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Trust Building 101

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Part 1: The Weirdness

The single ray of sunlight that fell across her eyes may have been responsible for the initial tug that pulled her mind from sleep, but it was, ironically, the sheer comfort Sheena felt as she snuggled deeper into her pillow that told her something wasn't right and that ultimately roused her from those blissful depths. This wasn't her bed; her bed, while comfortable, wasn't nearly this soft, luxurious, and silky. The sheets smelled better, too -- fresh, soothing, faintly floral. The sounds synonymous with mornings in Mizuho were missing, too; she heard no wind chimes, singing birds, bubbling river, or clinking weapons as daily training began. She could hear footsteps padding softly down a staircase, along with muffled voices she couldn't identify through the sturdy, solid walls of this room, but those weren't Mizuho noises, and so this couldn't be Mizuho. So where was she?

As reluctant as she was to sacrifice all hope of sleeping a little longer, her sense of 'wrongness' quickly won out, and her eyes popped open. It took her a minute, but finally she recognized where she was: in Zelos's guest bedroom. A distinct, undeniable impression that something huge had just happened, something her sleepy mind wasn't remembering yet, bubbled up within her, and she searched her memories, trying to pinpoint what...and just like that, the previous day's events returned to her.

Zelos was back from his trip. She'd come here to see him. He'd verified that he'd told her the truth that night at the party. She'd kissed him. She'd slugged him. She'd told him she loved him. He'd told her he loved her. She'd stayed for dinner. They'd talked for hours. He'd escorted her here and kissed her goodnight. She'd laid awake half the night as her mind raced over everything that had happened. And now....

Now, everything was different. Everything. Now, she was in a relationship. She was in a real relationship.

She was in a real relationship with Zelos Wilder.

...Oh, great Jizou.

Panic swept over her. She'd told him she loved him. She'd told Zelos Wilder she loved him. What had she done? What was she thinking?Could she have done anything more idiotic? Even if she meant it -- which she had to reluctantly admit she did -- letting herself actually tell him that ranked as one of the dumbest, riskiest things she'd ever done. He was Zelos Wilder, after all -- Playboy Extraordinaire, Casanova, Gigolo, Womanizer. He was not the kind of man any sane woman should fall in love with, and he was especially not the kind of man any sane woman should tell that she'd fallen in love with. He may have shown her a vastly different side of himself now, but he was still Zelos Wilder, the most unpredictable man she'd ever met. She may have fallen for him hard that night at the party when he'd lowered his walls with her, but when she'd come here yesterday hoping to talk to him, she had definitely not intended to tell him that. She'd barely even let herself acknowledge it!

But her mouth had betrayed her, and she couldn't take it back now. And to his credit, Zelos's reaction had been surprisingly non-obnoxious. When he'd pointed out what she'd said (leave it to him to catch something even she hadn't realized she'd said), she'd been terrified he would tease her mercilessly and gloat about it to everyone, but he hadn't. Actually, while he'd been shocked and excited about it, he'd also been far more subdued than she'd expected. And then he'd reiterated what he'd implied at the party, telling her in no uncertain terms that he loved her, too -- and more than that, he'd really seemed to mean it. And those incredible kisses they'd shared, her first kisses ever....

Sheena couldn't contain her smile. She pulled the covers tighter against her, her heart pounding, panic abating, and stomach fluttering. Oh, Jizou, it was real. Yesterday had really happened. After years of searching, she'd finally found her long-lost friend again. The man she'd had a crush on years ago felt the same for her. While she still wasn't sure she'd made the right decision to give him another chance to make it up to her, she didn't regret it, either, and so she wouldn't go back on it. Not yet, anyway.

Granted, she wasn't sure he was capable of living up to his promise to show her the 'real' him yet. He'd struggled with it last night as they'd discussed her new position as Tethe'alla's emissary of peace and his trip with his sister, and she'd lost count of the times he'd said something stupid or perverted. Each time, though, he'd stopped himself and, alarmed, had apologized for succumbing to old habits. And the truth was, as long as he recognized it and was working to fix it, she couldn't hold it against him. He'd asked for patience while he got used to being himself with her, and she would do her best to give it to him. He was trying, and that was the important thing.

The whole thing was exhilarating. She was in love with a man who loved her back; what in that wasn't exciting? Of course, it was also completely terrifying, simply because of the man she'd fallen for. What kind of situation had she gotten herself into? Yesterday and that night at the party had happened...but was it real? What would she find when she went downstairs this morning? Who would she find? The Zelos she'd known for years and couldn't stand, or the 'new, real' Zelos? Was this all another act, another lie, on his part to fool her and seduce her? Or, if he was serious about this, then could he really do it or would he quickly slip back behind the familiar, comfortable 'Idiot Chosen' mask? How long could he keep it up? Would he find this 'real' him too exhausting to maintain and give up, hurting her again in the process?

And even if he could do this, a thousand questions still remained. Even if he was serious about this, was she? Did she really think it would work? They were different in so many ways; they viewed things differently, their backgrounds were nothing alike, their personalities were complete attempting a relationship, would they just end up killing each other? Would they be better as friends than as lovers? Where would a relationship go, anyway? Where could it even go? It probably wouldn't last long before they found it didn't work and went their separate ways; knowing that, shouldn't she just admit she'd made a mistake last night and end it? But if she did that, what would happen to that old friend she'd missed so much? Now that she'd found him, she didn't want to lose him again. But taking a step beyond that and embracing a romantic relationship...well, that could wreck everything, too, especially if it didn't work.

And then there were all the other threats awaiting them. What would Grandpa think when he learned she'd fallen for Zelos, a barely tolerated outsider? What about Orochi and the rest of Mizuho? What would Meltokio and his hunnies think when they learned their beloved Chosen had fallen for a poor, disgraced country girl from a backwater ninja village? What about Seles, who'd already made it clear how much she despised Sheena? Even assuming Sheena couldsee a future for them, did Zelos? If no future existed, what was the point? But could she really give up without even seeing where this went?

Her gut churned. She was scared of where this could go...but these feelings of love were just as powerful. By showing her the real him, Zelos had made her fall for him, and unless he backpedaled or pushed her away again, Sheena couldn't see that changing. And she really had promised to give him a chance to prove he was serious about this, and her running away from him would mean breaking her promise to him -- and probably hurting him in the process, too. And how could she do that to him? She couldn't. That meant, scary or not, giving him that second chance was her only option.

This whole thing -- and the conflicting feelings that accompanied it -- was just weird. Zelos, the man nearly every woman in Tethe'alla lusted after, said he loved her, and he'd done so in a way that left no room for misinterpretation. And now they were a...well, she thought they were a couple. Them, a couple. It was unthinkable, like a hilariously bad joke. The last three weeks had been weird enough, trying to figure out if he'd lied at that party about his feelings for her, but now that he'd reiterated it, and then everything that happened after was weird.

And the weirdest part was this was Zelos she was dealing with. The man she'd known and had conflicted feelings toward for years loved her. It felt so new, so strange. Trying to grasp it all was demanding a huge, awkward mental shift from her. It was real, but it didn't feel real yet. Wrapping her mind around it while trying to determine if the man she'd fallen for was real and not just wishful thinking on her part or a skillful act on his would take time. After all, years of his over-the-top arrogance, idiocy, childishness, perversity, and teasing were hard to overlook. Right now she just didn't know.

With a sigh, Sheena rolled over onto her other side. She'd been over this a thousand times last night, but she was still afraid she was just setting up herself -- and maybe Zelos, too -- for heartache. No direction seemed right here, not continuing forward, not ending it now. She was afraid to find she really was misinterpreting something, and she was even more afraid she'd do something wrong and wreck it because of her lack of experience being in a relationship like this. And she kept going back to her inability to see a future for them, too. One day she would become Mizuho's chief, and that fact alone made romantic relationships...sticky. As it was, chances were once Zelos learned those details, he would be the one backing out of this. And really, maybe that was for the best since it would eliminate this entire problem.

But damn it, she loved him and didn't want to end this relationship yet. Was it worth giving him a chance to prove he wouldn't just revert to his old ways once they left his mansion? Was it worth risking a broken heart if he decided she was too dull for him and dumped her? Was it worth pushing forward until he, too, realized 'they' had no future? If he really was serious about this, though, then yes, it was worth taking that chance and getting to know the realZelos better. It was.


Agh, this was so confusing. But lying there dwelling on it was solving nothing. Simply put, she didn't know what she was getting herself into with him. She hadn't planned for this to happen; she'd spent three weeks hunting him down so she could talk to him, thank him, and smack him, not start a relationship with him! But she couldn't back out now. She just had to take this one step at a time, watch him carefully, trust her instincts, and give him the chance she'd promised him. And really, those kisses yesterday had said so much, as had his gentlemanly demeanor when he'd escorted her here (albeit after jokingly offering her a spot in his bed), and his soft smile and good night kiss....

Sheena smiled at the memory, her face growing warm. Yes, he really seemed to be serious about this. And if he could keep the Idiot Chosen at bay and was willing to accept a few unfortunate things on her end...well, then, she could be serious about this, too. He would get his chance, and how long 'they' lasted depended on him. The next move was his. She would adopt his philosophy, "Whatever will be, will be," and see what happened. It could last a week before they realized it wouldn't work -- or maybe, if they were lucky, it would last longer. Only time would tell.

To that end, as tempting as it was to stay here and hold onto her hope and excitement forever for fear everything would unravel when she went downstairs, overthinking things was getting her nowhere. It was time to get up. With a deep breath, Sheena rubbed the sleep from her eyes and finally pushed herself up. The light was brighter now than when she'd first awoken, meaning she'd been lying here awhile; in fact, she was pretty sure this was at least an hour later than she normally awoke, which became even more apparent when her stomach growled plaintively at the smell of breakfast cooking. She stretched and yawned, then climbed out of bed, changed into her regular clothes, and tied up her hair. Opening the door revealed no one else around, so she headed to the bathroom next door, and then, once finished freshening up, she took a deep breath, bolstering her nerves, and headed downstairs.

Finding her host proved to be simple, for his bright red hair was unmistakable. He was sitting at the dining room table, fully dressed, newspaper in hand and an empty plate in front of him, when she stepped inside, and Sheena bit her lip, trying to restrain her excited smile. Until she saw how he acted toward her this morning, she didn't want him seeing how excited she was for fear of eliciting his teasing. Heck, she wasn't even sure she wanted to be this excited; the higher she rose emotionally, after all, the harder she'd fall if she really had misinterpreted this. But as Zelos looked up from his newspaper and gave her a soft, knowing, happy smile in greeting, she couldn't help the skip her heart made and the shy smile she offered him in return.

Oh, Jizou, yesterday wasn't just a dream. She could see it: this man was the same one she'd seen last night. This was real. It was still scary and weird, but right now, her excitement and hope were greater than those. Now she just prayed when Zelos opened his mouth, he didn't wreck everything.

For a moment, his blue eyes watched her closely, but then he motioned at the seat beside him on the end of the table, indicating she should join him. "Morning, love."

Sheena froze, her eyes widening and her cheeks growing warm. 'Love'? Wow, he'd never called her that before. Last night he'd mostly been using 'babe' for her, although fortunately he hadn't touched 'banshee' or 'hunny' again since she'd told him, in no uncertain terms, never to call her those names again. Meeting his eyes, though, she was stunned to see something there that didn't match the playfulness she'd expected: nervousness. Was it possible he, too, didn't know how she would respond to him this morning? After she'd expressed so much hatred over all his other pet names for her, was he now nervous how she would react to this one, hence why he was testing it out like this?

But how should she react to it? Instinct told her to glare at him and insist she wasn't his 'love,' just like she wasn't his 'banshee' or his 'hunny'...but, well, if his feelings for her really were real, then 'love' was...appropriate. And really, she liked it. 'Love.' She'd never heard him call anyone else that before. 'Beauty,' yes. 'Beautiful One,' 'Beloved,' 'Princess,' 'Dear' -- all yes. And 'Hunny,' all the time. But not 'love'. It was simple, but it felt...well, it felt nice. And warm. And...right. She thought she could get used to that one -- so long as it stayed exclusively hers, of course. And the very fact that he was verifying she was okay with it, in the process also verifying that she hadn't changed her mind about what happened yesterday, indicated he, too, was nervous about this new situation they'd found themselves in...and that, too, was extremely encouraging. Like she had, Zelos had also clearly given this some thought overnight. And as a result, she could feel a few of her concerns slipping further into the background.

Seeing his smile fading, she realized that not only hadn't she responded to him yet, but that it was worrying him, and so, with another shy smile, she took the indicated seat and said, "Morning."

Thankfully, his smile returned, and he watched her closely a moment. "Sleep well?"

"Yeah, fine," she said, but her blush deepened and her gaze fell downward as shyness crept though her again. "Once I fell asleep, anyway."

His smile blossomed into a smirk. "Too wound up, eh?"

Well, yes, she had been, but her instinct for emotional self-preservation -- and years of distrust of that smirk -- stopped her from admitting that aloud. But then she realized if she was really giving him a chance to prove himself, she had to do so with everything, including this. Being so honest with anyone, let alone him, was weird, but how else could he prove how serious he was about this unless she let him?

Okay, fine. She would be brave and try it. She smiled shyly. "A little. It''s a lot to think about."

His eyes widened and his smirk faltered. Heh, he clearly hadn't expected that. She couldn't help feeling a little smug; usually he was the one catching her off guard like that. "Yeah...I know," he murmured, sitting up straighter and giving her a surprisingly shy smile of his own. "Same here." Without warning, however, the smirk returned, accompanied by a twinkle in his eyes that warned her something stupid was coming. "Y'know, you should've said something. I would've been happy to"

Oh, Jizou. Sheena groaned and buried her face in her hand. And he'd been doing so well, too! "You really are an impossible pervert, aren't you?"

"Hey, you gave me permission to hit on you, and you can't revoke it now!" Zelos said, pointing at her.

She lowered her hand and glared at him...but despite the innuendo, a smile still tugged on her lips at how cautious his smirk was. Ah, so he was just testing his bounds again, seeing how far he could get before she smacked him, she realized. And really, he was right about that: she had given him permission to hit on her. Bastard had been covering his bases, hadn't he? And she couldn't forget, either, that the truth had just slipped out when he'd admitted he, too, hadn't slept well last night. In fact, based on what she now knew about him, that slip had probably caused his innuendo-laced defense mechanism to kick in. At least now she could recognize it for what it was.

"I'm going to regret that, aren't I?" she said.

His smirk broadened. "Probably."

But amazingly, she wasn't pissed about it -- and a smile still lingered on her lips, too. Actually, she felt a little more comfortable now that they'd slipped into a more 'normal' routine for them. He was gently baiting her, showing her -- and maybe himself, too -- that while everything between them had now changed, they were still them. She pointed back at him. "Just don't push it."

"Just for you, my dear, I will try not to drive you to find creative, painful ways to kill me." Sheena opened her mouth to retort to that, but the words caught in her throat, and while her fist itched to bop him on the head, the sheer weirdness of this whole thing stilled her hand. And before she could figure out how to respond, Zelos set aside his paper and called over his shoulder, "Hey, Sebastian?"

Almost instantly, the dining room door opened and the butler stepped inside, tray in hand. "Here you go, Miss Sheena," he said, placing a plate of food and a glass of orange juice in front of her. "We were keeping it warm for you in the kitchen. If you require anything further, please let me know."

Sheena gave him an embarrassed smile. After all the lovely chats she and Sebastian had had while Zelos was gone, it felt wrong for him to be serving her like this. She wanted to tell him he didn't have to, that just because she was Zelos's guest didn't mean she couldn't tend to her own needs, that being waited on went against everything she was, but unsure how to do that without sounding ungrateful, she instead murmured, "Thank you, Sebastian." If her relationship with Zelos continued, then she would worry about convincing him he didn't have to coddle her, but right now it just wasn't necessary.

"Of course, miss." He bowed his head, then grabbed Zelos's empty plate and headed back to the kitchen.

"Sorry," Zelos said, smiling sheepishly. "I tried to wait for you before I ate, but it was getting so late that I was starting to wonder if you'd climbed out the window and left...."

Her eyes briefly widened, but then she gave him an awkward, apologetic smile. "Hey, it's okay. You shouldn't have to eat cold food just because I was feeling lazy getting out of bed." And then she caught his underlying implication -- and again, his stark honesty made her blush. Saying things like this to him was weird, hearing him voice such fears and insecurities was even weirder, but he'd said it and she couldn't ignore it. She looked down at her toast and eggs and smiled shyly. "A...and don't worry. I would never leave without saying goodbye first."

When Sheena finally gathered the courage to look at him, she found he was watching her closely again, a faint smile toying on his lips -- but suddenly the smile faltered and he bit his lip, leaning forward so his elbows were resting on the table. "So...any regrets or second thoughts about yesterday?"

Her eyes widened again and her heart pounded faster. Wow. She hadn't expected him to ask her that. And then it hit her: not only was he just as uncertain about this whole thing as she was, but he was giving her an out if, while she'd been pondering everything last night, she had realized she'd made a huge mistake. Oh, Zelos. She was simultaneously touched by his gesture, reassured by his seriousness and honesty, and eager to reassure him that yes, she really was sticking around. And just like that, even more of her fears melted away as it became increasingly obvious this wasn't another game for him, because if it was, there was no way he would have just shown her such emotional vulnerability. It was incredible, but they really were on the same page with this.

"No." She eyed him carefully. "You?"

He relaxed and leaned back in his seat again, his soft smile returning. "Not a one."

Her heart skipped a beat, and Sheena returned his smile. And that was that. Neither of them had changed their minds about this overnight, and so for the moment, there was nothing left to discuss. Well, they had plenty left to discuss, things she had to tell him that could bring this whole thing to a screeching halt, but she couldn't find a decent segue into that right now, and so instead of mentioning it, she grabbed her fork, took a bite of her scrambled eggs, and opted to change the subject onto something a little more comfortable.

"I didn't take you for the kind to bother reading the newspaper," she said, motioning at it with her fork.

"Heh." Zelos relaxed even further, although his smile took on a wry tinge. "I wish I didn't have to."

She arched an eyebrow, stuffing another forkful of eggs into her mouth. "You have to? I figured any news you needed you could get straight from the king or the church."

"I do," Zelos said. "I don't bother reading the main headlines."

Okay...? "Then what are you...?" He grinned sardonically and held up the front page so she could see...and instantly, her face wrinkled in confusion and distaste. "The gossip page?"

"Yep. The joys of being a celebrity."

She blinked several times as his sarcasm invalidated her initial impression that he was keeping up on the latest gossip to better flirt with his hunnies. "Wait, are you saying you're reading about yourself?"

"Don't worry, it's not as egotistical as it sounds," he said. "I'm just finding out what the current gossip about me is so I know what to expect when I open my front door. For instance, I can tell you everyone in Meltokio knows I'm home now. I was hoping to avoid detection by sneaking in the back way, and I really thought I'd gotten away with it, too. But then I opened up the paper and found this." He held up the front page again...and sure enough, the top story was all about how the Chosen had finally returned to Meltokio after taking an 'unprecedented' three-week vacation immediately after being gone over half a year while traveling with a 'rag-tag group of foreigners.'

"So how did they find out?" Sheena asked.

He gave her a crafty grin. "Heh. You, actually."

Her eyebrows shot upward. "Me? But I haven't even left here since yesterday!"

"And that, my dear, is exactly how they determined I was back. Someone saw you entering my mansion yesterday, and when they never saw you leave, they inferred I was back and Hence the story."

...Wait, what? Oh, no, no, no. Please tell me I'm misunderstanding this, Zelos. Her fork fell to her plate and she motioned shakily at the newspaper. "Are you...are you saying I'm in there, too?"

Zelos handed her the paper, giving her an awkward smile. "See for yourself."

Sheena hesitantly took it from him, her heart pounding faster, and scanned the article. Oh, Jizou. The article may have been about him, but there was nearly as much speculation about her there, too. It mentioned all the times she'd visited his mansion the past three weeks -- and, even creepier, it listed the average amount of time she'd spent inside the mansion (five minutes, except for the time last week she'd stayed over half an hour when Sebastian had shared what he'd heard from Zelos with her over tea). That was disturbing enough, but the worst part was the paragraph that described her and her 'history' with Zelos, declaring her to be a ninja from Mizuho who'd been seen in the Chosen's company for years and had been part of the 'Chosen's infamous reunification journey.' It also warned readers to be 'careful' around her since she was well known to be 'violent' and 'abusive,' having been caught 'attacking' the Chosen in the past. One of Zelos's hunnies had even been quoted as saying she was a 'country hick' who 'resorted to violence to express her attraction to him because she was socially and emotionally stilted.'

At that point, with her gut twisting in humiliation, disgust, and anger, Sheena stopped reading, set down the paper, and began picking at her breakfast again, her appetite now gone and her face blazing. " this the first time I've been mentioned like this?" she asked.

Zelos shook his head, watching her closely again. "No. There've been rumors flying about us for years, but nothing concrete. And Sebastian said there was a breakdown on the entire gang during our journey so my 'fans' knew who was 'monopolizing' my time, so...yeah, everyone here knows who you are."

For a moment, Sheena poked absently at her eggs. That actually explained a lot. His hunnies had never liked her, but for years they'd mostly ignored her -- but then one day they'd suddenly started glaring at her, whispering about her, and warning her to leave Zelos alone. That must be when the first article appeared. And now...oh, Jizou. Her hand froze. "So...wait. Does this mean if we start, um, spending more time together, there will be more of this?" She tapped her finger on the paper.

Zelos frowned, his brows furrowed. "Yeah. There's no way to avoid it. Best I can figure, the family living in that house," he pointed out the window at a gray stone building across the street, "has been hurting for money for a few years now and is renting out the front room to a reporter, because judging from the pictures I've seen, there's nowhere else he could be hiding. I'm sure that's how they knew you'd spent three weeks looking for me here. And unfortunately, my 'girlfriend of the moment' has always been Meltokio's hottest gossip. Why do you think every woman wants to date me? They're all looking for their five minutes of fame."

Sheena swallowed hard, watching him closely, but he really didn't seem happy about that. She'd always known he was popular here, and she couldn't forget what he'd said about how women just wanted to be with the Chosen, not with him, but she'd never paid attention to just how much attention these people laved on him. So...what? That title hadn't just stolen his future from him, but all semblance of privacy, too? Ugh. These stupid, selfish snobs. No wonder he'd adopted the Chosen One mask if everyone was alwayswatching him and never letting him be himself. She suddenly wanted to tear up every copy of this newspaper she could -- if only that could fix the damage that was already done.

"Don't these people have anything better to do with their time than gossip about you?" she asked.

"Nope," he said, giving her another wry grin. "Like I said, I'm a celebrity here. The attention may be nice at times, but other times it's an inescapable curse." He shrugged. "Eh, after awhile you figure out how to have some fun with it. Y'know, start false rumors, tease reporters, divert attention elsewhere, all that."

Well, while she was glad he could have fun with it, she already knew she could never get used to it. As it was, the lump in her stomach was tightening as she started imagining all the rumors undoubtedly already spreading about them because of this article -- and what it would mean for her every time she came here to see him. She looked down at her plate and began pushing her eggs farther away from her toast. She really had been enjoying her meal a minute ago, but the thought of what the future now held for her because of his popularity left her feeling sick to her stomach.

"Sheena?" he asked, his voice soft as he leaned forward again. "What is it?"

Her eyes darted up at him, but they quickly fell again when she saw his concerned expression. "N...nothing. It's just...having everyone in Meltokio talking about me kind of ruins my ability to walk around here undetected, something I need to do my job as a ninja."

"I know," Zelos said, his voice falling to a whisper. "Unfortunately, it's a little late for that now. And unless we can get rid of that reporter over there," he motioned at the culprit house again, "I don't see that changing anytime soon."

...Yeah, she didn't, either. So now, literally overnight, she'd become the talk of Meltokio, hadn't she? And all because she'd fallen for Zelos Wilder, the one person Meltokio just loved gossiping about. "Wonderful. Have I mentioned how much I hate being the center of attention?"

When she glanced up at him again, she found his face had fallen further as he watched her closely again. After a moment, he cleared his throat and leaned forward. "You know, Sheena," he began, his words slow, deliberate, almost reluctant, "I'll understand if you don't want to deal with the crap that comes with being involved with me. Just say the word and I'll leave you alone."

Her eyes widened and locked with his. Was he offering her another out? As tempting as escaping the repercussions of dating a 'celebrity' might be, though, backing out wasn't an option, and Zelos's offer was exactly why it wasn't. How could she walk away from someone who cared about her enough to do something that selfless for her? She couldn't; her heart wouldn't let her. Sure, she would hate aspects of this, but she would never forgive herself for ending their relationship simply because of some gossip. The celebrity aspect would be horrible, but Meltokio wasn't the only place they could spend time together. He could come to Mizuho sometimes, too -- which reminded her, again, that if he was being this upfront about the unpleasant things that came with dating him, then she really should do the same, and soon, too, since there was no reason to drag out something she suspected would be a deal breaker for him. But if that didn't chase him away, then they did have alternatives to Meltokio's idiocy, thank goodness.

Sheena gave him a soft smile. "Thank you for your concern, Zelos, but no. I'm not giving up this chance with you just because some stupid, shallow people have nothing better to do than gossip about you."

Zelos watched her a moment, his eyes narrowing slightly, but then he mirrored her smile. "I'm glad to hear that."

Seeing him like that, so concerned for her and radiating faint but unmistakable nervousness about her willingness to give this a shot, was so...weird. It was amazing and encouraging and made her stomach flutter...but everything about being with him, with this him, was so strange, too. It was a stark reminder that even though she'd 'known' this man for years, she'd never really known him. She may have seen glimpses of him before, but none had been like this, where he was willingly letting her see him.

And topping that off, she didn't know what she should be doing when it came to being in a relationship yet. She wasn't sure what to say or how to respond to him, and while she didn't think she'd messed anything up yet, she didn't feel comfortable stepping into this new role yet, either. She felt her mind was trapped inside a stranger's body and she was experiencing a surreal episode, one made even more surreal because it involved Zelos, in a strangely different, albeit similar, form than she was used to, only she wasn't. This is real, and it's really happening, she kept reminding herself. Maybe if she repeated it enough, she'd believe it.

But her heart was pounding, and seeing him smile like this, knowing it was because of her, made her feel good. She was really liking this new side of him. There was nothing fake about him right now, nothing arrogant or infuriating. He was just a kind, considerate, gorgeous man who most women would kill to be involved with. And for a moment, guilt tugged at her, reminding her again that she needed to be upfront with him about the consequences of pursuing a relationship with her and give him the same opportunity to walk away that he'd just given her...but before she could find the words, Zelos cleared his throat and motioned at her breakfast. "You should eat that before it gets cold. It's much better warm."

Her face grew warm again, but then she nodded and gave him another smile. He was right; that could wait until later. If she was lucky, a better opportunity would arise where explaining this wouldn't feel so...unprompted. It would still undoubtedly chase him away, but it would at least let her enjoy this moment with him a little longer before it all came crashing down. So for now, she would ignore the elephant he didn't even realize was in the room yet and eat her breakfast. And after watching her another moment, Zelos reclaimed his newspaper and resumed reading, a smile still toying on his lips.

It was only as she was finishing her toast that she spotted it in the fruit bowl on the table: a single, perfect peach. Her hunger was now sated, but was calling to her. She loved peaches. Sybak was the only city that sold them, so she knew how rare they were -- she could count on one hand how many she'd ever eaten -- and she was itching for one now since Colette, fruit lover that she was, had always horded the ones they'd bought during their journey. Being from Sylvarant, Colette had never had one before, and considering everything she'd been going through at the time, Sheena hadn't had the heart to argue with her. But now....

Sheena bit her lip and averted her eyes. She shouldn't. Peaches really were rare, and that one wasn't hers to take. She knew Zelos liked them, too, and so he should enjoy it. Besides, she was full, and it probably wouldn't live up to her expectations anyway, so why ruin the memory? But her eyes kept drifting back to it as she sipped on her orange juice; knowing it was there now, her mind refused to ignore it. She wanted to see if her memories of how great they were really were accurate. And fruit bowls were invitations for anyone to take what they wanted, right? The rest of the fruit looked great, too, but that peach just looked, no, no, it isn't polite, she scolded herself, averting her eyes again. But still....

Without warning, Zelos grabbed the bowl and held it up to her, his eyebrows rising. "Fruit?"

She jumped in surprise -- damn, she hadn't even realized he'd noticed her ogling it -- but her gaze quickly fell to her now-empty plate. " That's okay. But thank you."

"Go on, take it," he said, giving her a faint smirk. "You're practically undressing it with your eyes."

Her face flared and she shot him an embarrassed glare, but she relaxed a little at the softness in his eyes that indicated his teasing wasn't malicious, just amused. "Are you...are you sure? That's the only one you have, and I know you like peaches, too...."

Zelos rolled his eyes. "Like I can eat all this fruit myself. Sebastian goes overboard with the grocery shopping at times. Seriously, Sheena, take it. Yeah, I like peaches, too, but I have easier access to them than you do."

Sheena watched him another moment, bracing herself for the "But if you take it, I get a kiss in return!" that instinct told her was coming, but she was pleasantly surprised when he just grinned and held the bowl closer to her. Finally, she couldn't resist any longer, and with a soft, embarrassed, "Thanks," she took the peach from the bowl. Zelos's grin broadened and he quirked his head as if to say, "You're welcome," then he set the bowl down and picked up his paper again, going back to reading -- or, more likely considering how his eyes kept darting at her, the grin still on his lips, pretending to read while inconspicuously watching her. She'd have to talk to him about staring at her, but not right now. No, right now she didn't care because there was a perfect peach in her hand just waiting to be eaten.

It was beautiful, it smelled divine, and upon taking her first bite of it...oh, it tasted amazing. Sheena chewed it slowly, savoring the burst of flavor on her tongue. This was exactly how she remembered it tasting that first time she'd tried one in Sybak, back when she'd been fourteen and had studied briefly at the Academy. In fact, she'd actually been having lunch with Zelos at the time, back before he'd started acting like a jerk toward her. She'd seen peaches in the cafeteria there, but she'd always brought her own lunch to save Mizuho money, and even if she'd had money, she'd never been brave about trying new foods anyway, and so peaches were an unknown to her.

One day, though, Zelos had one in his lunch, and when she'd admitted she didn't know what it was (after also commenting that the color suited him -- which, come to think of it, was around the time he'd started wearing this pinkish-peachish color more regularly), he'd given it to her, positive she'd like it. She'd been hesitant to accept it, knowing eating someone else's lunch was rude, but curiosity and his persistence had won out. Her initial bite had left her believing she'd tasted heaven. Zelos had just laughed at her reaction (leading her to threaten to beat him up if he didn't stop), but Sheena had never forgotten his soft smile when a drop of juice had run down her chin or how he'd brushed it away with his thumb. She'd been embarrassed for days afterwards, and he'd laughed and teased her about it relentlessly, but a week later, he'd given her another peach -- as a 'peace offering,' he'd said. And, even more redeeming, he'd given her a napkin so he couldn't tease her about her 'messy eating' anymore.

But then, soon after that, the shower incident had happened, his teasing had grown merciless, and he'd become ruder and cruder, thus forcing her to write him off as an idiot and push all of her good memories of him, like that peach one, from her mind because of how badly they'd hurt. And they'd come full circle back to that same position they'd been in then, with Zelos grinning knowingly as he handed her a napkin, heading in perhaps the same direction they'd started walking back then -- only this time, Sheena knew far more about the real him, and hopefully now that his title was obsolete, history wouldn't repeat itself. She blushed and smiled shyly as she accepted the napkin from him, wondering if he'd just been remembering the same thing she had, but he just watched her another moment, grinning, before resuming reading. Oh, was she glad she could now safely summon that memory again, because it really had been a lovely moment; now she knew it must have been around that time when Zelos had realized he'd been developing feelings for her and had begun intentionally pushing her away.

And for a moment, Sheena couldn't help wondering where they would be right now if his situation had been different back then. Would they have started dating? Would it have lasted? Would they have drifted apart after she'd finished her schooling? Would the Church have forced her away from him? Would Mizuho have forbidden her to ever see him again? Would he have continued to be her friend? Would he have ever let her see the 'real him'? Or would it have ended even worse than it had? They'd been so young at the time; they'd both changed so much since then. It was unlikely that, at that point, they could have made a relationship work. And while it was unlikely they could make one work now, it was still worth trying, just in case. Chances were they would have made the same choice back then, too, if they could have.

But regardless, pondering those 'what ifs' was still wistful. They'd lost so many years of could have beens, but as unlikely as it was that it would work out any better now, they'd been given a second chance and she would see it through. And that was why when his gaze landed on her and he gave her another smile, Sheena returned it anyway, despite her doubts about the future.

Once she finished, blushing at how many times she'd caught him watching her, she breathed in deeply, then slowly released it. "Thank you. That was delicious."

Zelos set down the paper and grinned. "Of course. I never could stand between you and peaches." Sheena chuckled and looked down at her plate, but before she could respond, he sat up straighter and cleared his throat. "So anyway, how long are you sticking around today?"

She slowly exhaled, her smile falling. Oh, right. Being here with him had been a lovely excursion, but it couldn't last. The reality of her life as a ninja awaited her. "Not long," she said, placing her napkin and silverware atop her plate. "I have to get back to Mizuho. They were expecting me there last night already, and if I wait too long, they'll send someone here to hunt me down."

"...Right," he murmured, his face falling a little. "And I have to go see the king. He wanted me to report in the minute I got back, but I didn't exactly have a chance to do that, what with my overnight guest and all. Now that everyone knows I'm back, I only have an hour or two before he 'summons' me to the castle." He grinned. "But since I do have an hour or two about I walk you out of town?"

It would never fail to amaze her that that he wanted to spend time with her. "Okay," she said, giving him a faint smile...but then she thought of something she really wanted to do first, now that she could. She smiled sheepishly. "Um...would you...would you mind if I took a shower first, though?" His eyebrows flew upward, and Sheena quickly looked away, embarrassed. "It''s one thing about Meltokio that I miss when I'm not here. You know, taking a hot shower rather than bathing in a cold river."

Zelos grinned, clearly amused. "Hey, no need to explain -- don't forget, I've taken more than my share of cold baths lately, too. If you'd like a shower, be my guest. And by all means, take your time to enjoy it."

Oh, good. No unexpected attempts to hit on her. "Thanks."

The two had barely stood when Sebastian appeared and whisked Sheena's empty plate away (the man had to be psychic since his timing was always impeccable), but the interruption was quickly forgotten as Zelos escorted her into the living room. "Everything you need should already be in there," he said. "Towels, soap, whatever. If you need anything else, let me know. I'll be here."

Sheena watched him head for the couch, grabbing another section of the paper from the coffee table on his way, and casually stretch out across it -- how could he be so gorgeous while doing everything? she wondered, briefly admiring his physique -- but then, blushing at where her mind had gone, she headed upstairs. She made a quick stop in her room to grab a robe, then headed to the bathroom.

Before she could enter, though, Zelos looked up at her, smirking. "Hey, babe, you sure you don't want some company in there?"

She stopped and rolled her eyes. And there, finally, was the pass she'd expected. She should've known he couldn't resist. "Positive," she said, then she turned and leaned against the balcony railing, arching an eyebrow down at him. "You really aren't going to give that up, are you?"

"Nope. Not until I've had my way with you." His smirk broadened and he waggled his eyebrows. "And probably not even then."

The blush erupted on her face, but she chuckled softly anyway as she noted he still hadn't budged, apparently content to just sit on the couch and flirt with her. "Idiot." His grin widened further, and, uncertain whether she should be disgusted or amused, Sheena turned and headed into the bathroom, throwing an, "And don't you dare peek at me again!" back over her shoulder at him before closing and locking the door to prevent the apparently irrepressible pervert in him from trying anything.

She tossed the robe onto the counter, then stepped up to the sink and began collecting everything she needed -- but she froze again as his voice drifted through the door. "I'm walking up the stairs right now..." he said, followed by a wolf whistle, but it was so distant that Sheena knew he was still sitting on the couch. She couldn't help bursting out laughing. If he'd been within reach, she would've just smacked-- Her gaze fell on a bar of soap. Impulse and instinct immediately won out, and she grabbed the soap, opened the door, returned to the railing, and tossed it -- and even she was surprised when it soundly connected with its target. "Hey, ow!" Zelos exclaimed, rubbing the back of his head before looking at her in mixed wide-eyed amazement and mock-indignance. "What was that for?!"

It took all her effort to smirk, not laugh. "Be glad it was a bar of soap and not a shuriken."

Zelos pouted but couldn't hide his grin for long. "Okay, I have to ask. How did you manage that shot from up there?"

She lifted a finger to her mouth, pretending to seriously consider that. "Hmm...I'm trying to figure out whether to say your head is so big that it's an easy target or that there's a special magnet hidden in your hair that draws everything I throw at you to it."

"...So it was a lucky shot, then," he said with a snort and a wicked grin. Sheena rolled her eyes and, choosing to ignore that, headed back into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. "Y'know, if you want this soap back, you'll have to come down here and get it!" he called up to her. "Or, better yet, I could bring it to you myself...."

...Oh, right. Showers required soap. Whoops. She pulled open the drawer under the sink and smirked. Bingo. "That's okay, I found another one here!"

Even through the door, she could hear him grumbling -- so loudly and exaggeratedly that she knew it was intentional so she would hear him. "That's it, I'm never letting Sebastian keep the extra soap in there again. All it does is ruin perfect opportunities to peek at naked women." Sheena closed her eyes, groaned, and shook her head -- but her smile was building again, too, at his ridiculous antics. Opening her eyes and opting to ignore him, she grabbed a bath sponge and soaked it under some warm water to wash her face. "Now, let's see...what can I do that'll make you throw that one at me, too?"

Oh, great Jizou! Sheena opened the door, returned to the balcony, and threw her sponge at him, bursting out laughing as that, too, squarely hit his head, followed by the anticipated whining about how his pretty hair was all wet now. Before he could respond further, though, Sheena spun around, retreated back into the bathroom, and, still laughing, turned on the hot water in the bathtub to signal their 'conversation' was now over. Seriously, what was she getting herself into with him? While he'd proven himself capable of heart-tuggingly beautiful moments, obviously the idiot wasn't entirely an act for him; it was a part of him. So was this really what she wanted? A relationship filled with bizarre teasing and innuendo that resulted in her throwing soap and wet sponges at him?

The answer quickly hit her. Yes, it was. Because for as masochistic as he was, egging her on even though he knew how she'd respond, for perhaps the first time ever she could see it for what it really was: not something meant to be serious, but just Zelos having fun and enjoying life and trying to make her have fun and enjoy life right along with him. And to her surprise, now that she wasn't taking it so seriously, Sheena found she was actually having fun playing along with him.

A glance at the door showed she'd forgotten to relock it this last time she'd come back in, and leaving the water running, she headed back to it to do so. Upon reaching it, though, she stopped and listened as she heard Sebastian's voice coming from downstairs. "Master Zelos, may I ask you a question?"

"Shoot," Zelos replied.

"It is obvious you care greatly for Miss Sheena. Why, then, do you persist in antagonizing her like this?"

"Heh." Zelos paused, then went on, his voice barely discernable over the running water. "Did you see her face just now?"

"I did."

"Was she smiling?"

"She was."

"Thought so. Lovely, wasn't it? That smile is, hands down, the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. So if she was smiling...then there you go. Mission accomplished."

"Ah, I see," Sebastian said warmly. "Very good, sir."

For a moment, her heart caught in her throat, and she leaned back against the wall, stunned. Oh, Zelos. So that was his intent. And again, she had to acknowledge that yes, she really was in love with that idiotic man -- a man who might act like an idiot but really wasn't one at all. Far from it, actually; nearly everything he said and did seemed to be deliberate, meant to achieve an end only his scheming mind knew. Blushing deeply, Sheena smiled again, nearly succumbing to the urge to go back downstairs and kiss him -- but she quickly suppressed it. He didn't need to know she'd heard that, because he'd likely only said it because he didn't think she'd hear it, and if he knew she had, he'd probably backpedal from it out of embarrassment. She might have to surprise him with a kiss after her shower, though, even if she never told him her reasoning for doing so.

And with that confirmed, even more of her fears and reservations fell away. She still had one more massive hurdle to overcome before she could rest assured 'they' would last beyond a day (which she would take care of today, no matter how terrified she now was of doing so), but if that really was the reasoning behind his idiocy...she could trust him. And while she didn't believe her smile was 'beautiful,' she did believe he'd sincerely wanted to make her smile, and that thought gave her such a warm, excited feeling inside that her smile broadened and she couldn't help whispering, "You idiot."

Her gaze fell on the lock again, but it just wasn't necessary. Zelos really was all talk. He wouldn't peek at her, and the last time, when he'd suddenly appeared in the women's shower room in Sybak and gaped at her, probably had been an accident like he'd claimed. She didn't need to lock the door to keep him out; he would. Casting one last glance at it, she headed back to the sink, locating another sponge and wetting it. And as she pulled the ribbon from her hair, letting it fall free, and observed her reflection in the mirror, she found that not only was she still blushing, but she was still smiling, too.

It felt really good to smile like that. And 'beautiful' or not, for the first time in years, Sheena actually liked what she saw looking back at her from the mirror.


Zelos was pretty sure he'd spent the past half hour grinning like an idiot, judging from how Sheena kept rolling her eyes every time she looked at him. Half an hour ago, upon finishing her shower, she'd climbed down the stairs, joined him on the couch, and, without a word, given him the sweetest, most unexpected kiss he'd ever received before grinning and quickly retreating upstairs to 'her' room. The gesture had left him not only speechless, but frozen in place a moment before he'd finally regained his senses, realized what had happened, and rushed upstairs after her to a) figure out where that had come from, and b) see if he could get another one. She'd locked her door before he'd reached her -- and had then soundly ignored his pleas for an explanation -- but that hadn't erased the fact that when she'd reemerged, her hair tied up and her traveling bag in hand, walked past where he was leaning against the wall, and headed back downstairs, she'd had a beautiful smile on her lips and an endearingly rosy blush on her cheeks.

She never had answered him, just smiled coyly yet teasingly, but he was still ridiculously happy -- and he really liked that she'd been able to surprise him like that. Over the years, many women had tried to catch him off his guard, and at first they had (at least until he'd realized they all did the same things to 'surprise' him), but it had been years since one had managed to do so like that. Most, in fact, were so predictable that he could recite the entire conversation before it happened and identify which body part they'd touch to seduce him. But this...he liked this better, not knowing what to expect from her or what she'd say or do to shatter more of his preconceived notions about her. It gave him hope that his goal of getting her to loosen up and enjoy life more wouldn't be too hard to attain.

And now, after collecting her from his garden, where she'd been wandering around, admiring his iris, while he'd discussed a few things with Sebastian, they were finally heading out. The second they left his front door, though, every nobleman around stopped whatever they were doing and looked at them. Apparently, he'd been right before; the city was already busy gossiping about them. He knew he should care that everyone was staring, because Sheena had made it clear she hated being the center of attention, but at the moment, doing so was nearly impossible when he was still reveling over everything, not just the kiss but the sheer amazingness of this woman and all of the positive changes that had now happened between them. Yesterday at this time he'd been dreading ever seeing her again, and now....

"Oh, don't tell me you're still trying to figure it out!" Sheena suddenly said, derailing his thoughts.

Heh. There was the eye roll again, which meant he was probably smiling again. He chuckled and raised his hands in a show of innocence. "What? I want to know what I did right so I can do it again and get another kiss like that! I'm not going to give up until I've figure this out!"

Sheena released an exasperated but amused sigh. "Okay, fine. I felt like it. There. Are you happy now?"

He blinked several times. Was she serious? "You felt like it? Really?"

Her eyebrows flew upward. "What, I can't do that?"

Whoa, he was not letting her believe that. And, he reminded himself, he'd better not give her too hard of a time about this or she'd think twice about ever doing it again. He knew he was treading on shaky ground with her and that saying even one thing wrong could drive her away in a furious, disgusted rage, and he refused to let that happen. He would do his best to rein himself in...but oh, did old habits die hard sometimes. "Are you kidding? Of course you are! You can do that anytime you'd like -- the more the better, I say. I'm just having a hard time believing there was no reason for it except that you 'felt like it.'"

"So just 'feeling like it' isn't a good enough reason?" she countered as they descended the steps to the street. "That's the last thing I'd expect to hear coming from you, Mr. Impulsive, since nearly everything you do is because you 'feel like it.'"

Well, okay, he couldn't deny that, but he just wasn't buying her reasoning yet, either. That kiss had been too amazing, too deliberate, too...meaningful. There had to be more to it. He wouldn't over push this, but the urge to tease her was just too great, and common sense, which told him to knock it off, couldn't compete. At least they were still safely in 'playful' mode. "So does that mean I get to kiss you every time I just 'feel like it'?" he said, smirking. "I mean, it is only fair that if you can do it, I can, too."

Her eyes narrowed sharply, but the smile toying on her lips betrayed her. "Why do I get the feeling I'd seriously regret answering that question with a 'yes'?"

He tried -- but failed -- to bite back his laugh in time. "Babe, are you implying I'd never leave you alone if you gave me permission to do that?"

"Gee, what would ever give me that impression?" she said, her smile breaking out in full.

"Heh, I guess you really do know me too well."

Sheena nudged his arm with her elbow, beaming him another beautiful smile that more than made up for her not giving him a real answer. "You're an idiot."

"Yeah...I am," he conceded.

Okay, so she'd won this battle. He'd be a man, admit defeat, and stop. She had her reasons, and she obviously didn't want to tell him -- and if he knew one thing about Sheena, it was that she liked keeping her secrets. It apparently came with being a ninja, and he could accept that. At least he already knew that about her -- although he hoped if this relationship continued that she wouldn't become too secretive with him. But he'd cross that bridge when they came to it. Right now, after all, he had something more important to deal with: Sheena's beautiful smile was fading as she finally noticed all the noblemen staring at them. Obviously, she wasn't happy knowing these people were 'gossiping' about them. He had debated showing her that newspaper article at all, but ultimately he'd decided to; that, too, he'd learned about her, how much she hated not knowing what was going on, especially when it involved her. He still wasn't sure he'd made the right choice with that, but he suspected not telling her would have pissed her off worse, and so he wouldn't second-guess it. What was done was done, and that was that.

Without warning, her body jumped to full alertness and her footsteps slowed, and Zelos looked sharply at her, only to find her staring, crap. Three of his hunnies were huddled together in the street, fanning themselves and scowling as they eyed her like hawks. He should have known they'd be watching his mansion this morning, eager to see if he really was back. Stepping closer to Sheena, he placed a hand to her back to keep her moving. "Hey, ignore them. They're just jealous I'm talking to you, not them."

Sheena glanced at him, her smile gone and her body stiff, then looked back at his hunnies. "That's easy for you to say. Act or not, you at least like attention. My instincts are suspicious of anyone who so much as looks at me wrong -- and they," she motioned at the women, "are definitely looking at me wrong."

Yeah, no kidding. They were outright glaring at her now, probably because he'd (Martel forbid!) touched her, and every now and then they whispered amongst themselves. And...oh, right. The blonde in the gaudy red dress, Greta, was the one who'd called Sheena those nasty names at that party -- names that had resulted in him leaving altogether to ponder the part he wanted his hunnies to play in his life. Sheena hadn't heard her then, but he sure had. Granted, it had turned out in their favor anyway since they wouldn't be here if he hadn't overheard them, but still...agh, he really couldn't stand them sometimes.

Seriously, what did they think he was? A trophy, and they were his guardians? They were possessive, vicious, garishly fake women who rivaled Cruxis, Yggdrasil, and the Pope for the title of Most Obnoxious, Persistent Adversary Ever. They acted as if they owned him, as if they alone could make his decisions for him -- although if they'd known anything about him, then they'd know how much he detested people who wouldn't let him make his own choices. He'd put up with them because the Chosen act dictated it, and because their 'love' had felt nice (when he'd ignored its fakeness and shallowness, of course) and stroked his shaky ego, but now, foreseeing how they would soon be trying to chase Sheena out of his life for good...he wanted to toss them in the mud pit where they belonged. Preferably wearing their fanciest, ugliest dresses.

...And just like that, a sudden, evil flash of inspiration hit him. He could finally do it; he could get rid of them for good, let them know where they -- and, more importantly, Sheena -- stood with him. Sure, it meant burning some long-standing bridges on the slim chance this relationship would last, and if it didn't, he'd be left with nothing, not even these horrid women, but he was ready to take that chance. He wanted this...and he knew just how to make it happen. Of course, doing so meant taking a huge chance with Sheena...and in her current, tense state, he wasn't sure how she'd react. In fact, he was pretty sure it could backfire completely and wreck everything, sacrificing any trust she had in him and leaving her smacking the hell out of him. But on the other hand, if Sheena didn't freak out and it worked, it could potentially get those women off their backs for good. At the very least, it would end the rampant speculation currently buzzing around Meltokio about them.

Deciding to be brave and go with it, because after their earlier discussion, Zelos was pretty sure he could lay out an acceptable argument that placated her anger, he gently grabbed Sheena's arm to stop her. "What do you say we have a little fun with this and give them something worth looking at?" he asked.

Instantly, her eyes narrowed. "What are you scheming, Zelos?"

He smirked, but it quickly faltered as nervousness accompanied his realization that he really didn't know how she would react to this. He had to do something, though, and if this worked...oh, this better work. "Just go with it, love, and try to resist the urge to smack me until we've left Meltokio or you'll ruin the effect," he said, gently touching her cheek. "Once we're out of town, feel free to smack me all you'd like."

Sheena blinked several times. "Zelos, what...?"

He didn't let her finish; he just leaned down and kissed her, cupping her face with his hands so she couldn't escape from him. For a moment, she was still, clearly stunned -- and probably trying to devise a painful way to kill him -- but then, to his surprise, she relaxed and sank into it. Figuring he was in the clear, and since it felt so damned good, he deepened the kiss, thrilled when her arms wrapped around his neck...and there it was, that little moan he was completely addicted to hearing, the one that sent oodles of enticing sensations through him. No, he would never get enough of this, and it amazed and encouraged him to realize she'd accepted this instead of fighting it. She'd let him kiss her out in public, and that meant...heh, that meant she was so distracted by the kiss that she'd forgotten their audience. Good.

Zelos wanted to do the same, just forget everything and enjoy it, but he couldn't because he really haddone this for a specific reason. So after several long, oh-so-perfect moments, he slowly pulled away -- and then smiled as he saw her eyes were still closed in a hazy daze of pleasure. Finally, she looked up at him as he gently touched her cheek...and then her face turned bright red as she realized they were standing in the street with his hunnies gaping on nearby. She bit her lip, her eyes darting around nervously, then looked back at him a brief instant before her gaze fell to his chest. "You are such an idiot," she murmured, her hands lowering to his arms.

"What?" he said, grinning as her eyes darted back up to his. "I felt like it." He arched a pointed eyebrow, needing her to realize this part was crucial. "And remember, save the 'this Idiot Chosen needs a good smackdown' thing for once we've left Meltokio. If we're lucky, this'll end the 'are there or aren't they?' speculation everyone's currently doing about us."

Sheena watched him uncertainly, but then she looked around, her face still red -- but, Zelos noted, she hadn't backed away from him yet, either. "You know," she began, looking back at him with -- oh, thank Martel -- a faint, albeit embarrassed, smile, "you won't get away with pulling a stunt like that in Mizuho."

His heart skipped a beat -- not only hadn't she slapped him or stormed away from him for kissing her like that, thus declaring to everyone that yes, he really was in love with a ninja, but her words implied she wouldn't mind if he visited her in Mizuho sometime -- but then he sighed, realizing what she was saying. Oh, right. That. "Yeah, I figured. That whole 'no public displays of affection' rule you guys have, right?" Sheena nodded shyly, her head dipping downward, but Zelos just chuckled. He'd hate it -- because damn, did he want to show off this amazing woman who loved him to everyone -- but he'd have to grin and bear it, because Mizuho was just weird that way. "Then we'll just have to save that for here, eh?"

She gave him a warning glare, but her embarrassed smile killed its effect. "We'll see."

...And 'we'll see' in Sheena speak was as close to permission as Zelos would probably ever get, so he'd take it. He grinned, then gave her another quick kiss, unable to resist when she looked so utterly adorable and was standing so close to him, and returned his hand to her back, guiding her down the street again, smirking at the gapes marring his hunnies' artificially perfect faces. Seeing them approaching, Greta said something to the other two, and then, as expected, the three began strutting toward them. Again, Sheena stiffened, and afraid she would either bolt or beat the crap out of them, Zelos wrapped his arm around her waist, drawing her closer to him. Yes, he'd now made his decision about his hunnies' role in his life, and he wanted her to know that. He would burn these bridges. It was the right decision, and this was the right time to do it. For the first time in his life, it felt right.

"Let me handle this," he said.

Sheena's eyes snapped to his, still radiating definite wariness. "What are you going to do?"

Zelos gave her a soft, pleading smile. "Trust me, Sheena. Please?"

For a moment she just eyed him, visibly debating that -- he knew he was asking far more of her than he deserved considering he had yet to prove he had any trustworthy, redeeming qualities at all -- but finally she nodded. Oh, thank Martel. He wanted to earn her trust and prove he wouldn't mess this up, and he was relieved she was giving him a chance to do so. Now he just hoped his hunnies continued being so predictable and that he didn't accidentally say something wrong that decimated the trust she'd placed in him.

Seconds later, the three women arrived and, in the blink of an eye, as if it choreographed, their nasty glares transformed into saccharine smiles -- as if they really thought he wouldn't notice the change. "Oh, Master Zelos!" Greta cried, latching onto his free arm. "I am so glad to see you've returned safely!"

"So am I, Master Zelos!" the second one, a redhead in a hideous green dress whose name he thought was Cecelia, said, stopping beside Greta.

"I was so concerned when you vanished from the king's party, Chosen One!" the third one, Penelope, a brunette wearing a frilly blue dress, added.

"Yes, Master Zelos, you promised me a dance that night, and I know you would never break your promise unless something was seriously wrong!" Greta said.

...If these women were any more over the top, they would be orbiting Derris Kharlan. It took all his effort to plaster the smooth smile onto his face and not ruin the mask by rolling his eyes or shaking Greta off his arm -- or narrowing his eyes in concern as Sheena bristled and folded her arms to her chest, glaring dangerously at his hunnies. He pulled his hand from her waist, praying she could be patient until he could play all his cards, and then turned to the women. "Hunnies, hunnies, of course the Great Zelos is back safely! You didn't really think I'd let a few monsters hinder my ability to return to you, did you?"

Penelope giggled. "Of course not, Master Zelos!"

"You're so strong, I'm sure they fell immediately beneath your blade!" Cecelia cooed.

Beaming him a seductive smile, Greta trailed her fingers over his bicep, mimicked a minute later by Cecelia. A glance at Sheena showed she was now looking away and rolling her eyes, her lips pursed and her arms nearly strangling her chest. Uh oh. He may have overcome one major hurdle with her when she'd let him kiss her in public, but now he clearly had another to worry about: her nonexistent patience when it came to his hunnies and their groping of him. Okay, so that part had to stop, at least.

"Ladies, ladies, please!" he said as suavely as he could muster. "Remember Rule #4."

Thankfully, both Greta and Cecelia immediately released him, giggling in mock embarrassment, although neither stepped much for respecting personal space. "Sorry, Master Zelos," Greta said.

"Me, too!" Cecelia added.

Sheena's eyes darted at him curiously, but she didn't say anything.

"So are you going away again anytime soon, Master Zelos?" Cecelia asked.

"Yes, Chosen One, you still owe me a dance!" Greta said.

"Me, too!" Cecelia countered, shooting Greta an annoyed glare that said she refused to be one-upped by her. Gee, what a surprise, Zelos thought, restraining an evil grin. They're not getting along. Again. They would band together to keep decent people like Sheena away from their precious Chosen, but beyond that, they were competitors for his affection and they knew it. Oh, if they only knew how much fun he'd had manipulating the pieces to egg on their rivalry....

"And me!" Penelope added cheerfully.

...And then there was Penny, who was utterly clueless. Cute, sweet, and a little nicer than the others, but she had no brain worth mentioning; all she did was tag along with her big sister, Greta, because her parents told her to, and agree with whatever was said. "Well, my lovelies, I'm afraid you may be waiting awhile since no more parties are currently planned wherein we could enjoy ourselves," Zelos said, sighing showily. "And I'm also afraid my time here looks to be pretty limited. Now that I'm back, I have a thousand things I need to do. I am the Chosen, after all."

"Oh, of course you are!" Penelope said.

"I know you'll spend every second of your free time with me, Master Zelos!" Greta said.

"I'll wait with bated breath for the moment you knock on my door!" Cecelia added, twirling a curly lock of red hair with her finger.

Egads, these women couldn't be more pathetic if they tried. Sheena, unsurprisingly, looked like her feeble patience with this was wearing thin, and again Zelos found himself starting to worry she would storm off in disgust soon. C'mon, hunnies, get to the point, he silently begged them. I know you're dying to, because you're just that predictable, and I don't have all day here while you try to outdo each other in showing me what I'm missing out on by not dating you. But nothing you try will work, so give up already. Quit flirting and preening and trying to drag me home with you; all you're doing is making me realize how amazing Sheena is -- and how lucky I am that she's still talking to me after the ass I've been to her. So whadda ya say we get this over with already?

"Of course you will!" he said smoothly, beaming them the fakest smile he could. If they'd been paying attention, they would have caught his sarcasm, but they were too busy batting their eyelashes at him to notice it. "The Great Zelos's hunnies are the most amazing, devoted, loyal fans in the entire world!"

All three giggled, but finally, finally, Greta turned her eyes to Sheena, her expression instantly transforming from coy and flirty to outright scathing. "So what is she doing here? If you really wished for company on your first night back in Meltokio, Master Zelos, you should have come to see me! I would have been more than happy to entertain you!"

"No, I would've been!" Cecelia countered.

"But I would've made it the most worth your while, Chosen One!" Penelope said with a pout.

Oh, good. The subject had finally shifted to Sheena. Time to get this show started. "Now, now, settle down," Zelos said, lifting his hands to calm them -- well, technically to 'shoo' them, but short of a miracle, they'd never realize that. Hell, even if he directly told them to get lost, they wouldn't. They'd just think he was having a bad day and would try again tomorrow. But this...this might just work. "Remember rule #3."

The women looked at each other uncertainly, their question obvious: 'Which rule was that?' At least they'd remembered Rule #4, the one that forbade manhandling the Great Zelos, probably because he'd had to use it so often with them. Suddenly, Cecelia beamed him a huge, proud smile. "Oh! You mean the one that says all hunnies must get along with each other...."

Recognition lit the others' eyes. "Oh! Because if they don't, it makes the Great Zelos very, very sad!" Penelope finished.

"Hey, I was going to say that!" Greta said, smacking Penelope's arm.

Penelope ignored her and touched her lips thoughtfully. "Or was it the one that said hunnies must respect the Great Zelos's need to speak with all other hunnies...."

Greta's face lit up. "Oh! All other hunnies in the name of spreading the love?"

Sheena glanced at him again, her eyes narrowing curiously, but Zelos grinned smugly. She'd figure it out. "Actually, that one's #6." He pointed at Cecelia. "You, my darling hunny, were right the first time."

Cecelia beamed in delight, but Greta rolled her eyes and looked back at Sheena, her scowl deepening. "But Master Zelos, if all of your hunnies are supposed to get along, then what about her?" She pointed accusingly at Sheena. "She's glaring at me right now!"

Yeah, she was. Glaring daggers, actually. Honestly, he wished she was punching Greta in the face, but it was probably best that she wasn't. And now, to play his first card. He shrugged. "Eh, she's exempt from that rule because she's not a hunny."

For a moment, everyone just blinked at him, Sheena included, but then Greta's eyes darted at her, an evil smirk appearing on her perfectly painted red lips. "Wait, so if she's not a hunny, then we don't have to try to get along with the likes of her anymore, do we?"

"Filthy ninjas have no right to be talking to someone as great as Master Zelos," Cecelia spat, similarly glaring at Sheena.

"Or...kissing him," Greta said, her face wrinkling in disgust as her eyes trailed down Sheena's body. "Especially looking like that."

Zelos quickly touched Sheena's back again as her face reddened in barely restrained fury. Her fuse was nearly burst, and he could not have her running off yet. He needed her to take the high road here, be better than these women, and not let them get under her skin or else she'd beat them to a bloody pulp and be banned from Meltokio permanently. She'd been patient with this idiocy so far, still extending him the trust he'd asked for, but he could see that patience was verging on empty, and if that happened, his entire attempt to win a modicum of her trust would not only end in failure, but it would destroy any trust she'd ever had for him. And he'd be damned if he let that happen. Time to play his ace.

He gave his hunnies a stern look and lifted a finger in warning. "Ah, ah, ah. I would be very careful what you say about her, my darling hunnies. I won't stand for that kind of talk about this lovely lady anymore."

They gaped at him a moment, but Cecelia quickly recovered. "But she's...."

Penelope nodded with more urgency than Zelos had ever seen from her. "She's so...."

"Ugh!" Greta cried, motioning derisively at Sheena. "Just look at her!"

His eyebrows rose. "Remember Rule #1."

They blinked a moment uncertainly, then looked at each other again for the answer. Penelope scratched her head. "Which one is that?"

"Is that the one about gifts for the Chosen having to go to either the Chosen himself or to his butler, not to his friends?" Cecelia suggested.

"No, that's Rule #7," Greta replied, shaking her head. "Is it the one about how we have to wait our turn because he only has one body and can't please us all at once?"

"But I thought that was Rule #5," Penelope said.

"Wait, are you saying you don't remember Rule #1, the most important rule of them all?" Zelos interrupted, feigning shock. "The one that results in all offenders being banned from the official ranks of hunnies forever?"

Their eyes widened in panic -- the smirk was getting ridiculously hard to resist now -- and a glance at Sheena showed she was watching him closely again, her eyes narrowed, clearly curious what he was doing. "I don't...I don't remember!" Greta cried in despair.

"I'm so sorry, Master Zelos!" Cecelia said, to all appearances on the verge of real tears. Serves her right for calling Sheena a 'filthy ninja.'

"We've failed you!" Penelope said. "Please remind us!"

Zelos sighed, making it as showily sorrowful as he could, and lifted his hand to his chest in 'dismay.' He was evil, and he knew it, and he really didn't care. They deserved this. "I am so disappointed. Rule #1: Hunnies must treat the Great Zelos's girlfriend with the utmost respect." His eyebrows flew upward as he looked between them expectantly. "Ringing any bells yet?" Heh...of course it wasn't, because he was Evil, with a capital E. It was official: his sheer evilness rivaled his sheer prettiness. He sighed again at their clueless expressions. "Then I suppose you don't remember the detailed breakdown of that rule either, do you? Okay, fine. Here it is. Detailed breakdown of Rule #1: Hunnies may not badmouth, belittle, berate, glare at, gossip about, lie to, lie about, scheme against, or in any other mental, physical, or emotional way attempt to harm the Great Zelos's girlfriend, nor can they attempt to monopolize the time that the Great Zelos wishes to spend with said girlfriend. No exceptions will be tolerated. Any hunny caught doing so, or is indicted by his girlfriend as having done so, will suffer the ultimate consequences of her actions and be exiled from the exalted group of hunnies around the world forever, with no possibility of ever being reinstated."

All three women blinked at him blankly. "Your...girlfriend?" Penelope ventured.

"You can't possibly be talking about...her," Greta said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

"But you deserve so much better than someone like her!" Cecelia said, even more tears filling her eyes.

"Rule #2," Zelos said, but then sighed again at their perplexed expressions. He was having way too much fun with this. "Hunnies must respect the Great Zelos's decision to name a very special lady as his one and only girlfriend. And Sheena here gets that honor." He chanced another glance at Sheena, only to find her face was red and her eyes were wide, betraying how stunned and conflicted she was. He arched an eyebrow as she fumbled for a response, then quirked a smile. He couldn't pass by this opportunity, and he hoped she'd understand that. "What, you're not my girlfriend? Because if you're not, then you and I have significantly different interpretations of what happened last night...."

Sheena gasped and her blush deepened at his insinuation, but for once, surprising and embarrassing her weren't his goals. Instead, relief swept through him as his hunnies looked at each other, aghast, before Greta finally lifted her nose and huffed, turning her back on him. "Come on, ladies, let's get out of here," she said. The other two mimicked her childish act of snobbery, and then all three strutted away, fanning themselves in a completely stupid, unwarranted manner seeing as it wasn't even 70 degrees yet.

"See ya later, hunnies!" Zelos called after them, smirking, but once they were safely out of earshot, he turned back to Sheena, his smile vanishing, suddenly feeling nervous again. Now to see if he'd passed the test. He needed to know this, desperately, because if they were on different pages, then he'd have to make some behavioral adjustments ASAP. "It's a serious question. Yes? No?"

For a moment, Sheena eyed him, but then, thank Martel, she smiled, her gaze falling downward shyly. "Of...of course I am. I'm just...I'm not used to thinking in those terms yet."

Zelos released his breath and grinned. Test successfully passed. And she hadn't even smacked him for that public kiss or for his inaccurate insinuation that they'd slept together last night! "Oh, good, because I was really hoping I wasn't misinterpreting everything." He paused, his grin faltering. "And to be honest...I'm not used to thinking in those terms yet, either."

Okay, so he hadn't actually meant to say that aloud, but his nerves had gotten the better of him, and he couldn't take it back now. At least she met his eyes again. Even he was utterly amazed how nervous he felt with her. He'd known her for years and been so comfortable with their previous dysfunctional relationship that venturing into new terrain like this, while exactly what he'd dreamt of all those years, was...strange. He didn't feel fully at ease with her in this capacity yet, and he was constantly reminding himself not only that was this real, but that he couldn't say stupid things to her anymore. In fact, he felt like he was dancing with two left feet to a dance he didn't know yet, one he was desperately trying to figure out so he didn't completely mess it up and make his new dance partner regret choosing him. At least she seemed to be just as uncertain and clumsy with this dance as he was.

But this wasn't the right time to figure that out. Clearing his throat, Zelos gently touched her back again. "Anyway, let's get you back to Mizuho before a scout shows up who'll kill me for delaying you."

Her gaze landed briefly on his chest, but then she nodded and gave him another shy smile, and they resumed walking out of Meltokio. She cast one last glance at his retreating hunnies. "Hey, Zelos?"



Zelos gave her a curious, uncertain look. "For what?"

She motioned at his hunnies. "For getting them off my back like that."

"Ah." Oh, Sheena, if you only knew. He'd done that for many reasons, but making her life easier was definitely one of them. He grinned. "The pleasure was all mine."

"I know you just lost a lot of points with them, and I'm sure the rest of your fan club will know about this soon." Her eyes darted briefly at him before falling to the ground, still blushing. "I really appreciate it."

Damn, it felt good to know he'd done well by her. Iota of trust earned. While he doubted he'd ever gain her full trust after six years of untrustworthiness that he could never undo, how could it hurt to make that his ultimate goal? "Heh. I know you're perfectly capable of kicking their asses to Niflheim anytime you want, babe, but believe me, I've been looking forward to doing that for years. They deserved it." He shrugged. "At least now they should think twice before saying anything to you." Leaving Meltokio's upper class section, Zelos looped his arm through hers, pleased to feel her only hesitate a second before she covered it with her free hand -- okay, Wilder, your girlfriend is letting you touch her like this, and so you are not going to grope her or do anything else inappropriate, no matter how much your hand wants to 'slip' elsewhere -- and then he drew her closer to him as they headed toward the steps leading down to the lower class section. "And by all means, tell me if they give you any hassle. I can't say I'd be terribly upset to ban them all from calling themselves my hunnies anymore."

"I will." She gave him a curious look as they descended the steps. "So you set up rules for your hunnies?"

Ah, finally. He'd wondered when she'd ask about that. "It was the only way to keep them under control. If you haven't noticed, they get rather...clingy and possessive...without any checks and bounds."

She snorted. "Yeah, I noticed. Hard not to. I've just never heard you use them before."

"That's because I never had to with you." Zelos cocked his head and quirked a playful smile. "Although in retrospect, the 'no manhandling the Great Zelos' one would've spared me a lot of bruises...."

Sheena chuckled and nudged him with her elbow. "Eh, you deserved every one of them."

He pretended to think about that. He had -- oh, had he deserved them -- but not wanting her to realize how much that tugged on the guilt he'd buried for years that was now leaking through the cracks she'd been poking at ever since that party, he sighed, keeping his tone light. "Yeah, I really can't deny that."

"And were those really Rules #1 and 2?" she asked.

Zelos gave her a wicked grin. "They are now."

Her footsteps slowed and her jaw dropped as she watched him. "You just made them up?"

"Heh." He tugged on her arm to get her walking again. "I always left Rules #1 and 2 open in case I ever needed to get them out of my hair for good. This seemed like a good time to finally set those in stone."

Sheena gaped at him another moment, but then she burst out laughing and playfully smacked his arm. "I can't believe you, Zelos. You're terrible!"

"And you, my dear, are worth it."

Instantly, her eyes widened and her blush deepened, and a moment later her head dipped downward again -- but, he noted, she was still smiling, too. Oh, how he loved leaving her speechless. "Idiot."

So much fondness laced her voice that his footsteps briefly slowed and his heart skipped a beat. He grinned and pressed a kiss to her temple, his heart pounding faster as she leaned into him. 'Strange' or not, Zelos was definitely liking this relaxed affection with her. Now he just had to keep it up so he could get even more adorable little moments like this with her. And knowing it was a possibility...he would behave himself. He wouldn't push her away anymore, or grope her, or tease her, or hurt her. He wouldn't. He would live up to her faith in him and see where this relationship went. If it didn't last, well, then that was that, but he'd sure as hell do everything he could to make sure it did.

The two continued walking through Meltokio in silence, until finally they were leaving the main gate and heading north. Zelos released her arm -- he'd made his statement to Meltokio, and he didn't want to make her uncomfortable by coming across as too clingy or overly tactile -- and then he lifted his hands behind his head, reveling in the clear blue sky of one of the most beautiful mornings he could remember. And speaking of being tactile, they needed to have this conversation, too, so he knew what he could safely do with her.

"So...about this rule Mizuho has regarding public displays of affection," he began. Martel, between that smile on her lips and the sun beating down on her, she was utterly gorgeous. "What's considered a 'public display of affection'? Obviously a kiss is off limits, but beyond that...."

Sheena chuckled, her gaze falling downward. "Sorry, but everything else is off limits, too. No touching of any kind."

His eyes narrowed and he lowered his hands. 'Of any kind'? "None whatsoever? Not even a hug?"


"Holding hands?"


"I can't even touch you? Not even like this?" He poked her arm with his finger.

Sheena grinned and shook her head. "Nope."

Okay, that was ridiculous. He'd struggled for years to keep his hands off of her because she was just that hot, and now, when he finally could touch her without eliciting her wrath, he wasn't allowed to do so while in her village? "But I distinctly remember you slugging me there that one time...."

She rolled her eyes. "Slugging someone isn't a public display of affection; it's a public display of aggravation. Those are allowed."

Zelos gave her a teasing smirk. "I dunno, in your case I'm pretty sure it was a display of affection...."

She blushed and shot him a mild glare. "You just keep telling yourself that."

He chuckled -- oh, I will, Sheena; I definitely will -- but instead of saying that, he released a sad, showy sigh. "Talk about a village being no fun."

"Maybe, but if you don't want to be permanently banned, you'll have to follow that rule," she said. "You realize that, right?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he grumbled, waving that off. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

Sheena snorted. "Feel free to be as miserable and whiny about it as you'd like, but you still have to follow the rules while you're there."

Well, on the bright side, it wasn't like he'd expected to win that fight. He wasn't happy about it, but it wasn't like he would only see her in Mizuho. And if it really drove him crazy, then he wouldn't go there more than necessary...although refusing to spend time with Sheena unless he could touch her was pretty stupid. It wasn't like physical touching was the only aspect of this relationship he was looking forward to. She was right; he'd just have to suck it up and follow the rules if he wanted to see her, which he did.

But now that she'd clarified this rule, Zelos couldn't help wondering what other silly rules they had. "Man, Mizuho really is traditional with relationships, isn't it?"

"Mm hmm," she said, looking away from him. "Very."

Hmm...she was tensing and her face was somber again. Something was obviously bothering her -- which meant there was more to this than she'd told him yet. "So what about when we're not in public?"

Her eyes fell downward, her blush returning. "Still very traditional."

"Can I at least touch you if we're not walking around Mizuho?" he asked.


"Hug you?"


Definitely getting better now. "Kiss you?"

She smirked and arched an eyebrow at him. "I've already kissed you, haven't I?"

Zelos grinned sappily, remembering those amazing kisses -- kisses that would be feeding his fantasies for weeks to come. "Yeah, you have. And what lovely kisses they were, too. Seriously, I can't imagine a worse torture than not being able to get an occasional kiss from my sexy, voluptuous girlfriend."

Her blush deepened and her head sank downward as she chuckled. "As long as no one from Mizuho sees it, they're fine with it." She opened her mouth as if to say more, but then she glanced at him, closed it, and looked away again. Okay, she definitely has something else to say, but she must not feel comfortable doing so...which means whatever it is, I really need to hear it. Before he could push, though, she went on, her gaze focused on the ground. "Well, they're fine with those things, at least. Anything beyond that, though, they', they're not."

...Ah. Her blush was blazing in full, her body was stiff, and she still wasn't looking at him -- all of which told him what she meant. A momentary panic hit him at what that might mean for them, but he quickly shoved it aside. No, she wasn't saying that; she was just saying her people disapproved of it. Granted, she was clearly uncomfortable with the prospect and especially with talking to him about it, probably because of his infamous, albeit inaccurate, reputation as a Casanova-esque paramour, but that still didn't mean his worst-case scenario was correct. He needed more information before jumping to conclusions.

So, now, how to do that without actually asking her that. "But I thought I'd heard Mizuho was actually very open about that. Like, as open as Meltokio is. Y'know, ninjas using seduction as a method of espionage."

Sheena nodded, but it was too quick and stilted -- and she wouldn't look at him, either. She'd never been one to talk openly about sexuality, just beat him up whenever he did, but this went beyond modesty. This was an almost palpable embarrassment. But why? " was, a long time ago," she said slowly, carefully. "But now that's changed. We still use seduction to get information, but women aren't permitted to go...that far...with it anymore."

Zelos watched her closely, his eyes narrowing. "So what changed that?"

He'd be amused by how red her face was if her inability to look at him wasn't so alarming. "Five generations ago, Mizuho's chief learned his wife had him as a lover before they'd been married and had taken another man into her bed instead," she said, her voice soft and reluctant. "Cheating was severely frowned on at the time, but it wasn't punishable unless the couple was married before it happened. But then...well, even after they'd married, the woman kept sleeping with her other lover...and the son she had turned out to be the other man's, not her husband's. When the chief found out, he, ah, went on a jealous rampage and killed his wife, her lover, the son, and then himself."

...Oh. Yeah, he could see where this was going, especially if it was the chief who'd done that. "Lovely."

Sheena bit her lip and folded her arms tightly to her chest as they continued walking. "Because Mizuho is so small and can't afford to lose people like that, the next chief established the rule that forbade all premarital sexual relations. Basically, any woman found to be 'impure' on her wedding night is severely punished, sometimes even exiled or executed. It depends how many women Mizuho has at the time."

Oh, Martel. His worst-case scenario was looking increasingly likely. Zelos blinked again, stunned. "So...wait. Are you saying it's okay for your men to sleep around, but not your women?"

She nodded faintly, her eyes still downcast. "A woman's sexual purity can be proved. A man's cannot."

For a moment, Zelos gaped at her. A culture still existed that held to the ridiculous notion of 'women's sexual purity'? Never mind that it wasn't provable; he'd heard the stories about virgins no longer having their 'proof' intact while women who were no longer 'pure' still had theirs. And then to not hold their men to the same standard they held their women, just because women's bodies possessed an extra membrane men's didn't? Could anything be more hypocritical? "Seriously?"

"Mm hmm," she murmured.

Seriously. That was insane! "Damn. Isn't that, y'know, a little harsh?"

Sheena bit her lip, but finally she glanced at him again -- extremely briefly, and her eyes were sad, maybe even worried, but at least it was a look. "Maybe, but that's what they decided, and Mizuho has followed it pretty strictly since then."

Zelos snorted and rolled his eyes. That was incredible. And ridiculous. And stupid. The lesson he would've taken from that scenario was that a person shouldn't marry someone they didn't love, especially when they loved someone else -- and that if the person they did love wasn't satisfying their physical needs, then they needed to discuss that openly and honestly with them. But no, Mizuho took it the other way and forbade all sex for unmarried couples. "And yet again, the indiscretions of a few thoughtless, selfish, crazy people have to ruin it for everyone else," he muttered, trying to keep the bitterness and disgust from his voice, but judging from how Sheena's body tensed, he suspected it bled through anyway.

"Yeah," she whispered.

But none of that was her fault, and he already knew nothing he said would change five generations' worth of overly strict rules, and so he wouldn't harp on it and force Sheena to defend her people. It wouldn't do any good or get him anywhere anyway -- in fact, it would probably just make her feel even more uncomfortable with this whole conversation -- and so for now he'd bite his tongue. "So it really is that important to them, even though something like that shouldn't be anyone else's business," he murmured, shaking his head.

Sheena nodded again, her face growing even redder. "Yeah. Especially for me since I'll be Mizuho's next chief. I'm required to be married before that happens, and I'll...." She paused, then cleared her throat. "While it probably wouldn't be a big deal for any other woman, assuming her husband was the only man she'd slept with before they married, it will be for me. I...I'll need to be 'pure' to set an example for the villagers. Everyone will be watching me closely to make sure I don't do anything inappropriate, and even if Grandpa didn't want to punish me, someone else would push the issue and he'd have to." Her voice lowered. "If I wasn't 'pure' when I got married, I'd probably be executed."

Zelos gaped at her -- oh, Martel, she was serious -- and then released a soft, humorless laugh. "All to prevent people from being murdered by jealous, crazy lovers, they'd kill their own future chief. Yeah, punishing people for being in love and potentially adding even more kids to their population makes perfect sense to me."

"Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to do anything about it; I can't change any rules until I've actually become chief," she said softly, her eyes still downcast. "I'd never be able to talk Grandpa into changing it, either, not without casting suspicion on myself. And I doubt any of the villagers even remember the story behind it anymore; they just see the rule itself and don't question where it came from."

He wanted to scream at the unfairness of that. He wanted to sneak into Mizuho and rewrite the rule book. But mostly he wanted to drag Sheena away from there to somewhere she could live a normal life, not a life she didn't seem entirely comfortable with and where she had to put everything on hold for years before she finally became chief. He'd been there, stuck in a life he didn't want and with restrictive responsibilities weighing him down, and now Sheena had to deal with the same. Her life had been hard enough ever since that Volt incident, and now, just when she'd been freed of that guilt, it was being hijacked by even more overwhelming expectations thanks to her grandfather declaring her to be his successor. And....

Oh, Martel. His worst-case scenario was real: the only way they could ever have sex was if they got married. Sheena wasn't directly saying 'no' to him, and yet she was. He certainly hadn't planned on moving that quickly -- he'd meant it when he'd said he wanted to take this slowly and do it right -- but he'd considered it a given that if their relationship continued, sex would be a natural progression of it. But that wasn't even possible? And he'd thought resisting touching her would be hard! He honestly wasn't sure he could handle this, because oh, was he attracted to her. She had no idea what she did to him, how often he'd had to force himself to quit fantasizing about her, did she? Now, when he'd finally gotten a chance at a real relationship now that his years of self-imposed abstinence were finally over, he wasn't even allowed to take that step with the woman of his dreams? This really would be torture!

But this isn't her fault, he reminded himself. Sheena hadn't devised this sexist rule, and her discomfort indicated she wasn't completely happy about it, either. But these were her people and her rules, and even if he tried to seduce her away from Mizuho or convince her they couldn't punish her without facing the Chosen's wrath, she wouldn't bite. Crazy or not, they would never stop being her people, and trying to change her mind would only result in her dumping him for not tolerating her culture or in his being banned from Mizuho. Or, worse, if she did succumb to him, she'd be killed when she got married. And since those options weren't acceptable, only two other options remained: either he didn't date her at all, or he agreed to abide by that rule and not pressure Sheena for something she couldn't give him.

Zelos wasn't sure he could make this decision right now. Besides, it was far too early in their relationship to be dealing with this; they hadn't even gone out on a date yet. At this point, he had no idea how serious their relationship would become; why should he be worrying about this right now? Shouldn't he see if their relationship lasted first? Granted, he already knew the odds of him ever becoming her husband were slim to none; it was highly unlikely Sheena would ever consider him in that capacity, and he sure as hell doubted he'd consider himself in that capacity, either, because him? Marrying a ninja chief and moving to Mizuho? Seriously? If Sheena backed down from becoming chief and left, that would be one thing, but otherwise he just couldn't fathom ever seriously considering such a life.

If he accepted 'they' were going nowhere, though, then shouldn't he be ending things with her? But how could he do that, either, now that he'd gotten this chance with her? He would spend the rest of his life wondering what could have been had he not left, pouting over something she couldn't control. And one thing he knew, unequivocally, was that he loved her; his heart had been hers for years. How could he live with himself if he ran from her over this? He couldn't. Besides, was sex the only reason for dating someone? It was an attractive feature of it, definitely, but calling this off over that didn't sit right with him. He loved her. He wanted to make up to her for hurting her. He wanted to spend time with her. He wanted to kiss her and hug her and make her laugh and smile and have fun with life, and in turn he wanted to experience her beauty and goodness in his life and see if it made a difference or if he really was a hopeless idiot. None of that required sex. He just wanted to be with her.

And really, it wasn't like there weren't alternatives to all-out sex...although, granted, he already knew those alternatives would never satisfy him and would probably instead just make the 'no sex' restriction that much more difficult and frustrating to follow. He would always crave more than that, and having only a tiny taste of the cake without being able to enjoy the full slice would probably drive him mad -- assuming he could even stop himself from trying to go further than that, something he wasn't convinced he'd be able to do, not in the heat of the moment. And unfortunately, that meant those 'alternatives' weren't really alternatives at all and, therefore, weren't even worth considering.

But frustrating or not, the bottom line was clear: he didn't want to break this off with her, not over this; he wanted to give 'them' a chance, which meant he just had to accept this. So to that end, Zelos tucked away everything he'd just learned in the back of his mind and told himself he'd think on it later, verify his decision, and figure out how best to handle this. "I know," he said, his voice soft to convey his acceptance of the situation. Thankfully, Sheena finally looked at him again, her eyes wide -- aha, so she had been nervous about his reaction to this, hadn't she? And that realization, more than anything, told him he'd just made the right choice. Now, to change the subject and relax her further. "And so...well, I have to ask. Am I even allowed to enter Mizuho?"

For a moment, she just watched him, whispering, "You still...?" so softly that Zelos barely heard it, even with his angel senses, but then she shook her head, her tension dissipating. "Why wouldn't you be?"

Seriously, Sheena, why would I be? Mizuho was obviously strict about sex, and his Chosen One image had been designed to ooze sexual appeal, thus making him a terrible person in their eyes. But Sheena already knew that, so he wouldn't spell that out for her. Besides, he really did want to stop discussing sex. He shrugged. "Well, I know you guys aren't fond of visitors and only let us in last time because of our journey, so you'll forgive me for not assuming I can just drop by whenever I feel like it."

"Zelos, like it or not, for now you're still the Chosen," she said. "They're not going to turn the Chosen away."

He arched an eyebrow. "You sure about that, babe? I wasn't exactly well-liked there the last few times we visited...."

Sheena snorted. "That's because you insisted on flirting with all our women."

He couldn't help himself. "But they were all giving me such lovely gifts!"

"Whatever," she said, rolling her eyes -- but her smile was back, too. Good. "In any case, yes, they'll let you in. It's not like you've never been there before. They may not necessarily be happy to see you -- I mean, some of those women are happily married, you know, and their husbands weren't pleased to hear the Chosen had been flirting with them -- but they won't restrict you entry because of it. You helped regenerate the world, too, and they're appreciative of that." She looked away shyly, her cheeks growing red again. "B...besides, if anyone gives you a hard time, I'll talk to them."

For a moment, Zelos eyed her, afraid he was misunderstanding her. Hearing her say things like that was still so strange. Endearing, encouraging, and exciting, but...strange. He was having trouble accepting it was really happening. "'s okay if I visit you there sometime?"

Her blush deepened. "Of course it is."

Oh, thank Martel. He hadn't misunderstood her. "Do I need an invitation or can I just show up whenever I feel like it?" he asked, giving her a hopeful smile.

She chuckled and looked down shyly. "Both are fine."

And again -- thank Martel. If he really wanted to see her, having to wait for an invitation would probably drive him crazy. "Well, I have to be sure, because I still don't think your village wants to see my pretty face more than absolutely necessary...."

"It'll be fine," she assured him, smiling softly. "I'll vouch for you and give them instructions to let you in." Without warning, her smile fell and she bit her lip. "I mean, they'll have to get used to seeing you there more anyway, right?"

Her insistence that yes, he really could visit her there stunned him -- as did her uncertainty that he'd want to. For a moment, Zelos just watched her, a smile toying on his lips and his heart pounding faster. Seeing her like this, all shy and hopeful and speaking normally to him, with no trace of disappointment or anger, was amazing and encouraging...but man, was it weird. He was having trouble grasping this was really happening. So much had happened so quickly that keeping up with it all was proving to be a challenge.

Hard to believe or not, though, at least it was all good. Dating Sheena, someone who'd not only seen the man he'd always hidden away from everyone but who'd made it clear she liked him and wanted to see him, was definitely a good thing, not only because she was Sheena, the amazing woman he'd loved for years, but because doing so would prevent him from losing sight of himself -- of his real self -- as he was afraid would be too easy to do now that he'd nearly gotten rid of that title. He didn't mind turning away his hunnies, either, not when he had a real chance with her; hell, he'd been looking forward to doing that for years! Watching his behavior was also a good thing -- draining having to constantly remind himself not to say anything stupid and second-guessing everything he did, but still good.

As good as those things were, though, they were also requiring a huge mental adjustment on his part, and even though he'd spent hours last night pondering it all, he still doubted he'd considered every necessary aspect of it yet. There were a lot of new things he still had to adapt his mindset to. Sure, he'd had 'girlfriends' before and knew how he was supposed to act with one, but those had never been serious; they'd always been The Great Zelos's girlfriends, not his. Sheena, though, was his girlfriend. He was serious about her, and he wanted her to know that. It would take time to become truly comfortable with all of this and to become someone worthy of her affection, and he might not always be able to stop himself from acting stupid or hitting on her, but he would do whatever it took to keep those things under control.

And to that end, he gave her a shy smile of his own. "Yeah, I guess so." After a moment, she mirrored his smile, her uncertainty melting into warmth and happiness, and then they both looked back at the path before them as they continued walking toward the Grand Tethe'alla Bridge.

There was so much more he wanted to ask her and talk to her about...but, he found, to his alarm, his tongue just wasn't cooperating right now. It was silly, he knew, because they'd now proven they were capable of having normal conversations that didn't include her smacking him or storming off on him, but the words just weren't coming...and Zelos suspected he knew why. They would be parting ways soon, and the crazy truth was that he was afraid to do so for fear that once she left, all of this goodness would fall apart and 'they' would revert back to how they'd been before. So, naturally, he should be asking her out on a date to try to keep it going awhile longer, but...why was his gut churning at the thought of actually doing that?

It was stupid. He had time before they reached the bridge, the farthest point he could walk with her, to be asking her out, and judging from how she'd been acting toward him all morning, he doubted she'd say 'no,' but that knowledge wasn't helping. His nerves were holding his tongue captive; he dreaded the possibility of suddenly saying something wrong and wrecking everything, idiot of habit that he was. Instinct wanted him to slip on the mask to make this easier, by letting the far more experienced Chosen sweep her off her feet, but he forcefully held back that idiot, because now that Sheena knew the mask existed, she could probably identify it for what it was -- and if she did, then she'd lose all trust in him. And therein lay his problem: The Great Zelos may have asked out nearly every woman in Tethe'alla before, but Zelos Wilder never had, and especially not a woman he was in love with and who loved him back.

Agh, this whole thing was weird. And awkward. And nerve-wracking. And, honestly, pretty damn scary.

He was so absorbed in thought that it startled him to realize they'd nearly reached the bridge. Part of him was tempted to keep going all the way to Mizuho with her to give himself more time to think, but he really did need to talk to the king, so he couldn't. And next he knew, they were at the bridge, and he still hadn't found the perfect, non-Chosen One way to ask her out. But ready or not, he had to do this, because life would be torture for him unless he knew when he'd see her again. He already knew from the past three weeks that he'd miss her terribly, and that was before she'd admitted she loved him. And now, being separated from her would be even worse because all he wanted to do was be with her.

Upon reaching the bridge, he finally, reluctantly, sighed, his footsteps slowing. "Well, as much as I hate to say this, this is as far as I can go. I'd walk you all the way to Mizuho, but I really do need to give the king my report."

"Oh," Sheena said, her eyes widening, but then she smiled shyly, looked down, and absently kicked at a stone. "R...right. Thanks for coming this far."

"Of course!" he said, grinning broadly. "Anything for you." She blushed as she glanced up at him, but she didn't say anything. Okay, Wilder, he told himself. You're out of time, and you can not let her leave until you've asked her, so just do it. "So, ah," he began, his grin faltering as he scratched his neck, "when do you think you'll be back in Meltokio?"

She let out a soft, nervous laugh and leaned back against the railing. "Well, I'm scheduled to meet with the king in three days..." she gave him a wry, pointed grin, "...because someone decided I wasn't busy enough in Mizuho and convinced the king I should be his emissary. Thanks again so much for that, by the way."

Zelos couldn't help smirking. She'd been 'grumbling' about that since he'd admitted last night that he'd made that happen -- but eh, he didn't care. Whether she thought so or not, she was fully qualified for the job, it would help repair the relationship between the king and Mizuho, and...well, okay, so it was selfish, too. "Heh. No problem. I could think of no better candidate for the job. And besides, I wanted to make sure you kept coming to Meltokio so I'd at least occasionally get to see you."

...Oh, wait. He'd said that last part aloud, hadn't he? Heh...whoops. She wasn't supposed to know that. He let out a nervous laugh and rubbed his neck again -- damn nerves, making him say things that made him feel far too vulnerable. He shouldn't be feeling this nervous with her -- they'd known each other for years! -- but man, did he ever. But thankfully, instead of teasing him, Sheena just blushed and smiled shyly -- proving to him yet again why he desperately wanted this woman in his life, even if it meant sacrificing sex to make that happen. He'd still think that decision over more later, but he was pretty sure he already knew his answer -- and if so, then he'd be sure to tell her that if 'they' survived a few dates. But those dates will never happen unless you ask her out, you idiot!

Okay, fine. Asking now. He cleared his throat. "So, uh...would you maybe want to go grab some dinner or something after you finish with the king?"

She bit her lip and watched him, her dark eyes hesitant, uncertain -- but, he wanted to think, hopeful, too. "I guess that depends. Would it be with you or with your evil twin?"

His gut twisted. He wished so much that she didn't have to ask him that, but he understood why she did. She had every right to question how long he could behave like a man deserving of her time; for years, she'd only known the idiotic, untrustworthy, self-destructive fool. The few hours they'd now spent together like this couldn't change that. Hell, he doubted he could ever change that, even if he had a hundred years to try to do so.

But he'd be damned if he didn't try. He gave her a wistful smile. "Me. I promise."

For a moment, she eyed him again carefully, but then she smiled shyly and nodded. "Okay. It's a date." She let out a soft, nervous laugh. "Besides, I kinda owe it to you anyway."

...Oh. That was her reasoning? His heart sank. "Hey, don't just agree to it because you think you still owe me something, Sheena, because like I said, you owe me nothing."

Her eyes widened and snapped up to his in alarm. "! Don't worry, I'm not." She smiled shyly. "I'm agreeing because I want to see you again, Zelos."

...Really? "Yeah?" he asked softly.

Sheena nodded, her smile broadening. "Yeah."

Oh, Martel, she really did want to see him again! Zelos smiled, his heart pounding faster at that confirmation -- and at the relief that she'd just accepted a date with him. It certainly wasn't the first time he'd asked her out, even if it kind of was, and now...well, now he was glad she'd never said 'yes' before, because any woman who would go out with The Great Zelos wasn't someone he should be dating anyway. "Then it's a date." Unable to resist, he lightly touched her arm, trailing his fingers over it. Her gaze fell to his chest and her blush deepened...and his eyes narrowed as she let out another soft, nervous laugh. "What?" he asked, his fingers stilling. Her eyes briefly met his, but then she quickly looked down again. Uh oh. What was this about? "What is it?"

"N...nothing." She shook her head faintly but didn't meet his eyes again. "It's nothing."

"...Then why don't I believe you?" When she still didn't answer, Zelos touched her chin, forcing her to look up at him. Something was bothering her, and he knew his damn insecurities: if she didn't tell him, he'd just spend the next three days worrying about it. "Sheena, what?"

She sighed, then released another nervous laugh and looked down again. "Nothing, really. It's just...." Yep, she had something to say; now to get her to say it. He forced himself to wait patiently as her fingers lifted to his chest, trailing over his Cruxis crystal, his hands slipping down to her waist. "It's just...this whole thing is so weird, Zelos. You know, being with you like this, talking in these terms, accepting a date with you instead of smacking you for suggesting it, inviting you to Mizuho.... It's just so...weird."

His face sank further. He thought he knew what she meant, but he needed to check something first. "Good weird or bad weird?"

"Good weird!" she quickly said, her eyes widening in alarm -- which thankfully eliminated his worst-case scenario. "Definitely good weird. But it's still...weird. I mean, I haven't figured out how to act around you yet when you're like this. You're you, but you're not the 'you' I'm used to. And I know you've never really been the man I always thought you were, but...I'm so used to you acting one way, saying stupid things and being lewd and making me want to smack you all the time, that it's weird that you're not acting like that. I keep expecting you to revert back to that perverted, narcissistic jerk any second now, and you're just...not. I guess my expectations haven't caught up with reality yet." Her brows furrowed as she struggled to express her thoughts. "And it's's strange being with anyone like this. I've never dated anyone before, and I...I'm not sure what I'm doing yet. And then for the person I'm...involved be you...." She let out a soft laugh. "I mean, we've known each other so long that shifting gears to something completely different, something I'm not sure how to handle yet, is...awkward."

Oh, yes, he knew what she was talking about, because that was exactly how he'd felt ever since Sheena had kissed him and admitted she loved him yesterday, thus changing everything between them. The whole thing was weird. He'd woken up to find his long-abandoned dream that Sheena might one day love him had come true, without any scheming or manipulation on his part -- it was incredible, but completely unexpected and weird. But even though he knew what she meant and felt the same, his heart still sank further. He could tell: she was uncomfortable with this, and he didn't want her to feel that way.

Zelos met her eyes, his face set. He dreaded offering this, but he needed to in case this was too weird for her. "Well, if it would make you more comfortable, I could always go back to being that perverted, narcissistic jerk --"

"No!" Sheena quickly cut him off, her vehemence taking him aback. "No, I like this you, Zelos. A lot." Her eyes fell to his chest again. "I meant everything I said yesterday, and I don't regret where we are now. But I'll take me awhile to get used to thinking about us like this and seeing you in this light and being with you in a romantic sense. Right now it's just too new for my mind to easily accept." Her voice lowered. "And I guess I'm afraid, too, of what will happen if this doesn't work out. I don't...I don't want to lose your friendship if we find this won't work."

"I know," Zelos murmured. Oh, did he know. And honestly, hearing that was not only a weight off his chest -- at least he wasn't the only one struggling to accept the 'newness' and 'strangeness' of this -- but it was a relief to know that, despite the 'weirdness,' Sheena felt comfortable enough with him to share these feelings. Before yesterday, she never would have done that for fear he'd rub it in her face, and the fact that she did trust him enough now to do so sent an amazingly warm, loved feeling through him. On the other hand, though, her concerns had validity. The thought of messing this up and losing her permanently terrified him like nothing ever had before. "We've already stepped beyond friendship and can never completely go back to the way we were before." He placed a finger beneath her chin and tilted her head up to meet his eyes again, needing her to see how serious he was about this. "But I promise you, Sheena, no matter what happens, I'll always be your friend. Even if this whole thing falls apart tomorrow and gets even weirder, I'll always be here for you, and I'll always want you in my life." He smiled faintly. "No amount of weirdness can take that away from us, because I won't let it."

Her face softened. "I know. Same here. And believe me, I'm not saying I don't think we should give this a try because of that, but it is a concern of mine." Her voice lowered and she gave him a shy, awkward look. She was so damn beautiful when she was like this, all cute and sweet and happy and hopeful -- so different from the tough-as-nails fighter and screaming banshee he'd known for years. As much fun as he'd had pushing her buttons, this was infinitely better. "I think I just need more memories of being with you like this, of being with this you, to start outweighing the memories of how we used to be." She gave him another adorably shy smile. "And the truth is, I'm looking forward to making those memories."

Oh, thank Martel. She would give this relationship time to develop and see where it took them -- and she was looking forward to it, too! He had to bite back a cheer, because that would be stupid and childish and ruin this serious, honest mood that was helping them make sure they were on the same page. And to that end, she needed to know how he felt.

"Yeah, me, too," he whispered, mirroring her shy smile. He would never admit this under normal circumstances, but these circumstances were hardly normal. Besides, if she'd managed to be so honest with him, something that couldn't have been easy for her, then he could, too. "And to be honest...I feel the same. I mean, Martel, Sheena, you've barely hit me since yesterday! Flying bars of soap and wet sponges notwithstanding. This is weird for me, too." She chuckled, her gaze briefly dipping downward. "I mean, you're not acting like you right now, either -- or at least not how I'm used to you acting. I keep thinking I should be feeling your forehead to make sure you're not getting sick. And honestly? I'm not even sure how I should be acting with you yet. It's not like I've ever been in a seriousrelationship before this, and the Chosen One always called the shots in the not-serious ones. I keep having to fight back this damn instinct to say stupid things to you, because I don't want to treat you like that anymore."

Her smile broadened. "Well, I think you're doing a good job of it so far."

She had no idea how heartening those words were, did she? How encouragement like that could send his life spinning in a completely different, better direction and make him want to be more than just the Idiot Chosen? "Good, because I really am trying," he said, giving her a brief grin before growing serious again. "It's just hard because...well, I'm so used to acting like the Chosen that actually being myself, especially with someone I've known so long and care so much about, is...weird. Good weird, but still weird."

"I can only imagine," she said, her fingers straying to the loose fastener of his vest. "You've been hiding behind the mask so long that it must be strange to not be hiding behind it."

"Exactly." And again, Zelos was amazed by her acceptance of that, something even he had trouble understanding because of how difficult it was to separate the two warring parts of his personality. He was amazed by her. He was reminded again that at this point, sex truly was negligible; right now, he just wanted to revel in her goodness and beauty and leave the rest up to fate. Whatever would be, would be. The way he understood it, she wasn't becoming chief yet anyway, so they should have, what? A few years before she had to find a husband, right? Chief Igaguri had looked healthy enough when Zelos last saw him; he could live a long life yet. And as for everything else she'd said.... "Personally, I'm just glad I don't have to be that man you can't stand anymore because...well, seeing you smile like this is infinitely better than you constantly smacking me." Sheena chuckled and her eyes fell downward shyly, but she didn't respond otherwise. "Like you said, hopefully time will take care of this awkwardness for us." He paused, gently brushing a stray lock of ebony hair behind her ear. "I'm serious about giving this a shot, Sheena."

She watched him a moment, her face softening into a warm, loving, beautiful smile that took his breath away, then nodded. "I know. I can tell. And so am I."

He had to swallow hard past the lump in his throat. "I know. And I promise I'll do my best to prove I deserve the second chance you've given me -- and that I won't suddenly revert back into that idiot you can't stand."

"I know you will," she stated with a humbling amount of certainty.

For a moment, they fell silent, with Sheena leaning back against the railing while Zelos stood before her, his fingers drifting from her rosy cheeks down to her arms, his male pride smirking as she shivered at his touch, radiating a stunning amount of comfort at his close proximity, her hands lightly tracing the edge of his shirt. Heh, so she was tactile too, eh? Yeah, he liked that...maybe a little too much. In fact, if she kept that up, he'd have to tell her that if she wanted him to follow Mizuho's 'no sex' rule, then she couldn't do things that would turn him into a quivering, desire-consumed wreck. Heck, he'd probably have to tell her that anyway just to preserve his sanity.

But not right now. No, right not, he had another irresistible idea. "Well, I know one way to make this whole thing make more sense to us."

Her brown eyes lifted back to his and she arched an eyebrow. "How's that?"

He watched her closely, gauging her reaction, then stepped closer and, when she didn't back away from him, slowly leaned toward her. Her gaze lowered to his mouth as his head neared hers, and she licked her lips, her eyes drifting shut. Needing no further encouragement, Zelos kissed her, lightly brushing his lips over hers before pulling back a little to look at her, but then, seeing her eyes still closed, her face flushed, and her lips parted, and feeling her hands gently grasping his arms, he kissed her again, longer that time. His hands lowered to her waist and he deftly lifted her up to sit on the railing, his lips still on hers, and he moved between her legs, holding her hips firmly so she didn't fall backwards. For a moment, her fingers dug into his arms, holding him to her as she kissed him back, but then one of her hands slid upward to his face, her touch light as she gingerly curled her fingers around the nape of his neck, filling him with warmth, love, and exhilaration. He was careful to keep the kiss slow, sweet, and tender, just lazily moving his lips against hers, but even without deepening it...oh, Martel, this felt so good, so right. It made his heart race at the sheer beauty of it, of her...and yes, it really did help this whole thing make more sense -- and judging from how quickly and thoroughly Sheena had melted into it, she felt the same.

Eventually, the kiss reached its natural conclusion, and Zelos drew away, just enough to see her face and to brush his nose against hers, his heart fluttering. For a moment, Sheena just sat there, her eyes closed, leaning forward to rest her forehead against his, breathing a little quicker, but finally she opened her eyes and gave him another warm smile and soft, shy laugh, her fingertips sliding down to his shoulders. "You are really, really good at that," she murmured.

Heh. Now that was what he liked to hear -- not only that he'd pleased her, but that she'd enjoyed it as much as he had. For a moment, Zelos was tempted to cheer and jump up and down excitedly, but knowing she would smack him for it and regret having expressed her feelings, he forced himself to instead mirror her smile, reveling in the moment of sweetness and honesty. "Way, way too much practice, sweetheart, much of which I could've happily done without." He smirked and arched a knowing eyebrow. "At least now it's proving to be good for something anyway."

Sheena chuckled, her gaze falling back to his lips. "Yeah, I guess so," she whispered, then gave him another kiss, briefer than the last one but still heartwarmingly sweet. A moment later, though, she pulled back and sighed, her smile fading. "Well, as much as I want to spend the rest of the day here with you, I have work to do in Mizuho, and you have a report to deliver to the king."

Oh, right. Damn that 'reality' thing sometimes; the thought of not seeing her again for three days left him wanting to steal her away to some secluded location so they could forget about the world. But unfortunately, that wasn't an option. And besides, he really did need to think about everything he'd now learned from her -- alone. With a low sigh and a soft, "Yeah, I know," Zelos released her waist and took a step backward, releasing her. "So I'll see you in a few days then?"

A rosy blush graced her cheeks again as she jumped off the railing. "Yeah. You can count on it." She hesitated, biting her lip as she watched him, but then she hopped up on her toes, gave him another quick kiss, and pulled away. With another happy, beautiful smile, she turned and headed out across the bridge.

Zelos leaned back against the railing, smiling and waving as she cast one last look back at him, and then he folded his arms to his chest and watched her until she'd vanished into the distance. Only then did he succumb to the sigh he'd been restraining for hours, his smile fading as the insecurity he'd been forcing himself to ignore all morning replaced the warmth and love he'd felt with her. "Of course," he murmured to himself, "that assumes you don't come to your senses in the meantime and do what you should be doing by dumping my sorry ass, Sheena."

It was a fear he suspected would stay with him for a long time, maybe even as long as she could put up with him. The truth was, he didn't deserve her or the second chance she'd given him. He was a messed up man who messed up everything he touched; experience had proven that. One day she would realize just how messed up he was and would abandon him -- assuming he didn't succumb to habit and mess everything up again first. Either way, he'd lose her. He'd messed up with her before; he'd do it again. He knew that, especially after the devastating truth had hit him last night as he'd tried to sleep: he had hurt her by pushing her away all those years ago, far worse than he'd ever imagined. "You have no idea how much it hurt to lose your friendship back then," she'd said yesterday, accompanied by a flash of pain and sadness in her eyes that had nearly crushed his heart. He'd pushed that realization aside at the time so he could revel in her admission of love, but last night nothing remained to prevent that guilt from resurfacing.

And oh, had it done so. For six years, his goal had been to make her hate him so she wouldn't become attached to him and be hurt because of who he was. Hatred, after all, was better than pain. Sure, he'd figured it would hurt her some, but he'd expected it to be minimal. And he'd thought he'd succeeded, too, that his acting stupid and teasing her had made her hate him and prevented her from caring about an idiot like him. But that look in her eyes yesterday...oh, Martel, he'd failed. He'd misinterpreted all of her violent reactions to him. He hadn't made her hate him; all he'd done was hurt her -- and not just a light scrape, but a vicious knife to the gut. "I never hated you, Zelos," she'd said. "I may have wanted to at times, but even then I never did." His attempt to push her away had backfired. He'd thought it would spare her from such pain, but it had caused it. He'd been wrong all that time.

That revelation had opened his eyes and shed new light on everything that had happened between them the past six years. It was devastating...and humbling. He'd hurt her so badly for so long without even realizing it...without even identifying her pain as pain. He'd wanted to believe it was hatred, so he had. He'd blinded himself to the truth. After that, how could he trust himself to do things right with her? The thought of messing up with her, yet again, left him scared stiff.

And yet, despite it all, Sheena was giving him this second chance anyway. It was the gift he'd always wanted, a real chance with her...but now that he'd gotten it, what was he supposed to do with it? How was he supposed to make it work or keep it going? He should be giving this gift back; he should be breaking this off with her for good, because an amazing, understanding, forgiving woman like her deserved so much better than an idiotic train wreck like him. He couldn't do that, though, not without causing her even more pain -- and one thing he knew was that he refused to hurt her like that again. He refused. In fact, all he could do now, he suspected, was wait until she came to her senses about him and did what he couldn't by breaking it off with him.

But until that day came, he would do everything he could to not only enjoy it -- because having someone as amazing as her who loved him really was something he'd always wanted -- but also to be extremely careful to behave and not piss her off. This really was his last chance, and he wouldn't waste it. Sex be damned; he wanted to be with her and make amends for hurting her by making her smile and laugh. He wanted to make sure she never regretted giving him this incredible, unwarranted chance. He wanted to show her that even if she couldn't trust his words yet, she could still trust him.

Failure may be inevitable, but he wanted to do this right. He wanted this relationship to last. He wanted her to trust him and feel comfortable with him. He wanted to be the best damn boyfriend a woman could ask for. He didn't want to give her any reason to leave him; he didn't want to expect things from her she couldn't give him. He would keep the 'habitual idiot' in check; he would work to become that better man he'd always wanted to be, someone worthy of her trust and respect. Any trust she had for him was still new and fragile, something a single careless word could shatter, and he would not let her down. Controlling the idiot would be hard, but he would do it. He knew he would occasionally slip and his words would lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications, because that was a curse of being human, but hopefully his actions would speak louder than those words. He would make a point to be the gentleman he'd always known how to be but had never had a reason to act like before. He would show her he loved her and hope she got the message.

So much had changed so quickly, and like Sheena, he realized he, too, needed time to process it all. He needed to figure out how to be himself, to actually live in his own skin, not the Chosen's, when he was with others. And he would. He'd already started with her, and while it was still awkward, he was slowly getting used to it, especially when he saw how it resulted in a smile or a laugh or a sparkle of happiness in her eyes. No more powerful positive reinforcement existed than that. It amazed and encouraged him. Now he just needed to keep it up and not make any more stupid mistakes that cost him everything.

And despite his lingering guilt, fears, and insecurities, Zelos couldn't resist smiling as he pushed himself away from the railing and began heading back to Meltokio, hopeful that maybe he really could pull this off. It might work, it might not, but he'd be damned if he didn't try, for both of their sakes.


(Concluded in Part 2: The Date)