "If you hadn't been thinking about this back then already, then you never would've asked for that book, and then when we were poisoned, you wouldn't have been able to..."

He nodded, cutting that off. There was no reason to dwell on not-so-pleasant thoughts like those. "Believe me, I know. I've certainly done my share of marveling over it since then, too. Fate never fails to amaze me, either, which is why I tend to leave things in its hands."

"...And which is why I've started doing the same," she said, giving him another shy smile that Zelos happily returned.

"Yeah, I've noticed," he murmured. It really did amaze him how, over time, she had likewise come to adopt that particular philosophy of his so firmly. A moment later, though, he cleared his throat, remembering their audience. "But anyway, like Chief Igaguri said, Orochi is a good man. Even I figured that out a long time ago." He grinned. "And now hopefully the death threats against me will be trimmed down to a bare minimum."

Sheena let out a soft laugh. "I hope so, too. But in any case, I'm glad we sorted things out with him. We really will need his help - and I'm relieved to know we'll get it."

Igaguri nodded. "I, too, am hopeful that now that he knows Sheena is no longer an option for him, he will be able to move on and find a wife of his own."

Naturally, a blush blossomed on Sheena's cheeks at the mention of Orochi's feelings for her, and Zelos cleared his throat, wanting to get her mind off of that. Heck, he wanted to get his own mind off of Orochi's feelings for her, but until Orochi was married, it would probably always be there in the back of his mind, nagging at him. In any case, it was time for a subject change. "Now, about this announcement you'll be making, Chief Igaguri...I don't have to give an acceptance speech or do anything weird like that, do I?" As he'd hoped, Sheena broke out laughing again, and even Igaguri smiled. Zelos lifted his hands innocently. "Hey, I don't know how things work around here yet!"

"Relax, Chosen," Igaguri assured him. "You do not. All of the villagers already know you, so I will merely be announcing your engagement to Sheena, introducing you in your new capacity here, and asking that they welcome you and help you however you require it."

"In other words, you just have to stand there with me and look pretty," Sheena said, giving him a playful grin.

"Ah, good!" Zelos said, mirroring her grin. "Now that I am very, very good at doing."

Igaguri chuckled, but his face quickly grew somber again. "I will warn you, though, Chosen, that it is at this point you may find certain villagers becoming colder toward you than they have been in some time. They are all grateful for what you did for us during the poisoning, but they will view this, the role you are taking in Mizuho, quite differently. Starting today, they will examine you far more closely than they ever have before, trying to determine your motivation for becoming one of us. They will be suspicious of you. They will judge everything you do. They may even question you to your face. I cannot emphasize this enough, though: do not let their doubts and suspicions get to you. Just do what you need to do and learn what you need to learn, and soon they will realize you mean them no harm."

...Oh, right. Igaguri had warned him about that, hadn't he? Something told him even Igaguri's encouragement wouldn't be enough to make what was to come tolerable, though. But he refused to back out now. Sheena was counting on him, and he would give her what she needed, no matter how uncomfortable her people's suspicion of him might be. "Right."

"Hey," Sheena suddenly said, taking his hand in hers. "It'll be okay. I'm here with you. And if anyone really gives you a hard time about it, let me know and I'll talk to them."

Oh, how glad he was to know he wasn't alone in this. Knowing she was looking out for him was heartening, and he could feel the worst of his fears fade away. "I know, love. I'm not worried."

"After the announcement, I will have Orochi locate some temporary training clothes for you so you blend in here better." Igaguri motioned at Zelos's attire. "As you currently are, you...stand out...here."

Zelos's eyebrows flew upward. "Ya think? A little too rich for here, huh?"

"Just a little," Igaguri said with a smile, but then he cast a pointed look at Sheena, who, to Zelos's curiosity, quickly looked away and nodded faintly, a blush painting her cheeks. Okay, he wasn't sure what that was about, but before he could ask, Igaguri cleared his throat. "In any case, after the announcement, we will begin discussing, in detail, what duties will be required of you both and how you might best split the workload. You two are not the only ones I must train; I must also train Orochi on those duties he, too, will be fulfilling here. But for now, do you have any other concerns to address with me?"

Sheena gave Zelos a questioning look, but he just shrugged, unable to think of anything. "I don't think so, Grandpa," she said, looking back at him. "Everything else can wait."

Without warning, the outer door opened again, and Orochi poked his head into the main room. "Everyone is waiting for you, Chief Igaguri."

"Thank you, Orochi," Igaguri said, and the three rose to their feet. Once standing, he offered them another pleased smile. "Then let us do this. And again, both of you, congratulations on your marriage. I am tremendously happy for you both and am encouraged about the future awaiting us. And Chosen, I cannot possibly say this enough: Welcome to Mizuho."

0~*~0

Chapter Text

Epilogue: The Iris

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, gorgeous," he said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stand still," she suddenly instructed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She glared at him another moment, then turned and jotted a few num