smb814: (TOS Zelos Wall)
[personal profile] smb814
Instinctively, Sheena stiffened. It was a bad memory even now that she knew he had ultimately been on their side. He'd played them all for the fool, and his words at the time had been harsh -- even if he'd only said them to gain Pronyma's trust. He'd betrayed their trust so badly, and it had hurt, deeply. She despised traitors more than anything, and that time, having it be him...she'd come pretty close to hating him for it. Even now, not knowing if he'd ever do something like that again...while she may have never trusted him with his hands, she had trusted him with her life. Battling beside him for so long had built that kind of trust. They watched each others' backs. And then he'd done that to them. She'd believed him then, too, that he really had sided with Cruxis. And then the idiot had saved her.... Even then, though, she'd felt the vice on her heart only begin lifting after he'd set her down on solid ground, she'd smacked him hard several times, and he'd hurriedly explained his plan and told her how to find Mithos and help Lloyd save Colette. And for the first time seeing his brilliant, fiery, orange wings, an inevitable byproduct of being the Chosen...it had knocked the wind from her sails by distracting her and making her wonder when he'd gotten them, if he'd had them before their journey or only after retrieving his Cruxis Crystal from Seles, and what other angel side effects he'd endured -- or would yet endure -- as his crystal grew in power. And had Altessa made him an appropriate key crest so it wouldn't harm him as it had Colette? Martel, she hoped so.

But she was getting distracted again. She nodded, remembering his question. "Of course I do."

He watched her another moment before looking away again; hopefully he hadn't noticed her momentary lapse into weakness at the memory. "The truth is, I didn't decide who to side with until a minute before I went off with Pronyma." Sheena's head snapped sharply at him, but he just let out a soft, almost self-deprecating laugh. "Betraying you guys wasn't as easy of a decision as I'd expected it to be. When Cruxis first approached me and asked me to hand them Colette, the only person I knew who was involved in the affair was you, and you'd been sent to kill her. So of course I agreed, especially when Mithos promised to make Seles the Chosen instead of me. But then we traveled together, and I got to know everyone, and I realized that what Lloyd was trying to do would get me what I wanted, too, and they accepted me even though I made no real effort to be their friend...and yet I couldn't back out of my deal with Mithos without being killed myself, and leaking information to the Renegades got me real information about Mithos's plans in return, so I couldn't back out there, either...." He shook his head. "Everything was a jumbled mess. All I knew was that I wanted to get rid of that damned title. No matter which side won, that would be the end result. But if I threw my loyalty to the wrong side...."

Ah, right. Hearing his uncertainty over a decision that was so obvious to her was disturbing, but she saw what he was getting at. She'd actually had to make the same choice when the King had asked her to assassinate Colette in exchange for improved relations with Mizuho. "You'd be labeled a traitor and be killed, never achieving your end."

Zelos nodded. "Exactly. So I played all three sides as long as I could. I mean, I'm nothing if not an opportunist, right?" He chuckled softly, but Sheena didn't join him. True or not, she found nothing humorous in that -- and really, based on its half-heartedness, neither did he. "But when Mithos finally revealed himself as Yggdrasill, and Kratos asked me to get the aionis for Lloyd, and Lloyd decided it was time to attack Cruxis, I knew I had to make my choice, and that meant betraying somebody. Trying to figure out who was most likely to win, though...." He sighed. "Everything told me to side with Cruxis. Y'know, get the problem remedied right at the top. And you have to admit, they had the firepower and numbers and history behind them to make them Most Likely Candidate To Succeed. Sure, I wasn't thrilled with the whole twisted 'World of Lifeless Beings' Mithos had stuck in his head, and I preferred Lloyd's vision of a world with no discrimination or segregation, and to top it off, I actually liked Lloyd and all you guys, but if Cruxis was destined to win, then what could I do to swing the balance of power? But the thought of betraying you guys...I could never get comfortable with it."

Sheena smiled faintly. While she had trouble believing he'd ever considered truly betraying them, she already knew how this story ended. He had sided with them, and they had won because of him, and he had gotten what he wanted for himself in the process. "Well, I'm glad to hear you're not a completely calloused, selfish, manipulative bastard."

"Your vote of confidence in me is oh-so-inspiring, my dear banshee," he said, shooting her a brief but wry grin. "But making that choice was...well, it was probably the most difficult decision I've ever made. I kept envisioning every possible scenario, where things could go wrong and what potential problems could arise that would wreck my plans. What happened if I sided with you guys but I couldn't get my hands on the aionis? What if Cruxis killed Colette before I could stop it? What if those traps killed you guys before I could save you, assuming Pronyma let me out of her sight long enough to help you? Siding with Mithos was the most straightforward answer because there were far fewer chances for things to go wrong. And, to be honest, I think I'd pretty much decided to side with them. Like I said, I side with the winning team. That's always been my philosophy in life, and it's always served me well, and at that point, it looked like only they stood any chance of winning. I mean, eight people, no matter how determined and stubborn you guys were, against Yggdrasill himself and his thousands of angel minions?"

"But obviously you still had your doubts." She refused to think too hard about his reasoning for fear she'd end up smacking him again for his stupidity and selfishness, something that was definitely inappropriate given the fact that he actually was being honest for a change. "And ultimately, you chose correctly since we were the winning team."

He nodded again. "Maybe, but hindsight's 20-20. Nothing is clear when you're living in the moment. I knew better than to get attached to any of you, and doing so should have been easy for me when I'd been aiming for that all along. But then as we were leaving Flanoir that morning, Lloyd told me he trusted me, despite everything I'd done to make him not trust me short of telling him I was a triple agent, and he's so earnest that I believed him, and I started having second thoughts. By the time Kratos contacted me later on to ask for my decision, the pendulum had shifted. I told him I'd do it, even though I still doubted I could make it happen considering everything that could go wrong. When we reached the Tower, though...well, the pendulum had shifted again. I wasn't sure I could go through with it. I didn't want to sacrifice what I thought was my only surefire chance to be rid of the title if Yggdrasill killed Lloyd, which was a definite possibility, but I didn't want to betray you guys to do it, either. So I did the only thing I could: I flipped a coin and let it decide for me."

Without warning, a memory struck her, and Sheena couldn't help smiling. "Wait...I remember that. You were playing with that coin just outside the Tower."

Zelos grinned at her. "Thought you might. Hard to forget someone getting five orbs in a row, right?"

She chuckled. At the time, she'd had no idea there was actual meaning behind that beyond his just being bored and killing time, but she remembered her awe as he'd repeatedly flipped it and it landed the same every time. Even Genis and Regal had expressed their surprise at the likelihood, which led to a heated discussion about odds, with Presea rattling off numerous statistics for them, until Raine had smacked Genis and told them to focus. "So orbs meant you were siding with us?"

The grin vanished. "Nope. Crowns meant I was siding with you guys. Orbs meant I was siding with Cruxis."

Her face fell. "Oh."

"Yeah," he agreed. "After the first one came up, I decided to go with two out of three. Then, at the next one, three out of five, until next I knew, I had five orbs and no crowns. I mean, really, what are the odds of that? But anyway, so fate seemed to be telling me, in no uncertain terms, who to side with, and since I'd given fate permission to decide, I went with it. Whatever will be, will be."

Wow. He really had come close to betraying them all for good, hadn't he? But still, the end result spoke for itself. They wouldn't be standing there if it didn't, and that was why, while she was still pissed that he'd betrayed them at all, she'd grudgingly forgiven him and not argued when he'd rejoined them. "So what changed your mind?"

Zelos flashed her a brief grin. "Oddly enough, you guys did, and you didn't even realize it. Colette trusted me without question, which isn't saying much since she trusts everyone, but it was still something. Lloyd reiterated, again, that he still trusted me, even after I'd betrayed you guys. And you...you said...." He looked down at his glass awkwardly, almost shyly. "Well, you said what you said. And for perhaps the only time in my life, I said, screw fate."

Sheena blushed and looked away, unsure how to respond. She hadn't even realized what she'd said at the time until afterwards, that beneath the pervert, she'd never doubted he was a good person, but she'd definitely meant it. If that had helped influence his decision at all, then she didn't regret it. Apparently even words said carelessly and in anger could impact the outcome of something.

"Against all odds, you guys truly trusted me. I...I'd never had that before. I'd given up long ago ever believing I'd have real friends, that the people around me only cared about my title, but Lloyd and the rest of you were different. You were so... real. And believe me, I've lived around nobles enough to see what's real and what's not. And so, even though I'd promised myself long ago that I'd never put my faith in anyone but myself, that time I did. I had to trust you guys to follow through, that you were strong enough to win, and I'd do my part. And you were." Zelos swirled his half-full glass, watching it closely. "Heh. At that point, I never could've gone through with really siding with Cruxis anyway. I've always been good at conveniently ignoring guilt, but I never could've lived with myself after that. That's why the alternative...."

Her eyes narrowed as his voice trailed off. "What was your alternative? If you'd sided with Cruxis, not us?" He shot her an awkward smile, but then quickly looked away again. "Zelos?"

He released a low sigh. "I would've stayed behind after Pronyma left and stopped you guys from following her."

Sheena stared at him, his words initially refusing to register, but once they had, her lips parted in shock and horror. "You would've fought us?"

"Yep. I would've fought you."

No. She couldn't accept that. "By yourself."

Zelos nodded but still didn't look at her. "By myself."

She gaped at him. She wasn't hearing this. She wasn't. "You're not serious, right? Please tell me you're joking."

He chuckled softly. "'Fraid not, hun. That was my plan."

No. She couldn't accept it. She couldn't. She needed to hear him say this was merely another one of his bad jokes. "Zelos...you would have died! You never would have won! Lloyd would have killed you! You saw what he did single-handedly to Kratos! Kratos couldn't even fight again after that!"

He nodded curtly. "I know that. I knew that then, too, but I guess I thought I at least had a slim chance. I mean, I did have my Cruxis Crystal by then, right?" He laughed half-heartedly and finally looked at her again, but Sheena could only gape at him, and any lingering smile on his face instantly vanished. "Don't look at me like that, Sheena. You're right, I would have died. But tell me, in the grand scheme of things, would it really have mattered?" She blinked at him again, so stunned by his words and his utter seriousness that she couldn't respond. He sighed again before quickly continuing. "My entire life has been worthless, a giant, cosmic joke. Everyone wants a piece of me, not because of me, but because of who I am, because of that damned title. Nobody has ever cared what I wanted. I'm the only one who's ever looked out for me; I'm the only one I could ever trust to look out for me. And you know what? At that point, I was just tired of it all, of being pulled in every direction when someone needed something from the Chosen. I wanted it to end, and if the only way to get it was death, then death it was."

Urgency and fear overwhelmed her, and Sheena grabbed his arm tightly. No. She needed to hear him say he wasn't serious and that nothing like that would ever happen again. "You don't...Zelos, tell me you don't still believe that!"

"Of course not," he said. "I don't regret choosing the side I did. It worked, and the end result is still the same, only better since the title itself will be abolished, meaning Seles won't be stuck with it either. She may have wanted it, and I would've happily given it to her, but I never would've wanted her to suffer because of it."

Well, that was good, but still...Sheena still couldn't believe what he was saying. All that time he'd had a death wish? Had he really been suffering that badly? The very thought of this narcissistic, happy-go-lucky jokester wanting to die and especially that no one knew it, not even his closest friends, twisted at her heart. How could they have missed it? How could she have missed it? "But I thought you refused to side with the losing team because doing so meant your death. How was this any different?"

Zelos gave her a sad smile. "Like I said, babe, if I had truly betrayed you guys, I never could've lived with myself. I would've fought you to prove a point, and I would've been relieved when it was over. Even though I never did anything to deserve your trust, I still wanted it. And if I hadn't had it...well, it would've proven a point about how worthless and unwanted I really was. In some ways, it would've been easier if you hadn't trusted and believed in me. But you did. And I'm grateful for it, because now...now I get to live the life I always wanted."

Sheena swallowed hard as relief crept through her, and she finally released his arm, satisfied. Good. She had no idea how she could have changed his mind if he still had a death wish or if she didn't sense his sincere relief of having a future worth looking forward to. "And you know you have friends now, right? Real friends, who couldn't care less about your title?"

He offered her another smile, and that time it appeared sincere and relaxed. "Yeah. I know that now."

"And you know that no matter how much you annoy us -- me -- sometimes, you're not worthless, right?" she pressed. "That just because Tethe'alla never needed its Chosen to fulfill his role doesn't mean we don't all value you and are glad you're alive?"

His eyes drifted over her face, his smile fading. "Yeah. I know that, too."

After a moment, they both looked away, and Sheena took advantage of the silence to process everything. From the corner of her eye, she looked at his chest where his Cruxis Crystal was embedded, hidden beneath his formal clothes, and then closed her eyes. He would have really done it. He would have attacked them. And he never would have won, even with his angel powers strengthening him. They would have killed him. He would have been lying there, bloody and dying, right before her eyes...her gut twisted painfully. She couldn't handle that mental image. What if she had landed the final blow? She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to push the image away as nausea suddenly struck, but it kept returning -- and she realized that even though events hadn't played out like that, the horrible image of something that had been a minute away from happening would haunt her for a long, long time. If only a few things had happened differently, if only Lloyd hadn't said what he'd said, if only she hadn't said what she'd said....

"A lot of people would've been sad, you know," she said, struggling to keep her voice steady. "Not just me-- I mean, Lloyd and the rest of us."

She blushed at her slip, but Zelos didn't seem to notice it. "I wish I could agree with that, but I can't. I can still think of plenty of people who would've been delighted I was gone."

...What? He, Mr. Look-At-Me, Mr. Popularity, Mr. I-Am-All-That, didn't really believe that, did he? "What about Sebastian? Your 'hunnies'? The royal family? What about Seles and the rest of your family?"

He shook his head. "Sebastian...I'll give you that one. He's always been like family to me, probably even more than my real family ever was. But my hunnies?" A scornful, disgusted laugh escaped his lips. "Oh, they'd mourn me for a week and then find some other rich, powerful hunk to drool over. The royal family? I'm nothing but a threat to them because of my power. I'm untouchable, and they know it and resent it. Don't let their throwing me a party tell you otherwise; they just want to be on my good side so I'll side with them if necessary. They tolerate and listen to me because they have to, but they don't like me, and the same can be said about the Church and every other noble in Meltokio -- not that I can really blame them. It's not like I've tried to change their minds about me. And Seles and the rest of my family? Don't even get me started on them."

To Sheena's confusion, she thought he almost looked mad as he fell silent and turned to observe the night sky. His expression was so atypical that it held her fascinated. She waited for him to expound on that, but even after a minute he hadn't said anything, and eventually curiosity got the better of her. "What about your family? Seles might irritate me, but I do know she cares about you. And I'm sure if your parents were alive, your death would've upset them, too."

Zelos laughed disgustedly. "Yeah, right. That's funny, Sheena."

She blinked at him. "Why is it funny? I wasn't joking." He shook his head but didn't answer. "Zelos?"

He sighed, but his tension and barely restrained anger still lingered as his eyes lifted to the moon. "Sorry, babe, but my family history isn't included in this secret. That's a completely different one. And I think I've more than earned my dance already, don't you?"

Sheena blushed at the reminder of why he was doing this: to get a dance with her. She had to admit, though, that what he'd just told her far exceeded her expectations. And really, in that regard, he had a point. "Well, yeah, but...I'd still like to hear more."

Zelos turned and observed her again through narrowed eyes, her blush deepening when she realized he still bore no smile on his face. Seeing him like this, so scrutinizing and serious, was unnerving. After what she'd just learned, though...well, she couldn't leave it hanging without at least trying to get more from him. She wanted to know now...but the quickness and thoroughness with which he'd clammed up made it clear he really didn't want to talk about this subject.

And suddenly, an idea hit her. She wasn't sure it was a good one, but it did seem appropriate. Sheena looked away, feeling his eyes continue watching her. She couldn't believe she was inviting this, but if it worked.... Her fingers trailed over the metal railing. "Out of curiosity, how much would that secret cost me?"

She glanced back at him in time to see him smirk; just as she'd figured, he was considering it now that he had incentive. He still took longer to respond than she expected -- she'd expected him to jump on the chance to get even more from her -- but that just indicated that he really didn't want to discuss this...something that just made her want to poke further. She could almost see his mental gears turning as he searched for something worth enduring this apparent discomfort.

Finally, he leaned closer to her. "I would say...that one will cost more than the last one."

Uh oh. Sheena met his eyes, startlingly blue even in the pale moonlight, but she refused to be distracted by his insinuations. "How much?"

His smirk broadened. "Well, let's see here. That particular secret will cost you...oh, let's say...one date."

Sheena cringed and looked away, her face flushing further. One dance? No problem, especially after what she'd just learned about him. That secret had been worth it, and she would willingly pay up. But one date? A dance lasted minutes. A date lasted hours. And obviously this date wouldn't happen tonight because it was already too late to do anything, which meant it would be not with this man, Zelos Wilder, but with the Idiot Chosen, seeing as Zelos had already promised he'd be back from his 'mental holiday' by morning. And a date with the Idiot Chosen...well, that guaranteed groping and leering galore and pranks and inappropriate jokes -- basically the opposite of their current conversation. The thought of enduring that for hours...well, it couldn't be worse than their journey together, right? Although with no one else around to curtail his wandering eyes and hands, it could be. But the way he'd clammed up about his family seemed to indicate something lurked behind there that might just be worth it. Should she try it? Was it worth several hours of annoyance and discomfort? Judging from his last 'secret,' yes, it would be. And really, what she'd already learned about him...well, she already knew his act was flashier than she'd thought. The real Zelos was more somber and serious -- and, shockingly, insecure -- than she'd ever imagined. And if she could somehow lure out this guy past the Idiot Chosen façade...the thought of a single date with him wasn't as unappealing as she'd expected.

But she would worry about what the future held when the time arose. Focus on the secret you'll get, not on the cost, she instructed herself. "Fine. Deal. One date. But my earlier conditions still apply. Nothing inappropriate, and the secret has to be significant."

He nodded curtly. "Deal. And my earlier conditions still apply, too."

No pity, and no expecting him to ever acknowledge this again. She could handle that. "Fine."

Zelos looked away, released a low sigh, and fell silent again. That time she knew to curtail her impatience, though; she could already see this was hard for him, and she didn't want to lose him or draw out his procrastinating, perverted defense mechanisms again by pushing. He would tell her eventually -- she didn't doubt that -- and finally, he took a deep breath and began. "All right. Well, you already know my parents are dead, right?"

Everyone in Tethe'alla knew that. "Right?"

"Well, did you ever hear how they died?"

Sheena bit her lip, searching her memory. She and Zelos had known each other for years, having often run into each other in Meltokio and Sybak, some encounters decent and others...not so much -- years later, she still wanted to strangle him for that shower incident -- and thus they had eventually became friends. In fact, at the start, they'd actually been pretty good friends. She'd liked him well enough -- he'd only been a few years older than her and had always been nice, polite, charming, and helpful -- and he'd been one of the only friends she, a not-so-well-liked ninja from Mizuho, had in those two towns. Then the shower thing happened, though, and not long after that he'd grown progressively obnoxious, egotistical, rude, and crude and had started poking fun at everything about her until one day she realized she couldn't stand him anymore. She had no idea why he'd changed or what she'd done to cause it -- since his attitude hadn't changed toward everyone else, she'd had no choice but to take it personally, leaving her feeling even more miserable, alone, and insecure than before she'd met him -- and without understanding it, she hadn't known how to fix it, especially when every effort she'd made had just resulted in Zelos throwing another insult her way.

Ultimately, she'd had no choice but to write him off as a self-centered, arrogant, childish, perverted jerk -- a choice that had hurt all the more because they had once been good friends. Their fallout had always grated on her nerves, and those feelings of hurt and resentment had just gotten worse during their journey with Lloyd when she'd seen, yet again, that Zelos singled her out for his ridiculous games. Sure, he occasionally flirted with Colette and Raine, but he almost seemed fixated on her and on making her feel stupid and like a sexual object. She knew she wasn't helping matters by always taking the bait, getting mad at him, and giving him the attention he craved, but damn it, the hurt and anger when it came to him, especially after losing his friendship like that, made him impossible to ignore. Losing a friend always hurt, especially when she'd never really had any growing up, and it had hurt doubly when the reason behind it remained unknown. Had she upset him somehow? Had he simply changed overnight into someone she didn't recognize? Or had she done something stupid to deserve his mocking? She wanted an explanation, and she'd never be satisfied until she received one, even if finding a way to ask him directly had so far proven impossible. She repeatedly told herself he was just an idiot and, therefore, wasn't worth worrying over, but that hadn't stopped her heart from aching every time he'd poked fun at her. Even now, years later, Sheena missed that old friend dearly; no matter what she did, it seemed, that wound refused to heal. In fact, that was probably why she always felt so vulnerable around him, leaving her wide open to his attacks -- and why she still jumped every time she saw an inkling of the old him peeking through, trying to see if that friend was still buried in him somewhere or if it was just a fluke, even though time had taught her that doing so would get her nowhere.

But regardless of their rift and her lingering feelings of hurt and resentment from it, no, she didn't remember Zelos ever confiding in her about what happened to his parents back when they'd been good friends. "No, I never heard the details beyond that they were both murdered."

"Didn't think so." He sighed, then cleared his throat. "Well, my father was the Chosen, and he was tortured and killed when I was five by some fanatical Church of Martel haters. They were eventually caught and executed, but not before he'd died. I wish I could say that bothered me, but other than the warning it served of what could happen to me if I wasn't careful, it didn't. Before that, I'd only met him a grand total of one time, at some ceremony to introduce me as Tethe'alla's next Chosen. I remember not understanding what a 'father' was or why I should care about him other than knowing he was supposed to be 'important' in my life, so when I met him that night, I didn't know what to expect. It was actually kind of scary, and nothing he did changed that. All I remember was this man with my red hair and blue eyes looking down at me with this cold, blank face, and when the Pope introduced me to him, all he said was, 'Oh.' Not 'Hey, kid, how're you doing?' or 'Nice to meet you,' or even an acknowledgement that I was his son; just 'Oh.' I just clung to my mother's leg -- who, mind you, kept trying to shoo me away because she hated it when I touched her -- until he walked away. He died two months later."

Sheena blinked at him. He was serious about that; his barely concealed anger and disappointment attested as much. "Why would he treat you like that?"

"Well, obviously, I can't ask him to know for sure, but I can hazard a guess," Zelos replied. "One, no one wants to get attached to a child who, should Sylvarant's Chosen have succeeded and Tethe'alla's status changed, was doomed to die. I'm guessing that's one reason why my mother never bothered much with me, either. And in his defense, the Chosen was forbidden to ever live with his 'official' children anyway, although 'illegitimate' children were fair game; if a natural disaster struck or someone attacked him, the Church couldn't risk having the entire lineage be killed at once. He just took that a step farther and wanted no contact with me whatsoever. But two, and probably the main reason, my parents never wanted me to be born. They only got married because the Church forced them to to preserve the mana lineage. In fact, my old man loved another woman -- Seles's half-elf mother -- enough to have a kid with her. And if you were in that position, which child would you favor?" Zelos glanced at her, but Sheena could only watch him wide-eyed. "Don't worry, I won't make you answer that. And I know my mother felt the same because she never missed an opportunity to make me feel unwanted and like a nuisance. I suspect she had another lover, too. The Church ripped her from her home, dumped her in Meltokio, and forced her to reproduce with my father to carry out 'Martel's wishes,' hence my unwanted existence in their lives."

Sheena had never seen him this sardonic before, and that startled her as deeply as his words horrified her. She was starting to understand his earlier warning that she 'might not like' what she got if he was truly serious with her. For a moment, she almost wanted the lighthearted, idiotic, childish Zelos back, not this bitter, hurt man who barely resembled the man she'd always known. "I...I refuse to believe that, Zelos. No mother could hate their own child."

His eyebrows rose, but his face bore no trace of humor. "You want to bet on that, babe? Because I guarantee you mine did. She was miserable, being trapped raising a child she never wanted, and she blamed that misery on me."

No. She wouldn't accept that. "You can't possibly know that."

He released another disgusted laugh. "Actually, I can. Just wait; you'll see. So a year or two later, it was the first snowfall I'd ever seen in Meltokio -- and we're not just talking a light dusting, but Flanoir-like quantities. I was so excited that I dragged my mother out to build a snowman. She didn't want to go -- kept fussing with her hair and complaining about the cold and saying there was a reason noblewomen stayed inside whenever it snowed -- but I insisted. And believe me, I could be stubborn as hell as a kid."

She couldn't help a small smile from forming on her lips. "I guess some things never change, huh?"

She'd hoped that might lighten his mood a little, but he remained lost in the memory and just nodded absently at her comment. "Guess not. So anyway, I was making this snowman when suddenly this flash came from behind some trees. The snowman fell apart, and the falling snow turned red...blood red." Sheena swallowed as he paused, observing his glass and swirling his not-champagne, but she didn't say anything. "My father's mistress decided she wanted Seles to be the Chosen, not me, and so she attacked me, trying to kill me...only she missed and hit my mother instead. And as my mother fell dying, she...she grabbed my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said...."

His voice trailed off, the look in his eyes frighteningly intense, and Sheena scooted a little closer to him. "Zelos?"

He lifted his eyes back to the sky. "She said, 'You should never have been born.' She spent her last moments of life cursing my existence." Zelos suddenly smirked as he noticed Sheena gaping at him, her mind futilely trying to process that. "Like I said, babe, she hated me and blamed me for her misery, and she was never afraid to tell me that."

Sheena blinked at him, floored and speechless and utterly horrified. As if watching his mother die wasn't bad enough, her final words had been that?! She didn't want to believe it...and yet she couldn't not believe it either, not when Zelos looked back at his glass, his smirk giving way to very obvious, very real pain. No, not even Zelos would ever joke about that, and especially not right then. But her mind couldn't comprehend how anyone could be so cruel to anyone, let alone her own son. Sheena had always thought his mother had looked pleasant enough in her portrait in his mansion, albeit a little cold, but now...loathing and disgust seeped into her. And what Zelos must have gone through, undoubtedly a typical, impressionable child at the time who only wanted love and acceptance, and then being rejected like that by his own mother, for reasons he would never understand....

"Sweet Martel," she whispered. "That's...how could...how could anyone do that to an innocent child? To their own child? Zelos, I can't even imagine what you...."

Zelos shook his head sharply, but he didn't look at her. "You promised no pity, remember? I don't want it, Sheena. It happened. It's done. I can't change it. She died because of me, because of my existence, and that's just how it is."

"But none of that was your fault! You didn't ask to be born. None of us did. And you did nothing to cause it." She gasped as another horrible thought struck her. "Please tell me you don't still blame yourself for...."

The intensity in his eyes as they snapped to hers silenced her. "Do you still blame yourself for what happened to Mizuho when you first met Volt?"

She quickly looked away, her cheeks growing warm. "I...of course I do, but..."

"...But you now know you couldn't have stopped it, right?" he finished for her. "That you never could've understood an ancient language that everyone had forgotten, including your fellow ninjas, until Raine interpreted him for you?"

Sheena sighed. They weren't supposed to be talking about her and her own tragic past, but then, she understood what he was saying. "Yeah, I know that now."

"And you've accepted it, right?"

She nodded reluctantly. That was one of many things she'd learned during their journey -- that sometimes bad things just happened, and sometimes others chose to step in and save you, no matter the cost, because of how deeply they cared about you and believed in you. Corrine was proof of that. In a sense, Zelos was, too, since he'd saved her life at the Otherworldly Gate even though, at the time, she'd nearly hated him for it -- and even though he'd been with Cruxis at the time and they'd probably frowned severely upon his actions. While Sheena would always hold herself responsible for so many dying because of her, she wanted to think she'd begun making up for it by helping reunite the worlds and by agreeing to one day lead Mizuho as its chief. "It's a part of my past, and I won't let it drag me down or try to run from it anymore, if that's what you mean."

Zelos nodded curtly. "Same here. For a long time, I believed her -- that I was worthless, that I shouldn't exist, that I'd caused her death. It's taken time, but I think I'm starting to move past that. Lloyd convinced me I wasn't completely worthless, that I deserved to live, that he valued my life. You guys all did. My mother resented me, but I didn't do anything to cause that. She hated me before I was even conceived. That's just how it was, and nothing I did could have changed that. And while I'm not sure I'll ever completely put that behind me, I'm at least in a better place with it, because for awhile there, I sure wasn't."

It hit her. "That's why you wanted to die," she stated.

"One of many reasons, yep," he said. "That, and because I knew Seles couldn't stand me after the Church executed her mother for the murder and imprisoned her in that abbey, and because she always wanted to be the Chosen instead of me. My death would've given her what she wanted."

Sheena looked at him incredulously. "But she never would've wanted you to die for that to happen."

He swallowed hard and looked down at his glass. "Yeah. I know that now, too."

Good. At least they'd worked out that much. But still, while the siblings had reached an understanding after that coliseum fiasco, his sister was clearly still a sore subject for him. Maybe it was time to change tactics a little? "So that's why you always hated Flanoir, isn't it? Because of the snow?" He looked at her in mild surprise, and she smiled knowingly. "What, didn't think I noticed how tense you became and how you'd hide in your room instead of flirting with all the female residents? Well, I did."

Zelos grinned. "Heh. You're more perceptive than I thought."

Sheena shrugged that off because, really, it wasn't important. At least she'd diverted his focus from his sister. "Well, I'm just glad you've realized your life does have meaning, regardless of your parents' highly biased and questionable opinions."

"So am I, but it certainly took a long time to reach that point," he said, his grin falling. "I don't remember this myself, but Sebastian once told me I didn't talk for three months after my mother's death."

Her eyes widened. What? This chatterbox hadn't talked for three months as a child? She hadn't known that. But really.... "Well, given the circumstances, I can't say I'm surprised. In fact, I'm more surprised you started talking again at all."

"Well, my silence probably would've lasted longer except the Pope caught wind of it and decided, with my old man dead by that point, they couldn't have the Chosen acting like that, so he sent a bishop to...take care of it."

Sheena blinked as he fell silent again. Huh? "'Take care of it'?"

Zelos sighed wearily. "The bishop told me no one wanted a Chosen who was always depressed; I had to suck it up and act cheerful, even if I didn't feel like that. It was all about my public image and giving the people what they wanted. No one wants to feel bad for their 'savior'; they want someone who's eager to sacrifice their life to save everyone else's because they're just that selfless. Admitting I didn't want to die for Tethe'alla would've been, in his words, 'a cardinal sin.' The Chosen was an idol, a mythical figure, a beacon of hope, and making others feel bad for me by being depressed over the crap in my life...well, the Church couldn't allow that. He didn't care if I was depressed when I was out of the public eye, but Heaven forbid I show even an ounce of sadness when others were around. So basically, whenever he saw me brooding out in public, he'd smack me with his staff to snap me out of it. Hard." Zelos released a self-deprecating laugh. "Heh. You would've been proud."

Sheena gaped at him, feeling like she'd swallowed a lead weight. Did he really view her like that, equating her smacking him to such a horrible childhood experience? Talk about conflicting messages; the bishop had smacked him to make him less serious and more cheerful and carefree, and she'd smacked him to make him more serious and less cheerful and carefree. So why the hell did Zelos keep agitating her so much when he knew how she'd react? "No, I wouldn't have!" she countered, her voice rising beyond her control. "Not when it came to physical abuse of a child, and especially not when it was because that child was just displaying basic human emotions! That's...that's inhuman! It's inexcusable!"

Zelos, however, just shrugged nonchalantly. "Maybe, but that's how it was. Anyway, that got me talking again pretty quickly. And honestly, after awhile I found he was right. People really did like me better when I acted happy and carefree and silly, whereas they avoided me like the plague when I felt sad because they didn't know how to act around me. When I was in a good mood, they flocked to me, especially the girls whose mothers wanted them to become friends with me in hopes I'd one day 'court' them. And if you were a child who didn't want to be treated like a doomed, despised freak of nature, which would you have picked? Being cheerful all the time, whether you felt it or not, or being depressed over something you couldn't control?"

Sheena swallowed hard as the pieces of his complex personality began fitting together. That was why he always acted so silly and wore the idiotic mask -- not just because the Church told him to, but because he liked the results better. Any impressionable child with barely anything left in his life would choose that route. And everyone around him had just bought the act because they'd never cared enough to see the truth; they hadn't wanted to feel sorry for their 'savior' by finding out what was real and what was the mask. Oh, Zelos.

Knowing he didn't want pity, though -- not that she pitied him, but Sheena wasn't sure how to distinguish her empathy as an outsider desiring acceptance from the pity it would have sounded like -- she just nodded faintly. "But you were never truly happy, were you? Even if that's how it looked?"

He shook his head. "Not really, although I was eventually able to get over that, at least to an extent. Sebastian told me something once when I was young, and it always stuck with me. He said we can't choose or change our past, but we can choose our present, we can change our future, and we can control our reactions to everything that happens. That became one of my main philosophies in life. I hated being sad and depressed, but I liked being happy, and I realized that life, especially mine since I could've been killed at any moment, was too short to always be miserable. I wanted to enjoy everything I could of it. I didn't want to dwell on everything bad that happened. That doesn't help anyone -- not others, not myself. I wanted to be happy. Things might happen outside my control, but I could always control whether I was happy. Whatever will be, will be. Y'know, take the good wherever you can get it, and ignore the bad when you can't change it. An easy life is the best life; don't work for what you can get for free; use whatever's necessary to accomplish your ends and be happy; etcetera, etcetera. So I made the choice to get what I could from those around me, and that meant controlling the view people had of me and making them underestimate me. If I had to conveniently forget about all that other crap and adopt the 'Chosen One' persona to make that happen, then so be it."

Those philosophies were something she had known about him for years. And really, Sheena hated to admit it, but his carefree happiness was something she'd actually envied at times; she could never adopt that mindset herself. It made sense, too, given what she now knew about him. All his life, Zelos had lived with a death threat hanging over his head, so it was only natural that he should learn to seize the moment for all he could get from it. No, she wasn't sure she could blame him for becoming who he had anymore. "That certainly explains your constant attitude. But what about you?"

His brows furrowed slightly. "What do you mean?"

"I mean...." She wasn't sure what she meant. But seeing him like this told her that his decision wasn't nearly as clear cut as it sounded. "Are you happy with that? I mean, really, truly happy?"

Zelos turned away and released another low sigh. "Sometimes. Sometimes I can forget all the crap and convince myself I'm the happy-go-lucky guy who doesn't have a care in the world, the one everyone adores, the greatest Chosen to ever walk Tethe'alla. But other times...it's tiring being a jokester all the time, always being happy, never having a serious conversation, and meticulously controlling everyone's image of me. It's tiring always giving the public what it wants and expects from me. I try not to think about my mother's dying words or the fact that I'm a worthless Chosen or that I can never make it all up to Seles, but there are times I can't stop it from happening anyway."

Sheena looked away, his words touching some strong nerves within her and tugging at her heartstrings. "You're always alone, even when others are with you. No family, no friends who know who you really are or what you're going through, no one to be close to...."

"Y'know, you're treading dangerously close to the pity line, babe." She looked sharply at him, her eyes widening in sudden panic, but she relaxed a little upon seeing his faint, albeit teasing, smile. After a moment, though, he sighed and turned away again. "But I suppose of anyone, you'd be most likely to understand how that feels, so I'll let it go this time."

Oh, thank goodness. Not only was she glad he hadn't threatened to leave, but also that he realized how their pasts paralleled each other's in many ways -- and that they'd both felt alone and unwanted before they'd met Lloyd. After all, she did understand how it felt, and she wouldn't wish that on anyone, even him. The difference between them was in how they had handled it. Zelos had been forced to pick himself up and move on; Sheena never had so she'd stayed stuck in the past. And really, in his ability to do that, she admired him. He may never have thoroughly accepted it, and deep down he'd always suffered for it and had felt far more insecure than he'd ever let on, but he'd still moved on and had been happy sometimes. He'd taken the bad, made it as good for himself as possible, and didn't let it get him down. Chosens really were just human beings forced to live up to everyone's expectations, weren't they? Even Colette had always put up such a tough façade, professing to be happy to sacrifice her life for Sylvarant, while underneath she was terrified of the cost demanded of her. Thank Martel that twisted system was now done away with for good, for both Colette and Zelos's sakes.

All his life, Sheena realized, Zelos had kept everyone at arm's length because he couldn't trust them to accept him, the man hiding beneath the act. He hadn't believed anyone would like him if they knew who he really was. And before this, no one had cared enough to dig, to see past the superficial act. No wonder he'd hated being the Chosen so much, to the point of siding with Cruxis to escape it. The title was a birthright, not something he'd chosen for himself; his parents hadn't wanted him and had apparently never failed to emphasize that; and everyone else, especially the Church and the royal family, had either shunned him or felt threatened by him because of the power he wielded. He existed only to serve two purposes: to give the people hope, and then to die for them. And the ridiculous attitude he'd adopted to cope with everything, to control the only thing he could -- how others viewed him, by making them underestimate him so they never saw the scared man hiding beneath the act -- actually made sense now. Not only had the Church forced him to act that way to give the public what they wanted, but he'd chosen it for himself, to protect himself from further hurt and rejection.

The fact that he had at least chosen a few aspects of his life and adopted the philosophies he had gave Sheena just enough comfort to curtail the tears she felt building in her eyes. Never again would she see Zelos the same way. Her eyes were now open. Beneath the act, he was far different than the idiot she'd believed him to be. He was insecure but far more intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive than she'd ever thought possible. He was real, not the showy, larger-than-life, narcissistic womanizer he'd always pretended to be in an effort to prevent people from pitying or feeling bad for him. For the first time since he'd started acting like a perverted jerk toward her, she could see someone who was real, someone she was comfortable with. She turned to watch him while he observed the night sky, lost in thought and in a sorrow he'd carried for years but had always hidden, and Sheena couldn't help admiring his profile, the wild red hair blowing free in the breeze and the handsome face now marred by too much sadness and seriousness. For the first time ever, Sheena almost thought she'd even be able to tolerate his usual, idle self now that she knew what the act really was; in fact, to her surprise, she almost wanted to see him laughing and teasing her again, smiling and sincerely having fun, if it meant not seeing him like this. And the fact that he'd just shared all this with her...her cheeks flushed and she looked away, uncomfortable with the emotions that thought elicited.

"You've never told anyone this before, have you?" she whispered, to which Zelos merely shook his head.

Part of her wanted to ask why he was telling her now, why he was finally sharing his real self with someone, but another part was afraid to hear what made her so special. Was it just because of their deal? If so, she was getting the better end of the bargain; Zelos had now lost an image he could never reclaim with her, all in exchange for what? A date and a dance? But this was Zelos; he wouldn't have told her if he really hadn't wanted to -- and if he hadn't truly trusted her to keep his secrets -- no matter what price she'd paid. Maybe he was tired of keeping everything locked inside and wanted to tell someone. At least she was a friend -- and she actually had seen past the act and convinced him she wanted to know the truth. And she did; as uncomfortable as it made her, she wouldn't trade what she'd just learned about him for anything, because now maybe he knew someone cared and wouldn't turn their back on him just because they'd seen the real him. Maybe now he could start letting others in.

But for some reason something here still didn't ring true for her. "So wait, you've never even told any of your hunnies about all this?" she asked.

"My hunnies? Tell them any of this?" The laugh that escaped him was bitter and disgusted -- which surprised her even more than his answer did. "That's another joke, Sheena."

She tried, but she just couldn't understand his scorn. "Why? They certainly care enough about you. You must have told even one about this."

Zelos looked up at the moon, his face set. "No. I didn't."

After the last time, Sheena could recognize the signs: Zelos was clamming up and growing bitter, meaning she'd touched on something he didn't want to discuss. She waited another moment, hoping he'd volunteer an explanation, but his grim, disgusted, almost angry expression made it clear he wasn't going to. His reaction, though...here again, she realized, there must be something worth knowing. After everything else she'd just learned, was it possible that, too, was merely an act? And suddenly, her heart was pounding. She wanted to know the truth about this, desperately. If tomorrow he was really going to deny this conversation ever happened, then tonight might be the only opportunity she ever had to pursue this. While she dreaded hearing about his notorious affairs with all his floozies, the last two secrets had been so eye-opening that she expected this would be, too. And if she was wrong...well, then she was wrong. She'd better move fast to catch him before he pulled away completely, though, because she could see him doing just that, and probably soon.

Sheena slid closer to him, but, surprisingly, he didn't seem to notice. "So how much would that secret cost me?"

That finally snapped him from his daze, and he looked at her, surprised, maybe even alarmed. "Eh?"

"How much would that secret cost me?" she repeated. "The story behind you and women?"

His eyebrows rose further, as if he couldn't believe she was asking that -- and, honestly, she couldn't believe she was, either. But she reminded herself again that after hearing his previous revelations, she'd more likely be surprised than disgusted by this 'secret.' "You really...?"

She nodded. "Yeah, I do."

For the first time in minutes, Zelos cracked a grin. "Well, well. I never thought I'd hear that from you."

She shrugged, still uncomfortable with this but unwilling to give up on it yet, either. "What can I say? I'm curious."

"And apparently feeling rather generous about paying for that curiosity tonight."

His words were whispered, albeit teasing, but Sheena looked away again when she felt her blush return. "You didn't answer the question."

"Heh, you just took me by surprise, that's all." He paused, his brows furrowing. "Which question was I supposed to be answering again?"

She rolled her eyes and forced herself not to question whether she'd made the right choice to press this. "How much for this particular secret?"

"Oh, right. Well, let's see. You already owe me a dance and a date, and a secret of this magnitude requires even more appropriate compensation, so...." She shot him a warning glare, and he quickly raised his hands. "No sex. I got that message loud and clear the first time. Promise." Sheena relaxed but still looked away as he watched her closely. "One kiss."

Her head snapped back toward him. "Wh...what?"

The corner of his lip tugged upward, but his eyes were narrowed and scrutinizing. "You heard me."

Sheena could feel her face flare. "A kiss."

Zelos nodded curtly. "Yep."

"Just one."

"Just one."

Sheena squeezed her eyes shut. His secret in exchange for a single kiss. Would this really, truly be worth it? She already despised the subject matter -- his sex life with those infuriating floozies -- and then he asks for a kiss.... And just like that, the answer hit her. Yes, it was. Her eyes flew open and she nodded, refusing to let herself over think her decision. "Deal." She didn't bother re-emphasizing their conditions; they both knew they still stood.

To her surprise, instead of teasing her about what she'd just agreed to, Zelos actually sighed as if in reluctant acceptance. "All right. Deal."

She pointed sharply at him. "But this better be damned good."

"Heh. We'll see." He looked down at his glass before taking another sip, and that time Sheena gave him the moment of silence to gather his thoughts. Looking back, it was no surprise he'd had trouble broaching the last few secrets, and if this one was anything like those, then he deserved the moment to brace himself for the approaching storm. He would get there eventually, and as expected, he soon looked up at the sky and nodded, more to himself than to her. "I've never had a woman in my bed."

Part 4

August 2012

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