smb814: (TOS Sheelos Sky)
[personal profile] smb814

The two continued walking through Meltokio in silence, until finally they were leaving the main gate and heading north. Zelos released her arm -- he'd made his statement to Meltokio, and he didn't want to make her uncomfortable by coming across as too clingy or overly tactile -- and then he lifted his hands behind his head, reveling in the clear blue sky of one of the most beautiful mornings he could remember. And speaking of being tactile, they needed to have this conversation, too, so he knew what he could safely do with her.

"So...about this rule Mizuho has regarding public displays of affection," he began. Martel, between that smile on her lips and the sun beating down on her, she was utterly gorgeous. "What's considered a 'public display of affection'? Obviously a kiss is off limits, but beyond that...."

Sheena chuckled, her gaze falling downward. "Sorry, but everything else is off limits, too. No touching of any kind."

His eyes narrowed and he lowered his hands. 'Of any kind'? "None whatsoever? Not even a hug?"

"Nope."

"Holding hands?"

"Nope."

"I can't even touch you? Not even like this?" He poked her arm with his finger.

Sheena grinned and shook her head. "Nope."

Okay, that was ridiculous. He'd struggled for years to keep his hands off of her because she was just that hot, and now, when he finally could touch her without eliciting her wrath, he wasn't allowed to do so while in her village? "But I distinctly remember you slugging me there that one time...."

She rolled her eyes. "Slugging someone isn't a public display of affection; it's a public display of aggravation. Those are allowed."

Zelos gave her a teasing smirk. "I dunno, in your case I'm pretty sure it was a display of affection...."

She blushed and shot him a mild glare. "You just keep telling yourself that."

He chuckled -- oh, I will, Sheena; I definitely will -- but instead of saying that, he released a sad, showy sigh. "Talk about a village being no fun."

"Maybe, but if you don't want to be permanently banned, you'll have to follow that rule," she said. "You realize that, right?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he grumbled, waving that off. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

Sheena snorted. "Feel free to be as miserable and whiny about it as you'd like, but you still have to follow the rules while you're there."

Well, on the bright side, it wasn't like he'd expected to win that fight. He wasn't happy about it, but it wasn't like he would only see her in Mizuho. And if it really drove him crazy, then he wouldn't go there more than necessary...although refusing to spend time with Sheena unless he could touch her was pretty stupid. It wasn't like physical touching was the only aspect of this relationship he was looking forward to. She was right; he'd just have to suck it up and follow the rules if he wanted to see her, which he did.

But now that she'd clarified this rule, Zelos couldn't help wondering what other silly rules they had. "Man, Mizuho really is traditional with relationships, isn't it?"

"Mm hmm," she said, looking away from him. "Very."

Hmm...she was tensing and her face was somber again. Something was obviously bothering her -- which meant there was more to this than she'd told him yet. "So what about when we're not in public?"

Her eyes fell downward, her blush returning. "Still very traditional."

"Can I at least touch you if we're not walking around Mizuho?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"Hug you?"

"Yeah."

Definitely getting better now. "Kiss you?"

She smirked and arched an eyebrow at him. "I've already kissed you, haven't I?"

Zelos grinned sappily, remembering those amazing kisses -- kisses that would be feeding his fantasies for weeks to come. "Yeah, you have. And what lovely kisses they were, too. Seriously, I can't imagine a worse torture than not being able to get an occasional kiss from my sexy, voluptuous girlfriend."

Her blush deepened and her head sank downward as she chuckled. "As long as no one from Mizuho sees it, they're fine with it." She opened her mouth as if to say more, but then she glanced at him, closed it, and looked away again. Okay, she definitely has something else to say, but she must not feel comfortable doing so...which means whatever it is, I really need to hear it. Before he could push, though, she went on, her gaze focused on the ground. "Well, they're fine with those things, at least. Anything beyond that, though, they're...um, they're not."

...Ah. Her blush was blazing in full, her body was stiff, and she still wasn't looking at him -- all of which told him what she meant. A momentary panic hit him at what that might mean for them, but he quickly shoved it aside. No, she wasn't saying that; she was just saying her people disapproved of it. Granted, she was clearly uncomfortable with the prospect and especially with talking to him about it, probably because of his infamous, albeit inaccurate, reputation as a Casanova-esque paramour, but that still didn't mean his worst-case scenario was correct. He needed more information before jumping to conclusions.

So, now, how to do that without actually asking her that. "But I thought I'd heard Mizuho was actually very open about that. Like, as open as Meltokio is. Y'know, ninjas using seduction as a method of espionage."

Sheena nodded, but it was too quick and stilted -- and she wouldn't look at him, either. She'd never been one to talk openly about sexuality, just beat him up whenever he did, but this went beyond modesty. This was an almost palpable embarrassment. But why? "It...it was, a long time ago," she said slowly, carefully. "But now that's changed. We still use seduction to get information, but women aren't permitted to go...that far...with it anymore."

Zelos watched her closely, his eyes narrowing. "So what changed that?"

He'd be amused by how red her face was if her inability to look at him wasn't so alarming. "Five generations ago, Mizuho's chief learned his wife had been...disappointed...in him as a lover before they'd been married and had taken another man into her bed instead," she said, her voice soft and reluctant. "Cheating was severely frowned on at the time, but it wasn't punishable unless the couple was married before it happened. But then...well, even after they'd married, the woman kept sleeping with her other lover...and the son she had turned out to be the other man's, not her husband's. When the chief found out, he, ah, went on a jealous rampage and killed his wife, her lover, the son, and then himself."

...Oh. Yeah, he could see where this was going, especially if it was the chief who'd done that. "Lovely."

Sheena bit her lip and folded her arms tightly to her chest as they continued walking. "Because Mizuho is so small and can't afford to lose people like that, the next chief established the rule that forbade all premarital sexual relations. Basically, any woman found to be 'impure' on her wedding night is severely punished, sometimes even exiled or executed. It depends how many women Mizuho has at the time."

Oh, Martel. His worst-case scenario was looking increasingly likely. Zelos blinked again, stunned. "So...wait. Are you saying it's okay for your men to sleep around, but not your women?"

She nodded faintly, her eyes still downcast. "A woman's sexual purity can be proved. A man's cannot."

For a moment, Zelos gaped at her. A culture still existed that held to the ridiculous notion of 'women's sexual purity'? Never mind that it wasn't provable; he'd heard the stories about virgins no longer having their 'proof' intact while women who were no longer 'pure' still had theirs. And then to not hold their men to the same standard they held their women, just because women's bodies possessed an extra membrane men's didn't? Could anything be more hypocritical? "Seriously?"

"Mm hmm," she murmured.

Seriously. That was insane! "Damn. Isn't that, y'know, a little harsh?"

Sheena bit her lip, but finally she glanced at him again -- extremely briefly, and her eyes were sad, maybe even worried, but at least it was a look. "Maybe, but that's what they decided, and Mizuho has followed it pretty strictly since then."

Zelos snorted and rolled his eyes. That was incredible. And ridiculous. And stupid. The lesson he would've taken from that scenario was that a person shouldn't marry someone they didn't love, especially when they loved someone else -- and that if the person they did love wasn't satisfying their physical needs, then they needed to discuss that openly and honestly with them. But no, Mizuho took it the other way and forbade all sex for unmarried couples. "And yet again, the indiscretions of a few thoughtless, selfish, crazy people have to ruin it for everyone else," he muttered, trying to keep the bitterness and disgust from his voice, but judging from how Sheena's body tensed, he suspected it bled through anyway.

"Yeah," she whispered.

But none of that was her fault, and he already knew nothing he said would change five generations' worth of overly strict rules, and so he wouldn't harp on it and force Sheena to defend her people. It wouldn't do any good or get him anywhere anyway -- in fact, it would probably just make her feel even more uncomfortable with this whole conversation -- and so for now he'd bite his tongue. "So it really is that important to them, even though something like that shouldn't be anyone else's business," he murmured, shaking his head.

Sheena nodded again, her face growing even redder. "Yeah. Especially for me since I'll be Mizuho's next chief. I'm required to be married before that happens, and I'll...." She paused, then cleared her throat. "While it probably wouldn't be a big deal for any other woman, assuming her husband was the only man she'd slept with before they married, it will be for me. I...I'll need to be 'pure' to set an example for the villagers. Everyone will be watching me closely to make sure I don't do anything inappropriate, and even if Grandpa didn't want to punish me, someone else would push the issue and he'd have to." Her voice lowered. "If I wasn't 'pure' when I got married, I'd probably be executed."

Zelos gaped at her -- oh, Martel, she was serious -- and then released a soft, humorless laugh. "All to prevent people from being murdered by jealous, crazy lovers, they'd kill their own future chief. Yeah, punishing people for being in love and potentially adding even more kids to their population makes perfect sense to me."

"Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to do anything about it; I can't change any rules until I've actually become chief," she said softly, her eyes still downcast. "I'd never be able to talk Grandpa into changing it, either, not without casting suspicion on myself. And I doubt any of the villagers even remember the story behind it anymore; they just see the rule itself and don't question where it came from."

He wanted to scream at the unfairness of that. He wanted to sneak into Mizuho and rewrite the rule book. But mostly he wanted to drag Sheena away from there to somewhere she could live a normal life, not a life she didn't seem entirely comfortable with and where she had to put everything on hold for years before she finally became chief. He'd been there, stuck in a life he didn't want and with restrictive responsibilities weighing him down, and now Sheena had to deal with the same. Her life had been hard enough ever since that Volt incident, and now, just when she'd been freed of that guilt, it was being hijacked by even more overwhelming expectations thanks to her grandfather declaring her to be his successor. And....

Oh, Martel. His worst-case scenario was real: the only way they could ever have sex was if they got married. Sheena wasn't directly saying 'no' to him, and yet she was. He certainly hadn't planned on moving that quickly -- he'd meant it when he'd said he wanted to take this slowly and do it right -- but he'd considered it a given that if their relationship continued, sex would be a natural progression of it. But that wasn't even possible? And he'd thought resisting touching her would be hard! He honestly wasn't sure he could handle this, because oh, was he attracted to her. She had no idea what she did to him, how often he'd had to force himself to quit fantasizing about her, did she? Now, when he'd finally gotten a chance at a real relationship now that his years of self-imposed abstinence were finally over, he wasn't even allowed to take that step with the woman of his dreams? This really would be torture!

But this isn't her fault, he reminded himself. Sheena hadn't devised this sexist rule, and her discomfort indicated she wasn't completely happy about it, either. But these were her people and her rules, and even if he tried to seduce her away from Mizuho or convince her they couldn't punish her without facing the Chosen's wrath, she wouldn't bite. Crazy or not, they would never stop being her people, and trying to change her mind would only result in her dumping him for not tolerating her culture or in his being banned from Mizuho. Or, worse, if she did succumb to him, she'd be killed when she got married. And since those options weren't acceptable, only two other options remained: either he didn't date her at all, or he agreed to abide by that rule and not pressure Sheena for something she couldn't give him.

Zelos wasn't sure he could make this decision right now. Besides, it was far too early in their relationship to be dealing with this; they hadn't even gone out on a date yet. At this point, he had no idea how serious their relationship would become; why should he be worrying about this right now? Shouldn't he see if their relationship lasted first? Granted, he already knew the odds of him ever becoming her husband were slim to none; it was highly unlikely Sheena would ever consider him in that capacity, and he sure as hell doubted he'd consider himself in that capacity, either, because him? Marrying a ninja chief and moving to Mizuho? Seriously? If Sheena backed down from becoming chief and left, that would be one thing, but otherwise he just couldn't fathom ever seriously considering such a life.

If he accepted 'they' were going nowhere, though, then shouldn't he be ending things with her? But how could he do that, either, now that he'd gotten this chance with her? He would spend the rest of his life wondering what could have been had he not left, pouting over something she couldn't control. And one thing he knew, unequivocally, was that he loved her; his heart had been hers for years. How could he live with himself if he ran from her over this? He couldn't. Besides, was sex the only reason for dating someone? It was an attractive feature of it, definitely, but calling this off over that didn't sit right with him. He loved her. He wanted to make up to her for hurting her. He wanted to spend time with her. He wanted to kiss her and hug her and make her laugh and smile and have fun with life, and in turn he wanted to experience her beauty and goodness in his life and see if it made a difference or if he really was a hopeless idiot. None of that required sex. He just wanted to be with her.

And really, it wasn't like there weren't alternatives to all-out sex...although, granted, he already knew those alternatives would never satisfy him and would probably instead just make the 'no sex' restriction that much more difficult and frustrating to follow. He would always crave more than that, and having only a tiny taste of the cake without being able to enjoy the full slice would probably drive him mad -- assuming he could even stop himself from trying to go further than that, something he wasn't convinced he'd be able to do, not in the heat of the moment. And unfortunately, that meant those 'alternatives' weren't really alternatives at all and, therefore, weren't even worth considering.

But frustrating or not, the bottom line was clear: he didn't want to break this off with her, not over this; he wanted to give 'them' a chance, which meant he just had to accept this. So to that end, Zelos tucked away everything he'd just learned in the back of his mind and told himself he'd think on it later, verify his decision, and figure out how best to handle this. "I know," he said, his voice soft to convey his acceptance of the situation. Thankfully, Sheena finally looked at him again, her eyes wide -- aha, so she had been nervous about his reaction to this, hadn't she? And that realization, more than anything, told him he'd just made the right choice. Now, to change the subject and relax her further. "And so...well, I have to ask. Am I even allowed to enter Mizuho?"

For a moment, she just watched him, whispering, "You still...?" so softly that Zelos barely heard it, even with his angel senses, but then she shook her head, her tension dissipating. "Why wouldn't you be?"

Seriously, Sheena, why would I be? Mizuho was obviously strict about sex, and his Chosen One image had been designed to ooze sexual appeal, thus making him a terrible person in their eyes. But Sheena already knew that, so he wouldn't spell that out for her. Besides, he really did want to stop discussing sex. He shrugged. "Well, I know you guys aren't fond of visitors and only let us in last time because of our journey, so you'll forgive me for not assuming I can just drop by whenever I feel like it."

"Zelos, like it or not, for now you're still the Chosen," she said. "They're not going to turn the Chosen away."

He arched an eyebrow. "You sure about that, babe? I wasn't exactly well-liked there the last few times we visited...."

Sheena snorted. "That's because you insisted on flirting with all our women."

He couldn't help himself. "But they were all giving me such lovely gifts!"

"Whatever," she said, rolling her eyes -- but her smile was back, too. Good. "In any case, yes, they'll let you in. It's not like you've never been there before. They may not necessarily be happy to see you -- I mean, some of those women are happily married, you know, and their husbands weren't pleased to hear the Chosen had been flirting with them -- but they won't restrict you entry because of it. You helped regenerate the world, too, and they're appreciative of that." She looked away shyly, her cheeks growing red again. "B...besides, if anyone gives you a hard time, I'll talk to them."

For a moment, Zelos eyed her, afraid he was misunderstanding her. Hearing her say things like that was still so strange. Endearing, encouraging, and exciting, but...strange. He was having trouble accepting it was really happening. "So...it's okay if I visit you there sometime?"

Her blush deepened. "Of course it is."

Oh, thank Martel. He hadn't misunderstood her. "Do I need an invitation or can I just show up whenever I feel like it?" he asked, giving her a hopeful smile.

She chuckled and looked down shyly. "Both are fine."

And again -- thank Martel. If he really wanted to see her, having to wait for an invitation would probably drive him crazy. "Well, I have to be sure, because I still don't think your village wants to see my pretty face more than absolutely necessary...."

"It'll be fine," she assured him, smiling softly. "I'll vouch for you and give them instructions to let you in." Without warning, her smile fell and she bit her lip. "I mean, they'll have to get used to seeing you there more anyway, right?"

Her insistence that yes, he really could visit her there stunned him -- as did her uncertainty that he'd want to. For a moment, Zelos just watched her, a smile toying on his lips and his heart pounding faster. Seeing her like this, all shy and hopeful and speaking normally to him, with no trace of disappointment or anger, was amazing and encouraging...but man, was it weird. He was having trouble grasping this was really happening. So much had happened so quickly that keeping up with it all was proving to be a challenge.

Hard to believe or not, though, at least it was all good. Dating Sheena, someone who'd not only seen the man he'd always hidden away from everyone but who'd made it clear she liked him and wanted to see him, was definitely a good thing, not only because she was Sheena, the amazing woman he'd loved for years, but because doing so would prevent him from losing sight of himself -- of his real self -- as he was afraid would be too easy to do now that he'd nearly gotten rid of that title. He didn't mind turning away his hunnies, either, not when he had a real chance with her; hell, he'd been looking forward to doing that for years! Watching his behavior was also a good thing -- draining having to constantly remind himself not to say anything stupid and second-guessing everything he did, but still good.

As good as those things were, though, they were also requiring a huge mental adjustment on his part, and even though he'd spent hours last night pondering it all, he still doubted he'd considered every necessary aspect of it yet. There were a lot of new things he still had to adapt his mindset to. Sure, he'd had 'girlfriends' before and knew how he was supposed to act with one, but those had never been serious; they'd always been The Great Zelos's girlfriends, not his. Sheena, though, was his girlfriend. He was serious about her, and he wanted her to know that. It would take time to become truly comfortable with all of this and to become someone worthy of her affection, and he might not always be able to stop himself from acting stupid or hitting on her, but he would do whatever it took to keep those things under control.

And to that end, he gave her a shy smile of his own. "Yeah, I guess so." After a moment, she mirrored his smile, her uncertainty melting into warmth and happiness, and then they both looked back at the path before them as they continued walking toward the Grand Tethe'alla Bridge.

There was so much more he wanted to ask her and talk to her about...but, he found, to his alarm, his tongue just wasn't cooperating right now. It was silly, he knew, because they'd now proven they were capable of having normal conversations that didn't include her smacking him or storming off on him, but the words just weren't coming...and Zelos suspected he knew why. They would be parting ways soon, and the crazy truth was that he was afraid to do so for fear that once she left, all of this goodness would fall apart and 'they' would revert back to how they'd been before. So, naturally, he should be asking her out on a date to try to keep it going awhile longer, but...why was his gut churning at the thought of actually doing that?

It was stupid. He had time before they reached the bridge, the farthest point he could walk with her, to be asking her out, and judging from how she'd been acting toward him all morning, he doubted she'd say 'no,' but that knowledge wasn't helping. His nerves were holding his tongue captive; he dreaded the possibility of suddenly saying something wrong and wrecking everything, idiot of habit that he was. Instinct wanted him to slip on the mask to make this easier, by letting the far more experienced Chosen sweep her off her feet, but he forcefully held back that idiot, because now that Sheena knew the mask existed, she could probably identify it for what it was -- and if she did, then she'd lose all trust in him. And therein lay his problem: The Great Zelos may have asked out nearly every woman in Tethe'alla before, but Zelos Wilder never had, and especially not a woman he was in love with and who loved him back.

Agh, this whole thing was weird. And awkward. And nerve-wracking. And, honestly, pretty damn scary.

He was so absorbed in thought that it startled him to realize they'd nearly reached the bridge. Part of him was tempted to keep going all the way to Mizuho with her to give himself more time to think, but he really did need to talk to the king, so he couldn't. And next he knew, they were at the bridge, and he still hadn't found the perfect, non-Chosen One way to ask her out. But ready or not, he had to do this, because life would be torture for him unless he knew when he'd see her again. He already knew from the past three weeks that he'd miss her terribly, and that was before she'd admitted she loved him. And now, being separated from her would be even worse because all he wanted to do was be with her.

Upon reaching the bridge, he finally, reluctantly, sighed, his footsteps slowing. "Well, as much as I hate to say this, this is as far as I can go. I'd walk you all the way to Mizuho, but I really do need to give the king my report."

"Oh," Sheena said, her eyes widening, but then she smiled shyly, looked down, and absently kicked at a stone. "R...right. Thanks for coming this far."

"Of course!" he said, grinning broadly. "Anything for you." She blushed as she glanced up at him, but she didn't say anything. Okay, Wilder, he told himself. You're out of time, and you can not let her leave until you've asked her, so just do it. "So, ah," he began, his grin faltering as he scratched his neck, "when do you think you'll be back in Meltokio?"

She let out a soft, nervous laugh and leaned back against the railing. "Well, I'm scheduled to meet with the king in three days..." she gave him a wry, pointed grin, "...because someone decided I wasn't busy enough in Mizuho and convinced the king I should be his emissary. Thanks again so much for that, by the way."

Zelos couldn't help smirking. She'd been 'grumbling' about that since he'd admitted last night that he'd made that happen -- but eh, he didn't care. Whether she thought so or not, she was fully qualified for the job, it would help repair the relationship between the king and Mizuho, and...well, okay, so it was selfish, too. "Heh. No problem. I could think of no better candidate for the job. And besides, I wanted to make sure you kept coming to Meltokio so I'd at least occasionally get to see you."

...Oh, wait. He'd said that last part aloud, hadn't he? Heh...whoops. She wasn't supposed to know that. He let out a nervous laugh and rubbed his neck again -- damn nerves, making him say things that made him feel far too vulnerable. He shouldn't be feeling this nervous with her -- they'd known each other for years! -- but man, did he ever. But thankfully, instead of teasing him, Sheena just blushed and smiled shyly -- proving to him yet again why he desperately wanted this woman in his life, even if it meant sacrificing sex to make that happen. He'd still think that decision over more later, but he was pretty sure he already knew his answer -- and if so, then he'd be sure to tell her that if 'they' survived a few dates. But those dates will never happen unless you ask her out, you idiot!

Okay, fine. Asking now. He cleared his throat. "So, uh...would you maybe want to go grab some dinner or something after you finish with the king?"

She bit her lip and watched him, her dark eyes hesitant, uncertain -- but, he wanted to think, hopeful, too. "I guess that depends. Would it be with you or with your evil twin?"

His gut twisted. He wished so much that she didn't have to ask him that, but he understood why she did. She had every right to question how long he could behave like a man deserving of her time; for years, she'd only known the idiotic, untrustworthy, self-destructive fool. The few hours they'd now spent together like this couldn't change that. Hell, he doubted he could ever change that, even if he had a hundred years to try to do so.

But he'd be damned if he didn't try. He gave her a wistful smile. "Me. I promise."

For a moment, she eyed him again carefully, but then she smiled shyly and nodded. "Okay. It's a date." She let out a soft, nervous laugh. "Besides, I kinda owe it to you anyway."

...Oh. That was her reasoning? His heart sank. "Hey, don't just agree to it because you think you still owe me something, Sheena, because like I said, you owe me nothing."

Her eyes widened and snapped up to his in alarm. "N...no! Don't worry, I'm not." She smiled shyly. "I'm agreeing because I want to see you again, Zelos."

...Really? "Yeah?" he asked softly.

Sheena nodded, her smile broadening. "Yeah."

Oh, Martel, she really did want to see him again! Zelos smiled, his heart pounding faster at that confirmation -- and at the relief that she'd just accepted a date with him. It certainly wasn't the first time he'd asked her out, even if it kind of was, and now...well, now he was glad she'd never said 'yes' before, because any woman who would go out with The Great Zelos wasn't someone he should be dating anyway. "Then it's a date." Unable to resist, he lightly touched her arm, trailing his fingers over it. Her gaze fell to his chest and her blush deepened...and his eyes narrowed as she let out another soft, nervous laugh. "What?" he asked, his fingers stilling. Her eyes briefly met his, but then she quickly looked down again. Uh oh. What was this about? "What is it?"

"N...nothing." She shook her head faintly but didn't meet his eyes again. "It's nothing."

"...Then why don't I believe you?" When she still didn't answer, Zelos touched her chin, forcing her to look up at him. Something was bothering her, and he knew his damn insecurities: if she didn't tell him, he'd just spend the next three days worrying about it. "Sheena, what?"

She sighed, then released another nervous laugh and looked down again. "Nothing, really. It's just...." Yep, she had something to say; now to get her to say it. He forced himself to wait patiently as her fingers lifted to his chest, trailing over his Cruxis crystal, his hands slipping down to her waist. "It's just...this whole thing is so weird, Zelos. You know, being with you like this, talking in these terms, accepting a date with you instead of smacking you for suggesting it, inviting you to Mizuho.... It's just so...weird."

His face sank further. He thought he knew what she meant, but he needed to check something first. "Good weird or bad weird?"

"Good weird!" she quickly said, her eyes widening in alarm -- which thankfully eliminated his worst-case scenario. "Definitely good weird. But it's still...weird. I mean, I haven't figured out how to act around you yet when you're like this. You're you, but you're not the 'you' I'm used to. And I know you've never really been the man I always thought you were, but...I'm so used to you acting one way, saying stupid things and being lewd and making me want to smack you all the time, that it's weird that you're not acting like that. I keep expecting you to revert back to that perverted, narcissistic jerk any second now, and you're just...not. I guess my expectations haven't caught up with reality yet." Her brows furrowed as she struggled to express her thoughts. "And it's just...it's strange being with anyone like this. I've never dated anyone before, and I...I'm not sure what I'm doing yet. And then for the person I'm...involved with...to be you...." She let out a soft laugh. "I mean, we've known each other so long that shifting gears to something completely different, something I'm not sure how to handle yet, is...awkward."

Oh, yes, he knew what she was talking about, because that was exactly how he'd felt ever since Sheena had kissed him and admitted she loved him yesterday, thus changing everything between them. The whole thing was weird. He'd woken up to find his long-abandoned dream that Sheena might one day love him had come true, without any scheming or manipulation on his part -- it was incredible, but completely unexpected and weird. But even though he knew what she meant and felt the same, his heart still sank further. He could tell: she was uncomfortable with this, and he didn't want her to feel that way.

Zelos met her eyes, his face set. He dreaded offering this, but he needed to in case this was too weird for her. "Well, if it would make you more comfortable, I could always go back to being that perverted, narcissistic jerk --"

"No!" Sheena quickly cut him off, her vehemence taking him aback. "No, I like this you, Zelos. A lot." Her eyes fell to his chest again. "I meant everything I said yesterday, and I don't regret where we are now. But I just...it'll take me awhile to get used to thinking about us like this and seeing you in this light and being with you in a...in a romantic sense. Right now it's just too new for my mind to easily accept." Her voice lowered. "And I guess I'm afraid, too, of what will happen if this doesn't work out. I don't...I don't want to lose your friendship if we find this won't work."

"I know," Zelos murmured. Oh, did he know. And honestly, hearing that was not only a weight off his chest -- at least he wasn't the only one struggling to accept the 'newness' and 'strangeness' of this -- but it was a relief to know that, despite the 'weirdness,' Sheena felt comfortable enough with him to share these feelings. Before yesterday, she never would have done that for fear he'd rub it in her face, and the fact that she did trust him enough now to do so sent an amazingly warm, loved feeling through him. On the other hand, though, her concerns had validity. The thought of messing this up and losing her permanently terrified him like nothing ever had before. "We've already stepped beyond friendship and can never completely go back to the way we were before." He placed a finger beneath her chin and tilted her head up to meet his eyes again, needing her to see how serious he was about this. "But I promise you, Sheena, no matter what happens, I'll always be your friend. Even if this whole thing falls apart tomorrow and gets even weirder, I'll always be here for you, and I'll always want you in my life." He smiled faintly. "No amount of weirdness can take that away from us, because I won't let it."

Her face softened. "I know. Same here. And believe me, I'm not saying I don't think we should give this a try because of that, but it is a concern of mine." Her voice lowered and she gave him a shy, awkward look. She was so damn beautiful when she was like this, all cute and sweet and happy and hopeful -- so different from the tough-as-nails fighter and screaming banshee he'd known for years. As much fun as he'd had pushing her buttons, this was infinitely better. "I think I just need more memories of being with you like this, of being with this you, to start outweighing the memories of how we used to be." She gave him another adorably shy smile. "And the truth is, I'm looking forward to making those memories."

Oh, thank Martel. She would give this relationship time to develop and see where it took them -- and she was looking forward to it, too! He had to bite back a cheer, because that would be stupid and childish and ruin this serious, honest mood that was helping them make sure they were on the same page. And to that end, she needed to know how he felt.

"Yeah, me, too," he whispered, mirroring her shy smile. He would never admit this under normal circumstances, but these circumstances were hardly normal. Besides, if she'd managed to be so honest with him, something that couldn't have been easy for her, then he could, too. "And to be honest...I feel the same. I mean, Martel, Sheena, you've barely hit me since yesterday! Flying bars of soap and wet sponges notwithstanding. This is weird for me, too." She chuckled, her gaze briefly dipping downward. "I mean, you're not acting like you right now, either -- or at least not how I'm used to you acting. I keep thinking I should be feeling your forehead to make sure you're not getting sick. And honestly? I'm not even sure how I should be acting with you yet. It's not like I've ever been in a seriousrelationship before this, and the Chosen One always called the shots in the not-serious ones. I keep having to fight back this damn instinct to say stupid things to you, because I don't want to treat you like that anymore."

Her smile broadened. "Well, I think you're doing a good job of it so far."

She had no idea how heartening those words were, did she? How encouragement like that could send his life spinning in a completely different, better direction and make him want to be more than just the Idiot Chosen? "Good, because I really am trying," he said, giving her a brief grin before growing serious again. "It's just hard because...well, I'm so used to acting like the Chosen that actually being myself, especially with someone I've known so long and care so much about, is...weird. Good weird, but still weird."

"I can only imagine," she said, her fingers straying to the loose fastener of his vest. "You've been hiding behind the mask so long that it must be strange to not be hiding behind it."

"Exactly." And again, Zelos was amazed by her acceptance of that, something even he had trouble understanding because of how difficult it was to separate the two warring parts of his personality. He was amazed by her. He was reminded again that at this point, sex truly was negligible; right now, he just wanted to revel in her goodness and beauty and leave the rest up to fate. Whatever would be, would be. The way he understood it, she wasn't becoming chief yet anyway, so they should have, what? A few years before she had to find a husband, right? Chief Igaguri had looked healthy enough when Zelos last saw him; he could live a long life yet. And as for everything else she'd said.... "Personally, I'm just glad I don't have to be that man you can't stand anymore because...well, seeing you smile like this is infinitely better than you constantly smacking me." Sheena chuckled and her eyes fell downward shyly, but she didn't respond otherwise. "Like you said, hopefully time will take care of this awkwardness for us." He paused, gently brushing a stray lock of ebony hair behind her ear. "I'm serious about giving this a shot, Sheena."

She watched him a moment, her face softening into a warm, loving, beautiful smile that took his breath away, then nodded. "I know. I can tell. And so am I."

He had to swallow hard past the lump in his throat. "I know. And I promise I'll do my best to prove I deserve the second chance you've given me -- and that I won't suddenly revert back into that idiot you can't stand."

"I know you will," she stated with a humbling amount of certainty.

For a moment, they fell silent, with Sheena leaning back against the railing while Zelos stood before her, his fingers drifting from her rosy cheeks down to her arms, his male pride smirking as she shivered at his touch, radiating a stunning amount of comfort at his close proximity, her hands lightly tracing the edge of his shirt. Heh, so she was tactile too, eh? Yeah, he liked that...maybe a little too much. In fact, if she kept that up, he'd have to tell her that if she wanted him to follow Mizuho's 'no sex' rule, then she couldn't do things that would turn him into a quivering, desire-consumed wreck. Heck, he'd probably have to tell her that anyway just to preserve his sanity.

But not right now. No, right not, he had another irresistible idea. "Well, I know one way to make this whole thing make more sense to us."

Her brown eyes lifted back to his and she arched an eyebrow. "How's that?"

He watched her closely, gauging her reaction, then stepped closer and, when she didn't back away from him, slowly leaned toward her. Her gaze lowered to his mouth as his head neared hers, and she licked her lips, her eyes drifting shut. Needing no further encouragement, Zelos kissed her, lightly brushing his lips over hers before pulling back a little to look at her, but then, seeing her eyes still closed, her face flushed, and her lips parted, and feeling her hands gently grasping his arms, he kissed her again, longer that time. His hands lowered to her waist and he deftly lifted her up to sit on the railing, his lips still on hers, and he moved between her legs, holding her hips firmly so she didn't fall backwards. For a moment, her fingers dug into his arms, holding him to her as she kissed him back, but then one of her hands slid upward to his face, her touch light as she gingerly curled her fingers around the nape of his neck, filling him with warmth, love, and exhilaration. He was careful to keep the kiss slow, sweet, and tender, just lazily moving his lips against hers, but even without deepening it...oh, Martel, this felt so good, so right. It made his heart race at the sheer beauty of it, of her...and yes, it really did help this whole thing make more sense -- and judging from how quickly and thoroughly Sheena had melted into it, she felt the same.

Eventually, the kiss reached its natural conclusion, and Zelos drew away, just enough to see her face and to brush his nose against hers, his heart fluttering. For a moment, Sheena just sat there, her eyes closed, leaning forward to rest her forehead against his, breathing a little quicker, but finally she opened her eyes and gave him another warm smile and soft, shy laugh, her fingertips sliding down to his shoulders. "You are really, really good at that," she murmured.

Heh. Now that was what he liked to hear -- not only that he'd pleased her, but that she'd enjoyed it as much as he had. For a moment, Zelos was tempted to cheer and jump up and down excitedly, but knowing she would smack him for it and regret having expressed her feelings, he forced himself to instead mirror her smile, reveling in the moment of sweetness and honesty. "Way, way too much practice, sweetheart, much of which I could've happily done without." He smirked and arched a knowing eyebrow. "At least now it's proving to be good for something anyway."

Sheena chuckled, her gaze falling back to his lips. "Yeah, I guess so," she whispered, then gave him another kiss, briefer than the last one but still heartwarmingly sweet. A moment later, though, she pulled back and sighed, her smile fading. "Well, as much as I want to spend the rest of the day here with you, I have work to do in Mizuho, and you have a report to deliver to the king."

Oh, right. Damn that 'reality' thing sometimes; the thought of not seeing her again for three days left him wanting to steal her away to some secluded location so they could forget about the world. But unfortunately, that wasn't an option. And besides, he really did need to think about everything he'd now learned from her -- alone. With a low sigh and a soft, "Yeah, I know," Zelos released her waist and took a step backward, releasing her. "So I'll see you in a few days then?"

A rosy blush graced her cheeks again as she jumped off the railing. "Yeah. You can count on it." She hesitated, biting her lip as she watched him, but then she hopped up on her toes, gave him another quick kiss, and pulled away. With another happy, beautiful smile, she turned and headed out across the bridge.

Zelos leaned back against the railing, smiling and waving as she cast one last look back at him, and then he folded his arms to his chest and watched her until she'd vanished into the distance. Only then did he succumb to the sigh he'd been restraining for hours, his smile fading as the insecurity he'd been forcing himself to ignore all morning replaced the warmth and love he'd felt with her. "Of course," he murmured to himself, "that assumes you don't come to your senses in the meantime and do what you should be doing by dumping my sorry ass, Sheena."

It was a fear he suspected would stay with him for a long time, maybe even as long as she could put up with him. The truth was, he didn't deserve her or the second chance she'd given him. He was a messed up man who messed up everything he touched; experience had proven that. One day she would realize just how messed up he was and would abandon him -- assuming he didn't succumb to habit and mess everything up again first. Either way, he'd lose her. He'd messed up with her before; he'd do it again. He knew that, especially after the devastating truth had hit him last night as he'd tried to sleep: he had hurt her by pushing her away all those years ago, far worse than he'd ever imagined. "You have no idea how much it hurt to lose your friendship back then," she'd said yesterday, accompanied by a flash of pain and sadness in her eyes that had nearly crushed his heart. He'd pushed that realization aside at the time so he could revel in her admission of love, but last night nothing remained to prevent that guilt from resurfacing.

And oh, had it done so. For six years, his goal had been to make her hate him so she wouldn't become attached to him and be hurt because of who he was. Hatred, after all, was better than pain. Sure, he'd figured it would hurt her some, but he'd expected it to be minimal. And he'd thought he'd succeeded, too, that his acting stupid and teasing her had made her hate him and prevented her from caring about an idiot like him. But that look in her eyes yesterday...oh, Martel, he'd failed. He'd misinterpreted all of her violent reactions to him. He hadn't made her hate him; all he'd done was hurt her -- and not just a light scrape, but a vicious knife to the gut. "I never hated you, Zelos," she'd said. "I may have wanted to at times, but even then I never did." His attempt to push her away had backfired. He'd thought it would spare her from such pain, but it had caused it. He'd been wrong all that time.

That revelation had opened his eyes and shed new light on everything that had happened between them the past six years. It was devastating...and humbling. He'd hurt her so badly for so long without even realizing it...without even identifying her pain as pain. He'd wanted to believe it was hatred, so he had. He'd blinded himself to the truth. After that, how could he trust himself to do things right with her? The thought of messing up with her, yet again, left him scared stiff.

And yet, despite it all, Sheena was giving him this second chance anyway. It was the gift he'd always wanted, a real chance with her...but now that he'd gotten it, what was he supposed to do with it? How was he supposed to make it work or keep it going? He should be giving this gift back; he should be breaking this off with her for good, because an amazing, understanding, forgiving woman like her deserved so much better than an idiotic train wreck like him. He couldn't do that, though, not without causing her even more pain -- and one thing he knew was that he refused to hurt her like that again. He refused. In fact, all he could do now, he suspected, was wait until she came to her senses about him and did what he couldn't by breaking it off with him.

But until that day came, he would do everything he could to not only enjoy it -- because having someone as amazing as her who loved him really was something he'd always wanted -- but also to be extremely careful to behave and not piss her off. This really was his last chance, and he wouldn't waste it. Sex be damned; he wanted to be with her and make amends for hurting her by making her smile and laugh. He wanted to make sure she never regretted giving him this incredible, unwarranted chance. He wanted to show her that even if she couldn't trust his words yet, she could still trust him.

Failure may be inevitable, but he wanted to do this right. He wanted this relationship to last. He wanted her to trust him and feel comfortable with him. He wanted to be the best damn boyfriend a woman could ask for. He didn't want to give her any reason to leave him; he didn't want to expect things from her she couldn't give him. He would keep the 'habitual idiot' in check; he would work to become that better man he'd always wanted to be, someone worthy of her trust and respect. Any trust she had for him was still new and fragile, something a single careless word could shatter, and he would not let her down. Controlling the idiot would be hard, but he would do it. He knew he would occasionally slip and his words would lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications, because that was a curse of being human, but hopefully his actions would speak louder than those words. He would make a point to be the gentleman he'd always known how to be but had never had a reason to act like before. He would show her he loved her and hope she got the message.

So much had changed so quickly, and like Sheena, he realized he, too, needed time to process it all. He needed to figure out how to be himself, to actually live in his own skin, not the Chosen's, when he was with others. And he would. He'd already started with her, and while it was still awkward, he was slowly getting used to it, especially when he saw how it resulted in a smile or a laugh or a sparkle of happiness in her eyes. No more powerful positive reinforcement existed than that. It amazed and encouraged him. Now he just needed to keep it up and not make any more stupid mistakes that cost him everything.

And despite his lingering guilt, fears, and insecurities, Zelos couldn't resist smiling as he pushed himself away from the railing and began heading back to Meltokio, hopeful that maybe he really could pull this off. It might work, it might not, but he'd be damned if he didn't try, for both of their sakes.

***

Part 4

August 2012

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