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Crossing the Line

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Part 1: The Season

Doing the laundry really wasn't Sheena's favorite activity. Doing it outside when the sky was overcast, the river she was washing it in was cold, and the chill of an approaching winter permeated the air was even worse. But despite that, she still couldn't help humming softly and enjoying the peace of the day as she worked.

Years ago she had found this tranquil spot in the forest a short walk from Mizuho, where the bubbling river that ran through the village split into two, one branch heading north and the other south. Whenever she wanted to clear her head, think, or just relax out in nature, this was where she came to sit, on a fallen log overlooking the fork in the river. While it was too cold to be doing this here now - she should be at home warming herself beside her irori - and the sleeves of her coat kept getting in her way and getting wet, she'd just felt like it today. She wasn't sure why, but she'd been unable to resist the urge, maybe because this was likely her last opportunity to do so until after winter gave way to spring.

And cool, overcast weather and boring, mundane activity or not, she really was enjoying it, feeling relaxed and content rather than impatient and dreary. But then, she realized, applying soap to her sheets, she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt sad. There was no other way to put it: she was happy. Ever since the worlds had reunited six months ago, life had been going well for her. Her grandfather was healthy, with no plans she knew of to retire as chief yet. Mizuho's reputation was improving in the king's eyes with every mission they completed for him. She hadn't had a nightmare about Volt in months. Her job as emissary hadn't been terribly demanding lately. And just last week Minister Giannovio had muttered some rather unkind sentiments about the Sylvaranti people in the king's presence, which had led to the king publicly scolding him and insisting that not only wouldn't he tolerate such negativity about their allies, but that he'd been hearing too many similar stories about Giannovio's prejudices lately and was suspending him as Foreign Minister through the first month of the New Year.

But as great as those things were, the best part was the fact that she had an incredible boyfriend, one who was able to put a smile on her face even when he wasn't nearby - which was why Sheena found her lips tugging upward even now. She and Zelos had been dating five months now...a thought that still boggled her mind. At the start, she hadn't believed 'they' would last a week, and yet as impossible as it seemed, they were still together. Talk about surpassing the odds.

More than just surpassing the odds, though, she was happy. He made her happy. Even after all this time, he still hadn't reverted into that narcissistic, womanizing jerk she couldn't stand, and he was still serious about her; he proved it every time he looked at her with sincere happiness and warmth and touched her face and kissed her with breathtaking reverence and love. She was comfortable with him; in fact, it was getting harder to remember how much she'd once dreaded being alone with him. And every date they went on, it seemed he devised something new and different for them to do - and while she often initially balked at the suggestion, in the end she always had a great time anyway, which emphasized how well he knew her if he could anticipate what she'd like. Whether it was his attempting to make her dinner, taking her out to the countryside to identify shapes in the clouds or the stars, or just taking a long walk through the forest, the truth was, she was enjoying - and, more than that, cherishing - every second she spent with him.

She'd spent so many years miserable and lonely, searching fruitlessly for happiness amidst her guilt and grief. But now it seemed every day she was smiling and laughing and forgetting about the tedium of daily life. How much of that was Zelos's influence and how much was simply the peace of mind and modicum of self-acceptance she'd found during the regeneration journey, she wasn't sure, but she had no doubt Zelos was an integral part of it. She had, after all, found beauty and excitement in places she'd never expected to find it thanks to his laid-back, relaxed attitude and the fact that, in being with him, she was able to look at life through the eyes of someone who'd learned long ago how to live because he'd never known when his life would end. Being able to see things differently like that, to look outside her little ninja world and see what else awaited her, and to find beauty and enjoyment in things like he did was a treasure she wouldn't trade for anything.

And what astounded her most was that it was working in reverse, too: Zelos also seemed to be appreciating things he never had before, and when Sheena picked their activity for a date, he, too, was always surprised how much he enjoyed it, even if it wasn't something he'd normally do. Sure, he was still playful and joked around and acted stupid more often than he didn't, undoubtedly to make her smile and laugh, but the more time that passed, the more Sheena could see it: overall, he was calmer and happier, with life and with himself. He was growing up. He was taking his life more seriously. He was making smarter, more selfless and admirable choices with his time and money. Her hunch regarding the cause behind his transformation seemed clear, too: not just because he'd let someone see the real him, but because she'd accepted him for it. Heck, other than a few times when she'd been in a bad mood to start out with (in which case he always quickly backed off), she couldn't even remember the last time his silliness had truly irritated her!

She wasn't sure yet whether the change was solely him or if her perception of him had changed, but whatever it was, she loved it, the man he was becoming. He'd always been sharper and more sensitive to others, to her, than she'd ever given him credit for, and while in the past he'd used those traits to push her buttons, now he was using them to make her happy. And that, in turn, made her want to be more sensitive to him, too. It had taken her time to start picking up on his nuances and remember to pay attention to his needs and moods, but she was determined to extend him the same courtesy he was extending her. And when she did catch something and responded to it in a way that made him smile - which was happening more frequently - that made her feel pretty darn good, too.

This whole relationship, the changes that came with it, the happiness it brought her...it was incredible. Everything about being with Zelos made her feel warm and loved. She loved seeing the world through his eyes and knowing she helped him do the same. Sure, everything could change at any second should her grandfather decide to retire, or if Zelos were to announce that he'd realized the future that awaited her wasn't one he wanted part of, or if something else forced the issue and tore them apart, but she was making a concerted effort to ignore those possibilities and instead focus on living. After all, worrying about the future, she'd found, just depressed her, which she didn't want. Zelos had learned long ago how to enjoy life even with the axe of the Chosen hanging over his neck, by ignoring the parts he couldn't control; Sheena would do the same.

Whatever will be, will be.

Finished washing her sheets, she laid them out over her basket and turned to grab her last pile of laundry...and it was then that she caught sight of a splash of red in her peripheral vision. Sheena turned to look...and jumped as she found the object of her thoughts casually leaning back against a nearby tree, watching her, his arms folded behind his head.

"Zelos!" she said, lifting a hand to her chest to calm her startled heart. Normally he wasn't able to sneak up on her - he didn't possess an ounce of ninja inconspicuousness in him - but this time he had. So how had he managed that? Had she really been so lost in thought that she hadn't noticed him? Or was he finally learning how to be stealthy? Whatever the case, it was obvious he'd intentionally avoided getting her attention, and she was impressed he'd succeeded. Quickly relaxing, she took a deep breath and offered him a warm but embarrassed smile. "I didn't know you were there."

He grinned but didn't budge from his spot. "Yep, here I am."

Her first thought was 'Aren't you cold?' when she noted he wasn't wearing a coat, but then she remembered him saying that indifference toward extreme temperatures was a side effect of being an angel and so she bit her tongue, not wanting to remind him of that unhappy subject. Her second thought was that something about him seemed off, since when she'd first seen him, he hadn't been smiling, just watching her with a thoughtful expression on his face, one tinged with something she thought might have been a frown, but his grin now seemed to be sincere and so she let that go, too. Instead, she chuckled shyly, motioned at him, and asked, "How long have you been standing there?"

"Eh, a little while," he said with a shrug.

Yeah, big surprise: he was staring at me again. Sheena rolled her eyes, her blush flaring, but she could feel a smile toying on her lips, too. Months ago she would have smacked him for that, and her hands still itched to do so now, but while it still felt weird to know how beautiful and stare-worthy he apparently found her to be, she also knew he was sincere about it and so she resisted the urge. Instead, she chose to glare pointedly at him and playfully scold, "What have I told you about staring at me?"

Zelos grinned cheekily. "Not to get caught while doing it."

Her eyes narrowed. "Ah...not quite. It was actually, 'Don't do it.'"

"Heh, that's what you think you said," he replied, lowering his hands and pointing at her. "I distinctly remember you saying, 'Don't stare at me when I know you're doing it.' You didn't know I was doing it, so..."

Sheena growled as he shrugged in a way that most people would deem innocent but that just worsened her itch to smack him. He listened to her; really, he did. Just not when he didn't want to. Or when he could find a crafty, creative way around what she was saying. "No, that's not what I..." But then he waggled his eyebrows, and she knew exactly what he was doing: goading her into bantering with him. And when he did that, she stood no chance of winning because the idiot refused to admit defeat. So since she didn't feel like smacking him today - despite the fact that he apparently wanted to be smacked - she waved that off, hoping to lure him out of idiot mode. "Eh, never mind. I give up."

But naturally, the idiot refused to leave yet. "Heh. Knew I'd win that battle eventually."

"Yeah, because you cheated by rewriting history to suit your whims," she muttered. "Either way, you could've said something and let me know you were standing there instead of staring at me for Jizou only knows how long."

His eyebrows flew upward and he motioned at her. "And ruin this stunningly hot visual of you playing domestic goddess with this inexplicable but beautiful smile on your face?"

Instantly, her blush deepened, and she quickly looked away, hoping he didn't question why she'd been smiling, because she really didn't want to tell him he was the reason. Sure, overall he was far calmer now, but those old bouts of narcissism, joking or not, still occasionally reared their ugly head and made her gnash her teeth. When he was in this kind of mood, he did not need to know how happy he made her; it would go straight to his head and he'd just tease her again - not maliciously, but relentlessly. Certain behaviors and attitudes she didn't need to encourage.

So instead of giving him that opening, Sheena arched an eyebrow and opted for a different tactic. "And let me guess, you mean that in a perverted way, don't you?"

He smirked broadly. "Only if that's how you want to take it, love."

She rolled her eyes again and shook her head as he finally pushed himself away from the tree, walked toward her, and sat down on the log beside her, but no amount of willpower could erase her amused grin. This man could bring out the strangest side of her, one she hadn't even realized existed until she'd met him - one that was getting stronger the longer they were dating. "You're an idiot. You know that, right?"

"Yes, I do believe you've told me that a couple hundred times now," he said, an infuriatingly playful twinkle in his eyes. "And what can I say? I've been an idiot since the moment I first laid eyes on you."

Sheena groaned and her head sank downward. Ugh, she couldn't believe he'd just said that, especially with that stupid grin on his face. No, wait, she could believe it - and that was one of the most exasperatingly endearing things about him. She lifted her head and shook it in amused disgust. "You are so over-the-top and corny sometimes that I'd never believe you were a world-renowned charmer of women unless I'd seen all the women who did fall for that kind of stupidity."

The idiot batted his eyelashes at her in another picture-perfect façade of innocence. "Hey, I am just that irresistible, and you know it! Don't try to deny it."

...Well, okay, she really couldn't deny it when she had fallen for him, too, could she? She really hated when he was right about stupid things like that. She snorted and grinned wryly. "You do realize that over-the-top and corny doesn't work on me, though, right? You can be as over-the-top and corny as you'd like with me and I still won't fall for it."

Unsurprisingly, his smug grin returned. "Heh. And just why do you think I fell so madly in love with you, my dear?"

Her eyebrows flew upward. "Because I told you 'no' and smacked you every time you tried something stupid like that?"

"Exactly," he said, his face softening as he leaned toward her and gave her a quick kiss. "Because you were the only one who did."

Sheena chuckled, her playfulness melting into sincere happiness at the sweetness of his kiss and the loving look in his eyes as he trailed his gaze over her lips and blushing cheeks. "One of these days I'll figure out why I put up with you," she murmured. His eyes lit up wickedly and he opened his mouth to reply, but before he could burst out with his trademark 'Because I'm so sexy!' response, she kissed him again, longer that time, to shut him up. After a moment she pulled back and bit her lip, her heart skipping a beat at the gentle, reverent touch of his fingers skimming her cheek as he watched her, smiling softly. And finally, she sighed and sat up, admiring the beauty and, yes, sexiness of the man beside her. "So what are you doing here? I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow."

Zelos shrugged and leaned back - but, Sheena noted, his smile quickly faded, reminding her of the strange expression she'd seen on his face a minute ago. "Eh, I was just missing you." He paused, his voice lowering as he looked away from her, his smile now gone. "And I needed to get out of Meltokio for awhile."

Hm...talk about an abrupt mood swing. Was something wrong? Or was she misinterpreting this? She was getting better at recognizing his moods, but he really was hard to read at times after all the years he'd spent hiding behind the Idiot Chosen mask. Quirking an eyebrow, Sheena smirked and nudged him with her elbow, hoping to reignite his playfulness. "Bored, eh? So I get to deal with you instead of Sebastian today. Lucky me."

To her surprise, though, instead of biting at that, he just glanced at her, let out a soft, humorless laugh, and looked down at his hands, his voice falling to a whisper. "Yeah, I guess so."

Her eyes narrowed as she observed him. Yes, something was definitely wrong with him. Normally he threw back something playful at such taunts; he didn't react as if he wasn't sure whether or not she wanted him there. Time to dig a little deeper, she told herself. And when she remembered something he'd mentioned the last time she'd seen him, she knew how to start. "I thought you were going to visit your sister today."

Without warning, his body stiffened and his eyes darted up at her, but then he quickly looked away again, still not smiling. Uh oh. Was that the problem? A few weeks ago Seles had enrolled in the Academy, and ever since then, Zelos had been regularly dropping by the mansion he'd rented for her in Sybak to visit her. Every time he did, though, he then ended up coming to Mizuho, fuming over whatever had happened with her, to cool down. From what she could tell, the siblings' relationship was deteriorating rapidly, and while Zelos refused to say what his sister was doing that upset him so much, his mutterings about how she 'never approved of his choices' led Sheena to believe that the cause was his choice of her for his girlfriend. Every time that happened, it made her heart ache. She hated coming between them, knowing everything he'd been trying to rebuild with Seles was unraveling simply because Sheena was part of his life. One of these days she'd have to talk to him about it, find out exactly what was going on, and drop by with him to see Seles. She dreaded doing so, but if it would help Zelos, she would.

He sighed, his gaze falling to his hands again. "That was the plan. But then I changed my mind. I...I didn't want to deal with that today."

'Didn't want to deal with' something, in Zelos-speak, meant he didn't think himself capable of handing it emotionally, Sheena had realized months ago. Her heart sank further. "Do you want me to come with you to talk to her?" she asked, covering his hand with hers.

He quickly shook his head and gave her a weak smile. "Nah. No reason for you to hear all the crap I do."

"Someday I probably should, though." They'd been dating five months, after all, and for all she knew, maybe that was why Seles was so upset - because he never had brought his girlfriend to see her. "Maybe it would help."

"Maybe, someday," he murmured, looking away and shrugging stiffly. "But not today."

Okay, she would accept that. But still, while the situation with Seles was obviously as bad as ever, that didn't explain his current mood since he hadn't seen her. So then...what? He'd said he'd needed to get out of Meltokio, but if he couldn't handle seeing Seles and had instead come here...what was going on? What was really bothering him? Clearly it was something, because Zelos never acted like this. Upset with his sister, yes, sincerely bored at times, yes, but not despondent like this.

Sheena looped her arm through his. "Okay, so why are you really here?"

Zelos's eyes widened and he turned to look at her. "Huh?"

She gave him a pointed look. "You heard me. What's really going on, Zelos? Why did you have to get out of Meltokio?"

For a moment he just blinked at her as she watched him expectantly, but finally he sighed again and looked away, his voice falling further. "It started snowing there this morning. I didn't feel like sticking around to watch it, so I thought I'd come here instead."

Snow? What was the big deal with...oh, wait. Snow. Zelos had the exact same problem with snow that she had with thunder and lightning thanks to their respective childhood tragedies. Yeah, great girlfriend you are, Sheena, not even realizing what season we're approaching and why he dreads it so much, she told herself, her eyes falling and her cheeks growing warm. "Oh."

"Or am I interrupting something?" he asked. "I can leave, if you'd rather-"

"No!" Whoops. She'd been so taken aback by his uncharacteristic suggestion that that had come out more forcefully than she'd intended. She quickly lowered her voice as his eyes widened, and then she lowered her head to his shoulder, flinching at how cold his skin was. "No, of course not, Zelos. I'm always glad to see you. You know that." Lifting her head, she offered him a gentle smile as she saw uncertainty flickering in his eyes again. Why didn't the normally arrogant bastard seem convinced of that? "I didn't have anything planned for today other than catching up on some household chores."

His eyes continued searching hers, but for what? "You sure?"

Wow, what was with him today? Sure, she could understand the snow throwing him off, but what was with this uncertainty over whether or not she wanted to see him? Sure, she'd seen him insecure before, like when he'd been convinced his grandmother wouldn't be proud of him, but that hadn't been like this. Heck, he wasn't even trying to brush it off as 'nothing'! Seeing that snow this morning must have triggered all the other accompanying memories for him - and if he'd had to leave Meltokio to escape them, then they must have shaken him pretty badly.

Needing to quell the uncertainty in his blue eyes, Sheena cradled his face in her hands and pulled his head down to hers, giving him a long, lingering, tender kiss, her heart aching further as, even then, it still took him a moment to reciprocate the kiss, lifting a hand to her face and moving his lips against hers. Only once his body started to relax did she break the kiss and whisper against his lips, "Does that answer your question?"

And finally, finally, he cracked a smile. It was still hesitant and shaky, but it was far better than the somber uncertainty she'd seen a minute ago. Trailing his fingers over her cheek, he nodded and gave her another quick kiss. "Yeah. Can't get much clearer than that."

Good. Hopefully he wouldn't doubt that anymore. Wrapping his arm around her, Zelos drew her against him, pressing his lips to her temple, and Sheena responded by resting her head on his shoulder and wrapping her arms around him, trying to warm his chilled body. Even if he didn't notice the cold himself, she did and would try to fix the problem. He still wasn't back to normal yet, seeing as he, Mr. Chatterbox, was still sitting silently, not jumping onto another subject like he normally did, but it was still better.

Of course, now that she knew what the problem was, maybe she could help him a little more. She wasn't sure if this would work or if it would backfire, but since she already knew he'd never volunteer this information on his own, if she really wanted to know, she had to ask. Considering that winter had already arrived in Meltokio - which was unusual since Meltokio usually didn't get much snow - then as his girlfriend, she needed to know this, what to expect and when. And this might very well be her best opportunity to ask.

Sheena covered his arm with her hand and lightly rubbed his bare, cold skin. "When did it happen?"

He tilted his head toward her. "When did what happen?"

"Your mother."

When he didn't answer, Sheena lifted her head to look at him, unsurprised to find his brows were furrowed. Instead of saying anything, though, she just continued watching him, wanting him to know that she really did recognize why snow held the power to set him off even years later. For a long moment, he just watched her, clearly debating whether to answer - and, she thought, maybe even a tad surprised that she'd identified the problem - but finally he sighed, his gaze falling to his knees. "A week from yesterday."

Ah, so that did explain his strange, subdued, insecure demeanor; between that and this morning's snow, he must have been overwhelmed by the bad feelings those memories evoked. She probably should have anticipated this approaching anniversary and had one of Mizuho's scouts find out exactly when it was so she wouldn't have had to ask him directly, but she hadn't thought that far ahead. Even after all these months, she still had trouble at times thinking in terms of being in a serious relationship and considering things like this that could affect him. She was just glad he'd told her.

And just like that, she knew how to turn a day he dreaded into one he could maybe handle. She returned her head to his shoulder. "So what do you plan to do on that day?"

He briefly stiffened as if surprised that she cared, but then he sighed again and leaned his head against hers. "Well, usually I head to Altamira and distract myself by people watching and flirting with the scantily clad hunnies there. However, since my girlfriend would behead me if I did that this year...I'm not sure yet. I was supposed to meet with the King and the Church about the never-ending saga involving the annulment of my title, but something else came up so the King bumped it a few days. I'll probably just bury myself in my mansion and sleep the entire day."

Sheena made a mental note to ask him later how his latest meeting on the 'title annulment' thing had gone. Chances were he hadn't gotten anywhere yet. The last few meetings had all had the same outcome. The King wholeheartedly supported it, even conceding to Zelos's insistence he maintain certain powers relating to foreign relations. The church, on the other hand, still vehemently denied it, unable to believe the revelations about their religion. More than that, though, they insisted even if Martel wasn't a goddess, they couldn't just get rid of their precious Chosen. After all, the people were counting on having a stable feature in this new, confusing world; they'd already lost the Pope and the world had doubled in size literally overnight, and losing their Chosen would push them over the edge, resulting in chaos. They had a point, Zelos had admitted, but he and the king disagreed, saying the people could handle it and that if they didn't abolish this twisted system now, then it never would be, simply because keeping it was 'more comfortable' than getting rid of it. So far, though, the Church's stance wasn't wavering, much to his growing frustration.

But she would deal with that later. Right now she had to make sure he didn't sink further into depression and spent this upcoming anniversary dwelling on his mother's final words to him. Yes, Sheena probably would behead him if he went to Altamira and flirted with every woman there, but he had something different now that he'd never had before, something that would make sure he never again believed himself worthless: her.

"Well, that definitely won't be happening." Zelos looked at her curiously as she lifted her head from his shoulder and met his eyes. "You staying in your mansion all day, that is."

He quirked an eyebrow at her. "It won't?"

Grinning, Sheena shook her head. "Nope. I'm abducting you from there the day before, dragging you out of Meltokio, and not letting you go back until at least a day or two later."

"You...are?" he ventured uncertainly.

"Yep."

His eyes narrowed as he continued watching her. "And you're doing this...why?"

"Because there's no reason for you to be alone with nothing better to do on a day like that when I'd be happy to be doing something with you instead," Sheena replied, her grin softening into a smile. "We can go anywhere you want, Zelos. Even Altamira."

He blinked at her, stunned. "You...you'd really be willing to do that?"

Agh, how many times did they have to go through this? She loved him! No, normally, she wouldn't dream of going there with a pervert like him, but if it would get his mind off of his mother, then she'd make an exception for him. "Of course I would. If that's where you want to go, then I'm game." She pointed sharply at him. "Just so long as you don't start flirting with every woman there who's wearing a skimpy bikini."

And there, finally, was the wicked grin she'd been waiting for. It was still more subdued than normal, but it was a definite improvement from his earlier uncertainty and despondency. "Now why would I do that when I could be flirting with you instead? Especially if you were the one wearing the skimpy bikini..."

Yeah, I should've known he'd be thinking that. Sheena gave him a warning glare and swatted his arm. "Perverted idiot." When Zelos's only response was to look at his hands and chuckle, though, Sheena felt her nerve slip a little. While he'd responded to her playfulness, he hadn't actually given her idea a stamp of approval yet. She gave him a curious, hopeful look. "So does that sound okay?"

His eyes snapped up to hers, and his face melted into a soft, amazed smile. "That sounds perfect, sweetheart." She beamed him a happy smile, then blushed as he pressed his lips to her cheek, his breath against her ear eliciting a delicious shiver from her. "Thank you."

"Of course." Returning his smile, she gave him another quick kiss. Oh, was she glad he'd chosen to come here to get escape his depression rather than doing something self-destructive, like getting plastered at one of Meltokio's bars. And fortunately, today was open for her so she wouldn't have to send him away. But first things first: she had to finish her laundry so she could get him inside her home and warm him up. She arched a playful eyebrow at him. "In any case, if you're willing to help me finish this laundry, I'll concede to making you lunch and then taking a walk with you through the forest."

Zelos gasped and pressed a hand to his chest. "Wait, are you saying I have to work to get some quality time with you?"

Sheena smirked and pointed at him, careful to keep her voice playful, not accusatory, for fear he, with his fragile mood, would take it the wrong way. "Hey, you're the one who interrupted me. If you hadn't, I'd probably be done already!"

Thankfully, he grinned in response. "Hey, don't blame me, babe; I didn't interrupt you! I was perfectly content to stand over there," he pointed at the tree he'd been leaning against earlier, "and watch you. But nooooo, someone wouldn't let me do that!"

She observed him through narrowed eyes. "Because I'm feeling generous, I'm not going to respond to that." Before he could retort, Sheena grabbed the clean, wet sheets from her basket and held them up to him, arching a challenging eyebrow. "So what's the matter, tough guy? Afraid to get your pretty hands wet hanging these up on those lines over there for me?"

Zelos growled and glared at her, but then snatched the sheets from her. "Gimme those."

Heh. Just as she'd expected. She grinned smugly, trying to suppress a giggle. "You really are easy to manipulate, aren't you? Just dangle a cookie, question your manliness, and..."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm a sucker for sweet things," he grumbled, making to stand - but before he did, he returned her smug grin and stole another kiss from her. "Like you."

"Whatever," she muttered, rolling her eyes and ignoring the blush once again flaring on her cheeks, but then she sighed, her face softening. "In any case, if you could hang those up for me while I finish washing this last batch and then help me carry this stuff back to my house, I'm all yours." Sheena pointed warningly at him as his eyes lit up. "And not like that, you pervert!"

Zelos chuckled and rose to his feet, then headed toward the lines hanging between two nearby trees. "I'm just messin' with ya."

Fifteen minutes later they were back at her house, leaving her wash on the lines to dry, and an hour after that they'd eaten a quick lunch of chicken and rice salad, she'd located a cloak for him so she didn't feel cold looking at him, and they'd headed into the forest on the promised walk. The temperature actually seemed to have dropped further since he'd arrived, bringing with it a chill she hadn't noticed before, but the sun had begun poking its head through the clouds, too. If Meltokio was getting snow now, though, chances were it would be heading for Mizuho next; ever since the reunification, Tethe'alla's winds and weather patterns had shifted, and now it seemed like anything that hit Meltokio eventually headed northeast to here rather than going directly east like it used to. Hopefully the snow would taper out as it hit the sea, but only time would tell.

Whatever the case, it would undoubtedly get cold here soon, and that meant by next week...well, while she'd never cared much for Altamira herself, the tropical weather there - which thankfully hadn't changed after the reunification - would probably be a welcome relief. Besides, spending a few days there with him could actually be nice. They hadn't gone on a real vacation together yet - he'd accompanied her a few times to Iselia, but those trips had always been work related - so this would be their first. Granted, the possessive side of her was a little worried that he'd revert to the Chosen One act amongst all the bikini-clad women on the beach, but it wasn't enough to make her take back the offer. If he was already fighting off depression now, then he would certainly need the distraction then, and it wasn't like the beach was the only place they could go there to have fun.

But then, she really wasn't worried about him reverting into the Idiot Chosen, either. It still boggled her mind, but after five months, he'd more than proven she could trust him to behave - at least as much as possible for someone with his flirty, playful temperament - and not hit on every girl he met. Once or twice she'd jumped to a wrong conclusion regarding his intentions when speaking to an attractive lady, which had led to a rather heated disagreement over their respective definitions of 'flirting.' In time, though, and after considerable discussion, it had blown over, Sheena realizing she'd overreacted out of (she'd been supremely embarrassed to admit it) jealousy over something innocuous he'd said, while Zelos had apologized for perhaps being too friendly, sheepishly admitting that after how thoroughly engrained flirting had been in his nature, he still occasionally had trouble resisting the urge. And, most convincing of all, Sheena could tell he'd been making a concerted effort since then not to say or do anything else she could misinterpret.

That was the worst 'fight' they'd had since they'd started dating, and Sheena wasn't sure she could even call it that; 'heated argument' was more appropriate. Sure, they'd had a few instances of frustrated disagreement, usually resulting from some misunderstanding due to their cultural differences, or when she'd said something he'd taken the wrong way or vice versa, but none had gotten too bad or made her reconsider dating him. Most of that she attributed to Zelos himself. For as skilled as he'd once been at inciting her anger, he had proven to be just as skilled at diffusing it. All it usually took was a few carefully chosen words - or sometimes just a goofy smile or a playful kiss - and her anger, be it at him or at someone else, deflated. And really, she was grateful he could do that, because even she knew her temper often ran away from her; knowing he could calm her was a relief.

Simply put, Zelos was proving to be impossible to stay upset at for long. He was so logical and cool-headed by nature, with his temper so hard to incite, that he never got upset with her, even when he disagreed with her - frustrated, yes, but not upset - and if Sheena was upset with him, he always apologized for it, whether it was his fault or not, and that, in turn, always made her feel bad and do the same, embarrassed she'd let her emotions run away from her. In fact, he almost seemed to bend over backwards at times to avoid upsetting her. She wasn't sure why he would always back off, change the subject, or apologize whenever she started getting irritated with him, but she'd seen it several times now. More than that, though, whenever that happened, something in his eyes always seemed...off. It was nothing shifty that made her doubt his sincerity, but it was still strange. It almost seemed like fear at times, and once or twice she could've sworn it was bordering on panic. It only lasted a moment before he shook it off and went back to normal, usually accompanied by the apology or subject change she was starting to expect at those moments, but she still noticed it. She didn't know what that was about, but she couldn't deny it - and her confusion over that alone was usually enough to disarm her anger.

Whatever it was, though, so far none of their arguments had been serious. One day she knew they would get into a bad fight - every couple eventually did - but it hadn't happened yet, probably because he was so rational and made such efforts to avoid upsetting her. At times she wished they would fight so she had a legitimate reason to break off their relationship, but mostly she was glad they hadn't, because it meant another day she could enjoy spending with him, happy and in love. How could she complain about that?

It was only as they reached the river that she finally realized Zelos had been silent since leaving her house - which was notable for him because the man was always chattering about something or other, extrovert that he was. Granted, he wasn't as extroverted as his Chosen persona made him seem to be, and every now and then when these moments of introversion arose, Sheena couldn't help wondering how much of the unrepentant extrovert was really him and how much was the image the Church had forced on him, but whether it was natural or artificial, he was still far more extroverted than, say, her. Seeing his brows were furrowed, her eyes narrowed. Not only hadn't he noticed she was watching him yet, but he looked completely lost in thought - which, likewise, was odd for him since he was the one always reminding her that over-thinking things she couldn't change wouldn't get her anywhere but depressed. And yet now, that seemed to be exactly what he was doing.

Huh. She'd really thought her offer to go with him to Altamira would have eliminated this subdued demeanor, and yet he'd fallen back into that funk. It had helped, seeing as he'd been relaxed during lunch, but clearly either the darkness was settling over him again or something else was bothering him. Regardless of the cause, she wanted to get to the bottom of it and shake this weird mood out of him. At least she knew his problem wasn't with her since he wouldn't have come here to see her if it was.

Taking a step closer to him as they ambled through the forest, Sheena looped her right arm through his left. "Hey, you okay?"

"Hn?" She could feel him tense slightly as if jolted from his thoughts, but then he turned his head toward hers and kissed the top of her head. "Yeah, I'm fine, sweetheart."

"You sure? You're so quiet and distracted today. It's not like you." She lifted her head and smirked. "Usually your mouth is running away from you at a ridiculously fast rate."

Zelos let out a soft laugh and shrugged. "Eh, just the time of year, I guess. I'll be fine soon enough, and then you'll be wishing you could shut me up again."

Sheena chuckled, despite the red flag raised by his self-deprecation. That, too, was something he only did when he was upset about something. The problem was, she still wasn't sure if this was a lingering aftereffect of the snow or if it was something deeper. "Well, while I'll admit there are times I want to shut you up, this isn't one of them." She arched an eyebrow, needing him to know this. "If there's anything you want to talk about..."

He quickly nodded and offered her a faint smile. "I know. Thanks."

But despite that, Zelos fell silent again, and after a minute, Sheena sighed. So much for getting at the heart of what was bothering him. Sure, maybe it was just the season, but she couldn't be sure when he refused to discuss it. But she couldn't force him to tell her, either, because maybe he was just in a bad mood - she'd certainly had her own days like that - and that left her no option but to try another tactic. She just wished she knew what to say. Honestly, she wasn't even sure how to act around him when he was like this because he so rarely was - and the few times she had seen it before, he'd always quickly shaken it off himself. Okay, so maybe she needed to try another topic...

Before she could think of something, though, he sighed and cleared his throat. "So...has Lloyd stopped by yet?"

She looked sharply at him as he pulled his arm from hers and instead placed his hand to the small of her back. "Huh? Was he supposed to?"

"I'll take that as a 'no,'" Zelos murmured, then he glanced briefly at her before looking ahead again. "Yesterday afternoon he dropped by my mansion and mentioned he's planning a New Year's Eve party for the gang at his new house in Iselia, so he's going around inviting everyone. I guess he hasn't made it here yet. He'll probably show up soon."

"Really?" she said, her heart pounding faster in building excitement as he nodded curtly. After six months of not seeing anyone except him and Regal, it actually felt surreal to hear from one of them again now. And then what Zelos was saying...oh, Jizou, a reunion! She'd be able to see Lloyd and Colette and their friends again! Her heart pounded faster and a broad smile lit her face, her concern over Zelos's mood overshadowed by this revelation. "Oh, that sounds perfect! I haven't seen anyone except you and Regal since that party the king threw for us, and so to get to see everyone again now..." She bit back a squeal but couldn't resist beaming excitedly. She should've known Lloyd would make sure that no matter how busy they all were, they'd still keep in touch and occasionally meet up to celebrate something fun. To know Lloyd was still thinking of them and wanted to celebrate the upcoming holiday with them... "Did Lloyd say how he's doing?"

Zelos nodded without looking at her. "Sounds like he's doing pretty well. Looks pretty healthy and happy, too. He's still out collecting Exspheres with Colette, but they're taking a break for the holidays, hence the party."

"That's exactly what I'd expect from Lloyd." She grinned excitedly again. Oh, finally! She would be seeing her friends again! If Zelos's words were any indication, Lloyd would be dropping by soon - maybe even today! And New Year's, to see the others, was only two weeks away! "Oh, I can't wait to see him again!" A corner of her mind was pointing out that Zelos's hand had just slipped from her back and his body was tense again, but that, too, she just attributed to his odd mood. This was too exciting to be dwelling on something so somber. She was just surprised he still hadn't snapped out of it, because she knew he'd been looking forward to seeing the others again, too. Without warning, she paused as a thought struck her. "Wait, does this mean we have to get everyone presents?"

"That's generally how New Year's works," he said, his voice still surprisingly soft. His body was still tense, too. Weird. "Or at least that's how it's always worked in Tethe'alla, although he was surprised when I mentioned that tradition since Sylvarant never did that. Lloyd liked the idea, though, so...yeah, there'll be presents."

"Good thing it's still two weeks away. I need to figure out what to get everyone." Sheena grinned and turned to Zelos again, taking his arm in her hands, but he just kept looking ahead of them as they walked. "This is so exciting! It'll be so much fun to catch up with everyone, see how they're doing and what they've been up to the past six months."

He nodded curtly but still didn't look at her. "Yeah. It will."

And finally, she couldn't ignore it any longer. He was still tense, he wasn't smiling, he wasn't looking at her, and he definitely wasn't acting enthused about this. Her eyes narrowed. Yeah, so he was feeling down because of the season, but these were their friends they were talking about! Even disregarding her Altamira offer, why wasn't the prospect of seeing 'the gang' perking him up? And come to think of it, this was huge news; why hadn't he mentioned it sooner? He'd been with her over an hour now and this was the first she was hearing about this reunion? Seriously, this was weird for him.

"What's up with you?" Sheena said, pulling away so she could see his face better. "Don't tell me you, of all people, aren't going to this thing!"

His eyes widened as he finally looked at her again, but then he quickly grinned. "No, of course I'm going. What, me miss a party?"

His grin widened just before he looked away again, but it was painfully obvious it was one of his fake smiles; she'd seen more than enough of the real ones the past few months to recognize the difference. Her eyes narrowed further and her footsteps slowed to a stop, but even then it took him a few steps to realize she wasn't beside him and look back at her. "Okay, what's wrong?" she demanded, placing her hands on her hips.

"Huh?" he said, his eyes widening. "Who said anything's wrong?" And there, again, was that godawful, infuriating fake grin. "Everything's great!"

Yeah, right. Any chance he'd had of convincing her of that had vanished when he'd given her that stupid grin. "Then why am I detecting that you-" she stepped forward and poked his chest, "-aren't enthused about this reunion? I realize the snow and the time of year is getting to you, but I still never expected to see you not excited over a party, especially one where all of our friends are gonna be."

The fake grin faltered a little. "Hey, I'm excited, too! I'm looking forward to seeing everyone again and seeing what kind of presents they get me!"

Sheena rolled her eyes, but he was still acting too fake and over-the-top for her to accept that. He was hiding something - and, worse, lying about it - and that realization suddenly pissed her off. He hadn't done that to her in months; ever since that fateful night at the king's party and that afternoon they'd admitted their feelings to each other, he'd always been extremely open and honest with her, far more so than she'd thought him capable of. The only time he'd tried 'hiding' anything from her had been that time he'd been convinced his grandmother wouldn't be proud of him, and even then, he'd never denied it like this, resorting to idiocy to cover it over. So why was he suddenly starting now? What could be upsetting him so much that he was resorting to that stupid fakeness to distract her?

Taking a deep breath to rein in her building anger, Sheena forced herself to remember that he was already off his game because of the snow. She didn't want to start a major fight with him over this, not when he was already struggling against depression, but she'd be damned if she let him get away with hiding things from her, either - and especially lying to her about it. Letting it go now would be encouraging him take this route again someday, which was simply unacceptable.

"Zelos," she said, giving him a pointed look.

He blinked at her innocently, but beneath that she could see it again - that fear, nearly panic, she only saw in his eyes when she was pissed at him or had misunderstood something he'd said. "What?"

She poked his chest again. "Something's bothering you, and you're hiding it from me. Don't forget, I know all the signs; I can tell when you're trying to distract me. You know how much I hate that, and you promised you wouldn't do that anymore. So why are you doing it now? What are you hiding? And please, Zelos, don't lie to me."

While his fake smile vanished, the panic in his eyes flared to a level Sheena had never seen before. For a long moment he just watched her, swallowing hard, but she just held his gaze and waited expectantly. Finally, he looked away, folded his arms to his chest, closed his eyes, and sighed. "Sheena, it's nothing. Really."

Her eyebrows rose as he looked back at her. She would think he'd just lied to her again except the fear, maybe even growing desperation, in his eyes gave her the impression he wasn't just trying to convince her of that, but himself, too. "Then why don't I believe you?"

His brows furrowed. "Please, Sheena, let it go. It really is nothing."

At least now she had confirmation there was an 'it' bothering him. "If 'it' really is 'nothing,' then there's no reason for you not to tell me what 'it' is that you want me to drop, right?"

His head sank downward, but then he bit his lip and looked up at her again, his face pale. "Okay, how about it's stupid, and there's no reason for us to discuss it?"

Well, that explained why he wanted her to drop it: because whatever it was, he'd deemed it 'stupid' and, therefore, not worth discussing. But 'stupid' or not, it truly was bothering him, especially with such a difficult season approaching, and what kind of girlfriend would she be if she didn't try to help him with this, too?

Whatever you do, stay calm, she reminded herself, closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, and counting to five, a technique he'd once taught her to help her calm down. Don't get upset. He's obviously afraid of something. You're not ready to break up with him yet, not when you really do want to go to Altamira with him and help him forget that tragic anniversary, so don't spook him or push him into doing something unforgivable.

"I don't believe that," she said, giving him another pointed look. "If it's enough to bother you this much, then it isn't 'nothing,' and it isn't 'stupid.' Now please, Zelos, don't do this to me. Don't shut me out. Talk to me."

Zelos frowned, chewing on his lip again, and glanced away worriedly, considering that a moment before sighing and looking back at her, his eyes still pleading. "Sheena, if I tell you, you're gonna get pissed at me."

...And now she really wanted to know what was bothering him. "Believe me, Zelos, I'll be even more pissed at you if you don't." He released a low, shaky breath and shook his head, but then he took several steps backwards and leaned back against the nearest tree, closing his eyes again. Softening at his subtle but undeniable acknowledgement that he couldn't get out of this, Sheena walked over to him, took her hands in his, and gave them a tender squeeze, offering him a faint smile as he opened his eyes and looked at her again. "Zelos, please. Whatever it is, I won't get mad. I promise."

He peered at her unhappily, his eyes sunken. His resistance was falling, she could tell, but it was still hanging on for dear life. "You really won't let this go, will you?" he asked softly.

"No, I won't." Her eyebrows flew upward. "Would you let it go if it was me hiding something from you?"

"...No," he whispered grudgingly.

Her smile broadened and she nodded. "Then there you have it."

Zelos frowned. "Have I mentioned how annoying your ninja intuition is at times?"

Sheena wasn't so sure it was ninja intuition as much as it was the months she'd spent getting to know the real Zelos so well that she'd learned to detect subtle nuances like this. Regardless of the reasoning, she grinned smugly, released his hands, and folded her arms to her chest. "We're not leaving this spot until you tell me what's going on. If necessary, I'll stand right here all afternoon."

With another sigh, Zelos looked away and bit his lip again, clearly debating whether to argue further or admit defeat. Please, Zelos, make the right choice, she silently begged him. And finally, he looked back at her, his eyebrows rising pointedly. "Okay, fine. Just remember, though, you are the one who forced this out of me. I wasn't gonna say anything about it otherwise."

He didn't really think that would deter her, did he? "I'm waiting."

And again, he just watched her, biting his lip, but then he released a low sigh and averted his eyes. "Lloyd."

...Lloyd? Lloyd was why he was so upset? What, had Lloyd said something to him yesterday? But no, that didn't make sense; Lloyd wasn't the kind to upset a friend and then just leave things like that without trying to fix it, so it had to be something else. Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head faintly. "What about Lloyd?"

Zelos was having trouble looking at her for long, she noted, his face growing red. In fact, Sheena was pretty sure she had never seen him look this uncomfortable before. "When was the last time you saw him?"

"Huh?" Okay, seriously, what was going on here? What did that have to do with anything? Deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt, though, she shrugged. "I dunno...that party the king threw for us, I think." Her eyes narrowed further as he still didn't look at her. "Why?"

His eyes finally darted at her again, but suddenly, without warning, he shook his head and pushed himself away from the tree. "Nothing, this is stupid."

Sheena quickly placed her hand to his chest and pushed him back, pinning him against the tree as he tried to sidestep her. Fortunately, he didn't try to fight her, but despite that, she could feel her frustration rising again, and she really didn't want it to. She took another deep breath and counted to five again, thankful for the emotional control it gave her. "Zelos."

Zelos growled softly, his head sinking downward, but then he sighed, nodded, and met her gaze again, his eyes wary. "You used to have a pretty big crush on him."

...Oh. Oh. Her face flared and her hand dropped from his chest, her gaze falling with it. Damn, so he'd noticed that. She'd certainly triedto keep that crush to herself, but she must not have done a good job of it. Embarrassed, she opened her mouth to deny it, as instinct told her to, but she quickly closed it again. Denying it would mean lying to him, and after she'd just instructed him not to lie to her, she couldn't do that, especially when he'd proven he could recognize her lies as easily as she could recognize his. And really, now that she thought about it, considering some of the teasing comments he'd made during their journey, pushing her to tell Lloyd how she felt, comments she'd written off as Zelos being an idiot at the time but that now appeared quite different, he knew he was right.

She scratched her neck awkwardly. "I...well...yeah, okay, maybe I did. So what?"

"So...so if you haven't seen him since we..."

Her gaze snapped up to his face as his voice trailed off...and in the blink of an eye, Sheena got it. She could scarcely believe her ears, but it was the only possible explanation. "And you think...? Wait, are you saying you think if I see Lloyd again, my 'crush' on him will come back and I'll break up with you to go chasing after him?"

He folded his arms to his chest and arched an eyebrow that would have packed far more punch if his face wasn't still so pale and his eyes still so guarded. "Like I said, it's stupid, but you forced the issue."

Sheena was stunned. For a moment, she could only gape at him, but her shock quickly turned into amusement and then into amazement. This whole ridiculous situation was because Zelos was worried about that? Because of Lloyd? "You...you're jealous!"

Zelos shook his head and looked away again, the paleness of his face giving way to an amusing blush. "No, I'm not," he stated with pitiful certainty, then squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes, I am." Without warning, he shook his head again. "No...no, I'm not." He sighed in frustration and lifted his hands in defeat. "Hell, I don't even know if I am or not."

While this clearly was bothering him, she just couldn't restrain her smile. Zelos, the one who kept pointing out whenever she acted jealous of the girls he talked to, was jealous of someone she had once had a crush on, someone she hadn't seen - nor made any effort to see - in six months? Okay, granted, her crush on Lloyd had been pretty strong for awhile, but still, didn't everything that had happened since then mean something? Didn't the fact that she was here with him right now speak for itself?

Biting her lip to hold back her laughter - because the only thing worse than smiling would be if he thought she was laughing at him - she cleared her throat and arched an eyebrow. "Zelos, I got over that crush on Lloyd a long time ago. And that's all it was - a crush."

He nodded curtly. "I know that. I do. And I don't want you to think I don't trust you or anything, Sheena, because as possessive as I feel about you, I do trust you. But no matter how hard I try to convince myself of that, it doesn't always help. I keep telling myself it's not a problem, that things are good between us, because at least I think they are, but there's still this irritating, nagging voice in my head that won't shut up. I mean..."

His voice trailed off as he struggled to express his feelings, and again, Sheena had to fight back the urge to burst out laughing at the sheer preposterousness of this. Of all the things she'd thought might have been upsetting him, this wasn't even on her list, that a man as arrogant and confident as Zelos Wilder could have these fears - and because of Lloyd Irving, at that! But as mind-boggling as that was, she couldn't deny how serious he was. This really was bothering him. Whether it was just that on top of this morning's snow that was making this a bigger issue than it would've been otherwise or if his fear was really that strong, Sheena wasn't sure yet, but she was determined to keep her laughter in check, at least until he'd found the words he was looking for. And to that end, she just tilted her head and waited patiently.

Finally, he sighed and went on. "The truth is, if you haven't seen him since then, then you don't know that those...feelings...you once had for him aren't still waiting there and won't come back when you see him again. I mean, take it from me: feelings like those don't just go away because you don't see someone for awhile. My feelings for you never did. There's just no way to know until you see him again what'll happen."

It took all her remaining effort, but Sheena finally manage to restrain her smile - because the truth was, as amusing as it was to be on the flip side of the 'jealousy' issue for once, she had once been jealous of the girls he used to flirt with, she knew how it felt, and she couldn't deny that she'd pushed the issue herself since they'd started dating. Not that she would mention that unless absolutely necessary. But she would do her best to alleviate his concerns about Lloyd, because he truly had nothing to worry about.

"Zelos, I can assure you nothing will change between us when I see Lloyd again," she said. "Lloyd is in love with Colette; I accepted that a long time ago, long before our journey ended, and far longer than before you and I got involved like this."

He closed his eyes and nodded again. "I know, Sheena. I know. It's stupid. I shouldn't be feeling this way. I almost can't believe I am. But..."

Her eyes narrowed as his voice trailed off. "But...what?" Okay, if he recognized all of that, then this couldn't be all there was to this; there had to be more he wasn't saying yet. She grasped his hands again and gave them a gentle squeeze. "Zelos."

His eyes opened and darted briefly at her, but then he looked away again, his brows furrowing further. "It's just..."

Wow, he really was bad at expressing his emotions, wasn't he? Well, not really bad, once he got started; he was just extremely uncomfortable doing so - something she could relate to because she would be having a hard time in his position, too. He was clearly feeling vulnerable - probably, again, because of the encroaching season - and didn't like it and wasn't sure how to handle it. But if there was more to this than simple jealousy, then she couldn't help him unless he told her what it was.

"What?" Sheena pressed. "Zelos, whatever it is, just say it."

"It's just..." He swallowed hard as his eyes darted at her, but then he looked away again. For a moment she was afraid he would clam up again and that her patience would run thin and she'd get frustrated and wreck everything by pushing him too hard, but finally he sighed and lowered his head again, still unable to look at her. "It's just...I couldn't blame you if you did fall for him again, y'know? I mean, what does an idiot like me, someone with a horrible track record for hurting you, have against someone like him? I know I'm not your first choice for a boyfriend, Sheena. I never have been. And if he hadn't been in love with Colette, you would've picked him over me any day. Any intelligent woman would. And that's why every single morning since we started dating, my first thought when I woke up was to wonder if that would be the day you finally came to your senses and did what you should've done a long time ago by dumping my sorry ass. And it just..." With a low sigh, Zelos closed his eyes, shook his head, and let out a self-deprecating scoff, his voice falling to the faintest of whispers. "I really am pathetic, aren't I? I've been trying so hard not to mess up this thing with you because it is, by far, the best thing that's ever happened to me, and yet here I am doing exactly that."

...Jizou and all the guardians. Her eyes widened, her lips parted, and her gut twisted as all semblance of amusement vanished. The real issue here wasn't Lloyd or her old crush on him at all; in fact, Lloyd barely had anything to do with this. No, the real problem was Zelos's own low self-esteem. He was so good at hiding it from everyone, maybe even from himself, keeping it buried beneath a mask of arrogance and narcissism, but the reality was that he had just as many issues as she did - and those issues occasionally became impossible to ignore, especially when extraneous circumstances, such as this morning's snow, forced them to the forefront of his mind.

She'd had no idea this had been bothering him so much and for so long. If she had, she would've made the depths of her feelings clear long ago. In fact, the fact that she hadn't shared those feelings with him was probably one of the reasons his insecurity had gotten this bad. The truth was, though, she wasn't good at expressing such emotions, either; while 'I love you' was easy to say now, anything deeper than that left her balking, her heart refusing to place itself in such an emotionally vulnerable position. It wasn't that she didn't trust him not to overreact if she told him, not at all, but sometimes old habits and defense mechanisms died hard - which was clearly the case for him, too. By telling her this, he'd made himself vulnerable, a feeling he, too, obviously hated, especially when it was over something he'd deemed 'stupid.' No wonder he'd fought so hard to get her to drop the subject.

Now, finally, was the perfect time to tell him, to make him see how much he meant to her. But could she really do that? Should she really do that? If she told him how much she loved him, that would mean crossing a line she'd so far avoided. It would mean being completely open about her feelings for him...and about the fact that he was the only man she wanted in her life. It would mean telling him she was in their relationship for the long haul, that she was committed to seeing it through to the end. And once she crossed that line, she could never uncross it. It was a one-way trip. Crossing back over it after she'd told him how much she loved him, after assuring him she would never abandon him, would mean breaking his heart. Leaving him would be a thousand times more painful if she told him this than if she didn't. And if there was one thing she knew for certain, it was that the future she'd been ignoring for months, the one she dreaded but was terrified she could never run from, was still just as cloudy and problematic and devastating for them as it had always been.

As far as Mizuho was concerned, after all, they had no future together. She had already committed herself to her place in her village's future, and escaping it now was impossible. And knowing that, that one day she would have to leave him...could she really do this to him now? Could she cross that line and tell him how much she loved him, knowing how much worse the end result would be...knowing she would be stomping on his heart and telling him she'd lied about her feelings for him, even though that would be the real lie? She wasn't sure she could; the very thought of doing that to him made her feel like a heinous criminal. Could anything be crueler?

Like it or not, it was too late for 'them' to fall apart naturally. In fact, Sheena was pretty sure they no longer would unless one of them forced the issue. And really, this was the perfect opportunity to do so. In order to spare him from even more devastating future pain, she could twist around this incident, say she needed a 'real, emotionally strong man' who trusted her not to fall for old crushes, and use that to end their relationship. It would be the right thing to do, to end this before it went further...before it was too late to salvage their hearts from the train wreck awaiting them. She would probably never get an opportunity this perfect again. It would hurt him now, sure. It would probably kill her because she did love him so much. But wouldn't it be so much worse later on if she didn't end it now and instead committed herself to him, thus undoubtedly strengthening his love for her in return?

But how could she do that to him, either? How could she tell him, minutes after she'd begged him not to lie to her, that she didn't love him or want to be with him, knowing that would be the biggest lie of all? And, more than that, how could she think of doing that right now, when he was already scared and embarrassed and dreading the anniversary of the worst day of his life? How could she do that after she'd just promised she wouldn't let him suffer through that horrible anniversary alone? What kind of cruel monster would do that to a man she loved?

Looking at him now, seeing the raw emotion on his face as he looked away from her, clearly terrified of her response, she knew her answer: she couldn't. She loved this kind, amazing, giving, beautiful man far too much to do that to him, either. Ending their relationship by telling him she didn't love him or want to be with him anymore, while he was in this distraught state, would likely be signing his death warrant; she didn't want to think what he might do to himself. Either route would mean hurting him, ripping his heart out and tearing it to pieces, but the real question was when. She didn't want to hurt him at all, but one day she would. At least the future was still an unknown and could be manipulated to present a situation where it might not be completely devastating; the present itself, however, was right now. And she just couldn't do it to him, not now, not like this. She couldn't take back her promise to go to Altamira with him, couldn't snuff out any light he had burning within him beneath this awkward mortification. She couldn't give up whatever time they still had left together. She couldn't. She refused to, not before the future had actually been written.

And that was when the truth of what she was about to do truly hit her. She was going to cross that line. She was going to embrace whatever the future brought them. She was going to share her feelings with him and accept the consequences of her actions. If this was her last opportunity to back out of 'them,' then she was choosing not to take it. If it meant she was emotionally too weak and irresponsible to do the right thing, so be it. But she was choosing instead, for good this time, to put her faith in fate and in his own philosophy, 'Whatever will be, will be,' to see them through this. She would trust that the fate he'd always believed in to guide his life, the same fate that had led them to this very moment, would one day make sure things worked out as they were supposed to. She was going to believe, with all her heart, that everything that had happened between them had been for a reason, and not just to devastate them.

She refused to let fear hold her back anymore. She refused to dismiss her ideal vision of her future, the one that placed him by her side, and would instead hold onto hope that maybe, one day, fate would make it happen - maybe not exactly as she envisioned it, but in some way. She refused to hold back any part of her heart from him anymore; she was going to embrace her love for this man and let her heart tell him what it knew was true. While no, she wouldn't give in to her physical desires to be with him yet, because until that idealistic future actually happened, she just couldn't, she was going to embrace her emotional desire and need for him. The bottom line was that she loved him far too much to end it with him before fate had a chance to show them what it had in store for them.

Her decision was made. She was taking that step. She was committing herself to seeing this through to whatever ending awaited them, be it debilitating pain or maybe, hopefully, something better. One day she would probably regret siding with her heart, not with her head, but that day wasn't today, and she refused to take the chance that she might never regret it, not when she already knew that leaving him right now, like this, was something she would regret. As much as it might hurt them one day, she no longer cared. She wanted this man in her life. And only one thing now could change that: the words she never wanted to hear, that it was time for her to become chief, combined with certainty that Zelos could never accept a life with her in Mizuho. Until those two things happened, she was in this relationship with him completely. Hope and belief in them and in their love, powerful things that poets insisted could move mountains, had won this battle over fear and logic.

And that was that.

With her decision sitting comfortably in her heart, it was time. She wouldn't make him wait any longer to hear this. She would remove this crushing weight from his soul so he could breathe and live and laugh and smile again. Lifting her hand to his face, she touched his cheek, her heart aching at the pain and fear raging in his eyes as he refused to look at her, at the redness of embarrassment and vulnerability on his face. Above all else right now, she needed to be gentle with him. He was emotionally skittish, and even a single careless word could send him reeling away from her. And that, too, she refused to do.

Taking a deep breath, Sheena traced her fingers over his cheek. "Your mother really did do a number on you, didn't she?" she whispered. "You hide it so well, but deep beneath the tough guy act, you're just a scared little boy who's afraid of being abandoned by those you love again."

"Like I said, pathetic," he murmured, still stubbornly refusing to look at her.

Her heart wrenched again at his words - and at his tense, frightened expression that told her he believed that. Okay, so if she was going to do this, tell him things she would never say under other circumstances to combat the damage his mother had once done to him, she needed him to be looking at her so he knew she was being completely honest with him. With her fingers, Sheena gently guided his face toward hers. "No, Zelos, you're not. And you definitely haven't messed anything up, so don't go thinking you have."

Zelos watched her a moment, his blue eyes dark and guarded, not just protecting himself but steeling himself for what he clearly expected to hear, but then he looked away again awkwardly. Sheena bit back a sigh. She had to fix that; he was too tall and was clearly having trouble looking at her for long, and convincing him of her sincerity would be impossible without him meeting her eyes. It was time for a switch in position so he couldn't look away from her, even if he wanted to.

"Zelos, sit down," she instructed softly, lowering her hand from his face. His eyes snapped up to hers and he watched her uncertainly as she took a step backward to give him room, but he still didn't move, and after a few seconds he looked away again. Uh uh, buddy, you're not getting away with sidestepping my instructions this time. She arched a firm eyebrow and pointed at the ground. "Sit."

Still he hesitated, glancing at her before looking down again, but finally he did as asked and slid down the tree, resting his back against it. Once he was settled, Sheena stepped forward, straddling his legs, and seated herself in his lap, resting her hands on his shoulders, glad to feel that even though he was unhappy about this, his hands still went to her hips to hold her steady. There. Now their height difference was neutralized, and he'd have a harder time looking away from her.

Sheena leaned closer, forcing him to meet her gaze, and smiled gently. "First of all, I'm not going anywhere. You are the man I'm in love with, not Lloyd. What I felt for him was nothing compared to what I feel for you, Zelos. Nothing. That was..." Her voice trailed off as she struggled to figure out what she wanted to say. Being so honest about her feelings went against her nature, but she'd be damned if she backed out now. "Lloyd is a good man. He's determined, he's loyal, he's cute and naïve, he's an amazing friend, he's able to make us see the good in ourselves, his ideals inspire everyone he meets and are probably the main reason we beat Cruxis and reunited the worlds...yeah, that's all true. Of course I admired that about him. Who wouldn't? Heck, obviously you did, too, since you sided with him, even though the other side was more likely to win. Well, you probably didn't care about how cute he was, but you know what I mean."

Zelos arched an eyebrow, his face red and his eyes subdued, still clearly mortified. "Is this supposed to be making me feel better? Because if it is, it really isn't working..."

She grinned and quirked an eyebrow. "Let me finish, okay?" He sighed in response, and she accepted that as his acquiescence. "What I felt for Lloyd was no more than a hero crush. And believe me, Zelos, it's over. Now, he's a good friend. After everything we went through together, he'll always be a good friend. I wouldn't change that even if I could, and I somehow doubt you'd want me to, anyway."

"Of course not," he whispered, his eyes briefly falling to her chin.

Well, good. She was glad he wouldn't give her grief over that, at least. "It's nothing more than that, though, and it never will be. Never. And do you know how I know that, that nothing will change that, that I'll never fall for him again?"

Thankfully, his eyes lifted to hers again, searching them curiously. "How?"

Smiling softly, Sheena trailed her fingers up his neck and then down his jaw, eliciting a shiver from him. "Because when I wake up in the morning, the first person I think about isn't Lloyd. I don't make up excuses to go visit him or hope he shows up here during the day. He's not the man I look forward to going out with whenever I can just so I can talk to him and touch him and kiss him and see what new thing he has planned for us. He's not the man I fall more deeply in love with every time I see him. And he's definitely not the man I see in my dreams every night." She paused emphatically, pleased to see the hope building in his eyes as he watched her, then leaned forward and gave him a tender kiss before resting her forehead against his, nuzzling his nose with hers. "You are, Zelos."

He pulled back just enough that he could search her face again. "Really?"

Her smile grew shy and her heart pounded faster at his soft, amazed whisper and the sincere, endearing hope and curiosity in his eyes, unmarred by any trace of arrogance. "Yes, really. Zelos, I would be bored stiff with Lloyd, especially after being with you like this. Sure, he's a great guy, but he's just not you. Everything is always the same with him, and while I'm sure that's great for someone - obviously, since Colette is happy with it - it's just not what I'm looking for anymore. To be honest, I don't think it ever really was, even if it took me awhile to see that. You...you're so unpredictable. You're a thousand times sharper than him, too. You always keep me on my toes, keep me just enough off my guard to make everything you say or do a surprise I have to figure out how to react to; I never know what to expect from you next. You challenge me to keep up with you and to think differently about things, to look for other options, to consider and try things I never would've considered or tried on my own. You have so many layers to you that I'm always finding out new things about you, whereas with Lloyd, what you see is what you get.

"And I just love that about you, that you're always surprising me, that you can make the most boring, mundane things interesting, that you can come up with the craziest, most ridiculous ideas imaginable and can make me laugh and have fun. You make me happy. You make me feel and live and enjoy life. You're smart, and you're sensitive, and you're handsome, and you're charming - when you're not being completely perverted, of course - and you're sweet, and you're thoughtful, and beneath the act you have one of the kindest, most giving and beautiful hearts I've ever seen." She smiled and touched his face again, amazed by the intense look in his eyes as he watched her. "Zelos, you are just as good of a man as Lloyd is, just as much of a hero, just in a different way, and that 'different way' works better for me than his ever would. You're not second best to him, not anymore - and really, the only time you ever were was before I got to know the real you and discovered what an incredible man you really are. Now he is second best to you - and believe me, he's a distant second. You are the only man I love and want and need in my life. The truth is, I can't imagine not being with you anymore."

"Yeah?" he whispered, still watching her carefully.

Her smile broadened as she nodded. "Yeah. So don't worry about Lloyd anymore, okay? Lloyd isn't suddenly going to steal my heart away from you, and neither is anyone else. It's yours, Zelos, and with you is where it's staying."

For a long moment, Zelos just continued watching her, his gaze so intense that it left her breathless, a combination of amazement and awe and something Sheena could only identify as need and fiery hunger burning in his eyes. Suddenly, though, without any warning, he released her waist and cupped her face with his hands, pulling her head to his, and kissed her so desperately that she had no choice but to moan into his mouth and surrender to him, giving him what he needed to soothe his insecurities about himself...and about the place he held in her heart. Normally when he kissed her, it was tender, and gentle, and reverent, but this kiss...this kiss was electric. It was passionate, and hungry, and needy, and far more forceful and aggressive and possessive than anything else she'd ever experienced before, leaving her lightheaded at how utterly heated and demanding and incredible it was. And the meaning behind it...it was telling her without words just how touched he was, just how much he loved her, just how much he wanted her...just how much he needed her.

He'd kissed her heatedly before, but those times were never like this, making her heart race and her head swim and sending so many tendrils of fire and pure desire through her that it made her want him so badly it hurt. It was only then that she realized, for the first time, just how much of himself Zelos held back when he was with her for fear things would get out of control and lead them into territory he'd promised to never force her to go - a realization that excited her and made her want to see what else he held back from her. It made her want to tell him not to hold back anymore so she could see just how deeply his passion for her ran. And for a moment as his hands lowered from her face to her waist and he pulled her body tighter against, leaving her no choice but to weave her hands through his hair and hold him to her, moving her mouth with his and making him groan, sending another wave of heat and desire through her, she could feel her resolve to resist him slipping away. Oh, Jizou, this was overwhelming; it was making her head spin and making her want to let go and give in, just this once, to not worry about Mizuho and let them both have this one moment of pleasure they both so obviously wanted.

She'd just disentangled her hands from his long, silky hair and lowered them to his chest, the fire raging within her demanding that she find and free more skin so she could touch and feel and kiss and taste, when Zelos suddenly tore his mouth from hers, wrapped his arms around her, and crushed her to him, hugging her fiercely and burying his face in the crook of her neck, his warm breath making her body tingle. "Martel, Sheena, I love you so much," he whispered, pressing his lips to the sensitive skin below her ear. "Thank you."

Swallowing hard, the taste of his kiss lingering on her tongue and the blood still pounding through her veins, Sheena closed her eyes and took several deep, even breaths, trying to calm herself and think clearly again, then she wrapped her arms around him, sinking into his embrace. Oh, thank Jizou, not only did he believe her, but he wasn't resorting to crudeness or turning this moment into a joke. Now all she could do was hope her words had alleviated his fears. At least now she knew what kind of issues she was dealing with...and she knew how much he loved her and how scared he was of losing her.

And as her body began slowly cooling from that incredible kiss, at least as much as it could given their intimate position, she found herself grateful, too, that he'd broken it when he had instead of letting the moment get out of control - because considering how strong her desire had been growing, she would have given in to him. And that was something that, no matter how desperately she wanted it, she would regret doing, knowing how uncertain the future for them still was - not, of course, that she thought he'd let it get that far. That particular sacrifice of his and his determination to hold to his promise was yet another reason why she loved this man so damn much.

For a moment, Sheena just held onto him, giving them both a moment to process everything, but then she finally loosened her embrace and, smiling softly, gave him a quick kiss. "I'm not going anywhere, Zelos," she said. "I promise. I love you."

Finally, he returned her smile, then rested his forehead against hers, releasing a soft laugh that she hoped meant the issue was now resolved. "Heh. Sorry 'bout that, sweetheart, getting all emotional on you like that."

Sheena smiled again and brushed his nose with hers. "Don't be. If I'd realized this was bothering you so much, I would've made my feelings clear a long time ago. And I'm sorry I didn't before this. I just...I have a hard time expressing feelings like these, too."

He laughed softly and shook his head, pressing a tender kiss to her cheek, his lips lingering there. "Nah, don't worry about it. I'm just glad to know where I stand and that I don't have to worry about Lloyd butting in on my girl anymore."

"Good." And then she realized something else she'd never told him. Lifting her head, Sheena beamed him a mischievous grin. "Besides, I had a huge crush on you long before I ever even met Lloyd, so you win, by far, in the crush department, too."

As she'd expected, his smile vanished and eyes widened in surprise. "You did?"

"Of course I did," she replied, pulling one of her hands from his back so her fingers could play with a lone lock of wavy, gorgeous red hair. "I meant it when I said every girl in Tethe'alla did, especially those my age. You were smart, and you were sexy, and you were carefree, and you were gorgeous, and...well, at least for a few weeks, you were incredibly sweet and charming to me. How could I not have fallen for that?"

Also unsurprisingly, his smile slowly reappeared again, that time reflecting definite amazement. "Huh. I didn't know that."

Sheena grinned wryly. "Well, of course you didn't, because soon after that you started acting like a jerk toward me, and at that point do you really think I would've told you that? You never would've let it go; you would've rubbed my face in it for years!"

And just like that, his smile transformed into a smirk. It was softer than normal because of how lovingly he was still observing her, but it was definitely a smirk. "As much as I hate to say this...yeah, I probably would have."

Chuckling, she gave his shoulder a playful smack. "Idiot." Before he could reply, though, she teased him with another quick kiss, then rose onto her knees and stood up. "Anyway, c'mon," she said, taking a step backward and extending her hand to him to help him up, an offer he quickly accepted. "Now that that's taken care of, we should get back. We only have two weeks before New Year's, and I have to figure out what to get everyone!"

Zelos released her hand and smoothed down his clothes, brushing off a few stray leaves and twigs. "If you want, you can come back to Meltokio with me and we can do some shopping. It sounds like the snow should only last today and then the weather's supposed to warm up for the rest of the week. Besides, I need to figure out what to get everyone, too."

She was briefly tempted to make him sweat it out a minute while he waited for her answer, now that she could hopefully tease him like that without him worrying about how she really meant it, but eh, teasing could wait until another time. Right now she wanted him to know much she loved him. "Yeah...I like that idea. Sounds like fun."

The broad, happy grin he gave her made her glad she hadn't taken the teasing route. "Then what do you say we grab the rest of your laundry, head back to your place, and start doing some brainstorming, my lady?"

Sheena chuckled again as he extended his arm to her - 'like a good gentleman would toward a lovely lady,' he'd once insisted on describing the chivalrous action - then she looped her arm through his and rested her head against his shoulder. "Sounds good."

They fell silent as they started walking toward the spot where they'd hung her sheets, but that time the silence was comfortable now that Zelos was finally relaxed and happy again. And when he suddenly pressed a kiss to the side of her head and whispered in her ear, "Hey, Sheena?" she couldn't help smiling as she looked up at him curiously.

"Hm?"

"Thanks for not getting upset about this. It shouldn't become a problem again."

"Hey, no problem, Zelos," she said, tightening her hold on his arm and leaning further into him. "I know you would've done the same for me if our positions were reversed."

"Of course I would have." He cleared his throat, his voice resuming its normal tone. "Y'know, I can't help noticing how good you've gotten at controlling your temper the past few months."

Her eyes widened. Wow, really? "Y'think so? I mean, I have been working on it more, and your little 'cool-off trick' does wonders..."

"Yep, yep, it sure does, doesn't it? And it shows, how much effort you're putting into it." To her surprise, Zelos released her arm and lifted a finger to his lips, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes as he looked at her. "Although I can't help thinking you could always use a little more practice..." Without warning, he flashed her a mischievous grin, and before she could even register his sudden transformation, he snatched the ribbon from her hair, setting it free, and then immediately raced a short ways into the forest.

Oh, great Jizou, he had not just done that. Sheena growled lowly and glared at him as he darted behind a tree before looking back at her and waggling his eyebrows, his smirk just daring her to come after him and get it back. And Jizou help her, but no amount of reason could stop her from accepting the challenge. "Zelos Wilder, you come back here with that this instant!" And when he burst into wicked laughter and started running again, she took up the chase and darted after him, deeper into the forest.

But the truth was, she was smiling all the while, and when she finally let herself catch him fifteen minutes later, she wasn't mad at all.

0~*~0