smb814: (TOS Sheena Summon)
[personal profile] smb814
Her eyebrows flew upward at his apparent implication that he'd never had sex, but her surprise quickly faded at how carefully he'd worded that...and then it transformed into disappointment. That was his big secret? "Oh, so you've always gone elsewhere for that." She tried to curb her sarcasm and disdain, but even she could hear it dripping from her voice.

He watched her carefully a moment before nodding. "Yeah. Both times."

Now that got her attention. Sheena looked at him, stunned. Like his previous secrets, her mind couldn't wrap itself around that. "Only...?"

"Yep. That's it." He looked back at his glass. "I was 16, and these two sisters who claimed to be the princess's new attendants -- must've been in their 20s -- were all over me at a party. They kept fawning over me and saying how gorgeous I was, and next I knew, I was being dragged out to...well, I'm sure you don't want to hear all the details."

Ugh. Sheena was already cringing -- and she was grateful Zelos recognized that. "No, definitely not."

"Didn't think so," he murmured. "Anyway, they'd snuck me some alcohol and were pretty good looking, at least while I was drunk, so I went with them. Basically, they used me for some fun one night, although it's not like I really minded at the time since they taught me a lot. And for a teenage boy, it was a dream come true. I'm sure that's where all the rumors about me started, because those two were anything but shy." He shrugged. "'Course, I only met up with them once more after that before they were chased out of Meltokio for seducing teenage noblemen and then burglarizing their mansions while the parents were away. I'm not sure if they were ever arrested, but one day they were just gone. I never saw them again."

Sheena stared at him when he fell silent. That sounded like what she'd expect from him, but still.... "Are you saying that was it?"

Zelos nodded. "That was it. They didn't steal anything from me, though, so I'm guessing I was just another conquest before they moved on to some other poor sap."

He was probably right about that -- women like that would probably just be thrilled to seduce the Chosen -- but they had definitely stolen something from him. "And yet, after that...are you saying you didn't continue down that road and sleep with every woman you met? Because you sure made everyone think you had -- me included."

"Heh. Yeah, I did, didn't I?" he said, but oddly, he didn't look at her. "Truth was, it was all talk, babe, just another part of my Grand Master Plan. Y'know, create that carefree, Casanova image of the Chosen, make the women fall for me, and lead them on. And while I can't deny I adore women and love the flirting and attention...it just didn't feel right, I guess. I take that back, physically it felt great, but waking up the next morning knowing I'd been used like that...." Zelos sighed. "That part wasn't so great. And yes, I probably would've continued down that road except for what happened soon after. Sure, that night opened my eyes to how much women wanted to 'be' with the Chosen, but it was never about me; it was solely for the bragging rights, and sometimes for...other reasons...too."

Sheena blinked at his hesitation. "'Other reasons'?"

He glanced at her but quickly looked away again, a frown marring his handsome face. "There was this one girl, Shirley, a week or two after those two chicks left. She was cute, and I'd always flirted with her, but one night at a party she got drunk and draped herself all over me. One thing led to another, and...."

It took all Sheena's restraint not to groan in disgust and cover her ears. "Ugh. Zelos, I really don't want to hear this."

He shrugged. "There's nothing to hear. We fooled around a little, but she fell asleep before the main event, and I was sober enough to realize I couldn't take advantage of her with a clear conscience, so I didn't. Nothing happened."

Her eyes narrowed, and she looked sharply at him. Huh? "So...what does this girl have to do with anything?"

She was surprised to see his frown had deepened and he was watching his glass intently again, as if it was utterly fascinating. And again Sheena could recognize the signs: something disturbing and difficult for him to talk about was coming. After taking another sip of his not-champagne, Zelos cleared his throat and looked up, distantly observing the sky. "A month later, she waltzed into my mansion, announced she was pregnant, and claimed I was the father."

...What? She was missing something here. "But I thought you said...."

He quickly nodded. "Nothing happened. The kid wasn't mine. I'm a hundred percent certain about that. I knew her accusation wasn't true, and I tried to tell her that, but she insisted, and then she started listing off her demands. She wanted me to support her, marry her, be the kid's father...basically, she wanted to use my power, money, and position as the Chosen for her own gain. When I told her no, absolutely not, because I knew for fact the kid wasn't mine, she threatened to blackmail me and tell everyone about my 'bastard child' to get what she wanted."

Sheena's lips parted. Oh. "And with your reputation already starting, everyone would've believed it."

"In a heartbeat, especially since I had no concrete proof to the opposite," he said. "They would've thought I was the one lying, not some poor, knocked-up girl. That was when I realized I didn't want to be a father, not yet, and definitely not to some kid I had with a woman I didn't love, because even if I wasn't that kid's father, if she hadn't fallen asleep that night...it could've been mine, and I could've been forced to raise it as my own. My family history was bad enough that the last thing I wanted was to repeat that with a family of my own. And the responsibilities...heh, as if I didn't already hate the ones that were forced on me, then to throw in the responsibilities of being a father, something else to prevent me from living the fun, easy life I really wanted? Absolutely not. I was only 16, and while my life was already a mess and could've ended at any minute, the risks involved weren't worth a moment of fleeting, empty pleasure. I may be a risk taker and enjoy pushing my luck, but even I have my limits, and risking putting another kid through what I had been through...I refused to do that. No kid deserves to suffer for their parents' mistakes and indiscretions. That was when I stopped publicly drinking alcohol, not only for the reasons I mentioned before, but because I always wanted to know what I was doing so I never accidentally reached that point with a woman again. I didn't want to lose control and end up with a boatload of regrets. So I vowed then and there to never let things reach that point again. Women may say they adore me, but it isn't me they adore; they only adore my money, power, and title, and clearly some would use whatever means necessary to get it. And that was one promise to myself that I've kept."

It took Sheena a moment to realize she was still gaping at him, but she was so fascinated and horrified that she couldn't stop. "And so you haven't...even though...."

Zelos shook his head with surprising certainty. "Nope. Not a one since then. I refuse to be used like that. Oh, don't get me wrong, the flirting is a fun and flattering diversion when I'm bored, and those women are useful in oh so many ways, so I use them, and things occasionally get out of hand when the woman is especially bold and demanding, but it's never serious, and it's never gone that far again. I'm positive about that. And it's not going to. I can't take that chance, not only for my own sake, but for --"

His voice abruptly cut off, and Sheena's eyes narrowed. Huh? "But for...the woman's sake?" she ventured. He nodded faintly, albeit, she noted, he couldn't look at her. His reaction seemed to indicate there was more to this story than he'd told. Feeling bold, Sheena decided to take a stab at her hunch. "What happened to that girl who claimed her baby was yours?" He stiffened, and she recognized, with empty satisfaction, that she'd nailed it. "Zelos? What happened to her?"

He took another sip of his not-champagne and cleared his throat. "She started spreading her rumors. When the Church caught wind of it, though, they decided they couldn't have another 'bastard' child of the Chosen running around, with its mother wreaking havoc like Seles's had, so they sent her away, to some boondock village I'd never heard of before. Because of the village's primitive nature and its lack of proper medical facilities, though, she...." He sighed. "She and the baby died during childbirth. I didn't even find out about it until months later; every time I'd ask what happened to her, no one would talk about it. And when I finally learned the truth...." He squeezed his eyes shut and his head sank downward. Sheena's heart went out to him, despite her horror; clearly, the incident had scarred him, deeply. "My actions cost her her life. It was just another reminder of how my existence caused tragedies everywhere I went." His eyes opened again. "I didn't want her using me, but I didn't want her dying for it, either. I mean, what if that kid really had been mine? What if I had taken advantage of her that night? What if she hadn't fallen asleep? The Church would've done the same thing to her regardless of who the kid's real father was, and she still would've died because of me. No, I refused to let anything like that ever happen again. I couldn't take that chance."

Oh, Zelos. Sheena bit her tongue, though, not wanting him to think she was pitying him, because he was right; that was his choice, and he had to live with the repercussions. At least he'd taken responsibility after that and prevented the issue from ever arising again. And yet.... "And yet you flirt with and hit on every girl you meet. Aren't you taking that chance every time you do that? What if a girl takes you up on the offer?"

Zelos shook his head sharply. "It doesn't happen. I'm very careful about that. I may lead them on and let everyone believe the rumors, but it's never more than that. It's one of the few safe, fun outlets I have -- and besides, I have to admit to liking the attention and knowing I can affect others like that. At least someone professes to like me, even if their reasoning is shallow." He shrugged. "Really, it's just a game to make every woman I meet blush, and I keep it up because it helps maintain my image of a carefree, happy, Tethe'alla-loving Chosen. And it's so easy to do." He suddenly looked at her and smirked. "I mean, how much do you want to bet those hunnies in the ballroom are all talking amongst themselves right now, wondering where I ran off to and who's the lucky girl I'm making out with?"

Her eyes widened -- oh, right, even she'd thought he was doing that before she'd found him here -- but she refused to consider that those floozies might be thinking she and he were currently...ahem. "Wait, is that why you were out here? To get them gossiping about you?"

"Heh. That's just the bonus." Zelos sighed again and turned back to his drink, his face quickly growing somber again. "Nah, I was actually out here formulating a new Grand Master Plan now that I've achieved the last one of getting rid of that damned title. Knowing it's feeding the rumors further and solidifying my image is just the icing on the cake."

Sheena blinked at him. For the life of her, she couldn't understand his reasoning, especially when it was questionable how happy the act and reputation really made him. "But do you really need to maintain that image anymore?"

"Probably not, but I'm not willing to discard everything I've spent years building until I'm sure what my next move is. If I decide that image could still be useful, why wreck it yet? I mean, you're an information-gatherer; even you have to admit using my charms is an easy, inconspicuous way to get information. All I have to do is smile at most girls and they're handing me gifts and answering any questions I have." He shrugged. "Besides, it's habit now. That'll just take time to break -- assuming I decide to do it at all."

She watched him closely, her confusion at his nonchalance multiplying. "But how do you expect to ever get close to anyone if you always keep them at arm's length and never let them see the real you?"

"I haven't thought that far ahead yet." He flashed her a sly grin. "You kind of interrupted me before I got to that part."

That time Sheena couldn't restrain the soft laugh that burst out of her. That truly was what he'd been doing before: thinking about the future while the rumor mill swirled around him. But still...what a lonely life. "So you've never really let anyone get close to you, have you?"

Instantly, his grin vanished and he looked back at his glass. "I couldn't. Emotional attachment would've just been cruel before this."

...Huh? "Why?"

"Because, technically speaking, I'm engaged to some chick living in a village north of the Gaorrachia Forest."

Okay, that took her by surprise -- but even more surprising was the skip her heart made at that. Firmly ignoring it, though, Sheena instead gaped at him a moment, struggling to regain her composure. "What?" she squeaked, then quickly cleared her throat and tried again. "You're engaged?"

Zelos sighed and shook his head. "I said, 'technically speaking.' The truth is I've never actually met her, and I've been engaged to her since the day I was born because the Church decided her mana signature would be the best suited to continue a pure mana lineage. And up until we got rid of Yggdrasill, I would've eventually been forced to marry her and have a kid with her to preserve the bloodline, just like my parents were."

Zelos was engaged to be married. Sheena could only continue gaping at him in shock. "I...I had no idea."

He flashed her a wry grin. "Yeah, most people don't -- including my hunnies -- but I certainly do. And that's why...."

"That's why what?" she pressed as his voice trailed off, his grin vanishing.

His eyes darted at her, but he quickly looked back at his glass. "That's why I never let myself truly fall for a girl and why I never let any girl truly fall for me. Letting that happen would risk history repeating itself like it did for my old man. I love women too much to hurt anyone like that, being married to one I didn't love but having a mistress on the side. Everyone suffers there. It's not fair to the girl I'm engaged to, to the mistress, or to any kids I might have. Believe me, I know firsthand the problems it causes."

...Oh. How could she respond to that? Never in a million years would she have thought that Zelos Wilder would head off potential problems like that or that his reasoning would be so...selfless. He was literally inviting loneliness by keeping everyone at a distance from the real him and flirting with every girl he met to cover the truth, all to prevent a repeat of his own painful past from hurting anyone else. With every new thing she learned, her opinion of him was improving. A lot. He was far more self-aware than she'd ever thought possible...and Sheena was stunned to realize how much she liked what she was seeing. He wasn't nearly the egotistical, arrogant, idiotic womanizer she'd always believed him to be. No, he was a real man with real feelings who, buried far beneath the act, didn't want to hurt others like he'd been hurt.

After a moment, she swallowed hard and returned to playing absently with the metal railing, tracing abstract patterns there. "And if someone does start getting too close?"

His head sank downward. "If I sense I'm starting to feel too much for someone -- or vice versa, for that matter -- I do what I have to do to stop it. I push them away. I make them hate me. I cut it off before it goes too far. If someone's taking things too seriously, I'll either betray them somehow or 'forget' about them, whatever it takes to make them write me off as an idiot and leave. It's better than betraying them by marrying another woman or devastating them when I was summoned off to sacrifice my life for Tethe'alla."

"So it would still hurt them, but it would be less painful than the alternative," she clarified, scarcely able to believe her ears.

"Exactly."

Sheena watched him, sensing his discomfort and, she almost thought, sadness. It quickly became obvious to her that the woman wasn't the only one hurt by his doing that, though. Even if he was sure it had to be done, Zelos definitely wasn't happy about it, either. And without warning, the realization hit her. Was it possible? It would go against everything she'd ever known about him, and yet his regretful body language seemed to be implying that. And while she didn't want to scrape open wounds that may have never fully healed, she suddenly needed to know the answer to this, and this was likely her only opportunity to find out.

"So...have you ever actually felt something for someone?" she asked, her face growing warm at asking a question so personal. "I mean, have you ever had serious feelings for someone?"

And again, his body's sudden rigidness answered her question for her, as did how he looked even further away from her. A part of her suddenly regretted making him so uncomfortable, even while the other part desperately wanted to know what could make him react so extremely and leave him so quiet, so... shy. Finally, though, guilt won out, and Sheena reluctantly decided to retract the question -- that really wasn't any of her business, and he clearly wasn't comfortable discussing feelings like those -- but before she could, he whispered, so softly that she barely heard it, "Once."

Sheena quickly shut her mouth, startled by his willingness to tell her even that much. In an instant, curiosity won out over the guilt. If he didn't want her to know more than that, then he wouldn't tell her more. Until then, though, she would push until he told her, in no uncertain terms, to stop. "What happened?"

Zelos still couldn't look at her, she noted curiously, his eyes instead remaining firmly downcast. "When I realized what was happening, I did what I had to do before she could reciprocate my feelings. I pushed her away. I made her hate me."

She slid a little closer to him, surprised to realize how little space now remained between them. When had she closed the gap between them that much? Part of her wanted to touch him, to comfort him, but she didn't when he stiffened further at her nearness. Shying away from any woman's touch was so unlike him that she barely recognized this man anymore. "You loved her," she stated in amazement, even though his actions already made his answer clear.

After a moment, Zelos sighed wearily. "I don't know. Maybe. Probably. I didn't think so at the time, and it's not like I really understood what love was back then, but now, looking back...yeah, I did."

Sheena couldn't help the smile that lit her face, even if Zelos never turned to see it. The very thought of it, that this 'lecherous pervert,' as she'd always believed him to be, was ever sincerely in love, that he was even capable of real love...it was unbelievable. Unbelievable, and yet she didn't doubt it for a second. His body language attested to his sincerity. The pain he obviously still felt, though...it tugged at her heartstrings in a way she'd never expected to feel toward him. And just like that, her smile vanished. If he hadn't been the Chosen, then that never would have happened. No, he would probably already be married to a woman he adored and would have a family of his own. He never would have had to push this mysterious woman away. Talk about an unfair life.

"And what about now?" she asked gently. "Do you still feel that way for her?"

He swallowed hard and hesitated a long moment before nodding. "I guess some feelings never truly die, huh?" He cracked a wry yet wistful smile, but still, Sheena noted, he didn't look at her. "And here I thought it should've been easy to curtail those feelings knowing I pushed her away so well that she loathed everything about me. I mean, it is pretty illogical and masochistic to love someone who can't stand you."

Maybe. But if Sheena had learned one thing in life, it was that feelings rarely submitted themselves to the rules of logic. No, they did whatever the hell they wanted to do, not what they should be doing. Case in point: despite all the stupid, occasionally even cruel, things Zelos had ever done to her, she'd never truly been able to hate him. She'd wanted to hate him for becoming someone she didn't like when they were just forming their friendship, and yet when they'd been thrown back together again on Lloyd's journey and Zelos had constantly teased and annoyed her, she still never had. And if she'd had to kill him at the Tower of Salvation...yes, she realized, embarrassed, she would have cried for him, for the friendship they should have had but never did...and for the man who had sacrificed his life because of his exhaustion and disillusionment with it and his inability to escape his ghosts and his chains. And now, learning the truth about the real Zelos, about who he'd always been and who he should have been had fate dealt him a better hand...well, Sheena didn't want to think too hard about how she felt about him now. But she did know that seeing him like this, still loving a woman from his past even though he would probably never be able to undo what he'd done because of how much he'd cared for her, left her feeling empty and wistful. And that, too, she didn't want to consider too hard right now. No, she refused to analyze or expose that part of her when she wasn't currently in the spotlight.

She cleared her throat, forcing her mind back on topic. "Do you still see her around?"

His nod was so faint that Sheena barely noticed it. "Yeah."

"Well, maybe that's the problem, that you've never gotten away from her," she suggested.

He cracked a tiny smile. "Maybe."

She motioned back at the mansion, not really wanting to hear his answer and yet unable to resist asking. "Was she here tonight?" Zelos still didn't look at her, and she found his sudden shyness striking since normally he couldn't not look at her. That time, though, he merely nodded again, making the lead weight sitting in her stomach that she refused to acknowledge sink even lower. "Does she know?"

"No."

Not only was he speaking in one-word answers, but he still couldn't look at her, and his face was growing...red? Wait a minute, was Zelos Wilder actually blushing? He was really serious about this, wasn't he? Sheena quickly brushed aside an annoying tug of jealousy for this mysterious woman, though, because right then she should not be thinking thoughts like that. But she also dismissed the urge to tease him for handing her such ridiculously powerful blackmail material on himself because she knew if she were to push him in a direction he refused to go, she would lose all trust he had for her, and even if she may have once believed he deserved to be teased and tormented like that, the truth was she could never do that to him and still respect herself in the morning. Idiot or not, he clearly didn't trust many people, and being betrayed by one he did, one he'd now shared so much truth with...she couldn't do that to him. No, seeing him this unhappy...she didn't like it. And regardless of her potential feelings of jealousy for that nameless woman he still harbored feelings for, Sheena wanted to reassure him that if she had given him another chance, then maybe this other woman would, too.

"Well, what about now that you're not the Chosen?" she asked. "Those rules you imposed on yourself don't apply anymore, do they?"

For the first time since they'd ventured onto this subject, Zelos looked at her, his blue eyes sharp, searching...maybe even hopeful. He watched her a moment before sighing and looking away again. "No, probably not, at least not once my engagement's called off for good. But I'm not sure I can ever make it up to her. I...I was a pretty big jerk to her. I doubt she'd even give me a chance to apologize or believe me if I did. And honestly, after maintaining the act so long, I'm not even sure I trust myself to behave enough to fix things with her. The Chosen One persona is so engrained in me now that it's hard to separate from myself -- once-in-a-blue-moon mental holidays like this excluded, of course."

And again, his blatant insecurity was striking compared to what she'd always seen from him before. Normally he would be boasting, "Oh, of course I can win back the love of any hunny!" But now...he wasn't even sure he could trust himself to do that? This humility and uncertainty he was displaying...they were so foreign. "I think you can." He looked at her again, his eyebrows rising, and Sheena smiled. "Well, you're being honest with me now, right?"

The eyebrows crept up even higher. "You actually believe me about all this."

He seemed truly surprised by that. "Is there any reason why I shouldn't?" she countered.

He held her gaze again, searching her eyes for something Sheena hoped he'd find -- because she found what she hoped to see in his eyes: no trace of deception, joke, or exaggeration in them, nor anything else to discredit everything he'd just told her. Finally, he chuckled softly and turned away. "No. I just never thought you, of all people, would."

She shrugged and, for the first time in longer than she could remember, initiated physical contact with him in a way not involving pain by nudging his arm with her elbow, unable to hide her smile. "Well, I have to admit I'm not sure how a few things worked considering your 'Grand Master Plan.' I mean, you did sneak into the shower that one time to peek at me."

Zelos beamed her a surprisingly non-lecherous grin. "Look, I know how that seemed at the time, but the truth is, it was an accident. I didn't know you were there...and besides, I barely saw anything anyway." Suddenly, his grin grew devious, in a far more familiar way than she liked -- but for once, Sheena was almost glad to see that, even now, mental holiday or not, Zelos was still the same person she'd always known. Almost. "But you can't blame me for liking the little bit I saw, can you?"

Sheena couldn't help herself; her response was as much a reflex for her as his flirting with every woman he met was for him. She smacked his arm, making him laugh softly, but even then she still couldn't restrain her grin. "You're still a pervert, you know."

"Yeah, I know. What can I say? I'm a guy. I guess some things will always be a part of me." He looked down at her, his smile softening. "But I promise you, that wasn't intentional. Just because I let you believe that doesn't make it true."

She nodded; he really didn't seem to be lying about that. "And what about all those nights you snuck into Meltokio through the sewers? Are you saying you weren't actually meeting up with women?"

That time his smile vanished completely. "Nope. Not women. In fact, I usually did that to avoid women, especially when they were being clingy and I was feeling weak-willed and couldn't trust myself not to let things go too far, or when I was having trouble maintaining the act. Or they were times when I just wanted to be alone to think." He shrugged. "It didn't hurt that it started even more rumors when my hunnies couldn't find me."

She should have figured, given everything else he'd told her. "Where did you actually go?"

His blue eyes were decidedly measuring as he looked her over again, as if he was unsure whether or not to tell her -- something Sheena found odd given everything else he'd already told her -- but again, after a moment, he sighed and nodded. "I have a little spot up on the Grand Tethe'alla Bridge where I like to go."

That surprised her; the bridge was close to Meltokio, but not that close. "Why there?"

His gaze snapped to her face again, still frighteningly serious. "Because it reminded me that no matter how trapped I felt in my life, I always had a choice."

Huh? "A choice?"

"A choice whether I wanted to live or die. If I ever really, truly wanted to give it all up and escape that damned gilded cage I was forced to live in, I could have done so there by jumping. And every time I decided that while I didn't want to live the life they were giving me, yes, I still wanted to live." He offered her half a smile. "That's where I started scheming to get rid of my title. It took years, and I had to take advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, but I finally got what I wanted."

She nudged his arm again. "For your sake, Zelos, I'm glad you did. At least now you can live a life you actually want."

"I sure hope so," he whispered, turning back to the moon, the smile still lingering on his lips.

Sheena eyed him as he finished his not-champagne and set the glass down on the railing between them. "And what do you actually want for your life?"

Zelos breathed in deeply, then slowly released it, thinking that over. "Honestly? I'm not sure yet. I want to fix this twisted world, get rid of the segregation and discrimination, clean up the Church...but those are a whole lot of responsibilities I'm not sure I'm ready to accept yet, and I don't want to run from my responsibilities anymore. I want a real family, though -- that much I do know. I know I want to reconnect with my sister. A voluptuous, beautiful, sexy girlfriend would be nice, but even more than that, I want love -- real love, not the shallow, fleeting 'love' my hunnies give me. I want friends I don't have to manipulate to get to like me, who accept me for me. I want to be taken seriously, not like a never-ending joke, but I still want to have fun and be happy, too. I want to be able to say 'no' to things I don't want to do and say 'yes' to things I do want to do instead of being forced to comply with all my obligations. I want to be treated like I'm normal, not some untouchable savior figure. I want to be able to walk around Meltokio and not have to worry about making sure the mask is always in place. I mean, I already know I'll never be able to fully drop it since it's so engrained in me after wearing it so long, and part of me will probably always believe that bishop's warnings that no one will ever like the real me, but I'd like to at least occasionally be myself." He shrugged. "Basically, I guess I want everything I've always been denied in life."

Sheena gave him a soft smile. Wow. Before that night, she never would have believed any of that, but now? "You deserve it, Zelos. I sincerely hope you get it all one day."

Zelos met and held her gaze, and she was amazed when he mirrored her smile, his entire face lighting with a heartwarming radiance that stunned her. She wasn't sure how long the moment lasted -- and the way he was looking at her, as if he was seeing her for the first time and was admiring everything he saw, made her blush -- but neither looked away. Normally at that point he would be trying to reclaim his lost pride by acting stupid and making it look like he'd been joking about everything he'd just said, even if he wasn't, but Sheena hoped that time he wouldn't because this was a sweet moment she wanted to remember, untainted, forever: the moment she realized how much she liked this man, that she felt safe and comfortable with him, that the kind, polite, charming young man she'd once been friends with still existed in him beneath the act, and that she could trust him to carry out his promises because he trusted her to carry out hers. And for a moment as his head dipped closer to hers, she actually wondered if he would make her pay up now and kiss her, a thought that made her blush deepen and her heart pound faster, but without warning -- and, surprisingly enough, to her own disappointment -- he suddenly looked away and sighed, his beautiful smile vanishing. He stood like that another moment, but then pushed himself away from the railing.

"Anyway, babe, I'm sorry to ruin this lovely moment by running out on you, but I'm exhausted," he said. "There's a reason I don't think or talk about this stuff more than I have to; it's just too depressing and draining. So I'm heading out for the night."

Her brows furrowed as he beamed her a crooked smile. Wait...he was leaving? Granted, his exhaustion was understandable -- that was probably one of the more difficult conversations he'd ever had, especially if he'd never told anyone some of that before -- but still...Sheena wasn't ready for the night to end yet. And in a sense, it truly was premature, because as much as she wanted to believe he'd shared all that because he wanted to, he hadn't volunteered it all for nothing. No, he'd shared that in exchange for a few things she was no longer completely opposed to paying him.

"Wait a minute, Zelos," she said, turning to face him, her blush returning as she realized what she was inviting -- and perhaps in anticipation of it, too. "I still owe you a few things."

Instantly, his half-smile vanished, and for a moment he just watched her closely, almost...sadly?...before shaking his head. "No, Sheena, you don't."

Her eyes widened. No, he couldn't have just said what her ears insisted he'd said. "But...that was the deal. You share your secrets, and I...."

"Sheena," Zelos cut her off. He took a step closer, directly into her personal space, and looked down at her, holding her gaze with alarming intensity. "You. Owe. Me. Nothing." Sheena blinked at him stupidly, her lips parting, and once again her mind was unable to wrap itself around his words. "Being completely honest with you for maybe the first time in my life is my way of apologizing for all the crap I've put you through and thanking you for listening tonight and for always being you...and for believing in someone as worthless and idiotic and annoying and messed up as me. The truth is, I still owe you...well, I owe you far more than I can ever repay. But I hope this at least counts as a start." To her shock, he touched her face, so tenderly that any objections she had were stunned into silence. His fingers trailed down her cheek, making her heart pound wildly and stealing her breath away, his eyes once again taking in every line of her face. Without warning, he beamed her one last soft smile, then he turned and walked away, leaving her frozen in place as her mind floundered for air, trying to comprehend his words and his uncharacteristic refusal to collect on her debt.

"Oh, and one last thing," he suddenly said, stopping at the balcony door and turning toward her again. Quiet as a mouse, he walked back to stand behind her, gently touched her bare shoulder, and leaned forward as if to kiss her exposed neck, her eyes sliding shut and a shiver traveling down her spine as his warm breath grazed her ear. "Of all the women I've ever met, you're the only one I regret pushing away."

And then he was gone, leaving her already floundering mind shutting itself down out of sheer shock and confusion before it could make another attempt to grasp what had just happened. By the time her brain rebooted and could put the pieces together -- oh, sweet Martel, had he really just identified her as that one and only woman he'd said he ever loved, the one he admitted he still did? -- and she realized she was standing there like an idiot, alone, and that she needed to do something, namely turn and whisper his name to stop him, he was long gone.

Her ninja reflexes finally kicked in, and without stopping to think things through, Sheena raced out to the hallway. Not seeing him anywhere, she immediately headed for the ballroom, praying she remembered the route. A minute later, she burst into it and cursed as she realized she was on the second floor, not in the main hallway. She peered down into the crowded room and immediately spotted him, his red hair impossible to miss. She blinked, absorbing the scene: he was near the main door, talking to Lloyd, who just shrugged as if to say, "Suit yourself, man." Zelos then turned and looked directly at her, as if he'd known she would be there, and then bowed his head, giving her the same sincere, charming smile she'd seen mere minutes ago. Then he was gone, heading out the main door. Not wasting another second, Sheena hurried to the stairs and headed down to the door, deftly maneuvering her way through the crowd toward Lloyd. Once there, she stopped before him, panting, and grabbed his arm.

Lloyd's eyes widened in surprise. "Oh! Hey, Sheena...."

Sheena, however, didn't let him finish. "Did he say where he's going?"

Lloyd blinked blankly. "Uh, who?"

"Zelos." She breathed in deeply, trying to calm her racing heart.

To his credit, Lloyd apparently wasn't quite as blind as he sometimes acted, for his eyes narrowed. "What? Wait, your face is all red. And...are you out of breath?"

She couldn't deal with this nonsense right now. "Lloyd, where is he?"

He sighed in exasperation. "Okay, what did he do this time? Was he groping you or hitting on you again? Because I tell ya, one of these days that guy is really gonna get himself in trouble...."

"Wh...what are you...?" His assumptions took her aback and threw her off track until she realized he was mistaking her franticness to find Zelos as anger and a need to smack sense into him. "N...no. It's not that. I just...where did he go? Please, Lloyd, I need to find him."

His eyes widened. "I dunno. He just said he was leaving, that he had to go meet up with some chick. You know him. I guess some things never change, huh?"

For a moment, Sheena froze and just stared at Lloyd without replying, her heart still racing, and it was only then that she realized what a number Zelos had just done on her, because for the first time ever, she wasn't even remotely mad about his stupid, perverse claim to be meeting up with some floozy. No, after what just happened, after what he'd just shown her, she was positive that he wasn't really meeting up with some random girl -- and if he was, it was in no way what he'd insinuated it was. After all, every girl he'd be meeting up with was already safely ensconced in this ballroom, gossiping and waiting for him to pick them up, undoubtedly not even realizing he wasn't there anymore.

She swallowed hard, took another deep breath, and nodded. "Thanks, Lloyd."

Before Sheena could dart for the door, though, Lloyd grabbed her arm to stop her. "Hey, Sheena, you sure you're okay? Zelos didn't do anything to you, did he?"

Yes, he had. He most definitely had. And it was only as the words nearly burst out of her that she realized exactly what it was. That idiot. That damned idiot. She could almost hear his voice in her mind saying, "Always leave them wanting more" -- and that was exactly what he'd done. By lowering his walls and being honest with her, he had effectively knocked down all the emotional walls she'd ever erected against him, protecting herself from being hurt by him again, and as a result, she'd just fallen for him, hard, and needed to find him because she now wanted more. Much, much more. She wasn't sure yet what she wanted to say to him, or what she wanted to do...heck, she wasn't even sure how this would work, or if a relationship with him was what she really wanted, or if she accepted or was comfortable with these realizations yet, or if she should be taking the time to let the emotions cool so she could think everything through first, but the truth was she'd never felt so alive before. Her heart was pounding; blood raced through her veins. The future, which already held so much potential with the worlds reunited, had just become that much brighter. That kind, sweet, charming friend she'd thought she'd lost years ago it turned out had never really left her side and cared about her, a poor, disgraced, hot-tempered outsider, far more than she'd ever dared to imagine; the damned idiot had just pushed her away to protect them both from what would have been a devastating future had their circumstances not just finally, drastically, changed.

She met Lloyd's eyes, unable to keep from smiling as everything sank in. But Lloyd didn't need to know any of that, and besides, she was wasting precious time by letting Zelos get further away from her. Instead of answering him, therefore, she just repeated her earlier, "Thanks, Lloyd," before pulling away and racing outside.

Upon reaching the street, Sheena slowed to look around, but he was nowhere to be seen. His mansion was nearby, though, so that was the first place to check. Besides, he'd said he was exhausted so it made sense he'd go home. She hurried toward his mansion, her heart racing, and only hesitated a moment before knocking on the door. After a moment it opened, revealing Zelos's butler.

"Good evening, ma'am. May I help you?"

Sheena peered past him, searching for Zelos in the background, but not seeing him, she turned her attention back to the butler. "Sebastian, hi. I'm looking for Zelos. Has he come back here yet?"

The butler's face betrayed no emotion as he replied, "I am sorry, ma'am. He was attending a dinner party tonight and will most likely not return until late evening."

Her face fell. What? He wasn't here? "Yeah, I know. I was there, too, and he just left. I thought he was coming back here."

"Unfortunately, he has not returned yet. If he left the party early, he did not retreat here."

"...Oh." He...he wasn't really meeting up with some floozy, was he? No. Sheena didn't doubt that he'd told her the truth about that before, and she refused to start thinking that way now. He deserved the benefit of the doubt this time. He just...took a detour going home. Maybe he had to clear his head like she really should be clearing hers. She looked at the street, hoping to see him heading home, but it was deserted since everyone was attending the party so she turned back to Sebastian. "Listen, Sebastian, can I wait here for him? I really need to talk to him."

Sebastian's sigh was nearly imperceptible but decidedly long-suffering. "I apologize, ma'am, but Lord Zelos asks that visitors not be allowed entry when he is unavailable to entertain them. I will, however, inform him that you called. May I have a name to give him?"

...Oh. Her heart, which had just been on such a high, sank further. Where else might he have gone? Wait...that spot he mentioned up on the bridge, maybe? But it was night, and while that in and of itself wasn't a problem, the bridge was quite a distance away and she didn't know where his 'spot' was -- the bridge was huge, after all, and if it was on one of the lower rafters, she'd never find him, especially in the dark. Heck, she didn't even know for sure that he'd gone there. No, looking for him there probably wasn't wise. She would rather have waited here for him, but that, unfortunately, looked unlikely....

She started when Sebastian coughed politely to regain her attention, and only then did she remember he'd asked for her name. "Oh, sorry. Sheena."

"Sheena. Very well, miss. When he returns, I will be sure to let him know of your--" His voice abruptly cut off, and he looked directly at her. "One moment. Is your last name perchance Fujibayashi?"

Her eyes widened slightly. "Y...yes, actually, it is."

Sebastian, surprisingly, relaxed and quickly stepped aside. "I apologize, Miss Sheena. I did not recognize you in your present attire. Please, come inside. You may wait for Master Zelos here."

She eyed him, stunned by his sudden change, but not willing to second guess it, she stepped inside. "Thank you."

"I should have recognized you; you were one of Sir Bud's companions. Please, make yourself at home. May I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Something to eat?"

Sheena bit back her grin at his unshakable name for Lloyd; Lloyd was always so flustered whenever Sebastian called him that. But why his sudden change of heart? "Um, no, I'm good -- wait, actually, do you have any green tea?" With the way her heart was pounding, she could really use something soothing right now.

He bowed his head. "Of course. One moment; I will return with your tea shortly."

"Thanks."

She took a deep, shuddering breath as she seated herself on the couch. The room itself was so warm and homey, what with the fire Sebastian had going. For the first time, though, Sheena was seeing it all differently -- that time as the 'gilded cage' Zelos had called it. Everything may be luxurious and comfortable, but it still symbolized the unwanted, showy life he was forced to live. It was his solely because of who he was, the family he hadn't chosen to be born into. And that portrait of his mother...during the regeneration journey, Sheena had always thought it odd that whenever they'd stopped here, he'd always spent so much time staring at it. Now she understood his fixation with it all too well. In fact, Sheena could no longer look at it for long without wanting to strangle the woman for everything she'd put her son through, so it was a relief when Sebastian returned with her tea.

"Here you go, miss."

"Thank you. Hey, Sebastian, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

Sheena took a sip of her tea; man, this stuff was perfect. She remembered this from when she and Zelos had been friends years ago; Sebastian had brewed it for her once back then, too. "Before...you weren't going to let me in until you heard my name."

Sebastian bowed his head. "That is correct, Miss Sheena. Master Zelos has given me specific instructions to never let his female admirers enter when he is unavailable. However, he made it clear that if a woman matching your name and description ever called, I was to grant you entry and give you anything you needed, regardless of his availability. You are the only woman to which he granted such special privilege."

She was blushing again; she could feel it. "How long ago was that?"

"I do not remember the exact date, but several years have passed since then, miss."

Oh, Zelos. She'd had no idea. She'd been so pissed at him after he'd sabotaged their friendship that she'd never stopped by just to say 'hi.' Sheena smiled, her blush deepening, which she tried to hide by taking another sip of her tea. After a moment, she motioned at the nearby painting. "And that's his mother, huh?"

Sebastian sighed. "Yes. That is Mylene Wilder. A beautiful woman, truly."

Beautiful, yes. But her coldness and cruelty toward her only son were unmatched. The painter had captured it perfectly; now that she was looking closer at it, Sheena could see it in the woman's eyes. "Sebastian, is it true Zelos didn't speak for three months after she died?"

His eyebrows rose curiously. "Yes, that is true. Am I to understand he confided in you about that, miss?"

"Just tonight, yeah. He said he didn't remember it himself but that you told him about it."

Sebastian nodded sadly. "He was such a happy child when he was young, too, despite his mother's unfortunate aloofness. This was especially true when his sister visited for he greatly enjoyed spending time with her. Watching him suffer so after his mother's death, when his sister was sent away permanently, was difficult. He did not often let it show, but it was clear how deeply it had affected him. Such a tragedy."

"Yes, it was," she murmured, her gaze returning to the painting. That just further confirmed what she already knew -- and it further confirmed that Zelos had been telling her the truth earlier. She'd never doubted that, but the external confirmation was still a comfort. And the fact that Zelos didn't let women enter his home when he wasn't there and yet he made an exception for her, and so long ago, too...Sheena couldn't help smiling again.

Sebastian shifted. "Will that be all, miss?"

She started, having forgotten he was still there. "Oh! Yes. Thank you, Sebastian."

He bowed his head. "Of course. If you require anything else, please do not hesitate to ask. I will be in the kitchen."

Sheena watched him leave, then she settled in on the couch with her tea, watching the fireplace, letting her mind drift over everything that had just happened and what the future would bring next, and waiting for her host to return so they could continue the conversation they'd had all night but that now, it turned out, had only just begun.

***

Sheena awoke to a distant door closing, and noting a ray of light streaking down on her from a nearby window, she closed and rubbed her eyes before prying them open again. Wait...where was she? She looked around, disoriented, until she realized she was inside Zelos's mansion, in a bedroom...in a...wait a minute, how had she gotten into bed? She bolted upright, clutching a plush ivory blanket to her chest, her heart racing as her mind struggled to determine what had happened. She remembered the party, the long, insightful conversation with Zelos, and then coming here...she must have fallen asleep while waiting for him, but she certainly didn't remember going to bed or changing into these...comfortable...sleep...clothes? She looked up and found her dress hanging on a nearby dresser, but how had it gotten there? Suddenly, she started again as a soft knock sounded on the door.

"Um...just a minute...." Not having time to change nor clothes besides her dress to change into, she grabbed a nearby robe that appeared to have been laid out for her, slipped it on, and quickly pulled it shut. "Okay."

The door cracked open, and Sebastian's head appeared on the other side. Seeing her standing in the robe, though, he immediately pulled back and closed the door to a modest crack so he couldn't see her. "My apologies, miss. I did not mean to wake you." He stuck his arm inside; in his hand he held her usual traveling clothes. "The master asked me to retrieve these for you from the hotel and see that you received them."

Her heart pounding, still startled from waking so abruptly, Sheena just blinked blankly at his arm. "Zelos...." And just like that, it hit her what had undoubtedly happened. Ugh, she should have known he couldn't resist seeing her naked again. But after last night...could she really jump to that conclusion without being certain?

"Do not worry, Miss Sheena," Sebastian said as she accepted the clothes from him. "He carried you upstairs last night and asked one of the maids to change you into more comfortable sleeping attire."

Her eyes widened. How had Sebastian known she was thinking that? Zelos never mentioned his butler was telepathic -- although, Sheena absently supposed, one would almost have to be to understand what his 'master' wanted and was thinking most of the time. "Oh. Um...thank you, Sebastian." She set the clothes on her bed, relaxing now that she knew Zelos hadn't taken advantage of her unconsciousness to do anything perverted -- and suddenly her desperate desire to see him again returned. "Um, where...where is he?"

"I am afraid he is not here, miss. However, he asked that I give you this." Sebastian's arm shot into the room again, handing her an envelope with her name on it. "He also asked that I make you breakfast, so that will be ready in half an hour."

Sheena blinked as she took the letter from him, staring at it nervously. Now what was that idiot up to? "Thanks. I'll be down soon." She listened to Sebastian descend the stairs, waiting until his footsteps had died away, then she took a deep breath and opened the letter.

~~~

Sheena,

Sorry again about running off on you last night. I had some thinking to do and some arrangements to make. It certainly wasn't because of the company, because I can think of no one I would rather spend my time with.

Well, actually, one other person comes close. As we were talking, I realized I had neglected to visit my sister since the tree's revival. Things between us might still be awkward, but I decided I need to start remedying that. That's actually pretty high up on my brand spankin' new Grand Master Plan, right under "Find a way to apologize to Sheena for all the crap I put her through." That was as far as I'd gotten on it before you joined me. I just never dreamed the opportunity to do so would ever arise, and certainly not so soon. You really are an amazing woman.

Anyway, I'm going to be gone for awhile. Now that the worlds are reunited, I've decided to take a trip with Seles to find out where everything ended up and show her around. She's never spent much time outside the abbey, and I...well, I'd like to start making up for lost time with her. Besides, just yesterday the King mentioned he wants me to start recharting the combined worlds and making notes about the population for future censuses, so I figure I'm better off just getting that job done. Y'know, kill two birds with one stone.

So I don't know when I'll be back. I thought about waking you and telling you this in person, but I was afraid I'd never be able to leave if I did. Your beauty tends to be...distracting...at times.

Gotta run. Seles is expecting me by sunrise.

Love ya, babe.

~Zelos

P.S. Make yourself comfortable in the mansion whenever you'd like and for however long you'd like. Feel free to be as demanding as you'd like, too. Bizarre requests are even better. Sebastian needs someone to take care of while I'm gone or he'll go crazy with boredom and longing from missing me. That, or he'll throw a giant party and wreck the place. You know how nutty those butlers can get when left to their own devices.

P.P.S. Don't tell him I said that.

P.P.P.S. Yes. I meant it.

~~~

Sheena let out a soft laugh amidst the suddenly overwhelming sense of disappointment, even as the final postscript brought a tear to her eye that she quickly brushed away. That idiot. That damned, damned idiot.

She read the letter again, then folded it up, pulled on her clothes, and slipped it into her pocket. Then she tied up her hair and headed downstairs to breakfast.

It was a good thing she had a lot of work to do in Mizuho because otherwise she would really, really miss him.

Scratch that. She was going to miss him anyway.

***

Part 5
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