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

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"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."

Cameron shrugged, "That's just how it goes sometimes. We'll get past this though. We always have."

"She's lucky to have someone like you around, Cam."

"Yeah, right," Cameron scoffed. "That woman doesn't need me. She just needs a big dick and a whole lot'a lovin'!" She laughed, slapping her knee.

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"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."

Mila put her hands on her hips, "I am not clear on the details myself, but that doesn't really matter right now. I need to get you two off base before the Colonel shows up. I imagine new intel has come to light if he doesn't need you anymore."

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"When am I ever not?"

Tsubaki offered him an unimpressed look, before clenching her jaw and wordlessly replying.

'I'll be fine.'

"I'll ah... I dunno, I'll be on Jun's best behaviour! Really up my game."

"I'd like to see that," She rolled her eyes. "Follow Jun's example and keep your mouth shut. I don---" Tsubaki's words died in her throat when the door suddenly opened.

It was him.

"Commander." He stated warmly, a solemn frown painted on his face. Like her men beside her, Tsubaki did her best to sit up straight and salute. She could only hold it for a moment before she clutched her side in pain and doubled over. "Tsubaki!" He shouted, rushing to her side. "No need to push yourself for my sake, Tsubaki."

He grabbed her hand in his own and rubbed her knuckles with his thumb, tenderly. Tsubaki was so taken with his concern that she'd completely ignored how inappropriate his behavior was. Especially in front of her men, "No, Sir. It is habit more than anything else." Her voice cracked as she chuckled. "Saluting you is as natural as saying hello to a friend."

"Well, we are friends, Tsubaki." He assured her.

Tsubaki hesitated for a moment, lost in his... sharp gaze, before nodding her head in compliance. After he stood up straight next to her men, Tsubaki spoke, "Have you heard?"

"Yes," Dio nodded. "The mission was a failure."

Tsubaki bowed her head, "I apologize. It was my fault, I---"

"Who was it?"

Tsubaki looked confused, "Excuse me?"

"Who did this to you?" He pointed to her chest.

"Um," She clutched the end of the blanket as she fought to remember. "It happened so fast, I... No, I know who it was. It was the old man. It was 'The Cook'."

As he turned to face her squad, Dio's imposing stature cast a shadow on all three of them. He scowled, "You find this man and you bring him to me. We will have justice for your commander. Do not fail me in this."

Tsubaki furrowed her brow, "M'Lord, am I not to lead them?"

Rubbing his jaw in thought for a moment, he turned back around and locked eyes with her, "No, I'm sorry, but with your injuries that would be impossible. Spend this time to rest up and regain your strength. Chimera squad suffered several casualties. Ortega will be taking your men under his wing while you are on paid leave."

"M'Lord, I can still fi---"

"This is not up for debate, Tsubaki." Stepping forward, he rested a hand on her shoulder. "Get better soon. That's an order."

Tsubaki simply nodded, returning his faint smile.

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Elizabeth shifted uncomfortably at the edge of the bed as she overheard Sandringham's men discuss her fate. Once they had appeared in the room, Sprout ushered her over and had her sit behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he whispered, "Don' worry, Liz, yer not goin' anywhere you don' wanna." She simply nodded in response, her eyes now glued to the half-dead man at the front of the room.

Cranston was about to ask Sandringham about his idea when he noticed Lilith beckoning him, "Just one moment." He assured him as he walked over to where Lilith was standing. "What is it? He doesn't have much time."

"What is it? He doesn't have much time."

"Exactly," Lilith muttered to the man in hushed tones, her eyes locking with his. "Are they gonna be a problem?" She whispered, as her eyes shifted to the back of one of Sandringham's men. "I'm exhausted, but I can't sleep if I think I'm gonna wake up with a knife in my back." She nodded towards Elizabeth. "Promise me they won't touch the girl."

The woman was clearly concerned, despite how much she tried to hide it.

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

Asad tried his utmost to appear professional, and for all intents and purposes, that's exactly how he came across. The commander was going to need rest, that was a given, so it was no surprise that they'd be moved under someone else's command, at least until Tsubaki had recovered.

What did surprise him was Basilio's general attitude towards the commander. He wasn't sure if he was genuinely concerned or not, but that he had to ask himself that worried him even more.

'Fucking snake.'

"Promise me they won't touch the girl."

"Nobody's touching anyone." Sandringham replied across the room, as loud as his voice would allow, regretting it almost immediately. He sucked in air with sharp, shallow breaths. Thankfully, no-one raised their voice in decent.

"We have larger concerns now." he continued "Those troops belonged to two of Basilio's most accomplished Special Ops squadrons. One had orders to apprehend Lady Elizabeth, while the other's objective was eliminating us. We've been compromised, and I think I know by who, but that's not important right now.

I'm sure Cranston's explained, there's nothing we can do until the lock down is lifted, but even then, I don't rate our chances of just walking out of here. Every checkpoint will be watching for us, and we know longer have the resources to dupe or overpower them. We'll need to split up, my men drawing attention away from you and giving you a window to leave the city; but even then, it's worthless if we'd only be drawing away the forces that are after my people in the first place."

Sandringham paused, looking uneasily at Cranston.

"As far as the enemy knows, you're responsible for the Maidens here. We can use that. If you come with me, and we feed our location to Basilio's forces, they'll believe that the rest of the Maidens and Lady Elizabeth are with us as well. That's the only way I can see of drawing everyone off to our position, giving the others a window to escape. We only need to be in the open long enough to get everyone on our tail, and then we'll go to ground again, for as long as it takes."

He meant that last part, as far as the rest of them were concerned at least. However, as he slid down to a sitting position up against the wall, he tilted his head and whispered to the doctor.

"Just do what you need to do to keep me functional for the next couple of days. Let me worry about the rest."

"Yeah, right," Cameron scoffed. "That woman doesn't need me. She just needs a big dick and a whole lot'a lovin'!"

Aesop laughed out loud before sitting up and commenting, "If that's the case Amy must have a pretty big dick we don't know about."

"You find this man and you bring him to me. We will have justice for your commander. Do not fail me in this."

Yeah, like I wasn't gonna fucken go outta my way to take that fucker anyway... Bryan thought irritably. Although Dio had his back to him, Bryan just looked out the window, stone faced. He didn't like the way the man had his hands all over Tsubaki. It was surprisingly intimate, and that was the simple explanation, of course. He supposed he knew his own feelings, after all. But that aside, there was something he couldn't put his finger on that set him on edge.

Still... The Cook. Bryan knew the man's reputation well. He'd heard horror stories as far back as his thieving days, even more so when he'd been in the arena. Whispers, just one subject among many, but it was one of the things that had stuck with him. Hell, he'd even heard a few things off of Beard. And for Beard to mention something like that without being specifically asked...

It didn't matter. As long as he had his swords and he could get close enough, Bryan didn't care what kind of fighter the Cook was.

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"That woman doesn't need me. She just needs a big dick and a whole lot'a lovin'!"

"That," said Whiskey, "is the recipe to a satisfying life right there."

"If that's the case Amy must have a pretty big dick we don't know about."

Ruffles laughed, but then lapsed into thoughtful silence. "Something's bugging me about Amy," he said. "I can't put my finger on it. I mean she's a nice girl and all, but something isn't right there, with her and Pixie..."

"I can't put my finger on it. I mean she's a nice girl and all, but something isn't right there, with her and Pixie..."

"I can't see anything," answered Aesop, "then again, I've never actually been in a relationship other than mindless drunk fucking, apologies for the bluntness, so I wouldn't know. Is she any different than she was with Bennie?"

He really wanted to ask for the spliff back, but asking it from Cameron in her state was not a polite, nor gentlemanly thing to do. Then again the only thing he knew about being a Gentleman was from the psychotic Gents and that one comic about the people in fruity clothing, which he un-ironically thought was so very stylish.

Well, that was a little different from what Jun was expecting from Lord Basilio.

It was somewhat of a relief that the reality was far from the soldier's expectations, though there was little comfort to be had from that. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the ruler of Feroxi remind everyone in the room as to who was in charge and who exactly owned Tsubaki. Of course, that little show's purpose was just to demonstrate that she belonged to him.

Perfectly normal.

Regardless, they now had the matter of The Cook to worry about. Dead? No problem. Alive? Well, that was going to be difficult.

***

"Just do what you need to do to keep me functional for the next couple of days. Let me worry about the rest."

"Functional I can do." The doctor nodded solemnly as she cut away what she could of the hazard suit, revealing bits of the burned flesh. There wasn't much she could do without the facilities of a burn ward and it wasn't like the agent or the rest were going to one any soon. Sandringham needed to be wrapped up like a mummy. However, all Maria could for now was make sure that the plasma burns were clean, she didn't have nearly enough bandages for that.

'At least I hope I can...' She thought as she slightly frowned.

Cranston crossed his arms and stood in front of Lilith as Sandringham explained his plan.

"... That's the only way I can see of drawing everyone off to our position, giving the others a window to escape. We only need to be in the open long enough to get everyone on our tail, and then we'll go to ground again, for as long as it takes."

He nodded, "Sounds like a reasonable plan. We'll need to hammer out the specifics, but I believe I can trust Lilith to lead them to safety."

"But, didn' you say we had ta' stick ta'gether?!" Sprout butted in.

"We would if we could, but this may be our only shot, Sprout," Looking to Sandringham, Cranston shifted gears. "Tell me... why your squad? What does Basilio want? He usually isn't this blatantly aggressive when the Gentleman is involved."

Elizabeth shuffled out from behind Sprout and stood by Maria's side as she went to work, "I-is there anything I can do to help?"

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"... Is she any different than she was with Bennie?"

Cameron nodded, "I'd say so, yeah. I mean, she seems a lot more protective of her than she was with Bennie. I don't remember her ever really needing to support Bennie in any up-front way, but with Amy... it's like she mothering the poor girl or something. I don't know." She looked to Ruffles. "I agree, it's kinda weird. Think it will last?"

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It wasn't long afterwards that Dio took his leave. Clearly, he was disappointed in how everything had turned out, but it didn't seem he'd be taking it out on Tsubaki. That was a relief. Lord Basilio had been known to get violent when things went south. Many in the court and the higher-ups in the military considered him "Irritable". "Unstable", even. Tsubaki didn't think so. She just figured that's how he dealt with his problems.

She could really use an outlet herself.

An uneasy silence filled the room for awhile after Dio's departure. Eventually, Tsubaki spoke, "You know, you all don't need to wait around for me. Go get some rest. It's been a long day." She thought for a moment before adding, "Oh, also... could one of you do me a... personal favor?" She blushed as she looked between Asad and Bryan.

Jun was irrelevant.

"Oh, also... could one of you do me a... personal favor?"

Bryan shrugged. "I ain't got nothing better to do, Tsubaki."

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"I agree, it's kinda weird. Think it will last?"

"I don't know, Cam," said Ruffles. "I'm not that smart on relationships. I just know something isn't right. I don't wanna say something's wrong exactly, but only 'cause I've no idea what their situation's really like... fuck..." he leaned over and took the joint from Cameron, taking a long drag before passing it to Aesop, who had been eyeing the thing like a man in a desert would stare at an oasis.

"But, didn' you say we had ta' stick ta'gether?!"

Sprout was right. Lilith wasn't sure they could make it out of the city without Cranston their to help them. Sitting on the edge of the boy's bed, she gently ruffled his hair. "It's okay, we can do it." She whispered reassuringly, a warm smile on her face. "And he'll be fine." She nodded at Cranston. "He knows how to take care of himself."

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"Oh, also... could one of you do me a... personal favor?"

Asad grinned. "Clear out your liquour cabinet? That's okay, me and Bryan can do that no problem, we're just happy to help."

"I am not clear on the details myself, but that doesn't really matter right now. I need to get you two off base before the Colonel shows up. I imagine new intel has come to light if he doesn't need you anymore." Spoke Mila with her hands placed firmly on her hips, like she meant business.

"It's not as if we had much more to give anyway; though this does raise a good and hopefully valid question, what if we happen to stumble across something that may be useful to you?" Asked Viola as she focused on getting her firearms back in their holsters.

"Well." Mila shrugged. "We'd hope you would come to us with the intel. I don't imagine we'll have the resources to keep tabs on you until this whole thing blows over, in any case."

Not being known to think much before he spoke, Hannibal offered, "What if we helped somehow?" Why he was asking he didn't know. Security perhaps? More opportunities to go sleuthing?

"The best you two could do at this point is lay low. This city's going to be turned upside down before this is over."

A bolt of fear shot through him, just like earlier in the day. "What if the Gundersons come after me again? What if those men weren't alone?"

Mila smirked, "They won't. Listen kid." She knelt down before him. Aware of his fear, she placed a hand on his shoulder. "Those pussies stepped on the wrong rattlesnake. Their higher-ups know they were hit by Basilio spec ops. There ain't a bandit in the world stupid enough to come after you now."

"Well see about that, the Gundersons looked pretty determined to take Hannibal in, dead or alive. Guess we'll have to keep on our toes just in case." Viola remarked as she listened in on the exchange. "Still, I'd imagine that given how the entire dome will be under lock-down shortly, with guards on every entryway and atop every square inch of wall, it'll be difficult for either the Maidens or Sandringham to get out undetected, but it doesn't mean they aren't going to try."

"Oh, they will." Mila soon got back to her feet. "They have no other choice. They're cornered now. The only place for them to go is... through us."

"Ah, what a noble thing it must be for you, to stand tall in the face of adversity. I guess this about wraps things up, unless you Hannibal have something you'd wish to add, I think we should let Miss Mila here show us the way out." Hannibal meanwhile just stayed silent at the side before nodding in compliance.

Mila simply frowned and watched them turn to leave, "Keep your heads low."

"As you wish." The three of them soon left the weapons range and turned left down a corridor, watching as soldiers came rushing past them without stopping. Mila lead them through several corridors and large open areas that seemed to act as hub for the various sections; operations, logistics, medical, dormitories, stuff like that. Eventually though they reached the motor-pool entrance they came in through.

"I guess this must be where we part ways. I must say I've enjoyed my time given the circumstances." Viola said with a smile as she offered a friendly handshake to Mila.

Mila returned the handshake and looked to Hannibal, "Take care of her, kid." She allowed herself a subtle smirk before turning on her heel and disappearing down the nearest hall.

Hannibal gave her an awkward look before looking down. "Thanks, um, you too Mila." He then turned to Viola and asked, "What do we do now?"

"Right now? I reckon we should just head back to the hotel, it's been a long day." Responded Viola as they began walking back. "Maybe get something to eat along the way, who knows." She then shrugged her shoulders in uncertainty as to what they had planned, you could say they had a free evening.

"Yeah, well uh, hold onto your gun I guess." Replied Hannibal, yet another bad attempt at humour. Viola chuckled slightly at the humour.

"You know you're a good kid Hannibal. Don't ever lose that."

"I-is there anything I can do to help?"

"Maybe go out there and buy me a burn ward, with staff and everything." Maria quipped as she concentrated on Sandringham, lightly tapping the charred parts of the burn with a scapel. The question of escharotomy played on her mind. To do so was to risk severe bleeding, infection, damage to neurovascular structures or inadequate decompression - decompression being the whole point of escharotomy. There was no doubt there was eschar, or was that just burnt plastic? It had been a long time since she'd last treated burns, and they weren't as nearly as severe as the one in front of me - people usually died before too long, something which also pressed on Maria's mind. But, if she could treat a punctured lung...

She furrowed her brow before adding, "On second thought, see if there is any mechanical bits and bobs in the bag for me - y'know, rubber and the like."

***

Seeing that he wasn't needed, Jun exited the infirmary without a word.

"I ain't got nothing better to do, Tsubaki."

"Clear out your liquour cabinet? That's okay, me and Bryan can do that no problem, we're just happy to help."

Tsubaki had been so preoccupied being embarrassed that she hadn't the mind to roll her eyes at Asad's comment like she normally would, "Uh," She chuckled quietly, "You see, um, remember that kitten from the market? Well, I have been taking care of it. Could one of you look after it while I'm laid up here? And, uh... this goes without saying, but, just keep this between us. Okay?"

She couldn't let any one else know of her... weakness.

"Heaven forbid we act like people from time to time."

She turned her head away from the two men as a subtle smile curled at the ends of Tsubaki's lips.

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"I don't wanna say something's wrong exactly, but only 'cause I've no idea what their situation's really like... fuck..."

Cameron shrugged, "One thing's clear: Bennie's still got a hard-on for the Captain. I'm sure that complicates things." She winced and shook her head. "Dammit, I'm such an idiot. Why'd I have to go and fuck him, anyway? I'm sure that just confused him more." She sighed. "Last thing I want to do is get caught in the middle of that train wreck."

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"On second thought, see if there is any mechanical bits and bobs in the bag for me - y'know, rubber and the like."

"Right away," Elizabeth barked as she knelt down and started rummaging through the bag, retrieving anything she thought may be useful. She wanted to be helpful. Useful. She had to be.

All this suffering. Sandringham's potentially fatal injury. It had all been for her.

"He knows how to take care of himself."

Sprout nodded in silence. Their attention now turned to the main conversation in the room, Sprout grabbed hold of Lilith's hand and squeezed. Whatever happened, they were in it together.

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"... with nowhere to put him, that priest will be seeing quite a few of my favourite sides of you soon enough."

Severa giggled, "And maybe some you're not so fond of." She winked at her brother before approaching the priest. "Now, Father, because we have an audience I regret to inform you that I cannot go easy on you lest I get another... mmmm... punishment." She swooned. "The next few moments will be extremely painful. Take note, Father. Pay attention, for the act will be fleeting but the pain will persist. You need to understand how beautiful that concept is."

Leaning forward, she grabbed his throat with one hand and dug her nails into his forearm with the other. Holding his head back in a painfully awkward position, she fell upon him like a vampire, burring her canines into the side of his neck. Blood began to gush out from his flesh and covered her mouth and chin. After several moments of twisting her teeth around she withdrew and began lapping up the flowing blood, "You're delicious, Father."

"You see, um, remember that kitten from the market? Well, I have been taking care of it. Could one of you look after it while I'm laid up here? And, uh... this goes without saying, but, just keep this between us. Okay?"

Asad opened his mouth to speak, but the words failed him. Chucking in disbelief, he crossed his arms over his chest. "A cat?" Asad looked at the woman incredulously, but the expression on her face was genuine. After a few moments, his face softened into a warm smile.

"Sure, we'll look after your kitty. We'll take it in turns, that way, we can both clear out your liquor cabinet in equal measure."

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Lilith smiled as she returned the hand squeeze. At least now they had some time to rest up together.

"This plan." Lilith chimed in. "Once we get out of the city, then where do we go? We still headin' to Carlos' place? I mean, we should be fine once we get clear of the dome, right?" Lilith was trying to convince herself more than anything.

The girl may have conceded that she couldn't escape conflict, but she did want a break every now and then.

And again Florian's world descended into cutting pain and the creeping revulsion of his flesh being violated.

"You're delicious, Father."

'Put yourself in the place of ash and know you are already dead.' The mantra ran through his head again and again. There else he could do but close his eyes and grit his teeth through his own sounds of pain.

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["Have you seen the shit they're doing out there?"]

["Not now, Erik."] Vasa waved him off, having found himself in Lord Boykov's study and started helping himself to the contents. Irena was with him and throwing herself into the various files that Boykov's inner sanctum had horded.

["Yes, Fucking, now! Sergei's bitches are turning the place into a madhouse and my crews can only keep so much order. Reports are coming in telling me that the rest of the dome's losing its mind as well. They need their boss to show that this shit wont stand in his house."]

Not to mention the other pockets of resistance that were still kicking up trouble away from the compound. God only knew what was slipping through the cracks at a time like this.

["You should let them enjoy themselves old boy."] Vasa said softly. ["This was the last great fight of the civil war. Why aren't you enjoying yourself?"]

["I can do that when we're finished."] Erik growled. ["For now we need to make sure people tow the line or this whole place is going to go up in flames."]

His once glorious leader apparently didn't deem that worthy of a response and carried on amusing himself with rare liquor and some of the lesser gadgets the nobles used to amuse themselves with. Erik's hands slowly closed into fists as his already frayed patience continued to be tested. Reading the tension, Irena awkwardly tried to blend in with her administrative background and keep out of things while the two of them boiled over for what felt like the fiftieth time that week.

["This is our chance, Vas!"] Erik caved, breaking their brief silence. ["We actually change things around here, make good some promises. You don't want to end up being just like Boykov, right?"]

["This is how things work now, is it?"] Vasa sighed. ["Kill your predecessor and usher in a new golden age for the frozen wastes that the other domes exiled us to. When did you start living in a story world, Erik? This was never supposed to be our war."]

["But it IS Vas. It is now, all this can't be for nothing, it can't just be another job. This dome might be tough but she needs someone to guide her."] Some of the fire had left Erik's voice now. Politics and grand schemes weren't his forte and he found himself throwing pleading glances at Irena. She only furrowed her brow in worry, keeping quiet as Vasa laughed bitterly.

["A tough dome! That's the kind of thing people say around here isn't it? A Hardy land breeds a hardy people. They'll say anything to make being trapped in the most hellish part of this dump of a rock more bearable, anything to hide their weakness. But this land isn't hardy, it's fucking toxic."] Slowly enough Vasa turned, offering Erik a heavy eyed, icy stare. ["Frostfall needs and wants no one, Erik. All she breeds is death... better to embrace and enjoy what few years you might have left."]

That seemed to kill off any grand speeches Erik might have been nursing. Vasa limped his way further into the inner sanctum in search of solitude, leaving Erik and Irena in an awkward silence. ["Fuck that!."] Erik snapped, storming out of the room and heading to rejoin his crew. Someone had to do something around this place.

This all left Irena alone with the paperwork and the duty of sorting out other peoples schemes. But apparently they were all losing interest in scheming. "God, save me from crazy old men."

"You see, um, remember that kitten from the market? Well, I have been taking care of it. Could one of you look after it while I'm laid up here? And, uh... this goes without saying, but, just keep this between us. Okay?"

Bryan laughed. "I wondered about the little fur ball, actually. I'm alright with that. Used to hang out with the cats when I was on the streets as a kid."

"Sure, we'll look after your kitty. We'll take it in turns, that way, we can both clear out your liquor cabinet in equal measure."

"What liquor cabinet?" Bryan asked, smirking. "This is Tsubaki. I doubt she's got enough booze in her place for me to Irish up a coffee!"

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"Last thing I want to do is get caught in the middle of that train wreck."

"Ain't your fault," said Ruffles. "He's still, y'know, aware. So it's on him who he hops into bed with. Besides," he gave Whiskey a sly grin. "Bennie gets into all the girl's pants sooner or later."

Whiskey put up her palms. "Hey, woah, I just got here!"

Tsubaki noted their surprise and attempted to hide her beat red face.

"Sure, we'll look after your kitty. We'll take it in turns, that way, we can both clear out your liquor cabinet in equal measure."

This time she rolled her eyes.

"What liquor cabinet? This is Tsubaki. I doubt she's got enough booze in her place for me to Irish up a coffee!"

"As a matter of fact, I do have some alcohol," She corrected them. "Some vintage wine. A gift from Lord Basilio." She furrowed her brow and looked past them. "You can have it. I'll never drink it."

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"Hey, woah, I just got here!"

Cameron shrugged, "I ain't gunna lie, cowgirl," She laughed. "He's a pretty good lay. Now I know why Pixie kept him to herself all these years."

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While the priest reeled from the pain of the her sudden assault, Severa wiped the blood from her lips with her wrist and straddled him in his seat. Stretching her arms across his shoulders, she brought her lips close to his and whispered, "Father, tell me: what was your gravest sin? What have you done in your life that keeps you awake at night? This kind of conversation should come naturally to you. Tell me, Father, and I will forgive you for your sins." She giggled, insidiously.

"I mean, we should be fine once we get clear of the dome, right?"

"With a little luck, you should be long gone before the Basilio forces realise you've given them the slip." Sandringham said, grunting as the doctor prodded around his raw, smarting flesh. "Even then though, the wild is never a place you want to let your guard down for even a second. I thought being bandits you wouldn't need reminding... Anyway, you'll be on your own as soon as you leave the city, so stay vigilant."

"You can have it. I'll never drink it."

Bryan noticed the thousand yard stare Tsubaki got as she said this, but there wasn't much he could say. Instead, he cracked the best smile he could. "Oh, score!"

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"He's a pretty good lay. Now I know why Pixie kept him to herself all these years."

"Careful," said Whiskey, laughing. "People never live up to expectation when ya talk 'em up like that."

"Father, tell me: what was your gravest sin? What have you done in your life that keeps you awake at night? This kind of conversation should come naturally to you. Tell me, Father, and I will forgive you for your sins."

Oh, how many times had Cameron tried a line like this on him after a few too many drinks? After the mauling he'd been given the early days of his time with the maidens and lighthearted sexual assaults that made up his hazing seemed like such pleasant distant days. Maybe he should have taken Cam up on that offer, what would have been the worst that could have happened?

"Can we just play Russian roulette or something? I don't have all day." Florian sighed, still wincing a little at the fresh wound.

"... Anyway, you'll be on your own as soon as you leave the city, so stay vigilant."

Cranston couldn't help but notice that Sandringham had ignored his question, but he'd let it go for now. They would have plenty of time to discuss it after they'd gotten some rest. Once Maria was finished tending to Sandringham's burns, the motley crew turned in for the night. Cranston wouldn't be getting much sleep, however, as he's propped himself up in a sitting position against the bed Maria and Elizabeth were sharing. It wasn't a comfortable position, but he'd be sleeping with his eyes open, anyway.

Sandringham's men simply couldn't be trusted at this point. With that kind of injury, the spy could go in the middle of the night and they'd be left with a rather awkward situation. The old assassin was ready to kill them all if necessary.

Lilith had gotten up after lying in bed for a short time and made her way upstairs. The bar was closed now, so Cranston wasn't all that worried that she'd get into trouble. Eventually, Sprout got up as well to follow her to where she'd gone.

Those two...

If anyone's to make it out of this. Please, let it be those two.

Cranston felt a sharp twang in his heart, but ignored it. Now was not the time for such sentimentality.

His train of thought was suddenly forgotten when he felt the bed shift behind his head. Elizabeth was apparently restless. Maria was lying on her back, the back of her wrist resting on her eyes when Elizabeth rolled over to look at her. She wasn't asleep yet either, the young noble could tell. Hesitant to speak at first, Elizabeth noted the large fan in the room that was providing a loud, steady sound. Hopefully, it would serve to drown out her whispers.

"Uh," Elizabeth furrowed her brow, "M-maria, are you awake?" She whispered.

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Sprout found Lilith sitting at the bar. Not a single light was on. It was just her, alone in the darkness. Quietly, Sprout came up from behind her and painfully took a seat on a stool beside her. Resting his arms on the counter, he bowed his head. Without looking at her, he spoke, "How're ya' holdin' up, Lily?" The concern in his voice was clear as day.

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"People never live up to expectation when ya talk 'em up like that."

Cameron shrugged, "I dunno, he's got a reputation for a reason," She giggled. After about an hour of gossip, the little after-party was beginning to die down. "Whelp, I am fuckin' bushed. Think I am going to ride out this buzz with a good, long nap." She stretched as she got to her feet. "I'd kick y'all out, but I am honestly too high to give a shit. Anyone want to keep me company, they're welcome to." She chuckled stupidly as she winked at no one in particular.

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

"Can we just play Russian roulette or something? I don't have all day."

Severa pouted and put her hands on her hips, "Oh, you're no fun at all! Why do you have to show off for company, Father?!" She suddenly sounded frustrated. "Maybe... maybe you need to be shown what it really means to feel. I'm sure you've suffered loss, Father. Everyone on the Rock has. But have you ever lost a part of yourself? Has anyone ever forcibly removed a piece of you?" She produced her scalpel once more and began teasing different parts of his body. First his nipple, then pinky, then his crotch, and then finally, his ear. "No, I don't think anyone forced you to change. I don't think you've been locked in this cage by another. Despite this entrapment you claim to be a victim of, I believe you chose this path. You chose to walk with the Gentleman in the shoes you wear. In the collar that so obviously wears thin against your throat."

She shook her head, disapproving, "You lost your way, Father. It is so sad. Now," She cut into his earlobe ever so slightly with her blade. "You get to choose again. What part of you are you willing to lose?"

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

An hour had passed since Bryan and Asad had left. By now they were likely drunk off their ass in a bar somewhere, talking about... who knows what.

Probably you.

Tsubaki chuckled, amused with her own sense of self importance. They were so kind. So willing to help her out. A subordinate isn't required to stand by their superior's bedside, nor should they be expected to take personal requests during their CO's sick leave. They knew such obedience wouldn't earn themselves an inch of respect from Tsubaki. They knew better than that.

She cared about results. Nothing more.

So why did they do it?

The room was dark, save for the moonlight bleeding through the not-quite-shut blinds. She had been staring up at the ceiling for a long time now. Despite her fatigue, sleep had evaded her. There was too much on her mind, it seemed.

Sighing to herself, she rested the back of her hand against her forehead and closed her eyes. What had happened with Dio earlier... it was wrong. Sure, she was delighted to see how concerned he'd been. She liked knowing he cared about her, but to act that was in front of her men. It... undermined her authority. Fundamentally.

It wasn't fair to them. They shouldn't have had to see that. What if her squad got the wrong idea.

They've probably had it for awhile.

Then she remembered. Asad knew. Did Bryan too?

Rolling her head onto its side, she looked over at the corded phone on the nightstand. She could call. They couldn't be too drunk yet.

What the hell are you thinking?

What was she thinking? What good would calling either of them do at this point? Why did she want to talk to them? Holding the left-side of her aching, bruised chest, Tsubaki felt her heart flutter.

Why?

She wanted something, but she had no idea what. She was completely at a loss.

It was very unlike her.

Aesop simply sat back and listened to all the gossip. Usually he was making silly jokes which left people shaking their head at his attempts at humour, sometimes with a pat on the back, other times with a swift kick to the nads, but he had fuck all to add to this conversation and thus sat back enjoying the weed. It surely wasn't as strong as Ruffles's handy work, but it certainly did the job.

"Anyone want to keep me company, they're welcome to."

Aesop chuckled, and with no attempt at charm or subtlety joked, "That depends, am I still on your 'to do' list?" He yawned and laughed, stretching his legs out before resting on his elbows. He was relieved he was so tired, he didn't think he was gonna sleep that night after all that happened.
======================================
"You know you're a good kid Hannibal. Don't ever lose that."

Hannibal had literally no idea what that meant, once again taking words to be completely literally. The signs of lockdown were present all around them, cops, guards, and even a few soldiers where present on the streets as they made their way back to the hotel. Hannibal didn't think to have any supper or food before he fell forwards, gracelessly, onto the chair in Viola's room. For some reason simply being back in the hotel made him feel tired, perhaps the silence was making him think back on his predicament.

Mila said that his aggressors would be stupid to go after them once more, but they were much more motivated than anyone realised. They weren't just after him because they were being paid to, they wanted someone to blame. Surely there were others to blame as well, but Hannibal was the only survivor from that explosion as far as he knew. They wouldn't give up. They may have had a small reprieve, but they'd be back. People with vendetta's always get back.

Such thoughts were wearing down his head however and Hannibal slowly drifted off to sleep in an extremely odd position-lying face down onto the chair, legs sticking in the air like a plank as his hips rested along the arm rest. He was not a normal young man.

It hurt. It wouldn't stop hurting, it was stitched and clean, but the pain still burned her flesh, it wouldn't let her sleep.

Lilith winced slightly. Could she ask for painkillers, with Sandringham the way he was? He'd need all the relief he could get, what was a scratch compared to that... mess?

The worst thing about the whole situation, for every pang in her cheek, for every painful smile, it only reminded her of how she got it in the first place.

"Son of a bitch, get out of my head." She whispered to herself, running her hands through her hair, perking up slightly as she heard movement behind her.

She instantly knew who it was.

As the boy sat next to her, she felt a pang of guilt as he grunted in pain.

'Silly girl, have some damn perspective.'

"How're ya' holdin' up, Lily?"

Lilith looked at the boy, his shadowy features reflecting the delicate violet light that managed to creep its way through the the cracks in the window blinds.

"Ah you know me, can't sleep at the best of times." She smiled weakly before regretting it instantly, breathing in sharply before letting a small chuckle escape her lips. "Fuckin' stings."

Sprout nodded, continuing to stare down at his feet, "Do... do ya' wanna talk 'bout what happened? I don' jus' mean with Gorgon. I mean, like, everythin'."

Lilith furrowed her brow slightly. Of course he'd want to know what happened, why wouldn't he? She bet her felt pretty damn useless right about now.

"You sure you want to know?" She asked softly, propping her good cheek against her palm.

Sprout hesitated a moment before meeting her gaze in his periphery, "Lily, of course I do. I don' wan' you ta' ever keep anythin' from me ta' 'protect' me 'r any'a that kinda shit. Still," He broke eye contact. "I won' make ya' talk 'bout nothin' you don' wanna."

Her eyes glistened with affection, as she smiled warmly, ignoring the pain, she moved her hand to Axel's face, grabbing his chin as she turned his head to meet her eyes. "Silly boy." She muttered, before gently tapping him on the cheek. Her eyes searched his, before she broke her gaze and thought for a moment.

"I had him." She croaked. "He was done, I beat him to the ground, broke his leg. I had a gun aimed right between his eyes." She paused for a moment, before an incredulous chuckle escaped her lips, her eyes meeting the boy's. "I couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it." She bit her bottom lip as she furrowed her brow. "Because for every second I stood there, looking at this... man, I wasn't thinking of him." She paused again.

"I was thinking of you. Thinking... how you'd tell me to stop, and that he wasn't worth it. So I stopped."

A look of guilt washed over Sprout's face. He clutched Lilith's wrist and shook his head frantically, "No, Lily. We can' be like that anymore. I---We----" He lost his words as conflicting ideas clashed in his mind. After a few deliberate blinks to clear his mind, he continued. "Listen, I've been thinkin' a lot these past few days. We can'... we can' be weak like that anymore, Lily. You ar' the most important person I 'ave. I ain't jus' sayin' that to flatter you. You, Lilith, ar' the most precious soul I know an' I think it's fair ta' say you feel the same way 'bout me." He turned around on the stool to completely face her. "Like Cranston always said, 'we can' take any half measures', Lily."

His lip quivered and brow furrowed, it seemed he was only just getting started. The amount of things he wanted to tell her was, well, too much, "I don' care 'bout some stupid fuckin' hunter who don' care 'bout no one else but 'imself. If he's my enemy I ain't gonna hesitate. If there's a chance I won' be returnin' ta' you 'cause I showed some scumbag mercy I ain't gonna let him walk away. Lily," He searched her eyes. "No one else fuckin' matters. It's you an' me. As long as we're together that's all I care 'bout."

"Way ahead of ya'." She said simply, smiling as she brushed the boy's fringe to the side before pointing to her cheek. "This happened after I decided to walk away. Fucker would have had me too, if not for the help of a friend."

Sprout cocked an eyebrow, "Friend?"

Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out her smokes and the little matchbook. "Notice anything different?" She asked, as she placed a cigarette between her lips, breaking the last match out of the book, she took a deep drag as the cigarette took the flame.

He picked up on it instantly, "Where's yer lighter?"

"Fucker stamped on it before we threw down." She shook her head as she blew smoke out the corner of her mouth. "What kind of person smashes a person's lighter, after the pretty owner of said lighter offers said fucker a cigarette, I ask you?" She closed her eyes for a moment. "He had me on the ground. Did this to me." She placed her hand on her cheek. "Then he tried to choke me."

She bit her bottom lip as her voice deepened slightly.

"So I put a piece of that lighter in his throat."

"Lily," He muttered, slouching over so he could get a better look at her downcast eyes. He grabbed her shoulders. "Next time..." His voice was wary. "Next time I'm comin' with you, okay? If we're gonna face hell we gotta do it together." He held her cheek in his hand and rested his thumb right below her fresh scar.

Meeting his gaze, Lilith smiled as she placed her hand on his, tilting her head to rest in his palm. "Together. Always together."

"Reminds me of Ma's. She don' like anyone seein' it, but I've seen it plenty'a times. It's kinda weird, I figured she'd be like you. Wear it with pride, I guess. But no." He shrugged. "She hides it. It's like she's ashamed of it."

As Axel continued, she longed to tell him everything, why Meredith hid the scar, but it wasn't her place. No, that was something only Meredith could do.

"It's cos' she knew this day would come." She chuckled, blowing smoke out the corner of her mouth. "Bitch won't be able to handle me when we get back, she'll be all like 'Oh Lily, you can' have a scar laak thert, y'all gonna make me look bad!' and I'll be all like 'Bitch, please, I'm in charge now.'"

Sprout couldn't help but crack a small, wry smile. It quickly evaporated as he searched her eyes, however, "Have you fergiven her?" He asked abruptly. "Can you fergive her?" By his tone it sounded almost as if he didn't want her to. There was a profound sadness behind his eyes. Something Lilith hadn't noticed until now.

It wasn't like their first night in Feroxi. It was something else.

Lilith furrowed her brow, as the boy's look began to distress her. "Hey, are you okay? I'm fine, really, it's all water under the bridge now."

"How can you, Lily?!" He was shouting now. "I don' get it! Really? Tell me! Sh-sh-sh-she beat you within an' inch of yer life! An' fer what!? Water under the bridge?! How the fuck could she 'ave made it up to ya' in such a short time? Please Lilith," He looked away from her, trying to fight back tears. "Y-y-you don' 'ave ta' sugar coat it 'cause she's my Ma'! Please don' l-l-lie ta' me..."

"Hey, hey, hey!" She placed her hands firmly on the boy's shoulders as he began to rave. "Listen to me, listen!" As the boy went quiet, whimpering quietly, Lilith raised her head slightly. "Axel." She said his name firmly. "Look at me."

Sprout complied. He found it hard to look her in the eye, but he did.

Lilith loosened her grip on the boy's shoulders as his eyes finally met hers.

"Everything we've been through lately, all the pain, all the death." She shook her head slightly. "Compared to what your mother's been through?" She paused, her expression hardened. "It was nothing."

"Who's the one person who's been there for you, for me, ever since I left that shithole town?" Lilith's breath caught in her throat slightly. "That's right, Meredith."

"She never had that, Axel. She was alone, for so very long, seen and done terrible, terrible things. Things that would break most people." Lilith clenched her jaw tightly as she furrowed her brow. "But not Pixie. Not Meredith Monroe. Not your mother." She smiled slightly. "Merry ain't winning any awards for being a great mum anytime soon." She started, a small chuckle escaping her lips as she grabbed the boy by the jaw. "But to get to where she is, the whole world against her, alone?"As affection for the woman softened her expression, she ran her hand through the boy's hair.

"You are the Axel you are now, because of that woman. The Axel who ran around the ship with me when we were younger. The Axel who helped me steal chocolate from Ruffles' hidden stash. The Axel who has my back in ill conceived bar brawls." She chuckled fondly at the memory, pausing for a moment to lose herself in the boy's eyes. "The Axel who took a bullet for me."

"No matter what Merry has done, no matter what she's said, no matter who she's hurt." She cupped the boy's face with her hands, biting down on her cigarette as she smirked.

"You are the Axel I love because of that woman. And for that, I'd forgive her for anything."

"... I'd forgive her for anything."

That phrase circled back and forth in his brain endlessly as he stared blankly at the girl before him. Casting his gaze downwards, Sprout hadn't the courage to look her in the eye. Without even knowing it, Lilith had made him feel horrible. Sick, even. He was ashamed for how he felt. Confused as to whether or not he was justifed in his feelings.

He hadn't told her and he was terrified of doing so.

"L-lily," He kept his head bowed. "After she beat you up, Cranston said somethin'. He said, 'I thought we were done with this shit'. At the time I hadn' a clue what the fuck he was on about, but now..." He looked at Lilith now. It wasn't sadness or anger in his eyes. It was emptyness. "Gettin' shot... it knocked somethin' loose in me. Made me remember some thin's. I didn' know what it meant at first, but I kept 'aven' these dreams. They felt so real. So vivid. So I asked Cranston about 'em an' he all but confirmed what I already knew deep down."

He sighed heavily and ran his fingers through his hair, nervously, "Don' think she's hid it from me all these years 'er anythin'. Hell, she probably has no idea I'd fergotten, but, Lily... you weren't the first person she hurt like that." He swallowed past a knot in his throat. "When I was four... five years-old... before the Maiden, when it was jus' me'n her. She used ta' beat me. Severely. I always wondered why Ma' never had a story fer when I broke my arm as a kid. Now I remember. I..." He trembled. "I love her, but, I dunno, I... I dunno what ta' think..."

He turned around in his stool so that he was facing the bar and crossed his hands over his chest. Closing his eyes, a few tears began rolling down his cheeks, "She never said sorry ta' me."

Lilith looked dumbfounded as the boy began to cry.

'Goddamn it, Meredith, how could you?'

Closing her eyes, Lilith thought for a moments, the boy's whimpers rousing her own emotions.

'No, no more crying, this isn't about you.'

Looping a hand around the boy's neck, she rested the side of her head against his. "I'm sure she's sorry, more than anything in the whole world. What I just told you? That still stands." She pulled the boy closer to her, turning him around as she wrapped her arms around him, cradling his head against her shoulder.

"You are still you. It just means Merry is a bigger bitch than I first thought." She clenched her jaw, furrowing her brow as she comforted the boy.

"If she's as ashamed about it as she was when she beat my ass..." The woman pushed the boy away gently, holding him at arms length. "Don't think for a second she doesn't regret it every single day, you hear me?"

It was becoming increasingly difficult to hold back the tears. Sprout fought his hardest, meeting her gaze as she reassured him, despite wanting so badly to just run away. To curl up in a corner and hide, "I-I-I hope so." Was all he managed to mutter before he fell into her arms, unable to keep his grief in-check any longer. He wanted so desperately to be strong for her. To show her that he was man enough to face his problems. But perhaps, he was still too young. Too vulnerable to simply shrug off such things.

His face buried in the side of her neck and collar, he sobbed like a baby for a long while. Somehow it felt so familiar. He remembered another woman being there for him when his mother would unload on him in her despair. What would she have done if she didn't have a kid to beat about? What kind of grief drives a person to do such a thing?

Through exasperated breaths, he managed to speak, "I-I-I'm sorry, Lily. I love 'er, I really do---I jus', I---Lily... I'm sorry, I'm so sorry---"

Perhaps it was best just to let the kid cry it out.

Silently, Lilith comforted the boy, stroking the back of his head as he wept.

'Me and you are going to have words, Meredith.'

Axel didn't know how rough life was for Meredith in those days, sure he had snippets of second hand recollections and sparse memories of them, but he had no idea what the source of it all was. She wondered, when he was eventually told the whole story, would he understand?

She hoped so.

Regardless, the woman didn't have the energy or motivation to be angry at Meredith, and she wasn't sure she ever would, not with what she knew. That wouldn't stop her from giving the woman a piece of her mind though...

As several minutes passed and the boy's cries faded to whimpers, she gently pushed him away, cupping his face with one hand as she wiped away his tears with her thumb. Smiling warmly, she brushed Axel's fringe to the side. "You need a haircut." She commented, chuckling slightly.

After a few silent moments, Lilith furrowed her brow. "Still want that smoke?"

Sprout chuckled when she commented on his hair and looked at her longingly. He really was attached to her. Like a baby duckling imprinted on its mother. Or, more aptly, a horny teenager who had a confusing crush on a sister figure.

His eyes still misty, he gave her a sad grin and nodded his head, "Reckon I do, Lily."

"Don't tell anyone." She whispered as she pulled two cigarettes from the packet. "Remember, I'm a responsible adult." Handing Axel a smoke, she opened the matchstick book, before swearing under her breath.

Sprout took the cigarette between his lips and wiped away one last tear as he grinned, stupidly. Cocking an eyebrow, he nudged her, "How sexy you reckon I look with this thin'?"

"So sexy." Lilith chuckled, as she placed the empty matchstick book on the counter. "I don't have any matches left, but I picked up a trick a while back, here." Placing the second cigarette in her mouth next to the old one, she leaned in towards the boy. "Okay, it's almost at the filter, so we gotta be quick, just drag on the thing until it's lit."

Pressing her cigarette against the boys, a few quiet moments passed before the flame took.

Sprout couldn't help but blush as their lips came so close together. He could feel her slow, methodical breaths clashing with his own. Strangely, however, it didn't feel strange or awkward. It felt...

Comforting.

Once his cigarette was lit he touched the end of her new one with his. Securing it between his fingers, he leaned in close, his eyes lingering on her lips.

A small smirk curling her lips, she noted the boy's enthusiasm. "Oi." She grunted, smoke puffing from her nostrils. "Not getting all gay on me are ya?" She teased, placing a hand on Axel's head, she ruffled his hair gently.

He smiled, rolling with Lilith's jab and took a deep drag. As an act of rebellion, he reached forward and ruffled her hair in return, "Whatever, Lily. You started it! We both know yer gayer fer me than the other way around!"

"You're playing a dangerous game, boy. I've killed men for less." She threatened mockingly as she stubbed out the spent cigarette. It had felt like an eternity since they last goofed around, just hanging out. She never realised how much she appreciated these quiet moments, just the two of them.

"I'm thinking of growing it out again, what do ya think?" She asked, grabbing her fringe, she held it under her nose like a moustache. "Oui, oui? Or non, non?"

"Retard," He chuckled. "I remember the last time it was long. I reckon it was 'round the same time I figured out what jackin' off was." As her expression hardened he gave her a light shove. "Kiddin'! Kiddin'! No, I think you should do it. Look like a proper lady an' shit."

"I dunno, gonna have a hard time pulling that off with this fucker." She grinned, pointing at her face. "Besides, you know me, I've never been lady like, did you see my teacher? I was doomed from the start"

He rolled his eyes, "Yeah, well, there's one thin' you didn' pick up from her." He laughed and blushed as he considered whether or not he'd humor her. In the end, he just had to do it. "I don' reckon you can fit half as many dicks in you!!!"

"Jesus Christ, kid, the fuck is wrong with you?" The girl chuckled, shaking her head. "Oh! Shit! Bennie's back, you know what that means?" Lilith cringed as a grimace curled her mouth. "Earplugs are back on special."

"Don' remind me, fuck. I promise you, Lily, if I ever inherit half the mojo Ma' has I'll try ta' keep it down fer ya'. I know hearin' other women get off confuses you."

"Of course." She rolled her eyes as she took a deep drag. "Because you're doing so well right now, I mean, nothing turns a girl on more than when a guy talks about how much cock his mum can take." Tapping the boy gently around the side of the head, she laughed wearily.

He laughed along with her. A comforting silence settled in as the two looked towards the bar and enjoyed their cigarettes. It hurt to inhale, but Sprout figured the buzz was well worth it.

Eventually, Sprout broke the silence with a sudden laugh, "Sorry ta' get gay on ya' again, but, uh, Lily...." He turned around to face her, placing a hand on her wrist. "I know we're both gonna do ar' best ta' stick together an' everythin', but can you promise me somethin'?"

"Shoot." She clicked her tongue as she pointed a finger at the boy, before resting her hand on his.

"If anythin' ever happens ta' me, promise me you won' let it defeat you. I know it may be a hard pill ta' swallow, but yer a tough girl an' I know you can do it. I," His smile grew more sad. "I'll try ta' do the same thin'. I'm sorry I'm talkin' this way, but with everythin' that's been goin' on 'round us." He sighed. "It's hard not ta' think 'bout it. Death, I mean. It's never felt so... real before."

"It already happened to me once, Axel." She said sombrely, and although shortlived, it had sent her on a downward spiral that she was lucky to escape from. Could she even make that promise.

Locking her gaze with the boy's, there was a knowing glint in her eye, like she had figured something out that he just hadn't quite grasped yet.

"I can't promise you that, Axel." She squeezed his hand before a sad smiled curled her lips. "But I can promise that I will try." Raising her hands, she wrapped her arms around the boy's neck, resting her chin on his shoulder.

"I swear to god, if you go and die, I will kick your arse."

Sprout chuckled, "Likewise, Lily. An' yers is a much bigger target."

Though he could have stopped there with it just being a light tease, he did unfortunately reach for her ass.

"You put your hand there, and I will fucking end you." The girl whispered threateningly as she tightened her arms around the boy's neck.

"Aye, ma'am!" He croaked as his hand froze in place and slowly withdrew. After she loosened her grip, he chuckled. "Don' ever change, Lily."

"Eh, still room for improvement on your end." She teased. After a few moments she pushed him to arms length. Her eyes searching his face as her expression softened.

"Forgive her, Axel." She said simply. "I know it might seem impossible right now, but nothing would hurt her more than knowing you felt this way. Tell her, shout at her, do what you need to do to make her know how you feel." She cupped his cheek with her hand. "She was a scared, stupid girl, who made some terrible mistakes, all alone in the world." Her eyes were almost pleading.

"I promised I would try." She placed her finger on the tip of the boy's nose. "You have to promise me that you'll talk to her about this."

Sprout nodded, "Okay, but Lily, um," He bowed his head, ashamed. "C-can you be there when I talk to 'er about it? Please? I don' know if I'll 'ave the courage ta' bring it up to 'er if yer not there with me. She'd understand." He paused and added, "I hope."

"Kid." Lilith smirked as she grabbed the boy's chin, lifting his head up. "I'll always have your back. Ain't no force in the 'verse can stop me."

He was silent for a long time as they simply stared at eachother. Just when she was about to speak again, he smiled, "Good. Don' ferget about me, though. I've got yers too, Lily."

"Next time I go on some perilous mission, fraught with almost certain death and slash or injury, I'll be sure to take you along." She smiled warmly. "That way I know we can't lose and slash or die."

"Yer dumb," Sprout chuckled. He shoved her shoulder. "I'm so gay fer you."

"Of course you are. Have you met me? I'm amazing!" As they both laughed, Lilith finished off her cigarette, a wave of exhaustion washing over her. "I don't want to go back downstairs, I hate that place. Sandy smells like burning garbage, and I'm pretty sure his guys are gonna murder us all." She didn't care if the joke was tasteless, she was tired damn it!

"Wanna crash up here? We can squeeze into one of the booths, this place don't open 'til noon, and ol' Chromey will probably be on our asses before then anyway."

Sprout looked over his shoulder towards the corner of the establishment where a particularly long booth was set up. He shurgged, "Think these thin's 'er bolted ta' the ground? We can push 'em ta'gether an' snuggle up." He laughed, sadly. "I could use a good cuddle, honestly."

"We can try!" Lilith said heroically as she put her hands on her hips.

The effort was an embarrassment to say the least. Two exhausted outlaws: one with a banged up face and the other with a crippled lung, pushed themselves to the breaking point in order to create their makeshift bed. All because they couldn't sleep with a half barbecued man in the same room. Once it was done and they were both adequately bushed, they snuggled up in the booth. Naturally, Lilith was the big spoon.

After some time lying down, Sprout smirked, "You smell'a whole lot better'n Sandy, that's fer damn sure."

"We really shouldn't be making jokes like this, the man is dying, Axel." Lilith said disapprovingly as she closed her eyes. "But goddamn, it smells like hot ass down there."

"We are evil. Truly, unforgivably, evil." He laughed. "I reckon I fancy bein' bad." Sprout's thoughts went all sorts of places that are best left unsaid.

"You're making this gay, Sprout, don't make this gay, why would you make the spooning gay?" Lilith pleaded as she sighed wearily.

"Hey, if ya let me be the big spoon every now'n then it'd be far less gay, I promise ya' that. I mean, come on. Every girl loves the back-boner." He chuckled.

"I..." Lilith paused for a moment. "Just shut the fuck up and go to sleep." She said quickly.

"'Night, Lily," He cooed. "Don' go dreamin' 'bout thin's you can' ferget, now."

"Fuck you, kid."

She shook her head, disapproving, "You lost your way, Father. It is so sad. Now," She cut into his earlobe ever so slightly with her blade. "You get to choose again. What part of you are you willing to lose?"

Florian tensed up, his heart pounding in his freshly cut ears. Any second now the knife would be coming down, slicing into his jugular or biting into somewhere he'd be left to live with.

["Put yourself in the place of ash and know you're already dead."] He closed his eyes, rapidly muttering away with his mantra. 'Because it's all about choice, they're that kind of mad.'

"Just do it." He broke. "Stop being such a fucking coward. Untie me or end it!"

Severa frowned. Cupping his cheek, she forced his eyes on to her own, "Still rejecting me, are you?" She searched his weary, terrified eyes for a short time before calling out to her brother. "Owain, show's over. Leave us."

Owain shrugged. "Well that was anticlimactic. Ah well... I did find a rather enjoyable opportunity while I was out, in any case. I suppose I'll follow up on it."

Crossing over to his bed, he opened his suitcase to put some more carbon into his pocket. As he crossed back to the door, he tousled Florian's hair. "Don't let her keep you up too late."

He could only scowl at the patronizing tussle. Were they up to something different now? A change of tact would be enough to worry about as it was, but the lack of questions somehow made it worse. What was their end game here?

"Alone again." Florian said, Any hint of cheek gone from his voice.

"Yeah," Severa whispered happily, though her tone wasn't nearly as condescending as it had been earlier. "Let's talk, Father." She disappeared behind him for a moment and when she returned it was with a chair in her hands. Placing it in front of him, she sat down. Leaning forward in her seat, her elbows resting on her knees, she smiled softly. "Father, what do you think my childhood was like?"

"This where we play reader is it? Fine." At least it might distract her from bleeding him dry and all he had to do was avoid mentioning the maiden. "You speak well and dress nicely, so odds are you're wealthy and educated. Not just now though, you hold yourself and look to others in that special way one born in carbon can. My guess is noble, maybe not high ranking... but richer. A child to that does not want for much."

"Anyone with eyes could figure that out," She teased. "Tell me something most wouldn't know. Look past the flesh. If I like your answer I may clean you up a bit. The blood is staining your cloths, Father."

Of course she wanted more. Okay he could dig a little deeper, with a sigh and a furrowed brow he thought back over their short time together, the parts where the blood wasn't pouring out of him.

"You call the man, Owen, brother. I assume he actually is your brother? But you are close in another way. So why is this? Were you kept away from the other children your age, or did they push you away?" It was starting to come together, it'd been a while since someone had openly offered him a challenge. "But you talk of punishing like you like it, you don't get pushed away easy." And she had kept going on and on about seeing Florian's soul, his true self. Like a need to understand, he'd assumed it was for added leverage and power.

"Why I'm not sure yet, but I think lonely. Other people didn't want much to do with you."

Severa grunted in amusement and got to her feet. Disappearing for a brief time once more, she returned with a wet rag. Crouching down next to him, she started wiping blood off of his neck first, "Let me fill in some of the blanks, Father." She started, a subtle smile on her face. "Owain and I... we are twins. We've always been of the same mind in one way or another. Other children... they didn't understand us. And, well, they were afraid of us." She shrugged. "We had unique hobbies. An... off-putting sense of humor. It hurt back then, but I have come to embrace such treatment."

She tilted her head as she wiped the wound clean, "We are two sides of the same coin. Together, we are whole, we don't need the acceptance or acknowledgement of a third party. Naturally, we wanted of little but each other: in body and mind." She locked eyes with the priest before moving to another wound. "What do you think my parents were like?"

Florian couldn't deny the water felt good as the dried blood was wiped away. She even seemed genuine in the story she told him and why shouldn't she be? For all they were concerned Florian wouldn't live out the day. But he could at least claw for a few more minutes.

Her story itself had actually thrown him off. He'd expected a trained killer, an assassin for the family, granted she seemed to be exactly that but the way she spoke of her childhood. It was sad if he was perfectly honest.

"Most parents don't like the thought of their children sharing bodies like that. They tried to separate you, discipline you? To keep the mind distracted while training it at the same time, is that how you first learned the skills you have now?"

"You'd think that was the case, wouldn't you?" She smiled... sadly. "Our mother never knew. Of course, she knew we were different. Everyone did. But, she was the only one who loved us regardless. We... respected that and we loved her. We knew how it would make her feel, so we hid it from her." She began dabbing the wounds on his chest. "She died of a sudden illness, ignorant to our true nature. As it should have been." She chuckled. "Not very romantic, I know, but sometimes monsters aren't made of tormented souls. Sometimes, they are simply born."

She laughed, "Do you believe in 'evil', Father?"

"In my own way." Florian watched her hand carefully in case it got any ideas. As if he could stop it if she did.

"That's a cop out, I thought you were a priest!" She teased, giving him a light shove that proved far more painful due to his injuries. "I don't believe in good or evil. They are just words we use to make sense of the world around us. Nothing more. I live in reality, Father. I believe in what I can touch and taste. In what I can hurt... and what can hurt me. I bare no ill will towards you. The abstract nature of politics is... pointless. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I don't know about that." Florian winced at the fresh agitation of his wounds. "I' haven't seen many things in this world that I'd call pointless. Just because things get their meaning from people, doesn't make them any less meaningful. I've tried living the way you say..." 'Kill your heart or...' The old saying that had ruled his life for so long still felt fresh in his mind.

"That way might stop the pain for a time, but it leaves everything else cold and fleeting."

"But we don't want to stop the pain, Father. Don't you see? Humans were never meant to live in our own heads such as we do now. We're supposed to enjoy the natural world, and everything that comes with it. Pain being one of those things." She shook her head. "Anyway, how about you, Father? What was your childhood like?"

"Oh not as fancy as yours. No wealth or funny siblings for me, no my parents were practical people. Besides you've seen things outside. My Frostfall hasn't changed so much." Four years away and so little had changed, at least that he'd seen. Florian could still hope there were smaller ways that had lasted for a while. Hope was all he had at this point.

"What were you like back then?" She smiled. "I can't imagine you saw yourself living a life like this in your youth. Tell me about the young boy before the priest."

"Oh he was a self obsessed bastard, you'd have loved him." Florian shook his head wearily. It could have been true as well, looking back at things with the clarity of distance, then Severa may have been the perfect wife material for Florian. The old Florian that was!

"For what it's worth I didn't get along with other children wither. I still don't get what people see in them, no patience for the creatures."

Severa giggled, "Yes, well, we should never forget where we come from. Remember, you were just like them at one time." She'd finished cleaning the last of his wounds and threw the rag back onto the sofa. Sitting down in her chair once more, she stared into the priest's eyes. "I have always been fond of children. I," She giggled and blushed. "I cherish their innocence. Adults are different. They know about the world. They should be prepared for what it entails. When I take a man under my power and do with him what I will, I do it knowing that his innocence has long since been lost. The same goes for you, Father."

She crossed her arms over each other as she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, "Father, why are you so afraid of yourself? Why hide it? Why seal it away? You're only lying to yourself." She smiled warmly. Despite her words, she seemed so... sincere. "Believe it or not, but there is a way this can go that ends with your survival. I don't care about the Gentleman or my twisted, overbearing aunt. I've played with many, many men and women, but each and every one of them has disappointed me in the end. Will you be any different, Father? Could you be the one I am looking for?"

She wasn't the first to say he was lying to himself, but Florian had never seen it that way. People always tried to oversimplify human nature by talking about masks and sides and all other kinds of metaphors. But no one Florian had ever met was that simple, every one of them was a seething vortex of traits, baggage and feelings. To his knowledge everyone in creation had these same urges, most just didn't act on them. Why was it always seen as such a crime when he tried to change?

"Because it was the first choice that was truly mine."

"Oh," Severa's eyes glistened. She was getting somewhere. She wrapped her fingers around the bottom of the chair and shifted in her seat. "And why is that? Who was running your life before you made it your own?"

'Oh crap.' He'd given her an in, no... no, don't let that happen. These were things he wouldn't even tell the other maidens, he couldn't let this harpy in.

"Ooooh no, you've had your share of questions for this round." His mind raced as quick as it could considering the loss of blood supplied to it. She liked playing, maybe he could give her a game. "You said you're looking for someone, who are you looking for?"

"I don't know," She answered immediately. Despite her answer being so unsure, she sounded almost proud of it. "I am looking for someone who can surprise me, I guess."

"Aren't we all?" Florian shrugged. 'Probably not, no.'

Severa shrugged, "I think most people find comfort in complacency. I find such people disgusting. No, I like not knowing what the next day holds in store. So far you've thrown me a few curve balls, but I believe I know the person underneath pretty well already. Tell me about him. Has he killed anyone?"

'Oh curve balls, glad to see I'm being entertaining.' "What do you think? Half my fluids are on my shirt or in your stomach, did I taste like a killer?"

"Hmmm," Severa squirmed in her chair. There was something in way he said it that turned on something inside her. "I don't know..." She got to her feet and crossed the short distance between them. Kneeling down, she forced his legs apart and looked into his eyes. "Maybe I need another taste." She giggled. "Tell me, Father... Would you object if I were to take you?"

"And here we go again!" Florians eyes and his head rolled together in unison. "The squealing while she drinks blood, the cock teasing and spouting out the poems. Who is this crazy act for, for the attention? To try and make me squirm? Or is this to prove to the boys that you can play at their level when they say no? Here's how I read you so far, you're not as crazy as you want people to think you are and you're not stupid crazy so that means you're better than this." His voice was getting louder as he went, yes there was some fear there but there was soemthing else too. Florian was offended and not just for himself.

"You want to see me off the leash so badly, untie me and we do this on even ground. Or you stand up and we do this like the professionals we're supposed to be."

Severa began giggling softly, and then laughing hysterically, "Oh, Father! This is what I am talking about! Take hold of the fear! Own it!" She clutched his thighs, her nails digging in as her laughter continued. "We'll do this your way, Father." She released him and got to her feet. Stepping around the back of his seat, she knelled down and to his wrists in her hands. "Binds aren't for everyone, Father, but I happen to adore them. Unfortunately, I don't think we're at that stage yet." After cutting the rope she stepped backwards.

This wasn't even footing. He was far too beaten and broken. If he tried anything he'd only be bringing himself further pain. Severa grinned, "What will you do now, Father?"

'And still she misses the point.' But at least he could stretch his legs. Odds are she'd knock him right down again but it was better than being drained.

"I'm going to do some cleaning." He grabbed up the wet rag she'd been using purposefully. "Because THIS" He dabbed at the fresher cut. "is how you catch things!" And yet he was getting off lucky, some nasty scratches and the threat of blow jobs were a fun evening compared to more traditional torture.

Severa rolled her eyes, "You wound me, Father. You speak as if I am a rabid animal. I'm a woman, silly. See for yourself," Peeling away the straps of her dress, Severa slipped it off with ease. Stripped down to nothing but panties and stockings, her scar-riddled body was now in full view. Sauntering over to him, he placed a gentle finger on his chest, taking special care to avoid his wounds. "Your eyes." She grinned. "They speak to me. They say... this is a familiar sight. Is there another woman, Father? Another who has a thousand stories written on her body?"

All she needed was a matching eye patch and it would have been like meeting the captain's long lost sister. Her finger snaked around the freshly born slashes in his torso, finding its way to the older wounds, their scars dark and faded. Her fingernail left a little itching tingle in its wake, and Florian barely noticed it.

What little blood he had left was quickly running south and pumping out a primal beat in his brain. His own hand slowly reached out as he gently ran the back of his fingers up one of the longer scars that flowed across Severa's torso, stopping just shy of her bare breasts. His left arm screamed out in pain and protest that it had to fight so hard to join in.

Would she understand, would she accept him... or would he just be something too boring for her? Maybe he had lost his way, he'd reveled in madness as openly as she did once. Others were made to be challenged or broken, leave the weak where they fall and dance in the- 'No! Not anymore...'

"What do you want from me?" Florian's hand fell away from her flesh, however reluctantly.

Severa grinned, "Your soul, of course." She caressed the side of his face, resting her palm around his jaw, just under his ear. "But you must give it willingly." She inched her lips closer to his. "Do you have that within you, Father? Can you not simply... let go?"

Her breath was warm on his face and her chest even warmer as the two edged closer to each other, their exposed bodies pressing against one another. Florian's lips brushed against hers, light as a feather, she raised her head up just enough to angle it towards his perfectly and for one moment their mouths opened to meet each other.

"It's not mine to give." Florian turned his head away, breaking the moment with a sickening crack.

"Nonsense," She brought up her other hand and turned his head towards her once more. "You said it yourself. Others chose the path you walked for you. Does that concept not repulse you now? You can make this decision yourself. You are a grown boy, are you not?" She grinned. "All you have to do is let go, Father. What reason do you have not to, truly?"

"I'm not yours yet." Florian could have cursed the idiotic pride that said that as he became painfully aware of her naked flesh pressed against his, and then the cold feeling as Severa stepped away.

She accepted the challenge and his world descended into a haze of pain and misery as the twins set about their sport with wild abandon and Florian was made familiar with the fates of various saints. The knives danced across his flesh and in between Severa saw to tending him with just enough nourishment to stop him from expiring. Still, Florian held to the code, he told nothing that would harm the maiden or her crew, easy enough since as far as his captors got less and less interested in actually asking questions.

Each day Owain saw to expanding Florian's scar collection and between these bloody bouts his sister saw to probing Florian's mind and emotions. As the hours wore on and his blood drained away Florians ability to keep up with her wits (and even his ability to speak properly) crumbled. With no other options left his mind retreated into itself as it waited for the inevitable.

Owain spent the next couple of hours trawling Frostfall. Bouncing from place to place, he inquired after the Gentleman, although he didn't really expect to make any headway. Several people did recollect a sharply dressed man, perhaps middle aged, perhaps not. But nothing Owain could actually use.

Eventually, he found himself back at the fruit shop, catching Tabby just as she was about to lock up. She was very pleased to see him, and soon enough, he saw where she lived. It was a quaint little apartment on Frostfall's south side. Various portable heaters were littered across the living space, making the apartment surprisingly warm and cozy. That provided a slightly unnecessary pretense, after a glass of wine (which Owain thought rather poor; it wasn't even vintage, but he pretended to enjoy it), to remove those pesky layers of clothing. Tabby paused long enough to coo at the angel wing tattoo on Owain's back. He did not deign to explain that it was matched to the one his sister had.

Then Tabby set upon him with the not at all self contradicting shyness and wild abandon of someone far from experienced with lovemaking. For a while, he was content to let her have her fun. And then he took control, sweeping her into his arms and carrying her into her room. Moans could be heard, gradually heightening to screams of pleasure, long into the night. Then the screams turned to screams of fright and then pain.

At last, Owain was sat on the corner of the bed, the only spot unstained by blood or other more furtive bodily fluids. He was gazing down in introspection as he cleaned the blade of his knife with a piece of bed sheet. He glanced over at Tabby. Her wrists and ankles were bound to the posts of her bed. She had quite enjoyed that at first. For quite a while, in fact, before Owain decided to bring things to their conclusion. She was gagged too, although he could still hear her muffled whimpers as he sat delicately cleaning and polishing his knife.

He stood up, and her whimpering intensified before she realized he was walking away from her, back into the living room. Collecting his clothes, he pulled them on quietly. At last, he stood fully dressed, except for his scarf, gloves and heavy coat. He strode back into the room, looking down at Tabby idly.

"Sorry," he said. The regret in his voice almost sounded sincere. "I had some time to kill, you know." Then, without missing a beat, he jammed the blade of his knife through Tabby's eye. Her whole body jerked and shook, much as it had earlier for different reasons. Then he extracted the knife and it stopped, leaving her a limp corpse. Wiping his knife off for a second time, he sheathed it and then gathered his coat, scarf and gloves.

When he was once again dressed for the weather, he headed for the door, whistling a marching tune as he went.

The next few days were at least moderately interesting, if repetitive as he worked Florian over. Although he was holding back for an assortment of reasons, he did have to admit, the Priest had good fortitude.

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

"I'd kick y'all out, but I am honestly too high to give a shit. Anyone want to keep me company, they're welcome to."

"Very tempting offer," said Whiskey. "And I'm sure you'd make an awesome little spoon. But I think I'mma just hit the hay on my lonesome for tonight." Getting up, she sauntered to the door.

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

Ruffles had already left, heading back to his and Bennie's room. He was beat. Opening the door, he called out quietly, "hey Bennie, you in here?"

"That depends, am I still on your 'to do' list?"

"Hey now," Cameron shook her head, laughing. "Don't go gettin' any funny ideas, Aesop! I am waaaaaay too fucked up to be doing anything that requires basic motor functions. Though," She burst into a fit of laughter, snorting in the process. "I wouldn't mind cuddling against that fuzzy warm beard of yours!"

"And I'm sure you'd make an awesome little spoon. But I think I'mma just hit the hay on my lonesome for tonight."

Cameron flopped onto her bed and closed her eyes, "Well, if you get lonely you know where to find me!" She waved lazily as Whiskey headed for the door.

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

"Hey Bennie, you in here?"

Bennie had been tossing and turning for the last few hours. Sleep was a fickle bitch.

"Yeah," Bennie called out to him. "Done partyin' I take it?" He attempted to sound upbeat, but it was clear he wasn't in the greatest of places.

"M-maria, are you awake?"

The image of Sandringham's wounds was ever present in Maria's mind, even if she pressed really hard with with the back of wrist, squeezed her eyes tight shut or shook her head. The weight of her choice loomed over whatever dreams rose up from her subconsciousness, pushing them back down again and again. A cobbled together manometer, blood seeping out of a deep wound, made by the doctor's own hand just for the benefit of the surrounding tissues, then the crimson channel was stuffed with clouds of white to staunch the flow. Funny how the common way to remember where to cut was still just to imagine the lines of an old Roman breastplate, even when people had long forgotten who the Roman actually were.

Regardless, Elizabeth's voice cut through all of that nonsense. Maria stirred, "Yeah. Can't sleep?"

Elizabeth shook her head, "No, I..." She frowned. "I have a lot on my mind."

"Same." Maria sighed, "Kinda gets in the way of sleeping, doesn't it?"

"You think, uh," She scratched her forearm with her other hand, nervously. "Do you think I should do it? Turn myself in, I mean. I feel... responsible for tonight. Everyone's hurting... dying, because of me. If I turned myself in, maybe they would let everyone else go."

Maybe it was just fatigue, maybe it was just because so much had been happening... For Maria, there were a lot of a maybes - possible reasons why she hadn't really though about Elizabeth's position in all of... this. The doctor frowned and reflect for a moment before answering a heavy tone.

"No, of course not. Baldy, Sprout and Lilith are - let's face it - wanted criminals. Me? Though I hate to admit it, I've done things for some shady types as well. It's a weak link, compared to the others', but it's there. Don't think that they'll let us go easily either way, to be honest." She slightly smiled, easing off on frown, "Don't be silly, Tigerman. Right now, the only thing you're responsible for is keeping awake."

Afterwards, Maria quickly added, "Not that I mind, y'know.

Elizabeth frowned and closed her eyes, giving Maria a solemn nod, "I guess you're right, I just... I feel so helpless. Whenever I try to do anything I just get in the way. I just wish there was something I could do. Everyone is bleeding for me and I am just sitting here like some useless princess in a fairy tale."

"Hey, give yourself some credit." Maria beamed, "You were a real help with Sandringham today."

Elizabeth pursed her lips and gave Maria a knowing look, "Come on, any one could have done that. I-I," She sighed. "I don't really have anything to offer. It wasn't until all of... this started that I realized how completely worthless I am. I don't have any real skills. All I know is how to dress nice and talk to people. I couldn't make it a week out there in the real world by myself." She furrowed her brow and searched Maria's eyes in the darkness. "How did you do it, Maria? How did you learn how to survive out there? On your own?"

"I wasn't alone. At least not to begin with." Maria said with a hardened expression, "My papá taught me... well, everything. He was a good man. After the... commotion, it was just a case of knocking on doors and praying that the person on the other side wasn't hostile. Surviving isn't the phrase, was more like rolling the dice."

She paused, looking back at old memories. One particular one was the kind donation of the moped. The she continued, shrugging, "Patching up people is all I know. At least talking nice and dressing nice doesn't leave ya digging bullets outta bandits. Seriously, don't be so hard on yourself, you're worth more then... I dunno... At least ten banditos."

"Gee, thanks," Elizabeth giggled. "I don't know, I guess I just wish I had something that I could own." She held the side of her face and clenched her jaw.

Stupid way to phrase.

"I-I mean, I wish I had something I did that I could call my own. If not a skill, at least some kind of goal. Something I am striving for. The betterment of my people? It's so vague and, well, my idea of how I would do it doesn't seem all that applicable anymore. And even if it was, I'd still be little more the wife of the man who is actually doing something about it."

"Finally, a Noble who is actually a little noble." Maria quipped before moving onto the heavier stuff. She threw back her arms and placed them under her head, "Nuthin' with drifting through life, Elizabeth. Lotta people do that. Problem is drifting into the bad things: drugs, violence, that sorta thing. Still, at least you have heart. I mean, what would you say if I just patched people up because I was good at it?"

Maria winked, "'Course, that's not the case. Anyways, if this is really bothering you then... Well, there's a saying, 'if you want something, go get it'. Shame our options are kinda limited now."

She never was good at advice. Didn't mean that she couldn't try, however.

Elizabeth wore a sad smile, "Yeah. Thanks, Maria." She sighed, happily. "We may not know each other very well, but if you ever need anything I'm here too, you know. I don't want to give you the impression I'm just a needy, helpless girl. Well, maybe I am, but that's besides the point." She snickered.

"I try my best." Maria chuckled, "Hey, I'll be sure to pick your brains for advice sometime. Return the favour 'n' all."

"Good. Let's make it out of this, okay Maria? I want to have more talks like this in the future."

"Definitely. Nighty night." Maria yawned.

"Good night." Still facing the doctor, Elizabeth closed her eyes and began to drift off.

Please, make it out of this. All of you. No one else die on my behalf.

***

*Snip* *Snip*

Locks of black hair tumbled down as the barber continued with his work. Arsène de Rumigny had a reputation for swiftness, it was in the name of his barber shop, after all. However, for Jun, it wasn't quite quick enough, just something that was slow and expensive. On the other hand, there wasn't much at the barracks to come back too. With nothing to do but sit there and perhaps change the position of his head now and again, he let himself drown in de Rumigny's endless pratter.

"Pretty sure everyone's seen it, but all of Feroxi is on lockdown: no way in or out as long as those massive gates are closed. It's caused quite the stir. You might say that's one of the reasons we're low on some supplies here. Oh non, no need to worry, there's plenty of product for you - especially when Arsène de Rumigny with done with oui! Now then, just turn your head to side... No, other side. There..."

More combing and snipping ensued, thankfully, the barber was quiet for a few moments, giving Jun some respite from the endless tirade of his harsh tone. Unfortunately, the blonde-haired man had just begun.

"You come here, you wrinkle your nose up at the price, I remind you if you model for my trainees it's free, you refuse, pay that ever so expensive price, tell me you only want a trim and sit there glaring at the mirror for the past fifteen minutes, no doubt grumbling about the time it takes to get one's hair cut, but, en voilà! We are done. Go now."

The soldier stood up, brushed off stray locks of hair, placed a column of carbon coins and left the barber shop. Now there are nowhere else to go but Samsara's quarters.

Jun found it empty, somewhat to his liking. He strode around the place for awhile before choosing to root around in the other old suitcase he had, taking inventory for probably at least the third time that month. His hand fell upon an old, small knife and its sheath. Absent-mindedly, he fetched it out and inspected it; of course, it just was the same as ever. On the centre of the sheath was the emblazoned logo of the Mugunghwa-i military, a stylized flower - the very same the domed city was named after - with a red star behind it and on top of all of that were two crossed rifles - distinguishing that logo from the one used just for the city itself. Knife unsheathed, Jun walked over to the bathroom and placed his hands over the sink, one with fingers clasped around the knife, the other with just the thumb extended. With as much concentration as could be gotten from a deeply bored mind, he shaved a sliver of thumbnail off using the blade, testing its sharpness.

At the end of that, the point of the knife faced the soldier's inner arm.

Jun immediately sheathed it, almost slamming the blade into its case and turned the tap, washing away the tiny piece of keratian. Afterwards, he put the thing away and lay on his bed, completely encapsulated in his own little world. In his mind's eye, there he was, in the eye of a storm of hatred, anger, fear, worry, pity and guilt. Just there in the numb centre of that whirlwind, eyes glazed, staring at it helplessly.

At emotions he didn't know what to do with.

As Asad turned the key in the lock of Tsubaki's apartment door, he nodded to at Bryan. "Thing might try to make a break for it, I don't feel like explaining how we lost the cat almost instantly, so get ready to grab it if it comes runnin' out." Cracking open the door, Asad peered through the gap.

Nothing.

Bryan shrugged and crouched, ready like a goalie. "Go for it." He waited. Asad opened the door. Nothing.

"Well that was fucken anticlimactic." He walked in. The cat was sat atop the back of Tsubaki's sofa, watching them with large yellow eyes.

"Awesome, now quickly, where's that wine she was talking about?" Asad chuckled as he threw his jacket on the back of one of the living room chairs before sauntering into the kitchen, opening random cupboards. "Do you reckon Tsu has any good food we could mooch?"

"Check the fridge," he said. "I reckon it's all in there. I mean Tsubaki ain't a drinker. She probably refrigerates wine, for fuck sake. You do that, and I'll get a look at this fleabag."

Opening the fridge, Asad bent over slightly as he peered into its cool depths. "There's a lot of tinned cat food in here. Like, that's pretty much all there is." He shook his head incredulously. "Way to go overboard, Tsu Tsu, Jesus." He chuckled to himself. "Ah, there you are." Pulling the wine from the shelf inside the door of the fridge, he also grabbed a tin of cat food.

Bryan stood with a knee on the sofa as the cat watched him. He reached out to stroke its chest and it batted his hand with its paw, although its claws weren't out. Bryan grinned. "Watch it, slugger."

Very slowly, he put out his hand again and gently started rubbing the cat's back. After several seconds of this, it started purring quietly. "Yeah, ya like that, don't ya?"

He turned. "Hey Asad, got the wine?"

"Awwwww yer!" He called out as he started opening draws randomly. "Can opener, can opener, god dammit Tsu, where do you keep all your shit?" Tilting his head as he opened one draw, he grinned. "Awww yus, potato chips, hell yeah." Grabbing the large bag og chips, placing it next to the wine, he continued his search for the elusive can opener.

After a minute of searching he finally found it before opening the can and emptying its contents into a small bowl. Leaving the kitchen, he entered the living room, with the bowl of cat food in one hand, two glasses in the other, the wine under his arm, and the bag of chips gripped in his teeth.

"Bwyan, take thish." He mumbled as he held out the bowl of food.

"Aye aye," said Bryan taking the bowl of food and putting it down by the coffee table. The cat jumped lithely down and started eating.

"Greedy little fucker, ain't ya?" He moved up the sofa so Asad could sit down. "I'm surprised Tsu has chips," he said. "Always pegged her fer a right utilitarian eater. No junk food or owt."

"Well, I didn't really take her for a pet person either, but here we are." He nodded at the cat. "She has enough stuff in there to feed it for a month, I'm thinking she's never done this before." he chuckled as he used a corkscrew from the kitchen to open the the bottle of wine.

Bryan glanced at the label of the bottle as Asad fiddled with it. "Jesus, check that year," he said. "That's a 'please jump on my lap' bottle o' wine if ever I seen one. Dio ain't subtle, eh?"

Asad nodded his head slightly, "Fucking snake if I ever saw one." He chuckled. "Here hold this." Passing Bryan a glass, he poured the man a drink before pouring his own.

Setting the bottle down on the floor, he held up his glass. "Here's to wine that's probably gonna taste like ass because Tsu don't know shit about booze!"

Bryan clinked his glass against Asad's and took a sip.

"Well that's... cold," he said laughing. Then he cast a hand around, taking in their whole situation. "This is so fucken gay," he said.

"Yes it is." Asad said matter of factly as he took sip from the glass. "Eh, it's pretty good actually."

"Not bad," replied Bryan. "I'm more of a whiskey guy though. But Jesus, Tsubaki was the wrong person to give this to."

After a couple of hours, the bottle of wine was finished and they were already well into Tsubaki's liquor cabinet.

"That cat." Asad muttered, narrowing his eyes. The cat was just sitting there, in the middle of the living room floor.

Watching them.

"That cat reminds me of someone." He furrowed his brow.

"Yeah," said Bryan. "Like... he was on the sofa-back when we came in... like..." a sniper? "Oh my fucking god, that cat is feckin' Jun, man."

"He is!" Asad eyes grew wide, his mouth agape, "I knew I recognised that judgemental stare." He clumsily slid off the sofa onto his knees, his eyes locked on the cat. As he leaned his face in closer. "He never blinks. Just like Jun!" He whispered, slurring his words.

"That's exactly it," said Bryan, stroking the cat's head. "Totally a better Jun than Jun though..."

"The real Jun isn't nearly as fuzzy and adorable." He agreed, nodding solemnly. "Listen here cat, Tsu didn't mention you had a name, if you do then tough shit." He crossed his arms across his chest. "Your name is Jun Junior, what do you think?" The cat cocked it's leg up and started licking itself. "I'll take that as a good sign."

Bryan nodded. "Juncat for short," he said. Getting up, he crossed back to the liquor cabinet and started digging in the back.

"Oh God," he said. "Things are getting desperate. The only thing left is the Cinzano Bianco."

"Shit, really?" Asad sat back on the couch, putting his hands behind his head. "We could probably put all these empty bottles back, and she'd never know we were in there." he chuckled. "Why does she even have a liquor cabinet?"

Bryan shrugged as he poured the Cinzano. "Fuck, it probably came with the apartment or something. Pre-furnished or some shit."

He took a swig. "Mmmm. Terrible."

"Pass." Asad grinned, waving his hand lazily. Arching his back, he stretched his arms. "Any idea when we get reassigned to Ortega? I heard his guys got fucked up pretty bad after we left."

"Ah, I figure it'll take a day or two for the paperwork to go through," said Bryan. "Sure we'll be back on the grind soon enough. I bet you his guys suck balls."

Asad shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah, reckon we got off easy, chasing the toddlers and pensioners." The man chuckled. "Not sure how they managed to fuck up so bad when they had their guys outflanked, but whatever, maybe they were just that good."

Bryan laughed. "What are ya, the president o' their fanclub or something?" He swigged the Cinzano and grimaced. "Jesus. Y'know, if you'd talked to me a few years back I'd have said I'd have sooner been part o' one o' them bandit crews than in some paramilitary outfit. But look at me now, eh?"

"You, a bandit?" Asad chuckled incredulously. "Eh, I suppose they do drink a lot, you'd fit right in."

Bryan shrugged. "Hey, I was a thief and a hobo and some kinda fucked up gladiator before I got recruited, y'know. Hell, I only took the job 'cause it paid well and I reckoned I could fuckin' rob Dio if I got tired o' things."

"Robbing Dio, huh?" Asad smirked. "As bad as that would probably end for you, I'd probably edge you on, if only to see the look on his face."

"Oh yeah, probably," said Bryan. "Still, either way, I didn't expect to still be doing this shit years down the line."

"Yeah, I'm starting to think twice about this whole mess, if I'm honest." Asad yawned gently. "Chasing fifteen year old girls around because they don't want to marry their sociopathic arranged husbands isn't something I thought I'd be doing.

"Oh aye," Bryan replied, finishing his glass of Cinzano. He considered pouring another but then decided his alcoholism wasn't that out of hand yet.

"Honestly if it weren't for Tsubaki, I think I'd have just walked out after that whole mess."

"You really dig her, don't you." Asad grinned cheekily, stuffing a handful of chips in his mouth.

Bryan was silent for a little while. And then, "how many women you think I've nailed since we first met, man? 'Cause I think it's a lot and I've lost count. But honestly? These days, it's more outta habit than anything. I wake up and I just think..." he screwed up his face. "What the fuck is this?"

He sighed. "I'm tired, honestly. And it's... fuckin' Tsubaki's fault I feel like this. I used to be a functioning shit head before she came along."

"It's because she doesn't throw herself at you isn't it?" Asad chuckled. "A woman acts like she isn't interested and all of sudden, she's the best thing ever."

Bryan laughed. "Probably," he said. "Of course that's only good when she really is interested and she's hiding it. Honestly she probably ain't. So don't get me wrong, that's not why I'm still here in some shitty, sad attempt to get her to like me. It's just like... I reckon you care about someone, you stick around to make sure they're alright, y'know?"

"Yeah, yeah, I gotcha." Asad waved his hand. "If we didn't care, we wouldn't be here drinking all Tsu's wine and feeding Juncat."

Oh, definitely," Bryan replied. "So how long do ya reckon we've gotta look after him for?"

"Eh, a few days at least. Hell, she'd probably be outta the hospital already if Dio wasn't such an ass." Asad stroked Juncat as he jumped onto the couch next to him.

"Oh yeah," said Bryan. Sitting up, he repressed his accent, imitating an upper class voice. "Oh, don't mind me, Tsubaki, I'm just going to touch you up in front of your men. Par the course, really!"

"Ehh, if I know Tsu, she was probably squirming as much as we were." Asad cringed slightly. "We just chill out under Ortega for a few days, get nothing done because we have no clue where the Maidens are, then we get our Tsu back and get shit done."

"Good plan," said Bryan. "I bet they're a group of Juns, anyway."

Asad laughed. "We should just take this little guy back, train him how to use a rifle, and get rid of old Jun."

The small Austin pounded his father's back as he effortlessly carried him over his shoulder. He wriggled and squirmed but it was of no use, the sick Father was too strong. Without even trying he held him perfectly in place. Approaching his wife's 'room' Austin asked his other children, "Look after my boy here, its about time I speak to my wife."

"Yes father." Answered the two guarding her room, wondering why he referred to this sibling in particular as 'my boy', but they pushed it out of their minds.

Setting his son down, the cult leader held his shoulders tightly, restricting the boy's movements completely through not just strength, but the implication of danger as he gripped his shoulders like an eagle's claw.

"Now son, your brother's here will be taking care of you for a minute, be a good boy and stay here, okay?" It was not a question.

"D-d-d, d d d-" His body appeared to shrink in on itself as he attempted to answer the man who called himself father. He stopped moving as soon as he was in the grasp of this man's vicious claws, even with a broken hand he could still muster just enough strength to intimidate the boy, though most likely only because he was so little.

"There's a good boy. Now keep quiet, mommy and daddy will be talking." He smiled once more before nodding to the guards, as he entered the room.

"I D-d dddon't dont-"

"Just be quiet bro, okay? Father's stressed." Replied a guard to his stuttering, the boy feeling much more fearful than previously.

"Bbb-bb-b-"

"For your own good, keep. Quiet." Responded another, causing the boy to lower his head and, while not replying, made clear he was indeed complying.

As the child Austin was cowering outside under the armed guard of those who his dad had taken and indoctrinated years ago to be his soldiers, Father Austin closed the door behind him and lay eyes on his beautiful wife. Gorgeous. Flawless. Perfection. These are the words he'd used to address her, while the words she'd use to address him were scumbag, psychopath, child killer.

He walked up to her and hesitated for a moment. It had been so long? He hadn't felt her soft touch in so long, only her strong fists the previous night as they fought. He wanted no more fighting, only love. With his good hand he caressed her face. Her sun baked skin felt like heaven to the touch. He closed his eyes and simply took it in for a while, standing there with his lovely wife in a moment of perfection.

Eventually however, she roused and began to awaken once more. The sight before her made her want to vomit with rage. Instinctively, without thinking as to what the context might be, she snapped her jaws together trying to trap his fingers between her teeth. He pulled away just in time, chuckling as he held his relaxed position.

"Is biting a new thing?" He asked as if it were a normal question.

"I'm gonna choke with your own bones." Her face flared up with pure anger, yet she spoke with the subtlest hate.

"I... suppose that's one way to say hello," he chirped, "what do you think of our vessel? Its much more spacious than our old apartment. Though I," he spoke sadly, "I must confess I don't know where you've been living these past eight years."

"My Mother's old home. Remember her?" She spat onto his face. He simply just let her saliva rest there on his face before he continued.

"She wasn't real. You are the only mother." His tone was so flippant it made her sick.

"How DARE YOU, YOU FUCKING PSYCHO!!!" Her fuse had been set and she writhed in her confined state, wriggling within her prison of ropes.

'Always with those words, "fucking psycho," I don't understand.' He thought in puzzlement. He then grabbed her shoulders and rested his forehead against hers. "Alexandria, Alex please its me. I'm here." She was about to head butt him when suddenly her head was sandwiched between his and the support beam. "Our family is back together again."

Alex stilled herself, her hate filled eyes staring into his creepy love filled ones, did he not realise how much she loathed him? "You tore my family apart." She was shaking with rage. "You murdered my mother, damn near all of my friends, sent my best friend off the deep end and then had the nerve to besmirch the name of my son because your name sucks!"

"Our son." He corrected.

"MY SON!" She barked in his face. "Now whenever people hear his name they think of the psychopath who kidnaps children and brainwashes them, not the sweet little boy who has never done ANYTHING wrong!"

"Its not brainwashing, everyone says that!" Austin pulled away frustrated. "Dammit Alex I thought you would see this! You're their mother."

"Mothe-You never make sense anymore Peter!"

"Austin!"

"No! Peter! Peter god damn socio-path child murdering Wayworth!"

"I cannot understand how you can't see what I am doing." His anger was subsiding in favour of complete puzzlement. "I have rescued hundreds of our sons and daughters. Don't you realise what I have done? So many of them can't wait to meet their dear sweet mother, will you deny them?"

"Jesus Christ do you even hear yourself when you talk-"

"DON'T SAY THAT LIAR'S NAME!" Austin was now face to face with her once more, hand raised as if to strike her. They stood there in silence for a while, Austin registering what he was about to do, Alex glaring at him.

"You literally are completely insane. People can't even Jesus, fuck me." She laughed in his face as he remained silent. "What's wrong? Is this not the reunion you had in mind? Did you think I would run into your arms? Or were you a touch more realistic and thought I'd resist, but you'd break me? Huh? Is that it?"

He lowered his hand and turned his head, staring at the wall as she continued her verbal assault. "When have I EVER allowed ANYONE to tell me what to think? Hey? LOOK AT ME WHEN I'M TALKING TO YOU!"

Snapping his head back he answered. "Maybe you'd like to speak to our son instead. BOYS!"

The door flew open. The son stared at his mother, tied and bound to a support beam. Helpless, imprisoned, unable to escape or fight back. He'd never even pictured this possible. She was far too strong to be defeated like this. "Mom!" He ran forward to hug her but was intercepted by his father, using his good arm to sweep the boy up and hold him in place under his arm like log. "Let me go! Let go of me you psycho!"

"Even he says it. Such a disobedient boy-"

"Leave him alone!" Alex yelled at the top of her lungs. Her heart sunk as she saw her boy, his eyes wide at her position. To see your only protector in this world so clearly beaten...

"He's my son though? Isn't he?"

"You shut your fucking mouth." Her voice dripped with vitriol.

"Ssshhh, language in front of the boy my dear." The father smiled sickeningly.

"Mom who is this guy!" The boy finally yelled out.

Alex was at a loss. She had his the past from her son his whole life life. She had sheltered him from the horrific truth of his father. Yet here it was, now suddenly crashing down upon them and crushing them under its weight. He literally held her son... their son in his arms. There was no more running from the truth that could be done, no more hiding behind lies and half truths. The father bent his knee and held the boy back with a hug from his mother, a tight embrace.

"You're my son." The father told him. "Except unlike all the others, you are my birth son." He then whispered close. "For the others there is no difference, it doesn't matter who gives birth to who they are all just as close as each other... but we are an exception you see?" The boy was still with fright. "We're better. We just are, we're more than human, more than them. More."

Only one word could come out of the son's mouth. "M-Mommy..."

"Sshhh, don't tell them, its a secret." Austin ruffled his son's hair before scooping him up once more and walking towards the exit. He screamed out 'NO!' as his mother cursed her former lover for his twisted brutality.

"You two can spend some time together when you tell him the truth, until then he stays with me." Austin exited the room, hearing his wife thrash against her bonds and feeling his son do the same. Before finally leaving he added, "We should stay together for the kids Alex."

And then he was gone.

Mother and son yelled and screamed and shouted, cursing the name of the demon who had taken everything from them. Their anger soon turned to anguish and neither could hold back the weeping. Alex alone in her makeshift cell, the young Austin under the arm of his father before he was 'escorted' to his own private room. He didn't know where it was, but it was small, confined, and completely dark. He was scared and distraught, just like his mother. They feared for each other's safety, though the son feared for his own as well. She only thought about him. Her heart broke as she felt she had failed her duty as a mother. They could feel the ship going up and down, hearing people coming on and off the ship, most of the hostage children had been removed onto ground where they would be put into other dark dank rooms in all sorts of buildings across Yuteni. Trapped, with no hope of escape or rescue.

Only a few young children stayed aboard the ship for Austin to have that personal touch of brainwashing, four in total. The next few days he began what he had been doing for eight years straight:The process of indoctrination. All the while, Alex stayed waiting, wanting for revenge. Her need to save her son and her desire to tear the throat of of his father clashing like a violent battleground in her mind.

Resistance on the ground was being crushed further and further each passing day, Heath's leadership tearing them to pieces while the floating hell destroyed any large groupings. The young criminals of the city had eagerly joined in Austin's crusade for both survival and the greed of owning Yuteni. The small city of Yuteni missed their petty crime, this was hell.

"Done partyin' I take it?"

"Guess so," said Ruffles, pulling off his jeans and flopping down on his bed. "I wonder how Sprout and Lil are doing. Seems like years since I last saw 'em, y'know?"

Bennie propped himself up on one elbow and looked at Ruffles from across the room, "It has been years for me, Jake." He said, half joking and half upset. "I just hope they make it back in one piece. I miss them both. Especially Sprout." He frowned.

"Yeah, and he misses you," said Ruffles. "I remember when you left he just kept following me around like I was the closest thing." He laughed. "Racist little bastard."

Bennie laughed, "He gets it from his mom." He gave a hardy laugh. "Hey, so, how are you two doing? You and Pixie, I mean. I knew she spoke to you in private yesterday. How'd it go? She still giving you the cold shoulder?"

"God, I don't even know," said Ruffles. "Doesn't feel like yesterday. Honestly I barely fucking remember it." He shrugged. "Went better than last time, at least."

Sitting up, he started rooting under his bed for his bag and produced a pack of cigarettes he'd stolen from Lilith weeks before the train job. Putting one in his mouth, he offered the pack to Bennie. "During that shit with Wilkes-Vines, she had me running errands for her. She wanted stuff to make Amy a scarf like she did for us all. Still ain't got round to giving it to her."

Bennie waved his hand, passing up the smokes, "Already washed up. Don't want to do it again. Anyway, yeah, I figured that's what that stuff was for. Hey," He sat up in bed and locked eyes with his old friend. Suddenly he looked very serious. "She's going to bring something to your attention sometime soon. Shit's really important. I want to give you my piece, but I can't help thinkin' it's best to wait for her to bring it to you first."

Ruffles lit the cigarette and took a drag. He didn't really want the thing. Plain tobacco wasn't really his game. But he wanted something to do.

"Well you might as well spit it out. If you didn't think it was worth telling me now, you wouldn't have brought it up."

"Payton wants you, Jake," He clenched his jaw. "Pixie told him to fuck off, but he forced a letter into her hands. She'll give it to you. I don't doubt that. In the end, she's not going to try to control you, but... Jesus, Jake, don't get into bed with that man. He will fuck you."

Ruffles inhaled sharply in surprise and coughed up smoke hard. When it finally died down, he cleared his throat.

"The fuck does he want me for?"

"He wants a fleet and he wants you to build it for him," Bennie shook his head. "Ambitious fuck."

Lying back down, Ruffles stubbed out the cigarette on the nightstand and stared at the ceiling. "Jesus... I always wanted to build ships, Bennie. And not just fucking dick substitutes for nobles. I got ideas, man. But what the hell makes him think I'd build 'em for him?"

"I don't know," Bennie shrugged. "Money, power... the opportunity? He pitched it to Pixie first, which means he ain't trying to headhunt you. He had to have know Pixie would say no at first, so I don't know, maybe he's trying to drive a wedge wherever he can?" He clenched his jaw. "Is there anything that would make you want to leave this gig for his?"

Ruffles didn't respond right away, but just went on staring at the ceiling. After a couple of long minutes of silence, he asked, "did I ever tell you about when I was a kid?"

"Yeah, a good bit anyway. Why?"

"Well the thing is with my family... there are dozens of us. Hell, I think I'm the only one outta all my brothers and sisters without kids already. And my whole family are laborers and shit except a couple. Like Landon, I don't know what the fuck he's doing these days..."

He turned onto his side to face Bennie. "Anyway, when I was a kid, this guy comes round, has me answer all these questions, starts talking to me about maths and showing me all these bits of paper. And all the time he's looking at this pocket watch and writing down times and shit. So it turns out I got some kinda overclocked brain or whatever. And since we'd always been real poor, I think my dad kinda saw me as a kinda meal ticket. Like all this shit's going around about how the nobility wants me working for 'em."

"I know where this is going," Bennie furrowed his brow. "Forget what helping someone like Payton would mean for the rest of the world for a moment and just answer me this one question: would you be willing to leave all of this behind? I know it ain't much man, and I know she can be bad at showing it, but Pixie loves you. We all do."

"I know," said Ruffles. "You guys are like my family. And this is what I want, really. But I still got my other family. And I've gotta think about them, don't I?"

He rubbed his hand down his face. "Leaving that shipyard and getting on the Maiden was the most selfish thing I've ever done, man."

Bennie was silent for a long while before nodding, "You're your own man, Jake. Don't let anyone try to make any decisions for you. Just..." She shook his head a chuckled. "Be ready for the backlash. Pixie don't take too kindly to rejection. Let her down easy."

"I'll be sure to get out of firing range as quickly as possible," he said, laughing bitterly.

"Good. Also, make sure stick around for Sprout to see you off. Kid would be heart broken if you left without saying goodbye."

"Wouldn't miss that for the world."

"Don't go gettin' any funny ideas, Aesop! I am waaaaaay too fucked up to be doing anything that requires basic motor functions. Though, I wouldn't mind cuddling against that fuzzy warm beard of yours!"

Aesop laughed and fell onto his side. "Eh just as well, I'm all talk." He said pathetically. Self deprecation always was the most fun humour, other than racist humour-as Ruffles always loved to make evident.

"Well, if you get lonely you know where to find me!"

Shooting his head up Aesop squeaked, "The fuck is this another Asian thing?" He then fell on his face, his beard nuzzling against the floor. He slept literally on his face that night.
==================================================
"Ssshhh ssshhhh, ssshhhhut the fuck up or my dad'll kick my ass." Sillah stumbled as he walked with Peter on the drive up to his house. Peter meanwhile was singing an old song they had heard in the pub that night.

"Smell like I sound, lost and I'm found, I'm on the hunt I'm after you!" He pointed at Sillah and struggled to stay on his feet. "Um, ssmell like I sound, lost and I'm found-"

"Shut up you don't even know the words!" Sillah whispered.

Peter wrapped his arm around Sillah and damn near tackled him to the ground, whispering loudly. "And IIIIII'm huungryyyy like the woooooooolf!" Sillah punched him in the chest before fumbling for his keys.

Sillah fumbled with his keys before he realised how stupid he had been. "Fuck." He said flatly.

"What?"

"These are the keys to the lockup." Sillah stood there, dumbfounded by his stupidity, while Peter just laughed at him. "Shut the fuck up!" Sillah pushed him. "I'm so fucking stupid."

"Nah, you were drinking in your shift weren't you?" Peter smiled. Sillah stayed still, his eyes darting side to side. "Okay that is pretty fucking stupid." Peter laughed and slapped him across the back. "C'mon sleep on my couch."

"You sure?"

"Eh Alex won't mind. C'mon, dumbass." Peter kept laughing at Sillah's stupidity as they made there way to his apartment.
=========================================
Aesop smiled as he slept, comfortable on the floor with fond memories to keep him company. As if he couldn't remember what came next.

Five Days Later...


Pixie hadn't felt this well rested in a long time. Today was a big day and she had to be sharp. She had to be at the knife's edge. She wouldn't forgive herself if she made any mistakes.

After getting up extra early, Pixie remained in just panties and an over-sized t-shirt as she began her ritual. Stepping forward with a sort of deliberate care she'd never been known for, she rested her heel softly on the carpet. Twisting her body to the side, she bent her knees and inhaled sharply; her elbow extending with the motion as her open palm faced out towards the door. Slowly, she repeated the same motion, but with the other side of her body.

It was called Tai Chi, according to the ancient documentation Cranston had acquired. During her 'grooming', back before the Maiden, Pixie was subjected to all forms of calming techniques. The old man was no expert, but according to his interpretation, Pixie's chi was that of a demon's: uncontrollable, violent and powerful.

He couldn't be more right.

As Pixie's body swayed with the slow, methodical motions of the ancient art, she swore she could feel the fear and anxiety of the coming day seep out with ever deep breath she took. Everything that had happened, everything that had been tearing her apart was slowly draining out of her. She was emptying her mind.

She did not feel fear for her children and mentor as they prepared to make their final gambit. She did not feel anger with the Gentleman for allowing Florian to be taken by the enemy. She did not feel the burning fires of vengeance. The need to end Austin's life slowly.

She didn't even conjure up the feeling of shame she knew she'd experience before the day was over. After the blood of hundreds of children were on her hands.

No, all that remained was herself, her body and the floor. A perfect, simple, tranquil existence. Something so innocent and so far removed from reality that she couldn't help but lose herself in it. She'd bask in its simplicity while she still could. Reality would be slapping her across the face soon enough.

After about an hour of meditative exercises, Pixie stripped down and turned the shower on. It happened just like it always had. Stepping up to the bathroom mirror, she took her eyepatch off and examined her face. Dried tears caked her cheeks. Cranston had said that it was normal to cry when a troubled person relaxed themselves in such a way. When they let go of their pain. He could never explain why it happened to her every time, however.

She never felt it when it happened. No, she simply saw it once it was over.

She smiled sadly, "Save yer tears fer the kids, Merry." She whispered before stepping into the shower.

Like always, she took her time basking in the ice cold shower water as it snaked across her scarred body. The chill served to open her eyes wider, to have her grit her teeth and tighten her fists. The meditation served to open up her mind and reinforce her heart. The shower was to cleanse her body and sharpen her senses. Not wasting anymore time than was necessary, she got out and prepared for the war the day would bring.

With a crimson tank-top underneath, Pixie zipped up her black flight jacket and threw on a kevlar vest over it. She kept with her fingerless gloves as usual and slipped on a pair of grey cargo pants and black combat boots. Her aviator sunglasses rested on the top of her head while her breather and black bandana hung from around her neck.

After packing it full of extra knives, ammunition and grenades, she swung her satchel over her shoulder along with Mr. Monroe. Looking herself over quickly in the mirror, Pixie nodded, "Reckon I look like a proper soldier, darlin'?" Pixie looked over her shoulder to see Amy still getting ready.

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

The better part of a week passed in the blink of an eye for Bennie. He'd spent the bulk of his time getting ready for the battle with Austin. Weapon training, exercising, sparring; nothing was to be overlooked. There was no cutting corners. No half-assing it. He would be prepared, as would the rest of the vanguard leading Payton's men. It was Pixie, Warren, Brock, Aesop and himself that were chosen to lead the attack on the Iron Maiden. Everyone else was to support the civilians of Yuteni in any way they could. It was possible that they would be faced with child soldiers, but any killing would be minimal compared to what Pixie's squad would be doing.

She didn't want him to do it, but she knew she couldn't talk him down. He'd fight by her side, just like he always had. After getting geared up with a vest thrown over his normal, business casual attire; Bennie made a quick check of his weapons before meeting the others out in the kitchen. Carlos had prepared breakfast again, though he'd been far quieter than last time. In fact, he hadn't made so much as a peep since the party.

Bennie was in no real mood to talk either. He simply sat down and started eating.

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

Tsubaki was feeling a lot better after a few days of rest, but Dio insisted she remain off the battlefield for at least a full week. That, however, would not keep her out of briefings when they included her men. Garbed in her dress blues, Tsubaki sat cross-legged, near the end of the long table. Only a few of Ortega's men had filed in so far, no sign of her own yet.

The city had been on lock-down since the Maidens' last escape attempt and that didn't show signs of changing anytime soon. So far, things had been quiet and their search had turned up very little. Still, Ortega believed they'd be making their move soon. They couldn't hide forever.

Tapping the edge of the table with her fingers, nervously, Tsubaki thought back to the night before. She'd finally been released from the hospital only to find half of her food and booze had been plundered. The booze, she could do without, but the chips? There'd be hell to pay.

Thankfully, however, they'd kept her cat fed.

Why Jun Junior? Really!?

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

The twins had been lounging around "Florian's room" for the better part of the morning. Both of them were simply too tired and disinterested to play with their pet priest at the moment. He suffered in body and mind, both they past five days and it was a wonder that he had even an ounce of resolve left within him. Owain was growing tired of keeping him alive, but Severa had insisted they keep him alive. She was enjoying his transformation, despite how much he'd protested its existence.

Florian wasn't bound at the moment. He was far to broken to be any kind of real threat. Left lying, half-conscious in a pool of his own dried blood, he stirred when he heard a sudden squeal coming from the sofa, "Father! Father! I have it! I have finished your poem!" She waved her notepad in the air, frantically.

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

Mornings in the cramped safe house were always quiet, this one especially. Everyone had a few feet of space to work with as they got prepared for the mission. Not a single one of them had showered in days and Elizabeth was the only one yet remaining who hadn't grown accustomed to the stale smell. Elizabeth herself had very little preparing she could do save for stocking up on pistol magazines and slipping on one of their last remaining kevlar vests. Not that it would do much against plasma, anyway.

Cranston and Sandringham, who looked markedly worst than several days prior, had finished gearing up hours ago and were deep in conversation regarding their plan of attack. It was all in the details, as he put it.

Sitting on the edge of the bed beside Lilith, Sprout slipped on his shoes, "Reckon I'll finish off one of the fuckers I marked the other day?" Sprout laughed in an attempt to hide his fear.

"Reckon I'll finish off one of the fuckers I marked the other day?"

Lilith grinned as she moved the the elasticated headband up her forehead, slicking back her disgusting hair.

"That depends on if we get close enough." She grimaced as she wiped her now greasy hands on her gross-ass jeans. "I think the smell would be enough to do the job."

Hooking her holster around her waist, she checked her revolver. "Hello, beautiful, I missed you." She muttered as she gently stroked the weapon. Whipping her hand, the cylinder locked into place, spinning the gun on her finger she holstered it effortlessly.

Despite the less than stellar hygiene over the past few days, Lilith had gotten a lot of rest and was feeling more like herself. It helped that she had more than enough free time to goof around with Axel and the others, but now everyone was getting just a little bit stir crazy.

"I'm pretty sure I'd be willing to gun down half the city to get a damn shower." The girl joked as she pulled on her leather jacket, the one torn at the sleeve.

'Show time!'

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

Asad appeared to be the first to arrive, sauntering into the meeting room, all clean shaven, neatly slicked back hair, and uninformed up, he had really made the effort!

Closing the door behind him, he saluted his superiors. "Good morning Colonel." He turned to face Tsubaki, a small smirk curling the corner of his mouth. "Commander."

He took a seat near the Commander, allowing one seat closest to her spare for Bryan.

What could he say? He was a romantic.

Noting the awkward silence in the room, Asad coughed slightly. Moving his eyes to look at Tsubaki, he tried his best not to smile.

'Jun Junior, oh god, she hates it, I can tell.'

"I'm pretty sure I'd be willing to gun down half the city to get a damn shower."

"A'thousand showers'll never clean up all that stank, Lily. Yer givin' Ma' a run fer her money when it comes ta' female BO." He chuckled, feeding shells into his shotgun. "Ya' know that no showerin' thin' she does sometimes? Hope yer not takin' 'er teachin's ta' heart. What kinda crazy person inspires 'er men through the powers'a swampass, anyhow?!"

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

"Commander."

Tsubaki simply nodded in return.

After sitting down, he gave her a look. It could have meant a lot of things, honestly, but Tsubaki hadn't the patients to figure it out. She crossed her arms and looked ahead, "You owe me a bag of chips."

"What kinda crazy person inspires 'er men through the powers'a swampass, anyhow?!"

"Why the bloody hell are we having this conversation?" Lilith furrowed her brow as she shook her head incredulously. "Like, does the shit you come out with go through some kind or filter? Or do you just let the words fall out?"

Checking her rifle, Lilith shook her head once again.

"Fuckin' swamp ass, I don't even..."

Okay, maybe she was a little cranky.

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

"You owe me a bag of chips."

"Sorry" Asad chuckled slightly. "I forget that you only have a fridge full of cat food. You must be starving." He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms across his chest.

"Little JJ is gonna be spoiled rotten, I can tell."

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