smb814: (TOS Sheena Summon)
[personal profile] smb814
***

After an hour of the party, Sheena's patience level with its stupidity, waste, and formalities had reached rock bottom, and she had taken instead to wandering around the outlying areas of the reception hall, needing to escape the irritating nobles who didn't attempt to hide their disdain for ninjas and, therefore, her. She hadn't explored this place at the last party, and it was habit to scout out where everything was located, just in case -- a habit resulting from being a ninja, always looking out for possible danger, needing to know where all available exits were, and wanting to be aware of any place where people could be trapped should, oh, say, the mansion catch fire or be attacked. Besides, after spending a week in Mizuho, she needed some alone time.

Oh, who was she kidding? She wasn't doing this because she was pissed at the noblemen and their vain party; she was pissed because Zelos had disappeared from the ballroom. Sure, he had the right to run off with some floozy whenever he wanted to, but she still felt...disappointed...in his choices -- not out of jealousy, she told herself, but because she had thought she'd seen something in him during their journey that indicated there was more to him than she'd always thought. He'd certainly expressed enough hatred over his title at the Tower of Salvation, even admitting he'd been running from it his entire life and had worked with Cruxis solely to give it to Seles, who he deemed a better candidate for the role. Sheena had never seen that side of him before, and she thought maybe vocalizing that hatred had been a turning point for him. Maybe after that, she'd thought, she would see something different in him, something more than she'd ever given him credit for before. Maybe he wasn't who she'd always thought he was. Maybe things between them would change. Maybe he would change. Even she had admitted after his betrayal that she should have paid him more attention, dug a little deeper beneath the surface, and seen through his lies and his lighthearted, carefree, arrogant, joking exterior before it was too late.

And for as pissed as she'd been when he'd saved her and rejoined their group, she'd kept that in mind and had vowed she'd start digging deeper and noticing those things she never had before. She wasn't sure why -- and she doubted she could put up with his stupid but inevitable innuendo, sexual advances, and taunting long enough to find out -- but she was intrigued enough to at least try. She'd never had a chance to discuss his betrayal with him -- he'd been moody afterwards, and subsequent events had occurred so quickly that no opportunity to do so had arisen, and after that they'd split up to deal with the new world -- but it nagged at her. She was curious, and with her ninja, information-gathering senses and instincts, she figured trying to determine the truth was worth at least some effort.

But then he pulled this little disappearing act, proving nothing had changed and he was still a perverted womanizer who happily ran off with unknown floozies every chance he got. And if he didn't have to attend the party, then why should she? At least he liked these things and lived for the attention they garnered him; she could barely tolerate them. So now she was pissed and had forced herself to leave the ballroom to try to cool down. And her two dances with Lloyd had been so nice, too -- cute, sweet, naïve, idealistic, but definitely untouchable Lloyd.

So she'd taken it upon herself to scout the place out and hope she didn't run into the Idiot Chosen with his hunny-of-the-moment draped all over him. Everything there looked the same, though -- expensive and gaudy -- and she was quickly tiring of her exploration. She much preferred the simpler Mizuho style. Apparently this was what rich people did, though; they had to spend their money somehow, and how better than by showing off? Talk about a waste when people were suffering in poverty only half a mile away. Hopefully that would change with the merging of the two worlds. At least, for all his faults, Zelos was supportive of people outside his rank. Even if he lost his title, he still had the King's ear and could encourage revolution of the social ranks. Heck, Sheena was still surprised by how Zelos had treated that lost boy and his mother in Sybak. Then, she'd barely believed his kindness, but now...it just reinforced the nagging thought that maybe there was more to him than met the eye -- even if it currently wasn't looking likely.

She was turning down another branch of the mansion when she spotted it out a grand, golden-rimmed window -- a bright red splash on a nearby balcony, the color unmistakable. Her face reddened and she cursed softly; damn, it was him. At least he wasn't looking her direction. In fact, he was probably so focused on his female companion that...Sheena did a double take. No one else was out on the balcony with him. He was alone, a glass of champagne in hand, staring at the moon, leaning on his forearms against the railing. Instantly, her curiosity was piqued. She watched him a moment, making sure no half-naked woman was joining him from the adjacent room. What she was seeing wasn't like him at all. Zelos wasn't one to shun a party with plenty of his 'hunnies' attending, especially one held partially in his honor, and spend time with only a glass of champagne and his thoughts for company.

The longer she waited, though, the more convinced she became that he wasn't waiting for a woman; even after a few minutes, he still hadn't looked behind him as if expecting someone. Instead, he released his long, fiery hair from its loose braid and ran a hand through it, a simple action that indicated he wasn't planning on rejoining the party. Finally, Sheena concluded it really was just him. She was thoroughly puzzled, and intrigued, and suddenly she wanted to go join him. She'd only seen him thoughtful like this once or twice before, the last time being after he'd reclaimed his Cruxis Crystal from Seles, and she wondered if maybe that time she could get some real conversation out of him; after all, he had no excuse to wax poetic about all the 'hunnies' he missed in Meltokio when he could be dancing with them downstairs right now. She was concerned that he was okay and not plotting another awful betrayal -- this really wasn't like him -- and while she expected he'd drop his somberness the second he saw her, a part of her was willing to take the chance in case she was wrong. She wanted to be wrong.

Decision made, Sheena crept down the hallway, mentally calculating which room led to the proper balcony. Finally satisfied she'd located the right door, she tried it...but it was locked. She cursed softly. What the hell? Why had he locked the door? One thing was sure, though: she was even more intrigued now than before. She could pick locks...should she? Nah, she didn't have a bobby pin handy, but she'd definitely put that on her list of traveling items for the future. Hmm, what about the next door over...? That door proved to be unlocked, so she crossed the room and stepped out onto the balcony. Zelos still didn't acknowledge her presence, though...was he that lost in thought? Reaching the end of the other balcony, she climbed up on the railing, then jumped over to 'his' balcony and gracefully set down on it.

She'd just started walking toward him when he finally spoke. "Sheena."

While he still hadn't turned to look at her, clearly he'd heard her. Good, at least he wasn't completely oblivious to everything going on around him. "I was wondering where you'd ended up," she said. "This...isn't where I expected to find you."

Zelos grinned but still didn't turn to her. "Aw, was my voluptuous banshee worried about me? I'm flattered."

Sheena huffed and shook her head, tempted to either leave or smack him. He always used that same line or something similar whenever she expressed concern for him or was being serious with him. Since she'd worked so hard to reach him, though, for a reason she was quickly losing sight of thanks to his obnoxious nickname for her, she settled for grumbling, "Idiot Chosen."

"I'm sorry. The Chosen One is currently taking a mental holiday. Please leave a message and he'll get back to you in the morning."

He had said that so seriously, with no trace of sarcasm or humor in his voice, that Sheena was taken aback. "What? Then who am I talking to?"

"Someone who is not the Chosen."

She...didn't know how to respond to that. Talk about odd -- and his flat tone was even odder. She would think he was joking again except for that tone. Rather than dwelling on that, though, she opted instead to poke a little fun at him in hopes of getting some information from him to explain this befuddling turn of events. "Then if you're not the Chosen tonight...does that mean you won't hit on me or grope me or do anything else inappropriate?"

Zelos finally looked at her, smirking, but, curiously, that smirk wasn't as lecherous as usual. "Do you want me to?"

Sheena rolled her eyes. Did he really have to ask? "Of course not, you idiot."

"Didn't think so." Instantly, his smirk vanished and he looked away again. "Nah, seriously, that shouldn't be a problem. I don't foresee that particular idiot showing up tonight; as far as I can tell, he's vacated the premises. Can't make any promises about tomorrow when he gets back from his holiday, but tonight you're in luck."

...Huh. Had Zelos Wilder really just passed by a prime opportunity to hit on her and make her feel like one of his hunnies? Maybe something really was wrong with him. This wasn't like him at all...but then, Sheena wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth when this seemed to be the opportunity she'd wanted. Now that she'd gotten it, though, she found it a little...unnerving. She was so accustomed to acting one way around him -- on the defensive against his constant barrage of innuendo and jabs at her -- that she wasn't sure how to respond when he wasn't acting like that. She suddenly got the impression she didn't know this man.

"O...kay." Maybe she should try a different, more straightforward subject? "So how did you know it was me?" He glanced at her, brows furrowed in confusion. "You said my name when I was still a good distance away."

And just like that, his smirk returned. "You may have ninja senses, hunny, but I've got angel senses. I heard you rattling the door a minute ago and then talking to yourself when you found it locked."

"Oh." Right. Of course. She still had trouble remembering he now had the same angelic senses Colette and Kratos did -- but she didn't want to think about that right then, either. There were too many disturbing aspects involved with that. "Speaking of which, why was the door locked?"

A single red eyebrow crept upward. "Why is a door normally locked?"

Well, duh. "To keep people out."

"Give the lady a prize."

Sheena blinked blankly. Was he really confirming that? Zelos, someone who regularly boasted about how much women loved him and how much he loved women? "So you want me to leave?"

Zelos sighed and cast another glance at her, the eyebrow still arched. "You, my dear? After all the trouble you went through jumping across balconies to get here?" He looked back at the sky. "Nah. You can stay if you'd like. Just be forewarned I'm not really feeling like myself right now."

She chuckled. "No kidding. I could've told you that the moment I noticed you out here drinking alone."

Uh oh. His smirk was back. That always meant dangerous waters lay ahead. "Who said I'm drinking alone?"

This whole conversation just kept confusing her more and more. Now what did he mean? Sheena was getting sick of being caught off guard by him like this. "Well, let's see. You're drinking alcohol, no one else is here, and you locked the door to keep others out so, therefore, you're drinking alone."

For the first time since she'd joined him there, Zelos observed her closely, his blue eyes intense and scrutinizing. Instinct told her to smack him for staring at her...but, oddly, he wasn't looking at her lecherously, nor was he staring at the part of her, south of her face, that normally attracted his interest. Heck, he hadn't even hit on her yet -- although the dreaded 'banshee' nickname was bad enough. In fact, to her surprise, he almost appeared to be seriously debating something. She looked away, flushed and embarrassed by the intensity of his gaze.

"Am I?" he whispered. Suddenly, he lifted his glass to her. "Take a sip."

Sheena's cheeks grew even warmer. "Wh...what?"

"The chef prepared this special for me. Take a sip."

He sounded like a parent instructing a child, and her irritation and suspicion naturally rose at the tone. "Wh...why?! What did you do to it?"

"Nothing," he said with a wry grin. "C'mon, hunny, trust me on this. Unless you to take a sip, you won't believe me when I say what it is."

"You mean it's not champagne?" What, had she entered an alternate dimension? This made no sense. Zelos Wilder was not supposed to be acting like this. "What did you put in it?"

"You'll just have to try it and see, won't you?" he countered.

Sheena eyed him warily, confused by his persistence. She waited for the smirk to appear that indicated his latest game with her, but for once it never came. She didn't understand, but after a moment spent contemplating his strange mood, she hesitantly took the glass and lifted it to her nose. She didn't smell anything objectionable, but with Zelos, she couldn't be too careful. "If you poisoned or drugged this...."

Zelos rolled his eyes, snatched back the glass, and took a drink before handing it back to her. "There. See? Not poisoned or drugged. Now take a sip." His face softened. "Please?"

Sheena's confusion flared further. Where was the normal, juvenile humor flickering in his eyes to indicate he would soon burst out with something stupid like, "Oh, yeah, and I spit in it so that means we've 'kissed' by sharing saliva!"? Why instead was his expression still surprisingly soft yet somber? And...why did she think she detected a hint of frustration and impatience in his eyes? When Zelos still didn't play his cards, she shook her head and sighed, wondering when she'd started thinking like him. Finally, she took a tentative sip...and then blinked blankly. "What the...?"

He smirked again, albeit with surprisingly minimal obnoxiousness, and took back his glass. "See, told ya you wouldn't believe it without trying it yourself."

She tasted the liquid in her mouth, searching for its flavor, but still found nothing. "This is...this is water!"

"Water with some bubbles and special coloring so it resembles champagne, to be precise," he stated. "Hence why I can't be drinking alone right now since this isn't alcohol."

For a moment, Sheena was speechless. "Wait, are you saying you don't drink alcohol at all?"

"Oh, sweet Martel, no," he replied as if the very thought was distasteful. "I drink alcohol -- just not at any social events. Usually it's only when I'm alone in my mansion."

She was stunned. This, too, made no sense; the puzzle pieces refused to fit together. Nothing in the way he was currently acting matched her mental image of this guy, one she'd held nearly as long as she'd known him -- which was a long time. She gaped at him, fumbling for a response, but he just cocked an eyebrow as if granting her permission to ask the question. Given the circumstances, she couldn't resist. "And why is that?"

Zelos eyed her closely another moment, but finally he looked away and took another sip of his 'champagne.' "Heh. Wouldn't you like to know?"

Of course he wouldn't just answer her question. He had to turn this into a cat-and-mouse game. She should have known. "Yes, actually I would. As long as it doesn't turn into a bizarre, perverted story, of course. Or an excuse for you to grope me."

He peered at her from the corner of his eye, his voice unusually soft. "Told you already, hun, that guy's currently out on vacation. If I can't find him -- and believe me, I've tried -- even you can't."

Wow. His mood seriously was bizarre tonight, wasn't it? He almost felt unrecognizable -- and really, maybe that was why he'd come out here alone. Maybe he truly didn't want to be a philanderer and womanizer for once. Ever since his betrayal at the Tower, overall he'd been surprisingly somber, and Sheena's curiosity was now ensnared. She wanted to see where this conversation went and take advantage of the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see beneath the shell she'd only recently realized existed.

"You didn't answer the question," she pressed.

He sighed. "And which one was that, my dear?"

His ability to get distracted was impressive -- and very, very frustrating. Sheena rolled her eyes but bit her tongue. "Why don't you drink alcohol in public?"

"Oh, right." He fell silent again and shot her another sharp, calculating look before finally speaking. "Well, I guess you could say there are two main reasons for that." Sheena waited as another long silence followed. While she wanted to smack him to get him moving -- patience, unfortunately, wasn't her strongest point -- she resisted the urge, mainly thanks to his encouragingly contemplative mood and his insistence that he wouldn't try anything stupid with her tonight. "One." He motioned at the building behind them. "Truth is...I hate these things. They're long, boring, gaudy, and fake, fake, fake. The people, the power plays, the social maneuverings, the required social etiquette...everything is completely, obnoxiously fake. The attention and the women...well, I can't really complain there, but everyone's obsession with my title gets...tiring. And the conversation is...well, it's shallow, pathetic, and petty. However, these things become infinitely more entertaining when everyone gets tipsy or outright drunk on the champagne and starts acting like idiots, and believe me, that entertainment factor is multiplied by a thousand when you're sober and can fully enjoy the show."

Even with her lack of experience at these things, Sheena couldn't disagree about their boringness, tediousness, and fakeness. She was just surprised he thought that way. Playboys like him usually threw themselves wholeheartedly into these situations; they loved being the life of the party -- she'd already seen him do so himself -- and that generally included imbibing plenty of alcohol. "Huh. If you hate them that much, I'd think you'd want to be drunk to make them more enjoyable."

"Heh. I probably would except for my second reason behind staying sober."

"And what's that?"

Zelos looked at her, a crafty, devious glint in his eyes, but Sheena thought she detected uncertainty there, too. She wasn't sure where this was going, but his hesitation and reluctance, as if telling her this was excruciatingly difficult, were encouraging. "Alcohol loosens lips."

The "Eh?" was out of her mouth before she realized what he'd meant. He was saying alcohol made women more...pliable...and he wanted to be sober to take advantage of that. Instantly, disgust overwhelmed her confusion. "Oh. I should've known."

He grinned. "Now, now, hunny. Now whose mind is in the gutter?" Sheena's face flared, and she looked away, embarrassed. Before she could blame him for corrupting her into taking everything he said in a sexual manner, though, he continued. "No, let's just say...I have secrets I wouldn't want to accidentally reveal simply by having a drink or two and letting my guard down."

Instantly, all thoughts of self defense vanished, and she turned back to him, incredulity mixing with her curiosity. "Secrets? You don't drink in public because you're afraid of spilling your secrets?"

"I wouldn't say 'afraid,'" Zelos said carefully. "More like being...prudent. Especially since sharing certain ones wouldn't fit into my Grand Master Plan."

Sheena didn't know what to question first, his 'secrets' or his 'Grand Master Plan.' Both could prove equally fascinating, but chances were she'd only be able to ask about one. Ah, the heck with it. She wanted to know about his 'secrets.' "Just how many secrets do you have?"

All traces of his smile vanished, and his voice softened. "More than I can count, babe. More than I can count."

She blinked at him, waiting for him to elaborate, but he never did. "For example...?"

"Heh. Wouldn't you like to know?"

Her eyes widened at his dismissal, but she didn't doubt him about that for an instant, not after she'd just recently begun seeing this other, hidden side of him. Could this actually be her chance to get something real from him? It seemed possible -- and suddenly, Sheena realized just what he'd meant that the Chosen One was taking a 'mental holiday.' She wasn't talking to Zelos Wilder, the Chosen; she was talking to Zelos Wilder, the man. For the first time she could remember, he had revealed an opening into that hidden piece of himself, and Sheena would be damned if she missed this opportunity to try delving a little deeper. Maybe he wouldn't even hit on her when she started getting too close...because she thought was starting to see, to understand, the truth behind it. Whenever that happened, he always did something stupid to distract her -- and because of her embarrassment and discomfort, she always took the bait and left him alone.

Well, not this time. Sheena would not be distracted this time, no matter what he tried. She was a ninja, damn it. She could control her temper and pry out the truth, especially when he already had so many walls down. She refused to let him push her buttons and drive her away before she'd gotten something significant from him. She refused! "Yes, actually I would."

He met her gaze, his blue eyes once again narrowed and scrutinizing. "Secrets are secrets for a reason, babe. Generally that means they're things people don't want to share."

She shrugged. No. Logic would not deter her. She looked him in the eye, hoping to convey her determination. "So? I want to hear what kind of secrets are apparently so important to you that you'd do whatever it took to keep them hidden."

An eyebrow inched upward slightly but he made no other move. "Nice try, but no."

His words said one thing, but his tone wasn't saying "End of Discussion" yet. Sheena still saw plenty of room to try...and a part of her actually wondered if he wanted her to keep going and was dangling this carrot before her in hopes she'd bite. She wasn't sure about that yet, but she wasn't ready to dismiss the possibility yet, either. "Oh, come on, Zelos. Just one? You've got me curious now!"

"Heh." Zelos looked down at her through eyes that were mere slits. "Y'know, now would normally be when the Chosen One would start hitting on you."

...If only the Chosen One was anywhere to be found, Sheena almost heard him add. That alone confirmed her recent revelation about the connection between his innuendo and his defense mechanisms. But damn it, she wanted to know now -- being from Mizuho, she was an information-gatherer by nature, after all -- and, surprisingly, he still hadn't actually started hitting on her like he'd admitted the Chosen would. It was unsettling to not know what was coming from him next, to not see the person she knew and expected whenever she'd attempted a serious conversation with him, but its unexpectedness just multiplied her boldness and determination tenfold.

"Please? Anything you say will stay with me. I promise." She lifted her hand, smiling faintly. "If I'm lying, I'll swallow a thousand needles."

His eyes narrowed even further, and that, too, confirmed her hunch. Zelos was measuring her, testing her. She could see it. He may not want to do this, but Sheena still believed she could persuade him; it was clear, after all, that he hadn't completely dismissed the possibility yet. And really, maybe a part of him wanted her to; maybe he was looking for her to convince him it was safe. "If I've kept these secrets to myself for so long, why would I consider telling you now?"

Her smile broadened. That was exactly what she'd thought. Zelos wanted her to give him a reason to take her up on this offer to listen. "Because I already know a few of your well-kept secrets?" she suggested, even as more reasons quickly inundated her. "Because I now know, despite how you always acted, that you hated being the Chosen? Because I know you spent most of your life running from your responsibilities? Because I know you wish Seles had been given the title instead? Because I now know that there's something more to you than the shallow, carefree, selfish, arrogant joker and pervert you usually act like? Because...." She swallowed, her smile vanishing. "Because despite everything you did to us, I'm still your friend, and I want to get to know the real Zelos Wilder, the man hiding beneath the act, now that I know he exists?"

For a long moment, Zelos observed her, and Sheena held his gaze, silently encouraging him, coaxing him, to lower his walls and let her in. He needed to know she meant that, that while she'd bought the act for years, she didn't anymore, and she never completely would again. His reactions to her now were proving that, that something significant laid beneath the surface that he'd always hidden before but that was now itching to come out and be known. She watched him, seeing the turmoil raging in his eyes. He still seemed hesitant to give in, but Sheena wanted to think there was something hopeful there, too, and that tiny flicker of hope convinced her she'd made the right decision to press and would fight until she'd uncovered the truth.

Finally, Zelos looked away, chuckling. "Heh. And here I'd hoped you'd been so focused on your own issues at the Tower of Salvation and in Welgaia that you hadn't caught all that."

She blushed as the memories resurfaced -- it had only been a week ago, and besides, both incidents had been permanently etched into her mind -- and she turned away again. "Well, I was. But not so much that I missed what you were going through, too."

He sighed. "Figures." After a moment, he turned to her, his gaze suddenly playful. "Okay, fine. You really want to know one of my secrets?"

Her hopes rose despite her wariness of his obnoxious expression. Was he really going to tell her? "Of course I do. I meant everything I just said."

His smirk returned. "Then it's gonna cost you."

Instantly, her anger returned at his implication, as did the urge to smack him. The way he was eyeing her as if he wanted to eat her alive hit the nerve she'd been trying to avoid in her attempt to get something real from him. Damn it, hadn't he promised not to touch that nerve tonight? Sheena had to take a deep breath and remind herself she'd determined not to let him get to her. No, she would press on...even if he made doing so nearly impossible sometimes. She huffed, looked away, and rolled her eyes, but she resisted threatening to leave -- although she would threaten him with bodily harm if necessary because, damn it, he really was an idiot.

"I should've known," she muttered.

From the corner of her eye, she saw his smirk broaden. "C'mon, hunny, you didn't really think I'd give away these secrets for free, did you?"

Sheena glared at him, her anger multiplying at the infuriating sparkle in his eye. Even though the Chosen was taking a so-called 'mental holiday,' some things apparently never changed. Maybe this was just who Zelos Wilder really was -- and if so, then she didn't like it. "Quit calling me 'hunny,'" she snapped, bitterness overwhelming her restraint. "And so, what? Let me guess, you want me to sleep with you, right? Well, forget it. I'm not that interested."

His eyebrows rose. "My, my. Your mind really is in the gutter tonight, isn't it? While I certainly wouldn't turn that down if you were offering, that's not quite what I had in mind."

Her eyes narrowed. As miffed as she still was, that placated her a little. "And just how much do you want, Zelos? Five hundred gald? A thousand?"

Zelos sighed, but his smirk remained. "Oh, my dear, sweet, voluptuous, ninja hunny. And what in Tethe'alla makes you think I want money? I've got plenty already, thanks."

"For the umpteenth time, I am not your hunny!" Martel, hadn't she just told him, only half a minute ago, not to call her that? Did he ever listen to her? Surprising even herself, though, Sheena did resist smacking him again. That unexpected restraint helped calm her just enough that she didn't sound like she was screaming, even if she continued glaring at him. "Then if you don't want money, what do you want?"

He turned and leaned back against the railing, still watching her closely. "Well, let's see here. It has to be something I want that you'd never give me otherwise...."

Agh! Dealing with this man was like dealing with a single-minded mosquito, constantly buzzing about, looking for any exposed skin so it could suck her blood -- one that refused to die no matter how many times she smacked it. "I already said I refuse to have sex with you, you pervert!"

He poked her nose, his smirk broadening. "And I already said I wouldn't ask for that, my dear banshee."

No, he hadn't, not that directly -- but again Sheena bit her tongue, mollified by his reassurance. She still wanted to strangle him, though, and to vent her frustration, she batted his hand away from her face. Even when not trying to irritate her, he still irritated her. How could he do that? Why did she let him push these buttons she hadn't known she had until she'd met him? Maybe she should just turn around and leave; after all, he'd never invited her to his solitary water-drinking party. Hell, he'd even locked the door to keep people out. But he hadn't chased her away yet, either, and even though he was irritating her, per his norm, he still hadn't actually hit on her...she didn't know what to make of that. Despite his usual jocularity, Zelos wasn't fully himself, and perhaps because of that, she didn't feel completely uncomfortable being alone with him like she normally did. She really did want to learn more about him, too, to break through his walls and see what he was hiding. Damn her curiosity, and damn Yggdrasill for showing her glimpses of that other side of him, a side she hadn't known existed before but that now taunted her. No, she wanted to see this through; if he was right, she may never get this opening again. She couldn't waste it, and if that meant enduring whatever stupidity he threw at her to break past it, then she would.

She folded her arms to her chest. "Okay, then, name your price."

"My price, huh? Let's see...." He eyed her a moment, then grinned craftily. "I will tell you one of my deepest, darkest secrets in exchange for...one dance."

Her eyes widened, and her face flushed. "One...dance?" Oh, wait, she got it. A 'dance' must be another ridiculous euphemism for...something else she'd already denied him. Twice. "Oh, a dance," she grumbled, glaring at him again. "Is that what you're calling it now?"

Zelos rolled his eyes. "While normally I would be turned on by the way your mind is apparently geared tonight, babe, when I say one dance, I mean one dance. Y'know, what those stuffy folks in there claim to be doing." He motioned back at the mansion.

Sheena's lips parted. Was he serious? "That is your price?"

His grin returned. "That's my price."

She stared at him blankly. "A dance."

The grin broadened. "You and me, one dance."

That...was the most illogical price for a secret this supposedly 'big' that she'd ever heard. Although really, in some twisted way, it did fit him.... "Why a dance?"

He shrugged as if his reasoning was obvious. "'Cause I know I'm perhaps your least favorite person alive, and I'm curious to see just how curious you truly are to hear this. Besides, I figure if I'm handing you some prime blackmail material on myself, you have to give me some blackmail material in return." He grinned again as she rolled her eyes. "So what do you say? Do we have a deal?"

Sheena looked away, her face still uncomfortably warm, at both his implication that she didn't like him -- which was true, and yet it...wasn't -- and at his blunt reasoning, to see how much she wanted this. Her gut said no, absolutely not, she refused to accept this deal. His words said one thing, but this was Zelos she was dealing with. He was a notorious flirt and lecherous pervert, even if he wasn't currently acting that way. No, Zelos couldn't keep his hands to himself if his life depended on it. She would be groped and completely felt-up by the end of the dance; she would feel disgusting and she'd be disgusted at herself for agreeing to something so stupid. Was it worth it for a single secret from him?

Of course, if he told her something meaningful, like what she'd learned about him in Welgaia, and he kept his hands to himself...she could possibly endure a single dance. He certainly was handsome, charming, and dashing enough when he wanted to be; she would be lying to say she'd never appreciated his physique during their journey. If it weren't for the obnoxious, arrogant, lecherous attitude, she could actually understand why so many women swooned over him. And that gorgeous red hair...she quickly cut off that thought, instructing herself to focus. If he behaved...no, a dance wouldn't be the worst, especially considering how 'cheap' his price really was. Three to five minutes with him in exchange for something potentially enlightening. Heck, it might even help her understand him better. Wasn't that exactly what she'd wanted? But that hinged on two specific conditions: if he behaved, and if the secret he shared with her was worth it.

Suddenly, a devious idea hit her. It was something he himself would do and so she felt justified in doing it herself. How he would react...well, there was only one way to find out. Decision made, Sheena turned and eyed him sharply. "Okay, but only under two conditions."

His eyebrows flew upward, and he let out a laugh. "Oho, you're negotiating now?"

Impressing even herself, Sheena ignored that and merely pointed at him. "One, you keep your hands to yourself other than what the dance requires. If you do anything even remotely inappropriate, the deal is off and I get to break every one of your fingers."

"Heheheh," he chuckled. "There's my Violent Demonic Banshee."

She smacked his arm. Of all his stupid nicknames for her, he just had to keep using that one, didn't he? "Quit calling me that."

"I'll quit calling you that once you quit smacking and/or threatening me with physical harm."

"And I'll quit smacking and/or threatening you with physical harm when you actually start behaving like a civilized human being!"

Zelos grinned and pointed right back at her. "And I could remind you that I am the one who's a part of high society and you are the ninja from Mizuho, but I suspect you'd smack me again, so I'll keep my mouth shut...hey, ow!"

Sheena couldn't resist, but that time she softened the smack with a smile. At least he recognized when he was getting himself into trouble. Sometimes. "Just shut up, you idiot, and listen, okay?" He pouted but didn't say anything. Good. Maybe he was learning. "And two."

His eyebrows flew upward again. "Oh, are you still negotiating?"

...Or maybe he wasn't learning. She lifted her fist. "Don't make me smack you again!"

He chuckled, throwing his hands upward in a show of innocence that would have been far more effective if he hadn't still been smirking at her. "Then by all means, hunny, continue."

She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to ignore this latest 'hunny' for fear they'd just keep talking in circles if she didn't, and pointed at him again. "Two. The secret you tell me has to be significant, and it can't be something I already know."

His smirk vanished and his eyes narrowed at her. "Define 'significant.'"

"Something like...like that you hated being the Chosen. And it can't be something stupid, like that...that you once slept with five women at once." Her face wrinkled in disgust. She couldn't believe she'd even planted that suggestion in his mind. "Ugh, I don't even want to think about that."

"Heheheh...jealous much?" Sheena raised her fist at him -- damn it, couldn't he drop the stupid act for five minutes? -- and he lifted his hands protectively. "Whoa, whoa, I'm only kidding. And Sheena, I really had no idea that your mind dwelled so much in the gutter like this." He grinned, the mischievous, lecherous twinkle back in his eyes. "I like it."

To her dismay, Sheena felt herself blushing again. "That's only because I was forced to hang around you the past few months, you pervert! Now, do we have a deal or not?"

Zelos lifted his head, looking down his nose at her, and folded his arms to his chest. "Hmm. One more question first."

She rolled her eyes. 'Yes' or 'No' would be too simple for him, wouldn't it? "Yes?"

"Who gets to decide if what I tell you counts as 'significant'?"

Well, duh. "I do."

"So I don't get my dance until you get your secret."

She nodded. Seemed fair to her. "Yup."

He looked away, and Sheena thought she heard him sigh but it was so soft she wasn't sure. She watched him as he considered it a minute, but then he nodded curtly before looking back at her, his blue eyes intense and piercing again. "Fine. Deal."

She returned his nod and did her best not to think about what she'd just agreed to for fear she'd smack herself for giving him what he wanted. Remember, Sheena, she told herself, a dance only lasts a few minutes. No biggie. If you're lucky, the secret you get in return will be worth it. Even Zelos admitted this could be great blackmail material for them both. Granted, she would rather only she had blackmail material on him, but she would live. Or she would use the Mizuho Information Network to dig something up on him. "Deal."

They fell silent a moment while Zelos watched the sky, and she eyed him curiously, waiting. Without warning, his lips curled upward. "Well, see, this one time these five women suddenly tackled me out of the blue, and...ow!"

Sheena smacked his arm, hard, utterly disgusted at both him for his stupidity and perverseness and at herself for being gullible enough to believe he'd been serious that the nefarious Chosen wouldn't be making an appearance tonight. Damn it, he always did this to her, and she hated it. Whenever she thought she was getting somewhere with him, he'd throw in a stupid sexual comment or poke fun at her. "Agh, you are impossible!"

His eyes widened and he lifted his hands defensively, laughing. "Whoa, whoa! It's a joke, hun! I'm only kidding!" She smacked him again, wanting to wipe that horrid, smug, amused smirk off his face, even as she realized this idiot truly wasn't worth her effort. No, she should just turn and walk away and give up the futile notion of ever getting anything real from him because constantly being furious at him like this couldn't possibly be good for her health. It wasn't like she ever needed to see him again. She could completely disown him now that they'd saved the world; that would certainly be the wisest, healthiest choice. "Hey, it was your idea!"

She smacked his arm again, hard enough to bruise. "Don't blame me for your idiocy, you pervert!"

Zelos continued chuckling as he watched her fume, and he caught her fist before she could slug him again. She tried to yank her hand free, but he held it firmly -- and with his Cruxis Crystal, she didn't stand a chance against his strength. Damn it, why did he always play games with her like this? "Sorry, sorry, I couldn't help myself," he said, thankfully toning down his laughter.

Her blood was boiling; Sheena could feel it. She tried again to yank her hand free, and that time he let her go. Folding her arms to her chest, she gritted her teeth, barely restraining herself from unleashing another barrage of punches and permanently injuring him. Constantly being caught off guard by him was humiliating. Well, she'd learned her lesson. She would never repeat that mistake. On the bright side, at least the dance was now a moot point since he'd just broken his end of the deal.

She turned away, her arms still folded tightly to her chest, embracing her anger, disappointment, and disgust. "I should've known. You can't even be serious for five minutes, can you?" She shot him a murderous glare.

To her surprise, Zelos immediately stopped laughing and his grin became cold and almost challenging as he met her glare, all traces of humor now gone. "If that's what you sincerely believe, then there's no reason for us to continue this conversation."

And just like that, it hit her. Zelos was giving them both an out. She'd been the one pushing to unbury his 'secrets,' and he was escorting her to an exit by providing a legitimate reason for her to turn and walk away. It was merely his damned defense mechanisms at work again, perhaps a final attempt to resurrect his walls...and really, she realized, his attempt hadn't even been that good since he had just repeated what she'd said earlier rather than weaving some grandiose tale of his sexual misadventures. Given that, she'd be damned if she gave up without a fight, not when she was so close. Heck, they even had a deal in place.

Sheena took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down, and exhaled slowly before shooting him another glare. "Fine. I'm listening." She pointed sharply at him. "But no more funny stuff."

His remaining grin faded into nothingness, and his eyes...she could see something lurking there, but what? It definitely wasn't humor, despite his words; in fact, his tone actually betrayed a sincere threat laced with no lightness or jocularity. "Be careful what you wish for, babe. You might just get it. And you might not like what you get."

Her glare faltered, taken aback by his sincerity, and her heart pounded faster. He was truly warning her what might happen if she held her ground and dug. But he was procrastinating, too, and that was gaining no favors with her nearly exhausted patience. Was he really planning on telling her something real or was their banter just going to continue for an hour? And despite her surprise at his threat, she was still mad about his last joke.

She gritted her teeth and looked away, shaking her head disgustedly. "I swear, Zelos, why am I even bothering with this?"

Sheena could feel him continue watching her, but she didn't look at him because she wasn't asking him that; she was asking herself that, testing herself to see whether she really wanted to continue this game he'd started that wasn't getting them anywhere. Unsurprisingly, Zelos turned, leaned on one hand on the railing, and threw that right back at her. "Yes, why are you bothering with this, really?"

She met his scrutinizing gaze. He was giving her every opportunity to back out, and she'd already admitted this was pointless because he just kept procrastinating. Getting anything real out of him, after all, was like pulling teeth from a screaming six-year-old -- something she'd already done in Mizuho, and it wasn't fun. Heck, she'd had the bite marks for a week to prove it. So that was the question. Why was she doing this? And the answer was out of her mouth before she could consider why it had become such a compulsion for her and why she refused to let it drop now like she always had before. "Because I'm curious."

Zelos held her gaze, but he had no smile on his face, leaving him looking very cold and calculating again. He was making sure she really wanted this. And that was the thing -- she did. In fact, she wanted it more now than she had before. The way he was dragging his feet...it indicated something truly significant was hiding behind this, that once he completely lowered his guard, nothing would ever be the same again. She wasn't sure what awaited her on the other side, and according to him, she 'might not like it,' but really, what did she have to lose? "You know what they say, dearest. Curiosity killed the cat."

Sheena unflinchingly returned his gaze, arching a smug eyebrow. "Then it's a good thing I'm a ninja, not a cat, huh?"

He cracked a wry grin. "No, you're a tigress with a perpetual thirst for my blood," he muttered, but then his grin vanished and both his face and his voice softened. With a sigh, he turned to lean on the railing, looking out at the night sky. "And for the record, my little joke before was meant to buy myself some time to figure out which secret to share. So if you're really serious about this, be patient and give me a minute." His sudden honesty surprised her, and she nodded faintly, watching his gaze venture down to his glass. Her eyes narrowed as he observed it, absently swirling its contents, unsmiling. Something about him was striking her, but she couldn't pinpoint what. He almost seemed nervous and...uncomfortable? Before she could consider that, though, he smirked again half-heartedly. "Heh. Now I almost wish I had real champagne."

She blinked as his meaning registered: he wanted it because it would loosen his tongue. And without warning, Sheena realized that whatever Zelos was considering telling her, it was hard for him. Maybe he really was serious about this. The thought excited her, even as she wondered just what 'secret' could be this difficult to reveal. She softened, her earlier anger abating. "If you want, I could go get you some. I remember seeing some next door."

He chuckled. "No, that's all right, I'll live," he said, then gave her a faint smile. "But thanks for the offer, babe."

She took a step closer as he returned his attention to his glass, playing with it. He was becoming fidgety, which confirmed her hunch about how difficult this was for him. And suddenly, she wondered if whatever he was about to tell her, he had ever told anybody before. That thought, too, excited her. "Listen, Zelos, you know you can trust me, right? Whatever you say will stay with me."

He half grinned. "I'm not worried about you keeping my secrets, Sheena." His eyebrows rose expectantly. "You already said you'd swallow a thousand needles if you told someone."

She nodded curtly. "And I still mean that."

He returned her nod and looked away, his grin falling. "Actually, I'm more concerned that you'll believe anything I say in the first place."

Really? "Give me a shot. I'd like to think I'm pretty good at deciphering the truth. I am a ninja, after all, and we're nothing if not perceptive."

"Maybe. But that never stopped you from missing the truth before."

Guilt tugged at her, and her face grew warmer. The worst part of that was that he was right. Before the Tower of Salvation, she had dismissed all the signals that something was wrong with him because discerning the truth past all his innuendo and teasing was simply too uncomfortable. Dismissing him as an idiot was easier -- and maybe that was exactly what he'd wanted to do, divert her attention from the truth. But after his betrayal...no, Sheena refused to let him fool her again like that. At least not for long, and definitely not at the expense of discovering the truth.

"No, you're right, it didn't." Mirroring his stance, she leaned against the rail on her elbows, a little closer to him than she normally would to tell him she wouldn't run, no matter what he threw at her. "But I know what to look for now. You won't get things past me as easily anymore."

"Lucky me." Zelos sighed, then peered at her from the corner of his eye. "Look, whatever I might say, do me a favor and agree now that you won't pity me. I don't want it, and I won't accept it. My choices are, and always have been, my choices, no one else's. If you try it, I will walk away from this."

Her eyes widened. Just what was he planning to tell her? She quickly nodded, though, because while it surprised her, she could understand it, too. She felt the same way about her own past. "Okay. No pity."

He returned her nod. "And whatever I may say, don't expect me to ever repeat it. I'll only say this once, and tomorrow I will deny this conversation ever happened." Abruptly, he looked directly at her, his face set. "Those are my conditions."

That time her nod was more tentative, but if he'd let her set her own conditions before, then he was entitled to do the same. "All right."

"Good." Satisfied, Zelos turned away, his eyes falling, but then he sighed again and looked up at the sky. "Ah, what the hell," he whispered, more to himself than to her. "It's not like I have a whole lot left to lose anymore anyway." Suddenly, he cleared his throat. "So. Remember when I betrayed you guys at the Tower of Salvation?"

Part 3

August 2012

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