Lilith roused slightly, her entire body was racked in pain. She could hear Cranston, he was mumbling under his breath. Or at least she thought he was mumbling, maybe her head got pounded so much that the sound couldn't find a way through the agony that pierced her skull.
She coughed, groaning slightly.
"Cranston..." She croaked, a small smile on her bloodied face "Cranston, did I win?"
She didn't wait for a response before passing out.
"Cranston, did I win?"
Ruffles rounded the corner first, just in time to take in the bloodied mess that was Lilith. "Holy--" then he remembered who was behind him and swept his foot out, catching Sprout in the nuts. The boy crumpled and Ruffles shoved him backwards up the corridor a ways before he could come around the corner and see. "Stay," he whispered and moved towards the group.
Firstly, he crouched beside Lilith, and patted a relatively unmarked shoulder gingerly. "Guess your luck ran out, huh?" he whispered to her with forced cheer. "Bet she couldn't grab that weave like I could though." Glancing at Cranston, he said, "I'll help you carry her."
Straightening up, Ruffles turned to his captain. Glancing to make sure Sprout wasn't peeking round, he spoke so low he was barely more than mouthing the words, although he stood so close to Pixie there was no way she wouldn't hear. "What. The. Fuck." He shook his head violently and continued, "you crazy bitch, I got your god damn kid right around the corner 'cause we heard shit was going down and... this?! If you weren't blatantly menopausal, I'd think you were PMSing like a bitch!" He was vaguely aware of a voice in the back of his head yelling that Pixie was the captain, and that put some reason back into his voice. He nodded roughly in the direction of where he'd left Sprout. "He sees this, his head'll explode. Just... go round there, take him somewhere and let us get her outta here." Then he added, "is a suggestion from my purely advisory standpoint, captain."
For once, The Gentleman and Ruffles were in complete agreement.
The Gentleman had been in his cabin halfway across the ship when he'd first heard the noises, and assumed that another one of the ship's amusing tiffs had broken out. He was still not entirely certain how to place all of the new faces on the Maiden yet, so he thought he might gain some useful perspective from watching the show. He had been smiling when he left his bunk, but now his mouth was a line so thin it was barely distinguishable on his face.
"She should have known better than to provoke you." he said, his tone deadpan. "However, she was not entirely wrong. If you do not wish to tell me what it is exactly about Dio Basilio that has caused you to lose control, then I will not demand it. I have never been a shoulder to cry on, I know. Your history is none of my business, up to the point that it interferes with My Business. The job I offered you is an opportunity neither of us are likely to see again in our lives, and it requires a steady hand. Do not make me wish I had taken this offer to somebody else; because, to answer your question, I for one do not think that this is a game."
Unlike Lilith, The Gentleman was not so much of a fool as to stick around for the reprisal. He had an important call to make.
The nut-check hurt, but it wouldn't keep Sprout down. Ruffles may have thought he was acting in the boy's best interests but the unfortunate truth was that Sprout had grown used to this sort of thing. He had known his mother longer than any of them did, after all. Cranston slowed down as he rounded the corner, Lilith limp in his arms, "She'll be okay, son. She just needs to rest."
Sprout nodded and watched Cranston disappear up the stairs.
"... He sees this, his head'll explode. Just... go round there, take him somewhere and let us get her outta here... is a suggestion from my purely advisory standpoint, captain."
"... Do not make me wish I had taken this offer to somebody else; because, to answer your question, I for one do not think that this is a game."
Sprout paid him no mind as the Gentleman brushed by. A sense of urgency clearly written on his face. Ruffles, still tense and frightened after having called out his superior, went still as Sprout placed a hand on his shoulder. It wasn't until that point that he was given a clear view of his mother. Sitting on the floor, smoking a cigar, refusing to look at those questioning her... those that she hurt.
This was a sight he'd grown far too accustomed to, though it had been awhile since he'd seen her like this. Anyone else on the ship would look at her and think she was about to snap. Fly into a rage and break someone's neck. Sprout knew her better than they did. He knew this look. There wasn't an ounce of anger in her that she wasn't directing at herself, "Ruffles," Sprout said softly. "Go check on Lilith. I reckon I can handle Ma'."
He stood there in silence, staring longingly at his mother. Eventually she put her cigar out and her eye found his. He could see right through her. He knew what she was thinking. What she was feeling. A few staggered steps later, Sprout dropped to his knees and embraced his mother. Without a moment's hesitation she clutched the back of his shirt and buried her face in his chest, sobbing uncontrollably.
Where most children would be scared, confused and disturbed, Sprout had always been at peace when consoling his mother. Seeing your caretaker so utterly defeated would be scarring to most, but Sprout understood its importance. She'd spent the past decade forming a thick callus around her soul, so it was nice to be reminded she was still capable of empathy. Sadly, supporting his mother like this was about the only thing "normal" he'd come to expect growing up.
She said nothing as she continued to soak his shirt with her tears. Nor did he. They understood each other well enough that no words were necessary. He just needed to be there. He'd learned this at a very young age, before the Iron Maiden, as part of his earliest memories. Some would say its not healthy to cry yourself to sleep every night with your toddler in your arms, but Pixie hadn't much of a choice in that regard.
As far back as he could remember the two of them had been on the run. Before the Maiden, Sprout spent a lot of his time in the care of Susan, an old friend of Pixie's from before Sprout was born. They would play together night and day while Pixie went out into town to steal just enough to feed the three of them. There were nights she'd come home empty handed and when Sprout would complain he was hungry Pixie would tear up and rock him to sleep, whispering all the while. Those were the good nights.
Some of Sprout's earliest memories are of the times Pixie staggered home, bloodied and beaten. When Sprout would worry or cry, Pixie would assure him all was well and Susan would take her away to clean her up. Later those same nights she'd hold Sprout close and cry herself to sleep. There was always someone after her, whether she'd provoked them or not. Nobles, bounty hunters, bandits, sheriffs... they were all the same to Pixie. They were all enemies. One night in particular she'd crossed the wrong bandits and wound up returning home in the wee-hours of the morning, completely naked with a swollen face and a broken arm.
Those men... the men who'd done that to her, got their's eventually just like so many others had these past ten years. Sprout didn't know what it was that drove his mother to purify this rotten world, but if it had kept her going all this time, through all this shit, it must have been something important. Something powerful.
After several minutes Pixie withdrew and wiped the tears away. She looked at Sprout like a wounded doe, her hands planted firmly on his shoulders, "We're gonna have supper soon an' I'm gonna hand out orders while we eat. Stay at the girl's side fer tonight an' I'll bring you yer supper once we're done. That okay?"
Sprout nodded and smiled, "Yeah, Ma'. She's in good hands."
"Ruffles," Sprout said softly. "Go check on Lilith. I reckon I can handle Ma'."
Ruffles hesitated, then turned and followed after Cranston. When he caught up to the man, he helped shoulder Lilith as they headed to the ship's med bay, such as it was. Barely stocked, and rarely used. but it had one of those reclining medical chairs in it, and that was where they deposited Lilith.
Ruffles set about filling a plastic sack with ice, and screwed on its lid. "Hey Cranston, I got this. The engine's squared away and you probably have shit to do."
"Cranston, it's fine I got it. Let me? I gotta feel like I'm doing... something, y'know?"
Cranston nodded and took his leave. Ruffles carried on rooting out long untouched odds and ends, lost in thought. Fixing people, fixing engines. Same thing at the end of the day. He dug out a tiny bottle of bourbon he had hidden in a cupboard here, put on one of those plastic medical gloves and dribbled some of the liquor on a finger. Gently, he began dabbing it on the cuts inside Lilith's mouth where the clobbering had mashed her mouth's flesh against her teeth. After that, he put rolls of medical cotton up her bloodied nose. Then he started pressing the ice pack on her bruises as gently as he could. Her breathing seemed regular, and her pulse was strong enough. Unless Pixie had rattled something inside the girl's noggin, it was a waiting game.
After a few minutes, he stopped pressing and left the ice pack against the worst of the bruising and sat occupying a metal stool. A waiting game. He waited, with his fists clenching and unclenching on the legs of his jumpsuit. He'd fallen out of touch with his actual siblings for the most part, when he'd run away. Even more after signing onto the Maiden. And he'd always been the youngest. Sprout and Lilith were very much his little brother and sister as far as Ruffles was concerned. Even if they were white as eggshells. You had to care for younger siblings.
After a while, he realized he was rocking back and forth on the stool, and made himself stop.
Cranston waited outside the med bay as Ruffles worked. Seated in a chair by the door, he hung his head and massaged his temple and forehead in frustration. He didn't have the whole story, but the minute he learned of Elizabeth's identity he knew there'd be trouble. Pixie had always been an enigma. She was forced into this life against her will... but she had learned to enjoy it. Cranston had no one to blame but himself for that.
Once the commotion in the room had died down Cranston entered, leaning against the wall near Ruffles, "I know what you're thinking Jake and I'm sorry, but I don't have any words that will help ease your pain. What happened back there... might as well have been child abuse in your eyes. Meredith's like a mother to you guys... but...."
He sighed heavily before continuing, "She's the leader of a bandit gang. You know what that means, right? She can't show weakness and she can't show favoritism. Truth is, if anyone else had said what you and Lilith had they'd be in a body-bag. No doubt about it. When I took her in... when I taught her what I knew about this life I hammered one thing into her head more than any other: no half-measures. In this life you hesitate for a second and you're a dead man. Simple as that."
Cranston walked to Lilith's side and brushed the back of his hand against her forehead. She was still out cold, "It took a long time for Meredith to learn that lesson. A long time. We've lost countless Maidens since the beginning and she'd blame herself for that. For not being strong enough to make the right calls. To make the sacrifices when the time came. But then, that was something I always admired about her. She was true to her convictions. She wouldn't let this life corrupt her."
Standing over Lilith he hung his head and his tone shifted to that of contempt, "Then Bennie came along. What you see now is the result of those seven years they spent together. He's rubbed off on her more than she realizes. I can't judge the man. I'm the same way after all. Truth is, I would have never allowed myself to be viewed as a 'father' to any of you. I start thinking like that and I may as well go out and buy your tombstones while I'm at it. Pixie's in a dangerous place right now. She has a choice to make and I'm not sure you're going to like the answer."
"So, you want me to point you to Whiskey Fifer, so that Basilio fella can get his broad back? That's right, I know. I do read the papers, and hostage taking doesn't happen every day, girly." Spoke the gangster as he finished his drink, as Viola finished hers, though a little annoyed at being called 'girly' in such a patronizing manner, like he was better than her or something.
"Now, it might be that I got given the location of Whiskey's Feroxi penthouse, but... for the life of me, I just can't remember. Memory's a funny thing, y'know?" He then said, grinning broadly, to which Viola replied with a small sigh.
"You know your as subtle as a brick being thrown through a plate glass window. Yeah, funny how a person's memory can fail them when they realise they can make some money out of it; like I said, subtle as a brick." Viola said, sounding rather unimpressed, but then rooted about in a inner coat pocket for some Carbon, placing it on the counter and pushing it to one side.
"Here this is what I've got, has it sufficiently jogged your memory?" She asked, whilst in her she thought about a Plan B in case he wasn't being co-operative.
A resounding slam pulled Aesop away from his book. This was likely something terrible. Snubbing the end of the cigar, and it was a big cigar, he put it on his bedside drawer. It was so large and well made he could snub it a little now and continue it another time, and given how many he had if he wanted to he probably had enough to give himself cancer.
Hobbling off of his bed he limped down the corridors of the ship where he heard voices, in such a hollow ass ship you could hear loud talking from ages away... and banging... probably punchi-SHIT! Walking as fast a pace as he could Aesop stopped the pretence that the now removed scratches from the splinters were any major issue and sped down the hallways. However by the time he got there the situation seemed to have resloved itself. Standing around a corner he covered his mouth in shock as he saw Cranston and Ruffles carrying off a severely beaten Lillith. Just over yonder he could see...
Peeking his head for just a second he stepped back behind full cover so the Captain nor her son could see him. He didn't need to see. Just hear. Hear the sobs of a strong and disturbed woman as she held onto her 15 year old child for comfort. He didn't need to know anymore. Walking away as quietly as he could he thanked the God that had long fucked him over that no one had heard him. 'Back to the room I suppose.' With that he got back into his room, lying on his belly and continued reading his book and lit back up his cigar.
Ruffles just stared at Lilith as Cranston spoke, although he was listening intently. "Yeah yeah, no half measures. But I'm not stupid, Cran. I know where we were. Right outside where we're keeping the wrinkly old jag off. And Casino wouldn't have said whatever she said unless she needed to shift Pixie's focus. And Pixie wouldn'ta been so balls out insane about what she did if that was all there was. Something had her wound the hell up, and she was going to take it out on the hostage."
He turned to face him. "You said no half measures. That applies to everything, not just the chain of command. Back on the train, it was kind of a dumb idea for her to kill that guy, and I saved him. Now, we have a ransom exchange set up, overseen by who I've been told is seriously big game. We show up and our hostage is just a red smear on a wall, we lose a lot of carbon, but even more, we lose a shit load of credibility too. Fuck knows we might not recover from that. At that point, killing him isn't just kind of a bad idea, it's the end all fucking terrible idea. No half measures, and we promised to sell the guy back to his family. So we have to sell the guy back to his family. You say anybody else saying what we said would be in a body bag? That's true, but although it might not seem like it right now, me and Lilith are just as loyal to Pixie, this crew and this operation as you are. And part of that means doing whatever we can to help. Even if it's unwanted help, and even if it gets us killed. Lilith said whatever she said knowing full well Pix coulda just pulled a gun on her and ended her. That's why I said the outta line shit I said too, and why I tried to get her to go with Sprout. To protect her and this operation from her. Even if she killed me for it. That's the full measure."
Raymond swept the carbon off the table. "Insults will get you nowhere. And why be anymore subtle when it's got me the result I wanted? Anyway. Her penthouse. Just a little ways from the perimeter of Basilio's penthouse are some big buildings. One is a fairly pricey apartment block, made outta red brick. Big, glass double doors. Whiskey's is the penthouse. Top floor. You'll need to buzz in from the ground floor. Of course she's selective about who she tells, but use our code phrase. Tell her you're here to discuss courier work. Those words. She'll let ya in."
Cranston hadn't fully realized the hypocrisy of lecture until it had been spelled out for him.
"That's the full measure."
He had said what he had in order to protect Casino and Ruffles. A priority that, as Ruffles had just pointed out, was clearly second to what was truly important. This crew. This operation. He knew they were loyal, but to lay down their lives in this way was... heartbreaking. Cranston turned to face Ruffles and smiled, "You've come a long way, Jake. Both of you have. I don't know the full extent of the situation, and I don't intend on getting my head blow off trying to find out, but I'll do what I can on my end to make sure she gets her shit together. Though, at this rate I wouldn't be surprised if she did something drastic."
He looked over his shoulder at Lilith once more, "I don't know what she'll end up doing but there's a war coming, Jake. A war that we may not win... or at least, that most of us won't see the end of. I wouldn't be surprised if Pixie ordered some of you to get out while you still can. Especially Sprout. The boy's been her rock all this time, but I bet she's thinking right now that there's no way she can ask him to follow her into hell. She's done everything she has for him and if this war takes him the Maiden is finished."
He looked back to Ruffles and crossed his arms, "I don't know what she'll ask of you, but if your loyalty is to our cause then you'll ignore her concern and do what you must. You have to let her know your nothing special to her. Just another soldier in her war."
Once back in his cabin, with the door firmly locked, The Gentleman set to work.
He took down his travelling case from the overhead locker, after having emptied his belongings from it when he had settled in. Opening it, he ran his finger nail around the rim of the felt lining at the bottom, until he found the catch, and pulled. A mass of wiring, feeding out of a receiver, with a head-set comprising of two parts attached, was revealed when the false bottom of the case had been removed. Next, he set the lid upright, locking it in place with a button concealed in one of the brass hinges, before extending The handle out into a long, spindly, two-pronged aerial. It may have seemed like a lock of work to go through for just a phone call. However, when outside the domes a good reception could be very difficult to some by in the Ashlands. Besides, there were many correspondences that The Gentleman wished to remain private.
The spin-dial whirled and hissed as The Gentleman enterred the number, before putting the ear and mouth pieces up to his face. The call was answered after less than two whole rings.
"Which flowers bloom the brightest?" asked the voice on the other end, with no pretence of pleasantries.
"The weeds, when all is said and done." The Gentleman replied. Had their been so much as a single word out of place in the opening exchange from either party, the alarm would be raised and the call brought to a swift conclusion. "I trust that I need not tell you of my predicament."
"Your predicament is all over the Ashlands." Came the response. "Mercifully, your name has stayed out of it for now. We can still abort and get well clear of this bloody business..."
"Not so fast." The Gentleman interrupted. "You worry too much, dear friend. I believe that Meredith is still capable, despite the added danger. We'll get the job done, and you'll be a rich man until the end of your days."
"and what about you?" The disembodied voice asked.
"I am already a rich man. If your concern is the risk of me being caught in the crossfire of this feud, then rest assured I can look after myself. However, my talents are best suited to the offensive. Tell me how Dio has chosen to bring Meredith to heel."
"The are disparate bounty hunters, and other such budding heroes all sniffing after the same scent, though in different places." was the answer "Some are alone, some in small groups, and others bring an army. It would seem that Basilio has decided to through as much shit as his money can buy in the hope that at least one will stick."
"A crude assesment, though not inaccurate."
"Viola Greaves is one such, as well as a certain 'Father Austin', who it is said commands over a hundred crazed killers, all ferocious in their worship of him. I also got a sniff of Metal before he went to ground. The rest are as of yet unknown to me."
"Very good." was all that The Gentleman said to that. "If you have any more for me when next we speak. Fell free to share."
The name that worried him the most was Austin's. The man was just as likely to burn Dio as he was The Maidens, which could be advantageous, but there could be no leverage with him. Metal was smart enough to be convinced that no good could come of him working for Dio, and The Gunslinger had honour, which could be bought as easily (and far more cheaply) than greed.
"Would that be all?" the other end of the line was asking.
"Not quite." The Gentleman responded, a hint of that colourless, flavourless menace creeping into his tone. "Dio Basilio once tried to kill me, believing that I would be more trouble than I was worth. I forgave that transgression for the sake of convenience, but I did not forget. Now, it occurs to me that the shoe is on the other foot. I cannot trust my name to stay out of this forever, even if it never becomes public knowledge. When that happens, this problem will become more of a permanent fixture. Once I am no longer required to remain on the Maiden, I believe I shall set this matter to rights."
There was silence on the line for a moment.
"You want to kill him?"
"Eventually. However, I have killed many people. Some for money, most in the name of self-preservation, and a few for no more than being in my way. To simply end Dio Basilio would be something of an anti-climax. He has played a role in a deep-seated trauma of someone who I hold very dear indeed. I intend to find out what that role was, and to make him answer for it with everything he has. Like plucking a chicken, I will tear fistfuls of his power and wealth away, until the man has nothing but his own naked, goose-prickled skin, before I deliver him to his end. I think I know just the man who can help me. When our business is done, I will need you to arrange me passage to Frostfall.
Another pause, longer this time, before The Gentleman got his answer. "It's yours."
"Splendid. I shall keep eyes and ears on the ship, of course. I plan to give the crew a gift for their services. My most precious Rose. She will discover the truth where even I cannot, one way or another."
With the mark passed out on the bed, stinking of wine and sex, Amy and her two sisters rose. Silently, they moved through the dark collecting the pieces of their clothing that had been discarded. When that was done, Amy stopped for a moment, and looked back at the man who had paid so generously for his pleasure. Her sisters were smirking, she could tell even in the darkness, but Amy felt strangely forlorn. The man had used her, yes, as men tend to do, but it stuck her as she inspected his sprawled nakedness just how ordinary he was. A rich man yes, and a liar, but he had not been cruel, perverse or disgusting. In a way, Amy supposed she preferred it when her clients were grossly fat, or when they liked to make her scream in agony or force her to partake in their most revolting fantasies. Any added discomfort, of which she was no stranger to, was repaid tenfold by the final part of her job. Did this man, for all his faults, truly deserve what was about to happen to him?
She supposed that was none of her concern.
They left single file, with Amy at the head, once all the photographs had been deposited in their envelope, and gathered together. Just before they exited the bedroom, Amy took a second to check herself in the mirror, and whispered to her sisters to do the same. It was not as if everyone outside did not know what she was, or what she had just been doing. However, that was immaterial. Her reputation demanded that she not be seen skulking dishevelled from a noble's bedchamber in shame like some common slut. Reputation could be a funny thing sometimes.
"He's all yours." she told the house guards as they stood waiting. The envelopes left one hand, while her carbon was deposited in the other, all in one fluid motion. The Golden Rose did not even break her stride. As she made to exit the building, the guards went to unceremoniously wake their former superior from his slumber, and escort him into custody. A noble who's reputation was built around fair play and family values could not afford to be caught with a whore in his bed, not even her; and that was before you even got to the corruption. If a man has the right name, and enough money, he can be above his workers, above his family, and above the law; but no man can ever be above his own reputation.
Lilith's ears were still ringing when she gradually began to regain consciousness. She had caught snippets of the conversation between Cranston and Ruffles, but nothing she could make sense of in her current state.
She struggled to remember just what had happened. She recalled seeing Pixie coming towards her, and then closing her eyes as she threw the first punch. And what a punch it was.
Lilith tried opening her eyes, but only barely managing to see through her right. It was blurry at first, but she could make out Ruffles, a concerned looked on his face. As her vision began to clear, she could see Cranston at the edge of her view. She tried moving her hands, but goddamn it, if everything didn't just hurt like a bitch. She closed her 'good' eye, letting her mouth fall open slightly and spoke as softly as she could.
"Bitch punches like a girl."
"Pixie punches like a girl."
Ruffles cracked a smile. "And you take it like a bitch." He squeezed Lilith's hand, which was one of the few parts of her not bruised or bleeding. "Don't worry, we managed to stop Pixie murderizing our hostage. How do ya feel?"
"And you take it like a bitch."
Lilith chuckled slightly, which was a mistake, she breathed in sharply as a stabbing pain racked her chest.
"Don't worry, we managed to stop Pixie murderizing our hostage. How do ya feel?"
"We? Bitch, that was all me. If you wankers hadn't barged in, it'd be Pixie sitting in this chair." She smiled weakly, "I was just, you know, waiting for her to let her guard down." She paused for a second, wincing, "I feel great."
The gangster quickly swept the Carbon off the table and into his pocket. "Insults will get you nowhere. And why be anymore subtle when it's got me the result I wanted? Anyway. Her penthouse... You'll need to buzz in from the ground floor. Of course she's selective about who she tells, but use our code phrase. Tell her you're here to discuss courier work. Those words. She'll let ya in."
Viola soon downed the remainder of her drink, taking the time to listen to the information. "Courier work huh? I guess that makes sense, given the situation. I don't often say this to a man of your repute, but thank you for assisting me in this little quest of mine." It was then that Viola stood up from the counter, placing a few small bits of Carbon to cover the cost of her drink, and turned to face the bar doors.
"Oh, and by the way, what I said earlier wasn't an insult, it was merely an observation of your behavior at the time. Once again, I thank you for the information, it's going a long way to help in this endeavour. Good day to you." Viola said as she tipped her hat, and headed out the bar, and towards the big apartment blocks as described.
"We? Bitch, that was all me. If you wankers hadn't barged in, it'd be Pixie sitting in this chair."
"Funny, seeing as I got there when you were already unconscious. What, were you gonna drool her into submission?"
"I feel great."
"Oh really? Maybe Doctor Ruffles should prescribe 50 CCs of hugs, then," Ruffles said in response, laughing. The look on her face was enough to confirm that wouldn't be well received.
"Here, drink up." He gently turned the chair's crank, bringing Lilith into a sitting position and held out the small bottle of bourbon. "Closest thing we got to painkillers unless you want some Valhalla."
Oh really? Maybe Doctor Ruffles should prescribe 50 CCs of hugs, then."
Lilith grimaced, causing Ruffles to laugh in response.
"Here, drink up."
She clenched her hand right hand, making sure she had all the feeling back in her fingers, before rising her arm gingerly, wincing slightly.
"Closest thing we got to painkillers unless you want some Valhalla."
"Christ no, my body has taken enough punishment for one day." She gritted her teeth as she raised the bottle to her lips. She squeaked slightly as the alcohol stung the wounds in her mouth. It wasn't particularly good bourbon, but anything was better than the taste of blood. She downed a significant amount of the liquor before she lowered her arm limply off the side of the chair, the bottle held loosely in her grasp. It was already beginning to take the edge off.
She breathed in sharply through gritted teeth as she twisted her head, cracking her neck.
"Where's Sprout?" She smiled gently, "I think I need another shoulder rub."
"Captain!" Florian barked, springing to his feet and doing his best to try and pull Pixie off of Elizabeth. It did little good though, the rage was on her and Pixie wasn't going to be taken from her current path. The room descended into a mad house of screaming and threats and tears. The captain was more like a force of nature now, it might have seemed like pure luck when she dropped Elizabeth and stalked off in a fury. Of course it wasn't... no one was that lucky. With Pixie gone though Florian was left with two terrified blue bloods. So much for putting them at ease.
"M-milady, the look in her eye. I... it was... I can't even describe it. She-she looked like a normal woman when she came in here at first but.... What is she?!"
She's your guardian angel, girl. Not that she'll believe that now. Hell if he didn't know better Florian wouldn't believe it either.
There was the sound of more shouting and the unmistakable sound of a body hitting the ground, putting the fear of Pixie even deeper into the pair of prisoners. Were they cursed or something? It seemed like nothing could go according to plan these past few days. Florian grimaced and turned back to Elizabeth.
"I know you can't believe me but you are safe, no one here will let any harm come to you. Either of you." They didn't need to know the reasons behind it, they'd cross that bridge if they came to it.
Florian gave a few more vague words of comfort to them before he left, trying to sound as cam as possible. This was out of his area now, nothing he knew had prepared him to be a hostage negotiator. He came out of the room just in time to see Lilith being carried away in a battered heap.
Oh god no...
Florian rushed after them, trying to check on her as they went. He hovered around the med bay long enough to make sure she was stable and fight the temptation to join Ruffles in his vigil. The captain still needed seeing to, Florian had never seen her get this bad before, who knew what she might do. He left the bay, giving a nod and a look to Ruffles that he hoped would convey some kind of camaraderie. He could only hope Lilith hadn't suffered any lasting damage. He wouldn't even entertain the notion that she might not wake up.
Beatings have done worse than- OH SHUT UP!
This wasn't the time to get emotional! The captain had asked him to make sure she didn't do anything too rash and that's exactly what he'd allowed to happen. He got back to the scene to find her sobbing in Axel's arms. Florian made sure to keep his distance, crowding them would only make things worse.
Definitely too many emotions flying around.
Appealing to her heart wouldn't work here, that was what had gotten them into this mess. No Florian had to be the cold one here and rely on his old instincts. He waited on the sidelines until the captain composed herself again, it was only once he'd gotten up to her feet that he made his presence known. He didn't say anything, he didn't have to. He was the picture of neutrality giving her the same look any good solider does when he was waiting for his next orders.
The two of them would talk about what had just happened later, Florian would see to that but for now their forces needed to be gathered together before they broke apart.
Further screaming and a few thuds echoed down the hall and into the room. Elizabeth trembled.
"I know you can't believe me but you are safe, no one here will let any harm come to you. Either of you."
Trusting his words was asking a lot at this point, but Elizabeth was far too distracted to dwell on them. Had she been responsible for the death of some poor soul? Had she pushed the bandit queen too far? She hid within Josephine's embrace, shivering in fear, "Th-this isn't right... This needs to stop..."
Sprout got to his feet and headed back down the hall, nodding to Florian as he went. After taking a moment to collect herself, Pixie sighed deeply and got to her feet. She approached Florian with an emotionless expression, "I reckon the girls'r are okay?" She noticed his concern, despite the lengths he had gone to in order the conceal it. Choosing to ignore it, Pixie went straight to business. "Gather the rest'a the crew in the dinin' hall. I reckon it's 'bout time they learned what we're doin' next."
And with that Pixie promptly turned and left. She wasn't about to get into what had transpired. Not yet. The wound was still too fresh. She'd need time to think.
Cranston smiled as he watched the two of them pick on each other. Their dynamic was a breath of fresh air after all the shit he'd had to deal with today. Still, he wondered if they could keep this up. They'd hit their fair share of speed-bumps in their lives, sure, but they still hadn't had that one moment. They'd never had to stare into maws of hell.
Cranston prayed they never would.
"Where's Sprout? I think I need another shoulder rub."
With uncharacteristic timing, Sprout entered the room as if summoned from another plane. The room went silent as the door shut behind him. He hadn't seen her condition until now. Everyone in the room watched as his heart sank to the bottom of his stomach.
"Axel, I..." Cranston said, but stopped short when the boy approached Lilith's bedside.
When he noticed the look on her face he brightened up, "Hey there, lil' Lady. You look like you lost'a fight with a flight a' stairs." He chuckled with a stupid grin.
"I reckon the girls'r are okay?"
"They'll be quiet enough for now."
Can't say we've done much to make them feel comfortable though. Something would have to be done if they wanted to keep Elizabeth and Josephine even remotely cooperative.
"Gather the rest'a the crew in the dinin' hall. I reckon it's 'bout time they learned what we're doin' next."
Easy enough, most of the crew had gathered around the general area, drawn to it by all the noise. Florian made sure to tell the ones he encountered to pass on the message to those it concerned. Of course those that really needed to know ere all gathered by Lilith's bedside. Florian arrived in the doorway to find Lilith awake and already bantering away. (He was pretty sure bantering was a word) He breathed a visible sigh of relief.
"I knew there was no keeping you down." Florian said, standing in the doorway and trying to seem calm about the whole thing.
Lilith held her breath as Sprout walked into the room. She'd never forget the expression he had on his face when he first saw her.
Her expression softened as he approached the bed.
"Hey there, lil' Lady. You look like you lost'a fight with a flight a' stairs."
"Hey, you should see the other guy." She laughed, instantly regretting the decision as she clutched her side in pain. She noted the look of concern on the boy's face.
"It's okay, I'm fine." She paused for a moment "Make sure your mother is okay."
"I knew there was no keeping you down."
Lilith's face lit up as she saw Florian in the doorway.
She looked as though she was about speak, but then paused for a moment. Her face relaxed as she spoke in the Northern dialect. "Hello, I am well." A little basic, and she reckoned her pronunciation was a little off, but she was sure he'd understand.
The walk over to the apartments was relatively calm, nothing noteworthy of mentioning, just people going about their lives. Viola could see off in the distance some of the taller towers that made up Lord Basilio's private residence/penthouse; she had to admit, whilst Viola loathed the man to a certain extent, the architecture was somewhat decent. She found herself standing outside the red brick apartment building as described by the gangster.
Looking at the rectangular console to the right of the large glass doors, Viola could see twenty or so buttons laid out in lines with four buttons to a line, with the Penthouse apartment taking up an entire line by itself. Written next to the buttons, were the names of each of the apartment owners. Before Viola pushed the Penthouse button, she remembered what she was told.
"You'll need to buzz in from the ground floor. Of course she's selective about who she tells, but use our code phrase. Tell her you're here to discuss courier work. Those words. She'll let ya in." With that, she pressed the button.
"Hello, Miss Fifer. This is Viola Graves speaking, I'm here to discuss some courier work."
Beneath the smiles and the optimism, Maria cursed the old moped - why wouldn't the damn thing go any faster? Her stomach was rumbling, she needed a bath and possibly a haircut or a manicure, not to mention poor Micky and his problems. The unfortunate fellow was trying to use her lab coat as a sun shield and was trying not to fall off the moped at the same time. The thing just wasn't really designed with a passenger in mind. Maria had wondered why that kind couple had given it to her as paid way back when. It was obviously in lieu of payment in actual Carbon, still she'd never imagined back she was getting ripped-off. Surely, if they had simply paid her in Carbon, she could have afforded a better ride?
Anyway, there was one thing she forgot to tell Micky. Maria wasted no time in saying it, "Don't go in the pockets, okay?"
He replied but she only got a grunt from him, but it was enough to tell her that Micky was still alive. In turn, that was enough for her to keep going. Well, at least she didn't have to stop somewhere to put the man back in the ground. Nevertheless, she was drained from ensuring that the moped behaved properly and was growing impatient. Sure, some conversation might been nice, however, Micky was in no state for that. If he had even tried to talk, she would have given him a stern lecture or two. Possibly a punch in the face as well, if she wasn't a pacifist. Maria had seen enough violence for her liking, and she wasn't about to add to that.
The wandering physician breathed a sight of relief as the dome came into view. Her sense of direction wasn't bad, after all.
"Hey, sleepyhead; we're here." Maria teased, a few moments later. Micky dragged himself off the moped and gave the doctor her white coat back. Maria caught it, but wrinkled her face in disgust as she realised that the back was damp with sweat. Regardless, she put it on as her shoulders needed some solace from the sun. Otherwise, they would turn the same shade of red as Micky's face. The unlucky man would probably be nicknamed something like "Red" or the "Burned Man", or even as "Sunshine" just because of his sunburnt face. Then again, she liked the sound of "Sunshine" - such a cute nickname! Still, there was no time to ponder on which nicknames were cutest. Maria dragged Micky into Feroxi; hopefully she would be able to find a room or something.
Whiskey's penthouse had a very open layout. Coming in through the door brought you into a large main room with a floor to ceiling window. Currently the blinds were half drawn to let in an easy light. Near the window was a walnut desk and padded chair. Of course the panel facing people entering the apartment was almost wafer thin, and backed with plywood. To the right of the desk was an open kitchen with various dark marble worktops. Across from that in the corner, to the right of the front door was a small but lavishly cared for piano. On the left of the piano was a sitting area with two suede couches and a glass topped coffee table, underneath which were a chess board, a stones board, a sketchpad, and even a game called battleships, as well as a well thumbed deck of cards. To the left of the front door were three doors. On the right was Whiskey's bedroom; on the left was the guest bedroom. Rarely touched, but Whiskey made a point to dust it regularly. Between them was the bathroom.
Whiskey padded back through from the kitchen area with a cup of coffee made brown and sweet, with a coaster. Setting it on the desk, she sat back down. In front of her was what remained of her correspondence. Still a couple of envelopes that needed seeing to, and the ominous missive from Wilkes-Vines. She had read it, and now was ignoring it. Her attention instead turned to Tim and Jim, her two Colt Delta Elite handguns, lying field stripped on a large cloth on the desk. She was just about to reassemble them after their cleaning when the buzzer at her door rang loudly. Sighing, she blew on her coffee to cool it, and got up. When at the panel at the door, she thumbed the intercom button. "Hello?"
"Hello, Miss Fifer. This is Viola Greaves speaking, I'm here to discuss some courier work."
Courier Work. Code. It meant that whoever was saying it posed a reasonable threat and was here for dubious reason. It didn't mean the woman was here for harmful reasons, but it was the tip off that it was plausible. Furthermore, the name rang a bell. Whiskey thumbed the intercom again. "Alright, hon. Lemme press your button," she said with her usual edge of mock flirtation. She pressed the little blue button that would allow this Viola to pass through the door. "Come on up."
Striding back to her desk, she sat down and swiftly reassembled her handguns. Roughly a minute. Not a bad time, but not her best. Still, even if she ran up the stairs, it would take Viola a good several to reach the penthouse. And chances were she wasn't running. Dropping the pistols into their hip holsters, and opened a desk drawer full of files. Intel, courtesy of Wilkes-Vines and various other wonderful people. Not very many people warranted actual tracking and actual updates, but it made a good who's who for the Rock's notables. Yes, Viola "Gunslinger" Greaves. A fairly talented bounty hunter by the sound of it. As far as she knew, Whiskey hadn't pissed anyone off recently to the degree of needing to worry about bullets in her back. And even if she had, others were watching said back. More likely this Greaves just saw Whiskey as a means to an end. As to whether Whiskey would willingly act as that means remained to be seen. Still, a dangerous and certainly armed individual on the way up.
Whiskey walked into her bedroom, past the double bed and opened one of the doors of the wide, deep floor to ceiling closet at the right hand wall. Inside were a healthy amount of clothes, but also a healthy amount of firearms. She reached in and took out The Persuader. her trusty shotgun. Crouching under her bed, she sifted through boxes of ammo until she found the 20 gauge shells, and slotted seven into The Persuader and pumped it once. Striding back out into the main room, she propped the weapon on the underside shelf of her desk, aimed at the door, and sat down. All she need to was reach down and squeeze the trigger without altering her sitting position. Taking out a silver case and silver cigarette lighter from the pocket of the jacket she had draped over the back of her chair, Whiskey produced one of her hand rolled cigarettes, and lit it. A tendril of smoke curled above her head as she took a drag, and waited.
Pixie made a quick stop at her room while everyone was getting seated in the dining hall. If she was to speak to her men she'd have to make sure all signs of weakness were carefully hidden. Addressing the Maidens in this state was the last thing she wanted to do, but it was her duty. Ice cold water ran through her hands as she washed the mixture of hers and Lilith's blood from her knuckles. It stung a bit, but her fists were so worn at this point the beating had hardly left a mark.
Back when she was living in that old rundown orphanage on the outskirts of Boomhower, cold water was all she could hope for. It was unpleasant, but she learned to deal with it... just like she'd learned to deal with the beatings. Anything went wrong, anything at all and her or one of her fellow orphans would wind up with a black-eye or worse. Old Nan was an alcoholic and only took the job to support her addiction.
She usually passed up Meredith in favor of easier pray, as she was good at hiding, but Meredith had felt the old woman's wrath more times than she could recall. She didn't suspect many children knew what it felt like to get their thighs sliced up by a broken whiskey bottle.
"Y'all'r just a bunch'a no-good pig-fuckers! Ya' think just cause yer young you can get whatever ya' want! Well fuck that, it ain't how the world works!"
"Get down on yer hands n' knees an' pick up the fuckn' glass. This place's a fuckn' mess!"
"THE FUCK'D YOU SAY TA' ME!? GET THE FUCK BACK HER'!"
Pixie's hands had gone numb by the time she came to, the ice-cold water continuing to run through them like a stream finding its way through a maze of rocks. She always washed with cold water. That way she'd never forget. She turned off the sink and looked at herself in the mirror, "Get it the fuck together, girl."
Hands still wet, she smacked her cheeks until they were flushed and headed out the door. Whatever baggage she was hauling would be left behind. It was time for business.
Sprout laughed along with Lilith. He knew she'd be in high spirits. That's just how she was.
"Make sure your mother is okay."
He nodded, "Don' worry none, Casino, I took care of 'er. I always do." His stupid grin turned into a proud smile. "It's all I'm good fer 'round here!"
Cranston smiled innocently. Sprout was an emotional kid, yes, but when it came to his mother he was capable of dealing with just about anything. When the Maidens say he's the most loyal of them all they aren't exaggerating. He really was her man to the end.
Suddenly remembering what had to be done he checked his watch and tapped Florian on the shoulder, "Dinner's about to start, guys." As he spoke he looked to Ruffles as well. "Pixie said Sprout is to stay here and look after her. Come on, lets go."
It took Bennie about an hour to sniff out Shakes' current whereabouts. He was apparently laying low in a drug-den, deep in the shadiest part of the city. Once the pair had arrived Bennie stopped Kayneth's advance and pulled him aside, "Look, he probably has a look out somewhere around here. If I don't come too close to where he's hold up we should be okay, but this place ain't no playground. I'll stay close in case you need back up." Bennie swung his backpack over one shoulder and produced a radio from within. "Anything goes wrong in there and you let me know, okay? I know this place pretty well as you can imagine in my line of work, so figuring out where your at won't be an issue. Ready?"
"Pixie said Sprout is to stay here and look after her. Come on, lets go."
Ruffles sighed. "Alright then." Turning back to Sprout and Lilith, he grinned. "You two have fun, now. I hear these medical chairs are nice and sturdy." Turning, he followed after Cranston, out the door.
"You two have fun, now. I hear these medical chairs are nice and sturdy."
Sprout blushed and shot back, "I don' reckon Casino's in any shape fer' ugly bumpn' tonight!" Once the door closed only Sprout and Lilith remained. His laughter slowly faded and he placed a hand on Lilith's wrist. "You need anythin'?" He was no longer trying to hide his concern. It was now painted quite clearly on his face.
As the three men approached the dining hall Cranston put and arm around Ruffles' shoulder, "Not to spoil anything, but Pixie's planning to send two teams to Boomhower for an extremely sensitive assignment. You're in one of those teams. You'll be sent into the heart of bandito territory... are you prepared for that?"
"Alright, hon. Lemme press your button." Whiskey said in a somewhat flirty manner. "Come on up." Viola tested the door, and found that now the door opened fairly easy and soon entered, the doors must have used magnetic catches or something. Entering the foyer, the building looked to be rather clean, tidy and presentable. There were a couple of doormen nearby, and with a quick glance Viola could tell they were armed.
"Well, Miss Fifer sounded pleasant enough; though that might be a fašade to lure me in. Best keep myself on my toes in case she is suspecting something. Shan't go in guns blazing though, that would create the wrong impression, and would no doubt get me killed." Viola said to herself as she entered the elevator, and pressed the button for the penthouse suite. As the glass doors closed, the elevator began its steady ascent, which gave Viola time to get a better view of her surroundings, and like the foyer, it too was respectable looking.
It took a few minutes, but eventually the elevator came to a slow stop outside the penthouse floor, which consisted of a corridor that split off into two. Taking a moment to adjust her attire and generally making herself look presentable, Viola stepped out and knocked on the door.
"Miss Fifer? It's Greaves, is it okay to come in now?"
"Hello, I am well."
"I'd expect nothing less." said Florian, managing to hide his total relief. Not that he didn't expect it a little, Lilith had always proven more resilient than most. Except she shouldn't have to be, not for something like this.
Sure, break them down to their core and the maidens were a gang of bandits, their was no denying that. But the captain had attracted each of them to her cause under the promise that they would be different from other groups. That they would fight for a higher cause, that they wouldn't let the life do to them what it had done to so many others. It may have been naive but Florian had begun to think of parts of the crew as something akin to family in his relatively short time with the crew. At least they were closer to it than his biological family had ever been. Seeing what had been done to Lilith, that wasn't what people as close as the maiden seemed to be did to each other, was it?
"Dinner's about to start, guys." As he spoke he looked to Ruffles as well. "Pixie said Sprout is to stay here and look after her. Come on, lets go."
"Aye, the captain will be wanting a meeting in the hall as well." Florian chimed in. The others quickly made to leave and Florian turned to join them.
["Stay strong Comrade."] He said back to Lilith before he left. She'd at least get the last word.
Most of the crew gathered in the canteen. The majority went about finding seats and talking among themselves like usual, all except for the "Valkyries" who had seen the aftermath of Pixie's wrath. To their credit they did a good job of hiding it from onlookers. For now Florian stood by Ruffles and the others, waiting for the coming briefing.
"Pixie said Sprout is to stay here and look after her. Come on, lets go."
Lilith glanced at Axel. Godammit Meredith.
"You two have fun, now. I hear these medical chairs are nice and sturdy."
Lilith frowned, wiggling her left hand at Ruffles in a masturbatory motion.
I don' reckon Casino's in any shape fer' ugly bumpn' tonight!"
"Oh my god, you guys, what the fuck!?" Exasperated, she shook her head. Thankfully, her face was already red, so the blush in her cheeks was unnoticeable.
["Stay strong Comrade."]
Lilith nodded her head, leaning back as everyone left, closing her eyes. She raised the bottle of bourbon to her lips and polished off what was left, placing the empty bottle on a surgical table beside the chair, she took a moment to herself. Truth was, she wasn't doing as well as she was letting on, but she couldn't let them see that. Couldn't let the others see.
She had almost forgot Sprout was in the room with her, until she felt his hand on her wrist.
"You need anythin'?"
She opened her good eye and turned her head to look at the boy. The kid was worried sick, it was written all over his face. She noted the cut on his lip. Did she hit him too?! Her mind then went back to the canteen. No... No, that was me. She raised her arm, Sprout's hand still on her wrist, and she touched her thumb against his lip. "I'm sorry." She said softly, a small smile on her face. "I guess I had this coming, huh?"
"I'm sorry... I guess I had this coming, huh?"
Anger flashed across Sprout's face as he squeezed her wrist tighter, shaking his head in protest, "No! Don' you fer a second start thinkn' like that! I don' know what happened down there between you an' Ma', but I know this ain't yer fault and it sure as hell ain't karma fer knockn' me on my ass!"
Surprisingly unafraid, Sprout held her hand up to his chest and touched her forehead gently with the other, running his fingers through her hair, "Ma's just in a lotta pain right now, Lily. Ever since that lil' blonde noble came on ta' the ship she's been all bent outta shape. I don' know what's bothern' her, but I promise you she's sorry fer what she did."
Sprout withdrew his hand from her head and pointed out the smeared mascara on his shirt. Normally Sprout wouldn't say anything about it, but Lilith was different from the rest of the crew. She wouldn't judge her captain for crying every now and then, "She loves you like 'er own, you know that." He said with a weak smile.
Sprout's hand was surprisingly cool against her forehead, for which she was thankful, her entire face was on fire.
"Ma's just in a lotta pain right now, Lily. Ever since that lil' blonde noble came on ta' the ship she's been all bent outta shape. I don' know what's bothern' her, but I promise you she's sorry fer what she did."
I noticed that too. When I get outta here, I'm going to find out just what the hell is going on. As Sprout pointed to the stain on his shirt, she felt a pang of sympathy for the woman.
That did not excuse what she almost did, though.
"She loves you like 'er own, you know that."
Lilith thought for a moment, her expression hardened as she looked in the boy's eyes.
"Do you want to know why she did... this, to me?" Her stare was piercing, "Because this was the only way I could stop Meredith from murdering that fat sack of crap we have down near the hangar. There was no way I could talk her out of it, I couldn't stop her from putting a bullet in our reputation, from killing an innocent, albeit shitty, man, just because she had a 'bad' fucking day" The statement rang with uncharacteristic bluntness. "So I took the bullet. She threatened to kill me, someone she supposedly loves, because she had a 'bad' day." Lilith's voice began to waver slightly, a mixture of the alcohol and being just plain old upset. "I had to ruin my favourite fucking scarf!" She ripped the remnants of the bloodstained clothing from around her neck angrily, balling it up and throwing it across the room, "Because she had a fucking. Bad. Day. She slouched in the chair, throwing an arm across her eyes.
"I need a goddamn smoke."
Sprout sat there, twiddling his thumbs nervously as Lilith went on her tirade.
"I had to ruin my favourite fucking scarf!"
The torn up, bloody rag smacked against the door and crumpled into a pathetic heap on the ground. He stared longingly at it for a few moments.
"I need a goddamn smoke."
Without a word Sprout got up and started sifting through the cabinets nearby. Only with a bandit crew would you find such a thing among medical supplies. It didn't take him long to find what he was looking for. Her sight still concealed by her arm, Sprout placed the cigarette between her lips and lit it.
Sitting back down in his seat, he rested his chin in the palms of his hand and stared across the room at nothing in particular, "I'm sorry, Lily, I don' mean to make excuses fer Ma'. I just... I don' know. I reckon it's just hard fer me to accept she could do this fer no good reason."
He looked at her with a wounded expression, "I don' know what to say... I'm sorry, Lily."
Lilith silently thanked the boy as she took a long drag of the cigarette.
"I'm sorry, Lily, I don' mean yo make excuses fer Ma'. I just... I don' know. I reckon it's just hard fer me to accept she could do this fer no good reason."
"Hah!" She laughed derisively. No good fucking reason, that's all she seems to be doing lately. Wrecking shit for no good reason.
"I don' know what to say... I'm sorry, Lily."
Lilith felt a twang in her chest. She knew exactly what expression he had on his face, she didn't need to see him.
"Why are you fuckin' sorry? You didn't do this, it wasn't your fault, so don't ever apologise for shit you didn't do." She raised her arm slightly, meeting his eyes.
She lowered her arm. She hated that she was taking out her frustration on Axel, but it's all she could do to stop herself from curling up and sobbing. The alcohol wasn't working very well, and she was in a ridiculous amount of pain.
"If she were so damn sorry, she'd be here now, instead of at that damn hall, pretending like none of this had ever happened."
Ash crumbled onto her chest.
"My favourite scarf. I've had that since I was 5 years old. FIVE!" She really liked that scarf.
Aesop had barely read another paragraph and had to snub out the cigar again as a knock on the door came.
"Thanks Hoxton," Aesop replied before whispering to himself, "well, lets see how much it hurts to sit down." Getting up from off of his belly he stood up and made his way out of his room. Other times he would bring a book to read at dinner if he wasn't feeling particularly chatty, but today was bad and clearly he needed to be chatty. Thankfully a thorn in his side had made it so it wasn't pointless small talk.
And it wan't a thorn.
And it wasn't his side.
The crew would have fun with this one.
Sneaking up behind Florian and Ruffles he tapped them both on the shoulder. Time again to put on the ol' repression mask, Aesop's speciality. "So who wants to hear a funny story that'll make you wonder why the fuck I'm allowed to carry a gun?"