smb814: (TOS Sheelos 5.)
[personal profile] smb814
(This fic can also be found on FF.net here or on AO3 here.

Title: Trust Building 101
Author: SMB814
Rating: Mostly T, but some readers may consider it to be a strong T.
Warnings: Zelos being Zelos -- i.e., adult themes, mild language, innuendo, frank discussions about sex, etc.
Category: Romance/Fluff (Sheelos - if you don't like it, don't read it), Drama, Angst, Character study
Spoilers: Spoilers for the game and for Mental Holiday.
Time Frame: Part 2 of the Whatever Will Be series and a direct sequel to Mental Holiday, the first story in the series. If you haven't read that story, then go do that first or you won't understand the place where these two are currently at. You can find it here.
Summary: The good news? The woman Zelos was in love with loved him back. The bad news? She had six years' worth of reasons not to trust a word he said.
Disclaimer: Alas, Tales of Symphonia and its lovely characters don't belong to me. They belong to Namco-Bandai Games. I'm just borrowing them and not making any money off them, and I promise I'll return them unharmed (and probably happier than they ever were before) when I'm done playing with them.
Feedback: Feedback is love and fodder for future fics.
History: General plotting began December 2008; completed January 2010.

Author's Notes: Huge, huge thanks, love, and hugs to every single person who read, reviewed, and/or favorited Mental Holiday. I was floored by the response to it; it was nothing short of inspiring -- and extremely humbling. Thank you. You are all responsible for helping keep me going on this. Also, my apologies, again, about the absurd length of this fic. Apparently, I just can't write anything short -- and be forewarned that the remaining stories in this series probably won't be any better.

Special thanks to Trickksi, not only for some lovely conversations regarding Zelos and Sheena's characters, but for being brave enough to read an extremely rough, messy draft of the entire series that amounted to a bunch of incoherent plotting notes, and for giving me the encouragement I needed to keep working on it. Thank you! :)

Also, many thanks to Xonel for the beta and for pointing out my weak spots as a writer and, in the process, helping me improve the readability of this story. Thank you! I greatly appreciate it. :)

However, with that said, any mistakes or typos found here are still entirely my fault. Oh, and don't bother pointing out how long, exhausting, and redundant the character thoughts are; I already know that, and I just don't have the time or energy to do yet another massive edit of this story and pare them down any further than I already have. Three major revisions is my limit, especially when I have five more stories to write yet. So just do your best to plow through them, and hopefully I can do a little better with the next story.

Series Notes: The Whatever Will Be series is a seven-part series that follows Tales of Symphonia. The first story, Mental Holiday, was posted in December of 2008. I spent the next year plotting the rest of the series, and in November of 2009 I began writing the second story. It was completed and posted in January of 2010. The next story will, in theory, be posted as soon as I can convert my plotting notes into actual writing, and the remaining stories will follow suit. If you're interested in the rest of the series, keep an eye on my author's page; I'm trying to keep it updated with my progress.

The series is rated T (a rather strong T at times, but still a T) and focuses solely on Zelos Wilder and Sheena Fujibayashi. Occasionally one of the other characters makes an appearance, but they're few and far between, so if you don't like these two, don't read the series. Oh, and neither ToS2 nor Rodeo Ride Tour are touched on. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy them, nor that if I ever continue this series they won't be worked into it somehow; they just didn't fit into it in their official form.

Also, each story builds on the previous one(s), so it's necessary to read the earlier stories before reading the later ones. However, each story itself is complete, and none end on a major cliffhanger, so you can stop reading at any point. Issues are introduced in each that may not be fully addressed in that story, though, so you'd have to read the entire series if you want to see those issues resolved. And while one or two issues are left open-ended after the seventh story, rest assured that once this series is finished, all of the main main issues will be dealt with.

And I think that's it for now. Here's hoping you enjoy the ride! :)

***

Part 1: The Weirdness

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

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

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

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

She was in a real relationship with Zelos Wilder.

...Oh, sweet Martel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His smirk broadened. "Probably."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yep. The joys of being a celebrity."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She jumped in surprise -- damn, she hadn't even realized he'd noticed her ogling it -- but her gaze quickly fell to her now-empty plate. "N...no. That's okay. But thank you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Shoot," Zelos replied.

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

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

"I did."

"Was she smiling?"

"She was."

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

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

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

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

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

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

*









Part 2
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