So I was right.

I almost smile. Not that I'm happy, or anything. Not really.

I have no way of knowing why I say this with a sort of sadness, as if I were the one who had to say the goodbyes. Neither do I get to hear goodbyes from anyone special. I guess in a way it is a bit laughable. I don't know if I should be happy or sad, that I don't have anyone special I'd be taking into a corner like that to say my farewell to. Should I be thankful that I'm not like Cat, that I'm not leaving someone behind to fight for this war? Or should I be feeling sorry for myself , that when all's said and done, no one will be there to hope for my return?

I've wondered, sometimes. I look at them now, and I can't help it. I'd be lying if I said I didn't.

But then again, it's too complicated to be wishing someone else's wishes.

Things are already difficult as they are.

War of Emperium Chronicles
Chapter Four: Loose Ends

"Auron..."

She called out to her companion, the blonde knight, but he did not appear to hear her. His back remained unturned, his full attention was to the mob of ghosts and argoses before him. He was studying them intently, keeping them at bay with his spear.

The huntress let out a tired sigh. She pulled out a handful of arrows and, with a practiced eye, took quick aim. A steady shower of arrows pelted at the monsters without warning; it even took her companion by surprise.

"Well...that was quick," Auron remarked, grinning as he watched the dust settle for a while. The whispers had melted into the damp air of Geffenia, and the monstrous eight-legged creatures now lay lifeless in front of him. He turned to the huntress, but his smile fell short as the woman dropped to her knees.

"Xylven?"

Concerned, the knight hurried towards her, placing the spear's endpoint at a safe distance away from her. It was the only time he realized that her color was pale, and bruises covered her arms and legs. "Hey," he said softly, kneeling down beside her. "Are you okay? Can you stand up?"

Exhausted beyond belief, the huntress could barely shake her head. Her brow was furiously knitted together in her efforts to steady her breathing. At length, she looked up at him and said simply:

"I'm beat."

She hated to admit it.

Almost as much as she hated Geffenia and its mobs.

"Oof!"

Auron grinned sheepishly. "Sorry!"

Xylven could only glare in reply, blinking quickly to keep her eyes from tearing from the pain. "Have you no mercy? Ride slower, please."

The PecoPeco's gait slowed at a much easier pace. The knight did not think to bring up that it would take them so much longer to get home at this rate; Xylven was already irritable, and he did not want to give her more reason to bite his ears off.

"I don't know how you managed to drag me to Geffenia," she grumbled. "I absolutely loathe that place!"

Auron had wisely held his tongue for the first nine times she had said it; now he couldn't help but sigh and hide the amused smile that was tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Look," he said plainly, his eyes fixed on the road before him, "we came to look for your whisper card remember? This is for your benefit, not mine."

"Ugh, don't remind me." It was her turn to sigh. She absently scratched at her injured fist, which was now wrapped in a strip of cloth. "We can't all be built like mini-bosses, Auron, so I apologize if I can't hold up as much in Geffenia as you do. We've been there the whole afternoon and still the whispers didn't fork anything over. I think I'd rather have Cat slaving all day while I'm gone so she can buy me the damned card than get my arse kicked repeately by bugs, ghosties and ugly men stuck on halloween."

"No wonder Cat's always too tired to go out, with a tyrant like you around..." Auron mumbled under his breath.

"What was that?"

He laughed nervously as he tried to cover up quickly. "I meant to ask, is Cat at home?"

She sighed again. Out of all the things she said, he remained fixated on one single word. "I think she's in the headquarters right now. I've gathered everyone there for a meeting."

His face brightened and he smiled widely as he nodded in reply. The pair was silent for some time. Pretty soon, though, Auron took to whistling a happy tune, his spirits high and full of energy. He was in such a good mood that it was scraping the beaten up grouch of a huntress raw, what with her current lack of humor. Still...

"Auron?"

The whistling stopped. "Hmm?"

"While you're there, you better talk to Cat."

The knight took exception to the abrupt change of her tone. He glanced at her for the briefest of seconds before turning his eyes back to the road. The huntress had a faraway look in her eyes, but he could tell her mood had suddenly had turned serious. He proceeded with great caution.

"She's alright, isn't she? Nothing's the matter?"

"She's fine, don't worry." And that was all she said for the remainder of their journey home.

Catarina Zeich's fingers ran over the contents of her tool pouch and cleaning kit as she surveyed them carefully. She had purchased several new items for her cleaning kit a week ago, a few days after hearing the Houshi guildmasters talk of the war. She was under Pisces' faction of the guild, Chi no Houshi, but sometimes she wound up with information earlier than her commander, even Outkase, since she lived with Xylven after all.

And so she had prepared. Not that Xylven was going to find any use for these purchases personally, since her main weapon was her hunter's bow, but she, Catarina, needed them for her own...and she was certain the rest of her guildmates who was going to move north with them for the war would also find them useful.

She glanced at the weapons laid out on the other side of the table. Maces, chain, and knives. The icemace was in good condition. The windchain was fairly clean, since she hadn't used it for quite some time now. The hurricane swordmace needed special attention than any other weapon she had encountered, since it was unique in its contours. The elemental knives were her own creation. Kaozen forged swords, but she wanted to specialize on daggers.

To be honest, she really wasn't much of a forger. She spent most of her time honing her skills as a battlesmith, and the rest of her efforts were spent on learning how to refine ores, especially elemental ones. As of now, the task of creating weapons lay heavily on Kaozen.

That would change soon, though. She and Xylven had discussed it; she would need to concentrate on her forging skills if she wanted to double their chances in this war. And that was all that mattered. The decision of whether or not she would be moving up north with a little more than half of the guild to fight the war up close wasn't much of a conscious choice, really. She went willingly wherever Xylven went. It wasn't even much of a question to pose. But she realized only a little later that it wasn't as simple as it used to be four years ago... To have tied much of her sentiments to this city, to its people, in the last few years, made the situation a bit more difficult than she had initially perceived.

Outside the guild, no one knew of their collective decision. Not friends, nor guild allies. She had spoken to no one about her decision to move. Not yet, anyway. She knew she could not leave without seeing to these personal matters. She knew exactly where to begin; she just didn't know how. She wasn't even sure why she was afraid to.

She lifted the swordmace gingerly. It was her favorite. It was fascinating, how she could weild such a weapon fearlessly against monsters who meant to harm her, and yet, to approach someone who did love her and tell him of her thoughts right now...it felt disarming.

She had to tell him soon.

Just then, she heard the massive main hall doors open. She was in the shed at the back, right beside the small kitchen, but it was doorless, and she could see whoever it was that came in. A summons had been issued to all members two days ago. Usually, they held guild meetings and ceremonies at midnight, as the house of Houshi was somewhat a "nocturnal guild", as Kaoko aptly puts it. This time, however, Xylven specifically instructed she wanted everyone to be present for supper. Even so, Tetsuya Shinjo and Josh Beoulve came by much earlier, though it was barely past noon. She expected more would arrive later, and she wondered now who it could be at the door.

Her cerulean eyes swivelled to the main hall, and soon came upon the tall, familiar female form who walked in. It was Xylven. The huntress' hair was slightly mussed, and she looked pretty worn-out. Catarina couldn't see well from her position at the back of the hall, but from the way her two other guildmates reacted to the sight of her, she could only assume Xylven had hurt herself more than usual. Worried, she placed her weapon down carefully, then wiped her hands with a terry cloth before deigning to approach the huntress.

It was then that he came into the hall. Her eyes widened in surprise as she stopped in mid-stride, and she felt her heart thump madly in her chest.

"Auron."

She was too far for him to hear, but it was as if he did. His eyes had searched her out in the hall, and he strode purposefully towards her.

"You better have Outkast take a look at this," she heard Josh remark to Xylven as she came nearer, clucking his tongue as he examined her injuries.

"Better get that cut cleaned up, too," Tetsuya piped in, pointing to a tiny cut on her cheek. "You don't want to risk scarring your pretty face, eh?" He chuckled to himself, well aware that the guildmistress was vain about her looks.

She came upon them now, meeting Auron halfway. She looked up at him briefly and smiled, before turning her attention to Xylven. "You took quite a beating, there," she told the huntress. She frowned, concerned. "Do you need anything for that?" She gestured at the wounds.

Xylven shook her head. "I'll be fine once Outkast or Arkalen or any of our acolytes get here."

"I had ordered a new batch of red potions from Alberta the other day," she replied. "I'll go get some now..."

The older woman stopped her. "I'll get them myself, thank you." A pair of golden eyes locked with hers for a moment, before they flicked briefly at the direction of Auron.

She nodded. She did not miss the meaning in Xylven's look.

"Hey." She looked up at Auron now, smiling slightly. "What about you? Would you like to get cleaned up first?" She asked him.

The knight returned her smile with a teasing one. "Only if you do it." He laughed out loud when she blushed.

"Oi, you two, save it for somewhere more private, will you?" Pisces snapped, suddenly appearing behind them, apparently having just warped herself inside the hall. "It's sickening." She trudged over to where everyone was crowded and took a quick look at Xylven. "Seems I'm just in time. Sit down, and let's have a look at you."

"Err..." Tetsuya began.

"What? I'm an acolyte too, in case you haven't noticed."

Xylven sighed and waved her hand dismissively. "She's right, Tetsuya," she said, as she settled on the sofa. "Beggars can't be choosers; she's still a healer after all..."

Pisces decided to let that remark pass. "Can someone get me a pair of scissors and some gauze over here please?" She called out.

"I'll get it," Josh offered. He stood up, and Catarina pointed out to her where he could get the first aid kit. "Thanks Cat," he said.

Catarina turned to Auron again. "You sure you don't want to get cleaned up?"

He shook his head "I'm fine, I just need to wash my face."

"Let's go then," she said, motioning for him to follow. "There's..." She hesitated for a moment. Auron looked at her curiously. She tried to smile as she met his gaze. "Ah, well... There's something I've been meaning to tell you for some time now."

Xylven jerked her head as she cried out in pain. "Ow! That stung."

"Sorry. But that one was a little deep. What hit you?"

"I don't know, really," Xylven said, shrugging. "A Jakk, maybe? They're the only ones who are fast and accurate enough, and they certainly breed like rabbits down there." She turned her head again. This time, Pisces followed her gaze.

"You won't be able to hear them this far, you know. Why do you keep staring at them anyhow?" Pisces asked, smirking. She bent her head back down to finish wrapping up the gauze on Xylven's arm.

Xylven scowled. She was about to retort hotly, when her other arm was lifted by a person across Pisces. Her eyes widened when she turned around and saw Daidoji, batting his eyelashes down at her.

"Oh, my dear, darling guildmistress, you've hurt yourself!" Daidoji cried. Pisces and Xylven continued to stare at him in disbelief as he caressed the latter's hand (the former practically choking of laughter-a quick glance around her made her realize that Josh and Tetsuya had mysteriously vanished).

"Err...Pai's already taking care of it, Daidoji," Xylven told him.

"Ah, but I can make you feel soooo much better," the silver-haired knight practically purred. He leaned closer until his face was inches away from hers. He ran his fingers gently over a small cut on her wrist. "You want me to kiss it better for you?"

Pisces threw her head back and laughed uncontrollably. Xylven merely looked over Daidoji's shoulder.

"What is it, love?" He asked with a teasing smile, as the look did not go unnoticed.

A hand clamped over the silver-haired knight's shoulder.

Slowly, Daidoji straightened up and turned around...

...to find his nose a hairsbreadth away from Rahkee's chest. His eyes travelled several inches upward and met the redhead's glare.

If looks could kill, Daidoji would've been an ice-cold corpse by now. But he appeared to be made of sterner stuff, and he smiled widely at Rahkee, quite unfazed. And just as cheerfully, he recited his deathwish:

"What? You want a kiss, too?"

"You're a fucking masochist, you know that?" Pisces hissed. "Just because you're a 'new' man now, that doesn't earn you the right to taunt Death in the face!"

Daidoji, lying on his back and his jaw still smarting, merely grinned at her. "But I thought his name was Rahkee?"

"Very funny, wise guy," Pisces commented dryly. She felt a mixture of relief, exasperation and amusement, but she hardly let on the latter. She feared it would be a fatal push for Daidoji. She casted a small amount of Heal where Rahkee had so quickly and calmly swung at him. "I have to hand it to you, though. That extra training must have really paid off. Ordinarily, you would've been squealing in pain right about now."

"Lovely Pai, I do not squeal. Well, not anymore anyways..." His grin widened.

Pisces shook her head. "Either you really got stronger now, or he held himself back-"

"You give me too much credit as always, my dear."

"-because Xylven was there. He could've taken a blade to you for those words and actions, but he punched you instead. You do love hitting him where it hurts, don't you?"

"I don't know what you mean," Daidoji replied, looking up at her, his baby blues sparkling with feigned innocence. Then his voice took a somber tone, and he caught one of her hands with both of his. "But if you're wondering why I am so brave with my feelings now, Pai, it's because war is brewing, and our future is uncertain. Everyone must know how I feel before tomorrow comes to bring us a surprise we might regret!"

"I'd rather you keep a certain few of those feelings to yourself, Daidoji, or you might never live for more surprises," Xylven interjected, walking over to where he was lying, and with Rahkee trailing not too far behind. When Daidoji spoke up to Rahkee a few minutes earlier, Pisces and Xylven instinctively rose up to stall trouble, but they were a second too late. Rahkee's fist had already connected solidly with Daidoji's jaw when Pisces yanked him away, and Xylven pulled the former to another side, even though it was apparent no further actions from Rahkee was forthcoming. Xylven knew that Rahkee bore no fondness for Daidoji; they tolerated each other's presence as guildmates in the battlefield, but they were given to occassional fights, although none too serious (in fact, the reason for their most recent one-on-one she could remember amused her greatly). No matter what personal grudge they harbored against one another, though, it was too miniscule to rival their loyalty and devotion to the guild, and they both knew it. Daidoji spoke of it openly enough.

"Oh, Rahkee won't kill me just yet, my dears; I count for something in this guild, too." He ignored the look of warning from Pisces, and passed on a sly one at Rahkee's direction. The flame-haired knight noticed, but merely acknowledged it with a grunt and looked away.

"I have his word on that, yes," Xylven said, "but don't push your luck, Doji."

Pisces shook her head. "Well now...This is partly your fault, Xyl."

"Now what did I do?"

"If you weren't so persistent in making a man out of Daidoji, he'd be better off... Now you just made him more confused. He can't make up his mind which gender to hit on first!"

Daidoji pouted. "I told you, I'm not interested in men anymore!" Sitting up, he dropped Pisces' hand and turned to Xylven. "I changed for you! Isn't this what you wanted?"

Xylven knelt in front of him, beside Pisces, and winked. "Well now, I'm not so sure anymore. For one thing, it was an exciting challenge when you were still so openly into men. Secondly," she touched the tip of his nose with the the point of her index finger, "I make it a personal rule not to err...get too involved with my guildsmen. Not romantically, anyway."

No one could see Pisces' expression change very slightly at that last statement...or at least no one, except for Daidoji, was in the position to view her face. If he did notice, however slight the twitching of her eyes was, he made no comment. She knew very well as Daidoji did, what Xylven's statement implied. It would be the wisest course not to look at Rahkee at the moment.

But Daidoji did. He flicked his eyes briefly up at him, just in time to see him stiffen almost imperceptibly.

Pisces groaned inwardly. Daidoji had proven time and again how much he loved courting trouble. And here she thought he worked his ass off in the past few weeks to raise his intelligence along with his strength. "You wound me, love," he began, dragging his eyes towards Xylven now, his mouth forming an impish grin yet again. "Are you saying you're automatically ruling out all guildsmen in your love life?"

Xylven finally gave in to laughter. "When you say it like that, it's almost as if you're wanting a serious answer."

"Well then, humor me?"

"If it happens, then it happens, doesn't it? Who knows?" She stood up, and extended one arm towards Daidoji to help him to his feet.

But he would not let go of the topic so easily. "But if you could help it...?"

She frowned slightly, then looked at him quizically. She hesitated for a moment before finally shaking her head and answering. "Maybe if I weren't a guildmistress. But you know as well as I do that there are a lot of complications involved if it were to happen. So I'd rather it doesn't happen at all."

He seemed to consider this for a while, then he nodded and smiled. "I see," he said. "Mind over heart; typical of leaders." At that, she eyed him curiously, not quite sure where this was all going. But he did not elaborate. Instead, dusting his sleeves, he turned his back on them and walked a few paces away. He looked as if he was about to go out of the hall, but he stopped when he was several feet away from the door and turned to them again, grinning.

"Xyl," he called out. "Sometimes you never know when you might be missing out on something. Give yourself a break one of these days." With that, he winked, turned his back on them again and continued to walk towards the exit. He waved with one hand and pulled the latch open with another. "I'll be out for a while," he said, without pausing, "but I'll be back in a few minutes. Later!"

Pisces, Rahkee and Xylven continued to stare after Daidoji until the doors closed after him. Bemused, the latter turned to the acolyte beside her. "What was that all about?" she asked, sincerely puzzled.

But Pisces merely shrugged. "Beats me."

Xylven shook her head and sighed. "I guess people can't be blamed for acting weird at a time like this." Then she frowned as she realized that Daidoji being weird was an understatement.

"I wonder where Tetsuya and Josh went..." Pisces said, looking around the room.

"The others will be arriving soon as well. I'll just freshen up and maybe take a quick nap. But first," Xylven turned to Rahkee. "I need to talk to you about something. Can you meet me in my office in ten minutes?"

The red-haired knight turned his attention fully to her, then bowed his head to affirm. "As you wish, guildmistress."

"It's not about Daidoji, if that's what you're thinking," she assured him. "But I need to speak to you in private before we gather everyone else for the meeting tonight."

He nodded. "I will be there."

Upstairs, there were only five rooms. Three doors on the left, two on the right. Rahkee was only familiar with three of them, as the two small rooms across each other at the end of the hall served as bed chambers each for Xylven and Catarina. The room behind the first door to his right was an armory, but he hardly ever entered it. They were mostly for Xylven's and Catarina's weapons, although from time to time other guildsmen left their own equipment inside for safekeeping. The first room on the left was the largest one in the second floor. He was most familiar with this one, it being the guild's meeting room. All three rooms to his left were adjoined to each other, and so the meeting room was next to the guildmistress' office, which was next to her sleeping chambers.

He stopped in front of Xylven's office, and brought up a single hand to knock on the door thrice.

"Come in," Xylven's voice called out to him, but it sounded a bit distant. He was not surprised when he came inside the office and didn't find her there. A quick glance to his right told him that the adjoining room's door was ajar, and he could hear shuffling from within. Xylven was inside.

As if to confirm, he heard Xylven's voice again, coming from the bedroom. "Sit down, make yourself comfortable. I'll be out in a second."

'Comfortable?'

He could be anything but. Thoughts about what had transpired downstairs a while back ran through his head a dozen times before he even entered the office. His mind kept recalling Daidoji's words. And hers.

What did she mean? What could she possibly want to discuss with him? Was she trying to tell him something?

He looked around the small room listlessly. There wasn't much to distract him. A single shelf at the back against the wall held mostly books, papers, folders, as well as a variety of junk such as accessories, tiny garments and paperweights. A desk was in the center of the room, piled with several more papers, most of which he was familiar with. He had accomplished those documents himself. There were only two chairs in the room-one behind the desk, and another in front of it. He merely glanced at the seat in front as he walked several steps towards the desk, but he did not take it.

He turned his gaze towards the door to the adjoining room on his right as it swung open. Xylven came in. He was startled when she did, his surprise breaking him off from his reverie quite effectively. Not that he hadn't expected to see her inside her own office, but because her appearance caught him off guard.

Xylven walked casually into her office, her feet were nestled in a pair of soft, cotton-trimmed slippers. She had taken her gloves off, as well as her armlets, though she had not quite changed out of her hunter's outfit. She looked as if she had just rinsed off water of her face, and she was holding a terry cloth in one hand. From the looks of it, she had obviously just freshened up, like she had told him ten minutes ago she was about to do. It wouldn't have been a startling vision for Rahkee at all, if it weren't for the fact that her hair was loose from it's usual braid and was now flowing freely down her back, its full length reaching past her waist.

And so he stared. He was used to dealing with Xylven in a purely business level, but this was slightly different.

"Rahkee." Xylven was looking at him quizzically as she called out his name, and her voice cut off his train of thoughts once again. "Are you quite alright? Is something wrong?"

He had not realized until then that he was looking at her oddly. Taking a deep breath, he tried to regain his composure and decided to focus his eyes anywhere but her face. "Nothing at all, guildmistress," he replied.

She nodded slowly, though she looked unconvinced. She was used to Rahkee being silent and mysterious. She thought it was rather queer, how he kept to himself, since he was as trustworthy as the guild's own leaders. He was a hard-worker, dedicated and loyal to a fault. His brothers said he had always been that way. He was always much too formal with her, seldom looking into her eyes whenever they talked, as if doing so would be a sign of disrespect. If she had regarded him strange in this manner before, then she was certainly of the same opinion now.

He was gazing steadly ahead, unblinking. His eyes did not meet hers, and instead they were focused on the top of her head. Xylven didn't know what to make of it.

He realized she seemed to find his behavior curious, so he let his gaze slip carefully around her frame. It eventually travelled down the length of her hair.

"I had to brush it clean, that's why I took so long," she said, when she noticed him staring. She tucked a few wayward locks behind her ear. "I'm definitely washing it later. I hate the mobs in Geffenia. They get in my hair...literally..." She shook her head and chuckled. "You're probably the only person in this guild aside from Cat who has ever seen me with my hair down."

"It is...different."

She fought the urge to smile. He looked so odd when he said that. It was amusing. She was used to getting compliments about her looks, and she would've thought her hair in all its unbound glory would get a little more than 'different' as a compliment. But this was Rahkee after all.

After a while, she leaned on one side of her desk. When she walked in, she noticed Rahkee wasn't sitting down, so she decided not to, either. "Anyway," she said, "I'll cut to the chase. I wanted to brief you about the surface plans and the operations. Ideally, we're moving troops within this week."

Rahkee was not surprised to hear that. A week ago, the decision of the Houshi leaders was announced to the rest of the guild. A call to battle. Each of them were given a choice; whether or not they were willing to move far up north with the tides of war. Tonight's meeting would have been to discuss the method of travel and reorganization of teams. He wondered why Xylven wanted to talk to him prior to the gathering that would take place later in the evening. He was not a commander, nor did he hold a special seat of seniority much like Shahai, Lady H or Outkast did.

"As you know," she continued, "we shall not be leaving Prontera all at the same time. I will be leading the main offensive force to Al de Baran first."

He nodded. "By way of Geffen," he said. "It will be a difficult journey, as we cannot trust the teleportation services at this time if we are to move discreetly. However, know that I am to be counted upon to face adversity at all times in the name of the house of Houshi, guildmistress."

She bowed her head in acknowledgment of his promise, then smiled at him. "Yes," she continued. "Pisces' troops will be mobile among the surrounding areas of the capital city, but for the most part, they are to still stationed in Prontera. Pisces' is to wait for my word before she, too, follows up north, but she will take a path headed Morroc first."

"By then, we should have secured our places in Al de Baran before we meet up with Pisces' troops."

She paused. "It will take some time. But yes, that is the plan. However, there is one more pressing matter. Our base here in the capital city has to be secured as well. We cannot rule out the possibility that it might be vulnerable to attack, and losing our headquarters here in Prontera is something I cannot afford as of yet." She looked pointedly at him before she continued. "Which is why two main forces will be left here in Prontera to look after the guild house."

Two?

Rahkee stirred upon hearing the last piece of revelation, but he did not have to voice out the puzzlement that Xylven could see plainly on his features.

"Rahkee," she started, her brow furrowing as she concentrated well on her own words now, "I am going to ask you to bear an enormous responsibility. I want you to lead one of these forces from the remaining faction." She paused, and took a deep breath before continuing.

"I am asking you to stay."

The look of surprise on his face was barely concealed. It reflected his inner turmoil at hearing his guildmistress speak of this decision. In all events of the past, at raids and hunts, he had always belonged to the main offensive force. He never failed to fight by her side at those times. He had assumed it would be the same for the operations in this war.

"Before you say anything, hear me out first. Yes, I understand that when I posed the question to all my guildsmen a week ago, you were full and willing to take up arms at my command. Your decision was made quick, without hesitation, and I admire that in you, and know that I am extremely grateful for your unfailing loyalty.

"This is precisely why you are the one I had in mind for this task. You have proven yourself well, far beyond my expectations of a warrior in my service. I trust you.

"I want you to think about it first-whether or not you are willing to accept this responsibility. I shall, of course, respect whatever your decision will be," Xylven finished, leaned back against her desk, and clasped both of her hands in front of her as he waited for Rahkee's response.

He bowed deeply to her. "Guildmistress," he replied, "I am in your service, and that of Ten no Houshi. I will fully accept this task you bestow upon me. If you need me to stay, I will do so. It is an honor to serve in any capacity."

Though not much surprised, relief was written across her features when she heard his answer. She nodded. "I am grateful. I am indeed fortunate to have been blessed with a guildsman of your devotion."

"Truly, you needn't have asked, guildmistress."

"Not at all," she replied, shaking her head in disagreement. "You may be my most loyal man, but I always consider your issues, same as everyone else's." She smiled, before continuing. "It was a well-learned lesson of the past. A leader does not simply give about orders and expect to be followed...that makes authority a farce. It's taking a lot for granted. One is only truly a leader so long as she has the respect of her men."

"Never doubt for a single moment that you have mine."

"Not at all, I think you have very sound judgment," she teased. "As I have said, two forces will be remaining here in the capital city. At least until we manage a strong foothold up north, and that will take months. As Pai is joining us earlier, it will be you and Outkase in Prontera." She turned her back at him for a while to retrieve a clipboard from her desk. She browsed through the list of names on the first page clipped to the board. "It's not final yet, but you're getting Leria, Chiaki, Kenru, Celcia, Daidoji...no, wait, scratch that...the rest are unconfirmed. It is still to be settled later."

"Is Kaoko in the main force?"

"No, she won't. She'll be staying here."

He frowned. "What about the other knights?"

"Tetsuya and Josh are decided. They will be with me." She placed the clipboard down on her desk. "You must know, Rahkee. What I ask of you...it isn't easy. You will be in a difficult position once the second group moves away from here. It will be most dangerous, especially without the main offensive force."

In all honesty, he had already been thinking of the danger the moment she had asked him to stay. But it wasn't personal safety he was worried about. He could not help but imagine what his guildmistress and her force would have to face in their own position. "I understand," he said. "But one can hardly say that yours is the safer path."

"True," she said. "But our base here is more vulnerable to attack, compared to our people who are moving in secret."

"Even so, I stand by this responsibility, guildmistress. I will see to the security of our headquarters to the best of my ability."

She nodded and smiled again. Then she straightened up from her position. "You have heard all that I have to say, Rahkee. And I am truly thankful it has come to this." Upon hearing this, he bowed again in deference to her, and motioned as if to take his leave, but she spoke up before he could do so. "The main offensive force, as I have said earlier, are moving in a few days. Pai's force is already mobile, but all except for Cat's Eye, will be joining us later." She paused, and looked at him curiously, her head slightly tilted. "Pardon my being forward in suggesting, but it will be a good idea to settle personal affairs and resolve whatever issues you have with members of these forces before they leave. We only have a few more days, and..." She faltered for a moment, before continuing. "Well, it may be a long time before we see each other again."

Rahkee was quiet as he pondered on her words. Then, "What about you, guildmistress?" he asked. "Do you have any of those?"

Xylven looked at him questioningly. "Unfinished business with anyone in the guild, you mean?"

"Not just within the guild. With anyone."

She considered it for a while. "No, I don't think so," she replied slowly. "I have none of those. But if I did, then I would probably think about what Daidoji had said." She sighed. "The future is uncertain...and it may bring us something we might come to regret..."

Rahkee lowered his eyes.

"...Maybe I do miss out on some things like he says I do, being who I am..."

He wanted to speak, but could not find his voice. But he concentrated on saying her name. Even in his mind, she had always been his guildmistress.

"This war...I guess it is an excuse to do things you've always wanted to do but never did. Be out of character. Who knows when we'll get the next chance?" she shrugged. "So think about it anyway, Rahkee. We've got a few more days left." She gave him an encouraging smile, before turning her back.

As he still felt no words of his own were forthcoming, he turned his back as well, and walked away, believing that to be the end of the discussion. But as he reached for the door, he paused.

"Xylven."

Her eyes widened in surprise upon hearing him voice out her name. Rahkee had never called her anything but 'guildmistress'. He had always been much too formal with her. She whirled around to be sure she was not hearing things, but to her shock, she saw him striding towards her determinedly, quickly closing the gap between them.

In a blink, he was directly in front of her. Her jaw would have dropped in shock if it could have...but he cupped her face gently in both of his hands before she even had time to react.

And he kissed her.

On top of her head.

He did not even allow himself to think. His eyes closed of their own volition, and he felt his soul was lost, swirling in a pool of his own emotions. In the back of his mind, it could have been his last chance to do anything.

And damned if he was going to regret anything about the future.

He dropped both of his hands away from her face and looked at her. Her eyes were so light a brown that they shone golden, and they looked up at his, clearly confused.

But he said nothing. He simply turned around and walked out of the room.

And Xylven was left inside her office, staring at the closed door.