Desert Rose

And now that your rose is in bloom

A light hits the gloom on the grey.

- Seal, Kiss from a Rose

It wasn't as bad as the others made it out to be – that was, for an assassin who had just earned his Necklace of Oblivion – to be assigned as the mushroom examiner for the newly-graduated novices who were deluding themselves that being a thief was probably the coolest job in the world, and that being a thief was all very simple. The truth was the job classes of Morroc enjoyed the notorious reputation of being the world's deadliest – this simple delusion of the children was what upped the mortality rate of the path to the assassin and stalker.

Now, being stuck as a lowly examiner wasn't exactly any sane assassin's dream job. To secure a steady promotion, one usually aimed for being a Speaker, and by then you had a chance to be Listener, the important man in the Guild who relayed mission lists and consolidated hit lists and other important functions that kept the Guild's transactions smoothly flowing. From the rank of Listener, the path to a Silencer was within easy reach, and from Silencer, one had the opportunity of being promoted into the Black Hand which consisted of the Hammer, Sword, Sickle and Dagger – the clandestine council of the Cross, and the limbs of the Guild. And, it went without saying that from Silencer or Black Hand rank, one had the best chances of eventually becoming the Cross – that legendary figure hidden in shadows who saw the Balance and ordered the Guild to mobilize in protecting the unseen equilibrium.

Ismail Osama al-Medhain, didn't lack ambition, that was sure. The top of his batch even from the Novice Academy, he trail blazed his way through his years as a thief and passed the Assassin Promotion Exam before anybody else of his batch, at only seventeen years of age. His mentor had high hopes for him; a nomination into one of the numerous Speaker positions in the guild was in order, however, he had refused, much to his mentor's surprise. Osama explained that he was a simple man, one who liked to do things at his own pace, and thus settled for the ridiculous offer of being the boring thief examiner.

He didn't see what there was to complain about his first job within the Guild, however. The pay was steady, and he wasn't exactly going to be refused his own hit list soon what with his excellent records reaching back into his Academy days. And besides, Osama had always fancied himself a bit as a teacher, and helping the children in realizing what they got themselves into was something worth anybody's time, yes, even a cold-blooded assassin like himself.

He stood waiting in the middle of the maze that made the entire first level of the Pyramids, and from where he was he could hear the faint voices of the visitors of the dungeon – basically children and other young adults with their respective parties and groups, off hunting mummies or minoruses. He could also hear the shrill squeaking of the living pestilence that were the farmiliar bats. The first half of the testing into the path of the thief started with locating the thieves' guild – the novice had to make his or her way through the deadly maze of the pyramids, and for someone who had not been here before, it was easy to get lost and never be seen again. The bats liked their prey alive.

Technically the thieves' guild was neutral ground between the everlasting feud between the Family (the stalkers' faction) and the Guild. Run by cowls – Thieves who kept themselves neutral – the testing and general administration was generally conceded to the Guild, though the stalkers did send in help whenever exams were held. From the thieves' guild, an individual thief was free to decide which path to pursue as he or she grew in years and skill. But of course in Morroc, many things were done under the table. Even convincing thieves to join one's faction could be discussed in the right place, at the right time, and with the right person.

But for now, Osama was waiting, and the exams for that month were starting within an hour's time.

He wondered vaguely how many children would actually make it to where he stood now; but then again, that number would still get halved by the exam proper itself, and then continuously get shed off year after year as the thieves would get assigned their mentors and missions. Sometimes an entire batch of children could get eradicated. His own batch, which had consisted of thirty youths, was now reduced to eight only. And probably only three or two of them would go beyond Valhalla to become Assassin Crosses.

He turned his head just as a group of four children – three boys and a girl, all filthy and having this dogged, terrified look about them – rounded the corner. Osama smiled to himself under his face mask; now this group used their wits indeed. A group of novices stood a better chance surviving in the pyramid's mazes than a lone, wandering child. By the looks of it, the dark-haired girl – who was certainly an eyeful if she wasn't sooty – led the group.

"Greetings from the Guild and the Family," he said to them, and they quickly sheathed their knives and clustered about him, but did not dare get half an arm's length closer. "I shall be your examiner, but for now, we must wait for who else will make it here."

Funny that the young boys didn't stop looking wary and overly suspicious; it was the girl who regained her composure first and glanced furtively about her. She had blue-gray eyes, he noted, and as he observed her, she stared back, as if trying to see what to make of him. She must be a native of Morroc judging by how she appeared to know her way around the maze, but her skin was too pale. Her purpose as temporary party leader done, she distanced herself from the boys and from him, standing apart there with her arms folded. Entertaining a few more amusing thoughts about her, Osama eventually turned to the job at hand. A bit more of waiting was in order.


Sixty children in all had found their way to the center of the maze within an hour. Osama thought that the leakages and information from the other adventurers who camped in the Pyramids were getting better each year. Of course the Guild and the Family permitted leakages to a certain extent; a good thief who hoped to be a substantial assassin or stalker had to have a knack for looking for information in the most unconventional of manners. At an early age, if a novice hoped to be a thief capable of survival, the child had to know the value of money and the many, many wonders it could work on certain people.

Osama watched the children, all of whom were silent. There were different kinds of silences. From this group he could identify a total of ten. Identification and detection were the next most crucial skills of an assassin and stalker. And that was what their exam was about.

"I have here sixty sacks, one for each of you." Osama raised one of the said sacks. "I want you all to collect me ten different mushrooms. One mushroom must not be similar to another one up to the very last dot on its head. You have an hour to collect ten different mushrooms. Any minute beyond that and the mushrooms will release their poison spores, and kill you all. Now, kindly get a sack." He turned to the iron door behind him and pushed it open; inside was a surprisingly verdant field, about a hectare in size, and which was mostly enveloped in a sea of insanely identical spotted red mushrooms.

The children filed hesitantly within the enclosed field. Many of them were glancing incredulously up at him, Osama whistled merrily as he crouched down.

"Now, remember. I will only show you this once. This is how you cut a mushroom," he gripped the fungi's spotted top squarely with his right hand, a grip not too tight. He gave a slight tug upward, just an inch, and smoothly cut off the mushroom from its base. "If you cut it otherwise, it will release spores, which, if you inhale, well…" He shrugged, and that was an answer enough. He let the mushroom go, and it wilted quickly on the ground. "You may begin."

He exited the enclosed field and shut the iron doors. More waiting was in order.

He wasn't really surprised when forty minutes into the exam and the girl from earlier exited the field and handed him her sack. He smiled at her, and she simply blinked back. He crouched down and opened her sack, and picked each mushroom she'd harvested and looked at each one. Well, she had obviously done a good job, but not good enough. He would have been surprised if she did. Only Eremes Guile had ever perfected the thief exams; and that was eight hundred years ago. He chuckled as he dropped the mushrooms back into her sack.

"Impressive," he told her. "Nine out of ten. Very few reach that mark."

She scowled incredulously up at him, though she didn't say anything else. She missed one tiny spot on the top of her eighth and fifth mushrooms. They were identical. And that imperfection otherwise ruled her out from doing a second Eremes Guile. But then again they were on equal footing, and that was saying something in itself.

"You have passed, but for now we wait."

The girl distanced herself from him again, that scowl still marring her otherwise cute face. Out of the corner of his eye he was almost sure she would pout and stomp on her sack of mushrooms.

The guild bar served the world's best wines and beers, and after a mission, Osama always found himself on one of the bar stools, drinking or otherwise just nibbling on finger foods as the other assassins moved about around him. That early evening his mission wasn't even as strenuous as the usual load, however, he had other things in his mind. Things had been going further and further on the rocks between himself and his current girlfriend Athena. He sighed and tapped the bar counter with his gloved fingers. The bartender poured more beer into his glass, and he raised it briefly to the man in thanks.

Chugging down the pleasing brew of malt, Osama deposited zeny on the counter for his drinks that evening, and rose. Some thieves who had decided early on that they were going to be assassins were permitted to do small tasks for the Guild, but their access to the inner chambers of the temple were of course, still heavily restricted. He shifted his ash-gray scarf, making locks of his chocolate-brown hair dance briefly. He wondered if he should work out on some sandmen this evening.

A familiar sight walked by bearing some boxes of cheap stilettos. By now Osama had learned enough of her – that girl who passed with nine out of ten. She was petite and pale for someone who spent her childhood in Morroc; she had straight dark hair that hung to her waist. Her face was as pretty as an antique doll's, and her blue-gray eyes were matched with a small but cute nose, and slightly pouty, rosy lips. She really was an eyeful, especially more so in the very ribbon-y thief uniform. Osama never understood what those ribbons and bows were for. They made thief girls look like presents. And he always doubted whether their tube things were fastened securely.

"Hey~" he called out to her, his right hand already raised in tentative greeting. She momentarily halted in her tracks and nodded to him, then proceeded to blink in inquiry as to what he wanted with her. "Need some help?" he asked casually, hands in his pockets as he came to stand beside her. "Diane, right?" He read her dossier when he finalized the list of the passing thieves for the Listener to review. Diana Christina Crucious was her name, nicknamed Diane. Top of her batch in the melee and agility exercises, thus naturally earning her recommendation into the thief path.

"I can manage," she replied, though she nodded at him.

He kept his hands in his pockets. "So, how's it been for you, Diane?" He inquired, politely, although cheerfully. For an assassin Osama was known for his outgoing and easy-to-talk-to personality. "Adjusted well enough I hope? Who's your mentor?" He paused, realizing that he might have gotten carried away again. "Oh, sorry, sorry. I hope I'm not too noisy." He offered her a smile.

"I'm with Miss Odette," Diane replied, still blinking at him as if she couldn't understand how an assassin could be so talkative.

Osama let out a low whistle at that. Doubtless she didn't know what real rank Odette Zenith had in the Guild's hierarchy; but the woman was a known assassin cross, and if Osama's sources were correct, she also served as Silencer for the Cross. Being a newly-promoted assassin, he was still not privy to many of the Guild's secrets, the members of the upper echelons much more so. Then again Osama's own mentor was the current Hammer.

"Cool, so, I see you've adjusted," he averred, noticing that Diane was starting to get awkward with him. Now he didn't want that. He wanted her to see that at least she had an acquaintance with him, or a friend even. But friendship between thieves was different matters with normal friendship. She would have to know that already, of course. "Right, so I'll catch you somewhere then? And maybe we can have lunch together. See ya!"

He gave her a two-fingered salute before leaving her alone with her boxes of stilettos. Somewhere he had inkling that she didn't trust – or like – boys that much. Hmm…

His mentor was determined to turn him into someone high-ranking, and so his training regime advanced faster in the following months, and eventually years. Osama had been born with a lineage from Geffen courtesy of his mother; and this his academic records indicated. He had enough intelligence to also earn him recommendation into the Mage Academy, but he did not have the same alignment of interests like his mother, and so he went down the path that his father would have taken, if only he didn't die early. However, because of his innate magical abilities, Osama could fairly balance his katar work with his bolt spells. One of his best assets was his own brand of psycho-kinesis; his mentor was helping him develop it not only for his advantage in combat but also for the Guild's benefit eventually. His master was currently making him create sandstorms, strong enough to last for years, designed to keep intruders out of the Guild.

The unforgiving heat of the Sograt Desert was something he had gotten used to since he was a young boy. However, there were days that, including some training, the sun was still unbearable. This was one of those days. Osama was on all fours in the scorching sand, vomiting his breakfast along with some blood. He was shirtless, and his torso was glistening with sweat; down his arms were some chains that were fastened to four huge blocks salvaged from the pyramids. His master was building his stamina further today; if he hoped to create a formidable sandstorm, he had to be able to maintain it even if he was asleep or busy making love to a woman.

Only, his master also decided to build his resistance to poison further; so, aside from simply running around lugging the huge mud bricks, he was made to drink EDP as well. But for today Osama had reached his limits, and his body was determined to pump out the poison – even if it meant dehydrating him further.

"Need more work," the Hammer's voice came somewhere from Osama's left. A bottle of antidote was dropped onto the sand, and Osama scrambled for it. He quickly pulled off the cork stopper and downed the antidote, all the gooey and bad smell and taste of it. Like a soothing balm it quickly acted and stopped the burning inside him. But he was still dehydrating. "However, you are improving. We will continue this regime while at the meantime, increasing your poison dosage. You are dismissed for today."

Osama watched as his mentor disappeared into the heat haze, leaving no trace behind, not even foot prints. Shrugging, he unfastened the chains from his arms and tested his shoulders – his joins creaked in protest. Wincing, he wiped his bloody mouth with the back of his hand, and spat out a wad of blood and saliva into the sand. Panting, he trudged his way back to the guild temple.

The coolness and shade of the guild was pleasing after a morning's hard training. Osama sat himself by the bar as always, and asked for pitchers of iced water. Pouring himself a glass, he was soon determined to gorge on the water. He put his fifth glass down just as Diana sat down beside him and asked for lemonade. Now sixteen years old, she was gaining more shape in her curves and bumps, though she still mysteriously lacked the tan. He smiled.

"And how are you doing?" he inquired. He had long understood that she was a girl of very few words, but she knew what effect she had on the opposite sex, and she was learning how to use that charm in deadly ways. "You're looking more radiant each day!"

She glanced at him sideways with a faint smile; he was probably one of the handful of people she actually bothered to smile at. It wasn't easily-earned, her acquaintance and somehow quiet friendship. Osama had to endure countless days of awkward conversations, her imperceptible mood swings and tempers and PMSes. But he did like to think of the two of them as easy friends.

"You stink," she pointed out quietly as she peered up at him.

"Hey, you won't look to good yourself if you get the real training program around here," he answered smoothly. "How's the mission list doing and your requirements?" He poured himself another glass of water.

"A bit more," she replied with a determined nod, and then proceeded to sip her lemonade. "Miss Odette thinks I can do infiltrations soon."

He replied with a low whistle. Somehow he wasn't sure how she'd fare in an infiltration. She was too pretty. But then again, it was the pretty ones who got in deep quick. And he had first-hand experience with that.

"You have a nasty gouge under your left eye," she pointed out.

He blinked at that. "And that is your business how?"

Awkward silence.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean that," he said hurriedly, with a sigh. She was a difficult girl to deal with, really. Push the wrong buttons and send even an ounce of the wrong signal and she would tuck herself away like a Venus flytrap. "Had a fight." He conceded with a groan. His master hadn't commented on his shambled love-life yet, but if it kept affecting his performance like this, he would hear a hot word or two soon enough.

"Your on-and-off girlfriend?" she inquired.

"Well, soon to be permanently off, I hope," he smiled at her. "I don't need too much shit."

She didn't answer, just traced the rim of her glass with a finger. He watched her for some minutes, and then decided to tentatively shift the topic. "You aren't doing bad, yourself," he managed a soft, sly smile. "Practicing your kissing, are we?" He almost walked in on her in one of the alleys in Morroc the other day, busy with a sandy-haired swordsman. The poor kid was too occupied with her lips; Osama wondered how long it took before the kid realized she had gotten all of his money.

She didn't comment, and he softly chuckled away the silence. "Hey, you free later? I was hoping we could get some afternoon snack in a bit."

She tilted her head and considered. "I'm going to get a dagger from the shop too. I guess it's okay."

"Cool, I'll wait for you by the guild steps then~."

He dressed himself in faded jeans torn by the knees, leather sandals and a plain white t-shirt. He kept his hair from his eyes by sweeping it up in a ponytail. The afternoon sun was more agreeable, though it was still hot. Beside him, Diane was looking resplendent in a plain sleeveless pale pink top and some shorts. She kept her hair loose. He was the one who mostly did the talking, telling her about his missions list and what she could expect in the promotion exams. He was preparing to go to Valhalla soon enough himself, he had been late for two years, much to his mentor's displeasure. But he never liked rushing into things. So he took his time in his requirements and missions list. That and Athena was getting on his nerves.

She was a talented thief that much he could tell, and if he wasn't careful she could overtake him. But that was an amusing thought; his mentor would blow his top completely if that happened, and feed him to the wolves. Osama had always been criticized as a procrastinator and a slacker. But he did his job well, so the Black Hand refused to discipline him anyway.

They ended up getting some ice cream, and ate their cold treat by the walls of the caliphate palace, just as the setting sun painted Morroc in rich orange and scarlet. He loved her company; sometimes he really could get comfortable with her silence. Like a still spring offering solace. He hoped that somehow, too, she liked his company as well, in what way he could only leave to the imagination.

They went back to the temples just as the stars started appearing in the sky; he told her that her dagger was of excellent make, and he smiled at her as she walked off to the part of the guild temples that were reserved for thieves.

He headed to his own quarters and found only trouble waiting for him; Athena was there and much as he liked to avoid the shouting and the bickering, there was nothing to it. By principle he didn't like hurting a woman, but she had said words that struck deep, and his hand collided with her cheek. This was it, he affirmed in his mind. This was the end of the line for them; she only toted him around like some sort of trophy to gossip about with her girlfriends, and he didn't like her very much at all. When she left he found breathing a little easier. He could get used to this freedom.

From that time Osama was determined to get on with his life; even his mentor noted his renewed determination every training day, but he still refused to stop being the thief examiner. Well anyway the pay was good, so he would not ever complain. He also opted to try talk to Diane more; he did love being with her, even though she only responded twenty percent of the time. He did try to keep his chattering down a little for her sake, but sometimes he was simply talking and talking with her. When she had enough she would simply walk out on him, and he would call her good-bye, and then come next day, he would greet her in the hallway or the alleys of Morroc if she wasn't busy stealing boys' moneys and hearts.

He was going on the Path to Valhalla come the morning, and he had just finished his mentor's permission exam. He had been sent alone to eradicate a whole clan in Brasilis who worshipped Surt and sacrificed young boys and girls in their rituals. The task was one of the most challenging missions he had ever undertaken alone, and many times in the heat of battle he wondered if he could return home alive. Miraculously he succeeded, and his mentor told him he had the talents to become Cross, if only he stopped being lazy. He laughed the comments away and thanked his mentor for the recommendation before heading to the (thankfully empty, at this hour) communal baths.

Determined to have a good, long soak to wash off the filth of battle from his body for tomorrow, Osama took his sweet time scrubbing his arms and legs and back, afterward lounging around in one of the pools, a bit light-headed with contentment. He had let his guard down long enough, so that when Athena's hands snaked to his chest from behind, the best he could do was snap open his eyes in surprise.

Break-up sex wasn't good for anyone, someone had commented that before, and he wasn't sure why he remembered that at the time. But this was the last time – at least, he was determined with himself on that end – so what use were inhibitions? He screwed Athena out of her mind in the baths; in the water, by the pool edge, from behind. Her voice filled that part of the baths and resonated in his head, and somehow in their furious rocking he was suddenly aware that there was somebody else in there with them. He tried looking at the nearest lockers within reach, and though nothing moved, he was keenly aware that they had a peeping rat inside one of the lockers. Well, whoever it was got treated to a live show – Osama only hoped it wasn't his mentor, or there would be hell tomorrow.

At the end of it, Athena disentangled herself from him as if nothing had happened. He refused her help in cleaning up, and gathering her towel, she wrapped herself with it before leaving him alone in the water. He resumed his soaking, and glanced at the silent lockers. He had half a desire to search it, and drag the peeping rat out – if it was a girl, then probably they could continue the fun; he knew he and Athena were capable of bringing steam if they felt like it.

Another twenty minutes more and Osama heaved himself up from the pools and left, with the mischievous thought that the little peeping rat would be having a lot of fun with himself or herself that evening.

Assassin Cross at twenty years of age. For someone being criticized a slacker, that was quite an achievement – usually, the average transcending age for assassins and stalkers were around twenty-eight years of age. The pilgrimage to Valhalla took a month, and when the valkyrie had bestowed her blessing upon him, Osama felt silent pride well up in him. He returned to Morroc successful, and the first question his mentor asked was that if he would consider a promotion now – which, of course, he still answered with a refusal.

He changed into his new set of uniform still happy for his achievement, and decided that he should look for Diane and let her know. If his guess was correct she would be in one of the training arenas, working on her dagger work or updating her work and requirements list. Pulling his scarf a bit higher, Osama went to the training arenas, and sure enough, found Diane by arena 14, practicing what looked like to be a customized Sonic Blow.

"Hey, Diane – look!" he called to her, raising his right hand in his usual greeting.

The girl turned her head and surveyed him; however he could tell that she was displeased about something; there was the trace of a scowl on her features, and her cheeks were red. She also refused to meet his eyes, and instead focused on a lovely spot by his left shoulder. He wondered what he had done to displease her like this; they had not seen each other for some months, and he did his best not be too talkative. Was it something he said previously?

"Congratulations," she murmured curtly, still refusing to look at him as the flush on her cheeks increased and she tried her best to hide it.

"Thanks," he smiled as he sat down on the arena floor. "How are your promotion requirements coming?"

Instead of answering however, the girl picked up her bolero and left. He blinked for a few moments on the spot where she stood, and watched her retreating figure. He closed his mouth and rose, his scarf rustling behind him as he turned his heel and walked away.

It was one of those things in life that you could categorize as a kind of mysterious falling-outs. He liked to believe that maybe Diane simply had had enough of him – the thought made him sad more than he had expected it to be. He did try to renew the friendship several times; on his part, he still greeted her by the hallways and always asked her out during the afternoons when he would catch up with her – but it seemed the girl was determined to cut off whatever friendship they shared. He couldn't understand it; he couldn't understand why he would be bothered so much with the cold shoulder the girl was meeting him with.

Her newfound hobby of dating wasn't helping him either. It seemed the girl had suddenly grown interested with the alien life form that was called the opposite sex. She seemed to look forward to infiltration, and more hapless boys fell to her charms out under the sun. She could steal zeny, swords, bows – hell, she could even obtain a knight's peco-peco if the poor guy was gullible enough.

When the other assassins started talking about her, that was when he started to feel illogically furious in the whole set-up. Like there was a bigger picture he couldn't see no matter how he tried, and help was needed down his end, not more mockery like this. He hated it – hated this, feeling lost and confused as if he was running out of time on something very important.

He decided to confront her on the eve of her promotion exam. She had gone on Odette's permission exam and was due to return that night. He waited for her outside by the guild steps; he sat himself on the cool evening sand with a bottle of beer, and spent the hours waiting by looking up at the sky and trying to find as many constellations as he could.

What would he tell her then?

It was ridiculous if he asked her to suddenly stop playing with all those hapless boys…what right did he have anyway?

He tore his gaze from the sky just as he sensed her approach; he looked to where she would be coming from, and true enough, she soon drew level with him. He stared at her under the stars and the moon, and noted that there was something very different about her – the way her skin seemed to still have a faint glimmer in the moonlight; how her blue-gray eyes seemed to have acquired this light on some illicit knowledge. Her lips seemed full, and she did not have her bandana on; her hair was loose and some strands clung to her cheek, but he didn't like the way her hair clung to her skin, and this thing in her eyes bothered him, yes, to no end.

She looked at him almost in disdain, as if daring him to say it, whatever the hell it was. And as he gazed upon her he felt his heart break in a million pieces – he didn't know this girl, this stranger, whoever she was, he did not know her. He rose and retreated into the shadows, and her eyes with that illicit knowledge would haunt him for a long while.

Richilde wasn't a force to be reckoned with in a guild war, or for that matter, with katars. She was an assassin but she was the kind of assassin who worked better in the sidelines; in the shadow of the shadow – she was one of the people responsible for the existence of the Guild's Archives, and she was at home there with the great shelves and the thousands of dusty scrolls that nobody ever bothered to read for millennia. While she was generally below average she was still an assassin; she could fight superbly when circumstances called for it.

Truth be told they were batch mates and met many years prior; though it was only four months ago when Osama started asking her out. She was a practical woman who believed in no-nonsense, and she also had this perfectionist streak in her. He was fond of her in many ways, and she loved him, and after four years of a steady and secure dating relationship, he proposed, and she accepted excitedly.

Their wedding was simple and held in the Morrocan tradition of hand fastening. It was a peaceful relationship that could be considered a luxury for someone of their job class, and though they didn't completely shun the idea of having children, they both didn't discuss it that much. They were content to make the most of their lives, and Osama finally relented to a much-deserved promotion under Richilde's advice, and accepted the post of Listener.

It seemed tailored to fit, the job of Listener. Osama performed his duties well and often earned the praise of the Black Hand and the Cross, though the compliments were well appreciated, he didn't let it get to him completely. He also developed an interest for the ancient scrolls hidden in the Archives thanks to Richilde's influence, and there lots of warm evenings in their house that they would spend some time reading to each other.

There was nothing lacking in their marriage: stability, security and peace. And yet Osama knew in himself that in that tiny corner of his mind and heart was a part of him restless, restless with everything. Still he tucked it in neatly and deeply, and he remained a loving husband to Richilde, until after the third year of their marriage, when the Guild Wars season raged and the Stalkers succeeded in infiltrating his sandstorm and blowing up a great chunk of the Guild temple.

His wife didn't stand a chance. He was twenty-five at the time.

The death had changed him. While he admirably picked himself up after the tragedy, something simply wasn't the same with him. Others said he was more sober, others would call it melancholy. He grieved for Richilde for a year only, and that was it – an assassin wasn't allowed to grieve for too long, or unneeded attachment would fester within the heart. Osama let the monotony of work become his solace, his consolation and his outlet; he performed his tasks in deadly precision, never delivering a list beyond deadline.

And this was his daily routine for six long years.

Today was the day when they would have a new Cross. Though the Black Hand had wanted him to participate in the Trials, Osama never picked up his katars, content as he was to just watch as the other assassin crosses clashed with each other in deadly combat, to see who would become the next arbiter of Balance in the world. Today was the last day of the Cross Trials, and he knew the woman who was currently in the arena facing off with another cross. Rather, he used to know the woman who was currently exchanging slashes for slashes down there in the arena.

She had gotten deadlier with the years; she was one of the Guild's strongest members at the time, and for a moment he considered that she was probably deadlier than him now. He watched in silent fascination as she broke off her katars into a thousand blade petals and sent them hurtling toward her foe, and he knew then that the match and the title of Cross was hers. He was the last to rise as the Black Hand declared her victory.

"All hail the Cross," he repeated, her eyes on her figure down below.

The next morning, it was the Cross herself whom he would find first thing in the morning inside his office. She was sitting on his desk, legs crossed one above the other as she flipped the pages of one of his mission log-book. She looked up as he entered the room, closed the book and tossed it back onto the pile on the floor.

"I am to choose my Silencer," she explained. "And I believe none are more qualified than you are."

She said it unhesitatingly, and he was sure the Black Hand had recommended him to the post. He looked steadily back at her, and for a minute it struck him how long it had been since he gazed into her blue-gray eyes. She was an Assassin Cross now out and out – she was mystery and silence all rolled into one, and he knew that the Guild could not have had a better leader. He knew of her achievements, though recalling them now seemed to be recalling a past life.

"I am honored, my Cross," he replied with a bow.

"Is that a yes, then?"

"I shall serve as your Silencer, until I fall in combat, or am dismissed from service."

She pushed herself up from his desk and left his office without a backward glance. He sidestepped to let her through, and she brushed briefly, lightly against him, and he caught a whiff of jasmine. He could not remember when she'd smelled like jasmine. Maybe it was a new thing. Or maybe he was just late in the news. Still, when she had gone, he glanced around at his office – his home, for nearly ten years now – and started thinking on how to move all his effects.

Hopefully, a Silencer's office would be a lot bigger than this place. And maybe he could have a window or two, too. And a coffee maker that actually worked.

Silencers were personal assassins assigned only to the Cross and the members of the Black Hand. They were five men and women who answered to nothing except their masters; they were the eyes that saw in the dark, and the hand that struck down those deemed unfit within the Guild, and beyond. They were, as aptly put by legend – the shadows of the shadow.

For the record, he got two sizable windows and a brand-new coffee maker.

His job was simple fifty percent of the time. He was - elaborate title put aside - her errand boy. He sorted out her files, constantly updated her in-tray and out-tray, relayed her decrees and memos to the Black Hand and the Listener, and checked the deep recesses of the guild politics to make sure nobody was planning an ouster against her. He did his job well, with the precision that he had become known for, and it was rare that she would ask him to strike down a target on her behalf – she liked to do her work by herself, if her time permitted it.

Aside from the secretary functions, Silencers were also something of servants. Osama prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for his Cross. She had always had a liking for Al de Baran milk tea and authentic Louyang tofu; one of his many functions was to make sure her personal pantry were stocked well and full, and that the food was cooked just right. Silencers were also responsible for keeping their masters' weapons in top shape, and sometimes, taking the laundry and trash out.

Five in the morning, and Osama was already awake and pouring coffee for his boss. She was still asleep in her quarters – or appeared to be. He put a teaspoonful of cream into her coffee and stirred it, and then proceeded to arrange the five important folders for today on her desk. He checked her out-tray – opening each folder and making sure each paper was signed, and he took down her notes and comments in a separate notebook he always carried with him. So, four were going to the Sword, nine to the Listener…hmm, hmm, all right, all these were doable.

He heard her stir, and soon enough she emerged, wearing a robe over her sleepwear. She sat herself onto her chair and picked up her mug of coffee.

"Guild war status all green ma'am, we'll knock them dead come Friday," he explained to her. "Fourteen assassins to be promoted today – I have prepared their dossiers for your reading later. All reports in, nothing of great interest. The guild is running smoothly as we speak."

She didn't say anything except nod as she sipped her coffee.

"If that will be all, I'll be in the adjacent room," he informed her before he went off to his office next to hers and made himself some omelet for breakfast.

As he checked his own mission list, he could not help but think to himself how much she had changed. The years had indeed made her into a very beautiful woman, but they had also made her sadder, almost turned her into a recluse. He could see why she was the best choice to be the Cross; she displayed none of the weaknesses known for a woman's, and she saw whatever had to be done down to the bitter end. She rose in rank fast, very fast – unlike himself who had taken his time with everything he had ever done. He would have made a good Cross; even his mentor had told him that. But he didn't like shouldering that great a responsibility; he felt it would make his life boring and confined.

He looked to the window and could see the everlasting raging of his sandstorm; he had perfected it now, and he knew that even if he died that sandstorm would stay strong for centuries. Intruding into the Guild would never be easy anymore, and if the Family hoped to take their flag, they would have to think beyond their means; not only did he protect the Guild above the ground, but also stored surprises down below.

He washed his plate and rose, and knocked at her door. He let himself in when she afforded no reply, and found her already clad in her own uniform. Briefly he looked at how the garments wrapped around her matured curves; the years had made her body fit for combat, though not taking away her prettiness. She was still an eyeful.

"There," she said, nodding to where her katars were. "Could you enchant them for me?"

"What kind of enchantment?" he asked, picking them up. The blades needed sharpening, and the tube for the poison needed replacing. Their poisons corroded the tubing quite fast, depending on the blend.

"Maybe some elements. And I like that poison you used in the last guild war, that one that decomposed the Rogue from inside out."

He offered her a sly smile. "That's secret recipe, ma'am. I don't think I like to share."

She scowled severely at him, and he laughed as he got back to his feet with her weapons. "As you wish, my Cross." He went to the door and paused. "Your breakfast will be sent up in a minute, with cold milk tea as always. Please don't skip your breakfast; it's the most important meal of the day."

He loved his new job as Silencer, but there was only one aspect of it all that he disliked. While he knew he would be ordered to do myriad tasks, some menial chores included, there was an order from her that surprised him the first time he had heard her say it, and he had looked at her like she had grown an extra head. She didn't appreciate the scrutiny, and she threw a folder of paperwork to his face, and he knew that she was serious. He kept his composure as he picked up the sheets of paper, sorted them out and handed her the folders. He knew he had to obey.

She gave specific instructions as to what kind of guy she wanted for that evening. Per guild laws if she felt like having a stalker she would have to do things on her own, and given her pretty face, that was an easy catch. Still, she was unrelenting in sending him to Izlude if she wanted a knight, or to Geffen if she wanted a wizard. Sometimes he would go all the way to Einbroch for a gunslinger, and Amatsu for a ninja. It was difficult trying to pick the men up in conventional manners; so he often abducted many of them – snatched by the shadows, and the next thing they knew, they were in the presence of a very beautiful and desirable woman whom very few could ever resist.

During those evenings he knew he couldn't stay in his office because he would hear things, and by Odin, he needed and loved his sleep. Sometimes, when his in-tray could not be neglected he would simply plug his ears with cork, and play the radio in loud volumes to shut the sounds out as he worked all the way until morning.

He was responsible for dropping the men off away in random places after she was done with them. Sometimes he would leave them blindfolded and tied in the middle of the Sograt, or the Payon Forest, or floating on a boat heading for Comodo. Because of this he had developed a new poison that erased memories for the last thirty hours, and the targets would wake up confused and wondering where they were.

She cleaned up after herself usually, but there were times that she was simply too tired to do it, and she would be left on the couch in all of her naked beauty, asleep and messed up. He cleaned up after her in those silent evenings; he wiped her down and clad her in a fresh nightgown and underwear, and would carry her to her room and make her comfortable. He would then gather the bottles of wine or cans of beer, throw away the food they didn't touch, and get rid of the paraphernalia. He would mop the floor if she'd messed the floor up, and would drag the couch outside for cleaning if she stained it with her adventures. He would pick up the torn pieces of her clothes and discard them, or if they could be saved he would sew them himself. The things all those anonymous men left he disposed of into the fire.

She broke his heart all over again every time she was left asleep on the floor or the couch. Still, he would take her in his arms and clean her first in the tub with a hot sponge bath, and sometimes she would wake up, and watch him silently. Sometimes she let him clean her up, and then dismiss him so she could dress herself. Sometimes she would shout at him to leave her alone, and throw an empty bottle of wine toward his head, which he dodged. Sometimes she would just let him do the cleaning and the dressing for her, while she watched him with lidded eyes and said nothing.

The years had changed her much more than he had expected, and she was mostly lonely, looking for solace in those evenings that she couldn't brave alone. There were also those rare evenings that, after he had cleaned up for her and sent the man away, he would hear faint sobs from the other side of her door. He would raise his hand to knock, but think the better of it – she would kill him, if he dared – and feeling heavy inside he would go back to his own quarters for sleep, but then sleep would not come to him, and he would stay awake in the darkness, listening, until her sobs faded away.

Assassins never marked the graves of those who passed on. Bodies were cremated and the ashes were scattered across the land, air and sea. Memories were left to Time, where they would fade into silence as the mind slowly aged. Even the effects of the deceased were gathered and put into the fire; even photographs. As long as an assassin wore a Necklace of Oblivion, the ways of the Guild would never change.

He had just come from a mission, and he had stopped in his tracks in the middle of the vast expanse of the Sograt Desert. He glanced skyward and uttered a soft prayer of thank you the gods and Richilde for guiding him to yet another task. He had gotten wind of a brewing ouster against his Cross, and it was his duty as Silencer to investigate the things. They were mostly assassins who were brewing in malcontent – they were the sore losers in the Cross Trials two years ago when she had been victor. There was no place for sore losers within the guild; and wielding his katars he eliminated all ten of the conspirators – they didn't stand a chance. They were young and foolhardy.

He glanced down at his hands and remembered what one of the targets had said about his Cross. The child had called her a slut, and spat on the ground by his feet – and while an assassin completed his task in neutrality, Osama knew he had finished the targets with the color of emotion. He had violated a guild tenet and nobody knew, but himself.

Pulling his scarf closer to his head from the sun's glare, Osama continued walking over the dunes and back toward the Guild Temple. This was the first time he had broken a guild tenet. Not even when he'd killed the stalker who had been responsible for the blowing up of the temple back then had he felt this kind of anger surge up in him during a mission.

The shade of the temple complex was comforting, and he pulled his scarf down just as another assassin cross looked up from his newspaper.

"You're back early today, Ossy," the man said, using a nickname that everybody had coined for him.

"Just a minor thing nearby," he replied with a faint smile and a nod before excusing himself and going to the guild bar for a glass of iced water.

"The wines have arrived, all aged eighty and above," the bartender informed him as the plump man placed the boxed crates on the counter. "And I have your laundry here too." He piled two plastic bags of clean clothes on the box.

"Thank you," said Osama as he stood up and lifted the boxed crate and the clean laundry.

He went to his quarters first and put his clothes back in the closet, and then lifting the boxed crate again and the remaining bag of clothes; he went to Diane's room. She wasn't there – maybe she was out doing a mission for herself, or otherwise watching the thief examinations. He put her clothes back in their respective drawers, his mind silently swirling with thoughts. After that he opened the boxed crate and eased the bottles of wine into the pantry. Somehow it appealed to him to try talk to her about her drinking habits, but he doubted that would do the job. There were many, many things he wanted to try talk to her about. But he also knew words didn't work well with Diane; he had to try this roundabout, look for other means.

He quietly moved to and fro between their offices, checking the status of reports, mission lists and decrees. By afternoon he was sitting by his own desk napping, with a newspaper over his face. He gave a start when he sensed her return, and rousing himself, he got his finished status report about the ouster he had just prevented, and went to her office.

She was still bloodstained on the hands and arms, and she was haplessly pulling off her pauldrons and letting them drop to the floor. He put his folder down and went forward to help her; he removed the scarf from her neck, and removed her greaves and shoe-blades for her. She stood there in silence, watching him as he worked on his knees.

"Sit," he told her, and she complied. He pulled off her boots and put them on the side. "Would you like a warm bath?" He looked up at her as he held her left foot.

"Cold," she told him. There was a blot of blood on her cheek, and instinctively, he reached with his hand and carefully wiped the drop away with his thumb.

"I'll have it ready." He went to her bathroom and opened the tap to fill her tub with water. She followed him soon after and she had stripped everything off her person. He stepped aside and she brushed past him again as she let herself into the tub – again there was the whiff of jasmine, with a bit of blood. He watched her soak, and for a moment she looked peaceful.

"How was it?" she inquired with her eyes closed.

"I have gotten rid of them," he informed her. "They were planning to raise the question of another Cross Trial, on the ground that your victory was invalidly won. They were maintaining that Dren was still alive, and that he had died in the infirmary two days after."

She grunted in reply and shifted, soaking further into the water. She looked weary.

"The wine has arrived," he continued. "And I took the liberty of putting your clothes away."

"You're being unusually industrious. Are you asking for a raise?" she opened her eyes and looked up at him.

"No, my Cross," he answered. "My pay of five million zeny a month is enough. I also get enough from my sidelines."

She let herself the pleasure of a soft chuckle.

"Would you like a massage later?" he asked. "You look like you need it, ma'am."

"With rose oil," she agreed. "You may go."

He gave her a small bow and left. Outside her office door he leant his forehead on the wall.

He returned to her office at around ten in the evening with a bottle of rose oil, only to find her seated on the couch clutching a bottle of wine. There was already an empty bottle rolling about on the carpet. He sighed to himself and closed the door.

"On the couch, then?" he asked.

"No," she replied, and she rose, and wobbled. She was well on her way to one of her blissfully numb, inebriated states. "My room."

He followed her to her quarters but kept the door open; he told her to strip, and she obeyed, and laid down on her belly upon the bed. He tilted his head at the intricate dragon tattoo on her back. He had lots of things to catch up about her. He never noticed this tattoo until recently, and every time he laid eyes on it, he could only imagine the amount of pain it cost to have it so beautifully done. He put some drops of the oil onto her skin and started work on her shoulders first, going circularly to converge on the small of her back. He worked steadily down her back, down, to her hips, and then to her glorious ass.

Her soft moans were muffled against her pillow, and he loved the way her skin seemed to shine with the oil. As he worked up her back again she let out a faint purr, which grew steadily louder as he worked down her legs. He tried not to look too long on places he shouldn't look at, but he decided she smelled nice, and knew he had done a great job by the way she soon seemed as limp as clay when he'd finished. She was purring like a lazy, boneless cat.

"Wine," she murmured, limply trying to reach for the bottle on the floor.

Sighing, he handed her the bottle, and she took a several gulps on the wine before rolling onto her back. She sat up and emptied the second bottle and carelessly let it drop to the floor.

"Find me a man," she told him. "I don't care who it is."

His expression hardened under the dim lights of her room.

"No." he said, opening a third bottle of wine for her. "There will be no more of those for you starting tonight."

She looked up at him in silence, and then slowly, a frown marred her face.

"Disobeying a direct order, I ought to put a dagger into your heart." She snarled. "I said find me a man. I want to get knocked up good."

"I will drink with you all the wine in your pantry until your liver dies, but no, I will not bring another stranger to you." He snapped back. "You will stop this ridiculous behavior of yours – you may not care what you make yourself into, but I do, and I will not tolerate it any longer."

She lightly wobbled in her place, and for a moment he felt a great sadness watching her there, seated with no clothes on, drunk. No, he told himself, this was enough.

"I can't knock up with you," she pointed out, hitting the mark.

"No, you can't," he said. "But I can drink with you, and if it's a drinking buddy you want, fine, let's kill ourselves slowly together with your wine, but you will stop being a whore from now on."

Her hand collided sharply with his cheek, but the pain was something he was used to. With Diane as boss, one was bound to get a lot more than a slap.

"Do you know what they say about you, those fools I had to eliminate?" he said in a hushed voice. "You may not care, you may be well beyond caring with how drunk you are, but I will not stand it, never. You will stop degrading yourself this evening, even if it means I have to defy you myself."

He poured the wine into a cup, and handed it to her. "Now drink to your heart's content, and by the gods, I swear I will be all the company you will ever need."

He lost count after the fifth bottle of wine. He was the occasional drinker; he never went beyond ten bottles or cans of beer, and he rarely went after scotch or whiskey or gin. Somehow, in the hazy consciousness he still had, he realized that they had been back in her receiving area for some time now. He put his half-emptied glass down and tipped his head back – he was sure this was going to be a terrible headache tomorrow. He stayed like that for a few minutes, trying to regain enough of himself. He then straightened up and looked around, and found Diane lying on the couch, eyes closed and her cheeks flushed with the alcohol. Her arm dangled to the floor.

She was asleep. He shook his head and rose, then started gathering the empty bottles and put them aside neatly for tomorrow's disposal. He wobbled on his feet now and then, and he had to pause as he slid an arm under her. He would at least manage to bring her back to her bed. And then he'd worry about how to get himself to his own room after.


He heaved her up and carried her against him, and her head lolled forward, so her forehead rested on his shoulder. He stayed still as he sought to regain composure, and then shifted her to him. She murmured something, and wrapped her legs around his waist, her arms around his neck. She hiccupped and blinked blearily up at him.

He slowly made his way to her room, his hands busy trying to keep her from sliding off of him. Every step combined with her weight made him wobble, and the short journey seemed like a long walk toward Prontera with the rate they were going. She punctuated the silence with cute little hiccups.

"Aren't you going to knock me up…?" she asked softly as she touched her upper lip with the tip of her pink tongue.

"I'd love to…" he replied as he wobbled dangerously again. "I should have. I should have, right, back then…? And then maybe…" He hiccupped too. "And…"

Her lips closed over his, and he found she tasted sweet, just with the right tang of the wine. For her part, she didn't need stripping, but he did – and her hands worked quickly; they were everywhere. He wasn't sure when he'd lost balance, but she got his clothes off him then easily worked her way on top, and even as the liquor numbed most of his senses, he understood that she was beautiful like that, and he wanted her still, even after all those years.

She didn't give him a chance of control; she rode him furiously, like she was determined to kill him with sheer pleasure. He flitted in and out of coherence with her face swimming above him, and the world seemed to dissolve in her heat and her scent, and he was lost in that oblivion of desire, crying out her name until both of them spent deliciously in liquid heat.

And then somehow he was more awake and aware than he had ever been, and she had the same understanding light in her eyes, and she let him wrest control from her, and then he entered her all over again and she cried out – oh, he made her cry out well into the wee hours, as he pounded all the strength off her, there between her legs.

They both didn't know when their heated duel ended; but when he woke up, he had the most terrible headache in the world, and the damn sun was shining furiously down on his face from her window. He shied away from the morning light and moved closer into the strands of her dark hair, but the movement had done its job, and he felt her wake up slowly. They stared at each other for what seemed like hours, until by some silent, mutual agreement, they rose from the bed, and cleaned each other in the bathroom.

He helped her lessen her alcohol intake day by day, step by step. He was still Silencer and she was his Cross, and the paperwork kept coming and going, and she still wanted the milk tea and the tofu. She would go to his study with her paperwork, and she would sit on his lap as she reviewed and signed each one, and as she did he spoke softly, updating her about the various guild statuses and transactions. He looked after her weapons and her clothes, and he still took out the trash and the dirty laundry for washing.

She was still distant, she was still holding a part of her away from him, but he was willing to work for it, and perhaps if he was lucky enough, she might smile at him again. But the most important part for him was that she wasn't alone anymore every evening, he was there beside her to keep her company and keep her warm. She still wouldn't say anything in the days and the months, but he was fine with that – he intended to keep his word: he would be all the company she would ever need, until the end of her days or his, whichever came first.

That morning he had a task to do in Moscovia, and he was surprised when she came to his room, and took up his pauldrons, and dressed him. He stood there in silence, as she worked on her knees, putting all the blades and bits and pieces of his armor together and tying them securely. She rose fluidly, her nightgown fluttering, and she helped him put his katars on. Then finally she wound his scarf around his neck and patted the fabric down, and she looked up at him, still silent.

"Silencer," she said. "Come back safe."

"As you wish," he replied.

And then Diane tiptoed, wrapped her arms around his neck, and made their lips touch.