And her very first bite told him she would. Not for the first time, Zelos marveled over the sheer pleasure she received from a treat he'd always taken for granted. Sheena didn't just eat the peach; she forgot about everything else and savored every bite. He felt a little guilty for staring at her after she'd asked him not to, but he just couldn't resist when she looked like this. He couldn't help thinking there was a message there, too, about how sometimes the simplest things in life really were the best. Because Martel knew if he had to choose between the most luxurious, expensive material goods and sitting here now, watching Sheena enjoy her peach, he'd choose this moment time and again.
A smile crept onto his lips as he remembered the first time he'd seen this innocent pleasure on her face, something he'd never expected to see again. Her blissful expression was still the same now; the only thing missing was her surprised delight at the initial taste. So much had changed since then, and yet apparently some things never did. The mental image of how she'd looked then had been seared into his brain, and seeing it again now and especially knowing he had caused it...man, did he like this warm, happy feeling. And what made it so special was that he was the only person who shared these memories with her. No one else had ever seen her like this before; she'd never let anyone else see her like this. Oh, how he loved her.
Honestly, that first time he'd seen her like this was probably when he'd begun falling for her, even if it had taken him a few more weeks and a few more incidents to realize it -- and it was when he'd started seriously scheming to remove the albatross from around his neck so he could try to recapture this moment again, free of all the curses that plagued him as the Chosen. She'd been sublime then, and she was still sublime now. That was probably why he'd always craved seeing this -- because it reminded him of what true joy and beauty really were. She'd always been so different from his hunnies. Where they were always fake, always striving toward some ulterior motive, Sheena was the opposite, being the epitome of simplicity and straightforwardness. Sure, she hid things she didn't want anyone to know or didn't want to 'bother' others with, and she often pretended to be tougher emotionally than she really was, but even then, she was still always real, to herself and to her people. And this simple beauty before him now was one of the most 'real' sights he'd ever been privileged to see.
As always seemed to happen, the peach was juicy and a drop of juice trailed down her chin, and while she had a napkin, Zelos just couldn't resist reaching out and brushing it away with his thumb, his heart catching in his throat. Instantly, Sheena froze, her eyes locking with his. "Martel, you're beautiful," he whispered in awe.
He'd expected the blush on her cheeks to deepen, which it did, but he had not expected her face to fall as she lowered her eyes from his and pulled back, away from his hand. "Don't call me that," she murmured.
...Wait, what? His hearing might be insanely good, but he couldn't believe he'd just heard her correctly. "What?"
Sheena set her half-eaten peach on her plate. "Beautiful. Don't call me that."
Zelos blinked and pulled his hand back. "Uh...you're kidding, right?"
She glanced at him for only an instant before looking down at her hands again. Embarrassment was common for her when she'd just been complimented, but this was more than that. "No, I'm not."
Okay, this was just weird. She didn't want him to call her 'beautiful'? "Can I ask why?"
"Because..." she began, but her voice trailed off and she frowned, shaking her head faintly.
Sorry, sweetheart, but I'm not letting you off the hook on this one. "Sheena?"
Her eyes darted up at him, but she quickly looked away again. "Because...because it makes me think you're being insincere again."
Zelos blinked and his lips parted, feeling like she'd just slapped him. "What?"
"You just...you say that to every woman you meet, and I...." Her blush deepened further. "I know I'm not beautiful, so hearing you say that just...." She paused a moment, then sighed and shook her head. "It makes me question if you're being truthful about anything you say or if you're just teasing me again."
...And now he felt like she'd kicked him in the stomach. For a moment, Zelos just gaped at her, unsure how to respond. She thought he was being insincere? Was she really that insecure about her looks? Or was she just oversensitive to things right now because of her meeting with the king? Both were definite possibilities, because even if Sheena truly believed that about herself, she would never have admitted it without another factor causing it. Or did she...did she really not trust him to tell her the truth about her appearance? That last one was the worst possibility, that all the hurt he'd caused her would prove too difficult for her to move past. He deserved to be put in his place, sure, but the thought that that damage was irreparable terrified him. Because if that was true...then this thing between them was over before it could even begin.
"That's...wow. Are you serious?" She nodded faintly, still not looking at him, and for a moment, Zelos just watched her, looking for any hint that she wasn't being sincere -- because he'd heard plenty of hunnies who intentionally downplay their looks in hopes of eliciting his praise -- but instead of looking coy or crafty, she actually looked sincerely distraught. "You really...you really think that?"
"What?" she countered, covering the side of her face closest to him with her hand, her cheeks blazing. "I'm not. I know it."
...Wow. Zelos had never met a woman who didn't want to be called 'beautiful.' But the more he saw, the more convinced he became that Sheena truly didn't believe she was. If she really thought he'd meant it all those times he'd teased her about her looks, that he'd talked incessantly about her feminine curves because that was her only attractive feature...oh, Martel, what had he done? Had he really spent years feeding an insecurity he hadn't even known she had? For him, it had always been a given that a beautiful woman at least recognized her own beauty, so now, to learn this knockout of a woman didn't view herself that way, and, worse, didn't believe him that she was....
"You truly have no idea, do you?" he whispered, feeling like he'd swallowed a lead pipe.
Sheena glanced at him, her face beet red, then quickly looked away again. "Don't try to convince me you mean it, Zelos. Please."
For a moment he just watched her, waiting for the punch line to this not-funny joke, for the hopeful flicker in her eyes that indicated she was fishing for compliments, but neither came. Oh, Martel, she was serious. This whole conversation was wrong in so many ways -- but before he could address any of it, he had to know this. He leaned forward. "Sheena, exactly how do you define 'beautiful'? And, more importantly, how do you figure it's not you?"
"Because I'm not, Zelos," she said, drawing her legs up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. "I know I'm not. I'm plain. I dress in old, worn clothes, I can't control this hair no matter what I try, I always feel like I'm covered in dirt, and my face...." She closed her eyes. "Ugh, I'm not even going there. There's no way someone like me can compare to...."
Her voice trailed off and she shook her head -- and again, Zelos gaped at her. No, she couldn't be implying what he thought. It was ludicrous! He had to bite his tongue to hold back his laughter. They were already treading some dangerous ground he'd never imagined they'd be treading -- because Sheena, seriously thinking this?! -- and he would not mess this up. "...Compare to my hunnies?"
She lowered her chin to her legs, her nod so faint he almost missed it. "Their dresses are so pretty, and their hair is always in place, and their faces are perfect, and they hold themselves so properly, and I'm just...I'm not any of that."
And again, Zelos bit his tongue to resist laughing. Finally, the truth came out: Sheena truly had been jealous of his hunnies. She might be proud of who she was, but that didn't stop her from believing he'd spent years with his hunnies solely because he deemed them to be 'beautiful.' In one sense, her admission that she sincerely didn'trecognize her own beauty was endearing, but in the other...his teasing really had hurt her, hadn't it? Far worse than he'd ever imagined it had...than he could ever forgive himself for. In fact, all things considered, it was amazing she was sitting here with him at all after that, and the fact that she was, that she'd given him a second chance and said she loved him, was humbling.
But the shock of this unexpected setback had stilled his tongue, and he was having trouble determining how to respond to her, to vocalize his feelings to her, to make it up to her, and to convince her she could trust him now. He had to try, though. "Wow. I...I'm stunned. I had no idea you felt that way. And since I'm probably responsible for it because of how much I used to tease you...Sheena, I am so sorry. I just...I've never met a woman as strikingly beautiful as you who didn't at least recognize it, so I didn't think anything of it back then or that you'd ever believe me; I just wanted you to think I was a jerk. And now, to find out you did believe it...." He let out a soft, humorless laugh. "I feel horrible."
Her head snapped upward and, for a moment, she met his gaze, wide-eyed, but then she squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, her face blazing. "No, no, don't be, Zelos. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything. You didn't say it to upset me, and I didn't mean to wreck our date like this--"
Oh, goodness, was she for real? "Are you kidding?" he interrupted her. "Sheena, I'm glad you did say something, because I never would've known you felt this way otherwise. At least now I can address it!"
"No!" Sheena exclaimed, shaking her head again vehemently. "No, please, Zelos, just let it drop. Forget I said anything. Please."
"No." He scooted closer to her and touched her face, tilting her chin upward. "I'm sorry, Sheena, but I'm not dropping this." Unsurprisingly, she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to pull away from him, but he was going to say this whether she wanted him to or not, and so he gently drew her face back to his. "Sweetheart, look at me." And fortunately, after another moment of hesitation, she did. "Thank you," he said, offering her a sad smile. "Now, first of all, my hunnies? Sure, to most people, they're beautiful. Granted, nearly every woman in the world is beautiful in her own way, and I can't deny I've told most of them that. The Great Zelos made a point to express his appreciation equally, whether the woman in question really was or not. But Sheena...that doesn't negate the fact that you really are beautiful. I am not just saying that -- to every other woman, yeah, but not to you. In fact, I'd go so far as to say you are the most beautiful woman I've ever met. You may not think you compare to my hunnies, but they are the ones who can't compare to you."
She bit her lip -- hard, Zelos noted, wincing -- and turned away again, visibly fighting back tears and looking almost anguished, an expression that tore at his heart and made him more determined than ever to fix this. "Please, Zelos...please stop. Please don't do this."
"Hey," he said, softly yet insistently. "Love, look at me." It took some coaxing with his fingers, but finally she did, and he held her gaze intently. He was dead serious about this, and he needed her to know that. "I would never lie to you about this, and nothing you say can change my impression of you."
He paused a moment, searching for the perfect words to convince her he was telling the truth and help her see herself the way he saw her, but they eluded him -- and the longer he searched without finding them, the more panic built within him. He, world-renowned sweet talker and charmer of women, was at a loss over how to deal with this unexpected and ridiculous but very real and potentially devastating situation. He didn't have time to figure out 'perfection,' though; if he didn't address this now, she would interpret his hesitation as proof he was lying. He needed to persuade her of what he sincerely found to be true or 'they' were over. And to that end, all he could do was talk. He had to speak from the heart instead of relying on carefully planned speeches -- a terrifying prospect since it meant he'd have no control over what came out of his mouth, but it really was his only option.
"Sheena, you are...you are real," he began as carefully as he could. "Sure, my hunnies may seem beautiful, but you've never seen the inside of their homes. They're filled with products to make themselves look better -- fancy clothes, expensive jewelry, pounds of makeup, nail polish, ridiculous hair products and gels...all sorts of things to cover every blemish that makes them real. And whenever I saw that stuff, I had to ask myself -- if they need all that to be 'beautiful,' then what do they really look like? Beneath the fifteen layers of paint, would I still find someone 'beautiful'? Somehow, I doubt it. I mean, where is the beauty in something so artificial? And yet every day they're out there on the street, flaunting their so-called 'beauty' for everyone to see. But you...."
Again, he paused, taking in the curves of her face, the redness in her cheeks, and the downcast eyes as she clutched her legs like a security blanket. "You don't do any of that. You're all honest-to-goodness you; there's nothing artificial about you. I've always loved that about you, Sheena, that you're always true to yourself no matter what...unlike me, who hid behind the Chosen persona my entire life. And what that means is that this beauty I see every time I'm with you...I know it's real, that you're not hiding anything from me. You don't do any of that stuff I used to do, or that my hunnies do to impress everyone -- and I, for one, am glad you don't. You don't need to. Sure, you could use some dolling up at times, but even without that...Sheena, you truly are a beautiful woman, in every sense of the word."
Thankfully, Sheena was finally looking at him again, still clutching her legs but not with the death grip she had before, and Zelos was pleased to see a faint smile appearing on her lips -- but she wasn't convinced yet, either, judging from how her eyebrows rose. "You sure it's not just my chest you find beautiful?"
Ouch. Okay, he deserved that. Martel, what had he done to her? Good intentions couldn't make up for the six years he'd treated her like that. Damn, he couldn't believe he'd ever implied her chest was her only asset. He really had been an ass to her, hadn't he? And, worse, he'd been an awful, insensitive friend who hadn't even realized he'd been hurting her at the time because he'd wanted to believe he'd been making her hate him instead.
But the past couldn't be undone; all he could do was convince her of the truth now. Taking a deep breath, Zelos gave her a faint, wistful grin. "Well, of course it's beautiful. You're beautiful all over, and that includes that." He motioned at her. "I mean Martel, Sheena, you're hot, and since I'm male, naturally my hormones sit up and take notice of it, especially when your clothes highlight the view so nicely." It took all his willpower not to ogle her cleavage now that they were talking about it -- he really had been doing better ignoring that part of her anatomy lately, or at least of keeping those thoughts at bay until a better time -- but he firmly told himself no, absolutely not, he could not indulge in that right now. Considering their current topic and her skittishness, even he knew succumbing to that urge would lose any credibility he might still have with her.
"But that's not what I'm talking about now," he quickly went on. "I'm talking about you, Sheena -- all of you. My hunnies are all so fair in complexion that they look exactly the same, like gingerbread men painted up with different colored hair and clothes. They act the same, too, spending their time ordering people around, gossiping and saying nasty things about everyone, donning tight, fancy, painful dresses to make others jealous of them, pretending to act all coy and shy even while putting others down...seriously, where's the beauty in that, in wasting their lives and in being so fake?"
Sheena didn't answer, but at least she was watching him closely again. Thank Martel, she's listening, he thought. He smiled softly, his heart skipping a beat at the sheer beauty sitting here with him. "And then there's you, this dark, exotic, beautiful flower...." He chuckled, surprising even himself with how shy he felt at being so honest with her. It was ridiculous to feel that way after he'd spent yearspraising women, but this...this felt different. This felt new and foreign. But strange and unfamiliar or not, he had to do this, and so do this he would. "Heh. I still remember my first impression of you. I thought, 'Wow. Finally, a pretty girl who doesn't look like a cookie cutter clone and isn't afraid to walk around Meltokio with a smudge of dirt on her face.' And then when I finally talked to you, I was intrigued when you said nothing about your 'perfect pedigree,' how expensive your clothes were, how awful the other girls looked, or how much you'd love to spend some 'quality time' with me.
"And your face...." He swallowed hard, his heart pounding as she bit her lip, still watching him. "I could look at you for hours and never tire of it. I mean, everything about you...what you do to me whenever I'm with you...." He shook his head, struggling for the words to express how crazy she drove him. "These dark eyes..." he gently brushed her hair out of her eyes, "...this soft, flawless skin..." his fingers trailed over her forehead, eliciting a shiver from her, "...this exotic coloring..." they continued over her rosy cheeks, "...this adorable nose..." they brushed the bridge of her nose, "...these full lips..." feather-light, they skirted over her lips, "...and this smile...oh, Martel, this smile...." His heart fluttered, and he swallowed again, trying to keep his voice steady. "There is nothing more beautiful in this world than seeing you smile." Her blush flared and she looked down at her knees shyly -- but, thank Martel, the smile was toying on her lips again. "And my goodness, this hair...." His finger strayed to an unruly lock of dark hair and twirled it. "I love seeing you with your hair down. It's wild and it's gorgeous and after you've washed it, it gets all wavy and silky and all I want to do is run my fingers through it. I used to look forward to being the night watch because it meant I could watch you sleep with the firelight flickering on this gorgeous hair as it framed your face."
Her eyes darted up at him again, still guarded, but her face had softened into something almost hopeful, he thought. "Really?"
Her difficulty accepting this was amazing -- and endearing, too, because this modesty and embarrassment was just so Sheena. She had truly never seen herself in this light before. Seriously, had no one ever told her how beautiful she was? Well, her grandfather, probably, before all hell broke loose with Volt, because most parental units told their kids that, but how was it no one else in Mizuho had ever had a crush on her and whispered sweet nothings in her ear? She was gorgeous, a standout amongst women, and surely someone else had to have noticed that. Right?
...Oh, right, Zelos suddenly realized. Look who I'm talking about: Mizuho, the village that's determined to turn its people into emotionless robots. No, she probably hadn't been told she was beautiful before (by someone who truly meant it, he thought wistfully, remembering all the times he'd teasingly called her that before), especially if it took her people years to forgive her for the whole Volt incident. And people outside of Mizuho would just see a ninja, someone they'd been brainwashed to fear and hate, not someone admirable. He just wished he'd recognized these insecurities before so he could've toned the teasing down a notch or teased her about something else.
But again, he reminded himself, he couldn't change that now; all he could do was show her he would never hurt her like that again. So instead of kicking himself or over-thinking this, Zelos touched her cheek again and offered her a tender smile. "Really." Quirking an eyebrow, he motioned at the pink ribbon in her hair, unsure how she'd react to this but needing to find out. "May I...?"
Sheena watched him wide-eyed a moment, but then she nodded, so faintly he almost missed it -- and that, more than anything, gave him hope she might finally be starting to believe him since he couldn't remember her ever letting anyone else do this before. He smiled gratefully, then scooted closer and gently untied her ribbon...and he was awed as her wavy, ebony hair fell loose around her face. He pulled back a little to look her over, trying to absorb it all: her rosy cheeks, her creamy skin, the curves of her face, her dark almond eyes, her full lips, her endearing shyness as her gaze fell downward....
Zelos swallowed hard at the sight before him. "Absolutely beautiful," he whispered, reaching up and, with utmost reverence, touching her face. "I am so in love with you, Sheena."
Her face melted further as she met his gaze again and her lips curled upward into...oh, Martel, that was his favorite smile, the lovely, shy one that told him how touched she was. His fingers gently trailed over her face, brushing her hair back, and he mirrored her broadening smile. And then, furthering his amazement, she slowly leaned forward, her gaze drifting down to his mouth, and a moment later, her lips grazed his before she quickly pulled back, just enough to see his face, and looked him over carefully. He waited, his heart pounding and stomach fluttering in anticipation and his eyes half-lidded as desire and love swept through him, tempted to capture her lips with his in a kiss that left them both breathless, but after he'd just bared his heart to her like that, the next move was hers. And, fortunately, only a few seconds later she pressed her lips to his again, longer that time, giving him a kiss so sweet and sincere that it left him breathless anyway, expressing louder than any words her gratitude and telling him she felt the same, her hands lifting to his face and tenderly holding him...and oh, Martel, she tasted like peaches, luring him further into bliss and leaving him desperate for more and terrified he could never get enough....
Instantly, they froze and their eyes flew open. Sheena pulled back a little, her eyes narrowing and her hands lowering to his shoulders. "Did you hear that?" she whispered.
"Yeah, I did." Oh, yeah, he'd heard it, loud and clear, thanks to these damn angel senses. But he hadn't just heard it; it had struck a nerve with him. "And for some reason that sounded really familiar. Where have I...?" She searched his face but shook her head, telling him she couldn't help him. Damn, where had he heard that before...? And just like that, the answer hit him. Aw, crap. That was that sound. Zelos released a disgusted groan, rubbed his eyes, and shook his head. "You've got to be kidding me! Talk about ruining the perfect moment...."
"What is it?" Sheena pressed, touching his arm. "Zelos, do you know what that was?"
He sighed, lowered his hand, and gave her a wry grin. And he'd been doing so well here, too, not only chiseling away at her insecurities and hopefully earning another piece of her trust, but being rewarded for his efforts with a sweet kiss, too! And then bam, his celebrity status had to ruin everything again. "That would be a camera clicking. Take a wild guess who apparently followed us out here."
Zelos could tell the instant she got it for her face fell and her head sank downward, her hands, alas, pulling away from him. "And here I thought we'd done a good job of shaking your annoying stalkers!"
"Yeah, me too, babe." Agh, why? Why, why, why? Was he cursed? Was life determined to wreck everything good he had going for him? This officially sucked. "Have I mentioned yet how much I hate my life?" he said, giving her another wry grin. "I guess we don't have to wonder what we'll find on the front page of the paper tomorrow, do we?" Her lips pursed into an angry frown, and she closed her eyes and shook her head, growling lowly. So much for her tolerance of the stupidity that accompanied dating him. Tonight was just proving to be one hurdle after another, wasn't it? First the king had detained her for hours, then he'd inadvertently set off a landmine by calling her 'beautiful,' and now his crazy stalker had interrupted one of his Favoritest Moments Ever. Maybe they should just call it a night, say they'd given it their best shot, and accept this wouldn't work because fate had placed them on the 'Doomed to Fail' list. His fake grin faded, and he sighed wearily, his heart sinking so low he was afraid it would fall out of his chest. "Listen, Sheena, I am really sorry about this. If I'd known he was following us, I...."
"No, no, Zelos, don't be sorry," she cut him off, her eyes flying open. "This isn't your fault; you didn't invite him here with us. In fact...." Without warning, her face lit up with something he definitely hadn't expected to see: an amused smirk. And then it hit him: she was plotting something sinister, something decidedly ninja-esque. Before he could so much as narrow his eyes at her, she climbed onto her knees and then rose to her feet. "Wait here," she told him with a sneaky grin. "I'll be right back. I promise."
Zelos blinked, stunned, as she started walking north. "What? Wait a minute! Where are you going?" She glanced back at him, smiling innocently, then shrugged and raced off into the woods. "Hey! Annoying or not, don't kill him!" He waited a moment, gaping in the direction she'd run off to -- which definitely wasn't the direction the 'click' had come from, meaning she must have something else in mind -- but she didn't come back, and not for the first time, Zelos found himself wondering what had possessed him to make someone as hot-tempered and independent as Sheena Fujibayashi his first ever serious girlfriend. A moment later, he burst out into soft laughter, not only amused by her actions, but relieved at knowing he'd so far managed to navigated the rocky terrain surrounding them. And so, deciding to just roll with it and enjoy the ride, Zelos shook his head, leaned back on his hands, and waited for his date to return from hunting down his crazy stalker and doing...whatever it was she was planning on doing to him.
When the idea had first struck her, Sheena hadn't thought stalking a stalker would prove to be so much fun. Their eavesdropper (a short, chubby, middle-aged, balding, mustached man wearing some frilly, pretentious clothes that made it extremely hard not to laugh and give away her position) had still been taking pictures of Zelos when she'd located him attempting to hide behind a scrawny bush on the other side of the stream, and a quick look up at the tree boughs had determined her plan of attack. She deftly climbed the nearest tree and waited until he snapped another picture, then she dropped a branch off to his left. Instantly, his head snapped toward the clatter, seeking its source -- but by then she'd already darted across the treetops to his other side and dropped another branch, making his head snap that way next, his eyes widening. She repeated that pattern a few times, and then, when he finally stood up, disentangling himself from the bush as panic sank in, and turned to leave, she did a back flip out of the tree and landed gracefully on her feet in front of him, blocking his egress. He gasped and jumped back, his eyes widening further, then abruptly turned and began running.
"Oh, I don't think so. You're not going anywhere." Before he'd even taken three steps, Sheena pulled out her cards -- never go anywhere without a weapon, even on a date, she thought smugly, suspecting that was why Zelos, too, had brought his sword -- and sent them flying.
She made sure not to harm the man, but he did stop, his fear and panic obvious as he turned to her. A moment later, though, he sucked in a deep breath and puffed out his chest. He was trying to appear calm and in control -- she'd seen plenty of cornered people try to do the same -- but the 'click' the camera made, meaning he'd accidentally taken a picture of her standing there with her arms folded, her expression as stern as possible given her overwhelming need to laugh, indicated how nervous he was. "Stop!" he said, lifting a pudgy hand toward her. "You cannot harm me! I am a very important person!"
"Yeah, sure you are," she muttered, unimpressed. "Stalkers are so very important, aren't they?"
He sniffed, sticking his nose up. "Hmpf. I am not a stalker. I am a reporter."
"Reporter, stalker, celebrity fiction writer...whatever you want to call it. In my book, they're all the same." But that wasn't important, and since she really wanted to get back to her date, she'd cut to the chase. "So anyway, here's the deal. You're going to give me your camera to make up for stalking my boyfriend and taking pictures of us during some moments we'd really rather keep private."
"I most certainly will not!" he retorted with a haughty laugh. "This camera is my life."
Sheena shrugged and gave him a crooked smile. He apparently hadn't heard how persuasive ninjas could be yet, had he? "I guess you'll just have to get a new life then, won't you?"
His shifty eyes trailed down her body with thinly veiled disgust. "I think not. Who are you to tell me what to do? You are nothing but a filthy ninja!"
"...Who, according to the Chosen, is worthy of being his girlfriend," Sheena felt the need to point out. She still couldn't fathom that herself, why Zelos would be sincerely interested in her, but she had to accept he was -- just like she now had to accept that, to him, she really was beautiful...a thought that made her heart skip a beat. At least she managed to stifle her smile as she remembered Zelos's earlier words -- and especially the intensity, sincerity, and love in his eyes as he'd observed her after pulling the ribbon her hair.
"Ugh, yes, and then there is the Chosen," the man said, rolling his eyes. "That man is an imbecile, a womanizer, and an irresponsible child who would be a nobody were it not for his title and wealth. I would pay him no heed except his escapades with every woman in the world make for some highly popular stories for which the newspaper pays handsomely."
Sheena had to dig her nails into her palms to resist the urge to smack him. That 'imbecile,' 'womanizer,' and 'irresponsible child' had now proven himself to be one of the sweetest, most gorgeous yet tortured men Sheena had ever met -- a perverted idiot, yes, but not those other things. But she wasn't about to waste time trying to convince this louse of that. "Whatever. But you're still giving me that camera."
"Hmpf," he sniffed again, sticking his nose up higher. "Or what? You'll stomp your feet, jump up and down, and throw a ninja hissy fit?"
She grinned. Heh, was that how he thought ninjas operated? How...quaint. "Nope."
The man rolled his eyes. "Then there is no chance of me giving it to you now, is there?"
"Actually, I think you'll want to," she said, her grin broadening. "Because if you don't...well, you won't like what happens to you."
"And now she threatens me with physical violence," he said. "What a shocking novelty. Such actions may intimidate that cowardly Chosen, but they do not intimidate me."
Moron. You know nothing about ninjas, do you? "Oh, I'm not the one you should be worrying about. In fact, I won't touch a single hair on your head." Or your ridiculously curled mustache.
"Then you give me no incentive to give you anything," he stated, literally hugging his precious camera to his chest.
It took all her restraint not to roll her eyes. "I didn't get to the threat part yet. I won't touch you, but unless you hand over that camera, I'm going to tell Zelos's hunnies that you have pictures of him naked on it. I'm also going to tell them exactly where your little 'hideout' is so they can...retrieve...it."
Ah, finally his haughty grin was fading. "You...you cannot know that," he said, then stuck his nose up again. "You are from that stupid, dirty ninja village, not from the high society of Meltokio."
...Yeah, so? Being from a 'stupid, dirty ninja village' -- and if this wasn't so much fun, she'd be tearing off his head for constantly insulting her people like that -- meant she couldn't figure that out? How did that work? Eh, whatever. This moron truly wasn't worth her effort. "Oh, but I can know it. See, I'm not the one who figured it out; that imbecile," she motioned in Zelos's general direction, "did. You're in the front room of that house directly across the street from his mansion." His grin faltered further -- not that she needed that confirmation since her 'stupid, dirty ninja people' had confirmed it for her two days ago. Heh, they'd confirmed a lot more than that, too. Her eyebrows rose. "Now, tell me, if you've been stalking him as long as he says you have, then you must know what his hunnies are capable of, right? Do you really want to stand between them and their rabid obsession?"
Perfect. His grin was now gone, and sweat was beading on his face. "You would not do such a thing."
She couldn't resist smirking. "Oh, believe me, I would."
"They...they would never listen to you," he said, a tremor of fear lacing his voice. "They cannot stand you, either."
She shrugged. "No, maybe not, but do you really want to take the chance that they won't believe me? Especially after Zelos told them I was his girlfriend -- someone who would know if a certain stalker had taken such pictures? And what do you think their 'holy grail' of treasures would be? Wouldn't, oh, naked pictures of Zelos qualify?" He didn't answer, but Sheena grinned knowingly as his Adam's apple bobbed. "I thought so, too. I think they'd be willing to believe me this time, especially if I framed it right. Let's see...." She lifted her hand to her chest, summoning her best 'hunny impression.' "'Oh, that reporter who lives across the street from Zelos is so annoying! Taking pictures of my boyfriend while he was in the shower and everything! I mean, I know Zelos is a hot guy and all that, but if anyone's going to take pictures of him naked, it should be me, his girlfriend, not some weird reporter freak! I have to find that camera. Those pictures should be mine!'" She grinned evilly as his eyes widened in alarm. "And believe me, I will have oodles of fun watching them tear you to shreds while they're searching for it."
For a long moment, the man just stood there silently, a bead of sweat trickling down his forehead, but finally he nodded. "Very well, I will no longer take pictures of you or the Chosen. However, the camera stays with me."
He hugged the camera to him even tighter, but Sheena shook her head. "Nope. That's not negotiable. The camera stays with me or Zelos's hunnies find it for me. And I guarantee they won't be as nice about it as I'm being now." Still he hesitated, though, and finally, she shrugged as if washing her hands of this. Tormenting idiots really shouldn't be this easy and entertaining, she thought, biting back another grin. "No? Okay, fine. Have it your way." Sheena pointed at him as she began walking around him. "Just remember, you chose the hunnies."
"V...very well." Before she could take a step past him, the man shoved the camera at her. "Here is your gift. I hope you enjoy it."
Heh. As expected, he was a complete pushover. "Wow, thanks!" she said, smiling broadly and hugging the camera. "This is exactly what I wanted! Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a date to --" She froze as if realizing something. "Oh, wait. I almost forgot. One more thing."
His eyes widened and he took a step away from her. "B...but I have already given you what you wanted!"
Sheena smiled mock-apologetically, pretending to feel bad for 'imposing' further on him. "Well, yeah, but there's one more thing I really want. See, every day a new story appears in the newspaper about my boyfriend, speculating about, well, everything about him, and that really ticks off not only him, but me, too, because, you know, by doing that, you're interfering with my ability to stay undercover. Well, that and it's really annoying to find new stories about yourself every day that are either slanderous, only partially true, or discuss private matters. And if you keep upsetting me like that...well, you've heard of the Mizuho Information Network, right? You're a reporter; you must have at least heard about it, right?"
He swallowed nervously. "I...I have...."
Good. One less thing to waste time explaining. "So you've probably also heard how good they are at their job, right? And how anyone who gets in their way discovers just how dedicated they are to it, even if it means...removing...those obstacles?" He nodded, visibly trembling now. "Yeah, thought so. And it's because of how well we do our job that I can tell you your real name is Harry McHenry, your writing alias is Roland Fredericks, your wife, Madeline, divorced you ten years ago, you're estranged from your 13-year-old son, Barry, who lives in Altamira with his mother, your own mother died 25 years ago as of next month, and your father lives in the middle class section of Meltokio and has no idea his son is a sleazy gossip reporter who's 'too busy' to go see him except on New Year's Day. Even Zelos doesn't know any of that about you." She grinned craftily. "But I do."
The sweat was now rolling freely down his face, some dripping into his eyes and making him rub at them nervously. "Wh...what do you w...want?"
Her grin vanished and she folded her arms to her chest. "Leave Zelos alone. Permanently."
His eyes widened and he took a step toward her. "B...but if I...if I d...do that, then I...I will have n...nothing to wr...write about! I will not get p...paid!"
"You shouldn't get paid for gossiping about people," Sheena stated. "Find something worthwhile to write about, like how the upper classes can help those poor people stuck in the slums, but don't pester good people who just want to be left alone to live their lives. Let Zelos do what he wants to do; let him be who he wants to be; let him love who he wants to love. The rest of Meltokio doesn't need to know those details. And if you don't let him do that, if you insist on capitalizing on his efforts to be a normal person...well, the Mizuho Information Network will soon be under my control, and I doubt you want to find out which of our secret ninja arts I'm willing to authorize them to use to silence you. For good." Her eyebrows rose. "Are we clear?"
He quickly nodded, and Sheena's face wrinkled in distaste. This guy insists on calling my people 'filthy, dirty ninjas,' and yet here he is, sweating like a pig. Disgusting hypocrite. "Y...yes, ma'am, I...I understand," he sputtered.
"Good," she said, nodding curtly. "Then get outta here. And if I see even one more word about Zelos or myself in the paper...."
He gulped as Sheena made a slicing motion at her throat. "O...of c...course, ma'am! I won't say another word, honest, I won't!"
She nodded, once again biting back the urge the laugh, and pointed at him. "Just remember: my people will be watching your every move, making sure you never get in our way again. For the Rest. Of. Your. Life."
His face was so white, Sheena was afraid he would pass out. For a moment, she actually felt bad for threatening him like that -- because it wasn't like he'd killed someone -- but then she remembered the article Zelos had shown her and smirked as he suddenly turned and ran as if Abyssion himself was hot on his tail. She watched him until he vanished into the trees before grinning wickedly and letting out a soft, "Heh." To quote Zelos: "Mission accomplished." This guy wouldn't be bothering them again. And, even better, she'd had far more fun doing so than anyone should while....
...Wait. She was still holding the camera. Sheena lifted and observed it. It was just a metallic box covered with buttons and glass panels. But how did it work? She'd never even seen one of these things before, so the box was a total enigma to her. But she did know it took pictures...her eyes widened. Oh, Martel, this was Zelos's stalker's camera. Which meant it had pictures of Zelos on it, probably even a few of her, too. Well, she could do without the pictures of her, but those of him? Yeah, she could hang onto this thing for awhile and figure out how to view those pictures. This could actually be fun.
Smiling broadly, Sheena began heading back toward their picnic site to show her companion what she had...she froze. If Zelos knew she had this...he would steal it from her, take hundreds of inappropriate pictures of her, and then make a collection of those pictures to drool over. While the thought wasn't as appalling as it would have once been since he really did seem to find her beautiful, she still didn't need him doing that. She would always be worrying he'd try to snap pictures when she least expected it; he could never resist the temptation. He really did have the strangest yet, bizarrely enough, endearing tendency to jump from complete pervert to the sweetest man she'd ever met in the blink of an eye, and ultimately, she just didn't want to see what kind of mischief he'd get into with this thing. She sure wasn't giving it up, though, either. Not only was it a gold mine, but, well, how else would she get a camera? These things were extremely expensive, and she was sure Mizuho could find plenty of uses for it one day.
So that meant she had to keep the camera without letting Zelos know she'd kept it. Scanning the trees, she quickly spotted what she needed: a small nook about halfway up one of the trees. She quickly climbed up the tree to the hole and, after checking nothing was inside, placed the camera there and hopped back down. Now, to mark it so she could find it again...grabbing a sturdy twig, she made an innocuous mark on the tree directly behind her and then kept marking trees until she reached the 'bridge' across the stream. Either she'd come back here and get it herself, or she'd send one of her fellow ninjas to do so. The area didn't appear widely traveled, either, so it was unlikely anyone else would find it, and the nook itself was so small she couldn't imagine any animals being able to push it out. Satisfied it was safe, Sheena grinned and crossed the stream, eager to rejoin her date.
It took her a moment to find him (for some reason she'd been looking for him further to the north...which was odd because she usually remembered stuff like that), but when she finally spotted him, sitting on the blanket and leaning back against a tree, she smirked and quickly rejoined him (well, bounced back to him...she really should tone down her exuberance or he'd get suspicious). Now she just hoped he hadn't overheard them or her efforts to conceal the camera would end in failure.
The moment he noticed her, he grinned. "Well, well! Don't you look like the cat that ate the canary?"
Her smirk broadened as she reclaimed her earlier spot. Something about their setup here seemed off, but she couldn't pinpoint what was wrong with it...and really, she was feeling too smug to care. Right now, she just wanted to gloat...kind of. But then again, maybe not telling him would be even more fun. Yeah...she liked that idea better. "Heh. It should be illegal to have that much fun."
For a moment, Zelos watched her expectantly -- yep, she knew what he wanted -- but his patience quickly wore off and he motioned for her to hurry up. "Well, come on, talk already!"
"Hmm," she murmured as she tapped her chin, pretending to consider that. "Let's just say you won't be having reporter problems for...well, for ever."
His lips parted. "You didn't really kill him, did you?"
Sheena lowered her hand and smiled sweetly. "I'm not acknowledging or denying anything."
A wicked gleam lit his eyes as he smirked. "Heh. That's my girl. You've been hanging around me too long, love...which is really kinda scary since this is only our first date." Before she could even roll her eyes at that, though, he leaned forward. "So what did you do to him?"
Mirroring his conspiratorial stance, she leaned forward, her eyes darting around for 'eavesdroppers,' then looked back at him. "Bet you'd like to know, wouldn't ya?"
His eyes widened as he pulled back to see her. "Wait...you're not going to tell me?"
She shrugged. "Nope. A ninja has to have her secrets, you know." Abruptly, she pointed at him. "But I will say this: I didn't touch him."
He blinked at her, but then released an incredulous laugh. "Sheena, what did you do?!"
Yep, this, too, is way too much fun. Maybe someday she would tell him, but not today. "Sorry, but my lips are sealed." For a moment, Zelos just gaped at her, but then he leaned closer, his eyes narrowing as he looked at her mouth, tilting his head a little. And Sheena couldn't help it: she burst out laughing at his comically serious expression. "Zelos, what are you doing?"
"I'm checking for little yellow feathers sticking out of your mouth," he stated as if the answer should have been completely obvious. Without warning, his hand shot upward and, without actually touching her, he pinched at her mouth before pretending to pull something away. "Found one."
Sheena broke out laughing again as he tossed the 'feather' over his shoulder, his wicked, playful smirk back. It was the strangest impulse, but she couldn't resist playing along -- and for once, common sense wasn't stopping her. "Yes, that's right, I roasted and ate him."
Zelos cocked his head, his smirk betraying his amusement and maybe even amazement that she was playing along. "Reeeeally. How'd he taste?"
She shrugged. "Eh, just okay. Kinda tough and stringy, actually, but he tasted better once I added some barbecue sauce." Zelos's lips parted and his eyes widened, and Sheena beamed him a wicked grin. "He probably would've tasted better covered in edible body paints, though. Y'know, to cover over the lingering slimeball taste." He was outright gaping now, and Sheena lifted a finger to her lips. "Hmm...if I'd painted him up to look like a chicken, do you think he would've tasted like chicken?"
For a moment, Zelos just continued watching her, but then suddenly he burst out laughing, so purely and intensely that he was soon clutching his stomach, and Sheena was helpless but join him. And it was then that she realized something: while he might claim her smile was beautiful, his real smiles and laughter, as opposed to the fake, overly cheerful ones she'd seen for years, back when he'd never truly been happy but had hid that fact from everyone, were utterly magnificent. As gorgeous as this man was normally, he was even more so when he was sincerely happy like this, when he forgot his cares and worries and when the weight of the world and his obligations as the Chosen weren't tempering his spirit. And knowing she had caused him this happiness...her heart pounded faster, and a wave of something so powerful it could only be love crashed over her. This whole thing felt so incredibly good. She suddenly wanted to do it again, to make him this happy all the time and help him abandon the mask for good. Heaven knew he deserved it.
It took a few minutes, but eventually he calmed enough to look at her again, a few soft laughs still escaping him and the smile on his face so damn real that it hurt to realize how many smiles she'd seen from him that hadn't been real. "You ninjas are insane, aren't you?"
Sheena grinned and pointed sharply at him. "Hey, you're the one who wanted to date me!"
"Hell, yeah, I did!" Zelos said, wiping at his eyes. "And believe me, love, I still do. More now than ever before, in fact. Oh, man. I can't remember the last time I laughed like that." He took a deep breath, but then chuckled again as he met her eyes. "Have I mentioned yet how glad I am to see you loosening up like this?"
Her blush returned and she looked down, still smiling. She knew what he meant: for years, she'd always been so tightly wound, taking everything so seriously and dwelling on the past instead of enjoying the present. And honestly, while she still wasn't sure what had possessed her to joke with him like this, she loved the effect it had had not only on him, but on herself. There was just something about being with Zelos that did that to her, made her do things she never would have done under any other circumstances.
And for a moment, she was nearly overwhelmed by the urge to go back to the kiss that reporter had interrupted earlier, but Zelos was right: the moment had been ruined. They'd just have to wait for another one to arise. At least now, while she still might not believe she really was beautiful, she couldn't deny he viewed her as such anymore. It wasn't the first time he'd called her that, but it was the first time she'd believed he meant it. The look in his eyes at the time, the love and sadness and earnestness and determination, with no hint of deception or uncertainty, had made it clear how much he had. And now whenever he called her that again, she would always look back at that moment and know he wasn't just saying it to cajole her with smooth flattery; he was saying it because he truly did find her to be beautiful.
So instead of kissing him, Sheena opted for something different that conveyed the same message. Grabbing her plate with her half-eaten peach, she crawled over to him, seated herself beside him, and bumped his shoulder with hers. "You're a terrible influence on me, you know," she said, taking a bite of her peach and giving him a soft but happy smile.
Zelos's eyes briefly widened at her choice to sit by him, but then he grinned and wrapped his left arm around her, pulling her closer to him -- and oh, did it feel nice. She never would have considered willingly initiating such contact with him before for fear he'd try something perverted, but she couldn't help herself. Sitting with him like this felt right -- not awkward or weird, but right. "Yeah, I see that," he murmured, pressing his cheek to her forehead. "And I, for one, am glad I am."
"I'm probably going to regret saying this, but I'm glad you are, too," she replied, leaning further into him and taking another bite of her peach. Zelos kissed her temple tenderly, then rested his head against hers. She finished eating her peach in silence...and it was only as she was setting the pit on her plate that it finally hit her, what was 'wrong' with this entire setup and why she hadn't found him where she'd expected to earlier: the trees around them were different. She eyed the area again to make sure, but the clearing where they were seemed to be slightly smaller than it had before, with more trees directly around them on every side but to the west, where the bluff was more visible than she remembered it being earlier...and speaking of the bluff, they actually seemed to be about twenty feet closer to it than before. Suddenly, she pointed to a clearing barely visible to their north. "Wait...weren't we over there before?"
His lips curled upward into a smirk. "Heh. I was wondering when you'd notice that."
Sheena pulled away so she could see his face. "You moved us? What was wrong with that spot?!"
Zelos batted his eyelashes in a completely ineffective show of innocence. "But I didn't have a tree to lean against over there!"
For a moment, she just gaped at him. Oh, Martel, he did not just say that! "You moved our entire picnic site so you could have a backrest?"
"What?" he said, his eyes widening. "You were gone a long time while you were barbecuing that reporter and I was getting bored waiting for you to get back!"
...He moved their entire picnic site so he could have a backrest. She shook her head incredulously, scarcely able to believe she was on a date with someone who would waste time doing that, but try as she might, she couldn't stop grinning -- and then laughing at his innocent expression. "You are such an idiot."
He grinned broadly and shrugged, then motioned at the cliff. "Besides, there's a clearer view of the ocean from here."
Still laughing, Sheena laid her head on his shoulder. Well, yeah, there was, but that didn't erase the fact that he was, hands down, the strangest, most unpredictable man she'd ever met. She suspected she would never comprehend how he thought or why he did the wackiest things imaginable...but regardless, she thought she actually liked that she didn't know what he was going to do next. For years, that unpredictability had made her uncomfortable, forcing her to brace herself for anything from him, be it random perversity or shocking insight and sensitivity, but now...now it wasn't so uncomfortable anymore. Maybe it was what she'd overheard him telling Sebastian three days ago, or maybe it was the look in his eyes earlier when he'd called her beautiful, but she knew he truly cared about her and would never intentionally hurt her again. And, in fact, because she did know that now, she couldn't help but find his unpredictability to be fun at times. It forced her to stay on her toes to keep up with him, and wasn't that a good thing for a ninja to be able to do?
A breeze suddenly swept past them, blowing her hair in her eyes, and only then did Sheena realize something else. She lifted her head from his shoulder and arched an eyebrow at him. "And what happened to my ribbon?"
Zelos grinned wickedly. "Heh."
Her eyes narrowed. Uh oh. He hadn't even tried to answer that. "Zelos...."
Instantly, the wicked grin vanished, replaced by an innocent mask. "What? It's perfectly safe. I didn't lose it while moving everything. See?" He lifted his right hand, and Sheena rolled her eyes. There, around his gloved wrist, was her ribbon, tied into a perfect bow. Well, at least that mystery was solved -- although how he'd managed to tie a perfect bow one-handed was a mystery unto itself.
Sheena held out her hand and gave him a pointed look. "Okay, buddy, hand it over."
"Hmm." Pretending to think seriously about that, Zelos tapped his lips with a finger, but then shook his head. "No, I don't think I want to."
No kidding. "Zelos, my hair is flapping around in my face!"
"So I see," he said, observing her closely. Oh, yippee, the smirk is back, she noted, unsure whether to be annoyed or amused. "And it looks divine."
She rolled her eyes, but even she knew her smile was betraying her again. Okay, time for a new tactic. She smiled sweetly. "Please?"
"Nope!" he said, grinning way too brightly.
Ugh, that didn't work, either? She growled lowly. "Zelos...."
Threats, meet Zelos. Zelos, meet threats. Her eyebrows rose in warning. "Don't make me resort to extreme ninja torture methods."
...Damn, he still wasn't impressed. His eyebrows, too, rose challengingly. "Oho, are you threatening me now, sweetheart?"
The idiot had the gallto call her sweetheart while taunting her? That called for drastic measures. "Are you, by any chance, ticklish?"
The flash of alarm in his eyes was so quick that Sheena barely caught it...but she did catch it. Heh. This was going to be fun. "Nope!" he said.
Yeah, right. We'll see about that. She grinned wickedly. "Uh huh, sure. If that's true, then this..." she pulled away from him and reached for his chest, "...should have no effect on you." She hesitated, letting the anticipation build, watching his eyes widen in alarm as he lifted his hands defensively...and then she lunged at him, dodged his hands as he tried batting hers away, and began tickling him. She'd barely touched him when he began laughing and shrieking and carefully trying to push her away, but Sheena kept going, not even caring that she was grinning and laughing like an idiot. Well, well. Who would've thought Zelos Wilder would prove to be ticklish? Oh, if only Lloyd and Genis had known this....
The 'battle' continued for several minutes until Zelos was lying on his back, his face red, still laughing and giggling uncontrollably and struggling to keep her hands away from the traitorous parts of his body, and Sheena was sitting astride his waist...nearly lying on him, part of her recognized, even if the rest was having too much fun to care. "Surrender and give me my ribbon!" she demanded between laughs.
"Okay, okay!" he finally said, throwing out his hands in defeat. "I surrender! I surrender!"
Instantly, Sheena stopped and placed her hands on the ground on either side of his head, panting and trying to reclaim her breath. "Ha! I won!"
Zelos took a few deep breaths, still laughing, but then his grin grew downright dastardly as his gaze trailed down her face, then her neck, then lower. "I don't know, I'm pretty sure I won this one, seeing as you're now lying on top of me. I tell ya, this view is to die for...."
Oh, sweet Martel! "You idiot!" She punched his shoulder lightly, blood rushing to her face as his eyes snapped up to hers and he waggled his eyebrows, but then she pushed herself up and off of him and held out her hand, helping him sit up, both of them laughing again. Once Zelos had resumed his earlier position leaning back against the tree, Sheena held out her hand. "Okay, I won, so hand it over."
Lifting a hand to his chest, Zelos took a moment to catch his breath before giving her the most endearing puppy dog pout she'd ever seen -- but it was the softness and seriousness in his eyes that disarmed her the most. "C'mon, Sheena, indulge me just this once. Please?"
Oh, damn him. How could she resist that? Something told her she was a sucker for caving so easily, but...well, other than the annoyance of having hair flying in her face, what would it really hurt? "All right, fine," she said, sighing in defeat, then pointed sharply at him. "But just for tonight."
Unsurprisingly, Zelos beamed her a bright smile, looking like a kid who'd just been handed a bag of candy -- seriously, what was the big deal with her hair? How could something so unruly excite him so much? -- and then he untied the ribbon from his wrist and handed it to her. "Thank you. That's all I'm asking for." He tilted his head, a smirk toying on his lips. "Well, that and any other times I can catch you with your guard down and steal this thing away from you...."
...Yeah, she was afraid of that. Well, not really, but she wouldn't tell him that. "Don't push it," she said, shooting him the best glare she could manage given her blush, but then she took the ribbon and crawled over to him, resuming her position beside him. For a moment, she was tempted to tie up her hair again anyway, just to annoy him, but finally she wrapped the ribbon around her right wrist...and then stared at it. Okay, so how had Zelos done this before one-handed, really?
"Here, let me," Zelos said with a knowing grin, then he took the ribbon and gently tied it around her wrist into a pretty bow. Once finished, he pressed a brief but unexpectedly tender kiss to the back of her hand that made her gasp as the simple yet characteristic gesture left her feeling like a schoolgirl with a crush on him all over again. He then released her hand and wrapped his arm around her, drawing her close to rest her head on his shoulder again. Her eyes slid shut as she breathed in deeply, reveling in his warm body and his slightly spicy, definitely masculine, and immensely comforting scent -- something she'd always loved but that now, finally, she could enjoy without being teased for doing do. She had never imagined she would love just sitting with him like this so much, without worrying about his hands wandering where they didn't belong, but the way he was holding her, so tightly, so protectively...she felt loved. She felt wanted, and comfortable, and safe. She felt like she could sit there with him forever and never want to leave.