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

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"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."

Finally Bennie had let him go. Aesop kept leaning against the wall, panting now. He stayed panting for a bit before replying. "I know... I know but," putting a hand to his face he continued, "I'm sorry what I'm about to say is gonna sound like bullshit but, maybe it was cos he was in the room? Maybe cos I had just heard it..." suddenly more aggressive, he continued, "Fuck, you would have kicked his ass too if-" he then stopped himself, realising what he was doing. "Christ." He sat down on the floor once more.

"I fucked up, yeah I know. And I ain't got an excuse. I reacted like a child, I get it." He undid his ponytail and let his hair dangle onto his shoulders before saying much calmer. "I had no right and I get that, and I'm not gonna use Austin as an excuse because yeah, I just wanted to kill Carlos. I know Bennie's pissed, I know Pixie'll be pissed, and I know you're probably pissed so go on, lay it on me."
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Hannibal could actually feel the heat of the gun as it shot out against the target, he shuffled back a few steps. "Wow." He said in awe, "do it again!" He said in mock excitement, as he wanted a distraction in order to slink away to snoop around.

"I had no right and I get that, and I'm not gonna use Austin as an excuse because yeah, I just wanted to kill Carlos. I know Bennie's pissed, I know Pixie'll be pissed, and I know you're probably pissed so go on, lay it on me."

Ruffles pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. "Look, man. Shit's fucked right now. Everything that could conceivably go wrong... seems like it's gone pretty fucking wrong." Groaning, he turned and kicked the wall. His steel toe-capped boot took a sizable chip out of the plaster.

"Look, the fact is we've already got too much shit to deal with, without your god damn shenanigans on top of it, man!"

"How's he doing?"

Had she heard that? Ruffles was now vaguely aware that he'd been shouting.

"I don't... he's fine, I guess."

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Down in the kitchen now, Whiskey ran the tap until the water was practically chilled before filling the glass and sliding across the table to Carlos. Then she slumped down in the chair opposite him.

"So," she said. "That's a thing."

Cranston didn't waste anytime, "LILITH, WE"RE GOING!" He barked as he leaped into the driver's seat. "HANG ON BACK THERE!"

"Take the crawler and go after them!" Ortega ordered Asad. "They're your target. Sandringham is mine!" With that, he broke cover and laid down a hail of plasma fire on his enemy's position, hitting at least one, center-mass, before finding new cover in a nearby alley.

Hopping into the passenger seat, her back to the dashboard, she knelt as she rested her rifle on the back of of the seat. "HEADS DOWN, LADIES!" Glancing at Cranston, she smirked slightly. "Think you can keep her steady?"

"Roger that!" Asad replied as he got to his feet and quickly clambered into the driver's seat of the crawler. Quickly driving after the Maidens, he thumbed his radio. "Commander, change of plan! The Maidens are moving again, might be heading to the East Gate! O'Lafferty, Moon, what's your status?"

"West of the South gate," replied Bryan. "Moving to pursue. If Carter can slow 'em down, we might be able to do this."

Pausing to pick up Jun, the Crawler accelerated sharply, speeding towards the rapidly deserting south gate.

Jun wasted no time getting into the Crawler, afterwards he simply gave a reply of, "Ready to pursue."

"Roger that, Harel, they're headed right for me!" Tsubaki barked into her radio as she swurved past two other vehicles. Gritting her teeth, she readied her plasma pistol with one hand and kept the crawler steady with the other.

Two more crawlers came barrelling down the road past Ortega's position. More of his squad answering the call. Sandringham had a lot on his plate now. Grinning, Ortega broak cover once more and started spraying plasma bolts at the remaining van, "TAKE THEM OUT!"

Cranston didn't answer Lilith. He was in no mood for witty one liners right now. The crawler blocking their path had been flipped over from a grenade blast moments earlier. One of Chimera squad was still crawling out of the wreckage when they drove by. As they flew down the street, towards the East Gate, Cranston shook his head and called out over his shoulder, "If the gate heavily fortified we're going to have to abort the escape! We can go to ground in the city, but we won't have much time to plan before----SHIT!" Cranston muttered as he spotted another enemy crawler fly past the barricade, hot on their tail.

"Sprout, Lilith! Open up the doors and let 'em have it!"

Sprout looked to Lilith, fear gripping him, "Ya' ready, Lily?" He inched closer to the back door, ready to fire when they got within range.

Nodding, Lilith buried her shoulder into the stock of her rifle as she pressed herself against the back of her seat. "Sprout! Now!"

As Axel kicked open the rear doors of the van, Lilith drew a deep breath as she quickly moved her eye to the scope. As the pursuing crawler came instantly into view, her sights resting immediately on the driver. Without hesitating she squeezed the trigger, immediately pulling back the bolt on her rifle to load the next round as the back of the driver's head exploded.

Bryan winced as blood and skull fragments rained over the side of his head. The poor bastard never had a chance.

Reaching over with his left hand, he held the steering wheel firm as the dead driver's weight pressed the accelerator. With his right, he drew his plasma pistol. While he fancied himself decent with the thing, plasma was a tricky bitch. He didn't want to maim the innocent bystander they were there to collect.

As he barged the decapitated corpse out of the crawler, struggling to keep the vehicle under control, Bryan threw himself into the driver's seat. Best just give them something to think about. He squeezed the trigger and a pulsing green arc of plasma lashed out like a whip as he swept the weapon across. Part of the flapping door boiled away and where the arc of plasma grazed the ceiling, it glowed cherry red.

With the vehicle under control, he kept his gun up, ready to return fire. "Hey Jun, the lass has you beat on points so far."

The sniper rifle lay on the seat adjacent to Jun while he took aim with his sidearm. He had nothing to say to Bryan, even though the remark was nothing but grating. At least their opponents were so kind to open up the doors in the first place, but that and the huge hole Bryan had created left both parties open to gunfire - it was a double-edged sword. Still, Jun had just one simple thing to do: fire back. He did so.

Maria almost curled up into a ball as parts of the van doors melted away into nothing, all too conscious of the heat given off by the glowing metal. Soon pain joined the circus of fear, panic and blistering heat. A red line across her left arm dripped with blood. Hurt, she cried out. Afterwards, she clenched her teeth and ferreted around in her doctor's bag for a bandage. She then wrapped one around the wound and held it tight.

"MARIA!" Elizabeth screamed as she grabbed hold of her. Maria ignored her comforting gesture, however, and immediately set to work patching herself up. "Thank God you're okay..."

USELESS! USELESS! USELESS!

Spying a discarded pistol on the floor of the van, likely left during all the chaos at the gate, Elizabeth lept into action.

"What the fuck!? Get back where it's safe!" Sprout commanded as Elizabeth appeared behind him.

"You're spent," Elizabeth said, ushering him out of the way. "I've got a full magazine."

Checking the chamber, Sprout realized she had been correct and stepped back to reload, "You sure you know what yer doin', Liz?" He asked as he frantically loaded six bullets into the chamber.

"No!" She replied, taking aim and firing several shots in the direction of the pursuing crawler.

With Bryan and Jun on the Maidens' tail, Asad made screeched down the narrow alleys of Feroxi in an attempt to cut them off. "Never corner a fox." He muttered to himself as every gut instinct was screaming at him. Throwing the crawler around a corner, the tires screeched as he slammed his foot on the gas.

'Never corner a damn fox.'

Jun sighed as their target started firing at the crawler in one of the most inept displays of shooting he had ever seen. Even if some of the bullets found their way into parts of the crawler, metal blasting off as the projectiles sped into them. Thankfully, nothing important got hit, if anything did get hit. The soldier responded with just one bullet, knocking the gun out of the young noble's hands. 'Just stay in the back.'

Elizabeth yelped in shock as the bullet ricocheted off of her pistol, sending it flying towards the front of the van.

USELESS!

"GET DOWN!" Sprout shouted, forcing Elizabeth behind him as he stepped up and fired. His aim was true.

At that moment, Bryan was glad he was wearing sunglasses when the windshield broke, and shards rained over him. As it did, he grunted and the crawler veered slightly as he reeled. It felt like he'd taken a roundhouse kick to the chest.

When he didn't appear to have trouble breathing, Bryan reasoned that he wasn't mortally injured. If it hadn't been for the kevlar, the little bastard would have gotten a kill shot on him.

"Maybe that's what chain smoking feels like," he muttered, flipping the kid off before sending a bolt of plasma at one of the tires.

As the crawler gained speed down the straight alleyway, Asad pulled out his pistol. "Coming out in front of them now!" The man shouted into his radio, moments before crashing through a number of garbage bins and out onto the street, spinning the crawler to a halt not fifty feet from the approaching van. Quickly scrambling to his feet, one foot on the edge of the crawler, Asad fired several shot at the driver side windshield.

"FUCK!" Cranston shouted as he felt the back-right tire explode, causing the van to wobble out of control. By the time he'd gotten it steady, he had another problem on his hands. Veering to the left as the new combatant arrived on the scene, a hail of bullets pierced through the windshield, scattering glass everywhere. Ducking down under the dashboard, Cranston managed to survive the assault with graze to ribs.

Gritting his teeth, he peered over the steering wheel just enough to see if he was clear of the crawler as he passed, " SPROUT, WE'RE PASSING ONE ON THE RIGHT!" He shouted over his shoulder. The entire van shook violently as it swiped across the front of Asad's crawler.

Trying to keep himself on his feet as the van shook, Sprout dropped to one knee, ignoring the pain in his chest and pulled his sawed-off shotgun from over his shoulder. Pointing it out the back, he fired two bursts in the direction of the new arrival as they passed him by.

Maria held on for dear life as the van lurched about and snatched a look into the front part of the van just to see whether Cranston was okay. That done, she turned to the back and said, "Everyone holding up?"

Asad swore as the van ploughed through the front of the crawler, hopping to the back of the vehicle, he turned to face the fleeing van, just in time to get a few pellets of buckshot in his shoulder.

"Fucking foxes." He winced in pain slightly, grasping his shoulder as a small smirk curled his lips. Hopping off his crawler, he quickly flagged down Bryan and Jun, jumping into the back seat before continuing the pursuit.

Bryan glanced back at Asad before speeding up again. "No," he said in a slow voice. "We no want our windshield wiped. As ya can see, we don't have one." He chuckled and then grimaced as his chest burned again. "That fuckin' cunt."

Elizabeth staggered over to Maria's side to ensure she was okay before turning her attention towards the front, "We need to lose these guys!"

"Working on it!" Cranston shot back, holding his aching ribs. "Lilith! Take these guys out to pasture!"

Lilith breathed through her teeth in frustration. With the van swerving the way it was, she was struggling to get a bead on anything.

"Damn it guys, stop shaking the bloody van!" She snapped at Sprout and Elizabeth as they scrambled around. Looking down her scope, she hovered over the enemy crawler as it quickly began to close the gap.

"Steady, steady."

Firing in quick succession, the bullet casings bouncing off the inside of the van as she loaded each round, Lilith buried four shots into the engine of the crawler, quickly opening the chamber as she thumbed five rounds into the weapon. Slamming the bolt into position, she took aim before quickly firing another shot into the same target.

"Come on!"

Bang.

"Come ooooon!"

Bang.

"You fucking cu-YES!" The engine erupted, as smoke began billowing from the bullet holes, shards of metal pouring onto the road.

The Crawler scraped to a halt. Bryan pressed the accelerator futilely and then shrugged. "Well played." He thumbed his radio. "Crawlers down, Commander."

Turning in his seat, he looked at Asad and Jun. "Reckon it's worth running after 'em like dick heads?"

"I fucking knew it." Asad said simply, shrugging his shoulders as he kicked his feet up on the side of the crawler. Shifting his shoulder, he groaned in frustration.

"Dad told me never to corner a fox."

Bryan scowled. "Do foxes even exist anymore?"

"Fuck if I know, I just know not to corner 'em." Asad ran a hand through his hair. "Really fucking dangerous or something."

"FUCK YEAH, LILY!" Sprout patted her on the shoulder. "Taught those fuckers what's up!"

Cranston smirked, "We're not out of the woods yet, kids."

Tsubaki furrowed her brow, Dammit.

"Roger that, O'Lafferty. I should be on them any moment now." She was flying now.

Jun fired off a few futile shots at the van before it got out of range of his pistol. He took a breath in through clenched teeth, almost hissing as he seethed at the Maiden's escape. Jun grabbed his sniper rifle and got out of the busted crawler, ignoring the bickering going on in front of him.

Bryan shrugged. "Ratty, cunning scavengers is what I heard they were." he grinned. "Bit like me in that respect, I guess."

"Ratty, cunning scavengers who kicked our asses." Asad corrected, smirking slightly. As Tsubaki came in over the radio, Asad furrowed his brow slightly. "She can't do shit alone, suppose we better haul ass." He groaned as he got to his feet.

Bryan shrugged and hopped out of the crawler. "Always was happier running than driving, anyhow. Let's go."

"Roger." Jun muttered as he started to run.

"But it looks like she's already gotten me back to her place so... I think we got this..."

Severa giggled and blushed. He was charming, even if he was being sarcastic. She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, crossing one leg over the other.

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

"No, please, by all means! I don't mind having sloppy seconds, as long as I am only sharing him with my dear Brother." She grinned. "Just don't harm his face. I like it a lot." She locked eyes with the priest. "You are quite adorable, Father."

"Well, mother always said I was a cute kid." Florian shifted nervously as he felt the clock ticking down and struggled to decide which of the two would be worse at this point. If this, Severa, was genuine then maybe he could use that... but when had he been that lucky today?

"Well I don't expect it to get me anywhere," said Owain. "But in the name of at least feeling like we're making progress... what's your association with the, ah... not so aptly named Gentleman?"

"Reluctant translator. I am yet to find someone who finds themselves tied to that man happily." Florian droned.

"Mmm," replied Owain. "But even if that's all you are to him, I doubt he just picked you up, told you he needed a middle man and that was that. So take me further back. How are you associated with him? Answer quickly; my sister always has had problems separating business from pleasure."

"Can't you tell? I am missionary!" Florian cried. "I go from dome to dome, spreading good book, building schools and wells. Everybody loves wells!" A loyal act maybe, but to the maiden, not The Gentleman. Florian wasn't willing to lead these people back to the others, he knew the code and what it demanded.

"Alright then," Owain said, shrugging in a way that suggested the ball was rolling and there was little he could do to stop it. "Don't blame me."

Severa wiggled, her hands balled into fists and they pressed against her crossed legs. Her back bowing back, she smiled insidiously, "Don't hold back. I want to see his soul, Brother."

"Oh, me?" said Owain, putting a hand over his heart in mock flattery. "I thought you wanted first crack. But if you insist..."

The motion of his hand was hard to track. One second, his hand was over his chest. The next, it was by his side, and there was a knife embedded in the seat of Florian's chair, quivering between his thighs, millimeters from the seam of his crotch.

"Ooh," he said, grinning. "Near miss."

Florian's eyes stayed glued to the blade, still quivering in the chair, his eyes widening to the size of saucers. He gulped reflexively.

"Oh, don't worry," said Owain, grinning even more widely. "I wouldn't dare take that away from you before Severa gets a look. If I did, she'd be apt to bite down on me later tonight."

"I may just do that anyway." Severa mused.

Owain shrugged. "I've got some to lose, anyway."

Incest... charming... Still not quite able to pry his eyes away from the blade Florian could only look back and forth between Severa, the brother and the knife as the dreaded realisation that this would be his end sunk in.

"Yes, that's it, Father." Severa licked her top-row of teeth. "That fear. That is truth. That is you." She got off the sofa and down onto the floor. Crawling on all fours, she came up to Florian's side and looked him in the eye. "Show me more."

Stepping forward, Owain grabbed the knife and jiggled it loose from the wooden chair seat.

"Waste not, want not. And besides, who knows what a no doubt resourceful man like yourself could do if I left that lying around?"

"Anyway," he said, flicking the knife tip lightly at Florian's chest. One of the buttons fell away. "I'm of the opinion that you don't really need nipples," he said. "And between you and me," he put on a mock whisper. "She tends to pinch, so I'd be doing you a favour!"

After removing a couple more buttons, Owain stopped. "In any case," he said. "I'm still intrigued to know how it was a man of the cloth came to have a connection with one of the most successful information brokers, thieves and assassins on the planet. You deliver sermons, so I'm sure you can make an interesting story absolutely absorbing."

Bound and helpless Florian could only close his eyes and breath deep in an attempt to slow his racing heart. "[Weary traveller, find yourself in the place of ash and know you are already dead.]" He whispered to himself. Forcing a feeling of calm to smother his panic. To look at it now... he couldn't be any more of a disappointment.

You were warned of this all your life, you were trained to die in silence, your body thrown away, your life forgotten. Remember who you are and do what you were made for, one more time.

"I was found romancing the local lord's daughter. He helped me get away and disappear. Only that meant getting stuck in a monastery and... well... the old idiots grew on me. Besides, I look fantastic in black! Devil always comes to take his dues though doesn't he?"

["Yes,"] said Owain, adopting the local language the Priest had just exhibited and tracing a long, shallow line down Florian's chest with the knife, which began to bead with blood. ["I do."]

"Oooooh." Florian cringed, both at the burning twinging in his chest and at how corny that line was. Between a twitch of pain he looked up at Owain with a look of disdain.

"Bad even by my tastes," said Owain, laughing. "But that's what you get when you don't answer me seriously." He sighed. "As I'm being restrained, it seems I am for once the more pleasant interrogator. And if you won't answer me, maybe you'll answer her, eh?"

"He just assumes I lie." Florian looked at Severa, hurt and offended. "Why does everyone think people are crazy criminals all the time?"

Severa giggled, "I don't think you're a crazy criminal." She grabbed his knee and slowly ran her hand up his thigh. "I think you look sweet. Innocent, even. Mmmmm," She smiled and looked to her brother. "He looks tasty, Brother! How much longer is this going to take!?"

Owain shrugged. "Depends on what we do," he said, striding around the chair. "I do have one way we could pass the time," he said.

Lashing out suddenly, he kicked the back of Florian's chair, sending it pitching forward. Catching it by the back, he lowered it the last few inches to the floor, to avoid cracking the Priest's skull. As it was, Florian was still resting on his head.

Reaching through the large gap in the chair back, Owain lifted up Florian's shirt to expose his back, twirling the knife through his fingers.

"Fancy a game of noughts and crosses, Severa?"

Severa wiggled her whole body, "Oh, do I! But keep it to the back only, Owain! Nowhere that he can't hide it!"

Owain nodded. "Best blank canvas," he said, drawing the first line in the grid, cutting deeper than he had on the chest.

"Of course, if we hear a story we like, I think I for one will lose interest in children's games."

Florian growled and grimaced through gritted teeth, his neck cricking up as his head rested uncomfortably at a strange angle. "Florian. My name is Florian. The Boykovs tried to kill me, bandits want me dead." He strained on, slowly losing control of his English. "Smugglers working for Gentleman helped me get out." Another grunt. "Gentleman called me in or he sells me to them." Florian sighed, so long as it didn't bring them back to the maidens. All he had to do was keep a few people safe.

Owain paused, having just been about to plant a circle in the center box. "See, that wasn't so hard." Bracing his foot on one of the chair's crossbars, he levered Florian back up in one fluid motion.

"We'll postpone the game for if he refuses to cooperate again, sister. I always was better at filling in boxes than you, anyway."

Sidling around to Florian's front, he wiped the bloody knife on the Priest's shirt. "Well, Florian," he said. "That's a good start. Your next job it to put a name to that group, but of course we have plenty of time for that. Days, I imagine. So I'll ease up and leave you in the capable hands of my sister."

"Yey!" Severa squealed. "Happy times!"

"Yaaaay..." Florian joined in hollowly.

"Well, I'm going out for a while," said Owain. "If we're going to be having all our fun in this room, I think we'll need food and water." Sheathing the knife, he tapped Severa affectionately on the nose. "Just don't kill him," he said sweetly before donning his coat.

"Ta-ta for now."

"Finally, we're alone." Said Florian, hoarsely, his wrists getting back to work on trying to get loose.

"We are," Severa chirped as she bent over, caressing his face with her hand. "I'm sorry Owain is so rough on you. He's just upset because the Gentleman got away. He was really looking forward to playing with him." She shook her head. "I don't care, though. I like you better."

"Well, everytime a door closes a window opens." Florian nodded along.

Aesop sat there like a damn child and let Ruffles's words stew. He had fucked up, but he didn't know how to make it better. Did he even want to make it better? Yeah the situation was fucked but Carlos deserved it. He could have chosen to die instead of commit rape. Still, Pixie was already upset, Aesop would only be adding to her troubles.

"Look, the fact is we've already got too much shit to deal with, without your god damn shenanigans on top of it, man!"

Aesop bit his gums and stayed there in silence as his face grew into a scowl.

"How's he doing?"

"I don't... he's fine, I guess."

'Fuckin' causin' problems again.'

After a long pause Aesop finally coughed up, "is he okay?"

"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."

Mila smirked, "Glad you asked."

"do it again!"

"Give me a sec, kid. The lady here wants to talk shop." Popping the small, translucent tube out of the rifle, Mila held it up for Viola to see. "This here's a plasma seal. When it glows bright green like this it means that it means the you can blast away without a care in the world. If it grows dim, however, it means you're running out of juice. The amount and consistency of gunfire will determine how fast it depletes, but these things can last a long-ass time. They're better than conventional firearms in about every way save for... well, their durability. The ash really gets to them, clogs up their circuits and what not. You can't just bury it in the dirt like you could an AK-47 or something."

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"I don't... he's fine, I guess."

Cameron frowned. She wasn't used to seeing Ruffles this upset.

"is he okay?"

"He'll live," She shrugged. "You really did a number on him, though." Putting her hands on her hips, Cameron thought for a moment before dropping her fist into her open palm. "How 'bout this. You two come back with me to my room and we can unwind a bit. The atmosphere right now's way too depressing. I mean, shit, I was drunk a minute ago!" Pulling out a small zip-lock baggy full of marijuana from her back pocket, she held it up in front of her. "It's not as good as your stuff, Jake, but it should do the trick. Come on."

Assuming they'd follow without putting up a fight, Cameron turned around and walked out the door.

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"That's a thing."

"Thanks," Carlos muttered as he drank the glass slowly. His throat was still soar. Hearing footsteps from out in the hall, Cameron put the glass in the sink and started for his room. "Sorry. If you don't mind, I think I am going to lie down."

He looked like hell.

Passing him on the way through the kitchen, Cameron nodded to him before stopping in front of Whiskey, "Wanna get high?" She grinned.

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After parking the crawler in the garage, Pixie and Bennie sat in silence for awhile. Neither of them had the will to get out of the vehicle. They hadn't said a word to each other for the entire ride back. Eventually, Pixie sighed and stepped out of the crawler, followed shortly by Bennie. Resting her arms on the roof, Pixie watched him as he walk towards her, "Look, I---I jus' need time, ya' know?"

Bennie frowned, "I've given you four years."

Pixie winced, "Bennie, I---"

"It's okay," He placed a hand on her shoulder and smiled, sadly, "I'd wait another four if I had to."

Pixie furrowed her brow, I love you

"Thanks, Bennie." With that, Bennie nodded and walked by her, leaving her alone in the garage. After lingering for a bit, dwelling on their exchange for longer than she wanted to, Pixie walked out into the hall. The complex was much quieter than it had been when she left. No doubt many Maidens were already blacked out.

Walking up to her door, Pixie sighed heavily before wrapping her fingers around the doorknob. What was waiting for her in there?

She's probably asleep, Pixie. It'll be fine.

She opened the door.

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"Well, everytime a door closes a window opens."

Severa giggled, "Always so clever. You're poetic, you know? I like that. I am a bit of a poet, myself." She walked around his chair and grabbed him suddenly from behind. Draping her arms over his shoulders and across his chest, she nuzzled his neck and giggled again. "Maybe I'll write one for you." She kissed his neck and moved her head up, biting his earlobe hard. She purred as her teeth dug in, not quite hard enough to draw blood. "Yummy."

Amy was waiting for her, sat up cross-legged on the end of the bed, her hands folded in her lap in an almost meditative pose.

"He's in Yuteni." she said, her expression strangely blank as she look up at Pixie. "Austin, he's attacked Yuteni.

There was a pause as she looked away, and stared almost vacantly at the now silent radio.

"I get it now. Or at least, I think I do. I was expecting it, it made perfect sense but, when I heard the words... I hated that place Pixie. Almost everything bad that ever happened to me happened there, to the point where I can't even think about it without feeling the pain all over again. So many times, I thought that I could just watch and smile as that city burned; but, thinking about him desecrating it, contaminating it, I can't help but feel a little violated, personally. In spite of everything, Yuteni was my home.

Trying to make the world a better place, it might always be a losing battle. Getting rid of symptoms like Austin might not cure the sickness, and it might not even be long before someone even worse comes along to take his place. However, with all that said, I still want to gut the son of a bitch, not because it will solve anything, but because it feels right, and when a fight feels right, you can't just back down from it. Maybe the world isn't about weighing up hope verses futility, maybe it all just comes down to doing what feels right, from moment to moment?"

Amy swung her legs of the bed. Standing up, she looked right into Pixie's eyes from across the room.

"I can't take back what I said before, and in all honesty I don't want to. I don't have your faith Pixie, and I can only be sorry if that disappoints you, but neither was it fair of me to ask you to give it up. It's just that... damn it Pixie, this hurts. It hurts to watch you drive yourself into the ground, trying to make up for everyone else's mistakes. You think I don't understand, but I do. I understand how much it wears on you, and all I want to do is make you happy. I love you, and I'll never again ask anything from you that I know you can't give."

She moved closer, are hand reaching out to take hold of Pixie's, the other reaching round to the small of her back, drawing them closer.

"Please, just this once, let me feel like love is enough. When tomorrow gets here, we can deal with whatever it brings, but tonight, let it just be the two of us."

"Yummy."

Florian gave another little wince as she tugged at his ear, and to think he used to like it rough. So far this was all turning into the strangest display of the "Good Cop / Bad Cop" routine. The even rougher thing was that given different circumstances Florian's old self would have found her voice purring in his ear a hell of a turn on. But several lacerations to the back and chest could put a downer on almost anyone's mood and Florian's days of needing safety words were long behind him. Though the stirring of old instincts wasn't going away any time soon, as the preacher's inner demons raved against the inglorious fate they were staring down the knife edge of.

["Find yourself in the place of ash and know you are already dead."] He muttered again under his breath, trying desperately to steady his mind and claim control of himself. This one wasn't interested in asking questions.

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The day was theirs, so of course everyone who could stand was busy making assholes of themselves as they ravaged what was left of the spire. Erik walked through it all like a man in a dream. Reveling fighters shifted out of his way like waves, most throwing cheers and slaps on the back his way, all of them acting like they were suddenly best friends with him. Lead a charge, kill a bunch of men and suddenly you're the most popular girl at the dance. Erik could only guess that all the other acts of violence he'd committed over his career just weren't big enough.

He was rudely woken from his daydreaming though when he came across a bunch of Sergei's named men playing target practice on the dancing feet of some strung up Boykov soldiers. "The fuck is this?!" Erik called, barging in on the scene.

"Heeey, it's this guuuuy!" Sergei was already getting drunk off his ass and looked the purest picture of an unchained dickbag. "Come on Erik it's a party!"

"Put these poor shits out of their misery."

"Oh come on, Erik, you got no love of the art." Sergei slurred. "Come on, we found some good explosives on them we'll make some modern art shit. Destruction and life it- it's gunna be beautiful."

"Give me that!" Erik snarled, snatching a bottle of vodka from out of his fellow commander's hand. "The fuck you are, this place isn't getting any more damaged, this is the new base. You get me?"

"Pffftt..." Sergei spluttered out a series of scoffs and giggles. "Chill your tits Erry Bear! Boss' orders, this place is our fucking playground now! Get with the times!" The randy bandit gave Erik an infuriating little pat on the cheek before staggering off to rejoin his crew. "Boss' orders, time to cut loose!" He spread his arms out getting another cheer from his men.

Where the hell is Vas? Erik stalked off in a mood, putting a mercy bullet in a Boykov man as he went.

"... In spite of everything, Yuteni was my home."

Pixie frowned.

I know that feeling, darlin'.

"... You think I don't understand, but I do. I understand how much it wears on you, and all I want to do is make you happy. I love you, and I'll never again ask anything from you that I know you can't give."

Pixie rested her chin on Amy's shoulder, hiding her pained expression from view.

What she couldn't give.

Dammit, Pixie.

"Please, just this once, let me feel like love is enough. When tomorrow gets here, we can deal with whatever it brings, but tonight, let it just be the two of us."

Pixie wrapped her arms around Amy and squeezed, before pulling away and meeting her gaze, "Amy," She began as she ran the back of her fingers down the side of Amy's cheek. "I'm sorry, I assumed I knew you. I reckoned I understood you... that we were the same, somehow. I know now how wrong I was. I don' know where you came from, Amy. I could never know." She offered a soft smile. "I shouldn' expect you ta' share my... outlook. I'm not mad at you, Amy. I'm not upset. I'm jus'..."

She furrowed her brow and hung her head, resting it against Amy's collar, "I'm selfish, ya' know? If someone else buys into my bullshit it makes me feel better. Gives me hope." She shook her head. "But, I don' wan' you ta' pretend, Amy. I don' wan' you to do anythin' fer the sake of simply makin' me feel more comfortable with my own delusions. Be yerself." She looked at Amy, now with a genuine smile. "All you 'ave ta' do is be yerself, like you've been doin'. That alone'll give me hope."

Holding Amy's face in her hands now, Pixie laughed, happily, "You have ugliness jus' like everyone else, but that don' mean yer not beautiful, Amy. Underneath it all. Under all the pain, sufferin', hatred and sin, yer still a beautiful person. I want ya' ta' know how important that is." She took Amy by the hand and guided her to the bed. "So, yeah... let's make the rest of the night jus' 'bout us, okay?"

After stripping down to a bra and panties, Pixie got into bed and patted the spot on the bed next to her, "Come 'ere, I wanna tell you a story."

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

["Find yourself in the place of ash and know you are already dead."]

Severa could sense the trepidation in his voice. Caressing his chest, near the knife wound, she rested her chin on his shoulder, "Aw, Father, don't be scared. You're safe with me, I'm not like my brother. Besides," She ran her fingers along his jawline, taking special care to run against the grain of his stubble. "I can sense it in you, you know? There's a beast inside you whose just dying to get out. I want to see him, Father. I want to see him in all of his glory."

She leaned forward so that he could see her grin in his peripheral vision, "Until then, I'm going to make you hurt. If I have to, I'll bleed him out of you. You thank me when its over, Father. I will free your soul. Allow you to see the world as I do. In all of its splendor." She sighed in delight. "The real world. Not the one filled with hypocrites, liars and thieves. No, a world of divine pleasures..."

She walked around the chair and pulled out a scalpel from inside her garter before crouching down in front of him, "I will teach you to appreciate everything." Holding it to her forearm, it wasn't until now that Florian noticed the small scars littering her arms. No wonder she wore arm-length gloves in public. Digging the sharp blade into her flesh, her whole body quivered as she moaned in ecstasy.

After it was done, and blood began dribbling out of the small wound, she looked to Florian seductively and licked the beads of blood from the open wound, "Your turn." She said, exasperated, as she licked her chops. Crawling forward, she held her bleeding wound to his mouth. "Taste it."

"I can sense it in you, you know? There's a beast inside you whose just dying to get out. I want to see him, Father. I want to see him in all of his glory."

There had been times in his life when Florian had pondered on what to think of this kind of fevered soul. Was the madness a sign of weakness, that their minds had faltered in the sight of the life they were trapped in and broke under the weight? Others had sighted it as a strength, that being loosed from the chains that bound 'good honest people' allowed them to thrive. Florian always suspected things were a little more complicated than that. Not that it mattered right now. Here in this moment they both just animals.

Though what kind of animal gained such satisfaction from the pain Severa had inflicted on herself baffled Florian's mind. A fresh cut was added to the bloody tapestry that had been scribbled onto her alabaster skin, coaxing forth a moan that stirred a piece of Florian's psyche that was normally kept caged.

"Your turn. Taste it."

"What?" Florian croaked. "No... n- mmmpphhff-" His protests were quickly muffled as she shoved her arm into his mouth. He tried turning away and forcing his mouth shut but it was no use as the coppery tang of blood trickled down his lips in sickly streams. Florian gurgled out some muffled noises of repulsion. Unable to move away he sank his teeth down into Severa's arm in some spiteful act of aggression.

Despite his sour mood Aesop couldn't deny his interest being peaked at getting high. He looked over to Ruffles for a moment, his expression an odd mix of asking for permission, guilt, and intense frustration until finally, 'Fuck it.' He stood up and walked past Ruffles, following Cameron. "Bollocks to it." He said, mimicking Lilith's accent and phrases as he left the room. "Might as well be high for the fallout eh."

Slowly he was beginning to care less and less of what would come next, he just hoped no one would take the prospect of at least weak marijuana away from him.
===========================================
"Uh huh, interesting." Hannibal muttered as he tried to subtly slink away from them. He wasn't too far away, it certainly wouldn't arouse suspicion, and he'd just say the heat was getting to him. He just needed them to focus on firing before he started snooping.

"Give me a sec, kid. The lady here wants to talk shop." Spoke Mila as she removed a translucent and fluorescent looking tube from where the magazine on a normal rifle would be, and then holding it up for Viola to inspect.

"This here's a plasma seal. When it glows bright green like this it means that it means the you can blast away without a care in the world. If it grows dim, however, it means you're running out of juice. The amount and consistency of gunfire will determine how fast it depletes, but these things can last a long-ass time. They're better than conventional firearms in about every way save for... well, their durability. The ash really gets to them, clogs up their circuits and what not. You can't just bury it in the dirt like you could an AK-47 or something."

"Heh. Take it then that you don't find yourself fighting in the deserts outside all that much then? And sure, having better weapons than your opponent might be a considerable advantage in a firefight; but if the opposition is better trained, well, you might see yourself staring down the barrel of failure." Viola remarked as she loaded in three bullets to make up for the ones she shot earlier.

"As for me, I can't help but feel a bit of nostalgia for these what you would refer to as conventional firearms, they remind me of the Old Old West that I use to hear stories about from my parents back when I was a kid. Of the wild untamed wilderness, of daring train robberies and mysterious gunfighters. I guess in a way, The Rock is a New Wild West." She carried on saying, gushing a little bit. Viola then noticed that Hannibal had moved a couple of steps away from the two women, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, yet.

After turning another sharp corner, nearly flipping the crawler in the process, Tsubaki spotted the runaway van, "Target in site!" She barked into the radio before gritting her teeth in anticipation.

End of the line, Maidens!

"Here comes another one!" Cranston shouted as Tsubaki's crawler came into view. It was headed straight for them. Though she was still several blocks away, he could see the familiar green glow coming from her vehicle. "BRACE YOURSELVES!"

Two bolts of superheated plasma streaked down the road, each finding their mark with explosive results. Both front tires of the van were vaporized in an instant, sending the vehicle careening, uncontrollably through a nearby store front.

Cranston bashed his head against the steering wheel hard while his passengers were thrown about haphazardly. After taking a moment to gather himself, Cranston clutched his sidearm and looked over his shoulder, "Is everyone okay back there?!"

Tsubaki stopped the vehicle right outside the crash site and got out cautiously, her plasma rifle levelled, "They crashed. I'm moving in on the target."

Bryan thumbed his radio as he wheeled around the corner. "Copy that, Commander. We'll be there ASAP!"

"Bugger..." Lilith coughed, wincing as she pushed herself from her seat. Breathing sharply through gritted teeth as she clutched her wrist. "Son of a..." A small shard of glass was embedded in her forearm, a massive tear in the sleeve of her jacket. Looking down at the others, Elizabeth and Sprout still dazed, Lilith furrowed her brow. "Hmph" She clenched her jaw as she quickly pulled out the shard of glass, tossing it over her shoulder before ripping off the sleeve below the tear, quickly using her teeth and free hand to wrap it around the new wound.

'I've had enough.'

Without saying a word, Lilith stepped over her fallen rifle, bending over to pluck the revolver from Axel's loose grip. They didn't have much time before the soldiers from earlier arrived.

Checking the revolver, she carried on walking to the back of the van, growling in anger as she kicked open the loosely closed doors.

"THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM, CUNT?!" Lilith shouted as she bought her pistol up to aim at the new arrival. A woman.

"YOU'RE NOT RESCUING HER!" Lilith closed the van door behind her, leaning against it. She coughed slightly as her voice calmed "She doesn't want to be rescued. Just leave us alone!" There was a hint of pleading in Lilith's voice as she kept her aim steady, a trickle of blood running from underneath the dressing on her cheek.

As soon as they got the message, Jun began to run a bit faster.

Maria groaned as she got up. Her eyes flickered with alarm as Elizabeth and Axel were just lying there. She immediately checked their pulses and allowed herself some relief as the doctor heard the familiar lub-dub of their hearts. Then, she tried to shrug off the dizziness but to no avail.

"I think I need a doctor." Maria sighed.

While trying to both cradle her head and her injured arm at both, she stumbled towards the end of the van and took a look at the new situation. Shouting, two women with guns, debris, shards of glass, bits of van everywhere... 'This isn't good...' Maria thought as she slowly went back into the van and slumped next to Elizabeth and Sprout.

Liz and Sprout both came around at about the same moment. Elizabeth was slower to pick up on what was happening than Sprout, as she sat their dumbfounded, listening to Lilith berate their attacker.

Sprout grit his teeth and felt around the floor of the van for a weapon. It appeared, however, that his efforts were in vain...

With the front of the van propped up on a granite counter, Cranston could only see his enemy's feet in the rear view mirror. Lilith was pointing a gun at her... he had to move fast. Turning around in his seat, ignoring the piercing headache and the soreness that racked his body, he planted a knee on the seat and gripped the door handle. With his other hand, he held his pistol close to his chest.

Tsubaki hesitated. This woman... this girl... she looked so...

She's afraid.

She was willing to die rather than give up the noble?

Clenching her jaw and narrowing her gaze, Tsubaki stood firm. She wouldn't let sentimentality get the better of her, "WEAPONS DOWN, NOW! HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD OR I WILL SHOO---"

Her words were drowned out when Cranston suddenly swung open the driver-side door of the van and shot Tsubaki three times in the chest while hanging onto the door frame. As she hit the ground, motionless, Cranston hopped out of the vehicle, wasting no time, "WE NEED TO MOVE, NOW! LILITH, EVERYONE, COME ON!"

Lilith's eyes widened as the woman fell to the ground. As Cranston yelled for her and the others to get moving, she took a few steps forward, her sights still aimed on the motionless body.

'Even when you want to leave, they just pull you back in.'

Clutching her side, Lilith slowly shuffled through the dust until she was standing over the soldier, her eyes searching the stranger's face. She was young, couldn't have much older than herself. Nudging the plasma rifle from the soldier's loose grip with her boot, Lilith's eyes caught something.

A sadness softened Lilith's face as she squatted next to the woman, reaching a hand out, she gripped the woman's dog-tags between her fingers.

"I'm sorry, Tsubaki Saburo." Lilith gently yanked the tags from around the woman's neck, placing them in her pocket as she holstered her own pistol, before quietly grabbing the plasma pistol and rifle, her eyes never leaving the woman's face as the girl got to her feet. "Really I am." Clenching her jaw, Lilith turned around and headed back to the van.

With so much going on, Maria chose to focus on Cranston's words. She grabbed both Elizabeth and Sprout by the arm then dragged them out of the van. Run, run, run, run... That's all she wanted to do right now, though she had to wait a short moment for Lilith and Cranston before the woman could indulge her panic.

Sprout only got a passing glance at Lilith while she looted the soldier before he was quickly ushered towards the front of the vehicle. Elizabeth was still too delirious to really know what was going on, "Lilith, let's go!" Cranston reiterated as he lead the others through a backdoor and into the back alleys of the city.

Lilith quickly stepped into the back of the van, recovering her backpack and rifle before rejoining the others. Her eyes met Sprout's as she stepped in line next to him, a sad smiling curling her lips as she returned his revolver to him. No words were exchanged as Lilith wrapped an arm around the boy's shoulder, tapping her head against his.

This was going to be harder than she first thought.

Sprout furrowed his brow, "Lily, are---"

"Talk later! MOVE!" Cranston reiterated. With that, the Maidens disappeared deeper into the city. Basilio's men had no hope of find them now. Not tonight, anyway.

Jun slowed down as he neared the crash site, which was empty; at least in terms of Maidens. A pang of alarm surged through him as he noticed the Commander lying down on the ground without a weapon, without consciousness. He spun around at looked at the empty shell of metal, lifted his rifle up, peeked through the scope then lowered it and he found himself looking at Tsubaki once more.

'So fucking stupid.'

All of it was.

Jun settled on concentrating on something else, just to distract himself from failure's sting.

"Oh no..." The words escaped Asad's lips as a whisper. Searching the immediate area through the sights of his rifle, he quickly strafed through the dust, stopping at Tsubaki.

"Bryan." Asad muttered as his eyes continued to scan the van and the surrounding buildings. "Check her pulse." He knew something like this would happen. Why did she think she could approach the Maidens alone? The stupid girl!

He began to feel sick to his stomach as he refused to confirm the worst with his own eyes. "God dammit." He whispered through clenched teeth.

'Never corner a fox.'

When he saw Tsubaki lying there, everything else seemed to dissolve. Bryan just stood there, rooted to the spot. Sound washed over him, but he heard nothing, as though he were underwater.

Then Asad's voice cut through the fug and he shook it off, moving forward to kneel by his Commander.

"Hey, Tsubaki," he said as he put his fingers against the side of her neck. "C'mon now, you ain't that easy to kill..." the pulse was there. A little slower than he'd like, but it was there and stable.

Reaching around, he found the Velcro tabs at the side of her vest and ripped them away. Flattened bullets fell away, clattering onto the asphalt, and Bryan sighed in relief. There were spots of blood, but they were minor. However that said nothing about what the blunt force trauma had done to her...

"C'mon Commander, get up," he said, patting her cheek roughly, not quite willing to slap her. "Now ain't the time for a nap."

"AGAIN!"

Why was he doing this?

"You can catch up on sleep later! I said, get up! Again!"

She was just their slave. Their serving girl. What did he gain by doing this?

Bruised and worn out, Tsubaki reluctantly got to her feet. Her whole body wobbled as she tried to keep herself up, holding her bokken out in front of her.

In a flash, she down on her ass again with the master swordsman towering over her. Masakado sighed, "Disappointing."

He didn't pull his punches. It hurt. A lot.[/i]

"Huh-GAAAAAH!!!!" Tsubaki screamed out as her consciousness suddenly returned to her. Through rapid, ragged breaths, Tsubaki groaned in pain. "I-it hurts. F-f-fuck..." She clutched Bryan's forearm. "G-g-get me up! They'll get a-w-way!"

She was trembling. Probably shock.

Bryan nodded and pulled Tsubaki's arm over his shoulders. "Here we go," he said, straightening up with her. "Feel any broken ribs?"

Tsubaki winced in pain. It was excruciating, but she couldn't let her squad see her so weak, "Something's broken, that's for sure..." She furrowed her brow. "Leave me, I'll be fine. Go after the Maidens."

Asad sighed in relief, his eyes still searching the area as a huge grin curled his lips. "They're' gone Tsu, down any one of these alleys." He lowered his weapon as he turned to face the woman. "You know, I'm starting to believe half the stories I've heard about these guys."

Bryan nodded. "Oh aye. And that wee blonde lass weren't bad with a rifle, 'neither." He grinned. "I reckon Jun's in love."

"This is no time to be shooting the shi---" Tsubaki's voice was drowned out by a sudden coughing fit, forcing her entire body to quiver. It felt like her insides were on fire. She would have crumpled to the floor if Bryan hadn't been there to keep her on her feet. "F-fuck..."

Bryan's smile faded. "It's a maze out there, Commander. Odds are, we won't find 'em. Best bet's to report and get guards posted on all the gates. They try to leave, we'll be on 'em like a... well, a hound on a fox, yeah?"

"Get back to base. Get healed." Jun stated, his annoyance getting the better of him.

"I'm with O'Lafferty." Asad nodded, smiling at the metaphor. "If Ortega did his job, Sandringham's squad is fucked. That means the Maiden's are on their own again." He scratched the stubble under his chin. "Were they injured? Did you see any of them before they took you out? We know the boy is still banged up and he still managed to land a few shots." Asad smiled as he nodded at his bleeding shoulder.

His expression hardened as his eyes locked on Tsubaki's. "They've nothing to lose Tsu, this ain't about money, or a power play, those kids? That old man? They just want to get outta this city, they want out so bad they can almost taste it." He paused for a moment as he searched the woman's face.

"And you know that now, don't you." It wasn't a question.

Tsubaki met his gaze. Her breathing, while still ragged, was at least consistent now. She frowned, "I do."

She glanced around the area and sighed, "Inform HQ that we lost their trail in downtown and that we are heading back to base. I need to lie down."

Bryan helped Tsubaki into the Crawler's back seat before casting around quickly for her plasma rifle. It was nowhere to be found. He supposed the Maidens must have grabbed it.

"Anyone mind if I drive? I promise I won't total this one."

Asad chuckled softly. "No blonde chick shooting at us now, knock yourself out." the man jumped into the passenger seat, placing a foot on the dashboard. "I still can't believe that Monroe kid landed two shots out the back of a moving van." He crossed his arms across his chest. "I'm impressed."

Bryan got behind the wheel and fired up the engine. "Oh yeah," he said, patting his chest gingerly. "Jammy little cunt," he muttered, grinning.

When everyone was in, he backed the Crawler up and turned it around to get back onto the main road.

"So Commander, which one was it that dropped you?"

"Jesus." Asad chuckled as he raised a hand to his forehead. "Listen to us, we sound like they're goddamn fans."

"Don't get me wrong," said Bryan laughing. "I owe that kid a slap round the head when I next see him."

Tsubaki groaned, shifting uncomfortably in her seat as she held her chest. It was hard to breath, "Stop it." She suddenly cut in. "You start talking like that and you make it personal. I can't having any of you hesitating the next time we run into them."

Like I did...

"Don't worry," said Bryan. "That won't be an issue."

Not after they fucking shot you dead...

He didn't say that out loud, though. Instead, he said, "that said, Tsu, taking the girl alive ain't gonna be so easy. Ain't no hostage they've got. She fucken shot at us her own damn self. We try and grab her, she's gonna fight tooth and nail every step o' the way."

"Then that's just another perimeter we have to work around," She shot back. "We have our orders, O'Lafferty." She pinched the space between her eyes. It was hard for her to focus and her vision was getting hazy. "Trust me, I know a thing or two about brainwashing. How do we know she hasn't been indoctrinated by the enemy? You read the reports, the Maidens are known for that."

Asad raised an eyebrow, draping an arm over the back of his seat as he turned to face the woman. "Brainwashing? Really? You don't honestly believe that those kids are brainwashed do you?" Asad shook his head slightly. "I don't care how 'indoctrinated' you think they are, ain't nobody who fights like that unless they really want to." He ran a hand through his hair. "And that makes them dangerous, we corner them without covering our asses and they will destroy us commander, I guarantee it."

"You'd be surprised what it is you truly 'want' when you're under another's influence. You'd do well to remember that. Some people... they get in your mind. You end up confusing their will for your own." She scoffed. "I'm not going to sit here and pretend I know what is going on with the Maribel girl. In the end, it's irrelevant. She'll do whatever it takes to get away from us? Fine. We'll just have to do whatever it takes to bring her in."

She clutched her chest and grit her teeth, "Even if that means we have to take a few more hits, ourselves."

"In the meantime," said Bryan, "the only hit you need to be taking right now is a hit o' prescription strength painkillers. Let's save this argument for later, yeah?"

Tsubaki didn't answer him. She simply slumped back in her seat and held her sides. She'd been fighting it so far, but she really felt she was going to vomit. Then suddenly, the haziness intensified and her eyelids grew heavy. She'd pushed herself too far. Her head rolled to the side and rested on her left shoulder as she lost consciousness.

Some time later, Bryan brought the crawler smoothly into the motorpool and hopped out. Slinging his swords across his back, he walked round to where Tsubaki was still passed out.

"D'aww, she looks like a little, terrifyingly violent angel," he said with a smirk. "Alright, one o' you help me carry her to the infirmary."

"Would it be in bad taste for us to ditch her and go for a drink?" Asad chuckled as he slung Tsubaki's arm over her shoulder.

"Well it's not like she could catch us in that state," said Bryan. "Still, once she's stowed and I've eaten all of the aspirin, then I'll buy."

"Sweet, we should hit the store before we go to the bar, get our 'We heart the Iron Maidens' t-shirts." Asad ruffled Tsubaki's hair as they dragged her across to the infirmary. "Then everyone will be jealous."

"Might as well be high for the fallout eh."

Ruffles shrugged. "If you call it high, sure."

"Wanna get high?"

Whiskey grinned and followed Cameron. "Sure. I ain't done that since before I had Millie. Should be fun."

Severa moaned in ecstasy as the priest's teeth sunk into her flesh, "FATHER!" She gasped, followed by a fit of giggling. "So, violent!" She took the scalpel and dug it into his chest, right below the collarbone. The sudden pain shocked Florian, allowing Severa to pull her arm away. "You were a good sport." She examined the bite. It was deep. She grinned.

Sitting on his knee, she grabbed his shoulders and laughed, "Time for me to return the favor. Let's see what the Father tastes like." Clutching his shoulders tight, she began licking the wound she'd just made, sticking her tongue into his flesh. With one hand, she dug her fingernails into abdomen and began dragging them down, not quite hard enough to draw blood.

After enjoying his wound, Severa locked eyes with the priest and clutched his belt buckle, "Do you like me?" She was making puppy dog eyes.

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

"... And sure, having better weapons than your opponent might be a considerable advantage in a firefight; but if the opposition is better trained, well, you might see yourself staring down the barrel of failure."

Mila smiled in amusement. It seemed she had struck a cord.

"... Of the wild untamed wilderness, of daring train robberies and mysterious gunfighters. I guess in a way, The Rock is a New Wild West."

She shrugged, "If only it were so romantic." She chuckled.

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

Cameron led the group to her room where they sat in a circle on the floor. Soon after, they were passing around a joint. After taking a drag, Cameron passed it along to Ruffles beside her, "So, if you don't mind me asking. What the fuck happened with you and Carlos, Aesop?"

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

On his way to his room, ready to pass out as soon as he found his bed, Bennie spotted Warren outside Carlos' door. Furrowing his brow, Bennie approached him, "Don't get any funny ideas."

Warren returned his gaze and scowled, "Yeah, fine." He scoffed and shook his head before heading down the hall, towards his room.

Bennie stood their in the hall and watched him as he left.

Fuckin' psychos.

Florian was struggled and strained against his bonds as he was haphazardly drained by this leech of a dominatrix, letting out moans of pain, discomfort and frustration. His blood was rushing around in a haze as pulled away as his torso was laced with burning scratches.

"Do you like me?" A trap if ever there was one.

Florian looked into her dark eyes, his mind too distracted by pain to bother picking up any details. "In another life, I would have married you by now..." He smirked savagely, letting out ragged breaths between clenched teeth.

"Married?!" Severa's insidious grin grew larger. "Oh, how angry Brother would have been! Hmmmm..." She put her finger to her chin. "Well, maybe we can jump start that next life now! I do love how angry Owain gets sometimes. Maybe he'll whip me for it! Or cut me! Or---" She stopped mid-sentence as she caught on to the disgust behind Florian's eyes. "Still, you see but you do not understand. Father, before we are done here I will make you understand."

She undid his belt buckle and grabbed his collar with her other hand, pulling his face close to her own, "Most men enjoy having their nethers groped and rubbed. Are you truly that simple, Father? Would you not enjoy something far more... sinister?" She snickered as she whipped the belt out from the loops of his slacks.

Oooohh shiiiiit... Florian's whole body tensed up. Sure he hadn't had much cause to use them these past few years but the thought of this woman getting free reign over his genitals was something better reserved for nightmares.

"Just like that, I thought you were about the chase?" Florian scrambled desperately for an escape route.

"I am," Severa's canine showed through her grin. "But who is chasing who, Father?" Suddenly, Severa shoved her hand into his pants. "Part of you wants this, Father. I can see it, but its hiding from me. Its afraid of what it might mean if we were to..." She looked down at his crotch and snickered. After a few more moments, long enough for a lack of blood in his head to make him dizzy, Severa withdrew.

Getting off of him, she kneeled down in front of him and rested her chin on his knee, "Tell me, Father. What will it take for you to want me?" She began tracing her finger nails up and down his inner thigh. "What can I do to make you beg?"

"Untie me... and you can find out." Florian said softly to the room. Slumped against the chair and head hung low, the shreds of his dignity sending cold shivers along his skin.

Severa's laughed, "Oh, my poor little priest! I am sorry, but this is necessary." She stood up and held his face in her hands, forcing him to look at her. "I know you are afraid. You feel powerless. Violated. That's good. That's necessary. It will help you see."

She leaned in close and whispered into his ear, "When you are finally inside of me it won't be with your hands tied." She giggled. "I will have the beast out of you, Father, whether it wants to come out or not. Embrace your fear!" She screamed as she suddenly wrapped the belt around his neck, planted her foot on the edge of the chair and pulled.

Florian could only let out a gurgling mixture of screams and frantic gasps for air as the belt tightened and his eyes tried to bulge out of his head to freedom. His legs thrashed as his arms struggled (with what strength they had left) against the ropes, the sounds of the war outside quickly became a distant memory.

Watching his face turn purple sent a cruel shiver through Severa's entire body. She lived for pain. For suffering. Whether it was hers or someone else's.

Before he lost consciousness, she released him, removing the belt from around his neck and tossing it across the room. Leaning forward, her hand planted on his shoulder, she giggled, "You want a glass of water or something, Father?"

In no position to give any kind of response, Florian just sat there gasping like a fish out of water. His already burning chest straining as it struggled under the workload. After the mother of coughing fits he managed to croak out, "Please."

"Okay!" She chirped before turning on her heel and skipping away to retrieve a glass of water.

When she eventually returned again, she held it close to his lips, "Beg."

He was a man of the cloth, a servant of his fellow man and his god. Sworn to live a life of poverty and modesty, pride was supposed to have no place in Florian's heart. This should have been an easy step on his reluctant road to martyrdom. But fuck her and fuck her begging!

His 'inner beast' raged in its cage. It had been kept bound and gagged in the dark for years, repressed by the morality, guilt and self loathing. It had been left to rot through worse than this and it would be damned if it couldn't drag up what little fire Florian had left just to defy another, one more time.

He didn't beg. He only looked only stared a thousand yards as the devil on Florian's shoulder demanded a chance at the wheel.

"If only it were so romantic." Said Mila with a slight chuckle as Viola described the nostalgic feeling she felt with old style firearms.

"Yeah." Viola said as she regrettably agreed with the soldier. "Instead, we get saddled with psychopaths, degenerates, all manner of crazies both rich and poor, and to top it all off, an outside atmosphere toxic enough that we have to wear breathing masks whenever we go out." She remarked, visibly annoyed at the situation.

"Still, we've made the best out of a bad situation. But we got a long ways to go I reckon." Viola thought she could hear someone running past.

Aesop was sitting cross legged, enjoying his high as it was beginning to set in, slowly. A few more pulls and he would be good, not as good as he would have been with Ruffles's personal stash, but good nonetheless.

"So, if you don't mind me asking. What the fuck happened with you and Carlos, Aesop?"

Aesop paused, his eyes instantly finding Ruffles. "I uh, I'm not sure I should say. The-the short version is I learnt something I probably shouldn't have, and I um, had a bad reaction to it."

'Isn't that just the understatement of the year.'
==================================
Hannibal listened to their conversation, only half paying attention as he tried to slink away when he heard what he thought were footsteps. This was as good an opportunity as any to leave without suspicion.

"I'm gonna see who that was. Maybe Ortega." He spoke as he made for the door.

"Come 'ere, I wanna tell you a story."

"Okay." Amy complied, dressing down herself before snuggling up next to her on the bed. She smiled while trying to ignore the vague sense of unease eating at the back of her mind.

Pixie wrapped her arms around the girl, holding her close before resting her chin on the top of Amy's head. She was smiling, sadly, "A few years back we got in to'a big tussle with some other bandits. Don' remember who they were, but I do recall what the town looked like when we were done. A lot'a civilian casualties, mostly from their guns, but I don' doubt we had blood on 'ar hands too. Anyway," She sighed. "The fight ended with a big ol' blast that tore down an inn near the townsquare. Didn' think anythin' of it until this man came up ta' me. He was covered'n ash'n had a few nasty burns and bruises."

Pixie was silence for a short time before continuing, "He says ta' me, 'My daughter was in there! How could you monsters do that!?'. We didn' blow the buildin', but I wasn' gonna waste anytime arguin'. I did somethin' stupid then, but I don' regret it. I looked 'im in the eye an' I said, 'I'll get yer lil' girl back to ya'.'." She laughed. "I spent six hours, bleedin' from cuts n' bruises of my own all the while, diggin' through debris, lookin' fer his lil' girl. I was 'bout ta' give up when I heard a faint cry underneath me. It was a goddamn miracle is what it was. Found the lil' squirt under a busted pillar. Damn thin' saved 'er life. So, I dug 'er out an' brought her to 'er daddy. Jus' like that."

She ran her finger nails up and down the length of Amy's arm in silence, letting the story sink in. Whispering in her ear, Pixie added, "It ain't always helpful, but sometimes its good ta' 'ave hope, darlin'."

"I know," Amy said. "Maybe all the times it doesn't work out can be worth it, for the one time in a million that your faith gets rewarded. I just... I don't know if I can do it Pixie. Where was someone like you when I was the trapped little girl? What use did I have for hope, when I couldn't even remember what the world looked like outside my cell, when I couldn't even remember my own mother's face? The other girls they brought in sometimes hoped that somebody would come and get them, but sooner or later, that hope always gave way to despair, and then they'd either die, or be willing to bargain anything just to feel like things weren't so bad. I saw it happen so many times. Not having hope, not being able to escape inside my own mind... it kept me alive. I could always focus on where I was, and what was happening to me. It never occurred to me to try and escape them, so I manipulated them instead. Hope was a luxury I never had then, and now, it's a complication I don't need."

She was quiet for a while, before she continued, unbidden, "It's hard not to want to die sometimes."

Pixie bit her lip and rested her forehead against the back of Amy's head. That one had hit close to home.

Pixie didn't reply for a while. It was hard to find the right words at times like this. She had suspected Amy felt this way, of course. It was certainly an understandable mentality, especially considering what she'd gone through.

"Amy," She squeezed her tighter. "I won' pretend ta' understand what you went through, but I can' say I know exactly how you feel. When I was still'a stupid kid jus' tryin' ta' survive with a child ta' take care of, I thought 'bout little else. The only thin' keepin' me goin' was a promise I'd made ta' myself. That I'd make sure he surived, even if it killed me. Instead'a hurtin' myself, I took it out on 'im. I got over it, though, it took a long time an' a lot of dicipline, but I put it behind me."

Until I struck out at Lil...

"Still," She sighed. "I feel that way a lot. I picture jus' how easy it'd be ta' end it all. Ta' ferget all my troubles with a bullet to the brain. But then..." Her voice softened. "I think of 'im. I think a' Sprout n' Lilith. An' I think'a Ruffles, an' Cranston an' Bennie. I think of my Maidens, all the people I'd be leavin' behind. All the people that depend on me."

Pixie propped herself up on one arm and looked down at Amy, caressing her cheek with her other hand, "Sure, people suck. People can betray you, hurt you... make you wish you was never born. But, ya' know, life's finite. In any instant you can lose it all, an', well... I don' know, I guess I kinda appreciate the beauty in that concept. I wanna live so I can appreciate what I have while it's still here." She smiled. "Is there anythin'... anyone you 'ave in this world that you feel that way about? That you wanna live jus' ta' appreciate them while they're still here?"

Amy drew back, just far enough so she could look into Pixie's face, and stroke a had through her hair.

"There is now."

Pixie blushed, fighting against the inevitable smirk. Whether she loved the girl or not, she couldn't help but admit how charming she was. Even when she wasn't acting. Wrapping an arm around Amy, she held the back of her head and collapsed into Amy's arms.

"Bein' alive, in this world... it's painful, Amy. But, ya' know, it can be purdy amazin', too." Pixie nuzzled the girl's neck, smiling. "Moments like this ar' what many people live for. Jus' bein' with someone you care about an' talkin' to 'em. No matter what happens, I'll always be there fer you, Amy. Ya' need someone ta' talk to. A shoulder ta' cry on. Anythin'. Yer one'a my own, now an' I'll do anythin' fer my people."

Something was still wrong, but for once, Amy couldn't put her finger on what it was.

'What is it? What am I not seeing?'

'What you refuse to see.'

"I know.," she answered "and thank you for being patient with me. It's just that, we can't afford to keep pushing each-other like we did every time one of us is having a bad day, because I don't see the days getting any shorter anytime soon. On that note, we should probably get some sleep."

Pixie rolled back over onto her side and pulled Amy in as close as she could, "Sleep sounds good." Pixie giggled softly and closed her eye. "G'night, Amy." She whispered.

Though she had every reason to be distraught over the night's events, Pixie was surprisingly content. Before she could figure out why, however, she'd already fallen asleep.

Four dead, including his right-hand man, Carter. Sure, they'd wiped out over half of Sandringham's men, but this was Chimera Squad. They were the best. To lose half of them in a single skirmish. It felt wrong.

His head bowed, Ortega grit his teeth, closing shut Carter's eyes. He'd bled out... slowly. Rising to his feet, he spotted Rebecca and ushered her over, "Contact HQ. Tell them what happened."

"Yes, Sir!" She saluted, warily.

"The rest of you," He looked to the others. Many of them were injured. "Collect our dead. Clean-up crew can handle the rest. Let's move out."

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

"Still, we've made the best out of a bad situation. But we got a long ways to go I reckon."

"Damn straight," Mila smirked. "I---What's that?" She held a hand to her earpiece. Her brow furrowed, she nodded. "Roger that, Rebecca."

Looking off in the distance she crossed her arms and bowed her head, "Goddamn... I should'a been there..."

"I'm gonna see who that was. Maybe Ortega."

"No, stay here. Ortega is still out in the field." She demanded, noticeably upset, but not with Hannibal.

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

"I uh, I'm not sure I should say. The-the short version is I learnt something I probably shouldn't have, and I um, had a bad reaction to it."

"Ah," Cameron shrugged. "Yeah, I think I know. The 'rape' thing? Don't worry, I've known for a long time. Pixie told me all about it several years back." She offered Aesop a sad smirk. "I can't say I blame you for how you reacted."

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

After being cared for, Tsubaki's men were allowed into her room to check up on her. She was laid out in bed with an IV in her arm, but other than those telltale signs of injury, she just looked worn out. The pain killers had done a number on her, but she was conscious when they approached her. Wearing a weak smile, Tsubaki looked to her men, "I got fucking lucky." She sighed. "I'm sorry I pursued them alone. That was... the wrong call."

Severa groaned and pressed the glass against his cheek, "I said, beg!"

A little smile picked up the corners of Florian's mouth as he looked off into the middle distance as if remembering something funny. The beginnings of a chuckle sent a little rumble through his throat.

Severa cocked an eyebrow, "What's so funny, Father? I don't like being left out of jokes, you know."

"Memories is all." His voice struggled to get the words out. With nothing else to do but settle in for the next bout of pain, Florian leaned back and took in each slow, painful, deliberate breath.

"Hm," Severa grunted, bobbed her head to the side and let Florian drink the water. After downing the entire glass, Severa tossed it to the ground, shattering it into a hundred pieces. Crouching down, she picked up a particularly jagged piece and held it to Florian's throat.

"Tell me," She smiled. "Would you rather die a quick death or hang onto what life you have left in hopes that your God will answer your prayers? Father, I want to know how strong you are. I want to know how much your heart can take. But..." She frowned. "I like you, and I know you're scared. If you truly don't want the demon inside to rise up, please, tell me now so I can put you out of your misery."

"[Stand proud in the place of ash and know you are already dead.]" He said quietly to himself yet again. Smaking his lips and relishing the feeling the water had left. The shard of glass poked spitefully at his throat, prodding the old lessons out of their sleep and refreshing old memories.

"Beg." Florian shrugged.

Severa burst out into a fit of laughter before discarding the shard of glass, "Okay, Father. Anything for you."

Kneeling down before him, the small woman squealed and squirmed as the small shards of glass poked through her legs. She purred as blood began to pool underneath her. Clutching the insides of his thighs, she rested her chin between his legs, "Oh, please, Father. PLEASE! Show me the animal within you! Show me the beast that has been entombed within your heart! I want---I MUST see it! I'll do anything." She giggled.

"You have no idea what you're asking, girl." Florian's eyes sank, suddenly feeling very heavy. He could only keep his guard up at this point, keep her occupied and put as many gaps between the physical tortures as he could. If that was still the only thing he was guarding against.

Ruffles took a long drag and held it before blowing the smoke out of his nostrils. Then he glanced at the joint disdainfully before passing it to Whiskey, who followed suit.

"Yeah, I think I know. The 'rape' thing? Don't worry, I've known for a long time. Pixie told me all about it several years back."

"Really? I figured Bennie only knew 'cause of how close they were. How come she clued you in?"

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

"I'm sorry I pursued them alone. That was... the wrong call."

Bryan sat down in one of the distinctly uncomfortable visitor's chairs. "Eh, I ain't gonna tell ya otherwise," he said.

Casting around, he took in the drab hospital room. "Can't say I envy your position, Commander. I've always hated hospitals. Being in one o' those beds would be me own personal Hell."

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

Owain's first stop was a fairly large market, from which he was able to purchase almost everything he wanted. Dried meat, bread, some bacon and several large bottles of water. This was Frostfall, and no doubt whatever came out of the taps would be unbearable.

He also bought two hooded coats, heavier and warmer than those he and his sister had brought with them. Finally, he found a stall for 'personal defense'. Here, he was able to restock on nine millimeter ammunition.

There was only one thing he was unable to find at the general market. Fresh fruit. This was, after all, Frostfall, where little could be grown. As such, good fruit was in high demand, and so an enterprising family had managed to cut a deal with the Bread Basket and get large quantities imported. This meant they had no need of a stall, as business was more than good enough that they owned a shop. And so this was where Owain found himself, surrounded by shelves of the stuff.

Taking a fistful of brown paper bags, he filled them with grapes, apples, peaches and strawberries. He and Severa did both love fresh fruit, after all. Hefting the bags of fruit, he carried them and the rest of the shopping he was dragging along to the counter, behind which stood a doe eyed girl with curly brown hair. She smiled brightly at him.

"That's quite a haul you've got there, sir," she said.

"Oh yes," Owain replied. "Well I just go through so much, it's better to have too much than too little, you know?"

The girl giggled at this. It hadn't been a particularly funny remark. Owain filed the reaction away for later consideration as the girl opened the contents of each bag and weighed it.

"That'll be around two hundred thirty pure grams," she said. Owain nodded and thrust his hand into his inside pocket, spilling a handful of shining, smooth black stones onto the scales. And then a little more. It only came to one hundred and eleven grams. Owain frowned and put his hand back into the pocket. It was empty. He had filled it from the pouch in his suitcase, and it had seemed like plenty. But he had spent more than he had intended. It had been the sudden decision to purchase ammunition.

"Is something the matter, sir?"

"Ah, nothing," he replied. "Just seems I'm a little short on carbon."

"Ah," the woman replied with a knowing smile. "The shopping spree catch up with you?"

Owain leaned against the counter smiling. "Oh yeah. You go on holiday, and you see all these nice little odds and ends and it all just sort of snowballs. You know how it is, uh..."

"Tabby."

"Tabby," he agreed.

"Well," said Tabby, blushing slightly. "I never really get the chance to go anywhere."

"Really?" asked Owain, feigning curiosity. "But that's not a Frostfall accent, come to think of it. You know, it's delightful, but I just can't place it."

Tabby went an even deeper shade of red, but her smile widened. "Oh, my family is from Paradiso originally..."

"Of course!" Owain exclaimed, softly. She was mirroring him now, leaning forward on her side of the counter, bringing their faces closer together. "I should have gotten that right off," said Owain. "I've been to Paradiso a few times, actually. You fit right in there, it's unmistakable. I mean there's a certain captivating beauty the women have there that really makes the place live up to its name."

Tabby giggled again. "You really think so?"

"Oh, I know so." Their noses were almost touching now, and his voice was almost a whisper.

"Do you travel much, then?" Tabby asked.

"Oh, quite a bit," Owain replied.

"That must be absolutely amazing," said Tabby, her shy smile turning slightly wistful.

"Well maybe when I leave, I could take you with me," said Owain softly.

"You'd take me?"

"Oh yes, I'd take you... all sorts of places," said Owain, moving a strand Tabby's hair from her face, tucking it gently behind her ear. She was breathing deeply now, and he could feel her breath on his lips, which he parted slightly, observing that she did the same.

"Anyway," he said. "My apologies, Tabby, I should put some of this back and be on my way..."

"Oh, don't worry about it," Tabby replied immediately. "There's plenty more where all of that came from!"

"You're sure?"

"Positive."

"Well... alright then." Owain straightened up, and Tabby leaned with him before stopping herself. Owain gathered his bags, turned on his heel and strode towards the door. "Until next time then, Tabby."

"Ah," Cameron shrugged. "Yeah, I think I know. The 'rape' thing? Don't worry, I've known for a long time. Pixie told me all about it several years back. I can't say I blame you for how you reacted."

"Really? I figured Bennie only knew 'cause of how close they were. How come she clued you in?"

"Wait wait what? How can you speak so calm about this? Is it cos it happened a while ago or something?"
========================================
"No, stay here. Ortega is still out in the field."

Hannibal's eyebrows lowered, trying to hide his disappointment. Of course, whatever was going on was clearly far more important, but he was still a little let down he couldn't snoop around. "Alright." He answered her.

"You have no idea what you're asking, girl."

"Girl?" Severa giggled. "Girl?! Hmmm, I like the way you say that, Father. So... disappointed." Pushing his legs apart, Severa slithered closer, between his thighs and bit a bit of fabric above his crotch. "What I ask of you is a bit of a process. Perhaps it'd be easier to release the little one first. Let us receive his rage." She looked Florian in the eye, grinning.

With the amount of things he was carrying, Owain opted not to take the stairs. Instead, he dragged everything into the service elevator and pulled the lever, counting the floors as the platform rose shakily.

When he came out on his floor, hefted everything and went to the door, pushing the handle down with an elbow. Setting everything down, he took in the scene in front of him.

"Well I can hardly say I'm shocked," he said, grinning.

Florian could only slowly turn his head between the two is disbelief. This was easily the strangest interrigation method he'd ever seen. There was mentally ill and then there was this! How the hell was he supposed to find some solid ground to work on.

Severa looked to Owain like a deer caught in headlights, "Brother! Oh," She shivered. "I didn't expect you to return so soon. Will you... oh, but not in front of, Father! He can't see that side of me yet!" Her face was glowing red.

"I don't think anyone's in a position to judge anyone here." Florian droned croakily.

"Can he not?" asked Owain idly as he set the bags down on and around one of the beds. Crossing the room, he gently took Severa's upper arm and lifted her to her feet. "Shouldn't we show him what he's missing?" he whispered softly into her ear, although he didn't doubt Florian heard everything. "Or are you embarrassed?" he asked, laughing as he ran his hand up her stomach, to her breast. "It's been a while since I've seen modesty from you," he said as he found her nipple through her shirt and pinched down. "It's very... intriguing."

"BROTHER!" Severa screamed out, a mix of pain and pleasure in her voice. Stumbling forward into Owain's arms, she clutched his sleeves and trembled. "B-brother, i-i-it hurts. Why are y-y-y-ou punishing me? I've been a g-g-good girl. I p-promise! Tell him, Father!"

Owain glanced at Florian, an amused smile forming. He raised an eyebrow questioningly. "Has she? Has she really?"

"She's been very... welcoming." Florian searched for the right word. What the hell is going on? Though with any luck they'd continue on this path of maddness and kill eachother. "It's a while since I've felt a woman treat me so kindly."

Owain laughed at this. "Well that's not an answer, but alright then." He turned his attention back to Severa, still holding her in his arms where she'd swooned. "Well then, I assume by being so... accomodating, you must be finding out all sorts of things. Is that right?"

"Yes, I've seen glimpses of his soul, Brother! He's like us underneath! He just needs a push! He needs to see!"

"I can't be like you two, I'm an only child." Oh dear god man, shut up! Why do you do that?!

Owain laughed again. "Well you've at least succeeded in getting that distinctly devilish wit out into the light, sister." He kissed her then, running his hands through her thick hair. Then as he was pulling away, be bit her lower lip. It wasn't hard enough to draw blood, but still enough to surprise.

"Just keep your ah... propriety in mind." Then Owain smiled. "That aside, don't let me interrupt you. It seems like you're doing an excellent job. Perhaps soon we can start asking the pertinent questions again."

Severa held her fingers to her lip and nodded, frantically, "Y-yes, Brother, of course. As you wish."

"Oh fun times..." Florian grimaced. Though what questions they thought they were supposed to be asking seemed to be taking a backseat to strange sexual escapades.

"So, 'father'," said Owain, turning to face him. "I'm curious... seeing as you're clearly a native here, how long were you with that abby in the first place?"

"I never trained in Frostfall. Decided for warmer domes. I wouldn't reccommend the local sights these days." He shifted a little more in his seat. "But what of me, you said The Gentleman is your target?"

"Well I just think that when you plan to spend the duration of time with someone that my sister and I shall be spending with you, it's nice to learn as much about that someone as possible," said Owain, spreading his hands.

"But if you have something ah... Gentleman related to share with the class... by all means."

"I know only a fool gives his target time to go to ground unsupervised."

Owain shrugged. "Implying he can be so simply 'supervised'," he replied.

"In any case, I said I wouldn't get in the way. Severa?"

Severa had been sitting on the coach as the two men talked business. Yawning, she smiled at Owain, "Yes, let us get back to fun," She looked to Florian, "Shall we?"

"Well I'm not going anywhere." He sighed.

Owain rubbed his hands together. "This should be entertaining," he said, turning to allow Severa to move past him. As she did so, he whispered, "with nowhere to put him, that priest will be seeing quite a few of my favourite sides of you soon enough."

"I'm sorry I pursued them alone. That was... the wrong call."

Asad rotated his wounded shoulder, which had been given the once over and bandaged since his return. "Eh, I think we all caught some fire that round." He smiled wearily. "Some of us more than others." He leaned on the wall next to Tsubaki, crossing his arms across his chest.

"The important thing, is that we all managed to remain not dead, and in my books, that's a draw." He frowned slightly. "Maybe a slight loss."

Tsubaki raised an eyebrow.

"Okay, we got our asses kicked." Asad conceded, chuckling slightly.

"Damn straight." Mila said with a smirk before being interrupted by her earpiece. "Roger that, Rebecca." She then added with a furrowed brow and a worried look on her face. It was then that the arms were crossed, and Mila's head hung low, obviously something bad had happened, which was confirmed by a sudden; "Goddamn... I should'a been there..."

"I'm gonna see who that was. Maybe Ortega." Hannibal said as he made his way towards the door.

"No, stay here. Ortega is still out in the field." Mila said adversely. Taking a moment to collect her thought, Viola calmly approached the soldier, her hat on the counter next to her rifle.

"I take it something happened then to one of your comrades?" Viola asked, knowing fully well that she wasn't being exactly subtle regarding the situation, but she wasn't exactly sure what else she could have said.

"Really? I figured Bennie only knew 'cause of how close they were. How come she clued you in?"

Taken aback, Cameron chuckled nervously, "W-well..."

"Wait wait what? How can you speak so calm about this? Is it cos it happened a while ago or something?"

"I mean, yeah, it did. The thing with Carlos happened like... twelve years ago? Anyway, I mean, the reason I know is kinda personal, but, uh... give me that!" She snatched the joint away from Aesop before he could take his first hit and inhaled. After taking a moment to let the chemicals seep into her brain, Cameron continued. "I had, uh... a really close call once. Shit terrified me, you know? So, I was all shaken up and manic, and then Pixie comes up to me and just..." She smiled. "Pixie just hugs me. Tells me everything will be okay, and then she tells me what happened to her. It helped a lot."

She looked out into the distance, as if she were seeing the past in front of her, "I think that's when I really fell in love with her, you know? Undying loyalty. I'll never turn my back on our Captain, no matter what. She may be a loose cannon sometimes, but she's closest thing I have to family." Suddenly, she locked eyes with Aesop. "What you did back there? Understandable, but don't ever do that again. Never undermine her, you understand me?" She was suddenly very serious.

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

"I take it something happened then to one of your comrades?"

"Not just one," Mila gritted her teeth. "Anyway, I'm to escort you off the premises immediately. The city's under martial law right now and we can't have any civvies on-base. Sorry." She apologized as she gestured towards the door. "I really did want to see how sharp your eye was."

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

"Okay, we got our asses kicked."

"By a couple of kids and a senior citizen no less," Tsubaki sighed as she shook her head.

"Can't say I envy your position, Commander. I've always hated hospitals. Being in one o' those beds would be me own personal Hell."

"Well," Tsubaki tried to conceal a subtle smirk, "Now I know how to discipline you in the future, O'Lafferty. Next time your laid up in the ER I will be sure to send a clown to cheer you up."

The group shared a small laugh before a man Tsubaki knew very well appeared in the doorway, "Excuse me, Commander Saburo?"

"Raphael? What are you doing here?"

Raphael, Dio's butler, bowed, "Excuse my interruption, but I am here to inform you that Master Basilio will be stopping in to check on you momentarily." He looked to her squad. "Please, make what ever precautions you deem necessary to receive him."

Tsubaki nodded, "Thank you, Raphael."

"Of course, Commander." And with that, he was gone.

Tsubaki closed her eyes and sighed, "You better be on your best behavior. All of you."

She was already preparing for the worst.

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

'I jus' wanna stay like this a lil' longer. Please,' Pixie thought as she remained lying in the grass, looking up at the twin suns in the sky.

She was moving around a lot. Kicking and wiggling around inside her. Tracing her hand from the bottom of her chest to the peak of her belly, Pixie smiled warmly as she imagined what she would look like. Or if she would even be a she, at all.

It had been eight months, or perhaps nine. Pixie wasn't sure. This wasn't a dream, after all. This had never happened, nor would it ever. That fact was irrelevant, however. She was here now, so she'd enjoy it while she could. Her eyelids weighing down heavily, she had almost fallen asleep when she felt the warmth of the suns eclipsed by a form above her. Bennie had appeared, baring a bottle of wine among other things.

"Hey, girl." He grinned.

Pixie returned the smile, "Hey. Where ar' Sprout n' Lily?"

Looking over his shoulder, he shook his head, but his smile remained, "You know how they are at that age. Sprout's a lady killer, you know. And, Lily? She's, uh, eccentric."

"Yeah," She giggled. "I reckon she is."

Bennie knelt down next to Pixie and put his hand on her stomach, "Decided on a name yet?"

"Margaret." Bennie cocked an eyebrow and gave her a knowing smirk. "What?! It's a good name!"

"You're so predictable."

Pixie closed her eye and scoffed, "Whatever! Ya' know I---" Her words died in her throat when she opened her eye once more. Bennie was gone, and in his place stood Cherry. Margaret. "N-no... No way..."

"This isn't real, Meredith." She stated simply.

"I know." Pixie replied, bitterly.

"Is this what you want?"

"Maybe."

"Is this something you can ever expect to have?"

Pixie winced, "This isn' like you, Cherry."

"I'm not Cherry."

"I know."

Suddenly, Cherry's form warped into that of Pixie. A reflection of her. Somehow, she appeared... taller. Stronger. The shade of Pixie frowned, "It's dark down here, you know. The darkness. The abyss. It's lonely."

"I know."

"Do you really believe ya' can continue like this? Be of two minds? Be a lovin' mother'n a ruthless monster? It's quite the contradiction."

Pixie shrugged, "I don' know anythin' else."

"Neither do I. What Amy said to us. Do you believe it? Is their no point ta' ar' hope?"

"Don' reckon I 'ave a clue."

The shade crossed her arms, "What would ya' do if not fer that hope? What would ya' do if not fer Sprout? Fer Lily?"

"I'd be nuthin'. Jus' a monster."

"Do you know who I am?"

"Yes." Pixie quivered as she spoke.

She was terrified.

"Austin... you'll have ta' kill them. A lot of them."

"I know."

"Can you do it?"

"I... I don'..." Pixie crossed her arms over her chest and started shivering. "I don' wan' to, but..."

"There, there," The shade wrapped her arms around Pixie, pulling her into a warm embrace. "It's okay, darlin'. It's okay. I'll protect you. I'll keep you safe....

Jus' let the monster handle everythin'."

"You better be on your best behavior. All of you."

"When am I ever not?" He shrugged, smirking.

Asad's expression hardened slightly as he looked at the woman, a knowing look in his eyes. He raised his eyebrows slightly.

'You gonna be okay?' He asked, wordlessly.

He was curious as to Basilio's intentions.

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

"... Roger that." Cranston spoke over his radio before turning it off. The Maidens had found their way to the Gentleman's final bastion of secrecy in Feroxi: a secret basement in one of downtown's most rowdy saloons. By the time Cranston had led them their via Sandringham's instructions, all of the patrons had cleared out, thankfully. Taking off his tactical vest along with the attached radio, Cranston dropped them onto a nearby table and sat down. He was exhausted.

Sprout had already been led to one of the beds in the small hideout and was lying down, completely drained from his injuries. He'd heard Sandringham had lost quite a few men in the battle, but they'd still be more than short on beds. The basement was no bigger than your average bomb shelter. This place truly was a last resort, "They should be here soon." Cranston sighed. "We'll be spending the next few days in hiding, planning our escape. Waiting for the right moment."

Elizabeth had been sitting by Sprout's bed since they'd arrived. Furrowing her brow, she looked to Cranston, "Won't staying here only---"

"Yes," Cranston interrupted. "The longer we're here the more danger we're in. You're right, but we have no other choice. We have to plan. We have to wait for the right opportunity. The best thing we can do for Basilio right now is to go back out there and look for a means of escape while we're still exhausted and their entire army is out on patrol. The city's under martial law right now." He smirked. "We caused quite a ruckus it seems."

Standing up, he looked at the four before him, "I wouldn't chalk it up as a win, but you all did good out there. I want you to know that."

Sprout simply gave him a thumbs up while he remained laid out in bed.

Maria nodded, "At least we get a chance to rest, then."

Lilith leaned against the wall next to Sprout's bed, sliding down it as she sat on the floor, one leg raised to her chest as she draped an arm over her knee.

"I'm guessing I can't smoke down here?" Lilith smiled slightly as she tilted her head to look at Sprout.

Cranston shrugged, "This placed has ventilation, so you can, but," He nodded towards Elizabeth. "She may not be too keen on the idea."

"Oh no," Elizabeth shook her head and blushed. "Don't mind me, please. I understand it can be a... stress reliever of sorts. By all means." As she said this she crossed to the other side of the room where Maria stood. Just because she was okay with Lilith smoking it didn't mean she wanted to be next to her when she partook.

"Fuck," Sprout croaked. "I need'a goddamn smoke too."

Lilith chuckled as she slid her jacket off her shoulders. "Dude..." She pulled out her smokes and matchstick book before folding the jacket and using it as a makeshift cushion. "You have a bloody hole in your lung, are you fucking stupid?"

Lighting up, she took a deep drag, stretching her legs out as a wave of exhaustion washed over her. She was quite the sight, dried, cracking blood from the wound on her cheek, very blatant bruising around her neck, the piece of jacket leather still wrapped around the wound on her arm.

"Hey Doc, mind taking a look at this?" She smiled wearily, pointing at her cheek.

Sprout laughed, "No, let it sit fer awhile," He shoved Lilith's shoulder. "Maybe it'll look more badass if ya' let it rot fer a bit!"

"And end up looking like Merry?" Lilith laughed along with the boy. "I can't. I'm the pretty one, that's all I've got going for me. Let Cam and Pixie fight over the 'battle-scarred veteran' look."

Maria fiddled around in her doctor's bag for a cloth and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. She warned Lilith that it might sting a little and began cleaning the wound, with gentle dabbing motions, until the doctor could see where the dried blood ended and the wound began. Underneath her right eye, it trailed down her cheek and stopped near her lip.

"Are you sure you're not competing for that prize?" Maria remarked.

Lilith winced as the alcohol began to sting. "You haven't seen Pixie, trust me." Lilith winked at Maria, quickly turning her head to take a drag of her cigarette. "Eye patch and everythin'." Lilith covered up her left eye with the palm of her hand. "If she don' be soundin' like this..." Lilith exaggerated her captain's accent. "You be thinkin' she's a pirate like outta one of them there story book readin' majigs." She glimpsed up at Sprout.

"I know, I know, I sound just like her. No need for an applause."

Sprout shook his head, disappointed, "Ya' think after spendin' this much time with us you'd 'ave figured out the accent by now. Fuckin' sour cunt." He chuckled.

"LANGUAGE!" Elizabeth berated him, realizing suddenly that she had no place doing such a thing. After all, he still didn't know she was his aunt.

"Yeah Sprout, fuckin' Jesus, effin and blindin', what a twat, you fuckin' wan-OUCH!" She breathed in sharply through clenched teeth as Maria probed her wound.

"Oh c'mon..." Maria laughed as she finished dressing the wound.

"Sure you don't want some dirt packed in there to make it look extra nasty?" She teased.

"Extra nasty?" Lilith squeaked? "It's not that bad is it?" She whimpered. "Oh god, I'm not even twenty three yet, and I look like a pit fighter." She pouted sadly.

"Hey, don't knock my skills!" Maria replied, mirroring the pout, though she didn't mirror the sadness, "It'll heal up nicely, don't worry."

Sprout scoffed, "I'd prefer a Pit Fighter to'a pussy at any rate. I won' bother keepin' you 'round if you go all soft on me, Lily." He laughed. "If we're gonna keep goin' on as a team yer gonna hafta toughen up. Boo hoo, you cut a cut yer cheek. I 'ave a hole in my lung! GET. ON. MY. LEVEL. BITCH!"

Elizabeth dropped her forehead into her palm and shook her head. Glancing over to the doctor, she smiled, "Maria, can we just leave these ingrates behind?"

"Sure, why not?" Maria said with a devilish grin.

Lilith looked up at Cranston. "Look at this green motherfucker, takes one fucking bullet and he thinks he's the dog's bollocks."

"Sorry," Cranston turned his head away from the group. "I can't hear you over the landfills I have filled with the remains of my victims. You kids and your smacktalk."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever." Lilith closed her eyes as she put her hands behind her head. "Fucking old bastard."

Elizabeth scowled, "No respect for your elders. Typical scoundrel." She scoffed.

"She should be smacked on the bottom." Maria quipped, elbowing Cranston.

"Pfft, he knows I'm joking." Lilith opened an eye slightly as she looked at the girl, a wry smile curling her lips. "Been giving him lip since I was fifteen."

"Been givin' everyone lip, woman!" Sprout barked.

"Did I ask you?" Lilith barked back, reaching up and clipping the boy around the ear. "Cheeky bastard."

Aesop relaxed his shoulders and cast his arms down by his side, nodding as he listened to Cameron. Finally as she locked eyes with him, he answered her.

"I understand. I won't I promise," he then tried a bad attempt at humour, "and I ain't broke a promise to her yet. She scares me too much." Aesop was quiet for a moment before running a hand through his long hair. "This is gonna kick of a shit storm isn't it?" He lay on his back and lifted his left knee to rest his right leg on. "God damn its been not even three weeks and more shit's happened now than in the past eleven months I've with you guys. Jesus." He stared at the spliff in her hand for only a second, thinking she'd need a whole round to herself considering the topic.
========================================
Hannibal was extremely disappointed, yet this was overpowered by a worry for Mila's fellow soldiers. "What happened?" His curiosity was getting the better of him, a trait which often got him into trouble in the past, sometimes even near death situations. "Why is the city on lockdown? Is it about Sandragghim?"

The Maiden's playful bickering was interrupted by the sound of multiple footsteps coming down into the cellar. Their voices muffled, the seven men who were what remained of The Gentleman's forces in Feroxi appeared to be in the middle of a heated discussion.

"We should hand over the Maribel girl ad get shot of all this. The Gentleman doesn't pay me to die for some stupid girl."

"No. He pays you to follow my orders." Sandringham's voice was rasping and weak. "We're not giving her up."

"Like hell we're not! If she's who they want-"

"What? They'll let us walk? That diversion worked too well and you know it. Ortega's men were hunting us, not the girl. You try and hand her over, you'll play right into their hands, now get it together!"

As they filed in, The Gentleman's men made for the corners and edges of the room, covering all angles even now. Five walked in single file, while one was being held up on his feet by another.

"Good to see you made it in one piece." Sandringham wheezed, already looking much like a dead man, with what little colour he had in his face to begin with drained from it. A nauseating stench of burned meat filled the room when he enterred, and it was not hard to see why. Underneath the agent's left arm, stretching all the way down his side to his hip, the skin and tissue had been boiled by plasma. The hazard suit that he had been wearing was now fused to him, rubber melted into black, necrotic flesh. Half walking, half being dragged, Sandringham made his way over to the wall next to Cranston, and leaned against it, determined to remain standing.

"We've got a plan." he said to the old assassin, doing his best through gritted teeth to take no notice of his still smoking wound. "You're not going to like it though."

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

["You are certain?"]

["Yes."] The wizened old shopkeeper replied, in the guttural tongue of Frostfall. ["I have seen this man that you describe. He was at these markets earlier today. He bought some ammunition from me, and spent some time over at the fruit stall across from here."]

["Was he alone?"]

["From what I could see, yes."]

'He would not have strayed far,' The Gentleman thought to himself. 'and they will require somewhere secluded. It would seem my search is narrowing.'

["Thank you, Yuri. I knew you could be relied on, even in the middle of such turmoil."]

["You do me too much credit."] Yuri replied, a little nervously, recognising The Gentleman's tone.

["Oh, I sincerely hope not. I hope that this information leads to the swift recovery of my companion, and that he remains in one piece, and that the people who hold him are not in the least forewarned of my arrival, else the Bejik's will know who you have been smuggling munitions to under the table."]

Yuri hung his head. ["Of course. I hope your friend does not have long to wait... You know, I was wondering if you had anything to do with what was happening."]

["For once, it seems I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had I anything to do with this chaos, you would find me in a distinctly better mood. Good day, Yuri."]

Sure, they laughed but Jun didn't like hospitals either. Or anywhere that forced him into a state of uselessness for any amount of time. At least the bickering had stopped when the butler came in. Jun automatically stood up straight when Raphael made his appearance. Afterwards, he slipped into standing at attention and waited for Basilio, ignoring the shiver that when up his spine.

***

Maria's eyes when wide as soon as the stench of burning flesh mixed with that of burning rubber entered her nostrils. The sight of Sandringham soon answered the question of where it was coming from. The agent, in trying to ignore the fact that his left side was all sorts of nasty, was just making the elephant in the room more noticeable. A third-degree burn or worse. It needed treatment.

"Can this wait?" She said to the smoking man, "Not point having a plan if you're not there to carry it out."

"Not point having a plan if you're not there to carry it out."

Sandringham tried to smile, but it came out as more of a pained grimace. He had no doubt that the doctor was good at her job, but even if she had the supplies to back that up, the writing was already on the wall. Little more than adrenaline was keeping his heart beating as it was. He'd been in the business long enough to know what sort of wounds people generally did and didn't survive.

"Go ahead, Doctor." he replied, letting his guard down a little. "We can talk at the same time."

"Not just one." Responded Mila with gritted teeth, sounding regretful of mentioning that there was more than one. "Anyway, I'm to escort you off the premises immediately. The city's under martial law right now and we can't have any civvies on-base. Sorry." She then added with an apologetic voice as a hand gestured the door to both Viola and Hannibal. "I really did want to see how sharp your eye was."

It was then that Viola raised a smile. "Likewise Mila, perhaps we'll have the opportunity to do so, under more fortunate circumstances and sunnier skies."

"Why is the city on lockdown? Is it about Sandragghim?"

"I'd wager that silver haired snake has something to do with it, though it may be that the Maidens were trying to escape, or possibly both."

"What you did back there? Understandable, but don't ever do that again. Never undermine her, you understand me?"

Ruffles would have agreed with Cameron in a heartbeat. But then, he had undermined the Captain more than anyone in the past couple of weeks. He still felt like he had made the right choices on those occasions. He remained silent.

Whiskey leaned over and patted Cameron's leg. "She's lucky to have someone like you around, Cam."

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

"You better be on your best behavior. All of you."

Bryan grinned. "If it makes you feel better, I'll do even better than that," he said. "I'll ah... I dunno, I'll be on Jun's best behaviour! Really up my game."

'Jesus Christ.'

Unless his wounds looked a lot worse than they actually were, Sandringham was a dead man walking. Here they were, making idle chitchat, while this man was suffering, all because of them.

"God damn it." Lilith muttered quietly under her breath as she took a long drag of her cigarette. The girl's expression hardened as she glanced at the other men. Sure, they're obeying orders now, but if the conversation she overheard was anything to go by, that might not be the case without Sandringham around.

Sliding up the wall as she got to her feet, Lilith subtly got Cranston's attention while the others were preoccupied with Maria's doctoring, beckoning him over to her.

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