The Condor And The Temptress
by BrDPirateMan

I hated our leader. I really did.

And for good reason, too. Condor was irritable, overly strict, and placed too much emphasis on defeating enemies the right way – as an example of this, no matter how many times we tried, we simply couldn't poison that stupid Chimaera monster at all, but he was adamant about us getting it done. Seriously, all that work for some rare loot that we could sell for 30,000 en? The money was good but it was simply too much trouble.

Even in normal combat he was such a stickler for perfection. Our attacks weren't hitting, he might complain. Or this person was taking too long to attack. Or Mina the ronin couldn't deliver an instant kill with her so-called, uh, "instant kill" move. Everyone in our guild had been scolded by him at least once, me included, for what he claimed was not performing well in battle.

Most of us had attacks that relied solely on chance, so it was easy to sympathise with, say, our poor hexer Nova. None of her curses seemed to have any effect, but even when she was young and obviously inexperienced, Condor wouldn't give a damn. He needed every attack to count. How could a landsknecht like him ever understand? Yes, he was accurate with that axe of his, but for goodness' sake the guy had to try and put himself in our shoes for once.

Condor wasn't averse to telling us off if he felt we weren't doing our best. But the truth was that we were! How could he be so blind as to not see it! Hmmm, well, with one eye closed at all times, that wasn't all too surprising.

I remember how Horace, our alchemist, was reduced to a sniveling wreck for "being too slow and weak in combat". Of course he couldn't hit hard, what with his low physical strength and everything. But hello? ! What about his magical prowess? ! He's saved our butts more times than I could remember. Oh, the times I wished I could put my whip to use to gag that idiot of a landsknecht and shut him up!

None of us liked him. Not one bit. It didn't matter whether it was the shy, soft-spoken medic Marie or our other ronin Reiji, a brutish guy with a ponytail and no shirt. Though no one spoke much of it, we were all in the mutual understanding that Condor was one hell of an annoying person. Once, in a fit of rage, Nova had considered cursing him, but it was Marie who coaxed her out of it, saying that it was Condor who paid for our meals and it wouldn't do us good if he was paralysed. With great reluctance the hexer abandoned her plans of sabotage.

But we were all a great team otherwise. It was nice to see such a wide variety of people in our guild, Unity, working together for a common goal: exploring the labyrinth. Ronins, protectors, alchemists, troubadours, dark hunters… we were so different yet so similar. There was trust, friendship and happiness.

Things that Condor obviously didn't have.

Many times I had spotted Condor eating alone or sharpening his axe all by himself instead of doing it while chatting with us. He was Guild Unity's leader, but no one wanted anything to do with him unless necessary. Was it true that it was lonely at the top? I felt kind of bad for him…

Ack! What was I saying? I didn't like him. I hated his guts. Why would I feel bad for him? And there was never going to be any way that we could understand each other in the first place. A dark hunter like me and a landsknecht like him? That's like pairing up a duck with a horse!

If I ever saw the day that I, Xania, would start to like this bum even a tiny little bit, I would kill myself.

XOXOXOXOXO

We had just returned from another outing in the labyrinth, and our party of five had suffered badly. Even with Marie tagging along we couldn't do much to stay healthy, and by the time we had plowed through the fifty enemies that we had encountered, we were half dead. Humiliatingly enough, all of our wounds were inflicted by creatures from the First Stratum. They were supposed to be weak by now! We'd been fighting moles and giant butterflies for ages, but we were still terribly outmatched.

We retreated to the stables where Lagaard's finest horses were kept. Condor wasn't pleased with how we fared. He shook his head as he gazed upon our battered selves, treated by Marie as best as she possibly could. He was roughed up quite badly too, but he didn't seem the least perturbed by his injuries.

And worst of all, he still had the energy to scold us. Again.

He fumed, "For a bunch of explorers who managed to beat Chimaera – barely, mind you – we sure look downright pathetic right now. Any idea why?"

None of us had the heart to talk back, though Hector the protector kid was itching to say something. However, he was weighing the pros and cons of bringing it up. And considering how he had never won an argument with our leader, thinking it through was a very smart thing to do.

"We're not serious enough," said Condor gravely, glaring at each of us in turn with that one open eye. "We've been exploring the labyrinth for so long, but you guys still fight like amateurs. Now let's see where everyone went wrong. Let's start with you first, Hector."

"Oh! Yes, sir!" The salute wasn't so much out of respect but rather out of fear.

"You're a protector. Your job is to protect us from harm, am I not right? Then why in the world were you shielding the back row the whole time when we on the front row needed help?"

"But… But…" Hector began, "I was worried about Marie…" Upon hearing this, the young medic blushed and looked away, trying to hide her red face behind orange bangs. There were rumours that she and Hector liked each other – ah, teenage love – but that was another story. "She's our medic and she keeps us in fighting shape. I don't know what I would do with myself if something happened to her."

Condor was unsympathetic as usual. "Do not let feelings get in the way of judgment," he said, blunt as a rock. "Earlier, we front line guys risked getting slaughtered. What's a warrior got to do to get some support? Are you saying it's okay to shield her, and not us?"

"N-No, that's not what I meant at all!" said Hector hastily.

"Since you understand now, in the meantime, put your skills where they're needed instead of wasting your energy doing worthless things!"

Hector could find no counter-argument, like usual. The worst part was, Condor had a point, he was just terrible at getting it across to others. In any case, the poor protector backed down with his tail between his legs. "Y-Yes, sir…" Marie could only look at the ground in shame.

The next victim whom Condor turned his attention to was Sallika, our survivalist. "Alright, as for you…" Sallika wasn't one to smile, but now her face was darker than normal in anticipation of another worthless scolding. To her, Condor was nothing but a big pile of… well, you know.

"What's with you?" he grumbled. "With the meager amount of damage you've been doing to those monsters it's a wonder that we all managed to make it out alive."

Sallika was bristling with rage, her blond hair writhing like each strand had a life of its own. It was creepy. "Do you want to know why I've been like this lately?" she said in a low voice. "Do you really want to know?"

I could never get used to her icy aura. She could be so cold. But Condor didn't care or mind, because he had a warm, if slightly tattered scarf on his neck. "Do tell," he said, unfazed by the fact that she looked ready to pounce upon him and gouge his eyes out.

"Well, I'll tell you," she said, taking a deep breath before exploding, "It's because I'm still using this stupid dagger!" She held up her dinky little knife. Wasn't it the weapon she started out with when she first joined our guild? Everyone starts with a dagger (or a wand for magic users) but would get a new weapon that suited their needs, almost right off the bat.

So… she had been surviving with just a dagger? All this time? It made my mind reel. I knew survivalists were masters at adaptation, but…

"You're so cheap, you idiot!" she continued to shout angrily, causing Marie to hide behind me. "You wouldn't even let me buy a bow for myself! How am I supposed to work with this useless, (censored) thing!" She forcefully threw the knife to the ground and it embedded into the wooden floor right between Condor's feet. Marie almost lost consciousness upon seeing how close Sallika was to impaling his foot to the floor.

But he didn't even flinch. Anyone would have run for their lives by now, but not stubborn, one-eyed Condor.

"And how was I supposed to hurt anything with me in the back row anyway? !" Sallika then unloaded an entire barrage of complaints and insults at him, which he took the brunt of with amazing steadfastness. Despite the fury and saliva that was directed his way, he didn't move a single inch. To him, it was all like water off a duck's back.

Boy, was that survivalist mad. Marie stayed behind me and Hector cowered behind his shield. I looked at the protector and remembered thinking, Now would be a good time to use Front Guard, kid. Even the horses went bug-eyed watching her. I was about to contemplate grabbing a sandwich while waiting for Sallika to finish, but she had just slung her last words of hate. She stood there panting and catching her breath, glaring at him with a bloodshot eye (I'll get to why it was just one eye in a moment).

"Are you done?" asked Condor. Sallika said nothing. All she did was make a frightening guttural sound from her throat.

"Good," said the landsknecht, taking her animal-like grunt as a yes. "Since you're not the patient type, I shall make it brief for your sake. First, the reason I didn't let you buy a bow is because I'm saving up money for healing items… and you know how costly they are."

"What about Marie? !" snapped Sallika, "She's a medic! She's responsible for healing us, right? !"

"You can never have enough healing items," retorted Condor, "In the event of an emergency a single extra medica can mean all the difference between success and failure."

Again Condor seemed to drive home a strong point. Even Sallika had to agree, though I knew she would never admit it. But still…

"That's still no excuse for not allowing me to buy myself some better equipment!"

"You're a survivalist, Sallika. Aren't you guys supposed to be masters of stealth and ambushes? As such you should be able to surprise the enemy by targeting their weak points, and deliver killing blows with even a simple dagger."

"H-Hey, you're confusing that with assassins! And there are no assassins in High Lagaard!"

Condor ignored that last protest and made one final crushing blow. "Another thing. Will you take off that hideous half-mask? You have to be able to see the enemy with both eyes to land an accurate hit. It's not like you're blind in the other eye, right?"

Sallika's visible eye twitched. The air became heavy and stifling. Uh-oh. No one makes fun of her favourite mask and gets away with it unscathed. Hector, Marie and I looked at each other and knew that if nothing was done our leader would endure a slow and painful death. She looked ready to cast a Megido spell. And she wasn't even an alchemist.

"What about you? !" she growled. "You fight with just one eye too! Is that supposed to mean something? ! Huh? !"

Condor didn't say anything. He probably was stumped, but he wasn't planning to explain this peculiar line of reasoning any time soon. Instead, all he said was, "That's all. Now let's see, who's next?"

Deciding at last that she had enough of his nonsense, Sallika yelled "I hate you!" right in his face before storming out of the stable, slamming the door behind her. He wasn't affected at all.

I breathed a small sigh of relief. We all did, including the horses. We were just glad she didn't murder our leader right then and there. It would be bad to see our friend carted off to jail… or worse. I felt very bad for her. For someone with a gruff, almost man-like attitude, she was very sensitive when it came to her treasured half-mask… It was like her fashion statement. I hoped she wouldn't cry her eyes out tonight…wait a minute, would that be eye or eyes? Never mind.

"Marie," said Condor.

She flinched and revealed herself, feet shuffling uneasily. Hector's face was one of worry and guilt.

"You need to work faster," was the 'advice' that our leader gave her. "You're always the last one to act, and by the time you get round to healing someone, that someone would have already been knocked unconscious in battle. Your healing spells are also too weak. We can't have medics like this."

"I'm sorry," she mumbled.

"And don't you know how to remove ailments by now? Do you know how many times we've had to retreat because some party member can't wake up, ends up poisoned or is so confused he can't stop running in circles?" Usually with other medics, they could return their afflicted allies to normal right after a battle ends, but Marie was a different case. She just wasn't skilled enough yet.

"I-I'm sorry, sir," she said, close to tears. "B-But I'm still in training, and I… I still don't know many things… I'm studying hard, really I am! I'll make sure that I can eventually refresh people, but until then, p-please bear with me…"

"Hey, even for a trainee, you should at least know that much!" Condor sighed, fingers drumming his temple in impatience. "Look, I'm tired of this. Marie, I'm giving you a week to learn all the healing techniques that you need to know. Fail to do that and you're out of Unity."

Marie gasped, her face turning as white as her uniform. Hector wanted to speak up for her, but was too tongue-tied. What the heck was our leader saying? !

"Condor!" I snapped, "Don't be so harsh on her! She's still in training like she said. Give her time and she'll improve! But one week is too short. Have you seen how thick her textbooks are? Do you seriously think she can learn everything in seven days? !"

"I don't care," he said, "we've been underachieving for too long. We can never fight for an extended period of time before returning to town, often missing more than our fair share of arms and legs, figuratively. That's because our medic isn't up to it yet. Simple as that."

Marie sobbed hard. Hector wrapped his arms around her and let her bury her face in his chest while she cried. I couldn't believe how cruel our leader could be! I had seen some biting remarks but this was by far the worst. We'd rather get whacked around by rhinos than hear another one of his so-called pieces of advice.

I was mad to say the least. "Why, you!"

"Oh, and you," he said to me, "what's wrong with your accuracy today? You can't land a hit half the time we were in there."

I raked a gloved hand through my wavy blond hair, and with no small amount of exasperation, I said, "It's hard to hit flitting butterflies with a whip, you know."

"Well, I could manage just fine. Are you even concentrating in battle?"

"It's fine for you because you were slapping them with the side of your axe," I said, frowning. "That's way easier to do than using a thin weapon to hit something relatively small like a freaking insect."

"Okay, I can understand that," he muttered, "But onto another matter: will you ditch the long coat? It'll only get in the way and make you clumsier." As if that wasn't enough to tick me off, he continued, "And for goodness' sake wear something decent. Half the guys in our guild get distracted by that ridiculous latex outfit of yours."

He said what? Did he just say that my best outfit was ridiculous? ! I loved this outfit! Sure, it was awfully skimpy, but that was the point! What was a dominatrix without the requisite amount of skin showing? A dark hunter would look like a clown fully encased in protective armour.

However, I couldn't exactly use that reason to argue with him… That would be fighting a losing battle. Although, to be honest, any battle of wits fought with Condor was a losing battle.

"But it's our freedom to wear what we like!" I protested. "Besides, it's flexible and lets me move about freely, not something I can do with a metal breastplate and leggings."

"Nonsense," disputed Condor. "Look at me. I can run around just fine and I'm just as agile as you are with a full set of body armour, while swinging a weighty axe."

"That's a really unfair comparison you're making!" I was at my wit's end with this guy. "Do you even have any idea how heavy those things are? !"

And again, he refused to listen any further, waving me off. "I expect you to wear at least a padded shirt by the next time we enter the labyrinth," he said, "oh, and a helmet."

"Wh-What? ! But…!"

Condor spoke, "All of you, think about what I just said. You're dismissed. Now get out of here."

XOXOXOXOXO

"So then he says that I need to 'wear something decent'…" I complained to my best friend and fellow dark hunter Ivnys. We were sitting side by side on stools in the women's section of the Flaus Inn bathhouse, where I was busy scrubbing dirt and monster blood off of myself.

"…and he even told me to ditch the latex look and go for a padded shirt instead."

"What? ! That's crazy!" exclaimed Ivnys, who had undone her corkscrew ponytails to properly wash her hair. "Telling a dark hunter to wear an ugly, bulky shirt? ! That's sacrilege!"

"And a helmet too."

"He told you to wear a helmet? !" Now she was substantially shocked. "What dark hunter wears a helmet? ! He really doesn't think about how others feel."

"I know, right?" I huffed, soaping my leg. "What a totally foolish, annoying piece of… AARGH!" My fist shot out at the wall in front of me and I immediately regretted it. "Damn…" She chuckled softly as she watched me suck my knuckles to ease the pain.

"We just can't get a break around him, eh?" said Ivnys, smiling. Getting together to talk about life in general was fun and did much to blow off steam, which was why she was grinning even though we were talking about our most hated leader. Then again she was never the serious type. "Just the other day he told me to change my hairstyle because he felt that ponytails 'take too much time to maintain, time we don't have.'" She held up two fingers in each hand to signify quotes. "What gives?" She rolled her eyes to the heavens and started to fill her small wooden tub with water.

"Why can't he talk like a normal person?" I grumbled, working on my other leg. "All he does whenever he's around is make everyone mad."

"Still, when you sit down and think about it, what he says to us always makes sense. He's just really bad at the whole interpersonal relationship thing."

"Not everything he says makes sense, Ivnys," I frowned. "Battle advice I can take, but not telling me to stop wearing my favourite outfit! And he's mean too! Poor Marie couldn't stop crying, you know."

"Yeah, I heard." Her tub had filled to the brim and she dumped all the water over her head, after which she started filling it again. "He wanted to expel her from Unity if she didn't meet his standards in a week. The poor girl. Marie's very important to us and the pressure on her must be tremendous."

"She's working hard but all Condor does is put her down. In fact, he puts everyone down."

"Hmmm, yeah."

Without thinking, I said, "Seriously, if dealing with him was less aggravating, he might even be a bit likeable."

Ivnys arched one eyebrow in curiosity. Then with a slowly growing smile, she said, "Hey, Xania, by any chance do you actually like Condor?"

"What? Where did this come from? !" I stared at her like she had just said the most ridiculous thing in the history of High Lagaard. Well, in a way it was.

"Don't you?" she smirked, leaning in to take a closer look at my face. "Even though you hate him, a small part of you thinks he's hot, right?"

"S-Since when? !" Even if an apocalypse were to destroy everything and there was no one left in the world but the two of us, I would never bring myself to like him. Ever! "I do not like him," I said, pronouncing every syllable with great emphasis, "and I most definitely do not think that he is hot."

"But if you look closely, he looks rather cute, you know that?"

"Um…" That was true. Condor wasn't bad-looking at all. "Well, maybe, but –"

"Aha!" Ivnys had a childish but evil grin on her face. "So you do think he's hot!"

"Do not!" I snapped, face turning red despite myself.

"Yes, you do! Oh, and you know something?" giggled Ivnys, obviously having fun watching my reaction. "I heard a rumour…If two people hate each other very much, they may turn out to be the perfect couple. I can already see it… Xania and Condor, together forever…"

"Are you insane? !" I spluttered, "Me and him? That's never going to happen!"

"So do you like him or not?" she sniggered, her Cheshire Cat grin now officially the second most annoying thing after Condor. Gosh, was she obstinate as ever.

"No. Stop it, Ivnys." I turned away from her and resumed cleaning myself, but no matter how hard I tried, soap could never wash a blush away.

"Do I sense denial?"

"No! Just drop it, will you?"

"Okay, sure," she said. Then a second later I felt water being thrown over my head. She must have dumped her tub of water onto me! I screamed from the icy coldness while she laughed her head off.

"What was that for? !" I yelped, shivering uncontrollably.

"Well, you did tell me to drop it. That's what I did." Ivnys was in stitches, clutching her stomach. The way my body was all scrunched up as I hugged myself for warmth must have been hilarious. "Oh, and you have a nice voice."

"Th-That's not funny!" I gave her a good noogie to the head but was laughing myself too. After all, it was my chance for revenge!

"Ow! Ha ha! S-Stop it!"

XOXOXOXOXO

Guild Unity had been in High Lagaard for long enough for our members to be completely familiar with every location within. Each of us favoured a few places, establishing them as our regular hangout spots to relax and socialize and do whatever we liked during our spare time.

Flaus Inn was where we had our meals, cooked up by that nice middle-aged innkeeper. The Explorers' Guild was frequented by fighters from all walks of life, so the combat-minded among us liked to go there to see what new skills they could learn. That was where one would normally find Hector, Condor (booo!) or Reiji the ronin, who was always looking for people to spar with but had no luck thus far. The guy kept lamenting that his sword would dull with his skills if he couldn't find an opponent, often reciting haiku and sayings no one could understand to further reiterate his frustration.

Nobody really visited the Lagaard Hospital much unless necessary, although to be honest, we had to make a lot of trips here to revive unconscious allies, and the words "a lot" were an understatement. So that kind of said much about how weak Guild Unity was, something which caused our leader much chagrin. Ack.

Likewise, we didn't get many chances to pop our heads inside Sitoth Trading, because ol' stingy Condor wouldn't let us buy new equipment for ourselves. So we were here mainly to chat with the shopkeeper, Abigail, who was good friends with elegant ronin Mina, or to buy medicas by the bucketload (was Condor a hypochondriac?), which left us with little money to buy anything for ourselves anyway. So sad.

In the Duke's Palace was an expansive library which was open to the public. Bookish types like Marie and resident hexer Nova loved to spend hours there. I was never much of a bookworm and the library had no books on bondage and other SM… er, battle techniques that a dark hunter like me would find useful, so I seldom went there. You'd have thought that a library like that would have everything, but no…

Lagaard was a quiet and peaceful town. As such, even bustling areas like the market and town square had a surprisingly soothing air about them. The park was an especially good place to relax. Sallika and Faris the gunner would agree, as would Horace, who could faint to his heart's content.

Come nighttime, the Stickleback Bar was a popular converging place for those who loved the nightlife, mostly warriors who liked to share stories among each other about what they saw and experienced in the labyrinth. Once in a while the odd troubadour would come along and offer to sing for everyone, always a welcome piece of entertainment for bartender Cass and his posse of regular customers. The happy-go-lucky Ryo enjoyed the atmosphere of this cozy bar. And dark hunters like Ivnys and I can't resist a good drink.

We were fresh out of the bathhouse and raring for a shot of good liquor at Stickleback Bar. Imagine our surprise when we found a couple of our guild members already inside, and they weren't Cass' usual patrons. Was that Hector and Marie? The first thought that came to mind was that they were having a date, but someone on a date wouldn't bury her head in her hands crying, and of course I was referring to Marie. Hector was consoling her as best as he could.

"Hey, um, everything okay?" I said as we approached them.

"Marie's in a tight spot," said Hector sadly, his arm wrapped around Marie's shoulders, "I've been thinking about how to persuade Condor to let her stay on in the guild, because I don't think she can make it in one week and he's likely to kick her out if that happens."

"I don't want to leave Unity," sobbed Marie, her speech laboured and faltering. "It's the only family I have!" It was true. She was an orphan, and we took her in. For as long as we could remember, she had seen us as her brothers and sisters. Except Hector, who was more like a potential husband.

"Aww, Marie," sighed Ivnys, stroking her head softly.

"I study so very hard," continued the poor medic, shoulders trembling violently, "but I'm just not good at it yet. I need more time, but time is something I don't have!"

"Condor is so unreasonable!" I fumed, "Half the time he's around he acts like his brain took the day off."

"Don't worry, Marie!" said Hector bravely, "I-I'll think up of something! Maybe he'll understand if I show him all the textbooks you have to go through. Well, uh, you just leave it to me!"

Marie gazed up at him with tear-filled eyes. "H-Hector…"

"That's the spirit, kid," I said approvingly. "We'll help you too. I don't know how yet, but we'll definitely get this sorted out."

"Th-Thanks, everyone." Marie didn't seem so down now. We were glad to lift her spirits, even if it was only for a bit. As for Condor, I just knew I had to do something about him. Maybe I could tie him up and flog him… nah, it probably wouldn't do anyone any good and I would be dismissed from the guild too. Worst case, he might think it was sabotage planned by the whole guild and he would disband it in an instant. If he had no qualms about giving Marie the boot then it wasn't too difficult to see him sending all of us packing.

"I appreciate your support," said Marie softly, "but Hector, I'm just curious… why would you go to such great lengths to stick up for me? It was my fault that you got scolded by Condor, so… why?"

"Huh? It's not your fault at all! But regarding your question, um…" Hector was passionate about his job as a protector, and his dedication was admirable. He had a lot of good qualities, including chivalry and selflessness, but he was lacking one notable thing: oratory skills. There was never a debate he could win, or any awkward situation he could mosey out of smoothly. Like now.

He couldn't say the real reason, not yet anyway. The time and setting weren't right. But Ivnys helped him out without waiting for his consent.

"Ah… Don't you know, Marie?" she giggled mischievously, "It's the power of love."

"What? !" Hector spluttered. "Ivnys! That's not it! How can we be in love in the first place?"

"Y-Yeah, honest," added Marie, red as a tomato. "Honestly, there's nothing going on between us, honest." Well, dearie, if you asked me, I would say that's one too many "honest's" to be an honest answer…

Being the hardheaded person that she was, Ivnys decided to try provoking a reaction out of them. "You mean, the time I saw you guys kissing under the apple tree near the stables didn't count?"

In one voice, they cried, "What? !"

"Wow! You even deny together? At the same time? ! I had no idea you two had gone so far." Ivnys was laughing.

"We never did anything like that!" stammered Marie.

My dark hunter friend was liking the way things were going. "We…?"

What followed was a series of further denials from both of them which only served to strengthen the popular belief that they had feelings for each other. I would have liked to stay back to have a round of beer and join in the fun, but I suddenly remembered something that I had to do.

"Guys, I almost forgot," I said, rising from my chair, "I've got some matters to take care of."

"What is it, Xania?" asked Ivnys, "We only just got here."

"I'm sorry, but the truth is I need to ask Condor for some money to buy a new whip," I explained. "We get close to being slaughtered every time we venture into the labyrinth, and I feel that if I don't get a better weapon it'll be the same story every time."

"Oh come on, that can wait. It's no fun drinking without you, you know. Besides, with Condor, asking for favours is a long shot."

"Yeah, it's a long shot alright, but this issue has been bothering me for days," I said, "I just never got round to getting it resolved. I simply have to do it no matter what."

Ivnys looked disappointed, but let me off anyway. Still, that didn't stop her from making one last snarky remark, "Are you sure you're not trying to have some… 'alone time' with him?" Hector and Marie stared at me in total bewilderment upon hearing this. Xania likes Condor? ! was what they must have been thinking. That was impossible, right?

"What? No!"

She leaned back in her chair with her hands behind her head. "But he's probably all by himself in the stable… You should keep him company… if you know what I mean – ow! Ow ow ow!"

She got another noogie. "I don't like him! End of story!" But even with my fist grinding into her head she was laughing dementedly. "And I can't believe you have the cheek to say such things in front of them!" Hector and Marie were already turning red thinking about the possibility of me and Condor being alone in the stable, doing god-knows-what.

I'd have to help them unlearn what that darn Ivnys insinuated. Probably wouldn't be easy either. But that would have to come later.

XOXOXOXOXO

Okay, deep breath, Xania. You can do this, I told myself as I stood right before the door of the stables where Condor could usually be found at this time of the night. You can do this without strangling him. You can do this.

After what seemed like ages prepping myself for the big negotiation, I was about to knock on the door when I suddenly heard his voice ring out into the night from inside the stables, startling me greatly.

"Who's there?" he called, almost in a relaxed tone as though he was expecting me. "I can see the shadow of your feet in the crack under the door."

He was so sharp and observant. The way he always stayed ahead of others was uncanny and a little frightening. But there was no chance in hell that I was backing down now. "It's me, Xania. I want to talk to you for a minute, if that's fine with you."

A pregnant pause followed. Had he fallen asleep, choosing to ignore me? I'd kick him in the head if he did.

"Come in," he said at last. So I did, pushing open the stable door slowly. It creaked noisily and sounded excruciatingly loud in the vast quietness within. Some of the horses perked up and took notice, but none of them really minded.

Unlike the horses that accompanied him, however, Condor seemed to mind. He had been busy sharpening his axe all alone under the warm glow of a hanging lantern, with his body armour off, and he didn't like it when he was interrupted. I learnt this the hard way when I barged into his room one day with some important news… while he was shaving his chin. As far as I knew, he never forgave me for the scar left on his face. It was barely noticeable in all truth, but he still hated the story behind it.

"Well, what is it?" he asked.

I approached him and spoke. "Condor, I hate to bother you, but I need money to buy a new whip. The one I'm using right now is too weak."

He didn't even look up. "We've got a spare sword. You can have that."

"I don't like swords. It's just not my style."

"Xania," he sighed, exasperated as he turned his one open eye to me, "A good warrior must be accustomed to using whatever weapons she can get her hands on. Besides, it's not like you dark hunters can't use swords anyway."

That was true. Ivnys preferred to use swords herself. But I still didn't like swords, period. Throughout my training I had focused extensively on whips and their use in bondage… er, binding foes. So to use a bladed weapon was just too awkward for me.

"But all my special skills require whips," I said, hoping to drill some sense into his thick skull, "I can't perform them without one. I mean, you can't bind an enemy with a sword."

"Then it's time you learnt some sword skills, Xania," he brushed me off, continuing to sharpen his axe. "There's a library in the Duke's palace. And you've got Ivnys as a potential teacher. Either way I'm sure you'll learn something."

This man had gotten on my nerves for the last time!

"Condor, just gimme some cash, dammit!" I cried, blonde locks bristling with anger. "I'm sick and tired of using the same old underpowered whip all the time!"

"I'm getting sick and tired myself, but of your needless ranting and raving."

"Can't you listen to me for once? !" I was close to exploding from frustration.

"It's impossible to not hear you with your loud screeching voice in my ears," he grumbled, "Now take that sword and please leave." He stood up, seemingly to escort me out of the stable, a subtle hint for me to get out of his sight.

"You… You little…!" My blood was boiling.

"Leave. I'm busy."

"No!"

I lunged at him and grabbed him by the front of his shirt with both hands, shaking him vigorously and shouting right in his face, Sallika-style. His eye showed a bit of surprise; he probably never thought that a guild member would do this to her leader, but otherwise his face remained as emotionless as ever.

"Don't you understand? !" I yelled, startling the horses in the process, though I didn't care at the moment, "It's because we don't have good equipment that we can never make any real progress in the labyrinth! No good weapons so we can't hit hard enough, and no good armour so every hit we receive hurts so much that we're forced to retreat after a few scrapes. Sallika's right, we can't go on like this! We've tried to tell you how we feel but you never listen! That's why we're still stuck on the First Stratum while other guilds have already gone past the Third!"

His eyebrows arched upwards in the slightest, or so I thought. Maybe I was finally getting through to him. But I was wrong.

"That's nonsense, Xania," he said, staring me down. "A good warrior must be proficient in his or her weapon skills no matter how weak the –"

"Again with the warrior lectures!" I spat. I was treading on thin ice talking back to Condor like this, but I was fed up to the teeth with him. "We can't survive as is! We'll be dead before we know it! How many times do I have to tell you that at the end of the day, WE. NEED. BETTER. EQUIPMENT! ! !"

"We need the money for medicas," he simply said.

"We don't need so many of them! Just a few is good enough! We've got Marie to cover our healing needs anyway!"

Condor shook his head, wishing for nothing better than to shoo me out. "I don't know what to do with you, woman."

"Ugh…!" He just wouldn't listen. That idiot with a rock for a brain! If I couldn't get him to turn his way of thinking around, then I had one other backup plan…

"Condor, look," I attempted to parley with him, "at least give me some cash to get a better whip. Then I'll work hard to gather materials in the labyrinth to sell, so that the rest of us can have some money to spend. We wouldn't use your precious money anymore. Do we have a deal?" To think I had to stoop so low to save my fellow guild members. But what else could I do?

"An admirable plan," he said, "but no, we can't spare any more money as is."

What!

"If… If you wouldn't do what I ask…" I suddenly flung my arms around his neck in a bearhug. "…then I wouldn't let go until you give in!"

"What the…" He was taken completely by surprise. "What are you doing? Have you gone quite mad? !" He tried to pry my grip apart but it was no use. Every attempt he made at freeing himself ended in failure. "Let go!"

"Never!" I hugged him tighter. "Not until you comply with my request!"

Then a peculiar thing happened. He was starting to shiver. Quite badly, too. Before very long he was like a living plate of jelly. I was almost alarmed by the sudden change brought about in him, but also eager to know what just happened.

"Xania, l-l-let g-go… P-Please, th-this is t-too much…"

He had never stammered like that before! Not once in the time that I had known him as our leader. Not even when he first came face-to-face with the frightening Chimaera monster – while Marie freaked out badly, he stood his ground with that one eye locked onto the beast's. Not even when Sallika blew her top and looked ready to slit his throat. The point was, he was never so nervous as far as I could remember.

So why now? Was it because…

Oh… I got it.

It sounded implausible, but it occurred to me that he had never come this close to a girl in his life! Condor was an excellent warrior but he probably was a loser with the ladies. I'll bet he never had a girlfriend in all of his twenty-two years! Never kissed, never hugged a girl, never even held hands…

That was probably why he was so tense as I hugged him close. He was a fighter on the outside but he was such a dork at heart! Well, once I pinpointed this weakness of his, I wasted no time in exploiting it…

"I'll let go if you buy me a new whip." Buy me a new whip? I had meant to say "give me enough cash to buy a new whip", but I guess it mattered little. I heard him draw a ragged breath and was about to congratulate myself on a mission well done, but he was still stubborn, much to my astonishment.

"N-No. I c-can't. I… just can't."

So much for an easy win. Still, victory wasn't too far away. Condor was in a weakened state. All I had to do was to whittle down his defences some more until he surrendered. With this guy it wasn't all that hard. Now would be a good time to use those seductive techniques that were part and parcel of my training as a dark hunter. Okay, it wasn't essential, more like extra credit really, but it was interesting and fun to learn, so why not?

My voice became honeyed as I whispered into his ear, purposefully blowing my warm breath all over his cheek. "Oh Condor, you're so mean," I cooed, "all I need is a few thousand en. You didn't have to make things so… complicated."

"B-B-But the m-medicas!" he blabbered comically. "Th-They're important, right? !" I doubted he knew what he was saying anymore.

"Medicas, shmedicas. They aren't all that necessary," I said, running a hand slowly through his messy crop of red hair. "If you're injured, I can lick your wounds real nice… like this." His whole body turned rigid like he had become a statue, as I licked his chin, trailing my tongue over it cheekily. I made sure it was nice and slow… although admittedly the salty taste of his sweat was a little disgusting. Our lips were dangerously close to touching…

"Like it?"

He just shuddered, his jaw glistening with saliva.

"You don't need medicas now, do you, Condor? You have me."

"Oh, er… um, b-but I still think w-we n-n-need medicas…"

Curses. He still wouldn't fork over the cash. Stubborn till the very end, eh? In that case I had no choice but to use every single dirty trick in the book that I knew of. Not that I really wanted to do this, mind you, but if it worked then it was all good for me and for everyone else. I took a deep breath and braced myself. Here goes nothing!

I released my grip momentarily, only to push him against the wall. Condor was positively helpless as I ran my hands up and down along his chest ever so slowly, to soften him up. He could have pushed me away and run screaming for his dear life, but he found no strength to move. My charms had paralysed him. He was at my mercy now, and I laughed inwardly to see him reduced to such a pathetic state.

"You know, Condor, just to change the topic a bit," I said, in the sexiest voice I could muster, "I've been thinking about all the advice you've been giving me."

"About… A-About what? !"

"You know how you told me to 'ditch the long coat'? I was so hurt when you told me that." I pressed my body against his, clawing his shirt gently with gloved hands. His heart must have stopped beating from the sensation of my firm bosom against his chest. "I love that coat so much… But, just for you, I don't mind not wearing it. See? I'll even take it off right here."

"Wh-What? Xania, wait!"

Ignoring his pleas, I removed my coat slowly, making sure my bare shoulders came into view gradually, before I let it slide off my arms whereupon it crumpled to the floor at my feet. There was not a spot on Condor's face that wasn't red now.

"Do I look better without my coat, Condor?"

All that came out of his mouth was a mostly unintelligible garble of mashed words. "Uh… um, I… egh?"

I snaked my hands along his arms. Wow, he's really ripped, I thought approvingly. How often did this guy work out anyway? His muscles felt so nice to the touch. Ack, got a little distracted there. I still had a landsknecht to torture. "Dumping my coat isn't enough for you?" I said, "You want me to take off more than that?"

"No! I never said that!" He was sweating bullets.

"Oh, but you implied it," I continued, pouting, "Remember? You said my latex outfit was ridiculous. Is that an indirect order for me to strip it all off?" At this point, it was hard not to blush myself, but it helped with my act, so it was fine. My fingers were plucking and playing with the drawstrings in front of my modified corset. No matter how hard he must have tried, he simply couldn't take his eyes away from my cleavage.

"So, you want me to? I don't mind."

"What? !"

"It's just us… no one will come to disturb us. And… And you're my leader, so I have to do what you tell me to do, so…"

"No, stop! You can't… I mean… Um…"

"Oh, you're so slow!" I huffed, in mock annoyance as I put on a frown and jabbed a finger at his forehead. "I'm not going to do it, not when you're so indecisive. And I was so generous. Lightning doesn't strike twice, you know."

I thought I heard him mutter "Damn" under his breath. Was he actually disappointed? So strict, no-nonsense Condor had normal desires just like everyone else, huh? I could never picture him that way. It was hard to stifle a giggle.

"No fair," I continued, "I took off my coat, so do the same with your scarf!"

"M-My scarf?" He looked so silly wearing a wool scarf over a short-sleeved shirt. Talk about a serious fashion faux pas.

"Oh no, wait, I'll help you take it off," I offered, uncoiling the piece of cloth around his neck and twirling it around my own. "Mmm, it feels nice… It's so comfortable on my smooth, slender, naked neck…"

"N-Naked? !"

That was when I noticed that his shirt had a low-cut collar and the exposed area around his neck bore beautifully sculpted muscles. I gulped. Now I knew why Ivnys had said that he was hot. He was simply gorgeous.

Ack! Distracted again! This wasn't the time for a seductress to care about things like that. Money was short and I needed it now. How could I waste anymore time admiring his body? I didn't like him anyway; I was just doing this for the cash.

But… was I so sure about that now? I never had this much fun ever since the food fight during grammar school! Was I actually enjoying his company?

No! Of course not! Dammit, I was starting to get careless. The plan was for me to entice him, not the other way around!

"Condor…" I purred, my heart ba-dumping like crazy, "I've been following your advice, I've been a really good girl, so… will you give lil' ol' me some money now?"

"Uh… n-no, I'm s-sorry, I can't… not yet, anyway… A-And could you give me my scarf back –"

Ugh! What was with this guy? ! His stubbornness was frustrating me to no end! The time had come to be even more aggressive.

"Aww… you're so bad," I moaned, tracing circles on his chest with my index finger, an action that put him back in panic mode. "How can I like you if you're always like this?"

"What do you mean? !" Condor blurted, blinking furiously. "What's the meaning of –"

"Oh no, I've done it again!" I said, pretending to dismayed at myself. "I can never keep my own secrets safe. How silly of me! But…" I leaned into his face until our noses were almost touching. "…since the cat's out of the bag, I might as well confess.

"Well, how should I best say how I feel?" I drawled. Condor, with all the calmness of a typhoon, watched me playfully twirl a lock of my golden hair around my finger. "This… This is going to be rather embarrassing for me… oh, Condor, look what you've done, making me say things I shouldn't be saying!" I pawed him in the arm.

"Um… Xania, th-this is getting out of h-hand…"

Paying no mind to his discomfort, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to say what would probably be the craziest thing he had ever heard of. It wasn't outrageous for nothing, as this was the sort of thing that sent men's minds soaring to the moon. My arms reached behind his neck and locked together to form an inescapable embrace. His shirt had grown so damp from sweat.

"The truth is… I get so hot thinking about you, Condor…"

"Y-You get… what?"

"Sooo very hot," I whispered, "Every night when I think about you, I have to take off all my clothes…"

Hearing that was a shock to his senses. He was actually starting to sway a little, like he was dizzy, but I kept him in place. Couldn't have him collapsing yet, because there was more…

"And I have such wild dreams of just the two of us exploring the labyrinth together…" I continued, "…but you know, there's only so much exploring you can do before those primal urges take over and all hell breaks loose… I can't even remember how many times we did… um, that, while leaning against a tree…" He gave a weird-sounding squawk, and swiftly brought his hand to his profusely bleeding nose. I had to admit, Condor was right when he said things were getting out of hand. Having to tantalize him with mental images as suggestive as this was a bit excessive, wasn't it?

Whatever, I needed that new whip now!

"Oh Condor, wouldn't you give me some money now?" I tried once more, "I'm just afraid that if I stay with you any longer, I'll lose control of myself and then we'll both lose something very important to us, and it isn't cash… Right now as we speak, I'm nearing melting point…" To heighten the urgency, I moistened my lips with my tongue, and his nose bled even more in response.

Even if this was all an act, I still couldn't help feeling so sexy. With Condor looking so painfully tempting with his half-open shirt and muscular frame, I was genuinely scared that I might actually seduce him for real. Maybe I really did think he was hot stuff. But that was simply not possible! Was I actually falling for his fool? ! All those years of dark hunter training had better pay off now; I couldn't stand this a minute longer.

"Xania… I…"

"Condor…" Stop being so selfish and give me the money now! ! !

"B-But…"

"Please…"

Suddenly – and mercifully – the door banged open. And the entire guild marched right in.

Okay, not so mercifully.

"There you are, sir," called Hector, barging in with the rest, "we want to talk to you about that quest we just took–"

The sight before him – of me clinging to their leader in a decidedly obscene manner – reduced his voice to a barely audible mumble. "–up?"

Condor and I just stared at the whole lot of them like frightened deer. Everyone else, on the other hand, was rooted to the spot like time had frozen. Stunned beyond words they could say nothing to alleviate the awkwardness of the situation.

On hindsight, it was funny seeing how they all reacted in their different ways (though at the time, it was anything but funny). Faris screamed and covered her face with her hands, though with such big gaps between her fingers, I doubted she ever wanted to take her eyes off this ridiculous scene. Ryo had been happily munching on an apple, but devoid of any muscular control, his mouth just hung open and the half-eaten apple fell out of his hand, leaving the nearby horse to help itself to it. Horace's face turned blue because he stopped breathing out of shock and he fainted as a result. His body fell over, ramrod straight like a lamp-post, to the ground. Thump!

"Oh no!" cried Mina, shaking him by the shoulders and slapping his cheeks. "Marie! Quickly, revive him!"

But Marie had fainted too, and her rumoured love interest Hector was understandably distraught, shouting at her to "say something, Marie! Say something!"

Mina turned to our war magus. "Um… Juno?"

The dark-skinned, dreadlocked man was most apologetic. "S-Sorry… I know healing magic but I was never taught how to bring people back to life."

Um, Horace wasn't dead…

Nova was probably the most unaffected one of all, but even she had grown her eyes to the size of dinner plates. And my best friend Ivnys was trembling from the mind-blowing scenario that had presented itself to her, her hair curls shaking like jelly.

"X-Xania…" she stammered, "wh-what are you doing?"

I was lost for words, unable to explain why I had my body pressed against Condor's, with our faces so close to each other that we looked like we were kissing. I scrambled for a good excuse, but how could I find any with my brain in a freeze? Eventually, overwhelmed by the attention I was getting, I ran out the stable at light speed, pushing past my fellow explorers.

"I'm sorry…! ! !" My apology was addressed to everyone but aimed mostly at the immobile Condor.

I hated to think what questions I had to deal with now…

XOXOXOXOXO

I was sitting at the dressing table in my room at Flaus Inn, brooding and kicking myself for messing up big time. All I wanted was to coax some cash out of that penny-pinching buffoon.

And what would everyone else think of me now? I'm sure plenty of rumours would go around, about how Condor and I were caught in a decidedly immodest act. Never mind about his reputation, but what about mine? !

I wasn't sure I could take all the unnecessary attention that would invariably be directed at me now. And to add salt to the wound, I was still penniless. Life was terrible.

No money, no whip… and no peace of mind. Argh… dammit.

The person I was staring at in my reflection… was that Xania, dark hunter extraordinaire, or just some cunning tramp with an eye for men and money and nothing else? Or maybe I was overthinking things. So I got caught doing some crazy things to Condor… big deal. Don't lovers do this kind of thing in private sometimes? Wait… lovers? That's not what we were at all…

Either way, if my friends asked about this I would have one hell of a tale to tell… Ivnys would probably grill me for more details… I was almost sure of this…

There was something in my reflection that I normally would not see. Why was I wearing a scarf? They weren't my type of fashion. Upon closer inspection, however, it turned out to be Condor's. A small shriek escaped from my throat and the offending piece of cloth was off my neck faster than one of Faris' bullets.

I stared at the woollen snake resting on the dressing table with a mixture of disgust and curiosity… as though it were a real snake. Condor's scarf… I forgot to take it off before I ran off. I would have to return it to him, but I didn't feel like talking to him yet. Not now anyway. It was just too weird, especially after what I did to him. I mean, I actually told him that in my dreams we leaned against a tree and had… uh, never mind.

Maybe it was just me, but the more I looked at it, the greater my urge to… touch it? Why did I want to touch it? It was just a stupid, smelly, tattered, sweat-ridden scarf, and it belonged to the worst, stingiest, most abhorred monster of a man in the entire universe. And yet… something about it made me want to reach out and take it… It looked so soft…

My hand, on its own accord, very slowly picked it up, and I found the cloth to have a pleasantly tender, slightly spongy texture. I was inclined to caress my own cheek with it, and it wasn't something I was comfortable with. But I gave in and it felt so good, lulling me into a dream-like state. It was almost like… it was Condor's face I was nuzzling against.

…Condor's face…

"Ack!" Good sense took over and I flung the scarf back on the dressing table like it had caught fire. I had just touched my face with that darn scarf! His scarf! Wasn't this like an indirect hug or something?

And why was I blushing? ! I touched my cheeks and they were practically scorching! Not even Horace could make fire spells that hot. With a light head I fell back onto my bed. Was I falling in love with that man? With Condor? ! That couldn't be right! This had to be some sort of mistake!

Suddenly there was a series of rapid knocks on the door. I got up to answer it, and the visitor standing in the doorway was… well, speak of the devil…

"Ack! Condor!" I screeched, jumping two feet in the air. "Wh-What are you doing here? !"

"You forgot your coat," he said, his hand outstretched and clenching my sleek, black coat. I was in such a hurry to get out of the barn that I forgot to pick up the coat I had left behind. It was a present from my mentor and was one of my treasured possessions, so I was grateful to have it back.

"I… um, thanks…" I mumbled, taking my coat from him. "Oh, that's right…" I swiped his scarf from the dressing table, and without making eye contact, I handed it to him. "Here. And sorry."

"Ah… th-thank you," he stuttered slightly. "M-Much appreciated."

Not surprisingly, Condor was looking away with a reddish tint on his cheeks. The whole episode must have been too much for him. For that matter, I was pretty embarrassed myself and my face was ablaze with colour.

I had to apologise for acting like a total slut. "Condor, I'm very sorry!" I whimpered, hanging my head in shame. "I… uh… It was wrong of me to do that. I don't know what came over me. M-Maybe I'm cursed or something, ha ha ha…"

He gently pushed past me and walked into the room. Wait, did he just ignore me? !

"W-Wait a sec," I said, slightly annoyed by the fact that he entered my room without my permission. "Just because you're the leader doesn't mean you have the right to barge in anyhow you like!"

He cleared his throat, and with a serious tone he said, "I want to talk to you. Close the door, please."

Condor was back to his usual stern self, his awkwardness quickly forgotten. What did he have to say? Oh boy. Now that things had calmed down and he had regained his composure, I was more than sure that he would berate me for trying to take advantage of him. Or he might force me to leave Unity altogether. No! I didn't want to leave! I had all my friends here and I certainly didn't want to give up on the memories I forged together with them.

The blush on his face remained, though. If it weren't for the slightly scary expression on his face, he would look awfully cute…

There I went again! How many times did I tell myself that this was a guy I hated severely?

Then again, after all that's happened, I wasn't so sure about that anymore…

Condor's voice broke my train of thoughts. "Are you going to stand there or are you going to close that door?"

"Uh… Oh, yes!"

Now that it was just the two of us, I wondered what bad news he had in store for me. Whatever it was, I wasn't looking forward to it…

He took an eternity to gather and rearrange in his mind what I was almost certain would be an extra long and tiring lecture. "Stop acting like such a loose woman," I could imagine him saying, "Learn how to be versatile, to be able to use swords. And above all else, know that I'm not sparing you any change. One more thing…make sure you wear that padded shirt." What! He still wanted me to wear that stupid thing? ! Oh, wait, that was just my imagination. Silly me.

"Xania," he said, "what you said earlier about equipment and everything…"

I remained silent, waiting with bated breath for the harsh scolding I would receive.

But instead he began with, "I've been thinking about it. Is it really difficult to fight with what we have now?" Did he even have to ask? That went without saying, didn't it? !

I couldn't just explode in his face with a string of insults, though. I wasn't Sallika. And frankly, that wasn't the way to handle matters.

Mustering as much courage as I could – I was taking a big risk here – I spoke, "Yes. Our current equipment is inadequate."

"Mind talking a bit more about it?"

"Well, okay, since you asked," I said. We talked about equipment matters but before long I began gravitating towards the grievances of the entire guild. It was practically the same as what I had said earlier in the evening, but I just reiterated it for his sake. If it helped everyone, I didn't mind repeating it a thousand times.

"So half the guild is still using daggers and wands, when they should have better weapons," he said at the end, "and everyone is in dire need of stronger armour. While medicas are something we have a great abundance of, there really isn't a need for so much of it with Marie around to heal us when necessary. Did I get it right?"

"Yes, and as for Marie…" I added, "You can't just kick her out just because she isn't so good at her job! She studies so hard on how to treat wounds better, and the poor girl is literally struggling. You have no idea how terrible she felt when you threatened her like that! If you still want her out, we wouldn't stand for it! She's invaluable to us!"

Condor took it all in with a straight face. "I see…" For a moment I thought he would say, "Well, then I'll just have to hire another medic." But he didn't.

"And when you give us battle advice, please be more considerate. You have to put yourself in our shoes first and see if your own tips are fair and sensible. I mean, telling us to take off our headgear or coats is really – "

Take off our coats… Suddenly I was reminded of what happened in the stables earlier, where I did just that right in front of him. The memory of it was enough to get both of our faces red again. I slapped a hand to my mouth, realizing I had just brought up something we really didn't want to think about right now.

"Um, anyway, y-you get the picture!"

"Yes, I… I think I do." Condor's skin was a brilliant shade of cooked lobster crimson. "If that's all that needs to be discussed tonight, I shall take my leave." He rose from his chair. Wow, not a single scolding from him! This was unprecedented in the history of our guild. Maybe it would snow tonight. And it was summer.

Hmm, he didn't mention anything about my little act of seduction. Did he intend to just drop this topic?

Maybe he just didn't want to talk about it. I did feel guilty for doing this to him. I had tortured him and I was sure the whole experience must have been more than a little jarring.

"I'll think about what you said, Xania," he said, turning the doorknob. "Good night."

Just as he was about to walk out the door, I stopped him. "Hey wait!"

"Yes?"

"Uh… See… Well, I really want to make up for what I did to you tonight. If you don't mind, and that's if you really don't mind, could I treat you to a drink tomorrow?"

A faint dash of colour blazed across his cheeks. Then I realized… all I wanted was to show that I was sorry, but wasn't this more like asking him out on a date?

But it was too late to back out now. He scratched the back of his head nervously. "Um… I d-don't take alcohol…"

"Th-They've got juice at… at S-Stickleback Bar, you know… B-But if you're not comfortable with bars, I can understand…"

"N-No, it's not that… Really, I-I-I don't mind. I h-humbly accept your offer."

"Th-Then I'll see you at s-s-six in the evening at the bar?"

"Alright, six it is. S-See you there, Xania."

As soon as he left and the door clicked closed, I collapsed onto my bed, mentally exhausted. It took a whole minute for the realization of one fact to hit me – and it was the fact that I had just arranged what could very well be a date between us. Me and him, on a date? ! The way we conversed just seconds earlier… it almost felt like we were sixteen again and with hormones wreaking havoc on our common sense and judgment. In the end, I was no different from Condor. We were beginners in the whole love thing.

Love? Ha ha… No way. No way that could ever happen between us… right?

XOXOXOXOXO

And that's how Condor and I started going out. Regardless of all those denials and so-called grudges, we started dating and… well, I'll get to that later, but for now I must touch on what had been happening with our guild.

The next morning, he assembled all the members of Guild Unity in the stables for an important meeting. As per the standard procedure, he did the roll call, making sure no one was left out. Not that he needed to worry, because few would dare to come late for his meetings. Punctuality wasn't a virtue, it was a necessity. Something that our serial latecomer Ryo had problems coming to terms with.

He gave the group a quick scan before speaking.

"Guild Unity," he announced unsmilingly, "I'm here to address a few pressing matters. You'd do well to listen."

I could hear a faint grumble from Sallika, while it felt like grey clouds had settled over the guild. Condor was probably unhappy with us in some way. That was just so him. And he was here to tell us off. Again.

"I don't like to keep people waiting, so I'll give it to you direct."

Marie gulped. Oh no! She wasn't going to be expelled, was she? !

"Xania, come forward," he said. Me?

Wait, was it me who was going to get kicked out? ! Noooo!

My heart was doing all manner of acrobatics as I meekly stepped out to the front of the group. I risked a glance at Ivnys, sort of an unspoken question asking what I was in for, and the look on her face read, "Maybe this has to do with your botched tryst last night. In that case… good luck." What? That wasn't a tryst!

"Xania, here," said Condor, tossing me a leather pouch. I caught it in both hands, and almost lost balance. It was heavy! What was inside? Was this… punishment?

"Relax, it's money," he said, as though he could read my mind. Money? ! Before I could think any further, he raised his voice and spoke, "Listen up, Guild Unity. I understand you badly need new equipment. All of you, go to Sitoth Trading. Use this money I just gave you to buy yourselves the best armour and weapons you can find. This is an order. Do it. Now."

Everyone went slack-jawed, looking at each other in complete and utter bewilderment. What was going on? Why had stingy Condor given us the money he loved to hoard so much? Wasn't he the type to say that warrior skills were far more important than equipment, and that we had to train ourselves well, and all the rest of that blah? What made him do away with it?

"Oh, before I forget," added Condor, "whatever I said about changing your attire… just ignore it. Wear what you want." Sallika had a noticeable look of surprise on her face. She could keep her half-mask on, after all? "And Marie, sorry about yesterday. You're free to stay in Unity."

"I… I can?" squeaked the medic, hardly able to believe her ears. She needed better confirmation.

"Just do your best," was all she got. But it was enough to make her face light up. She began sniffling with joy. Still, the funny thing was, Hector was crying much more than her… The kid was practically sobbing with gratitude that the love of his life got to stay in Unity. It was truly an amusing scene to behold.

But there was still so much confusion that no one really knew what to do or think. Exasperated that nothing was happening, he said, "Well, go on. Run along, I mean it. I want to make another trip to the labyrinth today, so get yourselves ready in an hour's time."

"Oh, we're more than happy to!" Ryo piped up. "Come on, everybody! Let's go shopping!" There were cheers of joy all around. Horace had fainted from extreme happiness and had to be dragged out the stables. This was what we all had always wanted!

Ivnys grabbed my arm. "Xania, stop staring at your boyfriend and come with us!"

"I… I wasn't staring or anything!" I yelped. Condor looked away, seemingly out of embarrassment. "It's just… Condor, aren't you coming?"

"No," he said, "I'll pop by a little later. All of you go ahead."

So we left him all alone in the stables while we, as one whole group, charged straight into Sitoth Trading. Abigail was about to go along with her usual warm greeting, but…

"Welcome to Sitoth TradiaaAAAAH!" She almost fainted seeing so many of us all at once in the shop.

"Um, hi?" said the kimono-clad ronin Mina, who was her best friend.

Abigail had backed up to the wall behind the counter and with an alarmed look on her face, she muttered, "Wh-Why are all of you here? Sh-Should I call the guard corps?"

"We're not here to rob you, girl. Relax," grinned Ivnys.

"O-Oh? Th-Then are you here to… buy something?" The colour slowly returned to her pale face.

"You bet!"

"Ah… Sorry about earlier. It's just that I don't see you often, and what's more, I don't see all of you at the same time! In any case, let me say it again…" She cleared her throat. "Welcome to Sitoth Trading!"

"Can't hurt to be proper, huh?" Ryo jested. "Well, what're we waiting for, guys? ! Let's spend money! ! !"

Abigail became one very busy girl running back and forth around the store getting our things for us. The energy in the air was electric. Never had there been so much excitement! Sallika was pleased with her new bow, checking the string tension the whole time. Mina tested the blade of her latest katana with her thumb, and it bled at the slightest touch. She was impressed, praising the lovely craftsmanship that went into making the sword. Ryo was so happy that he was actually tempted to sing, but everyone stopped him because it was bad form to belt out songs in a store.

"This is the happiest day of my life! ! !" proclaimed Horace, who fainted once again. Abigail was alarmed, but we managed to convince her that this was something that happened often with our alchemist.

Still smiling from the imaginary surge of power that a new weapon had granted her, Ivnys whispered to me, "Xania, I don't know what you did to Condor last night, but I just wanted to thank you for doing it. After all, it changed his way of thinking altogether!"

"Uh… Well, I don't know what's going on, really…"

"I had no idea you were so brave to sacrifice your virginity for us… Xania, you're so selfless." She even shed tears out of both joy and… sympathy? What the heck.

"Ivnys!" I cried, "We didn't do anything of that sort…!"

"Good luck!" she sniffled happily, "I'll be cheering the two of you on!"

"No, that's not it!"

Soon it was time to brave the labyrinth once more. Condor assembled his party of five, which included me, Ivnys, Hector and Marie. I hoped this whip of mine that I just bought was as good as Abigail claimed it to be…

I wasn't disappointed. As enemy after enemy fell easily to my attacks, I couldn't help feeling a great sense of achievement.

"MWAHAHAHA!" Ivnys was bellowing with wicked laughter. "I can kill things in one hit instead of four now! This sword is aces!"

"Hey, hey," I tried to calm her down, "Be a little quieter, will you? You're going to alert the monsters."

Meanwhile, even the normally calm Hector was having a fit of his own. A mole had just slashed at him, but with his new shield at the ready he didn't feel a thing. "Wow! This shield is unbelievable! I can't even start to understand how tough it is! Nothing hurts anymore!" With that, he cut the forest creature down with his sword and the battle was over.

Marie, sensible as always, said, "Hector… Hector! Come back to us."

When I looked at Condor, even he seemed to be enjoying himself, hacking creatures wide open with his axe, which he naturally purchased mere hours ago. Perhaps now he realized where the importance of being well-equipped. Being well-stocked with medicas wouldn't do anyone good if they were dead in one or two hits.

Everyone's uplifted spirits made me wonder, however: was their joy from the anticipation of greater achievements in time to come, or the sadism from utterly destroying the very enemies that used to make their lives so difficult?

The whole guild was happy, but no less suspicious of Condor, however. How was it that he could make such a drastic change in himself and become so generous? Nova's expertise as a hexer was brought in, to see if he was possessed by some spirit, but she concluded that there was no such thing. He was free from any form of spiritual possession, which led many of us to surmise that he had gone insane instead.

They didn't care, though. As long as they were happy, they didn't mind that their leader was acting like he was destined for the lunatic asylum.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention about the date… er, well, if it could be called one.

Condor and I met up in the bar at six as agreed, and we were sitting at the counter on high stools, him sipping on tomato juice and me on a good shot of ale. Apart from the occasional talk about the weather and the labyrinth, there was nothing else to talk about… which only added to our awkwardness. I couldn't exactly talk about the lap dance I almost gave him yesterday, could I?

Cass, the bartender, noticed the silence between us. He was a kindly old man who had seen much in his days at Stickleback Bar, but he had a strange sense of humour. "Oi, what's with yeh?" he said, as he poured a rather drunk customer another mug of beer. "Ain't lovers s'posed to talk and say sweet nothings to each other?"

"Um, we're not going out…" I mumbled.

"What, really?" he guffawed, not believing me one bit, "'Cause you two look like a sweet match. Haw!"

"N-No, Cass, you have it all wrong," said Condor weakly. "We're just friends."

Cass slid the full mug of beer to his customer, then turned to us, muttering, "Well, yeh seem like a couple of 'friends' who's done more than yeh look… Anyway, enjoy yeh date, kids!" Damn, he sure was sharp…

A couple more customers had come in and he turned his attention to them. The silence returned for a good while, during which I was racking my brains for something to say… There was nothing worse than sharing a table with someone whom you knew but couldn't say a single thing.

"Condor," I said at last, "I'm just curious. Please don't get mad or anything, but… what's with the sudden act of kindness?"

A momentary puzzled look overcame his rugged handsome face. "What are you talking about? The fact that I gave the guild money for purchasing equipment?" I nodded carefully, afraid he would flare up, offended. Of course he didn't do anything of the sort.

"Sorry if I'm rude, but you just don't seem that type of person."

"I know what you mean," he said, taking a swig of juice. "I expected to be asked this question sooner rather than later, but the truth is, I've been thinking about what you said to me yesterday."

"Wh-What did I say? Are we talking about the part where we make out while leaning against a tree in my dreams? I was just joking about that, you know."

"Not that!" he snapped, his face the same colour as his juice. "It's about us not making progress. You said we can't get far in the labyrinth because we don't have good armour and weapons. I've thought about it a little and, well, I just realized I've been making a big mistake all this time."

"As a warrior, you should have known that already!" I chided him. "How is it that you realized only now? !" All this time we'd been taking orders from our leader… and he was just a mere greenhorn? !

"Well, my master always taught me that one must always learn to adapt and emerge victorious even when ill-prepared and faced with dangerous situations. I just wanted everyone to develop the strength to survive without using strong weapons."

"Condor, are you seriously saying that the person who taught you how to fight," I said, "is a masochist?"

"Masochist? Aren't you one yourself? What with your bondage techniques and – ow!"

"Shut up!" I snapped, slugging him in the arm, "What kind of teacher doesn't tell you to upgrade your equipment? ! Was he an explorer before? Then how did he survive in the labyrinth if he took his own advice to heart? !"

"Come to think of it," he said, thinking about his past, "my master often came back from the labyrinth with lots of injuries on his body, but he always brushed it off, saying that it was part of his own training. It was kind of worrying, to tell you the truth, but I figured he must have a valid reason for going in with just the bare essentials."

Dumbfounded, I said, "By any chance is one of his pet phrases 'No pain, no gain'?"

"That's his second favourite phrase," replied Condor, "His number one mantra was 'Get hurt and you get tough'."

What kind of mantra was that? ! That was when I was convinced that what Condor really needed was a new teacher… No wonder his way of thinking was completely messed-up…

"Anyway, somewhere along the line I knew something wasn't quite right with my strategy but it was my mentor's, so I thought it was correct. I'm glad you came along to open my eyes, Xania."

Massaging my temples from the ridiculousness of it all, I groaned, "I've got a headache… and it's not from the alcohol. Condor, that teacher of yours is… never mind. At least you know now that his teachings were far from perfect." Actually, 'far from perfect' wasn't the right way to describe it. If I had to be more accurate, it was more like 'irredeemably stupid and ultimately negligible'.

"So," I continued, "your change in your mindset is not because of what I did to you?" I had heard some obscure rumour that a woman's touch can mellow a man, or something like that. And I touched him a lot.

"No!" he said, "Look, I'm really thankful to you for helping me to wake up and see the truth. Now, hopefully, my master can rest in peace."

"Yeah, I hope so too – wait, what do you mean, your master 'can rest in peace'? Is he…?"

"He's, uh, not in this world anymore. It was quite unfortunate really. He was on a routine trip in the labyrinth, wielding only a dagger. Then he came face to face with a flower and he got gassed to death in the blink of an eye, or so I heard."

"…A flower."

"Indeed."

"Doesn't that sound like one of those Rafflesia things we've been fighting in the First Stratum?"

"Ah, yes, now that you mention it, it was one of those," said Condor, stroking his chin in deep thought, "He always had trouble with them."

I didn't know what to think anymore. All I could say was, I wasn't all too surprised that his master died. With a pathetic little dagger and what little armour he had, he was carnivorous flower chow from the get-go. It made me shudder to think that Condor – and the rest of us – could have perished from the exact same mistake his idiot of a master made. I was glad to stop this nonsense in time! To end up as fertilizer for some dumb plant was the worst way to kick the bucket.

But enough of that, it was time to move onto other topics.

"Oh, I was wondering," I said, fingering the material of his scarf, "where did you get this?"

He hesitated. "My scarf?"

"Yeah, it's not easy to see because it's slightly worn, but I can tell that it's of good quality. I might just buy one myself, if I ever feel like scarves are my thing after all."

For some reason, Condor couldn't find any words to say.

"Something the matter?"

"Promise me you wouldn't laugh?"

My eyebrows arched in amusement. "Is it that embarrassing to tell me where you bought it?"

"That's the thing. I didn't buy it… I… uh… I knitted it myself."

For a few moments I thought I heard him wrongly. "C-Come again? You… knitted your own scarf? This one?" He nodded, confirming this fact.

Knitting was strictly for women, right? I never for once thought that Condor, the firm and fearless guild leader with a strong axe arm, would have a penchant for… knitting? His hidden talent felt so out of place that I was thoroughly amused. As much as I tried, I couldn't resist a giggle. Eventually I burst into laughter, much to his dismay.

"Xania, you promised not to laugh! Only a few people know of this and all of them lost their heads laughing…" The words "Not again!" were written all over his countenance.

"I'm sorry," I snorted, in between laughs, "It's just… a landsknecht having a hobby like that? ! It's so cute!"

Trying to save what was left of his manly image, which was now officially ruined and ground to a fine powder, he protested, "It's not a hobby! My grandma kept forcing me to sit down with her and learn knitting! I couldn't refuse! You probably know how old people are like, Xania."

"Eh? Yeh referring to me?" Cass, who wasn't young anymore, had heard him. Oops!

"Ah… no, of course not!" said Condor in a hurry, hoping to dispel the bartender's wrath. The old guy eventually let it go, but not without a warning glare. "Great, Xania," he mumbled, frowning at me, "Look what you made me do." I simply giggled some more.

"So your grandma taught you how to knit?" I chuckled, wiping away tears, "That's simply adorable!"

"I only knitted this scarf because I didn't like any of the ones that they sold in shops. It's not like I enjoy doing it. Just because it's a skill of mine doesn't mean I have to like it."

I was under the impression that Condor had a warrior's lifestyle, with lots of training and not much else. But he had a more complicated background that I could ever think of. It lent a fascinating aura to the man whom everyone knew as the strict unflinching leader of Unity.

"Still, that's very interesting," I said, in a kind and genuine tone, "I might enjoy talking to you more."

"Alright, you had your fun," growled everyone's favourite landsknecht. "Now let me ask you something: how exactly did you learn those binding techniques you always use?"

"Wh-What?"

"Don't you have to practice on something… or someone?" he prodded with the slightest of smirks. "Now who would that be?" Ack! I admit that he got me there. It's true, I had to practice that on someone, but I would never tell him the truth! It was just too mortifying for people to know! To tell him that my mentor allowed me to practice my binding skills on her was simply too kinky for anyone to know…

"Uh… S-Sorry, this is the dark hunter's oath… I can't tell you!"

"You just made that up."

"I didn't!"

"Says the dark hunter with the humongous blush of denial on her face."

"It's from the alcohol," I stammered, downing my mug of ale, "And I'm not telling you anything."

"That's not fair," he said, growing braver, "I told you my embarrassing secret, I'm sure you have one too." I could tell he was enjoying this… and this was the guy I used to hate so much… Did he seriously want to make me hate him again?

"I'll leak your secret to everyone in Unity if you keep pestering me like this," I threatened.

"Oh?" he said, surprisingly coolly. "If that happens, then I guess you wouldn't mind if I told everyone that you keep a certain small handbook with you at all times."

What? How did he know about that? ! Without a doubt he was talking about my mini secret guidebook called "The Pocket Bondage Bible". But he knew about it… how? Wait, don't tell me it was from…!

"When you dropped your coat, it fell out of your pocket…"

Darn! I knew it! "You didn't read it, did you? !" I nearly yelled, much to the alarm of a few nearby customers.

Much to my horror, he replied, "No, more like I skimmed through it a little." The smirk grew wider and craftier. "You even had notes written on the sides of the pages. Such as 'bonds to the chest and groin are very effective.' What does that mean, hmm?"

I could say nothing. My carelessness opened up a weakness that he readily took advantage of, so for now I had to call a truce.

"L-Let's call it even, shall we?" I asked.

"Alright," he smiled, "Our conversation definitely crossed a line back there."

"Yeah, it was awfully weird. Ordinary people don't talk about knitting and bondage, after all."

"Then again, we're extraordinary people."

"Hey, that's a good one!" I grinned, impressed that he could have a sense of humour if he actually tried. For the first time ever, I heard his laugh. It was more like a little chuckle, to be honest, but to see him in laughter was a rare occurrence. We enjoyed each other's company for the rest of the night, and the next day when there was supposed to be another gathering held by him, he was late for his own meeting. For the first time. The entire guild was in complete disbelief.

XOXOXOXOXO

It had been just over a month since Condor's freakish personality transformation, and tonight our guild had a big party at Stickleback Bar to celebrate our completion of the Third Stratum, which had culminated with the defeat of yet another oversized monster. Tomorrow we would take the first steps into the Fourth Stratum, but until then we had ale to drink and a whole night to have fun.

"I'm so excited!" said Mina, happily nibbling on a pickled cucumber salad. "I can't wait to test my sword against the beasts of the sixteenth floor!"

"We sure have made lots of progress, eh?" quipped Ryo.

"This is all because we're so good," smiled Ivnys, taking a generous swig from her mug of beer. "We're, like, the most ridicultastic guild ever."

Puzzled, Hector asked, "Wh-What's 'ridicultastic'? !"

"Don't you know, kid? It means 'ridiculously fantastic'. Relax! It's a good thing." Ivnys laughed heartily.

It was a wonderful time, with everyone sharing jokes and stories and whatnot. Suddenly, Marie brought up a very good question.

"Hey, where's Condor?" She looked at everyone, but our leader was nowhere to be seen among us. "He's not here!"

We had been so used to doing things without him that we had totally forgotten about him!

"We told him that we'd have a party here, right?" said Ryo, scratching his head. "He's even the one we went to for permission in the first place!"

"You think he's forgotten?" suggested Sallika.

Ivnys shrugged. "Hmm, beats me. But it sure is weird."

"I'll get him," I said, rising from my seat. "You guys carry on and have fun. I'll be back in a moment."

XOXOXOXOXO

I had known Condor well enough by now to know all about his lifestyle. As something of a lone wolf, or what it would seem to be, there was one place he could go and be comfortable. The stables.

Without knocking, I went inside. "Condor… Condor, are you there?"

True enough, the red-haired landsknecht was sitting against the wall, all alone and sharpening his axe again, the sound of stone scraping against metal gentle and monotonous. It hurt me to see him so lonely under the dim glow of the lantern.

He looked up to meet my gaze as I approached him. "Oh, Xania, it's nice to see you." He no longer minded when I interrupted him. In fact, my presence seemed more than welcome to him.

"There's our big party going on at the bar," I said, "Aren't you coming to join us?"

"I'd love to, but I don't feel all that comfortable with everyone yet," he said, "I still have a long way to go; my mentor's so-called brilliant strategy only made everyone miserable for the longest time. I'm not sure I really deserve to look them in the eye and call myself their leader."

"Don't say that," I said, sitting next to him. "You've become so much better than you were in the past. Why would everyone hate you now? In fact, we think you're the best leader we could ever have!"

"Heh… thanks." Condor had the ghost of a smile on his face. "But I don't think I can have fun. Not yet. It's just too weird."

"Weird?"

"You know, Xania," he continued in a tone of reflection, staring at the floor by his feet, "when I first founded Unity, all I thought about was making it the strongest guild ever. I wanted everyone to be experts in their fields, to be looked upon as role models in this sea of explorers. What I really wanted was for them to show their true potential, so to speak. With resistance training, I hoped to make that possible." He hung his head sadly. "But when it came down to it, all I did was hold them back, so I can't really blame them for hating me. They probably don't hate me now, but I can't forget that they once did. I feel so guilty."

So it turned out that even our poor leader wanted to lead a normal life just like everyone else instead of sitting by himself in a freezing cold stable. But he himself knew he had accumulated so much hatred from his own guild in the past that he couldn't bring himself to face them. I felt very bad for him.

"But don't you feel lonely, Condor? Sitting all by yourself in the stables when you should be with us and joking around…" He paused to think of an answer.

"Well… I've got the horses for company," he mumbled at last.

"But horses aren't humans," I said. "They don't talk to you, or laugh together with you, or go to bars to drink ale and make happy fools of themselves…"

"That's true."

I edged closer to him, resting my head on his shoulder. "They don't pat you on the back for an achievement you've accomplished… They just don't do all those things."

He said nothing, although he was fidgeting slightly from my long hair that was tickling his neck.

"They don't give you a hug when you're feeling down, they don't hold your hand… and they certainly don't… well… they don't…"

"They don't what?"

"…they don't do this."

I leaned into his face and my lips met his. He uttered a muffled gasp of surprise, but he didn't just sit there and let me kiss him; he actually reciprocated. Neither of us had kissed at all, and the rush that came with our very first one was wonderful. A soothing warmth enveloped us as we continued to lock our lips together. To be honest, it was difficult to put in words what I was feeling. Suffice it to say that it was the most exhilarating thing I had done in years.

We parted after a while, and our faces were red. Gazing into his eyes, I said to him the one thing I had been dying to say.

"Condor, I love you."

He was speechless, his vocal cords failing him. But he found his voice eventually, and the instant he did, he whispered, "I… I love you too, Xania."

I snuggled closer to him. That was the best thing he had said to me.

"Oh, Condor," I sighed, stroking his arm slowly, "it's been a long winding road, but I'm glad you're now the man I love."

"Th-Thanks, well, the same goes for me…" For a leader, he wasn't very good with words. No, in fact, he was terrible. It probably was a trait of his, but as long as he wasn't mouthing off his fellow guild members, I didn't have to worry. I didn't have to torture him.

Speaking of which, a naughty idea sprang to mind…

"So, Condor," I whispered into his ear with a silky voice, "didn't you get scraped in that last battle? I'll lick your wounds for you…"

"Not a chance," he snarled, before grabbing me by the shoulders, "because I'm gonna lick yours!" In a flash his moist tongue was on my neck.

I gasped at his audacity as he lapped at my exposed collarbone with purposeful slowness. While it was very arousing, the ticklishness was overpowering. I couldn't stop giggling. "Ha ha! Condor… S-Stop… Ahaha!"

"I don't think so," he growled, lowering me to the cold stone floor, "This is payback for what you did to me."

"No, seriously, it's ticklish like hell – ahahaha!"

A sadistic smile crept onto his lips as he climbed on top of me and pinned my arms down. He continued to kiss and lick all over my neck and shoulders, and I loved the sensation of it. It was thoroughly enjoyable but I was close to exploding. My body was writhing, trying to break free from his strong grasp, but no luck. In no time at all I was laughing harder, my face reddening from my exertions, and I thought I'd bring the whole building down with my laughter alone.

"Ahahaha! C-Condor hahaha s-s-staahahahp eeet hahahaha! ! !"

"You sound so nice when you're laughing, Xania," he grinned, his face dangerously close to my chest. "But you'll wake the dead if you go on like that."

"Hahaha! V-Ve-Very f-f-funneeeahahahaha!"

Suddenly, like a bad corny joke, the door slammed open.

"We heard screams!" roared Ivnys, who had charged in with Hector and Mina by her side, and the others in tow. "Don't worry! We'll save y–"

They froze to the spot upon seeing me trapped underneath Condor, whom they saw was busy licking me. Both of us stopped instantly. Awkwardness reared its ugly head once more. Wait, why was everyone here anyway? Were they here to look for him? And why did they have to come in one large group? ! This wasn't some witch hunt, you know.

"Er, X-Xania and… Condor?" said Marie in a small voice. Meanwhile, Horace had fainted again, prompting Mina to slap him in the cheeks again in a fruitless attempt to wake him up.

Condor jumped off of me and I sat up in a hurry too. We immediately began denying anything to do with the shenanigans earlier. "We weren't doing anything!" he cried, "Nothing at all!"

But such denials in the face of such glaring obviousness were pointless to begin with. What else would a couple be doing alone in a secluded place?

"Oh, um, gee! Since you two are kinda busy with each other," gulped Ivnys, steadily retreating out the door with the others, "we'll leave you to it. Just… remember that the party is still going on. Do come. In the meantime… uh… have fun!"

Then the door closed with a bang leaving Condor and I in a state of shock and helplessness.

"Argh, they saw us!" he groaned. "How embarrassing!"

"It is, but look on the bright side," I said, "maybe they'll learn not to enter the stables at night anymore. That'll leave us with as much peace as we want."

"I guess," he muttered, looking at the floor with a worried expression, "but still… what would they think of me now? What kind of leader lures his guild members to somewhere quiet to do you-know-what? It didn't look like I was giving you one-on-one battle training, either."

"No one despises you, Condor. You're thinking too much." I gave him a peck on the cheek. "Though you're still strict at times, the thing is that you're much nicer now and you actually care about us. Everyone loves you, Condor!"

"Y-You think so?" He still wasn't sure, having been accustomed to so much vitriol.

"Positive," I said, "They wouldn't think anything less of you for 'cleaning' your girlfriend…" I giggled. "Now come on, everyone's waiting for you. The party isn't complete without the man who led us to victory. And relax! Let your hair down and be yourself!"

"Um… But…"

"You have to admit it's way better than sitting in the stables. It's no fun being alone all the time."

"Hmm, you have a point," he said, standing up together with me. "Well then, shall we be off?" He offered me his arm, and I gratefully held onto it. Condor sure had nice, sculpted arms… those muscles… I could touch them all day…

"Let's go," I smiled, and we left the stables together, heading toward Stickleback Bar. My smile disappeared for a while, though, as I recalled some words Ivnys had said just over a month earlier.

We were taking our baths in the Flaus Inn bathhouse, and I was grumbling about how terrible Condor was back then. And she had teased me, "I heard a rumour…If two people hate each other very much, they may turn out to be the perfect couple. I can already see it… Xania and Condor, together forever…"

I cringed to think how true her words had become.