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

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"Don't mention it, babe. You'd have done the same if it were my kid."

"You 'ave'a kid?" Pixie chirped as she leaned back in her seat. After taking a quick swig of her bourbon, she slammed it back down, threw her legs up onto the table and smiled. "Tell me about the lil' bastard!"

Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, Cameron sat down between Aesop and Ruffles. The vodka had done a number on her. Throwing her arms over their shoulders, Cameron pulled the two men in and laughed, "I-I love you guys!" Whatever they had been talking about mattered little to Cam in her current state. Spotting the soda Aesop had procured, Cameron grinned and rubbed his forearm. "Aw, man, Aesop! I'm proud of you!"

She found his eyes, "You know, it's really cool that you don't drink. Really, it is." Though she was drunk, her sincerity was a clear as day. "It's like... I don't know... a sign of strength? It's kinda badass."

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"Why would they not trust us? You told them about Sandraggam, and I'm... well, yeah."

Mila smirked, "Dont' sweat it, kid. The Colonel doesn't trust anyone."

"You carrying a pack of playing cards? I feel like playing something, even if it is just Snap or Solitaire."

"Not on me, but hey," She glanced around the empty mess hall as an insidious grin formed on her face. "What do you to say to dropping by the shooting range? If we really are on high alert they would have cancelled all training regiments. We'd have the place all to ourselves."

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Severa grinned as the priest teased her. She liked this one.

"... Still, we should get what information we can out of him first, wouldn't you say?"

"Fiiiine," She whined, "But let's not be too long about it, okay? He looks squirrel-y! You know ho much I adore the ones that squirm!" A few minutes later and the preparations were complete. Plopping down on the couch, Severa got comfortable as Owain set Florian up in the chair.

Too bad she hadn't brought any popcorn to Frostfall.

"We'd have the place all to ourselves."

Now, people such as Viola would consider Hannibal a good kid. People like Mila could see him as an innocent little dumbass. People of power like Ortega may see him as harmless, but just because Hannibal felt like smuggling was his only viable choice in life, didn't mean he didn't enjoy it sometimes.

Hell, finding good things to take in and out of places they should and shouldn't be had a hell of a thrill, despite Hannibal's fear of pain and violence it was only when it was obvious he was in danger that the thrill died for him. Otherwise, and if he felt relatively safe, stealing was fun as hell for the young man. And with the base an apparent 'ghost town', his mischief could run rampant. Granted there was unmanned security he would need to worry about, but surely he could find ways to play it safe.

"I'd like to learn to shoot better." He said, hiding his true intent with an innocent smile.
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The ship lowering picked up Austin. He recieved a literal round of applause by those busy in the hanger. He grinned and bowed theatrically. "Thank you my children but please, we all have work to do."

"Yes father!" Came the echo in response. Smiling, he sauntered throughout the ship until he found Isabel. The young woman (who would no longer call herself a girl) smiled at Austin. "Isabel, my girl." Said the barbaric bastard as he hugged her softly and kissed her on the cheek. "Its good to see you keeping yourself busy, delivering my son certainly took its toll on you." He spoke pleasantly, but made it clear he was more than disappointed in her.

She knew this was a dangerous situation, she could hold up a fašade well, but Austin had broken her months ago, broke Franklin, broke everyone she knew. The only friends she had were people she was forced to call brother and sister. Plus she and her boyfriend were already on Austin's bad side, what if he was just toying with them?

"That is why I am only taking registry father," she smiled back, totally hiding her fear, "I want to make myself useful after having lying down the past few days."

"Oh hush girl, you just delivered my son!" He boomed happily, "you were exhausted."

"Well," she blushed, "yes but, if I can stand on my own two feet, I can't just do nothing while glory is achieved."

"Attagirl, unlike Franklin." He said the name with barely hidden disgust.

Isabel paused, showing her fear for a second, and a second was all he needed, she replied, "Father he was shot in the leg."

Austin raised an eyebrow and responded, "Yes, and we have all been through battle the past 27 hours, he is no different, other than the advantage of rest."

To a reasonable man she'd have a good defence. But for a psychotic like Austin? "Yes," she sighed, "I will speak to him tonight. Now however," she smiled dutifully, "I want to make the most use out of myself."

Austin smiled at her as they then went through the census of children they had scattered throughout the city, and which areas had the most resistance. He knew her true colours, but he was a strategist and knew the best ways to break people. And she could be broken, for she was a true child, unlike her pathetic pretender boyfriend. But his time would come, very soon indeed.
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"Aw, man, Aesop! I'm proud of you!"

Aesop laughed as she rubbed his forearm. "Yeah, instead of inebriation I get a sugar rush. Awesome." He said sarcastically and chuckled.

"You know, it's really cool that you don't drink. Really, it is." She may have been drunk, but it made him smile that he could see in her eyes she meant it. "It's like... I don't know... a sign of strength? It's kinda badass."

"Badass?" he asked surprised. "I don't do it cos of strength, I do it cos this fucker here'd drown my ass in Valhalla again." he patted Ruffles on the head and shook it about. "And not in a good way."

"Tell me about the lil' bastard!"

Whiskey's face lit up as she grabbed a beer. "Well her name's Millie," she said. "She'll turn six in like three months, I reckon." She took a swig before carrying on. "She's so god damn cute. And so fucking smart. I swear to god I wasn't half that clever when I was her age. Her dad'd be so fucking proud of her! He... uh..." she paused, hesitating. Eddie was in the captivity of Payton, and Whiskey had put him there. Furthermore, she didn't imagine Pixie was Eddie's biggest fan after what he had done to their ship.

She cleared her throat. "He ain't around anymore."

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The next few seconds were a blur of soda and drunken intrusion.

"And not in a good way."

"Damn straight," said Ruffles. "Anyway, I gotta take a leak. Save a blue one for me, and don't touch my chicken." He got to his feet. "And watch out Aesop, I think Cam here's trying to nail her way through the ethnic minorities of our crew."

With that, he headed off to find the nearest toilet.

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"But let's not be too long about it, okay? He looks squirrel-y! You know ho much I adore the ones that squirm!"

"Wouldn't dream of it, dear," Owain replied as he bound Florian's wrists to the arms of the chair. Turning to the Priest, he said, "you know, with her as the alternative, I suspect I just might be your best friend here in this room."

Straightening up, he stepped back. "Right, let's start with an easy one. What's your name? 'Priest' just sounds so impersonal, and 'father' implies you have some level of authority."

"you know, with her as the alternative, I suspect I just might be your best friend here in this room."

"I never meet anyone normal anymore." Florian groaned, glancing back an fourth between the two.

"Right, let's start with an easy one. What's your name? 'Priest' just sounds so impersonal, and 'father' implies you have some level of authority."

"Technically people can call me Brother too." Florian sneered. "That's the theme you two are going for right? What's one more in the family?"

The binds were fresh and tight but tiny, slow movements could loosen them up at glacial spped. At least while they were looking. That was all he had to do. Just keep them talking. Keep them talking and survive.

"Not on me, but hey." It was then that Mila glanced around the barren mess hall, a wily, mischievous grin on her face had formed soon after. Whatever was she thinking? "What do you to say to dropping by the shooting range? If we really are on high alert they would have cancelled all training regiments. We'd have the place all to ourselves." This made Viola think, it would be a invaluable test to see what was the better training regimen, homegrown or military? Plus it would give Hannibal an opportunity to brush up and improve upon his own skill. However, she did promise to Colonel Ortega that her guns would never leave their holsters. What to do?

"I'd like to learn to shoot better." Hannibal said with an innocent little smile, a smile which didn't seem right, but Viola couldn't quite put her finger on it, not that the boy would let her without breaking into a flood of tears.

"Whilst I did say to Ortega that my guns wouldn't leave their holsters, I'm sure a little practice session wouldn't hurt."

"and don't touch my chicken."

"Bitch I'll touch all the chicken, I don't care even if you are black." Aesop spoke like a diva and took a large bite out of the chicken leg, swallowing like a duck and grinning at Ruffles.

"And watch out Aesop, I think Cam here's trying to nail her way through the ethnic minorities of our crew."

Aesop nearly choked again on the last piece of chicken before chuckling. "Say what now?"
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The little Austin continued to breathe slowly until eventually he could sit up on his own. Fidgeting with his breather for a moment, he took it off and had a look around the room. Many of the other children looking extremely frightened and scared. It didn't surprise him after what happened, but they were saved weren't they? His life had been saved, they must just be in shock. His mom had told him about people continuing to be scared after something bad had happened to them, this must have been the case.

Millie was sat on the ground, trying to fix the broken strap of one of her shoes when she looked up to see a boy, considerably older than her, wandering around looking quite lost. Getting to her feet, she walked over to him, careful not to let her shoe fly off.

"Hi," she said. "Are you okay?"

"Oh hi, yeah I just um, do you know where we are? I woke up in that bed and I don't remember what happened." he replied.

Millie scrunched up her face trying to think.

"Um... I got brought here in a Crawler trunk thingy, so I'm not sure... I think I heard some of the other kids say we're on a ship, though."

"A ship? Huh, maybe nobles or something. I'm Austin." He offered her his hand.

"Millie," she replied, shaking Austin's hand daintily with her smaller one. "A lady told me my mommy's here, too!"

"Oh thats great! My mom's probably still fighting the bad guys in the city, Skylar was..." his mind trailed off and his face sunk as he remembered that Skylar was dead. Despite not knowing anything about the woman, being so close to her when she died, seeing her bleed and hearing her scream as he ran away shook him. Despite the heat of the ship, goosebumps trailed up his arms as hairs stood on end.

Millie noticed the older boy seem to zone out. Grabbing his wrist, which was all she could reach, she shook it. "Hey are you okay?"

He snapped back to reality as the younger girl grabbed his wrist. "Uh, yeah, yeah," his face paled, "just um, a girl was helping me get away and, and, I'm pretty sure the bad guys... yeah." His eyes darted about the room as he thought of her.
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Isabel was escorting her father to the young children who had been herded together. Meeting such young minds to be moulded by his infinite will and wisdom made the father so happy, so hopeful. Controlling young children required a different approach than moulding teenagers, yet it was easy all the same; it was those who were silly enough to call themselves adults that were the problem. But kids younger than 10? T'was easy.

Isabel opened the door for the father, hiding her concern for the young minds inside. As terrible as it sounded she actually hoped that none of them would resist. She didn't want to see any children, real children, die today.

Austin stood proud as he saw the children, who instinctively backed off to the other side of the room. The way the armed guards reacted made it clear that this was the man in charge, along with his stature, his facial expressions, his relaxed yet impeding figure, even the room itself felt to change around Austin.

"Hello children, my name is Austin. How are you all?" He asked with legitimate concern, the children all hesitant to answer. "Please, don't be afraid. I know its scary what happened down there, but you're safe now, I promise."

"Whilst I did say to Ortega that my guns wouldn't leave their holsters, I'm sure a little practice session wouldn't hurt."

"He doesn't have to find out," Mila winked at Viola and led the pair to the shooting range. Once they were there, Mila stopped by the armory and retrieved a standard-issue plasma rifle. Returning to Viola and Hannibal, she grinned. "Sorry, but y'all will have to settle for your own weapons. I'd be crucified if I let you take this baby for a spin."

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"And watch out Aesop, I think Cam here's trying to nail her way through the ethnic minorities of our crew."

Cameron snickered, "Keep dreamin', Ruffy. I'm not into boy scouts!" She took another swig of her vodka and just about spat it out laughing when she noticed Aesop nearly choking on his chicken.

"Say what now?"

Cameron leaned in closer to Aesop, grabbing his thigh with one hand while holding the neck of her vodka bottle with the other. She twirled the hair at the end of his beard seductively and spoke softly, "What do ya' say, Aesop?" Her breath reeked of alcohol. "I'm a collector and your next on my to-do list."

She held the seductive facade for a while longer before breaking into uncontrollable laughter, nearly falling out of her chair.

Poor Aesop.

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"That's the theme you two are going for right? What's one more in the family?"

Severa giggled, "Sorry, Father, but I only have one true Brother. But, hmmmm," She put her finger to chin and thought for a moment. "I suppose, if you you're up to the task, you may be able achieve such a status." She giggled, mischievously. "Brother, I am quite comfortable in my seat at the moment and do not wish to rise. Please, tell me: how big is the holy man?"

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"He ain't around anymore."

Pixie's elated expression morphed into a sympathetic frown as she grabbed Whiskey's shoulder, "I'm sorry ta' hear that, Darlin'. Sprout, my son, 'is real parents aren't with us anymore neither. They died when he was a toddler, so I took 'im in when I was about seventeen. I reckon the closest thin' he 'as to a father is probably Carmine over there." She nodded in Bennie's direction as he re-entered the dining room.

Bennie hadn't a clue what they were discussing, but nodded to Whiskey anyway. After taking his seat once more, Pixie glanced around the table. Almost everyone was accounted for. Once Amy appeared from the kitchen, Pixie was ready to proceed.

Standing up at the head of the table, Pixie slammed her bourbon down and grinned, "Hey, y'all! Listen up! Shut yer pie-holes fer a second! I got some inspirin' shit ta' say over here!"

In the time The Rock had orbited its twin suns over the past four hundred some days, Aesop hadn't even come close to having sex. So despite the fact that he would always refuse someone who was as drunk of their ass as Cameron while he was totally sober, that didn't change the fact that Aesop was a bumbling dumbass and was so hard up that the only person on the ship who could rival him was Florian... and Sprout but he had 15 years advantage.

The hairy bastard tried to hide the show of eagerness beneath his waist, the rest of his body trying to hide it as he leaned back in the chair, almost crawling backwards away from Cameron.

"What do ya' say, Aesop?" Her breath certainly smelled familiar. "I'm a collector and your next on my to-do list."[/b]

"Ah... I ah um ah," he was caught like a dear in the headlights by the woman and mumbled out random syllables. "Ah hi I um ahh you um no oh eh..."

And then he was relieved (not in that way you perv) as she reeled back and began laughing. He started panting as he had been holding his breath the entire time, he never thought he'd be glad to NOT have sex, rule number one, no drunk chicks when you're sober. He soon began laughing and rested the side of his head against the table. "You fucking bitch Cameron." He was laughing with her now, swiftly swinging his legs underneath the table to hide what simply refused to die down.

'Christ Axel handles this shit better.' And then he realised. 'Sweet Jesus he probably has better game than me too.'

"Hey, y'all! Listen up! Shut yer pie-holes fer a second! I got some inspirin' shit ta' say over here!"

Aesop sat up and sipped his soda as Pixie began to address them. Hopefully he wouldn't need to stand up any time soon.
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"Woah..." Hannibal whispered as he looked upon the plasma rifle. He'd never seen one up close before. Despite he himself having a problem with violence, he was interested to see how it fired. "C-Can we see?" He asked, wondering if there was anything he could pocket while she wasn't looking.

"He doesn't have to find out." Their guard Mila soon winked at Viola, who gave the soldier an unimpressed sounding huff before they headed off for the shooting range. On their arrival, Mila went over to the armoury and pulled an unusual looking assault rifle, though a closer inspection revealed that it was a plasma weapon due to the glowing sections on what would be the magazine. "Sorry, but y'all will have to settle for your own weapons. I'd be crucified if I let you take this baby for a spin."

"That's quite alright, not exactly had much experience with plasma weapons anyway; not because I am bad with them, it's just not actually had an opportunity to use one, seeing as though their usually quite expensive to maintain, and since really only you military types have clear and easy access to this sort of equipment anyway." Viola remarked as she stepped up to the target range, unholstering her lever-action rifle in the process.

"I mean if I had the Carbon, then maybe I'd consider getting something simple like a pistol, but with they way things are, it's something only the affluent can afford."

Noticing Bennie's nod, Whiskey tapped two fingers against her temple in casual response.

"Hey, y'all! Listen up! Shut yer pie-holes fer a second! I got some inspirin' shit ta' say over here!"

"Well this should be good," said Whiskey, grinning up at Pixie as she bellowed for quiet.

Ruffles took his seat just in time for Pixie's speech, back with Bennie. Reaching over, he took a piece of chicken out of Aesop's hand as the other man had just picked it up, and grabbed a blue soda to go with it.

"I got some inspirin' shit ta' say over here!"

Amy, who had just re-entered the room, quickly moved over back to her old place and sat down, looking at Pixie expectantly. She made a point to not let her gaze drift to Bennie even for a moment.

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The Gentleman was sent into full on flight, as heavy machine gun rounds punched into the dirt and rubble, licking at his heels. Troops of both sides were encroaching from everywhere now, their being seemingly no route out of the street that didn't run him into one squadron of hostile fighters or another. Amidst the chaos, he was pretty certain no-one left was trying to kill him specifically, but that wasn't much comfort, when a stray bullet could find him at any moment, and he had no means of escape.

'I have to deal with that blasted tank!'

Crouching in the gutted shell of what used to be a store front, The Gentleman peeked up just long enough to take not of the monstrosity's position at the end of the boulevard, tearing through the Bejic forces who had yet to bring up their own heavy weapons. The Boikov's were heavily outnumbered, their tank was the only thing holding down their position. If The Gentleman could get close enough to destroy it, then they would start to break, and he would have a small opening to make his getaway before the area was swarmed by the Bejic's.

Keeping low, the Gentleman advanced slowly up the street, crouching in side-alleys and vaulting through now-paneless windows, moving from building to building. Twice, he came across snipers belonging to one side or the other, it didn't matter which. He dispatched them before they had time to raise their weapons to him, much less alert anyone else. Finally, all that remained was one dash across open ground, beyond the Boikov barricade, for him to reach his goal. Committing to the move once he had made it, The Gentleman broke from cover and sprinted, ignoring the exchanges of fire that blew up dust all around him as he closed the gap. Two loyalist soldiers who were crouched behind a wall saw him, and he shot them, As he drew closer, he put another bullet through the head of the man controlling the machine gun on top of the tank, the only crew member not fully enclosed inside the metal shell.

He had approached from well to the side, in the tank's blind spot, and now that he had reached the armour, The Gentleman removed his top hat, and peeled the velvet away from the top of the rim, before placing the rim against the flank of the vehicle. The metallic click, as the magnetic disk inside the hat latched on to the armour, was his signal that it was time to go.

Fleeing headlong across to the other side of the street, not daring to look back as bullets flew this was and that (surely some of them were being aimed at him by now, The Gentleman threw himself bodily into the cover of the blasted buildings once more. Taking out his pocket watch, The Gentleman moved the setting dial three twists to the left, and pushed down.

A flash, and a shockwave that reverberated all around the street as the shaped charge inside the hat detonated, burning its way through the armour of the tank in a split second, and super-pressurising the air inside, ripping the contraption to pieces in a shower of shrapnel. The Gentleman didn't stay to admire his handiwork, but did allow himself a smile as he moved once again.

'I've always wanted to use that one.'

Satisfied with the sudden silence, Pixie's inebriated joy shone through a stupid grin. With one hand planted on the table, she lifted up a wine glass and held it at her side, "I reckon we've been through rough patches before, but I ain't gonna lie to y'all, it's never been this bad. It ain't even 'bout the ship, though. It's easy ta' think of it as ar' home, but y'all should know it it's just a hunk'a metal. Without its Maidens, the Iron Maiden was... is just a cold, hollow husk. No, home's right here." She gestured towards the table at large with the hand holding the glass. "With all y'all."

An' some who ain't here right now.

"Make no mistake," She clenched her jaw. "We're not goin' after Austin jus' ta' get what's 'ars. We ain't even doin' it jus' to avenge ar' fallen brothers n' sisters. No, we're takin' that fuckin' maniac down 'cause, in this backwards fuckin' world, we: the deranged, lost and damned souls of the Rock, ar' the only one's who give a damn 'bout justice. When y'all signed up fer this gig you did so knowin' we weren't like other bandit crews. Fer a time there, I felt I may have broken my promise to y'all." She smiled. "But now... now we 'ave an opportunity ta' show the unfortunate souls of this shitball just who it is we are."

She raised her hand up in the air, balled it into a fist and slammed her pointer finger back down onto the table, "We're gonna show the Rock what we're made of! We're gonna remind the good people out there that there's still someone fightin' fer them, and..." She held a fist out in front of her, "More importantly, we're gonna remind ar' enemies that you don' fuck with the Maidens! So whadda y'all say?! Ar' y'all ready to walk with me in hell!? Y'all prepared to join me in the abyss? To see how far we can fly before the suns burn ar' wings to ash?!" She held her wine glass up in the air, above her head. "ARE Y'ALL READY TO MAKE THIS WORLD AR' BITCH?!"

Everyone, even Bennie, held their drink up and cheered together.

Pixie didn't believe everything she had said, and it was likely some of them knew that, but a little pep talk never hurt anyone. Who knows, maybe they could win this war.

Sitting back down, Pixie threw back and started laughing and cheering with the others once more. Moments later, Carlos came up from behind Pixie, laughing a clapping along with everyone else. By the look on his face it was clear he had been drinking, "B-brilliant sp-speech as always, Captain!"

He placed his hand on her shoulder.

"Y-y-you always were one t----"

His words died in his throat the moment he felt the chilling sensation of metal under his jaw. Pixie was half-turned around in her seat, the barrel of her pistol burying itself into his flesh. Her expression was that of a mad dog as she stared Carlos down.

The sudden silence in the dining room was deafening.

All eyes were on them now as they remained still and quiet. Even from across the table, Bennie could see the fear creeping onto Carlos' face. The sudden realization that he had fucked up.

He'd fucked up bad.

"P-P-Pixie, I-I-I'm s-so sorry, I---"

"Carlos," Pixie growled, her voice quiet, yet threatening. "What'd I tell you?"

A single bead of sweat ran down the side of his face, "I-I-I... P-P-Pixie..."

"ANSWER ME!" She screamed, pulling back the hammer on her pistol.

"If I-I ever, uh-y-you know," He swallowed nervously. "Y-you'd kill me."

Pixie was silent for a long moment before eventually replying, "Y-yeah," Her voice wavered and she broke eye contact with Carlos. Suddenly, she looked very pale. Sick, even. "Carlos, listen very carefully to me." She met his glance again. He nodded, frantically. "Get. The fuck. Away. From me."

Stepping back slowly, he nodded, "A-anything you say, Pixie. I---"

"SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET OUT OF MY FACE!" She screamed as she stood up, her pistol pointed squarely at his head. She was trembling.

"I-I'm going!" He squealed as he bowed his head and disappeared into the kitchen like a dog with his tail between his legs. She kept the gun trained on the door long after he'd disappeared. The uncomfortable silence hung in the room until Pixie finally lowered her weapon and looked off to nothing in particular. "Sorry, everyone. Don' mind me..." She muttered as she quickly rushed out of the dining room, down the hall and into hers and Amy's bedroom.

Slamming the door behind her as she entered, she threw her pistol to the ground and rushed into the bathroom. Grasping the edge of the sink, she hunched over the basil, ready to vomit her bowels. Despite the vortex twisting in her stomach and the cold sweats, nothing ever came. She'd felt so shitty, in fact, she hadn't even noticed the tears rolling down her cheeks. Biting her lip hard enough to draw blood, she looked up at her reflection in the mirror.

She took in the trembling, weak girl before her.

Pathetic.

Unable to look at herself any longer, Pixie screamed and punched the mirror with all her might. Shattering into one-hundred shards across the counter and floor, Pixie dropped to her knees and clutched her bloodied hand, "I'm gonna fuckin' kill 'im. I'm gonna fuckin' kill 'im. I'm gonna fuckin' rip 'is goddamn heart out." She mumbled to herself as she stared blankly at the blood trickling down her forearm.

Moments later, she found herself in the bedroom, frantically glancing around the dimly-lit space. She was looking for her next victim. She needed something to break. She need something to destroy.

It was the only thing keeping her insatiable blood-lust at bay.

Spotting the bedside lamp, she snatched it up without a second thought. Hefting it in her good hand, she chucked it hard across the room, destroying it utterly. Realizing its demise had done little to satisfy her rage, she did the only other thing she knew how to.

She cried.

Slumping down against the wall, she buried her face in her hands and started weeping. Like a little girl.

Like she had that night.

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After Pixie stormed out, Bennie held his beer out in front of him and shook his head, "Way to kill the mood Carlos." He groaned right before taking a liberal swig. Maybe with enough booze he'd forget most of the tonight.

Yeah, that would definitely be good.

The situation had changed so quickly, and so violently, that all Amy could do for a whole minute was sit there, mouth agape in shock. Despite having not eaten or drunk in hours, all sense of appetite had suddenly dropped out of her.

'What did you do?!' she thought, her mind racing as she watched Carlos retreating. The look on Pixie's face had been one she'd recognised instantly, even if it was not one she'd ever outwardly worn herself. Of Carlos though, she didn't want to believe it, not of the man who was feeding them, drinking with them, offering them sanctuary, and the man that Pixie had allowed to provide for all those things. Why would she do that if... no, she wouldn't believe it. There must be some other explanation. Amy must just have been projecting her own experiences onto the situation.

"Way to kill the mood Carlos."

"Bennie." Amy said, deadly quiet. "Shut the fuck up."

'How dare this man claim to care!'

After fixing Bennie with what might have been the ugliest stare she's even given anyone, Amy got up from the table, not bothering to excuse herself, and left in the direction of the bedroom. She knocked on the door lightly, before peeking inside, and crossing the threshold completely. Calmly, she took in the destruction Pixie had unleashed upon the furnishings, before her eyes and ears fell upon her love, curled up in a corner and weeping like a child. Cautiously, she approached. While Amy was confident Pixie would not hurt her, she sensed that now would be a bad time for a sudden invasion of personal space regardless. Squatting down, she tilted her head down, so that she might look into Pixie's eyes.

"Pixie," she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper "do you trust me?"

'Trust' had not been the word she'd wanted to say, but right now, it seemed all too easy to forget what she wanted. Being emotionally honest was going to be harder than Amy thought.

What happened next was a blur of whirling emotion that left Whiskey utterly confused.

"Way to kill the mood Carlos."

Amy didn't take that well, and she too disappeared. Whiskey got up and dragged her chair to sit opposite Bennie.

"Hey guy. So... what the fuck was that?"

Listening to Pixie about the man who had once again taken his home, Aesop's eyes narrowed downward, focusing on nothing in particular. In just a few days they'd be fighting him, along with hundreds of children-real children-who simply didn't know any better. They had been brainwashed by a psychopath who needed decades of therapy.

No fucked that, he needed to have his limbs cut off and thrown in a furnace to burn for his sick crimes. Aesop cheered along with the other maidens but was noticeably much quieter. Sitting back down again, he needn't worry about his issues below the waist embarrassing him, as he began gulping down his drink.

Then shit hit the fan, 'course it did. Aesop stayed perfectly still as he watched... he didn't really know, unfolding before him. When it was all said and done he wondered whether he should go see Carlos or not. The man had spoken necessary words to him, and he understood Aesop's pain. He understood self provoked pain, to be the cause of your own sadness, and to be utterly convinced that you deserved it. But Pixie... whatever it was he had clearly done it to Pixie. If Alex had ever seen Aesop again, she'd chew him out because he clearly was in the wrong. Had he done the same to Pixie? Abandoned her or-

Thinking about possible scenarios was getting him nowhere, and her reaction to being touched convinced him it was something a million times more personal. Getting up out his seat he passed by Ruffles and said, "I need to check something, don't let anyone think I'm picking sides or some BS." He then followed off to find the clearly ashamed Carlos.

"Carlos? You need to talk?" Aesop had a feeling that if he had hurt Pixie, Aesop would want to hurt him. But for now, he'd start slow. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it seemed?

Yeah, like it'd be that easy.

"Pixie... do you trust me?"

Pixie continued to sob for a bit longer before she was able to meet Amy's gaze. Wiping away the tears as best she could, she nodded frantically, "Y-yeah." She croaked. Clutching her shins with her quivering, broken hands, she held her head just above her knees and stared into Amy's eyes.

What would she do? What could she say?

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

"Shut the fuck up."

Bennie ignored Amy's scorn and took another swig of his beer as she left the room after Pixie.

"Hey guy. So... what the fuck was that?"

"Well, it ain't my place to say, but," He grunted, amused, and shook his head. "Fuck it. Let's not make this a public spectacle, but anyone who wants to know what the fuck's going on can follow me." Grabbing a two more beers off the table, he started down the hall, towards his and Ruffles' bedroom.

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

Aesop had followed Carlos to his room and found him sitting down at the edge of his bed, gazing down at his own hands.

"Carlos? You need to talk?"

"Aesop," He muttered, refusing to look up at him. "Don't ever drink again. Don't relapse, no matter what you do."

"Don't ever drink again. Don't relapse, no matter what you do."

"Wasn't planning on it." Aesop replied before walking a little closer. "But what helped me was people whooping my ass until I got the point, but some good old talking sessions helped a lot too. Wanna air some shit out?" Aesop never had a way with words.

"Fuck it. Let's not make this a public spectacle, but anyone who wants to know what the fuck's going on can follow me."

"I'll take that action," replied Whiskey before she drained her beer and set the empty bottle down.

"Yeah," Ruffles agreed. "This just smacks way too much like when she went apeshit on Lil." With that, the two of them got up and followed Bennie.

"Y-yeah."

"Then let's get this cleaned up." Amy said, reaching out and gently taking hold of Pixie's bloodied hand. Together, they made their way into the bathroom, where Amy, after having swept away the shards of broken glass scattered on the floor, set about removing the pieces still stuck in Pixie's hand, washing out the wounds over the sink as she did so. Thankfully, none of them were too deep.

"Perhaps tomorrow, we can get you to the end of the day with a fewer holes in you." She joked as she did her work. Her hands were gentle, but Amy new that she need not mince her words. Pixie could take it.

"Listen. I won't make you tell me anything about what just happened out there, but I just want you to know I'm here, just like you were here for me when I had to get away before. If you want to talk, or cry, or break some more of Carlos' stuff, I'll be right here for whatever you need."

One by one Austin led the children out of the room to a separate area. It would be dark. They would have no idea of time. They would be scared and utterly alone. Then a voice would tell them "its all alright child", they'd be given food. Something sweet. Then they'd wait, alone in the darkness, not knowing how long it had been since they had entered, or even what day it was. Then the voice would come again, "its going to be okay." And more food, and drink too. Then waiting, even more waiting until eventually they wanted the voice to come back. The voice would be back periodically then suddenly stop. They would feel even more alone than when they were first thrown in, and as they were about to give up hope the voice would be given face. They would hug him, embrace him, tell him they missed him, and be given all the food, water, love and attention they wanted. A warm bed and a warm hearted family to accompany them. Then their 'saviour' would tell them a tale, of the pretenders who plagued children, their brothers and sisters, all across the world. That these pretenders needed to be stopped, and they could be the hero to save their family, and their father would give them the tools to do so.

Before they knew it, they would be on the front lines, with a gun in their hands, not caring at all about their victims since 'they weren't real people'. They were fake, imagined, unreal monsters who served only to hurt them. Their conscientious's would be clean while their hands became bloody. They would be the saviours of their brothers and sisters, and their father would love them for all eternity.

He was subtle in the way he led them out of the room, some asking to go the bathroom to which he led them, others asking for drinks to which he did the same. His children escorted them to the dark quiet places. Closets, wardrobes, anywhere that was a confined space and they couldn't see very well. Eventually only a few children remained in the room together, more than half being sent off to unknown indoctrination. Now was the harder part, they were worried were the others had gone and what was taking them so long. All the while Austin was playing nice with the kids, yet he wasn't treating them like they were stupid. He was treating them with respect, but as the few remained they were becoming ever more suspicious.

"Ah, forgive my manners, I've asked everyone's names one by one but not yours. I'm sorry, what is your name?" He asked the few that were left.

"I-I'm Luke." Answered a young boy.

"Um... where... I'm Rosie." Answered a little girl.

The young Austin had kept quiet the whole time, this man shared his name yet they acted so dissimilar. He creeped him out. Despite being taller than most of the other children he stayed at the back, trying to avoid this man as much as he could. And despite him trying to talk on their level, all this stuff he was spouting about brothers and sisters was pretty annoying, and the cringe factor when he found out they had the same name would be super annoying. That said, he was about to come forward and say his name when the girl he spoke to earlier went first.

"... Wanna air some shit out?"

Carlos stared down at his feet, unsure as to what to say. How to answer him. He knew what he wanted to say. All of the things he'd love to air out. But no, what had happened tonight was on him. It wasn't fair for him to take out his frustration when things were likely much, much worse for Pixie.

After calming his nerves, Carlos met Aesop's gaze, "I've been in love with that woman for nearly twelve years, Aesop. Twelve years." He repeated. "I've felt like... in all that time.... In all that time, I've been suffocating. It is my penance. This... existence... this... life. Every breath I take is another crack of the whip. Another twist of the rack. Another... pint of blood bled for my sins."

He looked down at the palm of his right hand as he massaged it with thumb of his left, "I-I... I did something to her... something I could never take back. Something that I can never, ever been forgiven for. I begged for the easy way out. I wanted nothing more than to see it end. But Pixie wouldn't buy it." He cracked a sad grin and looked back up at Aesop. "Never get on her bad side, Aesop. She understands what true suffering is. She understands how to hurt people better than most."

He shook his head, "That isn't to say I don't deserve this..."

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

Whiskey, Ruffles and Warren followed Bennie into the bedroom. Cameron and the others were either too drunk or too uncomfortable to follow.

Sitting down on the floor, Bennie rested his arm up on the mattress above him and he popped the cap off of a fresh bottle of beer. The others who'd joined him sat all around the room.

All eyes were on him as he cleared his throat.

"I've never liked Carlos," Bennie started. "It's easy to think I'm the jealous type. That I don't like guys cozyin' up to Pixie like he does. But," He looked to Ruffles. "You know me. You know I ain't like that."

He took a swig of his beer, "No, by all accounts I should be grateful to him for all he's done for us. Now, and in the past. Only Ruffles here would remember that. But I don't. I fuckin' loath him. I'd fuckin' put one between his eyes in a heartbeat if Pixie would allow it."

Warren shifted uncomfortably and spoke for the first time all night, "Why?"

Bennie gritted his teeth and looked down at the bottle in his hand, "When they were teenagers, back in Boomhower," He sighed. "He raped her..."

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

"... If you want to talk, or cry, or break some more of Carlos' stuff, I'll be right here for whatever you need."

"N-no, I," She chuckled as she wiped a few more tears from her eyes. "No, it's okay... I reckon I've cried enough these past couple weeks. I can talk. I should talk. I-I..." Her words failed her as she felt her chest tighten once more. Unsure as to how to quell her despair, Pixie fell into Amy's arm hoping her embrace would set her heart at ease.

Physical contact. A simple reminder that she wasn't alone in this world.

It was all her heart needed.

Pixie closed her eye, allowing her form to melt into Amy's. They sat there in silence for a long while as Pixie searched for the words she needed to tell her story. She needed to talk. Amy deserved to know what was going on.

There was no point in keeping such things from her.

Her good eye still closed, Pixie remained in her embrace as she spoke, "When I was seventeen... when I was raisin' Sprout all by my lonesome. That's when I met him. That's when I met Carlos fer the first time. I was takin' down independent scores to support us. To keep us in the good graces of some of Boomhower's most powerful players so the banditos didn' get to us. It was all 'bout survival back then." She chuckled. "I was scrappy fer sure, but I wasn' near the fighter back then as I am today. I was a burglar: infiltration, breakin' 'n enterin'; those were my specialties."

She started scratching Amy's back with one hand as she continued her story, "My relationship with the Santiago family was shaky at best. I had crossed 'em a few times, but occasionally collaborated with 'em as well. They weren't stupid. They understood I was jus' a hired gun. I wasn' their real enemy. Even still, pragmatism wasn' always what their people were known for."

She furrowed her brow, "One night I was werkin' a job fer some outside bandit family. Don' even remember who anymore. Anyway, they had me goin' into Santiago territory ta' steal somethin' fer them." She paused for a moment and sighed. "I got caught." She rested her forehead on Amy's shoulder and continued. "They beat the livin' shit outta me. I didn' stand a fuckin' chance, Amy. So there I was, broken and bleedin' in some alley, deep in bandito territory when a familiar face appeared: a young man I'd werked with a few times on some B&E jobs. He was only fifteen. A good kid. I liked 'im."

She bit the inside of her lip and added, "And he liked me."

"P-Pixie?! What the fuck are you doing here?!" Carlos explained, scrambling over to young woman's crippled form.

"The fuck do you think?!" Antonio, his older brother barked. "She was caught snoopin' around where her nose didn' belong, so we taught her ass a lesson!"

Pixie wanted to speak out. Call for Calros to help her, but she couldn't speak. The constant ringing in her ear was disorienting and it was difficult to move her jaw.

"Okay, well, are we letting her go!?" Carlos shot back, clearly upset.

Antonio looked back at his friends and laughed, "Yeah, eventually. Why?"

"Eventually?" Carlos crossed the gap between them and looked his brother in the eye. "Why not now? Look at her! She's learned her lesson, hasn't she!?"

"You kidding me here?!" His brother cocked an eyebrow. "We haul in this hot piece of ass and you don't even consider what we can do with her?!"

"What are you getting at!?" He knew what they meant, but he didn't want to admit it.

One of Antonio's friends laughed, "What, do you have a crush on her or somethin'? You two know each other, don't you?"

"Yeah, I know her a little..." Carlos muttered.

"No fuckin' way!" Antonio jeered. "You have a little fuckin' chub for her, don't you? This is fuckin' perfect!"

"He's a virgin too!" Another of his friends added.

Carlos shook his head, "N-no, no way! I-I-I'm not doing this!"

"You're not!?" Antonio scoffed. "If you think yer gettin' her all to yerself, yer sadly mistaken, little bro. No, we're family! We're all family, here. You know what that means?" He grinned as he leered at Pixie. She stared daggers back at him. "It means we fuckin' share everythin' with each other."

"N-n-no! We can't---"

Antonio grabbed his brother by the throat and pulled him in close, "LISTEN YOU LITTLE SHIT! I'M DOIN' YOU A FUCKIN' SOLID HERE, YOU UNDERSTAND ME! DON' YOU DISRESPECT YER BROTHER LIKE THIS! YOU FUCKIN' GET ME!?"

Terrified, Carlos nodded his head, frantically.

"Okay then," Antonio released him and turned his attention towards to Pixie. "Let's get you laid, bro." He mused as he flipped out his switchblade and knelt down before Pixie.

She struggled with all her might, screaming, scratching and kicking, but it was of no use. Outnumbered, overpowered and completely crippled, she was in no position to fight back. The best she could do was close her eye and force her mind to escape to somewhere else.

In truth, the details of that night from that point on were a one big blur. She could recall the pain and humiliation, but little else beyond that.

Carlos on the other hand? He would go on to remember it all. Vividly.

He would never allow himself to forget such a thing.

His weakest moment.

His gravest sin.

After telling the tale of that night, Pixie fell silent. Her tears had long since stopped and her breathing had become slow and steady, once more. She felt tired. Drained.

Eventually, she spoke once more, "The thin' I fear the most. The thin' that drives me over the edge more'n anythin'... it's feelin' helpless, Amy. I never wanna be that girl ever again. I ain't never gonna let anyone else 'ave my life in their hands ever again. Anytime I fear I'm losin' control... I think back ta' that night."

She sighed and shook her head, " I swear, I thought I was really gonna do it back there. I really thought I was gonna kill 'im this time."

Aesop sat on the floor, his eyes wide and slumped against the wall. He didn't have the strength to stand, or rather, the will. This man who had given him such solid advice, this man who had given them a place to stay and plan their counter attack against Austin, this man who had suffered and known it was his own fault just like Aesop had...

This man had raped Meredith Monroe..

He shivered for a moment, before suddenly becoming statue still. He breathed in and out through pursed lips for a good few moments. "So... you...." he stared straight ahead, his eyes not intentionally locking onto anything but just so happened to be on Carlos's knee. "You uh... you..." he couldn't speak, he clutched his pants and gripped them into his now tight fists as his breathing was now becoming much, much louder.

"You know," he grunted out his words, "you were a kid, yeah? And uh... you were, scared-fuckin' scared." In his mind, he felt he couldn't judge him, considering he himself had abandoned his friends instead of helping them. Carlos was just like him. Carlos could have fought his family, or at the very least, walked away and not joined in, but he was a coward like Aesop, and didn't have the guts to fi... 'Joined in.'

Joined in. Joined in. Joined in. Joined in. Joined in. Joined in.

He began mouthing the words subtly, Carlos looking back down to his feet. Joined in. Joined in. Joined in. Joined in.

Now whispering. "Joined in. Joined in. Joined in."

"He joined in." Austin's voice was now louder than ever. "He was scared, like you, and chose the cowardly path. Like you."

Aesop's head felt like it was on fire as he was suddenly sweating. "Now, if you saw yourself, after what you had done to Alex..." Austin's voice had suddenly mutated into Alex's strong, cold voice that she reserved only for the worst criminal scum.

'What would you do?'

And once again, Aesop was completely still. Standing up, fully composed, he walked over to Carlos. He patted the man on the shoulder and gently pulled up his chin to look at him. "Hey Carlos?" He asked affectionately, looking utterly sincere. Aesop sighed and ran a hand through his own ponytail. "I know its fucked up, but, its in the past okay?"

The look of shame on Carlos's face hadn't changed whatsoever. But it wasn't a facial expression Aesop needed to see, it was body language. He was relaxed, his arms at his side. He had his guard down.

And with that he was on him, pouncing on the rapist and wrapping his hands tightly around his neck. Aesop brought his own forehead down onto Carlos repeatedly as his grip tightened around the mother fucker, his thumbs digging deep into the space above his Adam's apple.
==================================
Hannibal kept ogling the weapon before gulping and asking, "Hey, c-could I have a little l-look around those kinda guns? I won't touch anything, promise. That just looks, woah." His act of awe could be extending longer than it truly was, he just wondered what he could pocket and where from.

"I really thought I was gonna kill 'im this time."

Amy had shown Pixie the same respect she had been shown herself, and did not interrupt her flow. It was easier to just keep going, once she had started, she knew. Once the tale was finished however, and the onus was on Amy to say something, no words formed when she opened her mouth.

'I can't even... No, I really can't even...'

They were in his house, eating his food off his table! The two of them had slept together on his bed! The man who had... what?!

Rage and revulsion bubbled up inside Amy, and she wanted so very dearly to march over to what ever hole Carlos was hiding in right now and cut his throat. In fact, why didn't she? Was his fate Pixie's to decide, or did she feel pity for Carlos despite herself? His actions disgusted her, they ground against every fundamental level of decency she held dear, but despite herself she couldn't shake the feeling that Carlos had been very nearly, if not just as, helpless in that scenario as Pixie had been. It wasn't the same as what had happened to her. If Carlos had refused, would his brothers have killed him? Beaten him senseless? In either case, Pixie's fate was already sealed.

Was it an acknowledgement of that fact, then, that has stayed Pixie's hand against him for all these years? No, that wasn't it. If Pixie had one ounce of compassion in her for that man, she would have either put him out of his misery, or sent him somewhere very far away, where neither would have to set eyes upon the other ever again. What kind of senseless torment was this?! Keeping him around, just so they could both be reminded of his most shameful act every time they saw each-other? Treating him like a friend, but with the promise that so much as laying one hand on her in any way again would mean his death? Who does that?! Who was Pixie even trying to hurt anyway? Him? Or was this some roundabout, subconscious way of punishing herself, reminding herself of her 'weakness' so that she might keep pushing herself to be stronger?

So many questions, none of which appearing to point in any direction that might make this situation seem any the less messed up. She wanted to kill Carlos, and she wanted to forgive him. She wanted to scorn Pixie for being so... so cruel, and she wanted to hold her, the woman she loved, and tell her that everything was going to be okay. That last one, she wanted to do most of all, but she couldn't. She wasn't playing a part any more. Where Pixie was concerned, at least, that had been stripped from her utterly, and Pixie would know how hollow those words would sound, coming from Amy. No matter how well meaning, how could someone who really, truly knew how it felt to go through something like that, say with any sincerity that it was okay? How could anything about this situation possibly be okay?!

'Maybe sometimes, people don't need to be understood by the people they love? Perhaps they don't want to look into their eyes, and see everything than they despise in themselves. If I was ignorant, then I could tell Pixie whatever she wanted to hear, and mean it, whole-heartedly. But I can't... Is this what you meant Bennie? If you were hear right now, would you know what to do?'

"Pixie..." Amy said eventually, her mouth dry, and still unsure how she was going to finished the sentence. "let's... let's just go. I mean it, why don't we just get out of here, the two of us, and leave this whole fucking mess behind? Or, we could just stay in here, lock the doors and not let anyone in. Surely, the world's thrown just about everything it can at us, why should we keep throwing ourselves right back at it? Would it really be so hard, to choose to just let it all go?"

There was a long silence after Bennie finished; drawn out and oppressive. Eventually, it was Ruffles who broke it. "Jesus... that's so fucking messed up!" He shivered as though his skin were crawling. "Fuck, I don't know how she stands looking at him.."

Whiskey nodded in agreement, reaching over to take one of the beers Bennie had brought in. "Not gonna lie, guys, I feel weird knowing that shit about someone I just met."

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

Suddenly it was her turn, and the strange man Austin was looming over her. "Millie," she said quietly. Then, more loudly, "it's um... short for Amelia."

The man was a giant, seeming to block out the lights overhead. But despite his size, what drew Millie's eyes was the heavy splint set on his right hand.

Cameron had been halfway blacked-out when she heard a loud thud coming from down the hall. Curious, especially after what had happened earlier, she lifted herself from her seat at the table and staggered in the direction of the noise.

I bet it's that Whiskey chick. She looks like a bit of a slu---

Cameron froze in utter shock as she rounded the corner and peered into Carlos' room. Was Aesop....?

"A-A-AESOP! AESOP, STOP IT!"

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

"Fuck, I don't know how she stands looking at him.."

"No fuckin' clue, Jake." Bennie sighed.

"Not gonna lie, guys, I feel weird knowing that shit about someone I just met."

"Yeah, well I probably shouldn't have told y'all shit. Pixie's gonna kick my ass if she hears---"

"A-A-AESOP! AESOP, STOP IT!"

Bennie tensed up. "SHIT!"

Without another word, Bennie sprung to his feet and dashed out the door and down the hall. Brushing past a paralyzed Cameron, Bennie didn't stop moving when his eyes fell upon Aesop and Carlos, "GODDAMMIT, AESOP!" He barked as he lunged forward, grabbing Aesop by the shoulders. He pulled with all his might, tearing Aesop away from his prey and sent him stumbling backwards against the wall. Before he could get his footing, Bennie spun around and and brought his forearm up against Aesop's throat, pinning him against the wall. "CALM THE FUCK DOWN, AESOP! DON'T MAKE ME FUCK YOU UP!"

Carlos clutched his throat, his breathing ragged and frantic. Without a second thought, Cameron dashed into the room and began comforting him, "Are you okay?!" Carlos simply nodded in response. Speaking would prove to be too painful right now.

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

"let's... let's just go. I mean it, why don't we just get out of here, the two of us, and leave this whole fucking mess behind? Or, we could just stay in here, lock the doors and not let anyone in. Surely, the world's thrown just about everything it can at us, why should we keep throwing ourselves right back at it? Would it really be so hard, to choose to just let it all go?"

Pixie wanted to look at the girl and smile. She wanted Amy to think what she had said was exactly what Pixie needed to hear. That some romantic, fantastic escape was what she really wanted.

No.

No, instead of feeling comfort. Instead of appreciating Amy's love, Pixie grew... disappointed.

"You don' get it, do you?" Pixie pulled away from Amy and looked her in the eye. "If I wanted ta' run away I'd 'ave done it twelve years ago when my best friend was butchered right in from'a me. If I wanted ta' run away I'd 'ave never gone back for that boy. I'd 'ave never lost this eye!" Her voice wavered as she pointed to her eye-patch. "I can' run away from this. Any of it! An' yer damned naive if you think you can too!"

She stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. It was cold, "Amy, I've never been one ta' sit on the sidelines. Yeah, I may 'ave what it takes ta' survive out there on my own, but I ain't alone in this world. I can' simply sit idly by while it burns down 'round me. You wanna know why?" She leaned against the wall, closed her eye and sighed. "I 'ave children, Amy. Sprout... Lilith... they're the reason I go on. They're the reason I give a single fuck 'bout any'a this. If I can make this world a safer place for 'em, well, ain't nothin's gonna stop me from tryin'."

She looked down at Amy and frowned, "I don' wan' you ta' think I'm talkin' down to you, darlin'. By now you should know 'ow much I appreciate and value yer word, but listen to me: yer naive, Amy. What we 'ave? It ain't a goddamn fairy tale. It don' end with 'happily ever after'." She knelt down before Amy and held her cheek in her hand. "But ya' know what? That don' mean I'm gonna give up on the notion. We fight, Amy. We take ar' licks n' ar' bruises an' we live ta' fight another day." She offered a sad smile. "That's all we can do, sweetheart."

Pixie's rejection, along with the saccharine condescension and the wilful ignorance of what Amy had really been trying to say, stirred up something acrid inside of Amy. It wasn't anger, lacking as it was in that white-hot fierceness. No, it was more a hollow sense of irony, a uniquely cold frustration, that rose to match Pixie's disappointment in her. She bit her lip, not to stave off tears or fury, but so she wouldn't burst out laughing in Pixie's face. There was a part of her still, now relegated to the back of her mind, that begged her not to say what she knew she was about to say next. A part of her mind that preached how vulnerable Pixie was right now, how this wasn't the right time to have this conversation, how pushing these buttons was only going to end in tears. It didn't matter. It had been Pixie, after all, who had asked to see the real Amy...

Well, at last, she was about to get her wish, for better or for worse.

"Is that the best you can do?" she said, her voice low and bitter as she swatted Pixie's hand away. Now, it was Amy turn to stand up, looking down on her lover coldly. "Is that really the best excuse you can give, for staying on this carousel of misery, the Indomitable Spirit of Motherhood, that you want to preach to me like it's some kind of wisdom, and then call me naive?! You don't need to lecture me about 'takin' 'ar bruises' Pixie, I've been taking mine, every day, since I was six yeas old, or had you forgotten so quickly? My 'happy ending' was running out into a world I didn't even recognise, totally alone, with my hands covered it blood. That was as close as I got. So, you can turn away from me, or scream at me, or even hit me if you want, but whatever else happens, don't ever say that I'm the one who's living in a Fairy Tale here. You want to talk about fantasies? How about the one where the woman who was made to feel weak and helpless, kids herself that all the problems in the world can be fixed, one broken jaw at a time, just so she can keep feeling like she's strong."

Amy turned away from Pixie, and paced up and down the length of the claustrophobic space, her firsts now clenched against the tide of bile rising in her throat.

"Let's just take a moment, to take stock of our surroundings here..." she mocked, spreading her arms to emphasise her point. "A maniac with a God-complex is raining death and destruction down upon the Ashlands in your ship; the two people you claim to love the most are isolated in the city ruled by your arch-nemesis; and, even if they weren't, they'd be here enjoying the 'hospitality' of your bizarre Trophy Rapist. I must be missing something crucial to your world-view here, because I'm gonna need you to fill me in on how your Crusade of Righteousness is supposed to make any of this seem okay. The best part is, I'm not even blaming you! I'm not even trying to say that this is all your fault. I'm just trying to give you some perspective of what an irrevocably fucked-up world you live in; and no, it's not fucked-up just because of a handful of bastards at the top making life miserable for the rest of us, it's fucked-up because people, in general, suck! The longer you deny that, the more you keep throwing yourself against a brick wall, as if it will thank you for it one day, the more the few people in your life who miraculously don't suck are going to suffer. There is no one Arch-Villain who you can punch out to make everything okay, but every tyrant who's ever lived has been able to kid themselves that they can make the world a better place. Please, Pixie, don't make the same mistake!"

Exhausted now, Amy back up against the far wall, and sank down to the floor. When she looked up at Pixie again, her eyes burned with sadness.

"If you never listen to another word I say Pixie, then listen to this... You don't owe this world a damn thing. You can't fix any of this, and even if you could, maybe we should be asking ourselves if the world is even worth saving, if it even deserves it... There is some happiness to be found here, with the people who love you, and who'll only ever ask of you what you can give, and the only person stopping you right now from reaching out and taking hold of that, is you. The ugly truth is, that the world is a reflection of the people living in it, and we only could have got here through people making choices, or letting other people make the choices for them. Why should you pay with everything you have for their mistakes? Why should the people you love suffer, for a bigger picture that couldn't give two shits about any of us? Yeah, maybe if I was a mother, I'd wish things were different; but I'm not, and I never will be, because the father of my unborn child beat him out of me all over the sheets. That's the world I live in, and for a moment there, I thought you might be in here with me." The laughter finally broke through, in one, short blast, but it was a bitter laugh if there had even been one. "I guess that just makes me one more broken thing you can't fix, doesn't it?"

Pixie's head was spinning. Where could she even start?

Her emotions were that of a maelstrom: confused, tangled and violent. Part of her wanted to praise Amy on her honesty, while another wanted her to curl up in the corner of the bedroom and cry her eyes out. To deny all that she had said.

Today had been rough for Pixie. Amy had known that. How could she say these things to her like this? Why now?

Amy was angry. Amy was upset. Pixie knew that. She should have seen this coming. Pixie was the one who opened the floodgate. Pixie was the one who welcomed her honesty.

When you strip away the make-up, the fake smile and the expensive dresses, Amy really was just a normal human being. A damaged, angry and pathetic human being. It was comforting, really. This "Golden Rose" was no better than Pixie.

You selfish bitch. What the fuck'r you thinkin', girl?

Pixie was pissed. Pixie was insulted.

Pixie was ashamed.

Pixie knew how full of shit she was. For fuck's sake, she'd been worshiping the rhetoric of a dead woman like it was the God-given gospel for damn-near twenty years. What the fuck did Cherry know of the world? Really, what did she know? Sure, she did some good things. She left her tower from time-to-time to help the less fortunate, but Pixie knew it wasn't because she was some kind of benevolent mother figure. No, she did it because it made her feel good. To see their smiling faces. To have them shower her in praise.

The same twisted reason Pixie did it.

Altruism's a fuckin' joke.

Had Amy been right? Had she seen right through her?

Was Pixie really just full of shit?

Pixie hadn't a fucking clue. Between the bullet wound in her leg, the death of an old friend and hundred other things tugging at her psyche, Pixie was in no position to do any meaningful introspection. She was chasing dead ends in her head. Circling back-and-forth endlessly as she grasped out for answers in vain.

She was exhausted. Her brain was still swimming in booze, her heart felt empty and her body was completely and utterly fatigued. She felt like just closing her eye, lying down and dying. She didn't do any of that though. No, Pixie wasn't the kind of person who lies down and takes anything. She was the kind of person that always fought back, even when she knew she shouldn't.

The silence in the room seemed to have lasted an eternity by the time Pixie snapped back to reality. She and Amy had been sitting on the floor, opposite of each other in the darkness. Both lost in their own minds. She couldn't fathom what was going through Amy's mind at this point. Then again, Pixie didn't really give a shit.

Rising to her feet, Pixie walked over to the nightstand and opened the drawer. Retrieving from it a single cigarette, she put it to her lips and lit it. She normally hated cigarettes. She felt they were a poor man's cigar.

She didn't care right now, however. She didn't care what imagine she gave. What kind of person she looked like.

She just wanted the pain to go away.

After taking a long drag and exhaling it slowly, Pixie looked to Amy. Neither said a word. She crossed the space between them while taking a second drag. Looking down at Amy, slumped down on the floor, Pixie's eye found its way to the fist she was holding out in front of her, "Breakin' jaws, huh? Ya' know me better than ya' realize, Amy." She spoke as if she were amused, but their was no emotion in her tone. "I've hurt a lot of people I love. Sometimes its jus' easier ta' lash out. Bludgeon yer problems 'til they disappear. I bet ya' think I'll do the same ta' you. I mean, there's certainly a precedent fer it. Ask Bennie sometime."

She chuckled and shook her head, her eye searching the bruises on her knuckles, "Who knows, you stick 'round long enough an' maybe I will do the same ta' you. Smack you 'round a bit. You'd jus' be bloodied up fer a couple days an' I'd feel better 'bout myself. Not a big compromise fer someone ya' love, right?" Her words were dripping with cynicism.

"I used ta' hit Sprout. I used ta' beat my son." Still, no emotion. "Takin' care of a kid in a city like that by myself at seventeen? No skills, no money, no guidance or direction? An' the cryin'? The constant cryin'! He always needed somethin'! I'm there tryin' not ta' be fuckin' blow away every day, ripping off bandits n' crooks an' he's always fuckin' cryin' fer more! Didn' that little fucker know I'd given up my entire life fer 'im!? Didn' he know I could'a jus' left 'im in the gutter ta' die?!" Though she was shouting, she didn't sound upset or angry. it was like she was trying to display past emotions.

"An' when I looked 'im in the eye? Oh, baby, when I looked 'im in the eye," She took another long drag. "I saw him. I saw him every single fuckin' time, Amy. I felt the knife slicin' up'n down my flesh. Tearing straight through my eyeball. I could see 'er again, too. I could see the fuckin' mulin', pathetic look on 'er face as he stole 'er last breath. Tell me, how're ya' s'pose ta' be a good mother to yer kid when he reminds you of the fuckin' devil, himself? When 'is eyes remind you of everythin' you've lost?"

She sighed as she held the cigarette out in front of her. Her eye was fixated on the burning paper as it broke apart into microscopic ash and lifted into the air, "I was a monster. I am a monster. Monsters don' fix things, Amy. They break 'em." She found Amy's eyes for the first time since she started talking. "'An I'll break you too if you stick 'round 'ere long enough. Well," She chuckled. "I'll break ya' more, anyway."

After taking one last drag she tossed the butt down to the ground and stepped on it. Walking over to her bedside, she plopped down on the edge of the bed and put on her boots, followed by her jacket, "I'm headin' out fer a bit. Gonna get some fresh air. Don' wait up fer me."

Aesop had never squeezed so tightly in his life. He'd strangled people to death in the past, but never had he possessed such anger within, such wrathful passion, such murderous motivation as right now. He could see Carlos's face contort as he grasped at his throat, Aesop feeling his legs kick behind him. This was perfect. He wasn't thinking clearly and trying to reverse Aesop, his body was just reacting, he'd have him. He would choke the life right out of him then and there if not for Bennie throwing him off.

"CALM THE FUCK DOWN, AESOP! DON'T MAKE ME FUCK YOU UP!"

Now it was Aesop kicking his legs under Bennie's might. It took him a second to realise that he shouldn't resist Bennie. Anyone else and he probably would have apart from Pixie of course, but Bennie must have known he must have. Aesop relented and stopped struggling, allowing Bennie to control him. Aesop's breathing was out of control and his face was flaring up in anger. "I-Fuck Bennie I'm sorry-BUT YOU KNOW! ITS! Its, HE! FUCK!" Bennie's forearm was now tight against Aesop's throat. He wanted to stop, to respect Bennie and Pixie. But he also wanted to get past Bennie and crush Carlos's windpipe under his boot. "Bennie..." Now Aesop was struggling to breathe, he grabbed Bennie's throat and tried to pull away. He didn't have a plan but he needed Bennie's forearm away from his throat, the look on Bennie's face was fierce.
===============================================
"Millie," said the little girl quietly. Then, more loudly, "it's um... short for Amelia."

A more stable man wouldn't immediately make the leap that Austin had, whether he was right or not, however to Austin the world was indeed very small and thus if someone shared a name they MUST have been the same person. It had led to failure in the past in his angered state, it wasn't a good thing for young Amelia that this time, he was right.

"Millie?" He asked, his nostrils twitched and even his broken hand appeared to pulse. "Amelia..." he chuckled to try and control himself as he dropped to one knee, close to the youngster, "Tell me 'Millie'," he said her name with, was it disgust? "Does the man who pretends to be your father, does he have a metal hand?"
===============================================
Alex had been sobbing. This beautiful baby was in his crib, safe and sound, and she had been looking at him all day with a smile on her face. Yet the second she took her eyes off him she broke down, head in her hands as she whimpered to herself. Her crying had made Austin cry as well. He was the only thing that made sense anymore. It had been months since Peter had lost his mind, months since he had betrayed her, killed most of her friends and even her mother. She was convinced she was over him, that she didn't love him anymore, she hated him. She loathed him, but if he could stay on her mind even now...

She could see him in her son. He certainly had more of a resemblance to her, but she couldn't deny that she could see some of the father in her son. She cursed Peter's name, screaming and cursing to the heavens why he had to be her son's father, and why she had fallen in love with him. He was the devil, a sick, lunatic demon. He'd thrown his humanity away and his mark had been left on his family-his biological family, they were no real family of his.

What if whatever was wrong with him was a mental disorder, not just a murderous God complex? What if it had been passed down to her son? Trembling as she stood up and looked down into the crib. And what she saw, was her beautiful baby boy. A blank slate, no evil, no good, just pure, true innocence. He hadn't had a chance to ruin his life or do anything terrible, he hadn't had a chance to make his life brilliant and do all sorts of good. She could teach him, she could mould him into a wonderful human being. Not the abomination that was the boy's father.

She wouldn't let a memory ruin him. She wouldn't let Peter take Austin's name from him. His life wouldn't be ruined by that monster.

Stirring in her forced sleep, her head was heavy, her ears ringing, her vision obscured. A terrible migraine racked her mind, she tried to rub her eyes, but she found herself tied tightly to a support beam. As she began to realise her situation, she realised just how contained she was. Talk about overkill, she could barely see her close there was that much rope tied around her. She was tied so tight in fact that it supported her as she stood standing against the support beam, but with such little strength she wasn't standing as much as she was being held up. She pulled up her head and tried to gain some composure, still exhausted and battered from the battle.

"I-Fuck Bennie I'm sorry-BUT YOU KNOW! ITS! Its, HE! FUCK!"

Ruffles stood next to Bennie, between Aesop and the door Carlos was being led out of.

"Aesop, we know. We know. But this ain't how we do things -look at me!- this is Pixie's business, alright? If she ain't stringing him up, what the fuck right do we have?"

Whiskey went with Cameron and Carlos.

"Alright, let's just get you into the kitchen," she said softly. "C'mon, let's get you some water, alright?"

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

"Does the man who pretends to be your father, does he have a metal hand?"

Pretends? What?

Still, Millie had only met her father the one time she could remember, aside from a vague memory of warm happiness. In the picture she had of him and mommy, he had been wearing soft leather gloves.

Still... it did kindle a memory... in the hospital, the metal backed hand.

"I... think so," she said nervously. She didn't like the sudden malevolence in his gaze.

"...Please, tell me: how big is the holy man?"

Why does everyone always go straight for my crotch? All this time Florian had seen people make the excuse that if women went around in skimpy clothing then they were going to attract all kinds of unwanted attention. Yet in all this time after joining the clergy Florian had found that it was actually the other way around! It was the plainly dressed men who should be afraid!

"You're a dedicated wingman, I'll give you that." Florian looked up at Owain, mimicking an English phrase Ruffles had taught him. "But it looks like she's already gotten me back to her place so..." He jerked his head towards the door. "I think we got this..."

God forgive me but I have to keep them talking. Florians wrists still worked cautiously at their fresh bonds, the distant sounds of gunfire sending cold shivers through his guts.

"I... think so,"

Austin tried to keep cool, he tried to stay with composed head he had kept all this time. But hearing this connection, that the world was indeed a tiny, tiny place. This small child that had unfortunately been brought into the world by a pretender was bad enough, but by the demon? The steel devil? The metal man who's name and face would live on folklore as the boogyman of Austin's memory?!

"Millie..." Austin's face warped into an angry smile, "little miss Amelia." Austin stood up chuckled to himself before chanting to the ceiling, "METAL MAN!" His voice shook the room, any form of control was out the window. "Metal maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!" He bit down on his hand in anticipation before turning around, his arms wide, leaning back and grinning at Millie. Sighing happily he said, "I knew this would happen." He spoke damn near high pitched as so many emotions clashed in his head, yet his enthusiasm trounced them all. "I knew, the second he spoke your name that I would meet you Miss Millie." As quick as a flash, he was then on his knees, inches away from her, his gargantuan hand on her tiny soldier. "Its fate, no more than fate! Destiny, no not even that its... its..." struggling with the words and ignoring the fear of the little girl Austin spoke confidently, "its justice." Smiling as if he had just committed some heroic feat, he carried on, "Justice that I could save you. Justice that my family would take Yuteni in time to swoop you out of the hands of the metal murderer. That man, oh that man!" He didn't realise he was squeezing her shoulder. "That man had killed your brothers and sisters without remorse!" He spat his words. "That man strove to take you away from me! Ooohhh but I wont let him, WE WON'T LET HIM!"

The young Austin had his back against the wall watching this all transpire. He wanted to intervene, to stop this but his fear had grabbed a hold of him like a vice grip. But at the moment this terrifying stranger took hold of Millie, he couldn't take it any more. Rushing forward and pushing the man away with all his might, the boy yelled, "STOP IT!"

The tyrant had barely felt the kid against his huge form, not moving an inch and still holding Millie's shoulder. "My son this it not the time to interfere." He was speaking sternly and slowly now, "I am talking to your sister." He motioned to Millie who was now terrified.

Confused, the youngster kept pushing the older man, violently now, "What! That doesn't-What!" He was pushing his giant chest now, hoping to budge this deranged man but to no avail, putting all of his might against him, even if it didn't stop him.

The Father meanwhile used his forearm to hold the boy back as gently as possible. "What is your name little boy?" He asked as calm as possible, despite his mood souring at the young boy interrupting an important lesson.

"S-S-S," the kid stuttered and struggled with his word, wincing as he wanted to keep open this sudden window of bravery.

"Out with it son!" Yelled the Cult leader growing frustrated.

"SS--SSS," the child was becoming angrier than he had ever been and boomed out with all the air in his lungs, "Same as you, you psycho! Austin! Austin, now let her go!" He grabbed the mans's arm he was holding Millie with and began shaking it, kicking him in the stomach.

"Austin?" The tyrant thought for a mere moment, not long enough however as he let down his guard and the boy bit down onto his arm with all his might. Pulling his arm away quickly he reeled back, standing back up and looking at the children. The other two children in the room were now standing with Austin and Millie, around the 5 year old girl as some kind of wall. She looked so shaken and scared yet something in them felt like, despite the danger, standing between the bad man and her was the right thing to do.

"Are you okay?" Little Austin asked, looking at her before casting his attention back to the man in the red robe.

"Austin..." the hulk of a man whispered to himself as he stared at his arm. The armed guard came forward to grab the children when Austin signalled them to halt. "Austin," he had made one leap of faith today and it had paid off, would another?

"Austin... North?"

The boy froze. "H-H-H-" His stutter now much more prevalent than earlier, "How did you know my name?"

"Austin... Austin..." The older man's chest was now shaking as his big wide eyes faced his son. His real son. "I'm... I-I'm your father." The elder Austin stuttered.

"What? Stop that!" Yelled the younger Austin. "You're just being weird and crazy-"

"No no no no no." The elder interrupted him. "Y-You're mother is Alexandria North yes?"

The boy backed up, his eyes wide and unable to answer.

"And she is the Sheriff of Yuteni, how old are you, 8 years old?"

The young Austin was completely froze, how could this man know so much.

He dropped to one knee once more. "Ten years ago, me and your mother fell in love, and after being together for a while, she became pregnant with you... and now here you are. My boy... my boy." Austin was clearly emotional, almost crying and for the first time he seemed vulnerable. "Take the other children, move them anywhere, me and my son must go and see my wife."

Resistance didn't matter as Austin's soldiers dragged the children away to separate areas of the ship, Austin himself took his biological son. Slinging the boy over his shoulder he began carrying him to where Mother was. The little Austin kicked and screamed, punching the back of his father's back, leaving no effect whatsoever. The armed guards were confused and couldn't deny feeling somewhat hurt as Austin referred to his biological as, 'His son,' but right now Austin didn't care. He had found his true spawn, and together with his wife on the ship they could be a real family again. He would sort how they fit in later, right now this was family.
===================================
"Aesop, we know. We know. But this ain't how we do things -look at me!- this is Pixie's business, alright? If she ain't stringing him up, what the fuck right do we have?"

Trying not to struggle Aesop replied, "I know, I know I just, god dammit fuck I, god dammit I fucked up I'm sorry I just, fffuck!" He bit down hard on his lip before saying once more, "I had no right, I know that, but I-" he then knew he would come to regret those next words. "The fuck do you expect me to do! He just told me what he did and he was right fucking there!"

Aesop made no attempt to sound like some knight in shining armour, but instead wanted to make clear his reaction, while not entirely justified, was not something to be ashamed of. This would lead to a shitstorm to be sure, and he was at fault, but considering the circumstances, he thought he could at least be understood, if not forgiven and certainly punished for it. This was not what Pixie needed right now, but to say Aesop was not himself was, well a lie. This was Aesop, for the first time in a long time. Clear headed, and trying to kill someone who desperately deserved it.

"...Please, tell me: how big is the holy man?"

Owain chuckled. "Aha, no, thanks. You can do that yourself."

"I think we got this..."

"Lovely," he said. "If you want it so badly, then maybe I will leave you two alone," he said.

"Well, Severa, shall I be off?" He grinned. "If there's any fun to be had here, I'm sure I'll find it."

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

"The fuck do you expect me to do! He just told me what he did and he was right fucking there!"

"I know how you feel," he said. "But Jesus, Aesop... you don't have to like him, but keep a lid on it, alright? And anyway, I'm not defending him, but that whole situation sounds like it was pretty fucked for him too, y'know."

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

Millie trembled as the other two children put themselves between her and the huge man as he carried Austin away. What was happening?

Amy didn't react to Pixie's reply, nor did she do anything when she left. She just sat there, drained, hollow. It was a strange feeling. She'd said everything that she'd wanted-no... needed to say. It was too late to take any of it back now, and even if she could go back, Amy knew she'd say the same things over again. That feeling of catharsis was marred, however, with the paralysing fear that her honesty had just ruined everything. When you offer yourself, whole and unfiltered, as Amy had just done, only to get it all pushed back in your face, was there any coming back from that?

She couldn't tell exactly how long her solitude lasted, only that it was broken by the sudden burst and crackle of static from the radio over by the bed. Grimly, she dragged herself to her feet, and walked through to it, clicking the receiver.

"Received. What's the message?"

The reply was even shorter than her question.

"He's in Yuteni."

"Understood."

The radio went dead, and Amy rose with a new look of dark determination in her eyes. Here was something she could do. She didn't know if she could ever reconcile her world with Pixie's. she didn't know if she could ever possess the faith that the Maidens required; but helping her sisters, and helping to bring that lunatic to justice... it wouldn't fix anything, but it would feel damn good.

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

Clear of the intense battle for Frostfall (or what would be left of it anyway), The Gentleman was taking shelter in an abandoned cellar. This breather, in a quieter district, gave him time to process the events of the last few hours, and think about what to do next. The Lombardi siblings had not been sent to kill him, he was sure. Even Owain had basically said as much. Were they really so out of control as to try anyway? Severa might well have been, but The Gentleman would have thought that Owain, sardonic little cad that he was, would have possessed more sense. In any case, he was clear of them now. In the midst of all the destruction, The Gentleman could leave unnoticed at any time.

So what was he waiting for?

Florian was a sentimental fool Had he not rushed off in pursuit of Vasa, this entire mess could have been avoided; and it wasn't even as if The Gentleman was worried about Pixie's reaction. There were a hundred different stories that he could tell that would exonerate him in her eyes, saving her anger for The Lombardi's, or Vasa. Still, what those two would do to him, even The Gentleman would have to admit that nobody deserved to simply be left t that fate! Besides, if he ran , he would only be delaying another confrontation. It was time to show Lady Contessa that he was in no mood for games. If she wanted to bring him to heel, the least she could do was send professionals after him.

"Sorry, man, but we can't let anyone through here right now."

"You've gotta be kidding me!" Sandringham exclaimed in frustration. "Listen, you soldier-boys have any idea how quickly an air-filter can fail if it doesn't get regular check-ups? This ain't shiny new tech our guys are dealing with here. Orders or no orders, you wanna be the guy responsible for a catastrophic air-quality corruption? It's worse than someone blowing a hole in the dome, cause people don't even get any warning before their lungs start filling up with toxic gas!" He stopped himself and held up a hand before the guard could answer. "Sorry! I'm sorry. It's a long shift. We're all just trying to do our jobs here, I know. Tell you what..." He leaned a little further out of his window and smiled at the guard. "Our number's on the side of the van. If you could just give our manager a quick call on that number, then he can tell you our schedule checks out, and you can wave us through with peace of mind that everything's legit. Everybody's happy, right?"

The guard shook his head and tapped his rifle, "Sorry Sir, but this order comes in from the top. We have refugees attempting to flee the city. If I let you through this gate I will lose more than just my job."

Ortega parked the crawler next to the sidewalk, several yards behind the two vans. Tapping the steering wheel impatiently, he shook his head, "What do you think?" He asked Asad, keeping his gaze on the suspicious van.

Asad furrowed his brow, leaning forward slowly, "Two vans for an air filter repair?" He raised his head slightly as he rubbed at the stubble on his neck. "I don't know, maybe I'm just looking too hard."

Ortega nodded, "Agreed. If we had the time I'd call in and check their manifest, but bullets will already be flying by the time they confirm our suspicions." Looking to Asad, he took note of his subtle anxiety and frowned. "Relax."

"And if something important fails because we don't get to do our jobs, what do you think you and everyone else will be losing then?" Sandringham retorted, before sighing in vain.

"Look, if you really wanna be thorough, you can search the vans. I mean it, comb them up and down. That way, when you let us though, nobody can say you didn't take every precaution."

Sprout's eyes darted around the van. Search it!? What was he thinking!?

Cranston gritted his teeth and nodded to Lilith. They'd have to be ready to open fire as soon as the doors opened.

"Shit," Ortega muttered as he fingered his radio. "Do not search the vehicle. I repeat: do not search the vehicle. It's a trap. Turn them away. Now." Looking to Asad, he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "We'll cut off their escape route once they choose one. Call your buddies and have them head this way."

The guard shook his head, his finger twitching on the trigger of the rifle at his side, "We're under a state of fucking emergency here! What part of that don't you understand?! Turn your vehicle around! NOW!" The other guards nearby readied their weapons as a show of force, but did not line up shots just yet.

Maria took deep breaths as the conversation when on between the guard and the agent. She gasped and almost jumped as the former individual shouted the order to turn around. Doubt had already been creeping into her mind since the whole operation had started, and this wasn't helping any. Quietly, she stuck to - or tried to stick to - just willing success. Though, it was more of a case of prayering. Regardless of current circumstances, they had to succeed.

Sandringham gave a curt nod, and said "You're the boss." before the agent sitting in the passenger seat leaned forward, and shot the guard through the head.

Simultaneously, a chorus of muffled shots started, as men poured out of both vans and started picking off targets without hesitation. Those in the front seats didn't even move, simply drawing and gunning down the men they'd picked through the windshields. With rapid precision, all the guards on the gate had been taken out in the space of a few seconds, with none having time to effectively return fire.

Asad nodded at Ortega as he thumbed his radio. "Harel here, looks like we might have a little pro-SHIT" Asad quickly hopped over the back of the crawler as their suspicions were confirmed. Hunkering down behind the crawler, he grabbed his radio. "They're here! The Maidens are here! Security at the South Gate is down, get your asses down here now!"

Sandringham gunned the van forward to the gate, and swung it round to a stop just in front. The drive of the other van did the same, forming a barricade of the two vehicles, as those who had already dismounted ran to take up defensive positions.

"Set the charges." Sandringham ordered, before calling out to the Maiden's, "Get behind here and stay low, were about to have company!"

Bryan thumbed his radio. "Roger that, Ass-bandit," he replied. "On my way round. We might be able to flank 'em from the back."

Turning in his seat, he clapped the grunt in the driver's seat on the shoulder. "Floor it lad. I want us at the South gate two minutes ago."

And there it was.

Jun checked his rifle. Satisfied, he sunk into an appropriate mindset.

His back up against the reinforced, steel frame of the crawler, Ortega was confident in their position. For now, "ALL UNITS FALL IN ON THE SOUTH GATE! I REPEAT, FALL IN ON THE SOUTH GATE! SANDRINGHAM IS HERE!" Reaching over his head, he grabbed his plasma rifle from the back of the crawler. "We've got better men and bigger guns. We've got this."

"Already?!" Tsubaki remarked to no one in particular. She damn-near caused a car wreck as she spun the wheel without warning and sped off in the opposite direction she'd been going. Hopefully she wouldn't be too late.

Cranston stood by the van in case they needed to bail. Peering through the window, he issued his orders, "You three will be safe in here. They want Elizabeth alive. They will know not to torch the vans."

"What's going on out there!?" Elizabeth asked, nervously.

"We're blowing the gate. Lilith, cover them but stay close by, okay?"

"íMierda!" Maria swore.

Lilith tightened the grip on her rifle as she looked up at Cranston. "They won't even get close."

Asad nodded, "You might be after Sandringham, but the Maribel girl is our responsibility." He smirked as he flipped the safety on his rifle. "The commander would kill me if I just let you guys take over."

Ortega nodded, "Lord Basilio would be more than a little cross with me if I let his bride get blow up, so you don't need to worry about that. Still," He looked down at his rifle, ensuring the plasma casing wasn't compromised. "Sandringham's cell is the priority. They present a great threat to Lord Baslio's interests. Anyway, enough of this shit. We've got a job to do. As soon as reinforcements show up we fire on the explosives team. Got that?"

The Crawler made a sharp turn, and Bryan felt the wind of it ripple across his face. He hit the radio again. "We just turned onto the south road now, Commander. It's a straight shot and we're moving as fast as we can to flank 'em. What's your ETA?"

"Two, three minutes! SHIT!" She shouted into the radio as she narrowly avoided crashing head-on with a dump truck. "I'll be there soon! Over!" Tsubaki sighed.

These streets are way too busy. If this turns into a chase I'm not so sure we'll be able to keep up.

"Roger that, Commander," said Bryan. "We can see 'em now."

Twisting in his seat, he peered up at Jun while he loosened his swords in their combined sheath. "Do what you do best," he said. Then to the driver, "get me in close."

Jun nodded, got out of the crawler, took position and surveyed the area by looking through the sniper rifle's scope. His index finger curled and uncurled around the trigger. Mustn't be too hasty, best to get a really good first, after all.

"Charges set!" The conformation rang out, and Sandringham was on the move. He was about to marshal everyone back into the vans, so they could get clear of the blast (it took more than you're average shaped charge to blow through even the weak points of a domes emergency blast-gates), when a bright white glare flashed across his vision for no more than a split second. Floodlights, reflecting off a scope.

"Sniper!" he called out, "Everyone down!"

In unison, the squad took cover. They may well have been adequately armed enough to hold down this position at relatively close-quarters, but their suppressed SMG's didn't stand a chance of hitting anything at long range.

"First squad, lay down some cover, defensive pattern Charlie. Second, on me."

While he and six of his agents stacked up behind one of the vans, the other six all primed and threw grenades down the street. Even while the missiles were arcing through the air, they hissed and left trails of white smoke. Teargas. Sandringham's men, already masked up, were protected, and he hoped the same could not be said for Basilio's men. Though in truth, all Sandringham needed was for the enemy's field of fire to be obscured for long enough for first squad to flank. His men were almost certainly out-gunned, and if they weren't outnumbered already, they would be soon. Try and defend by attrition, and they'd be picked off one man at a time. If they wanted to get clear of this, they had to find away to get back on the offensive.

"SHIT!" Ortega grasped the radio on his vest, "They've got gas! All units, breathers, NOW!"

----zzzztttt----"We're comin' in hot, Colonel!"----zzzztttt----, Carter barked as he flew down the street opposite towards the barricade, opposite of where Jun and Bryan had set up. The two solders opened fire as soon as they got in range, the tear gas hadn't yet spread to their side of the road.

"Lay down supressive fire, NOW!" Ortega ordered Asad. They couldn't see a damn thing, but they could keep them on their toes at the very least.

Seeing the new comers flying at them fast, Cranston pointed to westside of the formation, "Lilith! Go cover that flank!" Just as he was turning his head once more, a hail of plasma fire came raining down from up the street, where they'd come from. After returning fire he cursed under his breath. An SMG was not the ideal weapon for this.

As their Crawler swept closer, Bryan braced himself against the dashboard, one hand wrapped around the twinned hilts of his swords.

"Hey Jun, y'see that van on the left, yeah? We're gonna get close. I want you to shoot the door, try and break its latch. I want the door open so we can get a proper look at the fuckers!"

"Roger." Jun replied. Inwardly, the soldier made a mental note of yet another nitpick of his performance. Nevertheless, too late to worry about that now. Just move with the moment and react to things as they come, that's all he needed to do. Jun quickly moved into a better position for the shot, from assumptions of where the van's door might be, tilting his body slight. Next came the simple flick of a switch and a simple search through the green haze. It wasn't ideal; he could see the people inside clearly enough but the door was just a faint outline. The alternative - trying to see through the thick smoke - was much worse, however. Regardless, his eye darted towards the rectangular shape of the latch, followed by a squeeze of the trigger.

Lilith swore under her breath as she pushed herself as close to the van as humanly possible. This wasn't good, they were wide open, there was no way they could hold out for very long in this position, especially if they had a sniper like Sandringham believed. "Who dares, wins." She muttered under her breath as she began to lean around the side of the van, just as a shot blasted a hole in the latch of the rear doors. "Shit!" She called out shielding her eyes as she stepped back behind cover. Did they know which van Elizabeth was in? They couldn't, not yet, no way they'd risk filling it with holes.

"This is the part where they have an ace up their sleeve." Asad muttered. "No way it's this easy." He clenched his jaw as he saw a plume of smoke from a grenade erupt into the air.

A deafening "boom" echoed throughout the hollow interior of the van as the high velocity round exploded on the door latch. Elizabeth almost peed herself as she sprung into Maria's arms, "JESUS!" She gasped.

Sprout could see how terrifed she was, but could do little to help the situation. He was in no position to fight, after all, "EVERYTHIN' OKAY OUT THERE!?"

"PEACHY!" Cranston barked back as he moved to the back of the van to see another crawler racing down the street. "Shit." He could see them now. Their weapons. Their uniforms. They were Feroxi Special Ops. Whose men, he wasn't sure. "SANDRINGHAM!" He had to shout over the sound of battle. "THE GATE'S A NO-GO, WE NEED TO PULL OUT NOW! LOSE THEM IN THE CITY! IF WE GO OUT ONTO THE ASHLANDS WITH THESE FUCKERS ON OUR HEELS WE'LL BE SITTING DUCKS!"

Maria had just shrunk down with her head on her hands as the bullet made its impact, almost on reflex. Less than half a second later, suddenly there was a frightened Elizabeth to take care of. Maria swiftly got her head out of her arms and used them to embrace the young noble. There was no mistaking it, they were wide open. The doctor's eyes darted widely, trying to take in what was happening, and what was all of the shouting about. When the status of the situation sunk in, she could hardly keep hoping for success. Maria looked down and muttered, "So, what are we going to do?"

"Working on it, old-timer." Sandringham replied calmly into his radio, as second squad advanced up the flank. Silently, he marshalled his men into their positions, before breaking from cover to open fire on the, now-exposed force ahead of them. Before the Feroxi special forces reacted, and the world became a lethal exchange of close-quarters fire, Sandringham saw at least four enemy targets go down.

"Get them out of here, Cranston!" he called, taking a knee behind cover as plasma bolts whistled overhead. "First Squad will stay on you as cover. We'll draw the hostiles away into the back streets, before rendez-vous at the East Gate."

"I mean if I had the Carbon, then maybe I'd consider getting something simple like a pistol, but with they way things are, it's something only the affluent can afford."

Mila smirked, "It doesn't help it's illegal for civvies to own them in most domes neither." That said, Mila set up shop in one of the lanes and gestured towards two nearby for her companions to use. "Check this shit out." She mused as she leveled her weapon and fired a controlled burst down the range. Even from a lane away, Viola could feel the heat from the plasma.

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

Bennie simply held Aesop at bay while Ruffles talked him down. Better someone he knows well than Bennie. If not for Ruffles, he may have ended up splitting Aesop's head open on the corner of the nightstand nearby. After Whiskey and Cameron had gotten Carlos out of the room, Bennie relinquished his hold. Just then, he heard another pair of boots walking down the hall outside. Giving Aesop one last glare, Bennie turned on his heel and headed out the door.

There she was, heading straight for the garage. What the hell was Pixie thinking? Spotting Cameron at the end of the hall, Bennie ushered her over, "Make sure Aesop doesn't do anything stupid while I am gone."

Cameron cocked her eyebrow, "Where are you going?"

"Out," Bennie stated plainly. "Can you handle it?"

"Yeah, don't worry about him, Bennie. I got it."

"Good." Bennie nodded, allowing Cameron into the room.

Closing the door behind her, Cameron looked to Ruffles, "How's he doing?"

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

"Pixie!" Bennie barked as he jogged up from behind her. Placing his hand on her shoulder, he furrowed his brow. "You okay, girl?"

Pixie offered a sarcastic grin, "Been better. Is Carlos okay? I heard shoutin'."

"He'll live."

"Good," Pixie replied as she lead them through the door at the end of the hall and into the garage. Opening the driver-side door of the nearest crawler, she turned her head to look at Bennie. There was a sad look in her eye. "I was planin' ta' go out there alone."

"Plans change," Bennie grinned. Seeing her return the smile was all the excuse he needed to circle around the front of the vehicle and get in on the passenger-side. "Anywhere specific in mind?"

Pixie closed the door and turned on the engine, "There ain't shit out there, Carmine. We're out in the middle'a goddamn nowhere." She laughed.

"Wouldn't have it any other way." He said as he reclined the seat, stretched out his arms and got comfortable.

The two of them road off into the night. Into the empty void in the sky. The black canvas that spread out across the ashlands, dotted haphazardly with bright, shining dots. Though she'd always been so afraid of being alone, Pixie had secretly always cherished the emptiness of her homeworld. The blank, desolate wasteland was... peaceful. Quiet.

Something she didn't get to enjoyed often enough.

After at least a half-hour of driving, Pixie road the crawler up the side of a tall hill and parked it at its peak, where they had a brilliant view of the night sky. The two continued their shared silence for a long time before Bennie finally spoke, "You've been smoking."

Pixie chuckled, "How'd you know?"

"I can smell your breath." He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a fresh pack of cigarettes.

Flipping one out of the pack, Pixie kept her eye on his as he place one between her lips. Producing a lighter, he held it up to her so she could light it. She took her time, letting the flame dance on the end of her cigarette long after it had been lit. Pixie took a long, deep drag and exhaled before speaking, "Bennie."

"Pixie." Bennie replied in the same tone as he lit his own cigarette.

"If you were me, how would you 'ave handled this whole situation?" She was looking off into the cosmic abyss before her as she spoke. Watching her, Bennie could swear that anything he would say would be lost on her. He'd seen her like this before. She was swimming in the stars right now. The space they shared in the small crawler was nothing compared to the beauty she had lost herself in.

Still, Bennie humored her, "I would have cut my losses. You hauled in enough carbon. That more than makes up for the loss of the ship. Yeah, it's sentimental, but with that kind of money and Ruffles' expertise? Well, damn Pixie, you could probably get the best fuckin' hunk of steel on the Rock. Fuck Austin. Leave him for the nobles to handle. You know that, even with the Iron Maiden, he won't last long out there."

He took a long drag before continuing, "Sure, he takes out one or two settlements before he's put down, but that ain't our problem. With the surplus manpower we'd have by not going after him, we could send a team to Feroxi to extract Cranston and the kids. Maybe even bring back the Maribel girl, too."

"It shoulda been me." Pixie whispered before taking another drag.

"What do you mean?"

Pixie sighed, resting her forehead in her hand, "Four years ago. It should'a been me who left. Not you."

Bennie shook his head, "No, Pixie. Don't think like that. You're like a mother to them. There ain't an Iron Maiden without Pixie. Plus, after my major fuck up they'd have never followed me."

"I'd 'ave done the same thin' in yer shoes, Bennie."

"Yeah, which is why you kicked me out, right?"

Pixie nodded slowly, her eye still searching the cosmos. After a short silence, Pixie continued, "How was it? Bein' alone all that time?"

Bennie offered a sad laugh, "Lonely, I guess."

"I'm sorry, Bennie," Pixe whispered, before swallowing past a knot in her throat. "It wasn' fair of me ta' do what I did."

"Hey," Bennie rubbed Pixie's shoulder. "It's in the past now, right? I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."

"How'd yer talk with Amy go?"

Bennie cocked an eyebrow, "You knew?"

"'Course I did." Pixie smirked.

"It... went."

"What'd ya' tell 'er?"

Bennie laughed, "Exactly what you'd think."

"How'd she take it?" Pixie smoked her cigarette to the butt and proceeded to light up another.

"She denied it. Denied everything I said. She's willing to fight for you. She's willing to make me an enemy. Worried she'll try some shit. Maybe stir something up. I don't know."

Pixie frowned, "I'll handle it, no need ta' worry, Bennie. She's 'armless."

Bennie really laughed this time, "You said that..."

Pixie shared in the laugh, "Yeah, well, she didn' stab ya', did she?"

"She didn't," Bennie shrugged. "Speaking of stabbing, how the leg?"

"You've been shot in the leg," Pixie chuckled. "What do ya' think?"

"Hurts like a bitch?"

"Fuck yeah, it does," She cracked a smirk as she took a brief drag.

The two of them shared hardy laugh before falling into a long, comfortable silence. Bennie had joined Pixie in her star gazing, appreciating the simple beauty of nature, something he had rarely done in his life.

After a time, Pixie looked to Bennie for the first time since they'd stopped the crawler, "I'm sorry fer all this, Bennie. I'm sorry I'm so fucked up... that I can' get my shit straight. That I... I've got some fuckin' teenager hangin' all on me right in front of you. I jus'... I don' get it."

"Get what?" Bennie returned her gaze.

"Why? Why, Bennie?" She broke eye contact, casting her eye downward. "Why do you love me? After all this?"

"That's an easy one," Bennie turned back towards the stars. "It's the way you say my name." Pixie looked at him, dumbstruck. Bennie glanced at her in his periphery and smirked. "The way you say it, 'Bennie'. No matter how mad or upset you are, I can always sense the love in your words. That's how I know."

Pixie was afraid to ask, "Know what?"

"That you still love me."

It was in that moment that Pixie accepted that simple truth. She'd been trying to bury it all this time. Drown it out with noise, but she could do so no longer. He was right. He'd always been right.

But she couldn't do it. No, she'd fucked up too much. She couldn't ruin his life any more than she already had. She didn't deserve him. He was too good for her. He'd always been too good for her. She had to deny him. She just had to! She didn't know what else she could do.

"No," Pixie shook her head. "Not like that, yer wrong."

Bennie sighed and took a long drag, "You can tel yourself that..."

"Look, I'm sorry, Bennie! I really am but..." Pixie didn't know what to say, but she couldn't stop talking, regardless. The words spilled out of her faster than she could think. "Look, I love you like I love Sprout n' Lilith n' Cranston an' Ruffles. I do fuckin' anythin' fer you. You know that! You fuckin' know that! I jus'... I can't do that. I'm sorry, Bennie."

She hadn't even realized she was grabbing his arm until he replied, "Not good enough, Pixie."

Pixie was growing manic, "Bennie. Bennie! Listen, I'll do anythin' fer you! Anythin' you ask ta' make this right! Jus' not that! I'm sorry!" She shook his arm. "Please. Please, Bennie. I can' 'ave you resent me like this!"

Bennie clenched his jaw and met her gaze. She looked like a neglected daughter begging her father not to leave her alone. This was just her being selfish. She couldn't stand the thought of someone she loved so much turning their back on her, "You know my answer." He sated plainly before looking back out the window.

Pixie bit her lip and looked down at her hand as it clutched his sleeve. While her mind performed mental gymnastics in a vain attempt to find some way around Bennie's logic; to subvert his demands, her body was already on the move. Crawling over the console the separated them, Bennie held out his hand sin protest as she straddled him in his seat, "What the fuck, Pixie?!"

Caressing his cheek with the hand holding her cigarette, Pixie grabbed him by the wrist with her other hand and forcefully guided it to her chest, "I'll do anythin', Bennie. Anythin' ta' stop you from lookin' at me like that! Please!"

"Cut this shit out, Pixie!" Bennie barked, wrestling his hand free. He was more flustered than angry, but it was only a matter of time.

Bringing her lips inches from his, she looked at him in the eye, "Fuck me. Fuck me, Bennie. I'll be anythin' fer you, Bennie." She forced his hand down her pants. "FUCK M---"

Her demand broke into a shrill whimper as Bennie's hand came across the side of Pixie's face, "I SAID STOP IT!"

Pixie grabbed the throbbing bruise on her cheek and simply sat there in silence as her mind processed what had just happened. Bennie, still breathing heavily, sat back and watched her. Trembling from the shock, Pixie got off of Bennie and sat back down in the driver's seat, still holding her cheek.

This time, the silence was uncomfortable. Deafening, even.

After a long time had passed, Bennie shook his head, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have hit you."

Pixie didn't answer right away.

You stupid bitch. Always fuckin' runnin'.

Looking out the side window, Pixie wiped a rogue tear from her eye, "No, it's okay." She turned the crawler on. "We should head back." Bennie looked at her, concern painted on his face and nodded.

The ride back was somehow quieter than the ride up.

"It doesn't help it's illegal for civvies to own them in most domes neither." Mila remarked as she set up in a nearby lane, and motioned towards two that were close to her for Viola and Hannibal to use. "Check this shit out." She then fired a controlled burst down at the targets, partially melting the one she was aiming at. Despite the distance, Viola still had to put a hand up in front of her face to block the bright green light that the plasma gave.

Viola gave a half smile as she readied her rifle. "Certainly an effective weapon in the right hands, though I imagine someone not as well trained would go for the spray n' pay approach like most semi-automatics afford." She remarked in a nonchalant manner before firing off three shots in quick succession, each one finding a home in a target and accompanied by sound as they were knocked down. Her eyes hadn't blinked at all during it.

"Now then, how many 'bursts' can that thing fire before you have to reload, recharge, wait for it to cool-down, whatever the correct term is when talking about plasma weapons."

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