smb814: (TOS Sheelos 5.)
[personal profile] smb814

They fell silent, both smiling happily, just enjoying the company and the peaceful evening, with the wind rustling the trees (and ruffling her hair, ugh), the ocean waves rippling on the horizon, and the sun slowly sinking over the water. After a few minutes, Zelos reached for something beside him, then held up a container with some cookies. With a soft, "Thanks," Sheena took one and began nibbling on it -- ooh, chocolate chip...delicious -- and Zelos did the same, setting the container back down beside him.

Once finished, Sheena snuggled further into him, determined to enjoy every second of this lovely moment. "Mmm...I've missed this," she murmured.

"Missed what?" he asked.

"Eating outdoors, listening to the wind in the trees, being away from everyone and's so peaceful." Only a month had passed since their journey ended, but she hadn't realized before how much she'd enjoyed all the time they'd spent out in nature during it. It had seemed like a chore at times, those nights they'd had to forage for food and sleep out in the wild, but she looked back on those memories with fondness. You never realize what you have until it's gone, she thought wistfully, suddenly wishing she'd taken more time during their journey to really appreciate those moments instead of trying to hurry them along so she could get back to her regular life. "It reminds me of the nights we camped outside during our journey."

Zelos chuckled softly. "What journey were you on? What I remember is Lloyd and Genis bickering over every little thing, Raine feeding us ridiculously awful scientific concoctions she claimed were food, Regal attempting to make small talk with Presea, who kept throwing random statistics back at him, and Colette being so happy that she always seemed on the verge of bursting into a show-stopping musical number."

"Your memory is apparently selective, because you participated in most of those arguments with Lloyd and Genis." Sheena poked his side. "In fact, I distinctly remember you starting most of them."

A nostalgic smile crossed his face. "Yeah, I remember that, too. That was always fun. Good times." Suddenly, he gave her a wicked smile. "But I only did that when I didn't feel like pestering you and facing the Formidable, Furious, Flying Fists of Doom."

Sheena snorted and rolled her eyes -- but she blushed, too, remembering those moments when he apparently had felt like it. She'd lost count of how many times Zelos had plopped himself down beside her, no matter what she was doing or how vehemently she insisted he should leave her alone and bother someone else if he was bored, and just started bugging her about absolutely nothing, or kept teasing her until she smacked him...or, sometimes, just sat and talked to her in a way that had disarmed her with its sheer normalcy, be it about their companions, their journey, the future, or something else, before he had, in the blink of an eye, reverted back into the Idiot Chosen, at which point she'd usually slugged him and stormed off in disgust. Those last times had always hurt the most, the ones that reminded her of the old friend she'd had who'd suddenly changed and then proved to be impossible to find again on a regular basis.

It was mind-boggling to consider how much had now changed between them, how his pretenses had fallen and how comfortable she felt sitting here, alone, on a date with him -- and how she was having an amazing time, her reservations slowly being replaced by trust in him. Their journey would have been so much more enjoyable had they been like this then. But while looking back on those times still hurt, Sheena did now understand why it was that way, and with every new moment of happiness they were creating, any remaining resentment she felt was fading further away. Zelos had gotten rid of that title -- well, not quite, but close enough -- and so they now could enjoy this moment without worrying about a guillotine hanging over their heads, threatening their happiness. Well, it wasn't an issue on his end anymore. A guillotine still hung over their heads on her end, assuming they didn't pull their heads out before it could kill this relationship...but right now she was having far too good of a time to seriously consider that yet.

"Whatever," she said, rolling her eyes and grinning as she pushed those thoughts away. "I still miss them, though."

His eyes narrowed as he observed her. "Those moments, or the gang?"

"Both, but especially our friends," she said. "I can't believe it's been a month already."

"Yeah, I know," he murmured. "I probably had an easier time with it because I was busy traveling with Seles for so long...but every now and then I find myself missing them, too. As incredible as that is." He chuckled and gave her a pointed look. "Although of them all, I missed you the most. By far."

She smiled wistfully, even as her heart skipped a beat. Zelos had mentioned that when they'd been discussing his trip, too, how much he'd missed her, and it still felt good to hear that now. And oh, had she missed him, too. But there was no need to dwell on that now that it was looking likely they wouldn't be losing touch anytime soon. "We'll never have those moments back, will we?"

"'Fraid not, sweetheart," he replied, mirroring her smile. "I can't imagine we won't all meet up again sometime, but it'll never be like that again. We can always go visit them, though. I know it's not the same, but it's still an option."

She nodded. Yes, it was. "Well, I'd think Regal and Presea would always be easy to find. I can't imagine Regal leaving Altamira or the Lezareno Company much or Presea leaving Ozette while they're rebuilding it."

"True, true," Zelos said. "As for Raine...well, who knows where she'll be? Maybe Iselia, maybe Exire, maybe Heimdall, maybe some ruins so she can hug some more rocks. Genis will probably either be in Sybak, if he decides to go to the Academy there like he was considering when Seles and I ran into him there last week, or somewhere else so he can show off his brains. Wherever they end up, though, I'm sure Lloyd and Colette will know about it."

"Probably, considering their history together." Sheena paused, her heart sinking. Yeah, and then there was Lloyd and Colette...and Iselia, the one place she dreaded thinking about. Her gaze fell to her knees. "Do you think Lloyd and Colette are in Iselia?"

She could feel Zelos watching her closely, but she couldn't meet his eyes. "I doubt it. Didn't Lloyd say they were going out Ex-Sphere hunting?"

...Oh, right. Yeah, Lloyd had mentioned that while they'd been dancing at that victory party, right before she'd Zelos, and with it had come a pang of jealousy. That pang was far milder than it had been during their journey when she'd realized how much Lloyd loved Colette, but she'd still felt it. His choice had hurt -- at the time, she'd still wished he would've chosen her forhis traveling companion -- but...well, she'd reminded herself that Lloyd had never been hers (and really, she was embarrassed to admit now, her obsession with him might have actually been a subconscious attempt to make Zelos jealous for 'abandoning' their friendship all those years ago), and now, Lloyd's decision didn't hurt at all.

After all, if Lloyd had chosen her, she never would have sought out Zelos that night...and she never would have discovered the truth about him. She never would have glimpsed the man hiding behind the mask; she never would have uncovered his secrets, that he was a tortured soul who just desired a normal life; she never would have found her long-lost friend again and realized how much he loved her...and how much she loved him. She would have missed out on all of this exhilaration of loving him and being loved by him in return. Instead, she would still be yearning over a naïve boy who never would have seen her the way she'd seen him. Even if Lloyd had traveled with her, his heart still would have been with Colette.

And while she couldn't help wondering what might have happened had Lloyd sincerely returned her feelings...well, while the happiness she was currently feeling was possible with him, it wasn't a guarantee -- because would Lloyd have done something as ridiculous yet sweet as carving her name into a peach? Or taken the time to point out exactly how beautiful she was to him and then made sure she believed him? Considering how clueless and easily bored Lloyd was, she doubted it. Besides, wondering about that now was a waste of time she could be spending enjoying being with Zelos. Realizing her crush on Lloyd really was over now was strange, but she couldn't deny the happiness she felt here with Zelos. Even if their relationship was ultimately doomed, she didn't regret this date, either, because she really was enjoying it. And in the long run, dating Lloyd wouldn't have ended any differently; so long as she was dating someone not from Mizuho, the guillotine would still always be hanging over their future together.

But again, Sheena shoved that thought aside, wanting only to enjoy this moment with Zelos. Besides, he'd asked her about Lloyd's plans. "Yeah, you're right, he did." Despite her wish to enjoy the moment, though, her heart sank further. So much for talking to Lloyd and Colette in Iselia about the king's message before she'd approached the other villagers. "So they won't be there, then," she whispered.

After a moment of watching her, Zelos cleared his throat. "So what does the king want you to do in Iselia?" Her eyes widened as she lifted her head and met his surprisingly serious blue eyes. Oh. She hadn't expected him to ask her that directly. Either she was transparent...or he knew her well enough to know that was bothering her. While she couldn't dismiss the former, the latter was more likely. He always had known when something was on her mind, sometimes even what it was before he'd approached her about it. And if he really had loved her for was no wonder he knew her so well. "Whatever it was, Sheena, it upset you pretty badly," he pressed. "Maybe it would help to talk about it."

Sheena eyed him uncertainly. She wanted to talk to him about it and hear his opinion on the matter because he knew the king far better than she did...but she couldn't help thinking right now was a terribly inappropriate time for it. They were having a picnic, and headaches like that were no more invited than pesky mosquitoes were. "Zelos, I appreciate the offer, but we're on a date -- one I happen to be quite enjoying, by the way." His smile broadened, conveying his response: "Me, too." "This isn't something we should be discussing on a date."

He shrugged. "Maybe, but since you obviously keep going back to it, I suspect you'll never be able to relax enough tofully enjoy this date while it's still weighing on your mind. And in case you've forgotten, I'm in a rather unique position to be able to help you. Soon-to-be Ex-Chosen or not, for now I do still have the king's ear." She sat quietly a moment, considering it -- but still she hesitated, not wanting to upset him. He might be right about how he could help her, but they really were on a date, and discussing work during a date was just wrong. But before she could say that, Zelos ran his thumb over her arm. "Besides, since when is anything about our relationship conventional? Seriously, Sheena, we helped save the world together, we've just started dating and yet we already know each other as well as many couples do after years of marriage, and, well, our relationship has always been rather...unique. I mean, how many couples do you know who admitted they loved each other before their first date?"

She breathed in deeply, then slowly released it. Okay, so his logic was persuasive. "All good points."

Zelos nodded proudly. "So I say screw the conventional rules of dating. We can do whatever we want with this. Since we already know we don't fall under the 'standard' rules, who's to stop us from making up our own? In fact, maybe that would make this whole relationship thing less 'weird' for us both. Can you really deny the appeal of that?"

Sheena let out a soft laugh. No rules can cage this man's spirit, can they? And if they try, he'll just toss them out and create new ones. He's so different from the man I've known all these years, and yet he's exactly the same. "No."

He gave her a faint smile. "So if we want to talk business, then let's talk business. Okay?"

All right, Zelos, you win. I'll talk. She sighed and lowered her head to his shoulder again. At least she wouldn't be keeping this obnoxious thing to herself anymore. "Okay." She could feel him nod as he tightened his hold on her, giving her a moment to gather her thoughts. There was no good way to tell him this, though, so she might as well just say it. "The king wants me to go to Iselia and encourage them to submit to the Tethe'allan monarchy's rule."

Zelos sat silently a moment, absorbing that, but she could feel him tense an instant before his head turned sharply toward her. "Wait, what? Are you serious?"

She lifted her head from his shoulder and grinned wryly. "Unfortunately, yeah, I am."

He gaped at her, stunned, but suddenly sheer incredulousness erupted on his face. "Has the king completely lost his mind?!"

Well, on the bright side, at least now she knew she wasn't overreacting; the proposition really was that bad. "Now you know why I'm so upset about it."

"Yeah, no kidding." He fell silent a moment, his face a mixture of shock and disgust. "Does he really think the Iselians -- or any other Sylvaranti towns, for that matter -- will just hand over their autonomy to him?"

"I don't know," Sheena said. "In his defense, it did take him five hours to decide that, and at one point he admitted he still wasn't sure about it. On the other hand, though, that really does seem to be his decision. He grilled me all afternoon about the Iselians' attitudes and leadership, and it was obvious he was trying to feel out how they'd respond, whether they'd accept his proposal or declare war on him."

His eyebrows flew upward. "And I'm assuming you told him there isn't a snowball's chance in Niflheim those people will bow down to a complete stranger, right?"

She nodded. Oh, yeah. She'd spent hours trying to convince the king of that. "Of course I did, in every possible way I could think of that wouldn't result in my being accused of treason. But Minister Giannovio -- who I'm pretty sure planted the idea in the king's head in the first place considering how defensive he was about it -- kept insisting it was the only option."

"Yeah, of course he did," Zelos muttered, rolling his eyes. "That sounds exactly like Giannovio, to make an idiotic, shortsighted declaration like that without considering the Iselians' position first. He lost all my respect when he started supporting the Pope's efforts to blame half elves for every little thing that went wrong -- because hello? My sister is a half elf, and other than being an annoying, stuck up little brat, she's never so much as hurt a fly, let alone conspired to overthrow the monarchy. I've always had trouble resisting the urge to throttle him whenever he talked about other races. That man really shouldn't be foreign minister; I'm not even convinced he's ever set foot outside of Meltokio."

"I'd believe that considering how he talked about the Iselians as if he knew them all personally, even though he got every detail wrong -- and then he tried to make it look like I was the one who was wrong about them," she said. "How does someone so unqualified reach such a high position anyway?"

"Status, lineage, and a whole lot of money," Zelos said, his voice dripping sarcasm and disgust. "Oh, and a lack of actual travel experience on the king's part, meaning he's never seen firsthand how his people really live; all he hears is what that idiot tells him."

Sheena rolled her eyes. That, unfortunately, explained way too much. "So how do we get rid of him?"

He gave her a wry grin. "Believe me, sweetheart, I've spent years pointing out how incompetent he is, but his 'donations' to the monarchy have sealed his place there, at least until he manages to cook his own goose. Unfortunately, my hands are tied beyond that. If I could've gotten rid of him myself, I would have. All we can hope is that if this Iselia thing backfires, the responsibility falls on him and the king finally sees how much of a threat he is. I mean, one of these days someone that stupid has to mess up badly enough to get himself fired. Maybe this will be the straw that finally breaks the camel's back."

"Martel, I hope so," she muttered. The thought of having to do her job as an emissary with that moron constantly breathing down her neck and planting terrible ideas in the king's head made her want to hide in Mizuho to avoid her responsibilities. Assuming Minister Giannovio wouldn't convince the king to send an army to find Mizuho and destroy it to punish her, of course. He'd made it clear how unhappy he was about having a ninja in Tethe'alla's court. "I mean, can you imagine how the Iselians will react to this? 'Hi, nice to meet you, I'm the emissary of peace from the King of Tethe'alla -- and oh, by the way, he wants you to give up all control over your own village and hand it over to him, effective immediately'?"

"Yeah, no kidding," Zelos replied, snorting softly. "That would be a prime example of how not to make friends and influence enemies."

The whole thing was ridiculous -- and the worst part was that she'd tried everything to talk the king out of it, and her efforts had just resulted in Giannovio using her reluctance to point out how 'unqualified' she was for this job. "Unfortunately, I think it's more likely when I announce that Iselia rejected the proposal -- because they will, and we know it -- Minister Giannovio will use that to blame me and have me removed from my position. He might even have me punished. The few times I talked to him alone while they were training me, he made it clear he has little tolerance for ninjas."

A glance at Zelos showed his face had grown surprisingly cold. "Yeah, I know. He made that clear to me after I convinced the king to pick you for the job, too. Of course, while I'm sure he doesn't like ninjas, either, he's primarily just pissed because he wanted his son to be the emissary, only the king agreed with me and gave you the position instead. But Giannovio won't touch you, Sheena. He can't, not as long as I'm watching your back. I still have some say in the matter, and I will as long as I'm the Chosen." He looked her in the eye, his determination obvious. "I won't let anything happen to you, or to Mizuho."

Despite her uneasiness with the situation -- she hadn't known that about Giannovio's son -- Sheena still smiled, touched. She didn't need Zelos's protection normally, she never would have asked for it, and she hated accepting it, but in this kind of touchy political situation, with a crazy, bitter foreign minister involved, she was glad she had it. Like it or not, Zelos had clout with the king she never would simply because of who he was. And the last thing she wanted was to inadvertently say something wrong that backfired against her people. Plenty of tension still lingered between Mizuho and Meltokio, and knowing Zelos was watching out for her, making sure it didn't get worse, was an immense relief.

"I know," she whispered, resting her head on his shoulder again. "Thanks."

"Of course." His grasp on her tightened. "Now I feel bad for recommending you for the position, though; I didn't realize Giannovio would be that much of a pain in the ass. If I had...."

"Hey, don't worry about it," Sheena said. "You couldn't have known what he'd do. I'm just flattered you thought I was capable of doing this. And this really is a good way to start rebuilding trust between Mizuho and the king, so I just have to do it, even if it means dealing with idiots like Minister Giannovio."

Zelos was silent a long moment, thinking everything through, but then he sighed. "I think I know why the king agreed to this. In fact, it's probably my fault."

Her eyes narrowed and she lifted her head so she could see his face. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I didn't advise him to do this, obviously, but I was the one who gave him the maps and pointed out how interspersed both worlds' towns are now." His eyes snapped sharply to hers. "How much traveling have you done lately?"

"Not much, basically just back and forth between Mizuho and Meltokio for emissary training. I made one trip to Iselia to deliver a letter, but that's it." Her gaze lowered. "I've actually missed traveling like that."

"Yeah, I bet you have," Zelos replied, giving her a brief smile, but then he nodded thoughtfully. "So you haven't seen the world's new layout, have you? Did the king show you my maps?"

Sheena shook her head. "No. But Minister Giannovio had obviously memorized them because he kept referring to them."

"...Of course he did," Zelos muttered. "Has to make himself look credible somehow. Anyway, I kept a copy of those maps for myself, so remind me to show you them later. To sum it up, though, some of the Sylvaranti towns ended up right in the middle of Tethe'allan territory, and I can foresee...issues...arising regarding who controls natural resources, farmland, trade routes, etcetera, especially now that the Sylvaranti are living in a thriving world again and will probably want to expand their borders. They're two very different people who didn't even know the other existed before this, so suddenly throwing them together will probably lead to chaos for awhile. It makes sense the king would consider this option, especially if he's afraid his rule will be weakened with the Sylvaranti towns in his way...but actually proposing it to the Iselians? No, I'm with you. They'll never go for it, and the very suggestion will probably damage their respect for Tethe'alla. I mean, we both saw how Iselia treated its own people, and then having strangers approach them with this? Talk about a disaster in the making."

...Yeah, no kidding. And therein lay another of her greatest fears: being caught between two people who didn't trust each other and, in her lack of diplomatic experience, accidentally starting an all-out war. "So how do I talk him out of it?" Oh, was she glad Zelos was back now; he knew the Meltokian political landscape far better than she did. "I tried everything I could think of."

"I'm sure you did, Sheena...but I'm not sure you'll be able to, not with Minister Giannovio feeding him such stupid advice." He paused, his brows furrowing. "I might be able to, though. I mean, like I said, I do still have the king's ear and all the powers of the Chosen. In fact, not to sound egotistical or anything, but I'm surprised he decided that much withoutconsulting me first since he knows damn well I've been to Iselia, too." His voice lowered. "And yet I didn't even know he was considering this. Huh."

Sheena looked at him curiously, surprised by his perplexed his expression. "What is it?"

Zelos frowned and shook his head. "I'm not sure yet, but I can't help thinking this is an indication he's starting to pull away from me now that he knows I won't be the Chosen much longer. You know, quit running things like this by me first."

Her eyes narrowed. She'd expected him to be thrilled about that, but he definitely wasn't happy. He looked more confused than anything, actually. "But isn't that what you wanted? To get rid of the duties and responsibilities of the Chosen?"

His eyes darted at her, but his frown deepened. "I guess that's the question, isn't it? It should be what I want, and it is, I guess, but...I'm not sure how I feel about it actually happening yet." He paused another moment. "Maybe this isn't the best time to be getting rid of my responsibilities yet. If the king is going to make decisions like this without asking my opinion first...well, maybe I can still help everyone out. Y'know, influence him, play devil's advocate, and point out things he just may not know."

Sheena could barely believe her ears. "Are you saying you'd consider retaining the powers of the Chosen so you could help the Sylvaranti?"

"Well, not just them, but the half elves and the dwarves and...hell, your people, too, especially with idiots like Giannovio around who hate everyone 'different' from him," Zelos said. "There's going to be a lot of upheaval as we figure out how this new world will work, and I doubt all interest groups will have a say of their own. At least I've had firsthand experience with them and know how they think. And wouldn't it be in everyone's best interests to have someone willing to stand up for them until everything is ironed out? Y'know, so those 'interest groups' don't feel threatened and declare war on us?" For a moment, Sheena just gaped at him, but finally he quirked an eyebrow and gave her a hesitant, uncertain smile. "...What?"

Was he serious? That...was incredible. She'd never believed she would hear him using that kind of reasoning, not after he'd expressed such hatred for his responsibilities and insisted he wanted a fun, easy life -- although, granted, she couldn't forget he'd said he wanted to fix up their world and eliminate segregation and discrimination, too. "Wow," she said, shaking her head in amazement. "Who are you and what have you done with Zelos Wilder?"

Sheena could have sworn there was a blush on his face as he let out a soft, embarrassed laugh and looked away from her. "Heh. That out of character for me, eh?"

She smirked and nudged him with her elbow. "Well, you have to admit, you're usually more concerned with what you can get out of something rather than how you can help others get something."

Zelos grinned. "Yeah, I know. Tell me about it. I'm not even sure why I'm thinking like this. And to be honest, I'm still not sure it's what I really want. But I do know I should give it serious thought before it's too late; right now, I could still make it clear to the king I'm not stepping aside yet. Once I've given up my power as the Chosen, I'll never get it back. So if I can still help out some people before that happens...maybe I should. I mean, that is what a 'good person' would do, isn't it?"

...And just like that, Sheena melted, his knowing grin harkening back to her own words to him at the Tower of Salvation. Wow. He really had taken that to heart, hadn't he? She almost couldn't believe it, that he would consider retaining something he'd hated so much that he'd nearly sacrificed his life to escape it, all because he wanted to be that 'good person' she'd always believed him to be. It was unbelievable, incredible, beautiful...and it made her love him more than she'd ever dreamed possible. He could have gone either way that day, either good or evil, and he'd chosen good because his friends had expressed their faith in him -- something only a truly 'good person' would have cared enough about to do.

Sheena grinned and leaned into him in as close to a hug as she could manage given their current position. "Yeah, it is. It's exactly what a 'good person' would do."

He pressed a tender kiss to her temple. "I thought so, too. And besides, I'm the one who got you sucked into this mess. Running away now would mean abandoning you to deal with all that crap on your own. I may be a bastard more often than I'm not, but I do know if I did that to you, I'd never be able to look at myself in a mirror again. So for now, I'll stick around and see how I can help."

Oh, Zelos. "Thank you," she said, giving him a warm smile that he returned -- a sincere one, too, she could tell, since it was reflected in his eyes. And suddenly, she couldn't help the thought that popped into her mind. She didn't know how he'd react to it, but how could it hurt to plant the idea in his head? "You know, if we could get rid of Minister Giannovio, you would make a great foreign minister."

Instantly, his smile vanished and his eyes widened. "Really?"

Sheena nodded. "You're smart, you have experience dealing with people outside Meltokio, you're well-liked by the common people, you're empathetic to those who are 'different,' the king already respects and trusts you...wouldn't those make for a good foreign minister?"

Zelos blinked several times. Her suggestion had clearly surprised him, but she could see it: he wasn't dismissing it yet, either. Good. Because he really would fit nicely into that role. And it would be a 'legitimate job' to keep him busy rather than, oh, flirting for handouts. "Huh. When you put it that way, I might just have to consider it. I guess it would make sense. I mean, my sister is a half elf, my girlfriend's a ninja, some of my best friends ever are from Sylvarant, and my bud's adopted father is a dwarf. Of course, we'd need to get rid of the current foreign minister first...."

She chuckled at the smirk he shot her. "Well, yeah, but you're creative. And opportunistic. I'm sure you'll figure out something."

He let out a soft laugh and tilted his head in acknowledgement. "That, or we wait for him to hang himself; it's bound to happen sometime, especially if he feels pressured to prove himself against more qualified people like you. In any case, while I'm not sure about the whole 'adding to my responsibilities' thing yet, I will definitely talk to the king about Iselia. You said you're meeting with him again tomorrow, right?" She nodded. "Then I'll come with you. If we're lucky, he'll have changed his mind overnight, and if he hasn't, I'll try to talk him out of it."

"And if you can't?" she asked -- because judging from the king's reactions earlier, she doubted even Zelos could do that, especially if Minister Giannovio showed up again as he'd promised he would.

"It's a definite possibility," he murmured, but then he cleared his throat. "Okay, so if he still insists on proposing it to them, despite how it could destroy all hope for peace and cooperation with them, then I'll come with you." He quickly pointed at her. "Not to try to do your job, mind you, because I know you can handle this on your own, and I know you need to establish yourself as the Tethe'allan emissary, but to, y'know, make sure they don't lynch you or something. Well, that and to provide moral support." He quirked a smile. "Besides, now that I'm back in town, it's not like I have anything else pressing to do."

And there, again, was that sweet, thoughtful side to him that melted her heart every time she saw it. This man was far more giving and considerate than he gave himself credit for, and suddenly Sheena wanted to prove to him that even though he'd made some bad choices in the past, he wasn't a 'bastard,' and he wasn't bound by those choices anymore. This was a new world for all of them, Zelos included, and with it came a fresh start. She would have to work on that, try to help him see the goodness in himself that she was now seeing with alarming clarity.

Sheena returned his smile. "Well, while I seriously doubt I'd need a bodyguard since lynching me would mean starting an international incident Iselia would have no hope of surviving, I'd never turn down the company."

His eyes widened -- probably in shock that she wasn't telling him 'no,' she figured. "Really?"

Her smile broadened. No, Zelos, no arm twisting required this time. "Really."

Instantly, Zelos's grin returned, the sparkle of happiness in his eyes so endearing that she suddenly wanted to kiss him again, if only her lips could currently reach his. "Great! Then that's settled. Besides, it would be good to travel together again, especially now that we're on, you know, non-murderous terms."

"Yeah, it would," she murmured, blushing and leaning into him again. The thought of traveling with him again, of getting to know the real him better now that he was letting her see beneath the mask, really was appealing. In fact, she was actually torn about whether she wanted Zelos to convince the king to drop Minister Giannovio's stupid plan so she didn't have to deal with this stupidity, or if she wanted his attempt to fail so they could travel together again. "Thanks for the offer, Zelos."

"No problem, sweetheart. We'll just have to see how things go tomorrow." He pressed another kiss to the top of her head, sending even more warmth and love through her and leaving her wishing, again, that they could sit like that forever. "So, feeling a little better?" he asked.

She smiled and nodded. "Much, thank you. I really do appreciate it."

"You're welcome." His lips lingered against her skin a moment, his fingers gently stroking her arm. "Of course, you still feel pretty tense...."

Yeah, she was. His offer to help was a huge relief, and it had alleviated her dismay and dread significantly, but the issue was stillan issue, and it would continue lurking in her mind, a constant fear of what was yet to come, until the situation was squared away for good. "Well, it's not like I'm looking forward to this yet. And before tonight, my day was pretty rotten. I mean, I'm really enjoying this, Zelos, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be right now, but unwinding after the rest of that is hard."

"Been there, done that," he murmured, but then he cleared his throat. "Well, I know one way to help you relax."

Instantly, Sheena stiffened, then slowly lifted her head to look at him. Uh oh. His voice might sound neutral, but he was smirking, too, which never boded well. Zelos had offered to 'relax' her numerous times before, and his method of doing so had always been clear. Of course, his voice really had been neutral just now, not seductive, so maybe she should reserve judgment a little longer. "And how's that?"

His smirk broadened further, and he pulled his arm from around her back. "Take off your robe, lay down on your stomach, and I'll show you."

Part 7

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August 2012

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