The Ashlanders - Chapter 6: The Blind Man's Last Gambit (Closed, Started)

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"All of them, and you'll bloody like it."

Sprout shrugged to himself once Lilith had left the room. As boring as it sounded, he wasn't about to complain. Best case scenario: she got something really slutty.

Sprout grinned insidiously.

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Once Lilith had started her shower Elizabeth began clearing off the kitchen table. Looking up at Maria, she smiled, "Could you check and see if Sprout wants to join us? I'm sure he's been bored out of his mind since he woke up yesterday. Us girls can't have all the fun!"

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"He looked like a little drunken angel. I take it the meal went well ladies?"

Pixie grinned, though Amy could only see it in her eye, "I reckon it did," She giggled. "Y'all ain't bad at cookin'. An' those strawberries were a nice touch. Really got me in the mood if ya' know what I mean!" She gave Amy a light shove on the shoulder.

"Speakin' a' which," Pixie looked over her shoulder. "We gotta get this cooky fucker laid! How long's it been, Aesop? Ten years?" She teased.

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Tsubaki entered the barracks to find Jun alone, looking himself over in the mirror. Coming up from behind him, she glanced around the barracks. Good morning, Moon." She furrowed her brow. "Where are the others?"

Vasa's cohorts went quiet in thought as they waited for their leader's response.

"We will consider this offer." Vasa said plainly through the small cloud of smoke that was gathering around his head.

Erik's brow furrowed as he shot a quick sidelong glance at Vasa. Their group Swiftly turned round to follow Vasa as he made to leave, the rank and file forming a protective line between him and The Gentleman, keeping a close eye on the suited man as they did.
[centre]***[centre]
Whirrun and her half dozen had been tailing the travellers for the best part of the day now and already their tempers were wearing thin.

"Can we at least put some music on?"
"My ass is falling asleep can we pull over?!"
"I need to pee!"

"All of you SHUT UP!" Whirrun spun round in her seat with a snarl. "Or I am kicking you out and leaving you here!"

It looked like Payton was heading to a small settlement that they'd passed on their way to Feroxi. With him so far from his home turf and with limited guards, this was their best chance. If she pulled this off then the hussars would have to start taking her seriously. The glory they could get from this, maybe she could replace Erik and his lot.

"Break away." She barked at the driver. "Time to get a lay of the land."

Slicking back her sodden hair as she stepped out of the shower, Lilith wrapped a towel around herself. Picking up the used clothes from earlier, she stepped out of the bathroom and made her way to the spare bedroom.

Closing the bedroom door behind herself, she tossed the used clothes on her bed. Peeling off the towel, she began drying herself. Wrapping the towel around her hair as she began rummaging through the many bags she had brought home the day before. Ripping off several labels from various items of clothing, she pulled on some clean underwear and a bra.

The woman smiled as she held up what was possibly her favourite item from the shopping excursion. The cherry blossom pink summer dress.

Grinning like an idiot, she removed the towel from her hair as she ripped the tags off the item of clothing, and clumsily slipped the dress over her head and shoulders. Running her hands down the garment as she straightened it out over her frame, she performed a little twirl in front of the mirror before shuffling her hands through her hair.

As the wayward locks fell around her face, her expression hardened as she took in her reflection. What was she doing? She could quite possibly be dead in less than a day, and she was pratting around trying on clothes?

"What the hell is wrong with you, Lily?" She muttered to herself, balling her hands into fists.

'Fire fears nothing.'

Her eyes bore into those of her reflection. "Get your shit together, Valentine, you were raised by The Meredith Monroe." She clenched her jaw. "Start bloody acting like it." She whispered, "He can't beat you, he doesn't deserve to beat you."

After a few moments. the tension fell from her hands, as she let out a long sigh. "You're not very intimidating, are you?" She asked herself, a small smirk curling her mouth.

Adjusting her dress and hair, she walked barefooted out of the bedroom and into the living room.

"So? Whaddya think?" She giggled slightly, as she curtseyed elegantly to the room's inhabitants.

Aesop laughed with Parker at Pixie and Amy's flirting. "The strawberries were her idea, you can probably guess."

"We gotta get this cooky fucker laid! How long's it been, Aesop? Ten years?"

"Oh god," he put his head in his hands over dramatically. "Let me think er," he literally stroked his beard in thought, "I haven't gotten laid since I was sober... the last time I remember waking up next to someone with that awesome feeling of 'ohhh yeeeaaah', I was in Star dome in this dank ass fucking backroom casino with the Pit Boss and this bodyguard lady, the three of us laid out on a pool table."

He looked bashful as he realised what he had just blurted out. He chuckled nervously and said, "Hey not all my drunk stories are bad ones, some are pretty fun."
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Hannibal nodded along to Viola's words. A change of clothes could be nice but it wasn't on top of his list of priorities. He didn't itch so much anymore and had gotten used to cold he felt from the holes. Still he could do with some better rags, or maybe even actual clothing. What a thought that was.

Entering the makeshift training room Hannibal put his hands in front of his face, clenched as fists, while his feet were close together. His stance was all wrong and Viola took to fixing his positioning. He still flinched at being touched but he seemed to reluctantly go along with it, despite the twitches in his face showing how uncomfortable he was.

'WAAA WWAAA WAAA DON'T YOU EVER STOP CRYING FAGGOT!'

Now in a good defensive position she began showing him basic punching and blocking techniques. Like she had said earlier, he had a very basic knowledge from what he has seen from fights but he knew nothing of skill when it came to actual fighting. Jabs, swings, right hook, left hook, block with the forearms, all basic things. Learning these things wasn't the harderst part, anyone could learn it, the hard part for him was when she asked him to strike her. He hesitated, and even after telling him she'd block every time and not be hurt, he felt deeply uncomfortable not just touching another person, but possibly causing them hard? Even with the knowledge of his lack of strength, her bulk of strength, and the quite frankly impossibility that he could hurt her at all, he still felt so... wrong.

'C'MON BITCH! PUT YOUR GOD DAMN ARMS UP! FUCK ME YOU'RE WEAK!'

Against his feelings, Hannibal complied and began punching at Viola. Incredibly soft at first, she told him to give him her all. Wincing badly, he started punching at her as hard as he could. She didn't seem bothered by his strikes as she blocked them all, the only thing about him which seemed like it would help in a fight is the speed in which he was attacking. He didn't think anything of it, but she eventually had to tell him to slow down he was punching so fast.

A few hours had passed and Hannibal was trying his best to record these skills to memory. The most uncomfortable time for Hannibal was when she showed him how to get out of grapples, the contact made his skin crawl, even if he did need to learn it.

'Please... p-p-please don't hold me like that. I-it hurts, you don't know how much it hurts-'

'SHUT UP YOU STUPID KID! IF I HAVE TO BE HERE I'M GONNA HAVE SOME GOD DAMN FUN NOW GET BACK ON THE FUCKING BED!'

He had trouble escaping her grasp. Sighing Viola had to let him go easily, yet something inside Hannibal told him he needed this. He needed to learn how to escape. So he tried again. And again. And again, until finally she didn't need to hold back anymore as he was slipping out of every kind of hold she could put him in. Each and every one he slithered out like a snake until finally she couldn't even grab hold of him, he was dodging that fast.

Finally it was time for a break, Hannibal fell onto the ground backside first. He pulled his waterskin out of his bag and began guzzling it. If he wasn't as thin as a twig he'd be sweating much harder than he currently was.

"We will consider this offer."

"And I look forward to hearing your decision." The Gentleman replied, courteously. "They'll be no need to try and contact me. Rest assured that when you've made up your mind, I'll know."

He waited a respectful amount of time after Vasa and his retinue exited the church, before making his own way out, finding Florian in discourse with a street vendor. Gently, he put his arm around the younger man's shoulder and steered him away.

"Vasa isn't much of a conversationalist is he?" The Gentleman mused as they made their way back through the streets. "Anyway, once were back at the safehouse, I'll give Meredith a bell and tell her the news. Then, we should probably make arrangements to leave the city as soon as possible. If things don't go according to plan, the situation here might get even nastier than usual in a matter of days."

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Amy giggled at the little push Pixie gave her, before subtly moving her hand over to Pixie's thigh, and resting her head on the other woman's shoulder.

"Hey not all my drunk stories are bad ones, some are pretty fun."

"If only we'd met sooner Aesop." Amy said mischievously, twisting around in her seat to flash a smile at him. "I don't think I'd have minded breaking your dry spell."

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Georgia had to fight very hard not to roll her eyes, or else gag, as Austin's cheerleader dramatised his origins. It had been clear from the start that this one was a true believer. However, even true believer's had ambitions... but no, this one would never betray Austin, for love nor money.

In the end, it was Sandra he picked from the crowd, sitting just to Georgia's right. She watched nervously to see what the younger girl would do. To be too welcoming would be suspicious, but a complete rejection might provoke more violence. In the end, Sandra did not take his hand, but lifted her head up and looked the man full in the face.

"I don't think my story adds up to very much next to yours." she said, matter of fact. "Me mother was a whore. I was born in that same room you took me from today. I grew up around whores, so whoring was what I learned to do. Some of the punters were worse than others, but I don't complain none. It was better than the streets, and you saw that our town ain't got no poor-house. I did what they said, so they wouldn't kick me out, and now I guess I'll do what you say, so I don't end up getting the same as Kitty got. Seems to me that girls like us get fucked wherever we go."

"Where are the others?"

That was one thing that was nice about this morning, the silence. Though, while in his morning auto-pilot mode, he had carried on as normal. Jun addressed the reflection of Tsubaki with the most obvious answer, "Not present, Commander."

He then turned on his heel and faced his Commander, "I have not seen or heard from them since last night, Commander."

***

"Could you check and see if Sprout wants to join us? I'm sure he's been bored out of his mind since he woke up yesterday. Us girls can't have all the fun!"

"OK!" Maria replied.

Elizabeth's enthusiasm was proving to be infective. Passing by a very dressed up Lilith, Maria made her way to Sprout, who seemed to be more than content. Though the smile wasn't particularly a wholesome one.

Maria started off with a mock-curtsy, "Lady Maribel wishes to know if you would like to join her, Lilth and I in the other room."

She knew that it would be difficult to teach a complete novice the ways of hand to hand fighting; but she expected Hannibal would make it a little easier on her. After readjusting his footing and posture, Viola taught Hannibal the basics in both punching and blocking. He seemed to get the hang of it, though it took a lot of reassurance on her part when asking him to test his skills by striking at her. At first the punches were so soft that Viola barely felt anything, and had to raise her voice; demanding that Hannibal give everything he had.

Hannibal was reluctant to do so at first, but Viola noticed something in the young man's eyes that said that he needed to if he had any hope of succeeding. The strikes were indeed forceful; fortunately Viola managed to block them all, though she expected that she might have some bruises by the end of this. Eventually though she had to order Hannibal to stop as his attacks were getting too fast, which she could see as a useful trait to have.

Viola reminded herself an old saying she heard associated with boxing; "Float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee."

As the hours rolled on, Viola switched from teaching Hannibal how to punch to teaching him how to get in and out of grapples. She could see the visible twitch from Hannibal upon announcement. It was a trend that followed when Hannibal tried breaking out of the holds Viola put him in. First he would flounder and not get very far, forcing Viola to easily release him. The process continued over and over again, until Viola could barely lay a grasp on Hannibal.

It soon came for them to have a break. Viola sat down with her back against a wall near to Hannibal, she slowly drank from the metal canteen whereas he guzzled it down like no tomorrow.

"I'll admit Hannibal, for a first timer, that was pretty good. You should probably take it easy with that water though, otherwise it'll be gone pretty quick."

"I have not seen or heard from them since last night, Commander."

"So they never returned to the barracks?" Tsubaki crossed her arms and rested her forehead against her thumb and pointer finger. Where the hell could they have gone to? Looking at the wall-mounted clock, Tsubaki sighed. "They have one hour. If they don't show up, we'll carry on without them."

She didn't look happy.

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"Lady Maribel wishes to know if you would like to join her, Lilth and I in the other room."

Sprout perked up, "Oh," His creepy grin softened. "I don' reckon I can refuse the lady, can I?" He chuckled, struggling to get out of bed. Maria reached out to assist him. Together they entered the kitchen.

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Elizabeth was just about done setting up when Lilith arrived.

"So? Whaddya think?"

"Lilith, you look gorgeous!" She exclaimed. "Now come! Sit!" She commanded as she pulled out a chair for her.

Just then, Sprout and Maria entered the room. When he noticed the pack of playing cards on the table, Sprout cocked an eyebrow, "Oh no, you're not tellin' me... poker!?"

Elizabeth shot him a confused looked, "Is that bad?"

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"I don't think I'd have minded breaking your dry spell."

Pixie looked at the girl with a shocked expression and spanked her, hard, "What!?" She laughed. "It's the beard, ain't it!" She glanced over her shoulder at Aesop. "You better keep yer mitts off my girl, punk ass mother fucker!"

The carefree, playful atmosphere remained as they continued to talk over the course of the next few hours. After driving a couple hundred miles across the ashlands, the settlement was finally in view, "---bbbzzzttt---Yo, Pixie, we're comin' up on it. Want us to take point?---bbbzzzttt-----"

"Roger that, Carmine. Keep both eyes open, Maidens. Over." Turning her head to look at Amy and Aesop, Pixie's smile faded. "Be ready fer anythin'."

"Lilith, you look gorgeous!"

"Hehe, liar, I look like crap, but thank you." Lilith thanked the girl as she sat in the offered chair.

"Oh no, you're not tellin' me... poker!?"

The woman shot the boy a wicked smirk, narrowing her eyes. "Oh my!" She exclaimed, "Poker? Why, I haven't played this game in so long, I hope I'm not as terrible as the last time!"

"Is that bad?"

Tilting her head backwards, Lilith looked up innocently at the girl. "Axel thinks he's too grown up for games of chance." She smiled sweetly.

Looking back to the boy, she smirked knowingly. "Come now, Axel." She patted the chair next to her. "Come play with us, I'm sure you'll enjoy it."

"Boy! I sure hope I don't suck!" The woman sighed, stretching her arms lazily above her head.

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Hands in his pockets, Asad yawned silently as he trudged down the hall of the barracks, the faint sounds of conversation echoing from several rooms. A familiar voice prickled his ears as he approached the room he shared with the other men.

"They have one hour. If they don't show up, we'll carry on without them."

Pausing just before the entrance, he closed his eyes, sighing slightly as he ran a hand through his hair. Today was going to be a super day. He could tell, call it a hunch.

Making eye contact with the commander briefly, he nodded. "Morning, commander." He muttered pleasantly, as he sauntered over to his bunk.

"So..." He started, taking off his jacket, and neatly folding it. "What's on today's agenda?"

'Still trying to send a girl to her death?' He added mentally, clenching his jaw.

Payton was standing on a chair now, his second card castle was so tall. It was large enough that half a deck was needed merely to form the base, and from there, it climbed. He stepped down briefly to survey it. Three more tiers, and then it would be at its peak.

He stepped down from the chair, and headed into the back room to fetch another deck. When he came out, the radio underneath the bar squawked. "Sir, our snipers report two Crawlers approaching the dome. Orders?"

"Identify them," replied Payton. "Once you confirm them to be the Maidens, have them let through." He moved to step back up and finish his card castle, and then paused, turning to one of the small tables littered with intelligence reports. Turning the page back to something he'd read, he said, "and take our men off of the West gate."

"But why, sir?"

"Just do it," replied Payton, watching Whiskey intently out of the corner of his eye as she sat glowering. Then he swept his files into the briefcase they had been given to him in and stowed it under the bar. If his intelligence, and the hunch it had caused, were correct, he would soon know what troubles, if any, Miss Fifer would present to him.

Before he closed the briefcase, he removed a small wooden sliding box, simply but skillfully carved and engraved, and set it on the bar beside his extensive card castle. Then he went back to finishing it.

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Bryan had been driving like maniac for two solid hours, now when he came down a hill. What he saw was interesting to a man with limited time. Two unoccupied quad bikes, their owners some way away. They appeared to be digging. Bryan grinned.

Checking the glove compartment of the closed topped Crawler, he found what he had suspected to be there. An emergency filter mask. Pulling it on, Bryan brought his Crawler to a halt. Thank fuck. The damn thing hadn't been fully fueled up anyway, and he'd have had to stop within the next half an hour.

Getting out, he made his way to one of the quads and jumped on. The sound of his Crawler's door slamming attracted the attention of the two men digging. Bryan started the ignition, and sped off. There was a whipping sound as something flashed past his ear. They were shooting at him, but seconds later, they had either stopped, or couldn't get any bullets near him.

He laughed under his mask. This much quicker.

Florian hunched as Gents' arm wrapped round his shoulder and fumbled with his hands as he tried to steady the container of stew as they walked on.

"Vasa isn't much of a conversationalist is he?"

"It never was his way." Florian said softly.

"Anyway, once were back at the safehouse, I'll give Meredith a bell and tell her the news."

And will he tell her? Florian shuddered internally. The maidens were bound to find out eventually. He should have told the captain, he should have told them all a long time ago.

This was supposed to be my cross to bear, no one else'.

"Then, we should probably make arrangements to leave the city as soon as possible. If things don't go according to plan, the situation here might get even nastier than usual in a matter of days."

As if things could get any worse. Oh Florian, what have you done? This was supposed to stop things and instead all he'd done was make things worse. How many more graves had he filled by running away?

"Be ready fer anythin'."

"Understood, Captain." Amy replied, all trace of her playful manner extinguished in a flash. There was work to be done.

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The next morning...

After having spent half the night, and much of an early start to the morning, hunched over a radio. The Gentleman's usual humour was somewhat frayed, as he sat at the desk speaking once more into the radio.

"Red Queen, this is Pimpernel. I do hope no-one has done anything foolish while I've been away."

"Boy! I sure hope I don't suck!"

"Oh, eat yer own ass!" Sprout chirped. He and Maria started for the table. "I don' reckon it's much of a game when one of the players already knows she's gonna win!"

"Who?" Elizabeth asked in bewilderment.

Maria helped him into his seat, "This bitch," He pointed at Lilith. "She ain't lost a game'a cards in 'er life!"

Elizabeth looked at Lilith, "Now that you mention it... isn't your nickname, 'Casino'?"

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"Morning, commander."

You look like shit. Did you even sleep last night?

"What's on today's agenda?"

"We continue our search for Lady Maribel," She broke eye-contact and crossed her arms. "And, well, I have some new information regarding her. I went to speak with Lord Basilio this morning to..." She met his gaze. "Clear a few things up."

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"Red Queen, this is Pimpernel. I do hope no-one has done anything foolish while I've been away."

Cameron could hear the radio sounding from inside Pixie's room. By the time she'd gotten up and showered, everyone had already left. She had been left in-charge, so it was her duty to handle radio calls in Pixie's absence. After entering the room, she spotted a thong draped over a corner of the radio. Sighing, she picked it up one of the strings with two fingers and flung it onto the ground.

You bitches aren't the only ones who had fun last night, you know.

Sitting down, she snatched up the mic and flipped the switch, "I read you, Pimpernel. This is Candy Ass speaking. Red Queen left the castle an hour ago. Anything I can pass along?"

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"Understood, Captain."

Pixie silently nodded as they continued towards the settlement. Bennie's crawler went on ahead and was let through the north gate without incident. By the time they came upon it, Pixie could spot Tallahassee by the gate, "How's everythin' in there?" Pixie asked as she pulled up next to where he stood.

"Payton an' his men 'ave been waitin' fer some time now. I wouldn' take yer time gettin' over there."

"Fuck 'im!" Pixie mused, "Wait here fer us an' let me know if you spot anythin' that looks off. Sound good?"

"Aye, ma'am," He nodded. "You can count on me."

"Good," Pixie replied before kicking the crawler into gear and cruising through the settlement's threshold. Once inside, she followed Bennie's crawler to the saloon. The settlement was damn-near deserted. There was no doubt the people of this town knew exactly who it was that walked among them today. Parking in front of the building, next to Bennie, Pixie hopped out of the crawler. She walked over to the side of Bennie's crawler and handed a small piece of paper to Ruffles. "Here, Jake. Go shoppin' fer me, will ya'? We shouldn' need you fer the meetin', anyway."

"You ready?" Bennie asked, already stepping up onto the curb.

Pixie nodded, "Yeah, let's get this shit over with."

"Look's like someone has been burned before." Maria said as she sat back down.

She laughed and made a mental note not to bet too much. However, there was one issue that had to be addressed right away, especially with a teenage boy and the boob-lover in the room. Besides, Lilith and Elizabeth had taken their time to dress up so nicely, it would be aa shame for that to be ruined. Maria felt like someone who had arrived at a ball in pajamas, well, it almost looked like the case. Still, even if Lilith was one hell of a lucky bitch, a particular idea had to be squashed.

"Anyways, poker?" Maria sighed, "Better not be strip poker..."

"Here, Jake. Go shoppin' fer me, will ya'? We shouldn' need you fer the meetin', anyway."

Ruffles stifled a yawn as he got out of the Crawler. Sidelining me already, huh?

Pocketing the list, he replied, "what, you don't think Payton Wilkes-Vines fucking loves Ravenous, Ravenous Rhinos?" gesturing at his shirt. "Bitch, please." With that, he turned and headed off to the market. Maybe he would see some people who actually lived here.

===============================================

Payton was watching the card castle when the doors opened, and Captain Monroe and Mr Carmine stepped through. the slight breeze made the prodigious construction tremble, but it did not fall. Getting up, he walked around the side of the bar to greet them.

"Captain Monroe, it is a pleasure to finally meet face to face," he said. "And Mister Carmine, you've grown into a fine man, as I suspected. But of course, I knew that by reputation." Turning partly away from them, he gestured around the room.

"Allow me to introduce my two associates here. First is Mister Sergio Capaldi, one of my more distinguished Captains. Second is the incomparable Miss Whiskey Fifer, though you may have already met her." Payton knew neither of them would have. Neither had been present at the hostage exchange, although he knew they would at least know her by reputation.

"And I see you've brought... Mister Aesop along too. And my, my, the Golden Rose herself... Captain Monroe, you truly do have friends in high places. But enough of my rambling, please, take your seats wherever you like. And this is a bar, so if you would like a drink, Sergio will oblige to retrieve them, and I'll compensate the owners of this establishment personally. But, to business!"

Whiskey remained in the corner, but as the Maidens spread out, she removed Eddie's hat and set it crown down on the table. In spite of herself, she smiled, her gaze lingering on first Bennie, then Amy, and then Pixie. "Damn, they sure make bandits photogenic as hell these days, don't they?"

"I don't think I'd have minded breaking your dry spell."

"Uh... uh erm..." Aesop was stuck somewhere between hard up as all hell and feeling guilty about lusting after a prostitute. He didn't know how to come out of the situation without sounding like a total skeeze or insulting her, thankfully Pixie saved him.

"What!?" It's the beard, ain't it! You better keep yer mitts off my girl, punk ass mother fucker!"

Aesop laughed and grinned, punching the ceiling of the crawler in victory. "Ladies love the beard!"

The next few hours were a well needed reprieve for Aesop. He had been kicking himself before bed for attempting to get into break into Randy's room instead of having fun with the maidens. Even if he had indeed enjoyed himself later, sparring with Bennie and cooking with Amy, he was so angry at himself for angering Pixie. That entire day was a mix of ups and downs, and today likely would be as well.

But for now, he talked about sexy women and crazy escapades with his captain, a hottie and Parker who was... Parker.

Eventually the fun had died down and the time for business started. "Be ready fer anythin'."

Aesop nodded. "Yes captain." He kept his hands on his guns that were tapered all over his body, not deciding on one if anything went bad, he'd just grab the nearest one to his mitts and start shooting. He breathed out calmly, he felt good. He felt better. He had a clear head for now, and that was the best way to deal with things like this, especially something as big as this. He exited the car with Pixie and stood with her, Bennie and Amy. He walked with them inside, hands always at the ready for his guns.

There he was. Payton Wilkes Vines. The man didn't look like some large mass of muscle yet, something was there. Even without his reputation, something emanated from him. Something cold. Something remorseless. No wonder he was who they were going to if they needed child murderers. Aesop maintained as stoic a presence as he could. As loud and brazen as he was, he was self aware, and when he could help it he would stay quiet. This was definitely one of those times.
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"I'll admit Hannibal, for a first timer, that was pretty good. You should probably take it easy with that water though, otherwise it'll be gone pretty quick."

He panted as he took the waterskin away from his lips and nodded. "I'm usually," he panted between breaths, "Good at... saving water... I'm just... tired."

"She ain't lost a game'a cards in 'er life!"

"Well, I never!" Lilith gasped as she held a hand to her chest with mock insult.

Now that you mention it... isn't your nickname, 'Casino'?"

Lilith pouted, as she crossed her arms over her chest. "A completely unrelated nickname, started by the likes of this slanderous twat and his whore mother." Turning her head, she stuck her tongue out at the boy, flashing him a two finger insult

"Better not be strip poker..."

Lilith grinned, locking eyes with Maria. "Nah, I'm not allowed to play that anymore." Her eyes drifted slightly as she recollected the memory. "Not after last time." She giggled.

============================

"We continue our search for Lady Maribel,"

"Hmmm." Asad grumbled as he unbuttoned his shirt. "That was a given." He muttered as he pulled of his shirt, folding it neatly before placing it on his bunk.

"And, well, I have some new information regarding her. I went to speak with Lord Basilio this morning to..."

He perked up slightly, pursing his lips slightly as he grabbed a fresh t-shirt. Did Tsubaki take his words to heart last night? He'd be surprised if she did.

"Clear a few things up."

Turning to face the woman, he quickly pulled the shirt over his head, running a hand through his hair before crossing his arms over his chest.

"Oh?" He smirked, raising an eyebrow. "Clear what up, exactly?"

"Better not be strip poker..."

Sprout grinned.

"Nah, I'm not allowed to play that anymore. Not after last time."

Sprout chuckled, "Hey, I ain't opposed to it. I mean, I know yer gonna mop the floor with us, but you'n the doc here 'ave already seen me naked. I ain't got nothin' ta' hide!"

Elizabeth blushed and shook her head in protest, "No! Nope! Absolutely not! We are not playing strip poker!" She giggled nervously. "I do hope this was all in jest. What kind of vile simpletons play such a game!?"

"Look no further," Sprout mused. "I was raised by the most vile woman in the ashlands! I'll take any chance I get ta' get a peep at some titties!"

"WHAT!?!" Elizabeth yelped. She placed her arms over her chest, "Don't get any funny ideas, Sprout!"

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"Clear what up, exactly?"

"Elizabeth will not be harmed," Tsubaki stated, plainly. Walking across the room, she looked out the window and continued. "Lord Basilio wants her by his side for political reasons. Anyway," She glanced back at Asad. "Any word from O'Lafferty?"

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"Captain Monroe, it is a pleasure to finally meet face to face..."

Pixie grunted, her arms crossed, "Sure."

"And Mister Carmine, you've grown into a fine man, as I suspected. But of course, I knew that by reputation."

Bennie said nothing. It was taking every ounce of willpower he had not to draw on the man right then and there.

Go fuck yourself.

"Allow me to introduce my two associates here. First is Mister Sergio Capaldi, one of my more distinguished Captains. Second is the incomparable Miss Whiskey Fifer, though you may have already met her."

"I don' think I've ever had the pleasure," Pixie said in a dull, uninterested tone.

"... And this is a bar, so if you would like a drink, Sergio will oblige to retrieve them, and I'll compensate the owners of this establishment personally. But, to business!"

"About damn time," Bennie muttered as they took their seats opposite Payton. Pixie nudged him in the rib and gave him a brief, knowing glare. "I'll behave." He whispered.

"Damn, they sure make bandits photogenic as hell these days, don't they?"

Pixie giggled, "Say's the perky cowgirl," She smiled. "You don' look too bad yerself, lil' lady. Yer boss on the other hand..." Laughing, she turned her attention to Payton. "I mean no offense, but yer mustache is ridiculous."

"Pixie." Bennie groaned.

"Right, I reckon yer a busy man, Payton. So, let's get ta' business," She leaned forward, her fingers intertwined on the table in front of her. "I need yer men. You wan' my carbon. Assumin' the deal ain't more complicated than that, let's talk numbers. That sound good ta' you?" She offered him a toothy grin.

"I'm usually," Hannibal said after taking the waterskin from his lips. "Good at... saving water... I'm just... tired." Viola sighed at Hannibal having missed the point of her compliment. She took another sip from her canteen before screwing the top back on and putting it down.

"Not exactly the point I was trying to make Hannibal. I meant for a first timer in the field of hand to hand combat, you were pretty good; ducking, dodging, and weaving through my grapples like a snake in oil. And talk about those punches, so fast I could hardly seem them coming at one point." Viola said whilst massaging the back of her neck, working a few of the knots loose from all the movement of the last couple of hours. A contented sigh came afterwards.

"So, do you want to continue training a bit longer, or do you want to head back?"

Hannibal sat confused as she complimented him. Was he really as good as she was saying? "And talk about those punches, so fast I could hardly seem them coming at one point." He looked shy as he looked back to the waterskin. He mumbled as he had a few more sips. "So, do you want to continue training a bit longer, or do you want to head back?"

Hannibal stood up and stretched out his back, still sweating. "I'd like to keep going for a bit if that is alright. I um," he hesitated before continuing, "I was wondering if you could help learn how to um," he snapped his fingers, "what's it called um, brace? I think that's the word, brace when you get hit? Sorry my words are bad." He was indeed an awkward young man.

Bryan was driving at breakneck speed when suddenly a huge sneeze wracked his body. He did, however, manage to keep the vehicle under control. The mask's diffuser hissed as the sneeze became vapour. He sniffed as he sped along the open plain.

Someone must be talking about him. That probably wasn't good.

===============================================

"I mean no offense, but yer mustache is ridiculous."

Payton gave a bark of genuine laughter at this. "I suppose it is a little by-gone-era, isn't it?"

"Pixie."

"Worry not, Mister Carmine, I can take a joke," said Payton lightly. "I do so enjoy working with people such as your Captain. It's a nice change of pace from the spineless people on this planet I keep running into."

"I need yer men. You wan' my carbon. Assumin' the deal ain't more complicated than that, let's talk numbers. That sound good ta' you?"

"You'd be right in assuming it is... a touch more complicated than it would at first seem. But first, a small matter of information I thought I should pass along. Captain Monroe, you may be familiar with the reputation of a man named Edward Canton. I know for a fact Mister Carmine is. If not, then you'll know him as the bounty hunter, Metal, and the man who grounded your ship and as such made it possible for Father Austin's hordes to get aboard. I thought you should know, the man is in my custody." Payton shook his head with what could have been genuine regret. "I am afraid the coming months will not be pleasant for him." He appeared not to notice Whiskey glaring daggers at him after he said this.

Pausing to place the wooden box on the table, he said, "with that out of the way, yes, our negotiations should proceed. And please accept this gift." he pushed the box open, revealing a neat array of cigars, and took one. "I must admit, I favour the pipe, but worry not, I went to special care to procure the finest cigars money can buy."

Lighting Pixie's cigar for her, and then attending to his own, Payton took a drag before speaking. "As for the money, well, I will not pretend that becoming yet richer than I already am, rich enough even, to accelerate some personal projects, does not intrigue me. There is, however, one very valuable thing I require from you on top of this."

========================================================

Upon finding that the shops were open, Ruffles had acquired the fabrics needed for what he understood was probably Amy's scarf. Ruffles remembered his own scarf, although sadly it had burned in an engine fire, and he hadn't had the heart to ask for a new one. It had been pale blue, with grey zeppelins on it.

The fabrics now sat in a paper bag with a few bottles of soda next to it on a table in another shop while he browsed. The shop had a printer in the corner so that customers could print their own T-shirts. He'd selected a white one and was fiddling with the console. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up. He had just pressed print when he heard a sneering voice behind him.

"What's this shit? Sewing something fer yer mommy?"

Ruffles glanced around. A man with a beer gut, who reeked distinctly of gin was looking blearily at him, with a hand in the bag of fabrics.

"Nah," he replied. "It's a thank you gift to your mom for all the lip service."

"Aw, you'll pay for that, ya goddamn nigger," slurred the man. Ruffles ducked his first swing, and before the man would take another, his knees were swept out from under him and he was being savagely pistol-whipped in the temple. Knelt behind him, administering said pistol-whipping, was a man in a suit and sunglasses, with his red scarf visible over the top of his shirt.

Ruffles picked up the still-warm shirt from the printer and stuffed it into the paper bag with the sewing supplies, picked both the bag and his sodas up and headed to the door. "Thanks, I guess," he said.

As he'd thought, Wilkes-Vines had put a tail on him. That was strange.

"Don't get any funny ideas, Sprout!"

Lilith laughed nervously, rubbing the back of her head. "I warned you about him, I really did!" She lowered her gaze as she reached out, grabbing the pack of cards.

'Flirting with your aunt, oh god Sprout, what are we doing to you?' She smirked as she unpacked the cards, shuffling them effortlessly in her hands. "Just be glad Pixie ain't here, the last time she played cards with me she threw a table at Aesop." She smiled warmly, chuckling.

With a flourish, she slammed the cards on the table. "Okay bitches, it's game time." She grinned as she dealt out the cards.

==============================

"Elizabeth will not be harmed. Lord Basilio wants her by his side for political reasons."

Asad nodded slightly, his expression hardening.

'Fucking politics.' He didn't trust Dio, never did, he did think the man was above killing innocents, however, but now?

Sure, the girl would go unharmed, but for how long? How long until her death would suit a greater purpose. The whole situation left a foul taste at the back of Asad's throat.

He'd carry out his mission, for now, at least...

"Any word from O'Lafferty?"

Asad chuckled wearily, placing his hands on his hips. "If anyone knew where that man would end up after a bar crawl, he'd be dead by now."

"I did what they said, so they wouldn't kick me out, and now I guess I'll do what you say, so I don't end up getting the same as Kitty got. Seems to me that girls like us get fucked wherever we go."

Oliver turned away from the girl and lowered his head. This wasn't the right approach, he needed to do something different. It hurt him deeply to see how broken this girl was. Father was usually the one to deal with these kind. But this was his test, he needed to do this.

"Tell me sister, or perhaps sister is a little too personal if so I apologise, but tell me if you don't mind," he ran his hands through his hair and looked at her inquisitively, "what do you know about the world around you? I don't mean to come off as condescending I just wonder, if you were born in that room then you were denied the opportunities most others are allowed." He stood up to address the rest of them. "I have to assume that a good portion of you chose this trade out of desperation, no offence. But you, my dear," he could hear it in his own head, he lacked the flair Father gave off, he needed to try harder without going too far, "if there was anything you wanted to do, tell me."

This might not work. What if she wanted to just hurt them like that Kitty pretender. Then his eye glistened as a lightbulb shone in his mind. "I promise you, no matter what it may be, even if it involves hurting us who have saved you," he took a step back, "even if you don't consider it saving, tell me 'what do you want'?" He stood back with his arms behind his back. This was indeed a gamble, that said many other brothers and sisters had at one point wanted to hurt father. Before they learned the truth in those dark rooms, without light or time to guide them on what was real, only the voice of father could show them reality. "No harm will come to you, whether it means anything or not," he smiled and gave a childish bow, "you have my word."
====================================
"You'd be right in assuming it is... a touch more complicated than it would at first seem. But first, a small matter of information I thought I should pass along."

'Jesus I thought I was the only one who monologued.' Aesop assumed this would be a smug speech given Payton's demeanour.

Blah blah blah blah blah-what?

Metal, and the man who grounded your ship and as such made it possible for Father Austin's hordes to get aboard."

'WHAT!!'

"I thought you should know, the man is in my custody."

Aesop's jaw clenched as anger began bubbling under the surface. Someone else had allowed Austin... he had someone to blame! Someone to blame! He refused to accept Pixie was at fault, perhaps he was blind to any wrong doing she could have done. Beating Lilith disgusted him but this was on a whole new level. No, no it wasn't her. He was so happy it wasn't her! He could blame someone else. Someone new. Someone he could kill.

"I am afraid the coming months will not be pleasant for him."

A twisted smile forced its way onto Aesop's lips. He was still trying to hold it all in, but this had escaped. Even if he wasn't the one killing, at least this bastard would get what was coming to him.

His mind however trailed back to what had crossed his mind just now. 'Lilith.' He was so upset at the time he hadn't really thought further on it, despite what the captain had said...

"There are thin's about my past I'd rather ferget, but I trust Lilith enough... no, I LOVE Lilith enough to share 'em!"

Yet she had still hurt her so. He snapped himself out of it. 'Now's not the time you overdramatic bitch. There's a big deal going on and chances of it ending well are about the chances your dick grows wings.' He brought back his composed exterior, now really wasn't the time for his interior to go all apeshit, as always.

Ooh cigars!

Pixie half-listened to what Payton had to say. The mention of Metal got her blood boiling, but the sight of Payton's offering calmed her down. Accepting the cigar graciously, she grinned as he lit it for her. After one long drag, she nodded in satisfaction. This was a good cigar.

"As for the money, well, I will not pretend that becoming yet richer than I already am, rich enough even, to accelerate some personal projects, does not intrigue me. There is, however, one very valuable thing I require from you on top of this."

Pixie cocked an eyebrow. Somehow she knew she wasn't going to like what he was suggesting, "Oh?" She frowned, holding the cigar out to the side. "Well, spit it out."

*******************************************************************************************************************************************************

"Okay bitches, it's game time."

Elizabeth furrowed her brow and looked to Sprout, "Is it a good idea to let her deal?"

"Sure," Sprout mused. "She doesn' cheat, after all. She jus' goes down on Lady Luck ever'a night to receive 'er blessin'." He gave a hardy laugh.

Elizabeth did not look amused, "You have quite the imagination." She muttered.

********************************************************************************************************************************************************

"If anyone knew where that man would end up after a bar crawl, he'd be dead by now."

"Well," Tsubaki sighed, "It's not like him to let his vices get in the way of his duty." Sitting down on the edge of Bryan's bed, she whispered to herself. "Last night was a mistake."

I am never drinking ever again.

"Well, spit it out."

"It's quite simple," said Payton, as a tendril of smoke clambered up from the glowing tip of his cigar. "Your engineer, Mister Miller. I'm sure you're aware of the full extent of his skills. The Shipwrights of Zephyr are jealously guarded and woefully underutilized. As is young Jake, being made a simple repairman aboard your vessel."

Taking another drag, he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. "I'd rather hoped he would have been here for my offer, but alas," he produced a letter with a red wax seal. "If you would be so kind as to pass this along to him. Obviously I don't expect you to speak for him in a matter such as this, so that letter should help him make up his own mind."

Payton took a moment to gauge Pixie's reaction before continuing. "In any case, taking your prized mechanic on top of that money seems a tad greedy, so bear in mind I'll make an offer for you to earn a large quantity of it back. Nothing reprehensible, just some theft work for which I feel you are uniquely qualified. Consider it a standing offer, to be taken up at your convenience. I'm in no rush."

Jake? The mother fuckers wanted Jake? And in return he wanted Pixie to do work for him, in order to hand over their best and brightest? Fuck it.

Aesop's face looked insulted as he said, "So, you want to take our best mechanic, and our payment is doing your bitch work?" Aesop gave a fake chuckle as he continued, "and 'earn?' That's the word you're using?" Aesop stared down at Payton as he stood next to Pixie.

Amy was silent throughout the exchange. While Pixie dealt with Payton, the younger girl focussed her attention on the others who populated the room, taking careful note of what positions they occupied, and the body language they adopted. Sergio was trying very hard to maintain his professionalism and not ogle her (he was almost succeeding too). What interested Amy far more however, was what she spotted about Whiskey's reaction when Metal entered the conversation. The moment was gone in an instant, but it left no shadow of a doubt in Amy's mind. Whiskey had a close history with this Canton character, likely of a romantic nature. If need be, her split loyalties could be a potential window of exploitation. As it stood however, Pixie and Payton seemed to be very much on the same page in regards to Eddie Canton's fate. Amy had to remind herself that, as a Maiden herself now, she really should be decided on that issue too. On the other hand, The Gentleman had expressed an interest in wanting him alive if possible... and she owed The Gentleman everything.

It would seem that Whiskey Fifer was not the only one in the room with split loyalties.

Her attention was brought front and centre when the deal concerning Jake reared it's head. While undoubtedly not as close to Jake as the other two Maidens in the room were, she still couldn't stop herself from looking at Pixie expectantly. Surely she wouldn't sell out one of her own, not for any amount of money. In fact, why was it even taking so long to refuse that Amy even had time to think about it?

===========================================================================================================================

"This is Candy Ass speaking."

The Gentleman sighed and furrowed his brow.

"Anything I can pass along?"

"As a matter of fact there is." he replied "With as much haste as is possible. The North Star was dim on the issue we discussed. I don't think he believed the Puppet Show for a second. However, he has his own strings to pull, and I believe we arrived too late, and that his next play was already in motion. I advise Red Queen to be on high alert, and to guard my token closely. She will understand."

=========================================================================================================================

"you have my word."

'Careful!' Georgia thought, keeping her face blank and resisting the urge to look across at Sandra to obviously.

"What do I want?" the other girl parroted, sounding confused. "Got little use for wanting things. We get what we're given. I could tell you plenty 'bout what I want, don't mean I'll be like to see any of it."

The younger girl paused, screwing up her face in that precocious way she did when she was thinking.

"Got any books? Me mam taught me how to read, before she died, but there never was much to choose from before."

Pixie's grin faded at the mention of Ruffles' name. She continued to smoke, her eye staring daggers into Payton as he made his bid.

"In any case, taking your prized mechanic on top of that money seems a tad greedy, so bear in mind I'll make an offer for you to earn a large quantity of it back. Nothing reprehensible, just some theft work for which I feel you are uniquely qualified. Consider it a standing offer, to be taken up at your convenience. I'm in no rush."

Wow.

"So, you want to take our best mechanic, and our payment is doing your bitch work?... and 'earn?' That's the word you're using?"

"Aesop." Bennie spoke, placing a calming hand on his shoulder.

Pixie took a long drag of her cigar and allowed the flavor to roll across her tongue for a while before exhaling. Her eye narrowed, "Absolutely fuckin' not. I've werked with ex-Wilkes-Vines before. I know what kinda death sentence that entails." She shot Whiskey a knowing look. "Look at 'er, she's been miserable this whole time. She can' even stand bein' in yer fuckin' presence, from the looks of it. Why do ya' think I'd wish that on Jake? You think I'm gonna let you take away one'a my best friends? He's not jus' my mechanic, Payton, he's like a brother ta' me.'

She laughed, "An' what's this about me takin' out yer trash? Aesop's right on the money fer once. This is a fuckin' insult!" She barked, pointing a finger at Payton. "I come 'ere offerin' more money than y'all ever seen an' this is how you repay me?"

She leaned back in her seat, "Payton," Her voice softened, "Stop yankin' my dick 'round an' get fuckin' serious. I don' have patients fer this shit. You wan' the money 'er not, 'cause there ain't no way in hell I'm lettin' you lay a finger on my boy."

Bennie nodded in agreement, his expression unchanged.

********************************************************************************************************************************************************

"... I advise Red Queen to be on high alert, and to guard my token closely. She will understand."

"Jeez, you're one cryptic mother fucker," She mused as she wrote down his message. "Yeah, got it."

Carlos approached her from behind, "Does he want to speak with me?"

Cameron glanced over her shoulder at him and spoke into the mic, "Want to talk to Carlos?"

"She doesn' cheat, after all. She jus' goes down on Lady Luck ever'a night to receive 'er blessin'."

Lilith groaned as she lowered her face into her hands. "Sprout, just... just stop talking, for the love of god."

"You have quite the imagination."

Running her hands from her face and through hair, she leaned back, a sympathetic smile curling her lips. "Just wait, this isn't even the bad stuff." Moving her hands to the table, she picked up her tin and lighter. Placing a cigarette between her lips, she paused, furrowing her brow as she glanced at the boy. Closing her eyes, she smiled warmly, before removing the cigarette from her mouth, placing it back in the tin.

'I can wait.'

======================================

"It's not like him to let his vices get in the way of his duty."

Asad shrugged his shoulder, "Eh, he'll show up sooner or later." He chuckled as he scratched the stubble under his jaw. "Whether he'll be in a state to actually do anything, is another matter."

Sorting through his things, his expression hardened slightly as crestfallen looking Tsubaki muttered to herself.

"Hey." The man kept his eyes on his task. "Don't worry about last night, we all drink too much every so often." He smiled as he turned his head, his eyes falling on her's. "You know?"

"Stop yankin' my dick 'round an' get fuckin' serious. I don' have patients fer this shit. You wan' the money 'er not, 'cause there ain't no way in hell I'm lettin' you lay a finger on my boy."

Payton put up his hands deferentially. "Fair enough, Miss Monroe, fair enough. Just pass the letter on is all I ask. Then we'll see what happens, won't we? As for the payment itself, let's discuss that. And I believe we should cover our plan of action, as well. I can happily report that my agents are tracking the Maiden's location as we speak."

=====================================

Bryan was still driving. Still coaxing every modicum of speed he could from the quad. He was making great time. But the ground was mostly flat now, and he didn't need to concentrate to keep from killing himself. That gave his mind room to wander.

They were really going to have had to kill that girl if the Maidens hadn't nabbed her. And... Tsubaki had seemed like their compliance was a given. Jesus...

He hoped there had been a change of plans. He didn't want any part of that.

Hannibal stood up after Viola had asked her question, and she noticed the sweat patch that had formed from where he sat, it seemed as though another wash might be called for when they were done. "I'd like to keep going for a bit if that is alright. I um," He said as words failed him again. "I was wondering if you could help learn how to um," Snapping his fingers when he could think correctly. "what's it called um, brace? I think that's the word, brace when you get hit? Sorry my words are bad." He was indeed an awkward young man.

Viola soon stood up herself, giving her arms a stretch and cracking her knuckles before she responded.

"I wouldn't say your words were bad, not to the level of a world class linguist, but compared to some of the other people I've spoken to in my life, your at least comprehensible, as in I can at least understand what your trying to say, even if you can't quite get the words just right. Just something that we'll have to work on."

"As for learning how to brace when you get hit, there are some bits that are easier to explain than to actually show, and others that take time to build your mind and body up with. If your taking a body shot, be sure stiffen up those muscles and to breathe out so that you create a hard shell around the stomach area. One piece of advice I can give, is to keep your eyes open, and maintain eye contact with your opponent. There's an old saying; "The punches you don't see hurt the most." that I think applies to this."

Just wait, this isn't the bad stuff."

"Yeah, I've heard plenty already, beforehand." Maria groaned. The prospect of poking Sprout in the chest for that remark, among others, was tempting. Just where did the kid pick up all of this stuff, anyway? The answer probably lay in his upbringing. The doctor drummed her fingers on the table, right next to the hand she had been dealt. It wasn't a good one. Hence, she had two things to grumble about but at least the first could act for a cover for the second. Why was she even trying? Maria was up against a ditzy noble, a kid and the bane of every casino on The Rock. It was clear who was going to win. However, despite that, a small smirk broke out on her face - winning wasn't really important here was it? Though, either way, there was sure to be some complains if Lilith raked in the winnings of every round. Even playing for fun could be no fun if someone just ended up with straight wins, after all.

"Now, let's see if he has quite the hand." Maria quipped.

***

Jun yawned, stepped out of the bathroom and stared at the clock. What was taking Bryan so long? What deep, dark pit had he fallen into? Did the Commander honestly expect him to appear in time after all that happened last night? It was a sad state of affairs, it really was. But at least the Commander had been ever so kind to tell them that the noble girl didn't need to be killed now. How nice. Hadn't there been an argument about that last night? Jun tried not to think about it too hard, lest that shadow of a headache turned into the real thing.

'Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand that's why she's Pixie mother fucking Monroe.' Aesop relaxed under Bennie's hand, trying not to openly smirk at the Captain's telling off of this egotistical bastard.

"I can happily report that my agents are tracking the Maiden's location as we speak."

'No need.' Aesop thought. 'I know exactly where he's gonna hit first.' He knew he should have told Pixie earlier, he just knew his head wasn't in the game. That and he wasn't sure she was in the mood to listen to him after what he pulled with Randy.
================================
"What do I want?" She sounded confused. Where would this lead, Oliver wondered. "Got little use for wanting things. We get what we're given. I could tell you plenty 'bout what I want, don't mean I'll be like to see any of it."

'That's what you think. That's what you think. Come on come on.' He just needed this first step, just this first step.

"Got any books? Me mam taught me how to read, before she died, but there never was much to choose from before."

He had her. "Of course," he smiled warmly, "this vessel is comprised of a surprising amount of books. I shall show you and you may take your pick." He then addressed everyone else. "The same goes for the rest of you. I am here if you need to talk to me, and if you can't find me just ask any of our brothers and sisters. Our brother Franklin is in the infirmary, having been injured rescuing you, so if you want to talk to him again ask one of us and we shall guide you to him. Feel free to clean yourselves up, Gretchen here will lead you to the showers." He offered his hand to the simple girl.
=========================================
Hannibal nodded along. listening to Viola. Despite being around violence his entire life he had never thought how best to defend himself. Running always seemed the best option, and often it was. Still, some people don't give up after chasing you, as was his fear now. "Okay, so um... could you um..." he breathed out fast, contemplating his words. "Could you punch me in the stomach and I try to make it not hurt?"

"Okay, so um... could you um..." Hannibal said breathing out fast. "Could you punch me in the stomach and I try to make it not hurt?"

"If that's what you want Hannibal, I'll do my best to provide." Viola responded with whilst she exercised with her fingers to help loosen them up so she could pull off the punch without damaging herself. "By the way, you may want to place your hands behind your head, look directly ahead, and then push your head back without letting your hands move; it'll help in strengthening your neck so your head doesn't whiplash as much if you ever get punched there. That's something you may want to practice on your own time afterwards." She then added before throwing a few practice punches.

"Also, you may want to wrap a strip of cloth around your hand and wrist to help protect them from injuries induced by punching. If I'm honest, I should of brought some before we came here." Viola breathed slowly a couple of times before she considered herself ready, whether or not Hannibal was, well they'd soon find out.

"Ready?" She asked, to which Hannibal gave a look that read a mixture of both yes and no. "Because here I go." Viola then delivered a solid punch to the stomach.

"Now, let's see if he has quite the hand."

"Oh," Sprout chirped, "Don' worry, my hand is shit." He grinned mischievously. "Or is it!?"

Elizabeth looked over at the boy and cocked an eyebrow, "Hey, is this good?" She asked revealing her hand to Sprout.

"You ain't s'posed ta' show me yer hand, Liz! The fuck!?" Sprout diverted his eyes as soon as the first King came into view.

"Oops!" Elizabeth whispered, covering her mouth and withdrawing her hand. Her face glowing bright red, she giggled nervously. "I-I've never actually played Poker before."

Sprout rolled his eyes, "Color me surprised."

***********************************************************************************************************************************************************

"You know?"

"Yes, I do know," Tsubaki started, staring through the door and out into the hall. "Which is why I won't be making the same mistake twice. I wasn't worthy of my station last night. I wasn't worthy of being your commanding officer in such a state. I apologize for that."

She looked up at him, "And don't you dare try to convince me it's understandable. It's not your place to make such a claim. I appreciate the concern, but if we get too comfortable, too complacent, we risk compromising this squad." She clenched her jaw. "Remember Harel, we're a special operations unit, not a group of schoolyard friends. If I am to be your leader I need to act like it."

Tsubaki got to her feet, "Try to forget what happened last night. All of it." She sighed. "I know I will."

***********************************************************************************************************************************************************

Pixie put the cigar to her lips once more and pocketed the sealed letter as Payton replied.

"... As for the payment itself, let's discuss that. And I believe we should cover our plan of action, as well. I can happily report that my agents are tracking the Maiden's location as we speak."

"Oh?" Pixie tilted her head, suddenly interested. "An' were would that be?"

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