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

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"You really care about her, don't you?"

Pixie tightened her grip around Asad's collar and shoved him against the wall once more. "Fuck you!" she spat. "You don' know a god damn thin'!" Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

Asad chuckled as he took a long drag of his cigarette. "I know enough, Meredith." The man narrowed his eyes slightly. "I know you taught your kid well." A small smile curled his lips. "Manage to hit me in the shoulder with a shotgun, out the back of a moving van no less, impressive."

"Didn' teach 'im well enough if yer still breathin'!" Pixie growled. "Sure, you know some shit, but what the fuck does that mean? Why the fuck should I trust you, exactly?"

Asad raised his eyebrows, smirking slightly. "Elizabeth actually gave me something to say for just such an occassion, I have no idea what it means." he chuckled. "I was hoping you could shed some light on that, actually." He blew smoke from his nostrils. "She told me to tell you that she was jealous of Lilith."

Pixie searched his eyes for a moment, probing for the truth. Either he was a well informed liar or he was legit. She wasn't quite sure which, but pinning him against the wall clearly wasn't intimidating the man so she released him. Keeping her gun trained on him, she stepped back a few paces and sat down on the edge of one of the nearby tables. "What do you want?" she asked bluntly.

Adjusting his shirt collar, Asad thanked the woman with a nod before crossing his arms over his chest. "Well that's an interesting question." The man smiled wryly. "I don't want anything, but apparently I'm being dragged into something a lot bigger than me and I don't have much of a choice in the matter." Furrowing his brow, the Major took a deep drag of his cigarette. "Elizabeth wants to know that you're not going to do something stupid, Margaret is dead, Meredith, and throwing your life away for revenge isn't going to help anyone." He gave woman a look. "Yes, I know about Margaret, I know everything."

"Don' speak her name, mother fucker," she spat. "You don' get ta' talk about her to me, got that?"

Talking to Pixie was like navigating a minefield sometimes.

"Cut the wounded warrior bullshit, Monroe." The man's playful expression disappeared. "That girl has gone through hell the last few weeks, more than you know, so why don't you stop and think for a fucking second before shooting off your mouth." Asad locked his eyes with her's. "Your dead friend is going to be a topic of conversation, whether you like it or not, otherwise you wouldn't have given Elizabeth the diary."

Pixie pursed her lips and looked away from Asad. She sighed. "What's she plan ta' do?" she asked, her voice much softer now.

'Well that worked better than expected.' Apparently the woman wasn't as stubborn as he was led to believe. "Lombardi thinks Elizabeth and myself are on her side, that we see her as the girl's salvation, and that we would be indebted to her." A small smile curled his lips. "This is not going to be the case."

Pixie couldn't help but snicker quietly. "Cherry was a lot more devious than I ever thought," she remarked cryptically. "Kid's got guts, I'll give 'er that. I reckon y'all know my part in thin's?"

"Lombardi wasn't too forthcoming with her plans." Asad shrugged his shoulders before leaning against the wall. "I assume it has something to do with Basilio?"

"I'm the one whose s'posed ta' put a bullet between 'is eyes," she explained. "It's gonna be a two-man team: myself an' an infamous thief you may know named Carlos Santiago."

"The best thieves typically aren't infamous." Asad smirked. "But whatever, I doubt Lombardi would put an amateur on this." Why, of all people, would Lombardi put a woman like Monroe on assassin duty? Especially for a man she's clearly emotionally invested against, it didn't make any sense.

Pixie cocked an eyebrow. "You don' look convinced," he pointed out. "Spit it out."

Asad looked at the woman silently for a few moments, smoke crawling slowly from his nostrils. "No offence Monroe, but I'm not entirely sure why you're here, do you owe Lombardi a favour or something? Seems odd you'd be working with a snake like her, or is this an example of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'?"

"It's extortion I s'pose you could say," she offered with a shrug. Her posture was far more relaxed now. "Though I'd normally jump at the chance ta' kill Dio, yer right to think I'd avoid gettin' into bed with Contessa. She's got my balls in a vice however, so I don' really got any options. Besides that... I've got other reasons fer takin' this job..."

"I thought as much, your kids just out of this city, can't say I wasn't surprised to find you had come here." Asad made his way over to a separate table across from Meredith, stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray before taking a seat. 'Other reasons, huh? The Cook maybe?' Asad's expression hardened. He couldn't tell her, not that, not with everything riding on the line. 'Sorry kid, but this one's on you.'

"I actually really wanted some waffles..." Asad glanced around, his expression softening sadly.

The bloodied bandit laughed sadly. "Yeah, they were some damn fine waffles," she mused. "Too bad I had ta' put down that old fucker. Always liked him."

Asad crossed his arms on the table. "So, the Bandit Queen, Meredith Monroe likes waffles." Asad smirked. "I would have took you more for a pancake girl."

"I swing both ways," she said with a wink. After finally holstering her weapon, Pixie stretched her back and walked over to the counter to finish her meal amongst the mound of corpses. Thankfully no blood had got on her precious waffles. "So, what now?"

"Honestly?" Asad chuckled sardonically. "I hadn't thought that far ahead. I thought it would take me a lot longer than this to find you." He looked at the woman from the corner of his eye. "Did you tell anyone you were here?"

"Nope," she said simply. "Reckon Contessa's people 'ave been keepin' tabs on me though. I spot their spies every now an' then. Been mostly keepin' to the safehouse. We've been trainin' non-stop fer the past week or so."

"I thought so." Asad nodded his head. "One of Lombardi's women told me where you were." He chuckled. "Someone named Bonnie. I don't think that's her real name somehow."

Pixie laughed. "It ain't," she confirmed. "She tried ta' get in my pants awhile ago. It didn' work."

"Seems like the type." The man mumbled. "You should probably get out of here soon, I doubt that little firefight went unnoticed." He casually looked the woman up and down.

"Yeah, reckon I should," she replied. She finished her meal promptly and located her sunglasses on the floor nearby. Once she was ready to depart, she looked to Asad. "So, yer gonna get Liz out of the tower, eh?"

"I will try." Asad nodded sagely. "But listen, this whole thing is going to be a complete clusterfuck, I'm prepared to shoot whoever I need to to get Elizabeth out of there, but it's gonna be a mess, I wouldn't stick around if I were you."

Resting her hand on the doorframe, Pixie looked at the soldier from over her shoulder. "There's someone else I need ta' get outta there before I'm done," she said with a shrug. "I'd 'ave skipped town already if not fer him."

'Shit'

Asad clenched his jaw. "Monroe..." He looked up at the woman. He was really not looking forward to having this conversation.

"Yes?"

Staring at her for a few moments, Asad's face softened slightly. "Good luck." He nodded his head sincerely. At the moment, this was a job for the woman, nothing more, last thing he needed to do was add another chaotic element to the mix.

"You too," she said without a hint of irony. "If you let Elizabeth die, I'll kill you."

"I'll keep that in mind." Asad smiled, leaning back in his chair. "Take care of yourself."

Pixie simply grunted in response as she slipped on her sunglasses. Then, she was gone.

As the door closed, casting its shadow over Asad once more, the man sat there in silence. He wasn't particularly pleased with keeping what he knew about Cranston from her, but his loyalty was to Elizabeth, first and foremost, he would not jeopardise her escape with a wildcard.

Tiredly, the man ran a hand through his hair as he leaned forward in his chair, a tired look in his eyes. Lighting up a cigarette, the man took a deep drag before pushing himself to his feet and quietly left the building without looking back.

---------------------


"Lil, I think they saw my face. I can't be sure but... if they did. It changes everything."

"Shit." Lilith mumbled, reaching for Florian's hands and holding them between her own. "Do you think he'd tell Vasa?" She looked up at the man. "I mean, even if Sergei knows who you are, there's not much he can do with that info that wouldn't hurt him too, right?" Lilith bit her bottom lip thoughtfully. "What do you need me to do?"

"Do you think he'd tell Vasa? I mean, even if Sergei knows who you are, there's not much he can do with that info that wouldn't hurt him too, right?"

"Right now, I don't know what we can do." Florian let go of Lilith, backing up just a little to nervously scratch at his neck. "I don't even know if they saw me yet. Or if that matters, if he has Irena he could already know" He couldn't know. No way would Sergei have missed the chance to rub that knowledge in his face and use it against him first chance he got. At least, that was his current theory. "He might tell him though. He could gain from this maybe, or risk not being the one to tell him or..." He was spinning himself round in circles. "I don't know." Florian stopped himself and spoke calmly.

"What do you need me to do?"

"Right now we need information. We can't risk going in blind." How they got that information was another matter though.

Lilith crossed her arms over her chest as she thought for a moment. "What if we take him out now? Are we in a position where we can do that? I mean come on, they couldn't even catch you in a trap, his men can't be that coordinated." Evidently the girl was itching for a fight.

It was tempting, Florian couldn't deny that. But it was easier said than done. For however much Florian may have looked down on him he couldn't deny that Sergei himself was no push over and his crews - though certainly lacking the same cold expertise of Irena or Erik's people - outnumbered them like crazy. Were they even prepared for something like that?

"If he dies then I can't be sure what'll happen to Irena." They must have had her, there was no other way.

Lilith pursed her lips sadly. "How did Sergei get his hands on her? I thought Renny was supposed to be the cautious one?" The girl pulled out her cigarettes, grabbing two with her teeth, she lit them both before offering one to Florian. "Where were her guys?"

"I don't know!" Florian growled, out of frustration more than anything. "I haven't heard from her since last night. And now who knows if that was even her." Florian absent-mindedly started to toy with his gun, placing his hand over the grip and honestly thinking about just bursting out and going on a hunt. "Shit!"

"Erik is looking into it, but we can't be certain that Renny hasn't told Sergei about him." Lilith furrowed her brow as she stepped towards Florian, cupping his cheek as she gently placed the cigarette between his lips. "As much as I'd love to go running in there, guns blazing, we don't know what we're dealing with right now, and at the moment, we're treading water." She smiled warmly as she dragged his eyes onto her's. "It'll be okay, he won't kill her, he'd be completely shooting himself in the foot, it would mean war, and I think he knows that everyone's eyes would turn to him almost instantly as soon as accusations started getting tossed around."

Killing her wasn't the worst he could do.

"You're right, I... I know." He took his hand off the gun and gently placed it over hers. There wasn't anything big they could do, not yet. Florian knew that, that was why Erik was doing his thing. It didn't help much though. He closed his eyes for a second and pressed Lilith's hand against his face more firmly. "We might be able to get in touch with some of Rena's people, try and find out what they know."

"That would be a start." Lilith nodded sagely, gently brushing her thumb underneath Florian's eye. "We're not done yet, not by a long shot." She raised her head slightly. "Look at me." There was a glint in her eye as a small smirk curled her lips.

He opened his eyes, plans mostly covered, and nodded at Lilith as Florian did his best to assure her he was fine.

'I should have been there. He took her and what was I doing? Acting like a horny teenager.' No, he had to stop doing this! Weighing himself down with angst wouldn't help Irena and it wouldn't get them out of this. He had to focus on the real problem.

"Okay. We need to gear up." He knew there was a reason he asked her to meet him at the gunsmith's. The gloves were coming off now!

"Now you're talkin' my language." The woman grinned.

Lilith was worried, of course she was worried, Florian was taking all this responsibility on his shoulders and convincing him to share the burden was a fight in itself, but she refused to let it show, he needed someone to tell him everything would be fine, for someone to believe in him, even if he didn't believe in himself.

"What's the plan?" She chirped as she pulled off her coat.

"Well my no killing people rule has officially... been killed? They'll be coming after me even harder now, they weren't already. Lucky for us, this means I have more options now... along with my ace in the whole." He looked to Lilith as he went about grabbing his own bag and rummaging for the set of keys for the small stockpile of weapons he kept hidden here. Just in case.

Lilith froze in the middle of removing her sweater, pulling it back down as she looked at the man. "You killed someone?" Her face softened as a sad sigh escaped her lips. "I'm sorry, Florian, really... that just... sucks." She looked down at the ground, grabbing her cigarette from an ashtray on the nearby table. "Do you... do you wanna talk about it?"

Lilith knew Florian wouldn't be able to keep blood off his hands forever, but that still didn't mean she wouldn't be there to comfort him when the time came.

Florian stood up for a moment. He hadn't really thought about it before now. He'd just acted and kept on acting. Compared to everything that was at stake the life of a single low level henchman, one he didn't even know the name of, didn't seem very important. Wasn't that the kind of thinking he wanted to get away from? Did he even have time to think on it? He had a friend to save.

"Sucks more for him." He almost shrugged. "I didn't-" He cut himself off again. "It had to be done." He said plainly. "I apologised to him and everything."

"I know you wouldn't have unless you needed too, but still, Florian..." She stepped towards him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Any time you want to talk about it, we'll talk about it, okay?" She smiled warmly. "And if your idea of talking about it is sitting around and not saying anything while we get drunk and fuck?" She shrugged her shoulders. "We can do that too." She leaned forward and gently brushed her lips against his before stepping away. "Okay?"

"O... okay?" Florian stuttered, kind of taken aback. This was not the reaction he was expecting. This time was obviously different to the duel out behind the warehouse, this was a sad necessity. Not the bloody indulgence it was before.

Damnit, this whole thing was still throwing him so much, this wasn't just him having been out of the romance and criminal game for a long time and getting back into the swing of things. This was having a loved one standing beside him as a comrade in arms. Just another thing he'd have to get used to. Later. Right now they had more pressing issues.

"Yeah, better than okay." He found himself smiling, despite what he'd been thinking. Right now he was just glad to have made it out of there, to be alive and seeing Lilith again. Every time she looked at him like this she made him feel as if he could do anything. And with her by his side, maybe he just would. "Come on, Lil. Time to go shopping for some real guns."

Lilith tapped the revolver by her side. "Shhh, don't listen to him, you are a real gun." Glancing up at Florian, the woman pouted. "Bitch."

Bennie had already cracked open a bottle of bourbon and was in the midst of a liberal swig when the knock came to his door.

What now?

"Come in," he groaned in an exhausted tone.

Whiskey winced at the irritation in his voice, and opened the door. "Hey," she said. "Rough night?"

Thank god it was Whiskey. He wasn't sure if he could handle anyone else right now.

"You know it," he replied with a sad chuckle. "You don't look too happy yourself. Sit down. Drink." Putting the bottle on the table, he pushed it across to her side.

Catching the bottle as it skidded towards her, she knocked back a large swig. "Yeah," she replied. "It's uh... Millie..."

"Oh, what's up?"

"Well I'd call it a tantrum," she said, taking another hit from the bottle and sliding it back. "But she ain't exactly off base. It's ah... about her dad."

Bennie took the bottle and drank from it. "What about him?" he asked.

"She misses him," Whiskey replied. "She doesn't know what happened exactly, but she gets it more than I thought she did." She buried her head in her hands. "What I did was fuckin' evil, Bennie."

"You were protecting your daughter," he told her. "Can't say I wouldn't make the same call in your shoes. Hell, if it was between me and Sprout, Pixie'd screw me over without a second thought." The big man pursed his lips. "It was a decision you should have never had to make."

"You say that," Whiskey replied. "But I still feel like a sack of shit. I've just been sitting on my ass, dicking around with your new recruits while Eddie gets put through who knows what."

Bennie slid the bottle back over to her. "His sacrifice means your daughter's future," he pointed out. "Don't feel guilty for doing what you need to do. Had your positions been reversed I am sure he'd be doing the same thing you are."

Catching the bottle, Whiskey looked at it for a while before speaking. "I ain't so sure," she replied. "He'd have thought of something. He'd have saved us both." Taking a swig, she slammed the bottle down. "There was a part of me that was just... convinced that it wouldn't be him. He was supposed to be dead. I thought, 'oh, there's no way. It'll just be some schlock bounty hunter with the same hand. He ain't the only one in the world to get patched up like that.' But... there he was."

"You can't always have it both ways," Bennie remarked quietly. "There's always a sacrifice to be made. You've been in the game long enough to know that. I know that's not what you want to hear, but honestly Whiskey, there probably wasn't any other way... at least, no way that didn't involve risking Millie's life unnecessarily."

"Either way," she said. "I can't just sit on my ass." Pulling the tin from the pocket of her jeans, she started rolling a cigarette. "I know Payton's compound like the back of my hand. I have enough independent contacts to get some serious gear together without tipping him off. I have to help Eddie."

Bennie cocked an eyebrow. "You can't be serious," he said.

"And why the fuck not?" Whiskey asked. "Don't tell me you wouldn't be thinking the same if it were Pixie in there."

"Of course I would be, but 'doing' and 'thinking' are two completely different things," Bennie explained. "What about Millie? What if you failed? She'd be without both of her parents."

Whiskey opened her mouth to reply, but no speech came out. Her hands were trembling, and they weren't doing what she wanted. Letting the incomplete roll up spill back into the tin, she pushed it away and lay her head on her arms, saying nothing.

Bennie watched her in silence for awhile before taking another large swig from the bourbon. Reaching forward, he put his hand on hers. This was not the easy conversation he was hoping she would offer. "Hey," he whispered, "for what it's worth, I'm sorry. I can't tell you what to do, but if you choose to stay I'll do whatever I can to make yours and Millie's lives happy. Not sure how easily that'll be considering our line of work, but it's all I got."

Looking up, she wiped the tears from her eyes and forced a smile. "I'll think about it," she said. "So what's eating you?"

"You don't want to hear about it," he said with a bitter chuckle. "It's just stupid bullshit compared to what you're dealing with."

"Which makes it lighter conversation by comparison," she pointed out. "Come on, help me out here. I wanna be the wise advisor for once."

Bennie leaned back in his chair and shrugged. "It's Sprout," he said, "he's... not taking to the current situation particularly well among other things..."

"Yeah, I heard," Whiskey said, taking another slug from the bottle. "What was that about, anyway, the fighting?"

"He's pissed off that I'm not treating him like a normal member of the crew... that I'm treating him like a son..."

"And he punched... somebody for that?" Whiskey asked. "If it was you, I reckon he'd have been limping when I passed him by, and there ain't a mark on you."

"Oh," Bennie blurted, suddenly realizing what she had meant. "That fight? I don't know, that was some dick swagger bullshit between him and Jesse. It's becoming a real problem. Anyway, I figured you overheard the yelling earlier. Guess it's good you didn't."

"Guess it all stems from the same shit in the end, huh?" she said. "You ever figure... he kinda has a point, though, about how you handle him?"

Bennie scratched his goatee and nodded. "Yeah, I was a fool to expect him to welcome me back in open arms after all this time," he admitted. "I was like a dad to him back then. It's been years though... for some reason I let myself believe we could pick up where we left off."

"Yeah, I get it," Whiskey replied. "And I see why you don't wanna dole out the corporal punishment. Kid grows up like this, you gotta do all you can to push 'em away from that line of thinking."

"That kind of discipline comes with the territory," Bennie said. "It's the way Pixie did things and it worked out pretty well... usually. I can't do that with Sprout though. Never, even if he isn't my son I couldn't do that to him. After what he's already been through, I can't imagine what kind of shit that'd dredge up for the kid."

Whiskey shrugged, looking more like her old self. Listening to other people's problems made her feel useful, and that was hella therapeutic.

"Why don't you let me handle Sprout?" she asked. "I have experience punishing kids. Believe it or not, Millie's been a handful on occasion."

Bennie laughed. "I can't imagine Millie as anything other than the perfect angel," he told her. "I'll trade you for Sprout."

Whiskey laughed. "Nah, I think I'd get tired of having my ass grabbed." She stuck her tongue out. "You can only fix broken fingers so many times."

Taking another crack at rolling her cigarette, she licked it, stuck it and lit it. "But seriously, I'll talk to him. Reckon if you shifted gears, he'd just see it like you trying to handle him by coming from another angle. But from the sounds of it, maybe you oughta talk to the other resident horndog. I don't doubt Sprout was provoked, y'know."

"Jesse could use a spanking or two," Bennie suggested with a shrug. "Thanks, Whiskey. It's been a rocky road so far, but I am glad I can count on you."

"Maybe you could give him a few pointers on fighting. Sprout looked way too fresh walking away from that one. We're gonna be putting the poncy little bastard out in the field, remember?"

Taking a drag on her cigarette, she imagined Bennie flinging Jesse around the room, and chuckled.

"I can't imagine what that little prick will fuck up when we put live rounds in his gun," Bennie joked. Shaking the bottle, the big man laughed. "Neither of us is nearly drunk enough yet. What do you say to blacking out tonight?"

Whiskey raised an eyebrow, and looked pointedly at Bennie's hands, their dark skin contrasting with the desk beneath.

"That ain't a euphemism, is it?" she joked.

"Only if you want it to be," Bennie replied with a wink.

They did indeed black out that night.

In the alcoholic sense, of course.

["And you're sure about this?"]

Vasa's eyes were half open as he held the head of his cane with both hands, leaning right back into the chair. He seemed so peaceful, but then, he usually did. seeming and being are different things though and he'd spent a good amount of effort growing a reputation that made sure to have people around him be more on edge the more serene he seemed. A tactic every family head and their dog had been using since the beginning of time but there was a reason it was popular. Though it had made the family meetings infuriating back when there was a need for such things, as everyone tried to out calm each other. It was insufferable. And one of the reasons he's enjoyed Erik's company for so long. The old brute tended to wear his passions on his sleeve, sure it made him easy as hell to read but his positive energy (when it was there) could rub off on you. And sometimes it was handy to have someone who'd just shout the house down and glower at a man until he regretted every life decision that had brought him there.

Something he was told Erik was doing right now.

["It looked just like him, sir."] The solider in front of him said again, eyes on the floor.

Looks could be deceiving of course and going by this story he didn't get a great look. But if he was right, if it was Florian.

'It's impossible. It couldn't be. I saw him burned.' And yet Vasa couldn't help but find himself hoping that this mad little chance could be true.

Irena's moves against the family with her shadowy enforcer, one of the iron maidens appearing in town and kicking up her own storm, the attacks from WV as they stepped up their offensive. All these things happening at once, could any of them be connected? This could have just been a coincidental resemblance. So many unanswered questions, he'd just have to ask them all.
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Vasa found Erik in the lower levels of the tower. His hand was wrapped around someone's throat, naturally.

["You are going to tell me where she is or I am going to break you in ways that will make it impossible for even your own hand to offer you comfort come the long nights."] Erik snarled at his victim who'd feet were busily flailing above the ground as they squeaked and choked up something close to a response. ["That is not a language I am familiar with. How 'bout you rethink that answer before I start losing my patience!"]

Then his other hand found the bandit's arm and started twisting it in ways it probably wasn't supposed to go in.

["I'm actually on my way to see her now."] Vasa chimed in like a pleasant old soul as he walked by. He didn't need to ask who Erik was talking about. ["If you'd care to act like you're house trained for a moment maybe you'd like to join me?"]

Erik quickly dropped his catch in a heap and fell in line next to Vasa. ["What the hell is going on here, Vas? I have to hear from some shmuck with a chip on his shoulder that this is going on? And to Irena of all people?! Someone of her rank does not get hauled in like some punk, Vas! There is a proper way of doing things, if we have a problem we talk about it, that's the system at our level!"] He did his best not to loom over Vasa and failed.

["Not where treason's involved, Erik."] Vasa said plainly, not looking Erik's way.

That caught him off foot. ["Tr... treason?"] Erik's blood ran cold. ["What the hell are you talking about?"] And how much did he know?

["Come with me and let's find out."] Vasa ushered him on.

Once again the two of them made their way into the depths of the tower. Erik hadn't been here before. Just how big was this place? Eventually they made it to the floor they wanted. It wasn't even close to the bottom yet and still it felt like a cellar. The level had full electricity and still it felt like there was little light. Nothing good was happening here, Erik could feel it in the air. Vasa arrived at the right room without any need of a guide and pressed a button to open the doors. The two of them went on in silence. They went though a few more rooms and past some guards who held the door open for them.

And Erik's heart almost stopped.

The entered a white tiled room with drains in the floor, flecks of red were scattered nearby. Sergei was already there, standing nonchalantly off to the side as he puffed away at a cigarette, like it was just another day at the office. And for him it was. That wasn't what Erik cared about though. His eyes wouldn't leave Irena, huddled at the far end of the room, arms cuffed to the wall and left with little more than a blanket they'd thrown over her for Vasa's arrival. She was shivering, battered, bruised but only a little bloody. Sergei hadn't gotten the knives out in force yet, he was being more creative first.

Irena looked up at the two of them as they arrived. her eyes wild and desperate, her face blotched like mad. She let out a tiny whimper and seemed to back away, pressing herself against the wall more tightly. They could hear her breathing heavily from across the room as she tried manically to calm herself. Erik could only look on in horror until he composed himself.

'No... Renny, what have they done to you?'

Vasa gave a nod to Sergei and moved kneel at Irena's side with a grunt, his cane tapping against the floor as he went. He forced Irena to meet his eye as he looked her over, examining her flesh as casual as can be. "I don't know what to say." He said to her, his voice soft and sad. He reached out and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. "I expected so much more from you." He sounded disappointed more than anything.

Erik couldn't believe what he was seeing. Everything had changed now. How could his plans for peace and reconciliation survive this? Maybe they shouldn't, maybe they shouldn't deserve to, he didn't care. Right now all he could think was that this would not stand!
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"Shhh, don't listen to him, you are a real gun. Bitch."

"She's too good a gun for you." Florian carried on. "but don't worry, I will save you from her." That last part was whispered. To the gun. He looked back to Lilith, smiling just a little. The world was going to hell around them but she could still manage to lift his spirits. Even if it was just enough to keep him going on, he knew she'd be there with him at the end. And that was an end he'd fight to see.

"Seriously though, we should at least help ourselves to the fancier stuff." He started, dropping the joker attitude for now. "We may need to split up for this job. The ones that were looking for me will still be licking their wounds but if they did see my face then I'll have to move a lot more carefully so soon. But they still don't know you. It'll be easier for you to get around on your own, Lil."

Florian shrugged off his coat and threw it over one of the counters. Then he went back to his bag and went rumaging until he found an old map of the dome and a pen a few minutes later. He and Lilith formed a plan together as they stocked up on ammunition and extra firearms. Florian marked out some places where Lilith could find some possible contacts and their info. Along with where and when they'd try to meet up when they were done.

"It's not much but it should help us through while we wait to hear from Erik." Florian nodded. It still didn't feel like enough though. Things were coming to a head now, that was plain to see and Florian did not like facing it while being caught off balance. Still, this could help them get the upper hand back. He hoped.

"It's not much but it should help us through while we wait to hear from Erik."

Tucking one pistol into the back of her jeans waistband, Lilith proceeded to tuck another into an ankle holster she had found before concealing it under her jeans leg. "I ain't carrying mags for all this shit." The woman chuckled as she got to her feet. "Soon as I run out of bullets, I'll just bludgeon 'em to death or something." She tapped the revolver by her hip. "My girl here has all the ammo she wants."

Walking over to the other side of the room, Lilith's rifle was propped against the wall. She had been keeping it there since their first training day instead of at Renny's, which probably worked out for the best in hindsight. Last thing she'd want is one of Sergei's men getting their mitts on it, ruining the loading bolt with their potato hands and smudging up her scope. Walking back over to the Florian, the girl made a curious noise as she felt something crunch underfoot. Looking down, she was standing next to Florian's jacket, raising her boot she discovered the source of the noise. A piece of paper. "Hmm?" Lilith tilted her head as she bent over to pick it up, unfolding what appeared to be a crumpled note.

'I can touch and see you,
I know that you are real,
I can taste and smell you,
I know you too, can feel,

Your heart beats fast,
In tandem with my own,
Two souls of a kind,
Oh, how close we have grown,

Underneath this facade,
Exists a man I can love,
The little poor priest,
Is but a loose-fitting glove,

I pledge to you now,
I will do what I must,
I will guide your heart thusly,
For that, I need your trust,

Open your heart to me, O' Father,
Don't leave me alone,
If you open yourself to me,
I'll build you a throne'

"Florian." Lilith mumbled as she looked up from the paper, a look of confusion furrowing her brow. "What's this?" What kind of note was this? Why would he keep something like this, and who the hell was it from? Was it a love letter? It was really fucking creepy for a love letter.

Sprout had slept remarkably well the past few nights. His and Amy's 'adventures' had wound down significantly since the first night as the novelty of sex diminished. Besides that, with all the prep work they'd been doing for the score, neither of them had the energy at the end of the day to do anything other than collapse into each other's arms. He may not have been able to compete with his predecessor when it came to doing the deed, but she'd done a remarkable job teaching him to be a lover in other respects.

It made Sprout wonder if his mother had actively stamped out any reputation she may have had for her cuddling prowess. It didn't seem like something a feared bandit should be good at, really.

Meredith 'Pixie' Monroe, the most feared cuddler in the ashlands.

The boy couldn't help but grin at the thought.

His enthusiasm died quickly when he rolled over to find the a vacant space on the bed beside him. He had only been half awake when Amy got out of bed and got ready. She was likely on the bridge already.

Goddammit, it's so fuckin' early.

Looking out the viewing port by his bed, Sprout noted tragically that the sun hadn't even risen yet.

Forcing himself to wake up, he hopped out of bed, took a lightning fast shower and got dressed. With a black t-shirt underneath, Sprout threw on a button up grey shirt, buttoning it one button below the collar, and put on a brown duster Tallahassee had given him a few days prior. His revolver was holstered on his hip and he wore tattered jeans and red and white sneakers. After slinging his shotgun over his shoulder, he picked up his cap off the edge of the bed and walked over to the bathroom mirror.

He was looking older and older every day.

With a cocky grin he slipped the cap on backwards and started down the hall, towards the bridge.

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

The day had finally arrived. Though he didn't look it, Bennie was incredibly nervous. It had been a long time since he was in charge of an operation like this and he was hoping he hadn't over-planned it... if that was even possible.

Pixie'd be laughing at me right now. What was it she always said...?

'No matter how much you plan ain't everythin' ever gonna go down without'a hitch. Always expect the unexpected.'

It was early still, so he didn't expect everyone to be ready to report in just yet, but a little part of him was far too anxious to wait around any longer. Just then, Amy arrived on the bridge with two servings of bacon and eggs.

Thank God.

"Thanks Amy," Bennie said as he took one of the plates that was offered and began eating in it in the captain's chair. He checked his watch and grunted. "We'll give the others another half hour before I start barking over the intercom."

Amy had been far more agreeable since he'd told her the truth about Pixie. It was a good thing too, because it seemed like she was the only one that could rein in Sprout if he'd need it.

While she didn't sow any outward sign of it, Amy was really beginning to dislike the bridge as a place to be. She had hoped that, after clearing the air with Bennie and letting go of her past with Pixie, she would be able to sleep easier. However, her nightmares set in this place had continued night after night, and more than once she had been forced to awkwardly deflect Axel's queries, after having jolted him awake in her panic.

Something still wasn't sitting right.

"Thanks Amy,"

"Your welcome." she replied, smiling at her captain, before taking a seat at one of the axillary consoles and tucking in to her own breakfast.

"Oh my God!" she moaned in delight, her mouth full of bacon and eggs "Why can't anything healthy ever taste this good?!"

"We'll give the others another half hour before I start barking over the intercom."

"Reckon they'll need it." she told him. "If I hadn't already been awake... no self-respecting creature should be woken at this hour."

As they continued eating, Amy keenly sensed what conversation they were going to end up having, and elected to be the one to start it.

"Axel was doing better yesterday." she began "I don't think the thing with Talahassee and Brock bothers him at all any more. Jesse... maybe needs a bit more time, but those two coming to blows was always going to happen sooner or later. At least it was sooner, and now we can make sure it doesn't happen again."

She swivelled round in her chair to fix him with a knowing stare.

"I know it can't be fun being the bad guy, but don't be too disheartened by it. Ax being mad at you just proves that he cares about what you think. He'll come around... eventually."

"Florian. What's this?"

Florian turned round from what he was doing, giving a little hum of curiosity. Then he saw it. 'Oh crap.'

He'd kept that didn't he? Why did he keep that? This was going to be awkward.

"That? Oh, that's, nothing." He waved it off. "Just something I picked up at the hotel, I must have forgotten to trash it." He stepped closer, trying to take the crumpled paper out of her hand and end the conversation right there.

"Really?" Lilith raised an eyebrow disapprovingly as she looked at the man. "You're gonna go with that?" Pulling the note from Florian's grasping fingers, the girl chuckled slightly as she read an excerpt. "Open your heart to me, O' Father." She read in overly dramatic tones. "Seems very specific for something you just 'picked up'." She air quoted, tilting her head before locking eyes with the man. "Wouldn't you say?"

"Well I did." Florian snapped, snatching the poem from Lilith's hand and tearing it in half and scrunching it up into a tight ball.

He shouldn't have let it get to him. Lil didn't know, it wasn't her fault. That didn't stop that little recital getting under his skin though. It was a stupid line anyway, in her position he wouldn't have taken it seriously either. But he wasn't in her position, he was the idiot who was foolish enough to get caught and have that piece of drek written for him. He had to push that aside though, he had work to do.

"Florian..." Lilith cooed teasingly as she crossed her arms over her chest. "It's no big deal, I'm not mad or anything, Jesus." She chuckled. As ridiculously curious as she was of where the note came from, she wasn't willing to upset Florian to know it.

"I know you're not." He growled. Why would she be mad? She had no right to be mad about this. He started absentmindedly scratching at the scars on his neck. It was starting to be a habit of his. 'She might be mad, if she found out.' God, he could handle a fallout like that right now, not with all their plans at stake.

Maybe he should tell her though? They'd just confessed their love for one another the previous day, if he meant it shouldn't he be honest with her? Even as a priest he'd always tell people it was good to talk about things. Not that he ever followed his own advice anyway. So Florian went about angrily gathering up guns more loudly than he needed to.

["Should have burned the whole fucking room down."] He muttered under his breath.

Had she made him angry? Lilith frowned, her eyes on Florian's back as he mumbled to himself over a pile of guns on the table. This wasn't fair, it's not like she went rummaging through his pockets or anything, and as far as reactions go, she thought her's was pretty casual.

"That's a woman's handwriting." She said matter of factly as she shrugged her shoulders. "It's not Renny's, so..." She pursed her lips slightly. "Another woman you used to see?" Did he think she'd overreact? Why would she overreact? People kept stuff from their ex's all the time.

"No! No I did not. I did not see her." 'If I never see her again it'll be too soon.' "I just found it and forgot to drop it because of course they try and ambush me in that hotel, so of course I-" He was rambling again. So once again Florian cut himself off and took a deep breath. That was starting to become a habit as well. Well he'd foolishly let the cat out of the bag now with his little temper tantrum. May as well bite the bullet and get this out of the way.

"She's the bitch that bled me." He said bitterly, turning to Lilith, hand still rubbing the deepest scar on his neck. "The day I got out she wrote me a poem." And he should have just left it.

"But why would she write you a poem?" Lilith shook her head incredulously. He never did talk about the torture after she asked him the other night. "I don't understand." She walked towards Florian, hands stuffed in her jeans pockets as she looked up at the man. 'Maybe this was why he didn't want to talk about it?' Just looking at him now, he resembled the man she had found when she first got into Frostfall, it's like he'd aged ten years in a matter of moments. "I'm sorry Florian, I didn't mean..." She averted her eyes sheepishly. "I'm sorry." She mumbled into her scarf.

"No... I'm sorry." Florian rubbed at the back of his neck as he cast his eyes downwards, feeling ashamed of the way he'd acted. As was his custom. "You couldn't know. I just- I'm not good at this, Lil." 'Please, be patient with me.' "I'm sorry." Not very good at it at all.

Lilith smiled meekly as she looked back up at Florian. "You're really scratching at that scar, you know." She moved closer to him, draping her arms over his shoulders before gently pulling down his offending hand and placing it on her hip. "Stop it." She pouted as she used her other hand to gently stroke her fingers where'd he been scratching.

Lilith had no idea what Florian had been through, she had grown intimately familiar with the physical damage, but the mental scars were far harder to discern. What he certainly didn't need right now was someone judging him for the ravings of a madwoman. "We don't have to talk about it." She gently rubbed her nose against his.

"I kissed her" Florian blurted out. He wasn't sure why. Guilt, maybe? This felt almost like the warehouse all over again. In a way it felt better, he'd let it go and its power over him had lessened. On the other hand, he now felt an overwhelming sense of dread. This was a bad idea. He had to explain, context would make it better.

"I went a little crazy, towards the end, and I'd lost a lot of blood and... and I kissed her and some things happened." Context was not making things better. "And then I smashed her in the face and ran away."

Lilith didn't pull away, instead she searched his face, his murky blue eyes. They were so full of shame, he couldn't even look at her. Biting her bottom lip, Lilith thought for a moment. She had no right to feel betrayed in any way, they were nothing more than friends at that point, he owed her no loyalty in that regard even if he did want to kiss this woman.

Although being a bit crazy made her feel a little better about the whole thing, she'd have to admit.

Narrowing her eyes, she moved her head to catch his gaze. "How hard?" She asked simply.

"Uummm, I think I broke something." Florian said, a little taken aback. "I'm not sure. Most of my blood was outside of my body at the time." Should he have mentioned thinking about during the- the deed? No, maybe not. It would have made him sound desperate. Granted, he was! But he didn't need to sound it.

A small smirk curled Lilith's lips as she nodded her head. "Then it's okay." She wrapped her arms around Florian in a close embrace, kissing his neck gently as she nuzzled him. "I love you, ya daft cunt." She sighed as she continued to stroke the back of his neck.

"I love you too." Florian's head dropped into the crook of Lilith's shoulder for a moment as he let out a tired laugh. He took a second to recover himself. Not fully, that was a long way off but enough to keep going for another day. Something that became infinitely easier with her by his side.

He gathered a sudden burst of energy, pulling Lilith close and giving her an obnoxiously loud kiss on the cheek before stepping away and dusting himself off. "Come on! We have a friends to help, a city to save, my father to retire, gangsters to kill- and it's not even lunch time." It was time to go to work! Good thing he didn't have to do all this in one day.

"Time to be big damn heroes." Lilith puffed out her chest as smug smile curled her lips. "I feel sorry for these guys, I really do."

As was typical for him after a night of hard drinking, Ruffles came awake very gradually, with his various senses trickling in one by one. Eventually, he opened his eyes and found himself staring at the ceiling of his room. This was followed by the sudden awareness that his mouth was dry, and his head was pounding. Trying to sit up, he found it more difficult than expected. Looking down, he saw a forearm draped across his chest. Blinking, he turned his head and saw Maria's face inches from his, her hair a tangle of bedhead that he found oddly adorable.

Huh. Guess that happened, then.

Lifting her arm off of him as gently as he could, Ruffles got to his feet and started casting around for his pants. There wouldn't be any engine work today, as it was time for a mission. That in mind, he decided to forgo his jumpsuit, and dug out his jeans from the previous night. Leafing through his collection of T-shirts, he eventually selected one that said, 'Nobody does it like engineers do.' It seemed appropriate. On top of that, he put on a wool collared leather aviator's jacket. It had never been something he'd worn very often, but it'd belonged to his eldest brother, Hal.

Once he'd laced up his boots, he bent down and kissed Maria on the forehead before pushing through to his workshop and filling his holdall with an assortment of tools and gadgets that he thought would come in useful. That done, he headed off to the ship's helm.

When he arrived, it seemed to just be Bennie and Amy there waiting for him, tucking into enough fried, greasy goodness that he felt envious. Dropping his bag next to the navigator's console, he sat down on one of the chairs.

"You better have some of that for me," he said. "Else I think I'll just crawl back into bed and leave you guys in the cold."

On that note, Whiskey sauntered into the room. Taking one look at Ruffles, she whistled and said, "damn, someone's dressing chic today. You stealing a ship, or are you going to a dive bar?"

Ruffles shrugged. "I dunno, just... felt like doing something different, I guess."

"Axel was doing better yesterday..."

Bennie was happy to hear her report; nodding along as she laid out her observations.

"I know it can't be fun being the bad guy, but don't be too disheartened by it. Ax being mad at you just proves that he cares about what you think. He'll come around... eventually."

"I hope you're right," Bennie replied with a skeptical shrug. Meeting the young woman's penetrating gaze, he couldn't help but grin. "Look, I appreciate the help. Really. Considering your role in this op, I hope you see that. I..." He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts.

"We started off on the wrong foot," he admitted. "I think we can both agree on that." He held up his small cup of OJ for a toast. "To a fresh start."

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

Cam and Aesop were just about ready to head out when their captain returned.

If you spend enough time on the Iron Maiden, you learn not to question when Pixie comes home covered in blood. Whatever it had been, it was taken care of. What was important now was making sure the bandit queen didn't go and get herself killed once they were gone.

After a long hug and a kiss, Pixie patted Aesop on the back and sent him over to the driver's side of the crawler. Cam wouldn't be dismissed so easily, however. "Pixie," the brunette began, her brow creased in concern, "be careful, okay?"

Pixie smiled at her. "You got nothin' ta' worry about, darlin'," he assured her. "You know I don' go down so easily."

"Ar-are you going to be okay by yourself?"

"I've still got Carlos."

Cam shrugged. "Yeah, but you know what I mean," she replied. "Tomorrow's the big day. Are you sure you don't want me around for the night at least."

"I wan' you two as far from this city as possible when the shit hits the fan," Pixie told her. "I can spend one night alone if it means yer safe, ya' know. I ain't that needy."

"Don't kid yourself," Cam chuckled.

Pixie rolled her eyes and shoved the woman's shoulder. "Better watch that mouth of yers, girl," she warned with a smile.

Springing forward suddenly, Cam planted a big, soppy kiss on her best friend's lips and embraced her. "Don't go dying on me, Pixe!" she warned. "I swear to God if I lose you..."

"I ain't dyin' yet," Pixie promised. She squeezed Cam tight and when they withdrew she smiled at her warmly. "Take care'a Aesop an' the others fer me, okay?"

"Anything for you, Merry," Cam said with a wink.

Spanking the brunette's butt rather firmly, Pixie pointed towards the crawler and whistled. "Now get goin'," she instructed.

Pixie watched her friend mount the vehicle, and after a brief wave and another exchange of goodbyes, they were gone. "You don't seem to want to die anymore," Carlos observed rather bluntly.

"I was a bit of a drama queen for awhile there, wasn' I?" Pixie admitted with a wry grin.

"That's putting it mildly."

"I'll come back to them," Pixie began, "all of 'em. I may not be the best one ta' protect them or lead them no more, but I love them an' they love me. I owe it to them ta' come back."

Carlos smiled sadly. "That's a good way of looking at it, I suppose," he remarked.

Pixie crossed her arms over her chest and nodded. "I decided somethin' else as well," she said.

"And what's that?"

"No more cryin' until Cherry's been avenged," she replied. "I owe it to 'er ta' be stronger than I 'ave been. Fer once, I've gotta be tougher than I let myself believe. I've gotta stop bein' my own worst enemy. I gotta stop runnin'."

She clenched her hands into fists and grit her teeth. "If it's fer her, there ain't no force on the Rock that'll keep me down," she pledged.

It isn' just fer her though...

She'd do this so that Dio could never hurt another innocent ever again. To protect Margaret's own flesh and blood sister and her son. To protect all the innocents of the ashlands that have fallen victim to his tyranny.

Also, she'd do this so that she could finally free herself of her past. Dio, the man who had taken everything from her would be naught. The pleasure in his demise would be fleeting, but his continued absence liberating. She would no longer have any excuse to continue destroying her own life.

Pixie grinned.

"I'm dryin' my own tears from now on."

"To a fresh start."

"I'll drink to that." Amy responded, raising her own mug off coffee. Amy wasn't kidding herself. She knew there'd sill be a lot of problems to address down the road, particularly after Meredith returned. Right now, she was just trying to focus on getting to the end of each day without messing anything up, notching up some wins. In that regard, Axel had been just as helpful to her as she's been to him. The environment of the last few days, with The Maiden back in business? This was the life that Axel understood, having grown up surrounded by it, and he'd appeared more and more in his element lately, which was making Amy more confident in turn. It was just a shame that their time together had been severely cut into by all the planning. Hopefully, if this mission went smoothly enough, they could celebrate by blowing off some steam... and ripping some clothes... and possibly also breaking some furnishings.

On second thoughts, she should probably keep herself from daydreaming today. Fortunately, distractions arrived in the form of Ruffles and Whiskey.

"I dunno, just... felt like doing something different, I guess."

"Sure..." Amy said, a glint in her eye. "Say, I haven't noticed Maria about? She strikes me as an early bird, wouldn't you say... unless she's had a long night, of course."

"Is this true, Irena? Is this true!" Vasa's usual calm demeanor had been cracking over slowly since he'd entered the room. Every question had been asked plainly, with a level head and as straight to the point as they could with the information they had. Then they'd wait patiently as Irena coughed and croaked out her answers. She'd tried to avoid giving them at first, to turn them around in circles and misinform them, as well she should.

But the people she was talking to knew their information. This was their house after all. Spreading out information for weaknesses in the street level operations that their vigilante friend had been tormenting among all their own people, seeing who would take the bait. In the end they'd traced it back to Irena. Now, trying to get one over on your competition was one thing but damaging the family's interests, their profits, their public image and hospitalizing several up and coming officers. That would not stand. That had all the signs of a coup in the making. And now this! Rumors of working with Vasa's long dead son, nonsense of course, but someone had to answer for it.

"I want you to be sure now." Vasa shouted, grabbing a handful of Irena's hair and yanking her head back. "Because I don't want you to just say things that you think I want to hear. A lot of people have been lying to me recently, Irena, and I would like to think that someone I have known as long as you would have the common courtesy to tell me the fucking truth!"

Erik gave a guttural growl that never left his throat. He was finding it harder to look at what was being done in front of him with every second. His only other option being to lock eyes with Sergei as the torturer stared at him. Insufferable prick. 'Go ahead, prolonged eye contact is the scariest form of intimidation.' Erik seethed internally as he was forced to hold back. If he left he'd only throw more suspicion on himself. He couldn't step in without making things worth for both of them, though hell if Erik didn't want to. Every pleading glance he pretended not to see was like a knife in his gut as he held his breath to see if Irena broke. All the while internally raging at Sergei's stupid face and how he couldn't step over there and smash it into a bloody pulp.

So he stood there, loyal man that he was. Watching as they tested Irena to her limit. She'd done her best to resist but Renny had never been a fighter, she was a clever woman, she avoided pain whenever she could like any sane person. She wasn't made for this, breaking was inevitable. Erik didn't need to act disgusted when it finally happened and she gave up. Giving them the answers they wanted. Not that anyone was watching him. Vasa seemed lost in himself for a time and Erik could have sworn he saw the wheels turning in his brain as he took it all in. She was a hero in the end though, she took it all on herself. Erik still had a chance to make things right.

'It wasn't supposed to happen this way.'
===============================================================

So the hunters were sent out and the word got spread, all eyes and ears were open. The reward for finding Florian (or whoever was posing as him) would be enough to set whoever found him up for life. They'd be turning the city upside down before sundown.

["Vas, you need to think this through. I know you're upset, you've every right to be but it's times like this we need to keep a level head."] Look who was talking.

Vasa rounded on Erik, the usual look of cold detachment completely gone and replaced by a look of anger. ["You sound like you actually believe her."]

["You don't?"] It looked like he did.

["He would never do this. The idea that he'd turn on us, let alone disappear for years and then come back only to haunt us like some fucking ghost! It is laughable, Erik, it is beyond ridiculous it is... disgusting! After all I've done for her she spits in my face like this!"] But for all his fury he was hurting, the same way Erik had been. Vasa hid it better but it was there, the same hurt, the same confusion.

["Vas."] Erik said softly.

["It is insulting! I don't know what her plan was - I don't care - this doppelganger she's hired, whoever they are, is going to die screaming! Everyone who has helped her, everything she held close, all of it burns! An example has to be made."] It wasn't like him to rant. Then again, Vasa had been doing a lot of things that weren't like him recently.

["What if it is him, Vas?"] Erik said sadly. ["What if we were wrong? the body was so burned up, we couldn't tell who it was, not really. If this is true."] There seemed so little point in being coy right now, but if Erik could he would. In his current state no way could Vas deal with the same shock that'd rocked him a few days ago. And he go the feeling that a heavy drink and the puny blonde girl wouldn't be talking him down.

["You could have him back, Vas. This could be a miracle if we let it, an honest to god second chance. After all we've lost, Anna, Petrov, Anton, Leo, Natasha. I would murder the world if it meant I could hold them in my arms again. Well we have a chance, the little cub's come back and we could make a home for him to return to. Not another battlefield."]

["Are you even listening to yourself?!"] Vasa raged, unable to believe that this was the Erik he knew standing in front of him, pleading like a child. ["Why the fuck aren't you flipping out?! You have broken men's necks for less. I come to you, telling you we have been betrayed in the worst way and act like... like... like this!"] He waved his hand at Erik, giving up on finding something that would describe this odd break in spirit.

["Because I am bloody tired and I shouldn't have to explain why."] Erik growled, standing his ground. ["I have tried to pull you out of this and every time you've refused to listen. Even now, with news like this. With even the chance of Florian being alive."]

["Because it's impossible!"] Vasa snapped.

["They said breaking an ivory tower was impossible. That winning this war of ours was impossible. That we'd never rise above being a bunch of street thugs feeding off the scraps from greater powers. We are in the business of doing the impossible, Vas! You taught me that, you proved it at every turn. And I'm not ready to stop doing that."] If only they were drunk right now maybe he'd have listened.

Vasa didn't have a response to that. He didn't say anything for a while. The two old bandits just looked at each other, the tension in the air getting thicker with every second. Vasa had at least calmed down, Erik hoped. Out of nowhere he turned and walked away, cane tapping on the cold floor.

["What are you doing?"] Erik called after him, worried that he had no idea what Vasa might do next.

["I need some air!"] He had a lot of thinking to do.
=======================================================================
"I feel sorry for these guys, I really do."

"Yeah, wouldn't want to get in our way right now." Florian put the finishing touches of his light to travel armory.

The two of them covered up and stepped out into the frigid air. Alexei used to work as an information broker back when he was with the family, working closely with Irena. And given his current... thing with Erik it made sense that he'd have caught wind of what was going on. Maybe they'd get some useful gossip from the bar wile they were there. Once they got that first stop out of the way they could get more direction and really get this tour on the road.

If Sergei and Co were intent of forcing their hand then Lilith and Florian would just have to go on the offensive.

"Say, I haven't noticed Maria about? She strikes me as an early bird, wouldn't you say... unless she's had a long night, of course."

If Ruffles' skin had been much lighter, it would have been possible to see him turn red from across the room. Rubbing the back of his neck, he shrugged. "Well we had a few drinks last night. She's probably sleeping that off."

Whiskey started laughing. "Oh my god, it actually happened. It actually fuckin' happened!" Ruffles sunk into his seat a little, confirming it beyond a doubt. Reaching into the pocket of her jacket, Whiskey produced a small purse of carbon and threw it to Bennie.

"Oh my god, it actually happened. It actually fuckin' happened!"

"What 'appened?" Allie asked curiously as she pushed herself from under one of the control consoles, pushing the access panel back into place. The girl had been reparation some of the more delicate control systems and hadn't been really paying attention to the several conversations on the bridge since she'd been there (which was most of the early morning).

Pushing herself to her feet, the Allie brushed herself down before pointing a thumb over her shoulder. "The stabilisation configuration was fucked, I fixed it." She puffed her chest out proudly. "You should be able to ride that smoooooth .5% efficiency increase."

She crossed her arms over her chest. "Yeah I spent six hours pointlessly optimising the system for a .5% increase, what's ya fookin' problem, wanna fight about it?" Allie was in a sassy mood this morning.

------------------------------------------------

Last chance.

It was Asad's last chance. His last chance to spend time with his friends, with Tsubaki, with his parents.

The Major decided to spend that time in some run down bar on the edge of town, getting slowly drunk and smoking more cigarettes than he thought was actually possible.

Sitting on a stool at the bar, hunched over the counter, Asad downed his seventh drink of the day, glancing up at the bartender as he approached. "Same again buddy?"

With a single nod, the Major pushed his glass towards the man. He wouldn't be getting much conversation out of Asad, not today, not when everything was about to be laid out on the line. Everyday since the stabbing, Asad had been on edge, waiting for Basilio soldiers to bust down Elizabeth's door and arrest them both for treason, or Lombardi deciding they weren't worth the effort and deciding that they knew too much and had to be dealt with, and all manner of other paranoid scenarios.

The waiting. The waiting was always the worse. Asad had done withdrawal ops before, but not like this, not someone he was emotionally invested in, not in the city he grew up in, and certainly not against his own people.

'They're not your people any more, they stopped being your people the moment you decided to betray them to save the girl.'

Was it betrayal? Was helping Elizabeth, a girl who was being abused both mentally and physically by her fiance, his boss, a betrayal? Was breaking away from a corrupt system that committed shady underground experiments a betrayal?

It all looked very clear cut from where Asad was standing.

"Thanks." Asad mumbled as the bartender placed another drink down in front of him, a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips as he stared down at the fake wood finish of the bar.

"Hey! Hey you!" A rather gruff voice sounded behind him.

Asad turned his head slightly to see what all the fuss was about, his eyes falling on a group of five men sitting in large cubicle against one of the walls. Glancing around slightly, Asad realised he was the only other person in the bar. "Yeah you!" A large bald man with an eyepatch nodded towards Asad. "What you doing here boy?" He almost spat. "Don' you know we don' take too kindly to Basilio dogs in this part of town?" Asad glanced down at his uniform before looking back up at the group.

"Man could get himself in a lot of trouble wearing something like that around 'ere." A second man scowled, skinnier, with bad teeth and a receding hairline.

Asad closed his eyes for a second, taking a long drag of his cigarette before blowing smoke from his nostrils as he met their eyes once again. "It's fancy dress." He stated simply, turning back around his seat. "I'm going to one big fucking party." He mumbled more to himself as he returned his attention back to his drink.

"Don' you turn your back on us, dog!" One of them shouted, Asad didn't care to figure out which one.
"One of Basilio's whores for sure that one."
"Yeah, I bet he loves it when they turn their back on him, bends 'em over the table I bet."
"Takes 'em all rough like."

Asad suddenly had the strongest compulsion to get to his feet. Grabbing his drink, he slowly rose of his stool, sauntering over to the group of men. Standing a few feet from them, the Major's expression was slightly bemused as he looked at the men. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that part." The man took a long drag of his cigarette.

"He said you take it like the bitch you are, and I bet you don't even try to stop him, I bet you love it!" The man with the eyepatch this time, getting a chuckle from his friends.

"I thought so." Asad nodded his head sagely before downing his drink, firmly slamming the glass on the table. "That's what I thought you said." He glared down at the men, the chuckling fuck monkeys, the pigs in human clothing. "Let me show you how I feel about that."

---------------------------------------------------

Lilith and Florian had left the gun range and were heading for Alexei's bar. If anyone knew what was going on in town right now, it was him. That's what Florian said anyway, Lilith had no cause to disagree, if nothing else they could get a round of drinks in. Resisting the urge to loop her arm around Florian's as they walked the streets, the pair said very little.

'He's probably worried sick about Renny.' They did have a thing at one point, it only made sense, and they were friends.

As the pair drew closer to the bar, something seemed off, rounding the corner their suspicions were confirmed as rather large group of red scarved men stood guard outside the place. Quickly withdrawing back around the corner, Lilith looked up at Florian. "What do we do?" She whispered calmly. "They wouldn't question Alexei would they? Not they know about Erik." Her voice slightly trailed off as the realisation washed over her. Clutching Florian's sleeves, Lilith nodded her head. "We need to help him, we can't walk away from this, I know it's a risk, but he's our friend."

Bennie tossed the pouch a short distance into the air and winked at Whiskey. Ruffles had finally come through! He knew the nerd had it in him!

Unfortunately, the engineer's little adventure had cost his apprentice a good night's rest and her usually cheerful attitude.

"You should be able to ride that smoooooth .5% efficiency increase."

"Good work," Bennie told her. Just then, Sprout arrived on the bridge. "Mornin', kid."

Sprout nodded to Bennie. "Hey," he said briefly before taking is place beside Amy. "Can I 'ave some of that? Shit smells fuckin' good."

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

It was a terrible idea. Despite how much it hurt, Tsubaki knew she had to keep her mouth shut. Confronting Elizabeth would only make matters worse.

So then, why was it that she road the elevator up to her apartment? Why was she standing in front of the young noble's door now, her hand balled into a fist, ready to knock.

What are you doing, Tsu?!

She had to know. She couldn't take it any longer. Everything that Asad had said... she needed to find the truth.

She knocked.

A few moments passed before the door eventually opened. "Commander Saburo," Elizabeth greeted her, "how unexpected."

"Good afternoon, M'Lady," Tsubaki replied, finding it hard to meet the woman's gaze. "Could I come in? I need to speak with you about an important matter."

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. There was something wrong. "Um, okay," she replied. "Make yourself at home."

The soldier took a seat on the sofa in the living room. For a political prisoner, Elizabeth sure did have some fine decor.

"Can I get you some coffee?" Elizabeth asked as she joined her in the living room.

"No thank you," Tsubaki said politely.

Elizabeth grunted in acceptance and took a seat in the chair across from Tsubaki. "Major Harel is running some errands for me in town right now," she told her. "It's rather dull lounging about this place alone. It's a pleasure to have your company."

She is beautiful. Asad's a lucky man.

"Do you two get along?"

"I think so," Elizabeth said with a shrug. "He can be dismissive sometimes, but I think he's a good man at heart. I think we get along quite well, actually."

Tsubaki pursed her lips. "I see," she said.

Elizabeth looked at the commander incredulously. What was this about? "So, was there something you needed to tell me?" she asked.

Either Elizabeth was a really good liar or she honestly did like Asad. But how? How could she remain friends with a man who had hurt her the way he did? Was Asad just feeding her bullshit? She had to know.

"Did he do it?" Tsubaki finally blurted.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Asad," Tsubaki elaborated, "did Dio really order him to cut you?"

Elizabeth clenched her jaw and averted her gaze. "I, uh, well," she sighed. "Yes. Yes, Asad cut me."

God dammit, Asad.

Tsubaki felt like throwing up. She was not prepared for such a blunt confirmation. "Why... how can you still say what you did about him?" she asked, her voice shrill. "How can you even look at him after that?"

"He was following orders," Elizabeth told her. "I admit that it's hard to look at him sometimes, but he just did what he had to. Dio would have had him killed for treason if he hadn't done what he did."

Did Asad tell her what happened? What the fuck was he thinking?

Tsubaki remained quite for awhile. Clearly, whatever she was going through was painful. "He did what he had to," Elizabeth repeated when it looked as if Tsubaki was about to burst into tears.

"Show me," Tsubaki suddenly said. "I-I want to see what he did to you."

As inappropriate as it was for a soldier to make such a request of a noble, Elizabeth wasn't about to argue with her. If it'd set her mind at ease, Elizabeth was more than happy to oblige. That said, hopefully she wouldn't have to make a habit of showing people her wound.

Without a word, Elizabeth lifted up the brim of her shirt to reveal a large bandage inside her pelvis and peeled it back. The wound was a savage-looking zigzag that was tightly sewn up. The area around it was still black and yellow from bruising and shock. All things considered, it was looking a lot better than it had been.

Tsubaki stared at it for a solid ten seconds before looking away. "I'm sorry," she choked.

"I'm over it," Elizabeth lied as she covered it up once more.

"I'm sorry about all of this," the soldier told her. "You don't deserve this."

Elizabeth shrugged. "I think I'll managed," she remarked. "It's clear to everyone that I don't actually want to marry the man, but I accepted it a long time ago. This is what I got for fighting against my fate."

"Don't say that!" Tsubaki snapped. "You don't deserve this! I think... I need to talk to Lord Basilio about this... he'll listen to me. I-I can't let this stand! I won't!"

Elizabeth wished she could tell Tsubaki the truth, but she knew she couldn't. Maybe if there was more time she'd be able to turn her, but the attack was only a day away. There wasn't any time left. She couldn't tell her. She couldn't compromise their plan.

"No Commander," Elizabeth told her. "Please don't bring this to your Lord. He may... he might think I am trying to coarse you. Turn you against him. I can't have you put yourself on the line for me."

"You're a braver woman than I," Tsubaki choked.

I'm so sorry, Tsubaki.

The soldier knelt down in front of Elizabeth and took her hand. "Are you sure?" she asked once more.

"Yes," Elizabeth confirmed, "I am sure. Also... why are you kneeling like that?"

Tsubaki wore a sheepish little smile. Despite her mild embarrassment, her resolve shone through. "You will be married to my Lord soon," she explained. "When that happens, I will be yours. Whatever you need from me; whatever I can do for you... consider it done. I will even protect you from your husband if I need to."

Great, now she was pledging allegiance to Elizabeth! Despite the show of loyalty, she knew it was still too risky to bring her into the fold. As much as she wanted to protect Elizabeth, from how Asad had explained, there was no way she'd abandon Dio completely.

"Thank you," Elizabeth said simply.

If Contessa doesn't see to your safety there will be hell to pay.

Flustered still, Tsubaki scrambled to her feet and bowed. "You honor me, M'Lady," she replied. "I will... I will get out of your hair now. That is, unless you need anything."

Elizabeth shook her head. "No, I'm fine. Thank you again Commander," she told her.

After another swift bow, Tsubaki turned to leave. Before she was fully out the door, Elizabeth added, "Don't blame Asad for what he did. He's a good man."

Tsubaki bowed her head and nodded. "I know," she whispered. "Thank you, Lady Maribel."

Gale had never been a morning person. Never. Never ever. She could do it, sure, but people had better not talk to her for a while. What kind of damnable hour did they call this anyway? Bandits were supposed to go on night raids and shank bitches up in midnight shrouded streets. A life of crime guaranteed sleeping in, that was the promise! Whatever, she had a raging tea headache that only a fresh fix would... fix - fuck it was early!

First stop after getting dressed was the canteen to get fueled up. Gale'd need it for the raid today.

That same thought reminded her groggy brain that today was the day of the raid and threw her into a panic! Was she late? Why didn't Allie wake her?! There was no time for cooked food, Gale downed her cup of tea with just a hint of burning agony and ran on over to the bridge, toast still in her mouth.

'Wait! No. No toast in the mouth, c'mon, gotta look cool at least.' She stopped herself just as she neared the bridge door and finished off her grub and dusted off the buttery crumbs. She had to be at the top of her game if this was going to turn out anything like the last mission they went on. Fingers crossed she wouldn't have to play referee this time, though.

"Mornin' all." Gale waved as she stepped through the door. It looked like most of the regular faces were here. They all looked so calm, weird to think they'd be stealing a whole ship in just a little while.

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

"They wouldn't question Alexei would they? Not they know about Erik."

Who could say? If Florian's fears were correct and Irena had been taken down then no one was safe any more. Any kind of social order that had once held through all the chaos was crumbling fast.

"We need to help him, we can't walk away from this, I know it's a risk, but he's our friend."

"No arguments here." Florian whispered back, peeking round the corner as far as he dared. The ones out front had taken up standard sentry positions and didn't seem bothered about the bar itself. "How do you feel about a pincer move?" He asked. The look on Lilith's face gave Florian all the answer he needed.

A few minutes passed as Lilith waited from their hiding spot out front. All seemed quiet so far. Florian had gone skulking off to scout out the back entrance, leaving her to watch out for his signal. He hadn't specified what that signal would be but knowing how the maidens did business it would probably be something obvious. Subtle folks that they were.

The quiet was finally broken by the sound of muffled shouts and gunshots as the bar's one remaining window lit up. The sentries outside jerked to attention and rounded on the front door. That seemed like as good a signal as any.

"Mornin', kid."

Amy rolled her eyes a little and looked to Bennie, as if to say.

'Can you not call him "kid" in front of the others at least? I know you don't want him getting too big-headed, but still!'

At least, as much of that as could be communicated non-verbally.

"Can I 'ave some of that? Shit smells fuckin' good."

"And where's my hello?" Amy asked indignantly, before leaning in to give him a short, but soft, kiss, brushing the tips of their noses before they pulled apart.

"Much better." she said, smiling, before pulling a rasher of bacon in two and offering one half to Axel.

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

"Yes, you understood me. No, it's not a bad line. Spread the word, I fear we can't afford to delay..."

The Gentleman had found a shady, dilapidated telephone box from which to make a few calls, using his own personal device concealed in his suitcase, rather than the equipment provided (which looked to be out of order anyway). At intervals, he made sure to keep mind of his surroundings; and, thanks to this, his eye was drawn by a group of men arriving at the bottom a flight of stairs the other end of the sparse terminal. They each had a darkly unified look in their eye as they walked almost in formation, spreading out across the floor with little need to communicate with each-other in anything more than nods. While they had no visible weapons on display, The Gentleman knew a hit-squad when he saw one.

"I should go. I'll contact you again as soon as I am able." he said to the other end of the line, before hanging up and packing away the phone, swiftly exiting the booth.

Jun groaned as he moved a bandaged hand to shield his eyes from sunlight. How late was it now? . "Jun-young Moon, always the first to rise, so diligent..." They had said. Now he was here sleeping in and waking up at late o'clock. What else was this world going to take from him? Still, there was no point in getting out of bed, just yet another day going to waste.

***

Astor opened an eye. He'd been awake for a while - how could anyone sleep with a dangerous raid around the corner? He sighed as he managed to convince himself to get out of bed. As much as there as danger, there was opportunity. Maybe this was the day to try out some of that advice from Gale. Well, of course, there was a proverb about advice from Travellers but Astor wasn't one for proverbs. After getting dressed, the runaway noble checked himself in the mirror. Stray blond strands of hair stood out against the chocolate brown - more hair dye was needed. Or he could just wear a hat but only uncultured hicks like a certain someone wore hats inside! Astor refused to stoop that low and walked off to the bridge, not even bothering with breakfast.

***

Maria slowly opened her eyes and quickly spotted there was a severe absence of a certain ship engineer. Well, there was hardly any time for some morning fun anyway as the fact that it was a somewhat important day eased itself out of the haze. Ah well. She hummed as she got dressed and sorted out the curly mess of her hair before quickly getting some fried goodness down. That done, Maria joined the others in the bridge.

"Why do my ears feel like they're burning?" She said, smirking all too widely.

As the first shots fired, Lilith's face lit up as a large grin spread across her face. "Heh heh, show time!" Pulling the pistol from her waistband, she stepped from the corner of the street, firing several shots in the general direction of the Beijic bandits, most of them missing, but two or three finding their mark in shoulders, arms, and other non-lethal areas.

Stepping back around the corner, Lilith shook her head, smirking slightly. "I fucking hate these things." She looked at the pistol in her hands with mock disgust. As the surprised foreign ramblings of the several men around the corner rang out across the street, some of them with anger, some with pain and surprise, Lilith quickly lit a cigarette as her heart began to quicken. five guys. She counted five Beijics standing outside the bar. She had glanced up at the roof tops across from the bar when she let loose her volley, from what she could tell, there was nobody covering the streets.

Just a good old fashioned shoot out.

Taking a deep drag from cigarette, readied herself as she heard several footsteps pound the pavement in different directions. Taking up defensive positions no doubt. Narrowing her eyes slightly as she tried to make out some of the shouts, she bit her bottom lip. She could make out some of it, 'cyka' was definitely in there, but other than that she didn't have a clue what anyone was saying.

Readying herself, the cigarette hanging loosely from her lips, Lilith tightened the grip around her weapon as she glanced across the street. It wasn't that far, she could make that run easily, and she'd get a good pin on where everyone was hiding. Dashing from out of cover, the girl fired blindly as she marked out four of the five men, two of which returned their own fire, while the others moved behind cover as Lilith's shots whizzed by them. Reaching the other side of the street, Lilith moved behind the corner of the building just as the wall erupted in a cloud of brick dust. Carrying on down the street, Lilith rounded another corner, and then another as she made her way down an alley, the other side of which would exit across from the bar.

As she began to near the other side of the alley, Lilith slowed down, treading lightly as she crouched down behind a dumpster, her breath mixed with cigarette smoke as it rose in the air. The girl wrinkled her nose slightly, maybe squatting down in an alley across from a bar wasn't the wisest decision she ever made. Peeking from behind the dumpster, Lilith chuckled quietly as her eyes fell on a couple of men taking cover behind a crawler, their weapons trained on the corner they had last seen her exiting behind.

'Flanking, motherfuckers, do you know it?'

Bringing her pistol to aim, Lilith narrowed her eyes. First she'd take out these two, then she'd move up behind the crawler and dispatch the other two. Still no sign of the fifth man. As she moved out from behind the dumpster, she quickly moved forward, firing at the closest man as she exited the alley, she was about to train her sights on the second, only to be greeted with the ominous click of her pistols slide locking into place. "SHIT!" It was too late for her to turn back as the second man, spattered with the blood of his just fallen comrade, turned to aim at the girl. Quickening her pace Lilith did the only thing she could think of and tossed the empty gun. It bounced harmlessly off the man's shoulder. That was was far more underwhelming than she had hoped, her eyes widening. Whether surprised by Lilith's frankly amazing strategic gun throwing, or because she was simply quicker on the draw, her revolver was quickly in her hand as she buried a round into the man's chest.

Crouching behind the furthest side of the crawler from the bar, Lilith panted as she slapped her palm against her forehead a couple of times. Why didn't she check the magazine? why did she never check the magazine?! "Stupid!" Wincing, the girl quickly spat out her cigarette as she replaced the single spent round in her revolver. Keeping track of six bullets was a lot easier.

As a hail of 'cykas' filled the air, as well as a dozen bullets, Lilith shuffled across to the rear of the crawler quickly grabbing a peek at the other two men who seemed torn between dealing with her and the growing sounds of chaos in the bar behind them. The woman's pondering was cut short as a crashing sound erupted behind her.

Lilith turned just in time to see a huge bandit rush out of the door from the building behind her, bringing her revolver to aim, the man closed the gap too quickly for her to respond and slapped the weapon from her hands before grabbing her by the wrist and throat, pinning her to the crawler. The bandit roared in her face, Lilith gasping for air as the his grip quickly tightened around her neck. The woman lashed out with a foot, hitting the man in the delicates once, then twice, on the third time his grip loosened on her neck, allowing her to move under the arm gripping her wrist. Reversing the hold, she twisted the bandit's arm painfully behind his back, smashing his head into the crawler a few times before she quickly reached for the pistol strapped to her ankle and held it to the back of the man's head. "Game over, wanker." The girl seethed, her voice cracking slightly. The bandit seemed to get the message, groaning painfully as he ceased his struggling, his legs almost buckling underneath him. "You two!" Lilith called out across the street. "Drop your shit or I end your friend here!" Digging the barrel into the back of her captive's head, she ushered for him to move. "Start walking." She muttered, leading him out into the open.

"I said drop your weapons!" Lilith shouted as the last two remaining Beijics trained their sights on the woman and her shield. They responded in Northern, although it became apparent they weren't talking to her as her captive responded. The other two men hesitated slightly, a look of apprehension on their faces. 'What are they saying?' Lilith narrowed her eyes as the big man spat out something incomprehensible. The other two looked at each other, before nodding and focusing their sights on the pair once again. Lilith's eyes widened in horror as she realised what was about to happen.

Lilith tripped backwards, the pistol smacked from her hands as her shield lashed out at her just in time for several shots to shred him to pieces. As several bullets whizzed over her, Lilith caught sight of her fallen revolver, quickly shuffling backwards towards the crawler, she scooped up the weapon as the huge bandit crumpled to the ground, bringing it to aim she fired at the two men, her first shot felling one instantly, while the second caught a bullet in his shoulder and chest, managing to fire off another few wide shots before another round finished him off.

Lilith winced, clutching at her side as she pushed herself to her feet. Lifting up her slightly bloodied shirt, she let out a sigh of relief. Barely even a flesh wound, hell it wouldn't even need stitches. She didn't have time to check however, quickly reloading her revolver and scooping up the pistol from earlier, she placed in its ankle holster before approaching the bar, glancing down at the huge bandit as she passed him by.

"Northerners are fucking crazy."

["Bitches are trying to bring this kind of shit up in MY HOUSE!? No one fucks with me in MY HOUSE!"]

Alexei was not having any of it today, as Lilith saw for herself when she came through the door to the sight of Alexei aiming a rifle at the gut of some poor guy who was sprawled out on the ground.

"You okay?" Florian called over to her from behind the bar. He was breathing a little heavily and there was some sweat glistening on his brow - and a splattering of blood on his shirt - but he looked okay. Especially when compared to the scattered bodies that were laid out about the bar, two of them on top of each other.

BANG

The man on the ground cringed and let out a spluttering croak and then quickly fell quiet as Alexei planted a bullet in his chest.

"Looks like we had things a little easier than you did." Florian said, giving another glance over to where the young barman had just dispensed his own brand of justice. "We got a prize too. Lexei... LEXEI!" He shouted, snapping Lex out of his moment of rage. "Help me with this."

Alexei did as he was asked and shouldered his rifle, joining Florian behind the bar. With a combined groan they heaved a wounded bandit up off the floor and sprawled him out on the bar itself. the bandit, for his part, was not all too pleased by this. But the blood streaming from his leg and the gash on his head suggested that there was crap all he could do about it. The three northerners started exchanging terse words with each other for a few minutes until Florian excused himself and rejoined Lilith.

"Knew you wouldn't have any trouble with them." He gave a reluctant little smile as he placed a hand on her shoulder. It didn't do much to hide his concern as he looked over the wound on her side. Wincing a little.

'I'm never going to get used to this.' He sighed internally.

Any tenderness that may have been forming was quickly shattered though, along with their wounded captive's knee, courtesy of Alexei and the stock of his rifle. The room was filled with anguished screams again and Florian rejoined the conversation. Their new friend didn't take much convincing after that as he desperately spilled his guts before Florian or Alexei decided to do the same for him. The two of them looked to each other grimly as they got their answers.

["You believe him?"] Florian asked.

["I do."]

["I do as well."] He sighed. ["Shit."]

["You... I gave you what you wanted..."] The blooded bandit coughed out weakly.

["And you want us to let you go and all the rest, come on guy, this is no one's first time."] Florian finished things curtly for him. ["House rules on that front."] He looked to Alexei over the counter, he simply nodded in return.

Florian went back to Lilith, quietly ushering her into the back of the bar where they could find her some quick first aid and he could catch her up on all they'd learned. "It's worse than we thought."

He stopped, flinching as Alexei's gunshot rang through the small building.

"They took Irena in. It's not just Sergei and his crews we're dealing with either, my father's involved now." Everything was about to get forced out into the open much sooner than they expected. They'd planned for this, it wasn't as if they were defenseless, on the contrary there were plenty of people and resources there to help them now. Still, Florian couldn't shake the worry that's lodged itself in his gut. For all their hard work, he still felt outmatched. His family's shadow looming over him.

"A benevolent leader will only be loved by her people if she can back up her sentiments with tangible results. Sometimes doing so requires that she mask her good nature so that her enemies don't discover her true intentions. When employing a cold, calculating persona it is possible to lose sight of the original goal. Promoting her own power does not necessarily mean her people will prosper. Keeping the people close to her heart will ensure she never loses her way.

Leadership..."

Elizabeth's eyes snapped up from the book in her lap when a knock suddenly sounded from her door.

Who is it this time?

Elizabeth opened the door to find a bloodied Asad standing before her. His eyes were a haze. "Oh my God," she gasped. "What happened?"

"Nothing." Asad mumbled as he brushed past the girl and started heading through the living room towards the bathroom.

His head was killing him, his knuckles were bloody, he was pretty sure he had bruised ribs, but all in all he came out of the fight a lot better off than the other guys.

He still had his teeth for a start.

Elizabeth stormed after him. "Hey, I'm talking to you!" she shouted. "What the hell happened? Why are you covered in blood?"

Asad pulled off his bloodied and tattered shirt, tossing it to the ground as he moved through the apartment. "I fell down the stairs?" He responded, a small smile curling his split lip. Oh this conversation was going to be fun.

"Don't bullshit me, Asad," she scolded. "I'm being serious here! We're in a really dangerous spot right now... you can't just show up covered in blood and not expect to explain yourself!"

Asad turned instantly on the spot, Elizabeth bouncing off his chest as she failed to stop in time. "Elizabeth." Asad said simply, looking down at the girl. There was a pleasant enough expression on his face as he leaned over the young woman slightly. "For once in your life." He smiled. "Shut the fuck up." He whispered the words before nodding once and resuming his march to the bathroom.

Elizabeth's eyes widened in shock.

How dare he speak that way to me!

Her head bowed slightly, the young noble grit her teeth and trembled in anger. "She came by earlier," Elizabeth muttered. "Tsubaki. She came asking about what happened."

"Good for her." Asad grumbled as he entered the bathroom, turning on the faucet and letting it run for a few moments before he began splashing water on his face, wincing slightly as it stung his wounds. "Let me guess." He paused for a moment as he looked up at the mirror. "She wanted to check on something." He couldn't blame Tsubaki, it was a pretty outlandish tale.

"What the fuck's wrong with you?!" she shouted at him. Her rage could no longer be contained. "Why are you being so flippant about this? First you go and tell her shit she doesn't need to know, potentially compromising our escape and now you're... doing this!" She gestured to all of him. "My life's in your hands, remember?! Get it together!"

Deciding not to respond to the girl's anger, Asad casually opened the medicine cabinet and removed a small bottle of antiseptic fluid and some cotton balls. "I found Monroe, by the way." The man stated nonchalantly as he began dabbing at the cuts on his face, exhaling sharply through clenched teeth as a small chuckled escaped his lips.

The girl blinked stupidly and went silent for several moments. "Oh," she eventually said. "D-did she do that to you?"

"What?" Asad glanced over his shoulder at the girl, a confused look on his face? "Oh, no, not at all." He looked back at the mirror. The man mentally kicked himself, he had a perfect excuse and he just threw it away.

'Hey, why not, might as well finish the day as you started it, incriminating yourself because you stupidly think the women in your life would understand.'

"Bar fight." He said simply. "I mean, there's was a fight with Monroe, but thankfully I wasn't on the receiving end of that one."

"You and Pixie got in a fight?!" Elizabeth blurted. "Wh-what happened? Is she okay?"

"Yup, ten dead." He winced as he dabbed at a cut above his eyebrow. "Or was it eleven?" He shrugged his shoulders. "I can't recall. Monroe is fine, she's here because she's basically being strong armed by Lombardi."

Elizabeth let out a sigh of relief. "What did she say about us? Does she think it's safe to trust Contessa?"

"I trust Lombardi about as far as I can throw her." Asad scoffed. "But she's our ticket out of here." He raised his head, dabbing at a cut under his chin. "We play along as much as we need to get out of Feroxi, then I say we get the fuck out before she can dig her claws in."

"And go where, exactly?" Elizabeth asked. "If Pixie thinks we can trust her enough to help us out of here I think we're safe to take it a little further. My home is currently under Wilkes-Vines' control. Unless you can think of someone else, we may need to work with her a little longer than that. I will not leave my family and my people to suffer under their rule."

Asad chuckled. "Yes, I'm sure she'll just love to help you out with no gain in it for herself." The Major opened the medicine cabinet and placed the antiseptic and remaining cotton balls back in their place. Turning around he looked down at Elizabeth, an exhausted look in his eyes. "I'm just saying, don't be so quick to put your trust in her."

Elizabeth shook her head. "I don't trust her to look out for me if that's what you think," she explained. "I trust her to trust me... that's all I need."

The man looked at her for a few moments, his brow furrowed. He had been with her this far, he at least trusted her judgement enough on something like this. "Very well." He closed his eyes, nodding gently before heading over to the shower and turning it on. "I left a spare change of clothes in the bottom drawer in the closet." He looked over his shoulder at the girl. "We can keep talking if you want, but I need to get the smell of puke, blood, and sweat off me."

"I'll go get it," she said simply before disappearing into the bedroom.

As Elizabeth left the bathroom, Asad kicked off his boots before pulling down his pants and removing his socks, leaving them in a heap in the corner before stepping into the shower. How was he going to explain this one to Tsubaki?

'What's there to explain? You're not even going to see her before all this goes down, not unless you go looking for her. Do you really want that awkward conversation? It's not like you can tell her anything.'

Nursing his bruised chest and shoulders, the Major gently flexed his his fingers, the water stinging the broken skin on his knuckles. 'Better get used to this feeling, things aren't going to get any easier.'

Re-entering the bathroom, Elizabeth placed the clean cloths on the sink and sat against the door. She didn't say anything for a long while. "Are you okay?" she eventually asked. "You know... the fearless soldier act gets pretty old after awhile."

"When have I ever given you the impression that I'm fearless?" Asad asked, placing his hands against the wall as water streamed over his back. "I'm a soldier, Elizabeth, I've been trained to not let fear grip me like it would someone like you. I can't afford to hesitate, if I do for just one moment, me or someone I'm charged with protecting will die, do you understand that?" His voice was calm. "It's not a matter of being unafraid." The man chuckled nervously. "I'm terrified, but I know that people need me, that you need." He closed his eyes as a wave of exhaustion washed over him. "I've already let you down once." He mumbled more to himself than to the girl. "It won't happen again."

"That's not true," Elizabeth announced firmly. "You haven't let me down. In fact, the closest you ever get is when you refuse to let me in. Like I've said a thousand times now: we're in this together. I haven't kept anything from you, so I expect you to extend me the same courtesy."

"I haven't kept anything from you." The Major said simply, almost yawning the words. "I'm not as eloquent as you, I've told you the basics, exactly what you need to know so we can understand each other." The man went quiet for a few moments. "I think keeping secrets would be on the bottom of my 'to do' list considering I'm about to throw everything away for you." The was a tinge of hurt in the Major's voice.

"Asad... you don't have to come with me, you know. If Pixie succeeds, Dio will be dead. Once I'm safe you could always return here and be with her."

"You could at least make an effort to hide the distaste in your voice." Asad smiled sadly as he moved his head from side to side."

Elizabeth laughed. "It's not distaste," she corrected him. "She's beautiful and... she's got a good heart. It wouldn't feel right to ask you to leave her behind unless that's what you really wanted."

Asad thought for a moment, running his hands through his hair as he let water splash over his aching bones. "I want her to come with us. I want her to see how much of a crazy fucking bastard Basilio is, and come with us."

"You and I both know it's too late for that," she said with a hint of regret. "I'm sorry, Asad. Maybe we can come back for her when this is all over."

"I know." The soldier mumbled. He had given up any hope of convincing Tsubaki a long time ago, she was far too entrenched in Dio's personality and the feeling of loyalty.

A wry little smile appeared on her lips. "What's it like?" Elizabeth asked. "Being in love, I mean."

Asad watched water swirl down the drain, his lips curling slightly as he looked at Elizabeth's opaque form through the steamed up glass panel. "It's the best thing in the world."

The young noble blushed slightly. "Is this your first time or...?"

"It doesn't matter any more." Asad clenched his jaw as he turned off the shower. Sliding open the cubicle door slightly, he grabbed a towel from the rack, wrapping it around his waist before stepping out into the bathroom proper. "As of tomorrow, there's only going to be one important woman in my life." A tired smile curled the man's lips.

Elizabeth's face lit up like a Christmas tree as she looked away from Asad's still steaming flesh. "If you're trying to flatter me, it won't work!" she stammered defiantly. Asad had never seen her so embarrassed before.

"What?" Asad looked down at himself before crossing his arms over his chest as he looked down at the girl with a raised eyebrow. "Seriously? How old are you?" A wry smile curled his lips.

"Shut uuuuuup," she pouted. She couldn't help but peak at him.

"Take your time." Asad sighed, grinning slightly. "I can turn around for you if you want?"

Elizabeth stumbled getting to her feet. "I-I-I-I can't believe you!" she muttered. "You could have at least warned me before you jumped out in the open with you-your... all of this!" She found it hard to pry her eyes off him as she fumbled around for the doorknob behind her.

"What?!" Asad shrugged his shoulders "You mean this?" He flicked the back of his towel loose, letting it crumple to the floor.

"MAJOR HAREL, WH-WHAT THE F-FUCK?!" she screamed. Her vocabulary had changed quite a bit since Eddie pulled the same stunt on her. Finally finding the doorkob, Elizabeth twisted it and flung the door open violently. "YOU MEN A-ARE ALL PIGS!"

The frazzled noble snatched Asad's clean cloths off the sink, tossed them at his face and proceeded to bolt down the hallway.

"Soooooo..." Asad leaned against the doorframe as he called down the corridor, covering his delicates with his delicates. "You gonna make me a coffee or what?" The man's face had lost a lot of it's tiredness as his grin widened.

"FUCK OFF, PERVERT!" she shouted back, already halfway across the suite.

Needless to say, no coffee was made.

-----------------------------

"They took Irena in. It's not just Sergei and his crews we're dealing with either, my father's involved now."

Florian took Lilith into a small backroom, where he began fumbling around in a small medicine cabinet. Taking off her coat and sweater, Lilith sat a counter top against one of the walls, unbuttoning her shirt, pushing it aside to reveal a long but shallow wound across her side, just under her left breast.

"We need to find Erik, we need to find out if his cover's been compromised." As Florian crouched down beside her and began inspecting her wound gingerly, the girl winced silently as she looked down at the man. If Vasa was truly involved now, this was going to make things a lot harder, for Florian most of all.

"Hey." The girl cooed, gently gripping the man's chin and directing his eyes upwards. "It'll be okay, I promise." She smiled warmly. Honestly, she had no clue, Irena could already be dead for all she knew, but she need to keep morale up if they were ever going to win this war.

"We need to find Erik, we need to find out if his cover's been compromised."

"Easier said than done." Florian nodded as he joined the exposed Lilith in the backroom, healing utensils at the ready. "Alexei hasn't heard from him since we were all last together. But our friend out there didn't mention anything about him, so there's hope there."

That was a lot not to know though. Even in his wilder days Florian would never willing storm into a situation this big with so little information. And he's never dealt with anything bigger than this.

"Hey. It'll be okay, I promise." She said softly, cupping his face and angling his face up towards hers.

Florian let out a weary breath and turned his face further into her hand, giving it a light kiss. "This wont be." He said, just before applying the antiseptic and causing Lilith to cringe and suck air in through her teeth.

Lilith chuckled with a mix of whimpering for good measure. "Ssshhhiiiiii..." She firmly gripped the edge of the counter as her body went rigid. "Didn't feel a thing." She smiled, one eye closed as she winced at Florian.

"Damn right." Florian forced a smile back and set about sticking on the bandage. This was beginning to be a bitter pattern as well. "We're going to have a good collection of scars between us by the end of this." He gave a hollow smirk and put the finishing touches on Lilith's bandaging. "I'm sorry, Lil, but I don't think we'll get to stop for long."

"Pffft, I ain't even started yet, lad." The girl winked at Florian as she began buttoning up her shirt. "If this was a night at a bar, I wouldn't have even finished my first drink yet." Hopping off the table, Lilith pulled Florian to his feet before draping her arms over his shoulders. "I was going to use a sex metaphor." She said simply, resting her forehead against his, but I didn't want you getting any ideas."

He didn't have any snappy comebacks. Florian just closed his eyes and held her tight as he enjoyed any quick second of warmth the two of them could grab together. Already feeling that little bit calmer because of it. How did she do it? Was it all an act, had this life hardened Lilith to such an extent that she could just bounce back from this kind of bloody fighting or had he just gotten that soft? Probably both.

'Stop over thinking things. She's strong, she'll handle these things in her own way and she's been helping you with yours. You want to make this work then return her the same courtesy and stop trying to coddle her.' Whether he could avtually do that remained to be seen.

"So what's the plan now?" Came Alexei's voice as he leaned in the doorway, snapping Florian out of his little moment of romantic meditation.

"They're hitting any of Irena's people they can get their hands on and anyone I got to while I was still masked." He said, more for Lilith's benefit than theirs. "If we don't react to this fast half our forces could get picked off one by one and the city could get ripped apart by a witch hunt." He was going straight back into business mode now.

"It'll be like the tower riots all over again." Alexei grimaced.

"So we need to rally the troops." Florian nodded. "Gather our forces and get ready to go on the offensive if need be. We can't let them divide us."

Lilith pulled away from Florian, puffing out her chest as she put on her best Pixie impression. "We gotta git our boys an' fuck 'em up!" Placing her hands on her hips, the girl glanced between the two men. "We gotta split up and git shit duuuun."

It was almost uncanny.

Unfortunatly, it was also totally lost on her audiance.

"O... okay." Alexei looked at her blankly.

"Yeah... anyway, let's get to work!" Florian clapped his hands together and he and Alexei left the room to divide the labour of rallying their ragtag army.

"Fuck you guys." Lilith mumbled, pouting as she picked up her coat and sweater. "I'm fucking hilarious." She followed after the pair, sulkily lighting up a cigarette.

It took nearly an hour for everyone to finally assemble on the bridge. Pixie would have probably reprimanded them over the intercom for their tardiness, but Bennie was far too preoccupied to worry about discipline. After all the planning and preparing, the time for action had finally come. It was to be the Maiden's first score since Bennie took command of the ship...

Get it together, Carmine. You can do this.

"Alright everyone, cut the chatter," Bennie barked over the noise of the room. After a few moment everyone went silent, their attention on Bennie.

Now what?

Straightening up, Bennie held his hands behind his back and scanned the rag-tag gathering of misfits. "I trust that everyone coming on the mission today went over all the documentation handed out last night?" he began. "I know we spent a lot of time reviewing the mission already, but the situation's changed since yesterday. I got word from Brock two hours ago that Lord Chetwynd-Talbot himself is in fact traveling on the ship. Apparently he wanted to oversee the recommissioning of his antique personally. Tallahassee and Sandra have already infiltrated the ship as hired escorts. Apparently that noble fuck has more exotic tastes than he lets on."

A quiet laugh was shared among the crew.

"Considering his involvement, we'll have to shift focus," Bennie explained. "If we can take him hostage, there won't be damn thing the ship's security can do to stop us. A few hours from now, once we're in Drasnia, Tallahassee will tell the head of security that Talbot is anticipating a delivery before they depart the dome. We're going to meet up with Brock at a nearby warehouse, get cozy in some crates and Amy is going to deliver us to their dock in a truck we're 'borrowing'.

"Once inside, Amy will disguise herself as another one of Talbot's escorts and alert us once the ship has taken off. Once we're in the air and away from Drasnia, that's when we'll strike."

"Are our roles the same?" Sprout asked.

Bennie nodded. "Mostly," he replied. "First we need to neutralize their security network, then Lord Talbot, next the engine room and finally the bridge. Disguised as security staff, Gale, Marcus, Jonah and myself will storm the security control room. Jesse will accompany Amy to Talbot's quarters and meet up with Tallahassee and Sandra where they will hold the noble captive. Ruffles and Sprout will secure the engine room and ensure the engineering staff plays ball. Once those assets are securely under our control we'll advance to the bridge, touch down somewhere outside Drasnia and kick everyone who is not us off the ship."

Looking to the gathered crew, Bennie crossed his arms over his chest and shrugged. "Whiskey has the deck while I am gone and Allie's in-charge of the engines." he said. "Any questions?"

"Amy will disguise herself as another one of Talbot's escorts and alert us once the ship has taken off."

Amy nodded a little awkwardly, subtly reaching out and taking Axel's hand in hers. As if the prospect of their first mission as a couple wasn't enough for him to process, she was being required to get up to her old tricks again, and least to some extent. The two hadn't really talked about it, and if there was a problem, Ax was doing a better job of disguising it than he normally would. However, she knew it wasn't the sort of thing she should just expect him to understand right away.

Hopefully she'd have time to take him aside and discuss it later. One way or another, she had to be as useful as asset to the Maidens as she could be, they all did, but that didn't mean Axel wasn't entitled to some reassurance. Though, with any luck, things with Talbot wouldn't get that far today.

"Jesse will accompany Amy to Talbot's quarters and meet up with Tallahassee and Sandra where they will hold the noble captive."

As calmly as she was able, Amy looked across to where Jesse sat. This might be a problem, but voicing concern now would land Jesse in a whole heap of shit, something no-one needed today. She'd have to have a talk with him when she was able, too.

"Any questions?"

"I'm good to go." Amy answered.

"-Disguised as security staff, Gale, Marcus, Jonah and myself will storm the security control room."

Gale nodded along to herself as Bennie went over the main points of the plan. Nothing they hadn't gone over already and she had done her homework, goin' over the plan and all the info they'd handed out earlier. Still, it was weird to feel like the day had finally arrived. Now traveler folk had never exactly kept their noses clean in the past. Be it younger lads trying to prove their tough streak or just some theft of necessity and she'd helped out where she was needed. But Gale'd never been a part of a job this big before and rarely on the front lines. This whole thing still sounded so complicated and tricky to her, maybe the reality would be easier. Well, simpler anyway. 'One step at a time, eh Sunny?'

At least she'd have the chief and a few old hands at her side would help out, it made her feel safer than having either Jesse or Sprout next to her if things got hairy, given how they'd been lately. She'd largely steered clear of them both since the night of the party. With this job on the horizon she needed to keep her head clear and sharpen up her skills. She needed to expand her circles among the crew anyway and the older maidens had been a good help when it came to training. At least she could understand half of Brock's randy banter, even if he didn't call her a princess.

"Any questions?"

Gale didn't say anything. She just crossed her arms and gave a solemn nod. She had all the info she could think of getting at this point, now it just came down to the moment of truth.
=======================================

Alexei was already working the phones like a mad man as he made the calls to every contact they had and sent the word out. If all their little secrets had been dragged out into the open then they had no need to be subtle any more. Tell everybody, he said. Florian's back, Irena's been wronged, everyone's a target and the whole town's gone to shit. Grab your guns and get to ground. They'd spent so long gathering their forces, it was time to bring them to bare.

Florian would be doing his fare share of that himself. Unfortunately, since she didn't know anyone and didn't speak the language that left Lilith out in the cold. So she was given the fun task of giving their movement a big, public, sign and giving the finger to the regime. By going to the cemetery and smashing Florian's prematurely erected headstone to hell. As well as picking up some heavy artillery on the way back, naturally.

"You made sure to tell her what your one looked like right? Cus if she smashes your mom's grave that's going to send out a really fucked up message." Alexei looked up from his desk as Florian came back in from seeing off their Sherwood lass.

"Of course I did." Said Florian who was now horribly afraid that the description he gave was way too basic.

"Why do my ears feel like they're burning?"

"Oh hey," Ruffles said, turning to see Maria. A smile spread across his face, and he got up to stand next to her.

"Any questions?"

"I'm good," I'm replied. "Nothing I haven't done before. Looking forward to working on an antique, though. Wonder if it has those old loop-modulated heat sinks..."

Lilith went over Florian's words, whispering them to herself as she made her way across town. "Mother's grave is next to mine, that one has slightly larger wings engraved into it."

Readjusting the large bag hanging from her shoulder, the girl lit a cigarette as she drew closer to the cemetery. "Bigger wings, bigger wings, I got this, I definitely won't destroy his mum's grave, I got this, won't make him hate me forever, nope, gonna nail it."

Lilith had done may things, but desecrating graves was not one of them. She was understandably nervous. After crossing most of the city on foot, following a small map Florian had given her, she finally made it to the cemetery. The girl shivered slightly, how was it possible for something to make her feel more cold?

Vasa's knee was killing him by now, the old war wound biting bitterly at him as he braced himself on the cane. Usually he didn't even need the thing, it just made a good enough status symbol and calling card. That'd teach him to walk himself down so many floors of that blasted tower. They should have stopped turned up the heat in this dome by now, he was feeling the cold more and more these days. Vasa went and sat down at the bench off to the side of the family plot, the wall it was leaning against shielding him from the worst of the wind.

He shouldn't have come here. He should have struck while the iron was hot and hunted down those who thought they were good enough to go up against him at this stage of the game. As well as bringing his own blood into the matter. But instead he was here, letting such a petty jab get to him. And why not? Who was really left to fight? The Boykov's were dead, the southern gangs were moving in, for whatever reason they wanted, but he'd gotten what he wanted. Just not the way he wanted.

["Isn't that always the way?"] He sighed to Anna. Her headstone didn't reply.

Lilith traipsed through the cemetery, her hands stuffed in her pockets as she mumbled to herself. "Northern part, under a tree, he says. Next to some hedges he says. Can't miss it he says." The woman was dragging her feet at this point. After a few more minutes of mumbling, the girl perked up slightly as she glanced a pair of headstones from the corner of her eyes. "Wings..." She muttered, glancing up. "Tree." A small smile curled her lips. Removing her hands from her pockets, she aimed her fingers like pistols at the nearby foliage. "And hedges." She made a couple of shooting sounds before quickly making her way over to the two graves.

Lilith didn't know why she was so worried, the headstones were easy to tell apart, even if she couldn't read the inscriptions carved into them. She stood there for a moment, in silent contemplation as a slightly surreal feeling washed over her.

Lilith wasn't sure what to expect, she had somehow thought that Florian's grave wouldn't look real somehow, that it was obviously a fake. It was a silly thought, but standing over the grave of her lover was unsettling. Taking a few steps forward, the girl dropped her back to the ground before crouching onto one knee, brushing a hand over the smooth stone of Florian's headstone.

Glancing to the right, she looked at the grave of Florian's mother. "I'm sorry for this, for what it's worth." She smiled sadly as she pushed herself to her feet and bent over her bag, unzipping it. "I'll try not to make too much of a mess." She whispered to herself, pulling a long wooden handled sledgehammer from the zip bag.

Florian wanted her to send a message, and a message she was gonna send.

Hesitating for a moment as she felt the hammers weight in her hands, she looked down at the grave, deep in her heart hoping that this wasn't some cruel foreshadowing of things to come.

Vasa looked on in silent disbelief as he watched a young woman shuffle through the gates to their section of the cemetery, mumbling something strange to herself in the common language. What was she doing here? This was far too out of the way for her to have anyone to visit over here. Reputation alone should have kept her away, honestly, there was respect among the young any more.

Still she was acting oddly enough to make him take pause and simply watch, at least to see what exactly she was doing. That was when she made 'The Guns' at the graves at his loved ones and then pulled out a sledge hammer of all things. All while talking to herself! Was this one of the people who'd been giving his troops such trouble? And if not... well she may have just been insane.

"I hope that you're actually just lost!" He called over to her. "This will be even more awkward if not."

Lilith almost dropped the hammer as the old man startled her. "Oh Jesus." She laughed nervously, grasping at her chest. "No, I'm not lost, I'm just...er..." She glanced down at the hammer in her hands, then at Florian's grave. "Just...doing... some maintenance." She tried to look convincing as she forced a smile. "Ground gets uneven after some time, you have to...er... tap it back down again..."

'If he believes this, you will be the greatest bandit of all time.'

He almost responded. Then he didn't. He just couldn't. What could Vasa say to that? These was a pause between the two of them, not an awkward one, awkward would be too mellow a term. For a moment it seemed as if the wind outside the dome walls howled even louder just to try and fill the silence as Vasa stared Lilith down. He didn't look angry but he was far from amused.

"That is... maybe the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." Vasa gripped his cane in both hands and pushed himself to his feet, seemingly with great effort as he reached under under his jacket and clutched at his side. And subtly pressing the switch on his silent alarm, sending an alert to the radios of his escort who'd been waiting a respectable distance beyond the cemetery walls.

Lilith furrowed her brow, averting her eyes. "Yeah, that was kinda way out there wasn't it?" She mumbled to herself.

"Okay, I'm goin' to level with ya." Lilith let the head of the hammer fall to the ground in front of her, placing her hands on the bottom of the handle, almost mimicking the old man's own pose. "Headstones are for the deceased, and, well, that one there." She nodded over at Florian's headstone. "The owner of that one is still very much alive, and he doesn't really like the idea of having a death that he didn't die on display, you get me?"

'what?!' Vasa's mind practically screamed. "And just what do you know about the owner?" He hissed, stepping closer to Lilith. She must have known who he was, this must have been some kind of trick. Some kind of petty psychological ploy being made to hurt him. Well fine, he could play along, let her have her fun. It would be all the more satisfying when they brought her down.

"Oh, erm..." Lilith was a little taken aback by the old man's quick advance. "Well, he's been away for a few years, just got back into town, doesn't like the idea of being next to his mother quite yet."

Tapping the handle of the hammer, Lilith smirked. "This is where I come in." Who was this geezer? A caretaker?

Once again, Vasa was just left to comprehend what was being said to him. This had to be a lie. There was no way the truth could be as ridiculous as it was sounding to him right now.

"And he can't do that himself? He sends you while he hides away like some thief in the night." He said it so softly, studying Lilith and her cocksure confidence along with what she was saying. "You think he would act like a stranger in his own home?"

"Places change, people change, they're not static things." Lilith shrugged her shoulders. "If it were up to him, he would have done his business here and left, and nobody would have been any the wiser." The girl hoisted up the hammer, taking a few steps towards the headstone. "But that all went to shit, and I've been sent to make the 'grand gesture' as he calls." The girl shook her head incredulously. "Dammit Florian." She chuckled to herself before glancing back at the old man.

"This won't take long, I won't wreck anything else, I promise."

Florian... she actually named him. That was the first time anyone outside of his inner circle had actually said his name, an not even to vasa himself but-

"Who are you?" He practically growled, stepping in even closer to Lilith and resisting the urge to reach out and turn her around by force, sledgehammer be damned.

"Me? Oh I'm nobody, just a tourist." The girl grunted as she raised the hammer above her head. "Seeing the sights." She brought the hammer down on top of the headstone, immediately taking a large piece out of it. "Meeting the people." Lilith chuckled as she brought the hammer to bare once again. "Getting shot at by said people." Down the hammer came again, not doing as much damage as the first blow, but enough to crack the top half of the what remained.

Vasa's heart felt like it broke in time with the cracks as they formed on the headstone. Lilith's wide swings sending him stumbling back and for the first time since he could remember he felt helpless. Too old and weakened to fight against her and having no one who could do it in his place. Well, he had one way.

His hand darted to the head of his cane and drew the long barrel of his pistol from its resting place. Lilith's back was still to him, he could have killed right now, so easily and bloodied his hands himself for the first time in years. But no, he had to take a breath, she'd suffer for this, an example would be made.

Lilith raised the hammer over her head just to be shaken out of her rhythm as a deafening gunshot rang through the quiet and bullet slammed into the hammer head, forcing the tool from her hands.

Lilith froze in place, her hands still trembling from the hammer vibrations as it was sent falling out her grasp, thudding loudly on the dirt next to her. "You could have just asked me to stop." Lilith chuckled, lowering her hands to rest behind her head as she slowly turned around. "Nobody ever asks nowadays." Clearly she was dealing with someone other than the undertaker.

The gunshot would have brought his guards running by now, though if he knew his captain they'd know to keep their distance until they had a clear line of advance as some of them found a way to flank their position.

Vasa, for his part, was still breathing deep, doing his best to calm himself and running a free hand through his hair, keeping the gun trained on Lilith. This girl was determined to play the family head game then fine, he could out calm her with ease.

"Forgive me. My temper got the better of me, I try to set a good example most of the time. But I am a sentimental man, especially where my family is concerned." He stared her down with an amicable look of polite calm that didn't reach his eyes.

The girl's eye widened as the realisation washed over her. "I knew I recognised you." The girl smiled as she looked at the man. "Mr Beijic." The girl nodded her head gently. "You look a lot more wizened than in the photo I saw." She tilted her head curiously. "A few more grey hairs, but that same old expression." She grinned as the man looked at her disapprovingly. "Florian makes that face too."

Was she seriously just looking at him with some shit eating smirk right now? Was this girl even functioning on the same wave length?!

"What do you know about my son?" Vasa continued to speak in a tone that was far too even for the situation. It probably helped that internally he was thinking about just how dead Lilith was right now.

"Oh, you know." The girl glanced to the side coyly. "Things." Her cheeks reddened slightly. "And stuff."

So this was the infamous Vasa. She wasn't really sure what to expect, he was a long way from his prime, that was certain. "He's my friend, well, more than a friend, but that's not important." The girl locked eyes with old man. She could see more of him in Florian the longer she looked at him. "What is important, is that he's most certainly not dead." She nodded her head sagely. "And he's not very pleased with how his home has turned out."

She was telling the truth, she was actually telling the truth. She knew him by face, an old face going by what she said, and claimed to actually know his son personally. Or she was an excellent liar. Who even was this girl?

"What are you talking about?" Someone called out behind Vasa and he held up a hand to halt his advancing guards who took positions at the entrance to their little plot, rifles at the ready. Vasa recovered himself quickly enough.

"My son has been dead over two years now. I watched him burn. I scattered his ashes myself. If he was alive... if he was back, he would have come to me. Now you stand here and you think to say he is not only alive, but fighting against me, his own family!" He wasn't yelling yet but there was something close to emotion creeping into his voice. What emotion it was Vasa couldn't say yet. "To fight me is one thing but to spit on my child's memory like this. You should explain yourself very quickly."

Lilith pursed her lips as she lowered her hands to fall loosely by her sides. "You think someone would lie about Florian? Do you know how crazy that sounds?" The girl chuckled, holding out a hand innocently enough as she reached for her cigarettes. "I'm gonna level with ya old man, this place is a dump." She plucked a cigarette from the pack with her lips. "But what do I know? I'm some nobody from the south, right?" She shrugged her shoulders casually as she held her lighter to the cigarette, closing it again with a flick of the wrist.

"But somebody who was here before would know, right? How long ago did you say your son died? Two years ago?" The girl smirked as she took a long drag. "Maybe your right, maybe he isn't your Florian." Holding her chin ponderously, Lilith's eyes narrowed. "A test then." She puffed smoke from her nostrils. "Has Little Wolf always had that mole behind his left ear, or did that just kind of show up at some point?"

Vasa froze and Lilith quickly learned that he and Florian had the same barely contained seething rage expression. That they had the same blue eyes made the experience all the more surreal.

"How?" He almost whispered. "You tell me how he is alive- you tell me where he is now."

"Sorry, I just..." Lilith chuckled nervously. "I've never seen any of my friends' parents before, so this is a first for me." She leaned forward slightly as she took in Vasa'd expression. "Jesus Christ, it's just..." The girl grinned. "Hah! You do the thing too! The thing with the eyes!" Lilith clapped her hands together, almost giddy with excitement. "You can't hide your anger from me, Mr. Beijic, good to see Florian will never learn to do that if you haven't."

And now she was laughing... she was just treating this like some casual little meeting in the park. As if there wasn't a warzone all around her, as if there weren't men with guns pointed right at her, blocking her only escape. As if... as if- 'She may be insane. Or at least a sociopath.' Vasa thought to himself. Well that was fine, he'd dealt with more than his fair share of nut jobs in his line of work.

She was talking about Florian. She could have found out the name from someone but the mole, no, she knew him. She'd won this round, but now he knew the lay of the land, the look in her eye, the way she'd blushed, the way she spoke about him now. It was time to put himself aside and play his role as he was meant to. So he took quiet deep breath

"So you fucked him." Vasa said bluntly. "You're trying to tell me in a very round about way that you fucked the boy." He didn't look away from Lilith as he put his gun away, he didn't blink either. "And you are very proud to have hit some low level operations as you play at sherif and fuck my son - or get fucked by him." he corrected himself. "And you are very calm in the face of all this danger, just like everyone who is very serious and very dangerous." He was not very impressed by this display at all. And Lilith shouldn't have been either as he looked over her, pacing to her side as he scanned her like some little girl. Like the little girl she was when compared to him. "So what's the next part of the plan? Now he's had his fill of you and you are his vandal now, what will you do?"

"Ooooh." Lilith winced, still smirking as she grasped at her chest. "Cranky old bastard ain't ya?" As Vasa approached her, the girl's mind did backflips as she tried to see how she could escape from this situation.

It wasn't looking good.

"I think I know were the similarities end." Lilith pouted sulkily as she looked at the man from the corner of her eye.

'I can do this all day, my friend, you're just giving me time to think of how the fuck I'm getting out of here.'

"Honestly?" Lilith shrugged. "I hadn't thought that far ahead."

Vasa chuckled low to himself. "You hear this? You hear this, boys?" He called back to his guards at the gate, laughing away. "Oh I'd have had fun with you back in my day." He shook his head as his chuckling slowed down and lost momentum. "Of course- of course I doubt I am your type these days." He stopped his pacing and came to a stop at Lilith's side, just out of her reach.

"You are his type though, I see that. Actually, you remind me of one of his ex-girlfriends, Irena." She didn't find that funny but Vasa was still playing her game, talking like they were kidding among pals. "They broke up a while ago. It's okay though, I set her up actually. I set her up with a nice boy, his name is Sergei. Do you know him?" She knew him. "I don't think the relationship will last though... I don't think she is satisfying him very well."

Lilith's expression hardened as she locked eyes with Vasa. "Reason number one." The girl took a long drag. "Reason number one as to why you're own son would turn against you." Lilith tilted her head. "How many do you think you'll give him?"

Vasa stepped forward, nice and slow like he was approaching some easily spooked animal as he slowly raised his hand and gently placed it on Lilith's shoulder. "Let's go see him, together, and find out." If Irena counted for one, then odds were he'd give him at least two. but nothing that couldn't be forgiven.

"How about you take that away before I do it for you." Lilith almost whispered as her eyes bored into Vasa's.

Looks like the playful chapter of todays chapter had drawn to a close, and still the girl was no closer to figuring out her escape.

"That's not nice!" Vasa said, doing his best hurt puppy face. "We were joking and laughing about all the killing and fucking my child. Where has all this come from?"

His escort were moving in now, surrounding them. They didn't need to check her for weapons as Vasa seemed to be doing that himself. Just gently patting her down and laying his hand on the handle of Lilith's revolver.

Brushing the old man's hand away, Lilith quickly stepped backwards, bringing her revolver to aim at the man in a flash. All hint of humour was gone from her face now. There was no way she was going with him, if Irena wasn't in a particularly great situation right now, there was no way a stranger like her would be shown the same leniency.

"As much as I'd love to, Vasa." The girl almost spat his name. "I still have to help your boy save this dome." She narrowed her eyes at the man glared at her.

Such a surreal experience, having someone look so much like someone you love, threaten your life.

The guards all raised their weapons and waited for the order. Vasa didn't flinch or back up. He just kept stepping closer.

"Are you thinking I'll back down now?" He asked her, far too calmly. "You have to be sure though. Because what if I'm not afraid to die?" They shared a look, the two of them, as he watched the gears turning in her head. Until they understood each other. "What if they're not afraid to shoot through me? Even then... even if you end it all here- and you could - but there'll be nothing stopping them. One way or another."

He reached up and gently lowered her revolver, until Lilith loosened her grip and relinquished it. "Come on now. I know I nice place, we can talk properly there." He said it so gently. In an actual fatherly tone.

Lilith clenched her jaw. She didn't like it, but the old man was right. This wasn't good, this wasn't good at all. Spitting her cigarette onto what was left of Florian's grave, the girl let the man take her weapon, her shoulders slacking in defeat as her face softened.

There was suddenly a pit in her stomach as she realised what could be awaiting her. Maybe he wouldn't have a reason to hurt her? 'You're a moron, Lil.' A girl could hope, couldn't she? Glancing up at Vasa's men as they closed in, the girl suddenly felt very claustrophobic.

'I'm sorry Florian.'

"...Jesse will accompany Amy to Talbot's quarters and meet up with Tallahassee and Sandra where they will hold the noble captive..."

'Jesse' warily met Amy's gaze. Arms folded, head down and a stubborn lump in his throat, the perfect picture of someone focused on the task ahead, or perhaps daunted? Astor was trying to not to look deflated but they had talked about his father like he was just some fuckin' uptight noble twat. Well, that was probably true.

However, with the way his father's name was spat out, the runaway noble's thoughts couldn't help but shift to the consequences of being found out. Of course the old codger had to be travelling on that antique! Of course 'Jesse' had to be the one tying him up! Maybe Bennie knew already? The assignment would be a test of loyalty? Astor had no idea. He just wanted to stop thinking about the whole thing. Memories of his father were already being dredged up. The bastard loved airships and easy lovin' more than his family.

'Just act like a bandit, follow what Gale said. It'll be fine.' 'Jesse' kept telling himself.

But things wouldn't be fine. Something always went wrong on heists, right? And with fate being an utter bitch, it would be the capture of Lord Chetwynd-Talbot. At least they weren't killing him, Astor had almost winced at the word 'neutralise' and breathed a sigh of relief when it was revealed not to be a euphemism for 'kill'. He couldn't give anything away. 'Jesse''s silence would be taken as first job nerves, right? It wasn't like the group of bandits had anything else to go on. Except for Amy.

And he'd been paired with that bitch.

***

"Oh hey,"

"Hay is for horses, silly." Maria scoffed, despite not having a great knowledge of those animals. Then she added, "Anywaaay, ready for the heist?"

Bennie scanned the crowd, carefully noting their reactions. Most of them were enthusiastic, but some others looked concerned. Jesse especially. Sprout noticed it too.

There was something going on between him and Amy. At least, that's what his gut was telling him.

It can wait.

"One last thing before we head out," the big man said. "The staff dossiers. One of the was a fake." He removed the polaroid photo paper-clipped to the dossier and showed the crew. It was a middle-aged white man with dark hair and a rather severe frown on his face. "Talbot's Chief of Security, Toman Shostakovitch, is actually an alias for a renowned ex-Beijic spy named Boris Vanco. He's older than he appears in the photo and some of Cranston's old contacts seem to think he's taken this cushy Talbot job as a light form of retirement. He's apparently an extremely hard man to kill and has survived a few encounters in which his adversaries swear they confirmed his corpse. No one's quite sure how he does it."

Bennie put the dossier away and threw on his coat. "If there are going to be any rogue elements today, it's him," he explained. "Watch each other's backs out there, everyone."

Several hours later...

They were in the warehouse now, waiting for Brock to bring the truck around the building. In order to blend in during the early stages of the attack, everyone was given uniforms that looked similar to those of the ship's security staff. Amy, Brock, Sprout and Ruffles were the exception to this; the former two wearing deliveryman uniforms while the latter two wore plain, grey jumpsuits. Amy also had a change of cloths hidden under the front seat of the truck.

His hands on his hips, Bennie inspected his crew with a cryptic expression on his face. Gale, Jesse and Marcus looked nervous, as was expected of rookies, but the rest looked right at home. Amy was clearly concerned about something, but it wasn't fear of the mission. Sprout on the other hand actually looked excited.

The boy's seen a lot of shit.

"What's takin' Brock so long?" Sprout asked.

Bennie shrugged. "He's been gone only a few minutes," he said. "Besides, I don't reckon anyone here's looking forward to being cramped together in a tight space and smelling each other's farts for the next few hours. Savor your last few minutes of fresh air."

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

Tsubaki had a slow start the next morning. Normally she'd have gone through her entire morning routine by now, but Dio didn't require her presence until later that afternoon and she still felt utterly depressed about the whole Asad thing. She knew she'd forgive him, but she'd need time to sort it all out in her head. It's not everyday you find out your boss is forcing your lover to torture innocents, after all.

Some fresh air would do me some good.

After washing her face off in the bathroom sink, Tsubaki put on black nylon shorts, a red tanktop, sneakers and put her hair up in a ponytail. She stepped into the living room to see Bryan and Jun were already up and about. Probably for a few hours already, from the looks of it. Tsubaki poured herself a glass of OJ and downed it in one go. "The new battalion is being integrated today," she mentioned to her two guests as she went looking for her small sweat towel. "Could make yourselves useful and scope out the new recruits. See if they're as green as we've been told."

Tsubaki reached into the fridge and retrieved a bottle of water. "I am going for a jog. You two need anything?" she asked them.

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

I suck, I suck, I suck, I SUCK!

Reassembling firearms was more complicated than Elizabeth had anticipated. When Eddie showed her how to do it a month ago it seemed so simple. Apparently she hadn't retained that knowledge very well, however. Asad was busy in the kitchen when she began her little project and was likely making the two of them breakfast.

There wasn't enough time!

And the spring goes in like... this? FUCK!

Elizabeth had to finish it before Asad returned or she'd never live down the embarrassment of failing such an apparently simple task.

Plus, I doubt he'd appreciate me taking his weapon apart without asking...

As a familiar shadow engulfed her and her work, Elizabeth panicked and attempted to hide her travesty. "A-ASAD?!" she blurted, turning around to see him. "Ha-hi!"

SHIT!

"I don't think you're going to like this - you seem like the kind of woman who doesn't like the man to decide things for her - but really you have to get the steak. I insist. This place, it is easily their best dish. Two medium rares!" vasa called out from their table in unusually high spirits. He was easily heard though as the restaurant, which wasn't that crowded to begin with, quickly cleared out when Vasa and his crew stepped in. "Do you want wine? We'll have the red wine."

And more bandits were arriving by the hour, giving a half-nod half-bow to their boss as they took up their positions. It didn't take a genius to guess what they were all gathering here for. Vasa himself kept up his polite, inane, conversation with Lilith. "So did you two meet in Sherwood?"

Lilith got a little distracted from their conversation though as a shadow fell across the two of them and she looked up to see Erik looming in the doorway. His footsteps smacked loudly against the creaking floorboards as he approached their table. Looking just as grim as the day Lilith had first met him. He barely looked at her. Giving a nod to Vasa as the two of them exchanged a few words in their mother language. It was during this exchange that Vasa motioned to her. Erik simply sneered at her and took up a position near the back of the room, arms crossed and a big 'Fuck Off' expression written all over his face.
========================================================

"What's takin' Brock so long?"

Gale was only half paying attention to anything people were saying, mostly cus she couldn't help but overhear it. She was cleaning her gun for maybe the fiftieth time. She was gunna look like the spiffiest security guard ever now as Barker the gun was fuckin' sparkling. Gale was sat on a short stack of crates, rifle and gun in hand as she tried to make herself busy because... it beat sitting around not doing anything she guessed.

She looked up to Marcus and gave him a nervous, cheesy, little grin. the kind that said: 'What are two regular folks like us doing here, eh?' He shot it right back. Weird enough, seeing that she wasn't the only one bricking it a little made Gale feel that little bit better. Not guns blazing better but she'd take what she could get when it came to peace of mind.
===========================================================

["You can't seriously be considering going alone? At least let me take up a spot across the street or something!"]

["You know they'll be watching the whole area like hawks, Lexei."] Florian sighed as he strapped his holster back across his torso.

Erik had sent them the call about an hour ago, asking them to wait. Just as all their people had been spreading the word that Florian was back from the dead and giving the call to action, a counter call had gone out, saying that The Hussars had captured his friend and were calling him out for a parlay. By now half the city (and all its criminal underworld) would know.

The Red Wolf was back, and he'd brought a fresh war with him. Time would tell if it was short lived.

["They said come alone. So I'm going alone."] 'Just like I shouldn't have let Lil.'

Alexei placed a hand on his shoulder and Florian reluctantly turned to face him. It was weird seeing the guy looking so plain, let alone showing the creases of worry lines. How old even was Alexei? Now that he thought about it.

["hey, I'll be alright."] He patted the spy turned barkeep's hand in an effort to be reassuring. ["Gotta roll with the changes, you know that. Who knows, maybe this'll all be sorted before supper time."] He gave a weak smile.

Neither of them believed it of course, but Florian stepped out into the cold anyway. He didn't bother to pull his hood up.

Like a fox inside a den of wolves, Lilith was understandably terrified of her situation. In fact the only thing that even matched that level was her distrust of Vasa's intentions.

The woman half expected him to string her up at any given moment. Every time a new face entered the restaurant, the girl took a moment to glance around. Surely there had to be some way she could get out of there?

'Yeah, in a body bag.'

"So did you two meet in Sherwood?"

Lilith had largely let the man's words wash over her up until that point, she thought for a moment, opening her mouth to respond but was interrupted as a huge man approached the table.

'Oh thank god, they don't know about him yet.' The woman fought the urge to smirk at the big man, who was trying his very best to give her the stink eye. He was really good at it too.

'I hope that's fake, Erik, or you're gonna hurt my feelings.'

Returning her attention to Vasa, Lilith folded her arms over her chest as she crossed one leg over her other, a weary look creasing her brow. "So what exactly is happening right now?" The girl furrowed her brow. "I'm sure it's not just to make pleasant conversation."

----------------------------------------------

"Ha-hi!"

Asad towered over the girl, a plate in each hand. He had made omelettes for both of them. Not to brag, but Asad was pretty damn good at cooking eggs.

"I didn't know you wanted me dead so badly." The man smirked as he handed the girl a plate. "'Cos if I fire that thing, judging by how you've put it back together, it's going to explode in my face."

The man sat on the couch, taking a sip from his coffee before tucking into his meal. "There's another gun in my jacket, go get, but this time actually pay attention when you're dismantling it, it'll make figuring out where everything goes a lot easier."

Around two hours ago...

Amy caught up with Astor in the final minutes before everyone was to head to the hangar before disembarking on their mission. Fortunately, the troubled young noble was seeking solitude, so it was relatively easy for her to get him away from the prying eyes and ears of others.

"We should talk." she said, as he past her down a hallway, having been trying very hard to appear to not take notice of her. Without waiting for confirmation, she steered him by the arm round into an occupied room, checking the hallway in both directions, before following him in and locking the door behind them.

Oh, this was just great! Astor sighed, as if he needed anything more to add to his pile of troubles! He folded his arms and spoke bluntly for once, "And just what do you want?"

"Wow. Not even any preliminary creeping while you've got me all to yourself? Something really must be up." Amy replied sardonically. However, her tone became softer as she sank back against the wall with her arms folded.

"First, I wanted to apologise." she said "I've been a total bitch to you, and you didn't-well, you didn't deserve all of it. Suffice to say, I wasn't in a way good place, and among other things, I took it out on you. That wasn't fair, so I'm sorry."

Taking a deep breath, she looked up at him, her brow slightly creased with genuine concern.

"Secondly... how are you holding up? I know this can't be easy for you."

Astor looked over the side. First she had hit him in the balls and now she was apologising? This was the very definition of too little too late, provided it wasn't fake.

"I'm fine." He insisted, "Father was always a distant sort anyway. No bridge to burn there."

"Oh yeah." Amy replied "I'm sure you spent your childhood dreaming of the day you'd get to tie him naked to a bad before robbing him blind."

If crickets lived on the Ashlands, they might have filled the awkward silence that followed with their chirping. Unfortunately, Amy was denied even that small consolation.

"Okay. Not keen on the jokes now. Got it." she sighed. "Look, this has got to be hard for you, even if you think it won't be. You don't have to pretend to me. In any case, that's not the only issue. It's going to be pretty hard for the others to not find out who you really are before the end of today. We both know that."

Astor didn't need the mental image of his father naked, let alone tied with rope as well. He looked down, at least Amy was getting to the point. Another sigh, "Indeed. Just my luck to be assigned to noble-capturing duty. They'll find two there instead of one, lucky them. Well, we'll see if dear Father does recognise me after all this time, I guess..."‏

"You know, despite what I said before, nobody on this ship would kick you out just for being a noble's son." Amy replied. "Hell, I've given them far more reason than that and I'm still here. Lying to them about it all this time, that's another matter..."

She walked towards him, and tentatively put her hand on his shoulder.

"What'll happen today will happen. Not much we can do about it now. Just do a good job today, keep your eyes open and don't hesitate. If it comes down to it, I'll handle the others. You're not going anywhere if I have anything to say about it. That is... if you're sure this is really where you want to be?"

"Very well. If it is to happen..." Astor muttered, "And I am sure, it's either this or 'enjoying' being the third son of a noble family. Believe me, I would take anything over being put in a neat little corner and ignored for the rest of my life."

He then let out a short chuckle. What was he saying?

"I'm sure I could think of worse things, but it's your choice." Amy replied, chuckling along with him.

"I get the feeling you're not as much of a prick as you pretend to be." she continued "Just, do me a favour... Stop trying so hard to fit in, and maybe you'll find that you've ended up where you were meant to be all along."

She kissed him lightly on the cheek, before smiling and walking away.

"I also told Axel to play nice, by the way..." she added as she reached the door. "But, try to use my profession to get under my boyfriend's skin one more time, and I will hurt you in places you haven't even discovered yet."

Back to the present...

Amy busied herself with tying her hair back in a high ponytail, leaving only two, wavy bangs framing her face and falling down over the front of her shoulders. Stretching her legs, she nodded subtly to Astor as she passed on her way to Axel.

"Hey, got a minute?" she said, linking her arm around his as the stood side by side. She didn't want to distract him from the matter at hand, but neither did she want the two of them to depart on the mission before having a moment alone.

'Jesse' looked more like someone waiting for their execution than a bandit just about to go on a raid.

Amy's words had changed being found to from a dangerous possibility to a startling eventuality; not a manner of if, but a manner of when. For all her kind words and assurances and apologies, Astor still felt like he was going to be burnt at the sake for his deception. Even that subtle nod didn't do anything for the runaway noble. The landslide of fear had already started. First, Astor was simply afraid of getting shot and now he would have to face being discovered as well as his stern father (who was stern only when trying to be a father, the ladies always had it easy with him). Taking in big breaths of fresh air, he looked over to Gale, who was looking at Marcus.

Well, that was just great!

"Seriously, what do you think?" Pixie asked with a suspicious look in her eye. Cranston had been far too agreeable about the whole 'sending the kids away' thing and his silence was beginning to get on her nerves. There was certainly something on his mind.

Cranston chuckled sadly. "Pixie, you've never listened to a single piece of advice I've given you," he pointed out. "This old man learned to stop fighting you a long time ago."

Pixie was not satisfied. "This is important," she said stubbornly.

"I tried the same thing with my daughter, you know that," he told her.

"And?"

Cranston pursed his lips. "We both know how that ended," he muttered bitterly.

"They're different," Pixie argued. "They know how to defend themselves. They've seen the cruel world she never knew."

"I'll keep an eye on them," he assured her.

Pixie frowned. "You still think I'm wrong, don' you?" she accused.

"I don't know that," Cranston admitted. "But I'd feel a lot more comfortable with the whole thing if there was someone around to actively protect them."

"Oh," Pixie muttered, suddenly understanding his intent. "W-would ya' really wanna do that?"

The old man shot her a rare smile. "They're practically my grandkids, aren't they?" he said.

"Chromey..."

"Maybe it's time I finally retire from all this," he said, gesturing to the room. "Assassinations, train robberies... all of it."

Pixie chuckled. "I can' imagine the Cook livin' out the rest of 'is days fallin' asleep in a rockin' chair while Sprout an' Lily wreak havoc all over," she admitted. "Would ya' really do that fer me?"

"Not just for you, Meredith," he told her. "For them mostly, but also myself. I think I've earned a long retirement. I've managed to keep you from getting yourself killed all these years, so I think I can manage keeping two-bit thugs away from the twisted twins between afternoon naps."

"They're like seven years apart," she reminded him. "Hardly twins."

Cranston laughed. "I'm old," he retorted. "They look pretty much the same age to me."

Pixie shared in the laugh and slapped her old friend on the knee. "What the fuck would I do without ya'?" she asked rhetorically.

"You'd be dead," the old man replied. She always appreciated his deadpan humor.

Once the laughter died down Pixie furrowed her brow and searched her surrogate father's eyes. "I'm gonna miss you," she whispered.

"Shave your head and it'll be like I was never gone," he joked.

Pixie thought for a moment. "If I do it I'm gonna blame you if it looks stupid," she warned.

"Oh, it'll look stupid."

Pixie rolled her eye and shoved his shoulder. "Fuck you old man," she whined.

"Hey, wake up," someone said, rousing Pixie from her slumber. It was Carlos. "Sorry, but we're running behind schedule. We've gotta be out of here in two hours minimum."

Rubbing her eyes, Pixie let out a loud yawn and stretched her back. "Make me some eggs an' I may consider gettin' up," she whimpered before rolling over onto her other side.

Carlos simply facepalmed.

Today's the day...

Pixie would finally kill him. She'd finally get revenge on the man that had ruined her life.

"So what exactly is happening right now? I'm sure it's not just to make pleasant conversation."

Vasa ushered an anxious looking waiter who was clearly regretting coming into work today. "Isn't it obvious? You wanted to send out a message, well, it's been received. So here's ours." He casually started cutting into his meal. "And if what you say is true, then Florian and I need to talk." He took a sip of wine. "Word should be out by now."

No one else in the room was talking, they were all either staring at the mismatched couple of Vasa and Lilith or at the front door. Their cold stares didn't help the frigid atmosphere much. This, and the inane small talk, carried on for a while.

Until they heard a trio of voices talking outside. Vasa snapped to attention as his eyes glued themselves to the entrance. Through the windows they could see the guards outside warily back away and hesitate as to whether they should raise their weapons or not. They were quickly forgotten though as the bell above the front door tinkled lightly and the door slammed itself shut again. Leaving Florian standing there alone and facing a room of armed men, his father and the lover he'd taken hostage. He looked calm considering all that.

Actually, that would be a lie, he looked like someone who'd arrived at a friends very important dinner party. And as far as Florian could tell at a glance he might have been.

["Hi..."] He said softly. To no one and everyone in particular.

The others gawped in disbelief while Erik appeared to be staring daggers at the boy. Vasa didn't say anything, he looked like he really had seen a ghost as he slowly rose from his chair and limped towards Florian, having forgotten about his cane. After a few steps Florian quickly stepped forward to meet him half way and catching his father as he almost slipped on the tiled floor. The two of them just looked at each other, like they couldn't believe what they were seeing. Deep down a little, Vasa still felt uncertain.

But standing there, actually holding his child again, he found the doubt melting away. Maybe this was just a brilliant trick, but right here and now, he found himself just wanting to believe. Running a hand over Florian's jaw, seeing those same blue eyes they shared and facing the pieces of Anna he could still see in his features. He caved. Pulling Florian into a sudden hug and thanking god that no one could see his face right now. Though Lilith and the others got a front row view of Florian's face over Vasa's shoulder.

He tried to be stoic, meeting Lilith's eyes and doing his best to seem sure and supportive, as if he could send out the mental message that it'd all be okay, that he'd get her out of this. That's what he was thinking at first but it all caught up with him soon enough. How could he even put this into words? As the weight of the moment and all the little realisations that came with it pressed down on him.

Father and son both quietly broke in their own little ways. ["I'm sorry."] Was all Florian could bring himself to say, his voice a hoarse whisper.

While Vasa had countless things he wanted to say. And no idea how to do it.

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