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

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"Are you okay?"

Lilith looked forward, smoke crawling from her mouth. She suddenly looked very tired.

"I'll be fine." She said simply, closing her eyes for a moment as she took a long drag. "It doesn't matter how we feel, not right now, all that matters is that we take care of him."

Erik could lean back a little easier in his seat at that. 'Such a nice girl when she's not putting bullets in faces, that's what you want, probably.' The boy had done well for himself with this one. Whether they'd outlast what had happened today remained to be seen though.

Erik's thoughts didn't stay on romance for long. With his eyes still being left to linger on the crawler ahead of them, trying not to obsess on the contents of the back seat. He couldn't resist asking anymore.

"How did it happen?"

For a long time Lilith didn't say anything, merely stared at the ceiling of the crawler.

"Vasa tossed his coat to me, and as I went to catch it, he drew his gun on me." She looked at Erik from the corner of her eye, cigarette hanging loosely from her lips. "Florian didn't let him fire."

"Damn." Erik laughed bitterly. "And here I hope you did it." But that would have been too easy, well, easier than this.

The coat trick though, really? That was cheap, Vas, that was just awful. He was supposed to be better than that, more dignified. Better to but the gun to yourself than to go out like some hustling punk. Though Erik didn't have to search himself deeply to know he'd have fought tooth and nail in the same situation.

"They were always fast, those two." He mused absentmindedly. He wasn't coping well with this aweful quiet, Erik was the sort that needed some kind of noise at the best of times as it was. "I gotta be honest... I don't know how we're getting out of this one." He shrugged.

"At least if I had done it he'd have someone to blame." Lilith sighed. "Can't say I'd like the idea of being that one girl who shot her boyfriend's dad though." She let a small chuckle escape her lips.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't be laughing, I just..." Lilith bit her bottom lip. "I don't know how to deal with something like this. I just want to be around for him, even if we're not doing anything, just... just so he's not alone. Which I know he wants to be, I won't be surprised if he disappears for a few days."

"Yes he does that." Erik added glibly. "Fuck that... he doesn't have to stay here but I am keeping an eye on him. I am not losing where he is." He wasn't letting another one get away, not again. "We'll do better this time." Erik wasn't about to let history repeat itself.

"He has to be fine." Erik muttered, realising just how childish he sounded. "Too much is falling apart, he has to be okay." He looked around them at the remains of the ravaged city. There wasn't any chaos like there was last time, not yet at least. It was like Frostfall itself wasn't sure what to do. There was one hell of a Vacuum left in Vasa's wake and Erik was damned if he knew what could fill it.
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Once Sandra and Tallahassee were gone, Bennie turned his attention towards Gale. "We'll be touching down soon," he told her. "We're going to have to get these folks to the hangar, but I want to wait until this Vanco mess is resolved. In the meantime start prepping them for departure. Make sure their hands are zip-tied and no one has anything on them they could use to hurt us. I'll keep an eye on the room and continue runnin' this mess from the navigation terminal."

"Right." Gale nodded, doing a poor job of hiding the anxiousness that was coming all over her. This whole thing was spiraling out of control and all thanks to one guy.

Well, more than that, but that one guy was apparently enough to send everybody running off in their own directions doing whatever like a bunch of raging teenagers. Granted, most of them were one way or another. And now Gale found herself going over their hostages and rifling through their clothes with rough abandon. Maybe she should have just stuck to picking pockets as her big claim to criminal fame.

"I think we're... yeah, all clear over here." She called over to the chief once she'd seen to the last of them, doing her best to prop up Sandra's victim in the least agonizing way possible. She couldn't take her eyes off him, he'd gone so pale.

"Good work, Gale," Bennie told her. He'd been busy coordinating things with Marcus over their comms, but managed to supervise the gypsy all the while. She was a bit antsy, but she had the makings of a career criminal for sure. He grinned at her. "You're a natural at pushing people around, you know that?"

"S'all I ever did back home." She tried to joke, a little quiver sneaking into her voice as Gale fought off the nervous shivers. "When we get Jesse back he's gunna have hell to pay." She joined her captain back at the console, feeling a little safer for being near someone who actually had a calm head and knew what they were doing. Still her eyes kept wandering back to the freshly crippled hostage as he gritted his teeth and groaned through a clenched jaw. "I Think that guy's gunna die." The words just slipped out, barely a whisper.

Bennie glanced at the man and pursed his lips. "He may if we don't get moving soon," he admitted. After a brief moment of consideration, Bennie sighed and cast his gaze across the room. "Anyone here a medic?"

There was no response.

"I SAID, ARE ANY OF Y'ALL A GODDAMN MEDIC?!" he shouted, slamming his fist on a nearby console.

One man raised his hand. "I--I have some training," one of the techs said on the other side of the room. He was scared out of his wits.

"Untie him," Bennie ordered. "Keep an eye on him. He tries anything funny... shoot to kill." He looked at the rest of the room. "They need to know we ain't fuckin' around."

Gale nodded firmly, some of the vim and pep coming back into her step as she scrambled to untie the first aider. It was a good thing they were so terrified, her gun waving had lost a lot of its threat as she ushered him on towards his patient. She even offered the guy the brightly coloured bandanna of gold and purple swirls she had on. "Here, in case you need something to tie his leg or bite down on or whatever." With what little teeth he had left anyway. All the while she did her best to sound stern and unconcerned.

With that matter in hand Gale could feel some of her confidence coming back to her and the fires for whatever fight was to come burning a little bit hotter. Not that she knew what they could do to help shut away up here on the bridge. Until then she just kept her gun aimed out over the room, slinging her rifle over her back and swapping it for the pistol she'd been given. It was pretty cramped in here after all.

Asad was getting first hand experience in what it mean to be obsolete. As he lay down covering fire that he wasn't sure Masakado even needed, the man had a quiet existential crisis as the metal warrior sliced his way through Basilio's men like they were nothing.

"Elizabeth." Asad grunted as he let loose a barrage of fire. "Check the crawlers, see if you can find a working one."

Despite the young noble's fear, she gave Asad a curious grin. "Make myself useful, you mean," Elizabeth corrected him. She was finding it difficult not steal a glimpse of the cyborg from behind the cement column they were using as cover. To say he was a "piece of work" would be a bit too on-the-nose, even for Liz.

After reloading her pistol, Elizabeth checked her reserves: two more fresh clips. Asad had prepared her for the long haul, thankfully. "Okay, you'll cover me, right?" she asked in as tough a tone as she could manage.

Asad chuckled. "Make myself useful you mean?" Neither of them appeared to be the focus of any other soldier in the hangar. They were all too busy dying or running away.

"Right," Elizabeth agreed in a less confident tone. She inhaled sharply and closed her eyes.

Three, two....one!

As soon as she hopped out from behind the column Asad had her back, laying cover fire down on a pocket of hostiles who hadn't tasted Masakado's blade yet. Contessa and Dio's forces were still clashing, but the swordsman didn't appear to care. As far as he was concerned both sides meant to harm the young lady. Elizabeth couldn't really complain, as the chaos made her job that much easier.

"Easier" is a reletive term, however.

Elizabeth kept her head low as she passed behind a row of crawlers lining the wall. Just about every one of them was either half-melted or sporting a full set of flat tires. A few stray bullets pinged the vehicles as she inspected them, but none came too close to hitting her.

"FREEZE!" someone suddenly yelled from behind her.

SHIT!

Elizabeth did as instructed. She didn't even turn her head. "It's her!" another voice said. "Just shoot her!" She was too far for Asad to save her now. Maybe he could take one of them down, but not before the other took her out. She had to do something.

Hopefully they couldn't see the pistol she was concealing in her jacket.

Elizabeth turned her head and squeezed off three rounds which pierced straight through her jacket and hit the wall behind her. The men moved to evade the attack, buying her enough time to leap behind a nearby crawler. "WHERE'S THAT COVERFIRE?!" she shouted over the violence as the two men moved to get a better angle on her.

"One job Asad, one goddman job." The Major gritted his teeth as he moved to protect the girl. Passing a few crawlers before the attacking soldiers noticed his approach, Asad down behind the closest vehicle as a hail of bullets hit the crawler. "I'd hurry up and leave, you two!" Asad moved around his cover until he was in front of the bonnet before leaping up to give some cover fire so Elizabeth could haul her ass out of there. "You don't want the big guy over there noticing you try to hurt the little lady!"

"FUCK OFF, TRAITOR!" one of them shouted as he rose out of cover to fire at Asad.

The other soldier ignored the Major and pursued his prey. Crouching low against the back of the crawler, he let out one anxious breath before turning the corner, ready to plaster the girl's brains against the side of the vehicle.

She wasn't there.

Excruciating pain shot through his leg as Elizabeth buried two bullets into his ankle from underneath the crawler. Buckling under his own weight, the soldier flopped onto his back, screaming in agony. She blasted a third hole through his skull before rolling out from under the crawler.

The death of his comrade distracted the soldier for just a moment, but enough that Asad could place a shot into his now exposed shoulder. Hearing the man's rifle clatter to the ground, Asad quickly slid across the bonnet of the crawler, bashing the soldier round the head with the butt of his rifle before grabbing him by the throat and pinning him agains the wall. "You think I'm a traitor?" The Major seethed through gritted teeth as he tightened his grip, using his free hand to knock the away the knife the man was fumbling for at his belt. "You're right, I am." Their faces were inches apart now. "But listen very carefully, because here's the important part." His voice was a whisper now. "When these walls come down, as the palaces burn, and all the so called Ladies and Lords of this place are on their knees, who do you think it will be standing over them?" The soldier looked at Asad, his eyes wide with fear as they glanced at Elizabeth for a brief moment.

"Clever boy." Asad smirked as he kneed the soldier hard in the gut, as he buckled forward, Asad released his grip before grabbing the front of the soldiers face and slamming the back of his head against the wall, knocking him out.

Elizabeth stared wide-eyed at Asad as he put the man into a coma. "Glad I'm not that guy," she muttered. Before Asad to reply lead and plasma began raining down on their position. "THIS WAY!" The young girl shouted to Asad. Her survival instincts kicked in, and without even thinking about it she guided the Major further down the line of crawlers--only stopping every now and then to fire back at their assailants.

As they got closer to the back wall, a group of soldiers that had managed to break away from Masakado closed in on their flank. "Cover me, I think we've got a winner!" she ordered after spotting a mostly intact crawler.

"Do you know how to drive?" Asad grunted as he leapt into the passenger seat and began laying down suppressing fire."

Elizabeth had popped off a few shots at their uninvited guests before plopping into the driver's seat. "I've been in this exact same position before, believe it or not," she replied. "Twice." She ran her hands over the controls, making sure nothing was horribly broken before turning over the engine. The vehicle roared to life, muffling the sound of gunfire momentarily. "What even is my life right now? I swear, I can't go a week without a car chase or shoot out! Is this what it's like for you? Just constant chaos and explosions?!"

"Not all the time!" Asad shouted between bursts. "There aren't explosions in a bar fight!" The Major hunkered down in his seat as Elizabeth began to move the crawler. "Most of the time anyway!"

"A typical bar scene shouldn't have fights, much less explosions!" Elizabeth shouted as she whipped the crawler out of its parking space. The back tires rolled up onto a mound of rubble, forcing her to peel out for a good three seconds before they were free.

As they passed by the second row of crawlers a large battle came into view. "Shit, there are enemies everywhere!" Liz remarked before slamming her foot down on the gas. Masakado was in the center of it all, but despite his presence there were still plenty of soldiers firing at them.

"Just drive!" Asad snapped, neutralizing any immediate threat as they moved through the hangar. "He can take care if himself, the less heat on us the better!"

"Who said I was worrying about him?!" the girl replied as they barreled past two wrecked crawlers, straight through the enemy line. Elizabeth ducked low as their vehicle was covered in gunfire from all sides. Thankfully Basilio crawlers were armored, otherwise this would have been one brief escape.

Masakado spotted them as they were closing in on the exit. It was time to move. He caught up with them with little effort, cutting through the enemies that survived Asad's counterattack. He was running alongside their crawler now, cutting down anyone he encountered.

Elizabeth was too focused on the path ahead to look over at him, but she knew what he was up to. "Can I keep him?!" she asked Asad.

"What would your mother think if I let you keep a cybernetic killing machine? You don't even know how to feed him!" Asad glanced over at the metal man, a ponderous expression on his face. "Hell, I don't know what we'd feed him." The Major crossed his arms over his chest. "He'd get oil everywhere, and how are you going to explain to Timmy's Mom and Dad that their son has been eviscerated, hm?"

"More shooty, less banter!"

Masakado ran ahead to take out a squad barring Elizabeth's path. He moved through their numbers like a steel hurricane, painting the entire area in a deep crimson. Elizabeth couldn't pull her eyes away from the grotesque sight. Was there even a hint of Masakado's humanity left within?

"OH SHIT!" Elizabeth screamed when one of the soldiers fleeing the bloodbath staggered into her path. There wasn't enough time to turn. The soldier made eye contact with Elizabeth right before getting crushed by the front of the crawler. He was thrown up, over the hood, and rolled over the open canopy. Elizabeth nearly bashed her head against the steering wheel from the impact. "Is he dead?!" She asked Asad.

Asad glanced back as the soldier sprawled onto the road. "He's gonna wake up with the biggest headache if he's not." The Major chuckled, placing a hand on the wheel he calmed the girl's shakey driving. "You're doing great, kid, we're almost out of here."

Elizabeth gripped the steering wheel with renewed determination and barrelled through the enemy line. "HOLD ON, ASAD!" she squeeled. The sides of the crawler slammed up against Basilio's men as she cut through their position, scattering their broken bodies across the parking deck. They flew a good three feet off the ground--out of the garage, before crashing down hard. The crawler's suspension would survive much more abuse, much less its armor plating.

The young noble spotted Masakado in the reflection of her rearview mirror. He weas simply standing their in the garage, watching her leave.

He'd done all he could.

They were almost home free now. "ASAD, I'M GONNA RAM THE FENCE!" she shouted as she steered the vehicle towards the checkpoint. The soldiers stationed there were already shooting at them.

"Getting real tired of people shooting at me." Asad grunted with exasperation as he leaned over the back of his chair, flipping up the back seat of the crawler to reveal a cache of weapons. "Always thought have exlosives under the seat was a bad idea." The man chuckled as he sat back in his seat, preparing the RPG he had grabbed. "Doesn't seem like such a bad idea now." Leaning over the side of the crawler, the Major carefully aimed. "Keep her steady, steaaaaady." After a few moments he let loose the rocket.

Elizabeth nearly pissed her pants. The rocket detonated inside the guard post, sending burning bodies flying in all directions while rocking the entire area. She hadn't anticipated such... intensity. "I don't think I'll ever get used to explosions," she grumbled.

After driving through the ruined checkpoint it was smooth sailing until they reached the parameter of the dome itself. Everything was locked down. It was unlikely anyone here knew what was going on, but they could never be too careful. Elizabeth slowed the crawler and looked to Asad, "Think they'll let us through if you just flash your badge or whatever?"

Asad thought for a moment, scratching his stubble. "Nope!" He said cheerily as pulled the slide on his pistol. They had come this far, he wasn't leaving anything to chance.

"So... should we come up with a plan or... guns blazing?"

"Plans take time." The Major grabbed a few more bits and pieces from the cache behind him. "Time is something we don't have." Plopping back in his seat, his breath a little heavy, Asad lit up a cigarette. "Plus, I really, really want a drink."

Elizabeth continued to watch the gate as Asad got prepared. She didn't like their chances. There were a lot of soldiers. Plus, they'd need to somehow get the gate opened.

"Hey look!" Elizabeth chirped, pointing ahead. "They're opening the gate. Reinforcements, maybe?"

This was their chance.

Asad narrowed his eyes. "Maybe, slow it down, take it nice and steady, and put this on." Asad leaned forward, quickly removing his jacket and handing it to Elizabeth. "Your clothes are a giveaway, so just take it nice and slow, first hint of trouble and you floor it, understand?"

Elizabeth nodded firmly. "Copy that, Major," she joked. "No, but seriously, I'm ready." The trepid noble allowed herself one nervious breath before she began her approach. Her face was covered in blood and soot, and with Asad's jacket her disguise should be convincing enough.

A small convoy was passing through the gate now. None of the vehicles had seen combat from the looks of it. When they arrived at the checkpoint a soldier stopped them and walked over to driverside window... or what was left of the window. Now that they were closer, Elizabeth noticed how on-edge all the soldiers seemed. Though his weapon was lowered, the soldier had his finger on the trigger. "What's this about?" the soldier asked, looking at the busted-up crawler.

"Escorting a VIP," Elizabeth suddenly blurted without even thinking. She gave Asad a nervious glance, as if begging for help, but quickly realized there was nothing he could do to help her. "I, uhhh..."

"I didn't hear anything about that," the soldier said. "And what the hell happened to your---"

"Please, we're in a hurry!" she interrupted. "This is Romeo Thomas Tigereye, the heir to the Tigereye dynasty and a close friend of Lord Basilio! I received my orders directly from him, and he will be greatly displeased if he hears we were held up!"

The soldier blinked stupidly. "I, uhhh... we should call it in at least. I can't just---"

"Communications are being jammed, or have you not noticed?!" Elizabeth interrupted again. "Please, look at you! None of you even have a clue what kind of hell we've been through! You've just been standing around here with your dicks in your hands while Lord Basilio's tower burns! Now please get the fuck out of my way, or I'll make you!"

"Ya-ya-yes ma'am!" the soldier yelped before turning to his comrade and signaling for him to let them through. Elizabeth gave the man a swift nod before hitting the gas.

Once they were halfway down the tunnel--well out of sight of the soldiers--Elizabeth let out an exasperated sigh. "Oh God," she wheezed. "I nearly pissed myself again back there!"

Asad chuckled, arms across his chest as he settled back in his seat. "Smooth, kid, good job, although I don't that have worked on someone less green." Elizabeth gave him a perplexed look. "'Heir to the Tigereye dynasty'?" Asad smirked. "The Tigereyes are like the whitest noble family on the Rock."

"He doesn't know that," Elizabeth replied with a chuckle. "Low-born plebs, all of you!"

It was good to laugh again.

Once they were outside the parameter of the city, they switched positions. They'd hadn't quite figured out where they were going yet, but Asad had a better sense of direction than she did. Plus, she was completely bushed. Elizabeth watched the city shrink on the horizon as they drove further and further away.

Could it be? Was she really, truly free now? Could she finally just... let go?

Out of seemingly nowhere the girl slammed the back of her head against her seat and began laughing hysterically, tears streaming from her eyes. "It's over!" she howled through her breathing mask. "It's finally fucking over! This fucking nightmare... I---Jesus..." She turned and grabbed Asad's arm, burying her head into his shoulder. "Thank you, Asad. You saved me... thank you so much..."

Asad smiled, his eyes still on the ash ahead. He didn't think it would make much of difference, being out of the dome, cutting ties with everyone. A few days before the attack, he had called his dad. Told him everything, he left out some of the more gruesome details. They had left for another dome, didn't take much persuading, Asad knew his dad understood that any investigation into he betrayal would inevitably land on their door step, and things may have turned out less than amicable.

They were good people, they didn't deserve to get caught up in this. Asad just helped them retire a few years earlier than expected, getting them to take the significant amount of carbon he offered was the real struggle.

For the first time in a long while, Asad's mind felt clear. He had purpose again.

"Hate to say it, kid." Asad glanced at Elizabeth from the corner of his eye. "But I don't think we would have made it out without our metal friend back there." The man chuckled, shaking his head. "I just wish I could see Basilio's face when he realizes that."

Elizabeth chuckled. "If he even has one left by the time this is over," she said. "I guess we had to catch a lucky break eventually. We're calling the shots now, Asad. Our lives are our own once more."

"Stick with me, kid." Asad raised a hand off the wheel and ruffled the girl's hair. "We'll make some waves." After a few silent moments, Asad sighed. "We're gonna have to start making some friends."

Florian didn't bother turning off the engine as he pulled up outside the funeral parlor, he didn't even bother parking properly, the crawler just jolted to a halt by the street outside. He was looking for a place like this, something nice. As nice as they could get around here anyway. Stopping was enough to at least knock Florian half out of autopilot as he got out and saw to carrying his father inside. One thing he got plenty of practise at while serving as a priest was seeing to the dead, it had been a while since he'd done this but the steps weren't something you forgot easily once you'd put them to use. So now he could just do it again... on a family member. It was only right, he was the one that'd ended Vasa's life, he should be the one to see him off. At least this way he could have a scrap of dignity.

Florian pulled Vasa's body from the back seat. Really, it would have been better if he had some help, there were plenty of people following him now, he could have just asked them for help. But he'd never been very good at that and the thought of waiting and dragging this out any further just tied his guts in even tighter knots. No, he had to do this. Alone was better. Not that it would play out that way, the others caught up easily enough and Erik held the doors open for him as Florian made his way through the building to the backroom where the real business was done. Neither of them said anything.

It felt as if Florian didn't have the strength to speak anyway, it took a deep breath and a push to just remove the coat that was covering Vasa's face. He should have said something like 'he looked so peaceful' or something like that. It would have been a lie though, the blood had ceased to flow and Vasa's body was already ice cold. At most he looked neutral, not that Florian would know what his father would have have looked like if he was feeling peaceful. It was in that quiet moment that he realised that the moment he knelt over Vasa and held his hand as he put a bullet through his heart was probably the most intimate moment the two of them had ever shared.

With his last breath he told Florian he was proud... that he was so proud. 'He said that the first time I ever killed a man too.' It was fitting, Florian supposed. 'Had to really hammer it home, didn't you, Dad?

"This was in his jacket." He said, passing the letter signed for Erik to the big man without looking at him. "One for each of us... I guess he wanted someone to keep them safe." Stop them from getting blood stained. 'Why'd you make me do this?'

He hated his father in these moments, he hated this city and it's rancid, tattered streets. he hated the people who'd helped tear it apart and now looked at him like he had the answers of how to put it all apart. What made Florian so qualified to do this kind of thing? Nothing, just that he was stupid enough to come back and loud enough to grab people's attention. Because a long time ago, he felt like he could own this place and they all looked at him like he was still that same person and for the life of him Florian couldn't understand why.

'What would I have even done, if I'd staid and actually pulled the original plan off?' As if Florian would have been the kind of person you wanted running a dome back then but he'd have liked to think that he'd have done something better than this.

["Not this... I wont be the one that did this."] He said to himself through gritted teeth. ["I refuse to be the person that did this!"]

"Florian?" Erik asked him uneasily.

'I wont be the person that brought a fresh hell down on this place, I wont just leave it to the dogs or whatever bastards try and take our place.' ["I wont let this be our legacy!"]

Everyone was looking at him like he was a crazy person, they weren't leaving though. They'd tied themselves to him, it was too late now, whatever he did, wherever he went. Erik had thrown his old loyalties away, Irena had gotten herself half killed and Lilith... he didn't even know how this would mess up Lilith but Florian wasn't one to expect happy endings for anyone. Somehow this would come back on her. And all the while the war was waiting outside... with so many people that had ended up fighting for his cause. For him, whether they meant to or not. Florian had gone looking for a life of peace and servitude and somehow he'd gathered himself an army. Like he could trust this city to people who'd follow him of all people.

He knew where this was going, it was staring him right in the face. He wouldn't run this time. "Do you still have the old papers?" he asked Erik who was looking on at him, all full of worry.

"What for?" Erik's brow furrowed.

"For the plan... the old one. We might need them."

Realisation flashed across Erik's face, he looked as if he might protest before stopping himself. Florian had that look in his eye, one Erik hadn't seen in a long time but he knew it just as well. It was the same one he got when he had a scheme brewing, usually a mad one. No one was stopping the boy now, so the best he could do was stand by him. "I can get them." He nodded.

"Good. If the rest of you need something to do then spread the word to all the captains and crews, everyone who's someone, Florian Bejic is back and he's holding a gathering at... at..." Where should it be? He was still making this up as he went! "The cathedral!" That was a good place for it, good and proper. "In twenty-four hours!" It was a stretch but it would give him time. "If they want a chance in the new Frostfall then they'll be there."

He was gearing up now, no more melancholy or self pity, Florian forced himself on as if a fire had been lit under him. For a moment he almost felt like his old self, just a little bit. He'd do this right, he had to. 'I can't let it be for nothing.'

"And someone get me an update on Irena's condition!" He barked as people began to file out of the room, herded on by Florian's yelling and Erik's watchful glare. "And you, I have a special mission for you!" He grabbed some poor soul and gave them the address for Father Jamesone's church. "You get this man for me... I need a priest today."

Soon everyone was gone, either knowing where to go themselves or being sent on their way by Erik as he picked things up, leaving Florian and Lilith alone to watch over Vasa's remains. With the rush over with the energy that had wrapped Florian up began to fade as he faced down his immediate task. 'I'm going to do this, Dad, I going to make all this right even if it kills me.'

With one hand keeping the blanket in place and the other wound tightly around his son's wrists, Talbot thundered towards the garage with Vanco just behind. In between constant panting Talbot said, "After this, my boy, there is plenty in store for you!"

'Jesse', on the other hand, was more concerned with the present than the future; his running speed paled in compression to that of his zipping thoughts as he got nearer and nearer to what he'd tried to escape in the first place: a oubliette of a marriage to some Noble family's daughter.

Surely the rest of the Maidens would notice his absence? No, no, no, why would they bother?

He lost them around the last bend, but Sprout could tell he was gaining on them. He would have been concerned about them hearing his footfalls had he been subtle about his pursuit. "I'M COMIN', JESSE!" he shouted down the hall.

"The hangar is just ahead," Vanco told them. "Once we're inside I want you two in a crawler ASAP. I'll take care of the bandit."

"...Axel?!" Astor called back. Had his desperate mind conjured a saviour in the form of that yokel? As 'Jesse' turned his head, a wave of relief was interrupted by a twinge of fear. Sprout stood no chance against Vanco.

The young noble tried to wiggle free but to no avail.

"Get out of--!" He shouted but was cut off by a quick tug of the arm.

Ignoring his son, Talbot simply gave of grunt of, "Of course."

Once they were inside the hangar Vanco pushed Astor towards his father and pointed to of the crawler near the boarding ramp. "Get in," he commanded as he jogged over to the ramp control panel on the back wall. They hadn't touched down yet, but he knew they were close. Close enough, anyway. He pulled down hard on the crank, prompting the boarding ramp to initialize its opening sequence. It was an old hunk of junk, but Vanco was confident he'd be able to hold off their attackers until they were clear to leave. "It's about to get turbulent in here!" He shouted to Talbot over the blaring alarms.

His pistol aimed at the door, Vanco strafed closer to his charge when he spotted someone in the doorway. He opened fire.

Sprout almost ran right into Vanco's attack but pulled back at the last moment and spun around the doorway, slamming his back against the wall. "YOU IN THERE, JESSE?!" Sprout called out.

The ensuing burst of wind whipped through the runaway noble's dyed hair and threatened to whisk away the blanket in Talbot's clutches. However, the noble managed to shove his son and himself into the crawler before any of his remaining decency was lost.

"YEAH! I'M HERE!" 'Jesse' managed to shout. His father had him pinned to the seat. But that didn't stop his struggling. Well, it was better than completely giving up.

"COPY THAT!" Sprout hollered before blind firing through the doorway. Vanco dove out of the line of fire, behind a mound of crates. The winds were loud but Sprout could hear him tumbling across the hangar, and took that opportunity to make his own maneuver. He emptied half his clip before he made it to safety behind a disassembled crawler. "I'VE GOT 'IM ON THE ROPES, BUT IF YA' SEE AN' OPENIN'--TAKE IT!"

"ROGER!" 'Jesse' yelled. Everything was moving too fast. He had to get out of the crawler but a certain lardass was making things difficult. In desperation, Astor bit down on his father's arm. Talbot howled as he jerked it away. Taking the opportunity, Astor scrambled out, slammed the door shut and hugged the side of the crawler for cover.

The young noble was more trouble than he was worth. Vanco was beginning to regret not killing him when he had the chance. Better to fuck up and apologize than to have the little prick get him killed. "GET HIM IN THE CRAWLER!" Vanco barked at his supposed master. He was on his second clip now with two more to spare, so he could hold out a bit longer if need be.

Sprout wasn't so fortunate. He ran out most of his first clip on the way in and was burning through twice as much ammo as his oppnent was. He'd be out soon. "Shit," Sprout muttered to himself. "Gotta get closer... take 'im from the side before he knows what hit 'im."

Talbot was still shaking the bitten arm when Vanco yelled that ever-so-helpful remark. Grasping the blanket again, Talbot got out of the crawler yelling, "You've picked up some unseemly habits, my boy!"

Thankfully, dodging a large, almost naked man with only one arm open was pretty easy. On the other hand, Astor was being slowly chased around the crawler. Not good.

Sprout slipped out a small hand mirror Amy had given him from his pocket and angled it so that he could see Vanco's position without exposing himself. He was distracted by something.

Whatever yer doin' kid, don' stop jus' yet!

Jesse's bizarre show caught Vanco's attention just long enough for Sprout to slip by undetected. The ex-assassin looked frantically around the hangar, trying to get a bead on his prey when Sprout suddenly appeared once more--lashing out from around Vanco's cover. The older man managed to pop two shots off before the boy grabbed his wrist. Neither found their mark but they came close. Sprout pushed the the man's arm backwards and buried the barrel of his own pistol between Vanco's ribs. He was two slow on the trigger, and before they knew it both warriors were locked in a grapple.

"Amateur," Vanco spat before bashing his forehead against Sprout's. While the boy was flat-footed Vanco slammed his wrist down on a nearby crate, forcing his weapon out of his hand. Sprout opted for a growl rather than screaming in agony and pushed back against the assassin's force. Grabbing his shoulder with his free hand, Sprout used his new found leverage to pull the larger man into his attack--smashing his manhood against the boy's knee.

Vanco reached down instinctively for his crotch as it throbbed relentlessly. Dirty Fighting 101 with his mother had paid off. Getting his junk smashed to bits in training had been worth it after all! While Vanco was momentarily disabled Sprout used his leverage to angle Vanco's pistol towards his head, but before he could make him pull the trigger the assassin released the clip and fired the chambered shot right above his head--before Sprout could line up the shot. As the pain faded, Vanco's strength grew and before Sprout knew it his advantage had been lost.

Oh, fuck! SHIT!

Vanco headbutted the boy a second time, sending him reeling backwards onto his ass. This wasn't looking good.

'Jesse' caught sight of the fight in between the chase. Hope swelled in his chase as the ol' dirty shot to the nads did its work. However, it was quickly dashed as Sprout took another headbutt. Vanco loomed over the boy, ready to kill. Sprout's gun lay on the floor, Astor could... If he did, there was no going back. If he didn't, Sprout would die. The runaway noble gulped.

His eyes darted back and forth as beats of sweat trailed past them. Astor wasn't cut out for a life of crime! But yet... But yet...

The boy darted out, ran over to the gun, picked it up and fired a shot into Vanco's back. 'Jesse' just stood there afterwards, eyes wide with a smoking gun in his shaking hands. His father's curses faded into nothingness as the reality set in.

Sprout and Vanco stared into each other's eyes, completely stunned and confused. Sprout, because he never suspected Jesse to have the balls to do something like that and Vanco, because... well... he'd been shot! And by this stupid punk of all people! It may well be a fatal wound given a couple minutes, but he was far too pissed off to go down without taking that little shit-stain with him. "MOTHER FUCKER!" He roared as he spun around suddenly, and grabbed the boy by the neck.

"JESSE!" Sprout choked, scrambling to his feet.

"FUCK FU--!" 'Jesse' yelped, dropping the gun as he tried to stop Vanco's hands from crushing his windpipe. He gulped down air as he tossed and turned. 'I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm dead!'

Talbot, meanwhile, looked on in horror, throat sore from yelling, face twisted by rage; the noble's patience had long worn thin. "ENOUGH! KILL THE TRAITOR!" He managed to yell.

Sprout slipped a knife out from his belt and was about to plunge it into Vanco's back when a gunshot suddenly split the air, silencing all the chaos in the room. A pink mist exploded out of the side of Vanco's head. His entire body went limp in that instant--freeing Jesse from his grasp as his corpse hit the bulkhead with a dull thud. Sprout turned his head to see Tallahassee standing in the doorway with his pistol held casually at his side. Sprout wished he could look that badass.

"Y'all okay in here?" the cowboy asked as if nothing had happened at all.

Astor stroked his neck, "Just f-fine."

Talbot scrunched his hands into fist and stormed up to the cowboy, seemingly unaware of the danger, "What is this?! Did my son put you fiends up to this treachery? I demand to know!"

"Son?" Tal asked, scratching his head. "What the fuck's this putz on about?"

"That'll be me, at least biologically." Astor sighed, "Astor Horatio Catamitus Beauregard Chetwynd-Talbot IV, at your service."

"Makes sense," Tal said. "Yer a pansy, after all, but a brave one at least." He poked Talbot in the gut with his pointer finger. "Yer son's a regular gunslinger. Should make a papa proud."

The only noises Talbot could only make were flabbergasted fragments of words. Astor, meanwhile, turned away and muttered, "Are we done here?"

"Yeah," Tal replied. "Sprout, get fatso's hands bound. I'll call it in." With that, Tallahassee stepped away to radio Bennie.

Sprout roughed up the noble a bit before zip-tying his hands and sitting him down against the way nearby. "So, you were a noble, huh?" the boy said to Jesse in a cryptic tone.

"Yeah, one with a ridiculous name at that." Astor shrugged.

Sprout looked out at the dirt beyond the bay door. At some point during all the chaos they had landed. "An' you gave it all up fer a life of crime?" he asked, still rather neutrally.

'Good question.' What was the big behind all this? Oh wait, there wasn't one. Just bumbling about in the commoners' world...

Astor looked towards Vanco's corpse, "I guess?"

Well, there certainly wasn't any going back now.

Sprout cocked an eyebrow and looked at Jesse for the first time since he'd shot Vanco. "Well, yer dad's here now," he said. "Now's yer last chance ta' bail if ya' wanna. Vanco? It ain't gonna get any easier. Killin', I mean. If you reckon ya' got the stomach fer it an'... well, I reckon I may have the stomach fer yer punk ass." He chuckled quietly.

"Pretty certain dear daddy won't be forgiving." 'Jesse' replied, "And I'm sure I'll go insane if he decides to lock me up in some tower in the middle of nowhere."

Sprout patted him on the shoulder and smirked. "Good ta' have you then, Jesse," he said.

Jesse shifted his gaze from the floor to Sprout, "Thanks."

Ruffles opened his mouth to call out as Sprout bailed out, but checked the motion. There'd be no turning him back.

Suddenly, an alarming thought struck him. He'd put down the shotgun to look at the engine and prepare it because Sprout had been covering him. Ruffles had been in the middle of the departure preparations when the kid had bailed. There was nobody covering him.

He turned and lunged for the shotgun where it was propped, but was met half way by an engineer sprinting forward with his head down. Ruffles had time only to wonder how the man had gotten his ankles free of the zip ties when the engineer charged headfirst into his gut. The wind was forced from his lungs and he was overbalanced, landing hard on his back and slamming his head on the floor.

While he was disoriented, the engineer that had charged him took position on his chest. At first, it seemed as though his hands were bound, but he heaved his shoulders and there was a snap. Pieces of severed zip tie scattered.

As the engineer made to take control of Ruffles' arms, he instinctively went into one of the grappling techniques Pixie had taught him. Pulling his arms in tightly, he made himself small and began worming his way up, bringing the engineer down from his chest to his hips. Bucking as hard as he could, he threw the other man forward so that he threw out his hands either side of Ruffles' shoulders.

Working his way down, he got his knee under his attacker's shin and lunged forward under the other man's arm on the same side, then threw his weight across the man's back. They rolled over and Ruffles came up on top. Grabbing the engineer's wrists, he pushed them together and clamped them his left hand. Pulling a small revolver inside his jumpsuit, he pistol whipped the engineer twice on the forehead. With his Glock destroyed, he'd grabbed it last second from the Maiden's armory.

In between the two thuds, however, Ruffles heard the snap of more zip ties. Turning, he saw a second engineer, a woman, going for where his shotgun had fallen during the struggle. In her hand was a pocket knife. Somehow, it'd gone undetected during the pat downs. Ruffles berated himself. He more than anyone knew the potential for hidden pockets in a jumpsuit.

Lurching to his feet, he turned so that he could aim properly. At this, the woman flung the knife and lunged for the shotgun. Arcing wildly through the air, the knife found its target on a fluke, hitting Ruffles in his left shoulder. The knife was poorly weighted and small bladed, and didn't go too deep, but it did go deep enough to stick in. Crying out in pain, Ruffles corrected his aim and fired twice. He wasn't aiming to kill, but he couldn't risk only taking a single shot. If it missed, she might be able to fire. Both bullets hit the engineer, and Ruffles' stomach went cold. The first hit the engineer's forearm, causing the shotgun to spill from her hand, and the second hit her high in the chest, taking her off of his feet.

Dropping the revolver back into its holster, Ruffles pulled the knife out with a snarl as he strode forward knelt by the injured man. Pulling an unused rag from his jumpsuit, he wiped the blood from the blade. It was the best he had in the situation. Checking over the man's injuries, he found that the first shot had passed through the forearm. As quickly as he could. but still with a great amount of care, Ruffles pried the bullet out of the man's chest. As soon as he saw it pop out, he whisked it away, grabbed the shotgun, stood up and hurried over to the nearest still bound engineer. Cutting him free, he said, "get over there and put pressure on that wound."

The engineer was terrified enough to obey without comment, scurrying over to his colleague. Hurrying to the wall, he grabbed a first aid kit mounted on the wall and threw it to the engineer stemming the blood flow. Propping the shotgun by the engine, he put his revolver on the floor near where his hand would be, and finished the final adjustment on the engine, and sealed the grate.

After what had happened to the other two, the other engineers had regained their sense of cooperation. Sprout's sudden departure had given their fight or flight reflexes the boost it needed to overcome fear, but now the fear was back.

Sighing, Ruffles positioned himself with his back to the wall and watched his charges. Fuck sake, Sprout.

"Aye, I'm with the old man now...over."

Dio grinned. "Good," he said simply. "Standby." Pixie was about to make a move for the pistol on the floor when Dio suddenly called out to her. "The old man's alive, Meredith."

He had her attention now.

Forget him, end this now!

"If you spare my life I promise you Cranston's," Dio explained.

Pixie scoffed. "You don' sound too concerned," she replied. "What 'appened to the fearless knight all yer noble fuckwit friends go on about? Thought you were s'posed ta' be some kinda legend."

"They say the same about you. Don't sell yourself short."

"Fuck you!" Pixie spat. "I'm not 'ere ta' listen to yer bitch ass beg fer mercy. I'm here ta' put you down. I'm done posturin'. I ain't got nothin' ta' prove to a dead man."

Dio chuckled. "Put him on," he said into his walky talky. "Let him say enough to convince her he's alive." Without warning Dio suddenly tossed the radio at Pixie who caught it reflexively. Had it been a bomb of some sort she may have lost a hand.

Pixie clenched her jaw, and keeping her good eye on Dio, she opened up the channel and spoke. "Cranston?" she whispered.

There was a long silence before the radio came to life with the sound of ragged breathing. It sounded like a man on his deathbed.

"Meredith," the voice on the other end finally said. "I got caught.'

Pixie grinned sadly. "Y-yeah, Chromy," she choked, "looks like ya' did. I'm gonna get you out, okay?"

Dio's cruel grin grew sour when Cranston was allowed to reply to that. "It's too late for that now, Merry," he said. "My fire's finally burned out."

"Cranston!" Pixie cried. "I-I, n-no I can still--it ain't too--"

"Meredith," Cranston interrupted. "Promise me something."

Pixie closed her eye and inhaled sharply, steeling herself for what was to come. "Anythin' for you," she whispered.

"Go home to Sprout and Lilith. Kill this man if you feel you need to, but promise me you will return to them. They need you."

"I will," the Bandit Queen told him. "What will I do without you?"

"Survive," Cranston said plainly. "Like you always have."

Pixie's piercing gaze wavered as she fought back tears. "I love you," she whimpered.

"I love you too, Meredith," he said. "I'm proud of you." Moments later a gunshot sounded from the radio before the channel was closed.

Cranston was dead.

Dio snickered like a spoiled little boy. Bryan may have disobeyed his orders, but at least he got a good show out of it. "Very touching," he mocked. "Really, such a heartfelt goodbye. Tell me, did you share such a moment with Margaret?"

Her head bowed, Pixie remained silent--the radio still in her hand. She tightened her grip around it more and more until the plastic began to give. Dio didn't notice. "No," she finally said before crunching the walky talky in her hand. "You cut out her heart."

"Well, I suppose you do need one of th--" Before Dio could finish his taunt Pixie was suddenly moving. She'd discarded the gnarled radio and dove for the pistol on the floor. Dio didn't have time to close the gap and opted to find cover instead--leaving him with little more than a flesh wound on his thigh when Pixie came after him. She charged his position, unloading her pistol as he slid atop the mahogany desk and crouched behind it. Pixie strafed around the side of the desk, firing all the while. Bits of wood exploded overhead as Dio ducked low and propelled himself across the marble floor, to the other side of the desk.

"GET BACK HERE MOTHER FUCKER!" Pixie howled as she leaned forward over the desk, pointing her pistol at him as he lay flat on his back. She was close now. Dio rolled to dodge Pixie's first two shots but a third clipped his ear. The fourth shot never came.

*click* *click*

This was his chance.

Dio reached out and grabbed Pixie's wrist before she could withdraw. Pulling himself up by her arm, he delivered a swift jab to her nose, crushing the cartridge in three places. Then he hit her again. Pixie managed to free herself from his grasp and staggered backwards against the wall, stunned. The Lord of Feroxi lept to his feet and lunged over the desk to meet her.

Pixie shook off the last blow just in time to counter the next--deflecting Dio's attempt to choke her with one arm while hitting him the side with the other. Like two boxers, they danced along the back wall exchanging blows, any of which would have KO'd a normal person. As the pummeling went on Pixie grew dizzy--no doubt from all the blows to the head and face she'd received. She couldn't keep up the pace and Dio knew it.

"DON'T TIRE ON ME NOW, MEREDITH!" he taunted as he pressed the attack--delivering a series of blows to her mid-section. The final punch forced her to double-over, leaving her wide open for a knee to the jaw. Pixie lost balance and crashed against the desk, causing it to skid a couple inches across the marble floor. Dio was upon her immediately, punching her across the face, causing her torso to pivot ninety-degrees. "USELESS!" He spat as he grabbed her by the back of the head. "USELESS!" He cracked her forehead against the desk once. "USELESS!" Twice. "USELESS!" Three times.

Blood was pouring out of her face when he grabbed her by the collar and pulled her in close. All Pixie could smell was copper, even as he spat in her face. "WHERE'S THE LEGENDARY BANDIT QUEEN I'VE HEARD SO MUCH ABOUT?! IS THIS IT?! AFTER EVERYTHING WE'VE BEEN THROUGH--AFTER ALL THE TRIALS WE'VE FACED SINCE OUR LAST ENCOUNTER--THIS IS ALL YOU HAVE TO OFFER ME?!"

Dio's question was answered when a sharp stabbing pain pierced his abdomen. While he'd been slamming Pixie's face against his desk she'd managed to scoop up the letter opener he'd left there. Now it was stuck between his ribs--four inches inside his lung.

Pixie didn't give the man a chance to scream.

She grabbed his throat with her freehand, and using the letter opener as leverage--she hoisted him up above her head. She roared as she slammed him back down onto his desk, fracturing his spine and snapping the desk in two. As he lay there helpless, gasping for air, Pixie mounted him and removed her eyepatch. Taking his face in her hands, she forced him to look her in the eye. Was she trying to show him her hatred or the damage he'd done to her? Even she wasn't sure.

She'd fantasized about this moment for over a decade in a thousand different ways. She'd written so many scripts for it, but for some reason none of them seemed to fit.

Then it suddenly hit her.

Before she'd fully realized it her thumbs were already snaking their way to his eyes. Dio's expression grew panicked, but he didn't make a peep until she'd stuck them inside. The vengeful bandit pressed her thumbs in deep, shaking his head violently as she sunk them in ever deeper. His inhuman screams reminded her of Carlos'.

Somehow that just fueled her rage more.

He had taken everything from her. This is what he deserved. This is what she'd always wanted. She was taking it back. Her life. Her joy. Everything.

"OH GOD," a terrified voice suddenly called out from the doorway. "G-GET OFF OF HIM OR I'LL BLOW YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF!"

Pixie froze. That voice sounded so familiar. Slowly, she ceased torturing Dio and turned her head.

"M-Merry?!"

It was Tsubaki.

Their group was out the door and scattered to their tasks, leaving Florian with just that dreaded moment to himself. "Okay, that's that, that's good, they all know what they're doing." He said out loud to himself as he paced around the door, running ash stained hands through his increasingly greasy hair as he turned to face the corpse in the room.

"So I just have to do this..." He stopped in his tracks. "With you here, because you're - hmmm - that's great." He said, half looking at Lilith.

Lilith looked at the ground, hands in her pockets. "I can go if you'd prefer." She glanced up at the man, a sad smile curling her lips.

"You know out here, we have this tradition. That once the dead are prepared, before they're burned, those closest to them stay with them. Some places have special rooms for it. Then they burn them just before sundown, that special hour where it looks like the sky's on fire... and they stay with them, all night. They stand their vigil and they do... whatever they need to. you get all the mourning out over those hours and when dawn comes you step out into the light... and you're ready to carry on unburdened. That's what people say about it anyway."

While he'd been talking Florian had gone to the sink, rolling up his sleeves and washing his hands and readying the tools he could find as he went through the old motions of making the body presentable. Still his eyes kept looking back to Lilith as she stood there smiling.

'My father's dead and she's smiling. I killed him, for her, and she's smiling. I used to do that. I could gut a man and laugh it off as he bled at my feet. How many times had he seen the maiden's laughing in the middle of a gunfight? hell, he'd done the same just a few hours ago.

He had wanted a life of peace, to help people and instead he'd pledged himself to a woman who could grin from ear to ear as she mutilated those stuck in her path. 'Did you ever smile like that when you fought your way up that tower to free me, Lil? Did I... and I just wasn't brave enough to see it?'

But he couldn't think of that now or the weight would crush him. He had to tend to his family now.

"I don't think I get to say I was close to him after today." Florian sighed as he pressed a wet cloth to Vasa's pale brow.

"He's your dad." Lilith shrugged "He might have been a..." Lilith thought better of what she was about to say, given the current mood. "Difficult man to understand, but he's still your dad." Lilith bit her bottom lip as she thought for a moment. "I didn't really say it before." She shuffled her feet slightly. "I... I'm sorry, about everything, if I hadn't been there, then..." She looked down at the floor. "I'm sorry." She mumbled.

"He wanted this. He wanted to go, to lose his way, he just thought it'd be someone else." Florian still remembered the way he looked at them, that smug smirk, the cheek when he'd asked for Erik to take her place. He laughed bitterly at the thought, of the way Vasa had asked for Erik to take her place. "He... he even left me a fucking note!" He was back to snapping again as he backed away from his handiwork on the table.

["GOD FUCKING DAMN YOU!"] He screamed at the corpse. ["Damn you for making me do this!"] He needed a moment to breathe, there was so much Florian wanted to say, that had gone unsaid for so long. He wanted to rant and scream and curse the heavens. But the world wouldn't stop turning outside and he still had more to do. And each time he looked at Lilith's downcast blue eyes he felt a fresh punch in his gut.

"So you don't need to apologise, don't you dare apologise." He patted her on the shoulder, it came across more manic than reassuring. "And I don't have time to mourn."

"Me and Erik can take care of things for a little bit." Lilith rested her cheek on Florian's hand. "Take as much time as you need." The girl looked up at Florian, who at this point looked like he'd aged about ten years. "I'll be around if you need anything." She smiled again. "I'll even cook the eggs."

Despite it all he couldn't help but savour the feeling of his skin resting against hers. Even in this blasted place on unending winter she was so warm. However crazy he'd gotten Lilith had always stood by him. Like she stood by everyone. In that moment she let him feel calm.

"I didn't even think." He croaked, the strength draining from his voice. "I didn't hesitate, didn't even think of it as him. I Just saw that you were in trouble, that he'd hurt you and... and I did it."

"It's not your fault." Lilith stepped closer to him, pressing herself against his chest as she slowly wrapped her arms around him. "It's not your fault, blame me if you have to, I just need you to tell me that this isn't your fault." She met his eyes. "It's not your fault." She cooed, shaking her head gently.

'Please don't say that, anything but that.' Because he wanted to blame her, to push her away and look at her as nothing more than the woman he spilled his family's blood for, the one who'd heaped even more pain onto his plate. He wanted to hate her, more than he hated himself, more than he hated his father and all the rest of them for helping bring this about and not turning away from this madness. And she'd take it all on herself without complaint, just as he'd tried to do and failed. She'd hold him in that warmth and speak so softly after walking through all that violence and rage. For him. Because she wanted to. It spoke to how messed up Florian's mental state was that to him, knowing what he was about to do, this was the cruelest thing she could do.

He didn't say anything. He didn't raise his arms to hold her in turn, he couldn't. He just closed his eyes and let go, leaning into Lilith's embrace and weakly trying to turn his face away for the sake of his pride. His breathing was beginning to sound something like sobs and his eyes were welling up faster than he could control. Until he couldn't hide it anymore.

Must have been the air something.

"We cut off the feeds right on time, ma'am," the broadcast tech told Contessa.

The Lady of Paradiso stepped off the holo-platform and approached her generals standing nearby. "Good," she said. "Blow the charges. Now. We can't risk any of the eye-witnesses living to tell people what they saw. The Gentleman has better eyes than I gave him credit for."

"Right away my Lady," one of the generals said before he left to bark orders over his comm.

"Give me your pistol," Contessa told one of the remaining officers. He handed it over without question. "We're going to have to make this a convincing show." She put it in her purse.

"Let's get you to makeup and wardrobe, my Lady," one of the tech explained, taking her hand. Contessa smiled at the young man and followed him out of the room.

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Even as the crowd panicked, The Gentleman slid smoothly through the jostling masses as everyone dove for the exits. He made no effort to help them along their way. He'd given the fools fair warning, his concern was for himself now.

He'd barely made it out of the auditorium before he was staggered by explosions chaining through multiple floors of the building. Glass shattered, pillars crumbled, and the hallways filled with smoke and distant screams. The Gentleman looked up to see a great, gilded statue of Lord Rufus Ludwig-Montague Lombardi III, far more impressive-looking than the man ever had been in life, teeter off its pedestal towards him. Quickly, The Gentleman rolled forward out of the way, as the old Lord fell face-first, with a deep clang. Dusting himself off as he got to his feet, The Gentleman continued towards his goal with renewed haste.

The stampede would bottleneck towards the tower's front entrance. Trying to get out that way would be a waste of time. The Gentleman knew a better way... having broken in to Parasido Tower so many times, doing the reverse shouldn't be too hard.

Beyond the auditorium lay a maze of reception rooms, and beyond them the kitchens. From there, he would be able to access service elevators to take him into the bowels of Lombardi Tower, where transit tunnels awaited to aid his escape from the compound. The normal halogen glare of the kitchens had been replaced by the dull red of emergency lighting, filtered through an increasing haze of smoke. The ventilation wasn't working. Stifling a cough, The Gentleman crouched low to the ground as he made his way toward the service elevators. Along the way, he saw the bodies of some of the kitchen staff through the gloom, though far fewer than there should have been under the circumstances. His earlier warning had paid off. Well, that was one card that had turned in his favour, at least. With any luck, a good number of the servant staff had made it out before Contessa had stationed men at the exits, no doubt in anticipation of the escape he was currently attempting. Speaking of which...

The Gentleman dived down behind a work station as one of the service elevators arrived, and a squad of six Lombardi men wearing gas-masks and wielding sub-machine guns piled out. Flashlights scanned the room as the commander of the squad barked orders.

"Permission to engage the target on sight!" the soldier exclaimed in muffled tones "But don't forget, this is recon. If we engage, call it in even if it means you taking a bullet, or I'll shoot you myself!"

'Don't worry. They will.' The Gentleman thought. He crept around the officer's position, slowly feeding the garrotte wire out of his pocket-watch, before lunging from behind. One swift tug, and the leader was a dead man, staggering and slipping in the pool of his own blood. The next two closest to him got bullets through their skulls before they'd even fully turned around, and The Gentleman rolled over a workstation and into cover, as the quickest of the remaining troops fired a wild burst in his direction, stopping only to bring his thumb to the radio pinned to his jacket. Before he'd got the chance to utter a word, however, the Gentleman's stiletto was spinning through the air, and buried itself in the plastic receiver, puncturing through into his chest.

As the man staggered back, his gun clattering to the floor, The Gentleman was on the move once again. As the two remaining of the Lombardi hit-squad opened fire, The Gentleman grabbed a serving tray off on of the work stations, slid it down the aisle perpendicular to their position, and dove onto it, all without breaking his stride. The silver tray skidded across the bloody floor at speed, bullets throwing up chunks of tile and concrete behind it. Lying on his side, The Gentleman timed his moment to perfection, firing two shots as their positions became exposed.

It had all happened in a little over five seconds, and now The Gentleman, breathing a little more raggedly, approached the last remaining survivor. By the grace of his now useless radio, the knife hadn't penetrated too deeply into his chest, but still the soldier sat slumped beneath a sink, struggling for air.

"Repeat after me..." The Gentleman said coldly, as he held a receiver he taken off one of the man's comrades beneath his chin, pressing his pistol against his temple with his other hand. "We are pursuing the target towards the service elevators on level 23 west. All units, respond."

The soldier nodded grimly as The Gentleman activated the speaker.

"Command this is Gold Four-Niner..." He began "We have engaged the target. Captain Hargreaves is KiA, in pursuit towards service elevators on 23W. All units, please respond, over."

"Copy that Four-Niner." the reply came back, quickly enough that The Gentleman was satisfied that there was no deception.

"Thank you." he said, before pulling the trigger, and yanking his blade out of the man's chest, before proceeding towards the service elevators. He should have a clear path now.

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

Contessa was watching a live feed of the proceedings while her handlers worked. Unlike typical makeup work, many of Contessa's injuries were real... artificial, but real. Small cuts were made on her face, forehead and arms, covering her in a fair bit of her own blood. The brusies were largly just makeup, but they looked convincing enough. She'd been dressed in a tarnished version of the dress she had on during the speech. It was covered in blood, soot and scorch marks.

Her handlers were true artists.

"My Lady, some of the guests are escaping through the lobby," one of her generals told her. "Orders?"

Contessa winced as one of her handlers cut her with a razor just above the eyebrow. "Set off the second barrage," she said with a sad grin. "Take the tower to the ground."

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

The Gentleman had anticipated something dramatic, from either Contessa or Dio if not both. However, even he had to pause at the notion that Contessa would be so willing to destroy the opulent perch from which she had looked down upon humanity her entire life, and all the treasures contained within it. Although, when he thought about it, he supposed it made a great deal of sense. Contessa's appetites had always been larger than life, and what better display of the limitlessness of your wealth, than to almost contemptuously burn such a large portion of it to the ground? Was she trying to impress him? To give him some kind of grand gesture setting her apart from the pettiness of the rest of her class?

Well, he had to admit it was a little impressive... in a gauche sort of way.

Before the elevator made it to it's destination, The Gentleman had to resort To squatting and breathing through a handkerchief, as the shaft and car began to fill with smoke, leaking through from all the other levels they had passed. It was just as well the fires weren't burning inside the shaft itself yet, or The Gentleman may have been roasted inside the metal box. That would hardly be sporting.

He had to resist temptation to gulp in air, as the car finally made it down into a loading bay in one of the sub levels of the tower. Quickly taking cover behind a nearby forklift, The Gentleman scanned the cavernous space. No-one had noticed his arrival. All the soldiers and support staff left were pre-occupied with evacuating. Calmly, he studied his options. There was a tram docked about two hundred yards from his position. If he was quick and quiet, he could stow away on board and ride it out into the city, where even the largest manhunt would never find him. If that didn't work, he could always hijack it.

The muffled boom of a second barrage of explosions above his head made up his mind for him. Contessa wasn't taking any chances. Much as it pained him to admit, there was no longer any time for finesse. He needed to leave, now.

A terrible screeching issued forth from behind his position, as the cables in the elevator shafts gave way and the cars still in transit began a fast trip down. The personnel in the loading bay dropped all pretence of organisation as they began to flee for their lives. Fortunately, this meant no-one took any notice of The Gentleman, already in full sprint, bounding onto his chosen tram as it pulled away out of the docking station, and into the tunnels of Paradiso. The cars were open-roofed, stocked with cargo and whatever soldiers had been close enough to clamber aboard as it left. They all died quickly as The Gentleman made his way towards the front, shooting as he went. At least the driver needed no encouragement to take the tram to full throttle. If the man noticed The Gentleman at all, he was probably just grateful to still be alive.

The rumble of the tracks and whine of the engine were drowned out in an instant by the ungodly roar of the tower above their heads, as it finally began to collapse. Disappearing behind them, The Gentleman saw the tram station crushed under an onslaught of falling rubble; that, with nowhere else to go, tumbled down the tunnel at terrifying speed after them, grasping at the tram with thick plumes of dust and smoke.

"FASTER!" The Gentleman bellowed, but it was unclear if the driver heard him.

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

Contessa was almost ready now. After thirty minutes of hell, the chaos above them was only intensifying. By now several news teams had arrived on the scene and were covering the devistation. No doubt every noble on the Rock not currently burning alive had their eyes on Paradiso... perhaps on Feroxi as well. Contessa usually played the game with finesse and subtly. However, in this case, instead of carefully checking all of her opponents at once, she'd opted to flip the table over. She would cast down every pawn and see which ones could rise up out of the ashes.

And she would guide them to the promised land she had always envisioned.

"We're ready now, my Lady," one of her generals said. "Do I need to remind you of the risk?"

"That won't be necessary," she told him. "Just make sure the cameras are where they need to be and the medics don't immediately come to my aid."

The general saluted. "Very well ma'am," he said. "Good luck."

The Golden Empress stepped into the black box at the back of the complex and watched as the automatic doors closed behind her. The elevator rose quickly, shaking and rocking every now and then as it burst through melted steal and burning rubble. Eventually it came to a halt on the surface.

Before the doors opened, Contessa inhaled sharply and pulled the trigger, blasting a hole clean through her shoulder. The pain was excrusiating. She cried out in agony before staggering out of the elevator. The reinforced steel canopy had protected it from the debris above, allowing for a clear path for Contessa to follow.

"HOLY SHIT! ARE YOU GETTING THIS?!" one reporter shouted as he pointed his camera man in the direction of the woman staggering down the street.

It was Contessa, and she looked like utter hell. Several news teams ran to her as she clutched her fresh wound, struggling to stay on her feet.

"GET A MEDIC OVER HERE STAT! IT'S LADY LOMBARDI!"

Contessa fell to her knees and managed to whisper, "I-it was the Gentleman," before losing consciousness.

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

As all eyes were turned towards the rubble and flames of Lombardi tower, no-one noticed a man-hole halfway across the city open up in the middle of the street.

From it, a man in the tattered remains of a coat with tails, caked with a mixture of blood and dust, stumbled out into the light. One eye was gummed up with the stuff, and his left arm hung crooked and limp. His breathing was a choking rattle, as he looked at his surroundings, before hobbling into an alleyway. He didn't make it very far before he doubled over, wheezing, and collapsed next to a trash bin.

Bennie stood at the helm of the ship, staring out at the endless ash as they cruised towards the drop off point. The Iron Maiden, along with their Wilkes-Vines contacts were already there waiting for them. All things considered, the op had gone off fairly well. Most of the Maidens were still green, or at the very least not used to working with one another. At the end of the day only one of their own had been injured while two of Talbot's crew had died. Vanco was unavoidable, but the engineer Ruffles was forced to kill? Bennie had to take responsibility for that one.

Talbot and his staff were dropped off with some crawlers half-a-day's drive from the nearest settlement. They took the two bodies of their crew with them.

Gale, Jesse, Ruffles and Tallahassee were on the bridge with him. He already heard about what had happened. "You two did good today," he said to Jesse and Gale, keeping his eyes on the horizon. "Under different circumstances I'd be pissed at you for lying Jesse, but you had your reasons. You saved Axel, so I'd say you know where you belong. Just... in the future, come to me with stuff like this. I'm your captain, but I can also be your friend if you need one."

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

Sprout was sitting by Amy's bedside holding her uninjured hand. He'd been told not to fuss over her, but was quick to ignore such orders. Tal had ordered her to sit tight for a bit, though it was clear she wanted to get moving. "Sorry I wasn' there sooner, Amy," Sprout told her with a half-frown. "Though, I reckon it's fittin' we were the only two Maidens he roughed up. S'pose we're meant ta' be after all!"

"Though, I reckon it's fittin' we were the only two Maidens he roughed up. S'pose we're meant ta' be after all!"

Amy smiled, and nuzzled up against Axel's shoulder.

"It's alright. I've been hurt much worse before..." she said,lifting her hand to stroke Axel's shirt right above where she knew the scars of his bullet wounds were. "And so have you. We're not children, no matter what other people might think. We're strong enough to handle each-other, and I'm sorry it's taken this for me to figure it out."

She sighed, as she lifted her head up and looked him in the eye.

"When we get back, I need to tell you about where I came from. It's... not going to be an easy story to tell, so I'm going to need you to be patient, and not ask questions of me until I'm finished, but you need to know. This isn't going to work if I'm always holding back because I don't know how you could love who I really am. That's just another way of saying I don't trust you, but I think... I think I do now, so It's time for me to start showing it."

"Under different circumstances I'd be pissed at you for lying Jesse, but you had your reasons. You saved Axel, so I'd say you know where you belong. Just... in the future, come to me with stuff like this. I'm your captain, but I can also be your friend if you need one."

"Aye captain." Jesse said as he shifted a bit in his spot. He could still spot the buildings of that settlement they'd left his father at, just specks in the distance. Sure, the kid supposedly had the balls to kill but saying goodbye to an estranged father? That was too much. Or was that one last act of defiance towards his old man? Jesse wasn't sure. Though it was certain whatever ties the boy had with his family had been cut forever. No more prestige, no more status from a surname. Still, the feeling of freedom was exhilarating. Reminded him of the escaping from Lord Ivan's drunken supervision. Broke out of Calico Tower, might as well as break away from the entire fucking family, that's how Jesse saw it. Nevertheless, whether he'd made the right choice had yet to be seen...

Sandra turned up on the bridge just in time to catch Jesse. Seeing Bennie up here made her even more embarrassed. At the first sign of trouble she'd lost her cool, and she knew she'd have to apologise for it later.

"So... Amy told me what you did." she said to Jesse, finding it difficult to look him in the eye. "Sorry if I was too hard on you before. You did good."

Blushing slightly, she hugged him and gave him a swift kiss on the cheek.

The hug was exactly what Jesse needed, the kiss a little cherry on top. Far from what he'd expected to him after the secret got out. Afterwards, Jesse took a bow, "Apology accepted, milady."

He could get used to this.

"Apology accepted, milady."

Sandra raised an eyebrow, but still couldn't stop herself from smiling a little.

"Alright alright, don't push it." she giggled.

Ruffles stood watching all the making up and cuddly reunions for a while before it occurred to him he had one waiting somewhere. Stubbing out a half smoked cigarette and necking what remained of a bottle of miscellaneous blue soda, he got up from the seat he'd been occupying at the communications console.

"Real heart warming as always, Bennie," he said. "But how long are we sticking around here for? I got someone to get back to, man!"

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

Bryan looked at the gun in his hand for a moment, the smell of burnt gunpowder sharp in his nostrils. The blood was smoking faintly from the hole in Cranston's temple. His eyes flicked to that for a moment, taking it in. Then back to the gun.

Sighing, he dropped it back into its holster. He wondered what flak he'd get for flagrantly ignoring orders. Then he wondered if Dapper was still on the frequency. Maybe Dio was, but he didn't much care. Getting to his feet, he adjusted the swords across his back and leaned over Cranston long enough to close the old man's eyes. He'd managed not to eviscerate Cranston's face when he'd killed him.

Turning, he headed for the door and thumbed his radio.

"Dapper, you still on the line?" He tried to say 'lord' again, and couldn't get it out. "Anyone else hearing me? Reckon if I don't get killed fighting my way outta here, that's me clocked off fer the night, 'less anyone objects."

The old priest arrived and set to work with Florian at his side, the two of them only sharing a few words as they made Vasa's body ready for the flames. Lilith had given them their privacy and took to patrolling the front of the building. Nothing major had happened yet, nothing that had reached their ears anyway. It seemed that the combined forces of Bejic rebels and Boykov remnants were doing a good job of keeping what order they could. Still, the chance of further chaos hung heavy in the air. Or maybe that was just the leftovers of what had passed.

The time passed and Father Jameson came out of the prep room, washing his hands clean. "He has a job for me." He looked to Lilith, shivering a little from the cold and possibly whatever nerves were rattling around his frail frame. "He wants me to... gather some certain people and tell them all about all about this an- and bring even more people to the cathedral. I-i-i-it's all very political. I'm sorry, I'm not very used to this kind of thing. What do you suppose he's up to?"
==================================================

His father's body had been wrapped up in white. Florian Stood before him, arms held tight across his chest as he held one hand out, the letter that had been left to him. The closest thing to Vasa's last will and testament. Florian let out a hefty sigh as he finished his third read through of it, lowering the paper for the last time and running a hand through his hair yet again. He didn't have much time, not enough to mourn in the truly traditional way, but he'd stretch it out as long as he could. For his own sake.

'Well you won, didn't you? In your own twisted way you did it.

They were never close. No matter how hard he tried to fool himself into thinking it Florian could never believe the lie. There were moments of warmth there, scattered among his memories, moments when Vasa had been more a father than a leader but the more he looked the further between they got. Reading these words penned by his drunken hand, it seemed to speak of a time that didn't exist. Or did he just not remember? It couldn't have left that big an impression if he didn't. In the end it was always the same, they were always moving, always looking forward to the next thing, never stopping to breathe.

'What were we to each other, you and I?' He thought he knew but the the more Florian thought about it the less certain he was. Given all this, history might soon write its own interpretation. But Florian would have time to find his own answer later. Just like Vasa, he had too much to do now to dwell on matters of the heart.

He'd need some of that coldness to do what he had to, to show an old face to the world again and maybe even wear the name of the Red Wolf he'd left behind so long ago. But it wouldn't be like last time, he'd come too far and done too much to fall back into old ways. Besides, that anger and hatred wasn't in him anymore, however much he raved and roared at the dead in his heart Florian knew he couldn't. The old cruelty had faded, and he'd keep it that way.

'I'll use what you've taught me, but I'll use it my way. Bite if I have to... so that others don't. And I will banish the barbarity we spread from this city and when this storm passes, I will fill this dome with light again.'

He laid the letter onto Vasa's chest, brushed his covered brow one final time before sealing the door shut and turning the dial. The muffled sound of flames began to build up and Florian waited in silence. 'From the last ashes of our old ways I will build a new one, a better Frostfall.'

"My word to God."

He waited as long as he could and did what had to be done. He wouldn't leave him here alone. Hours had passed and the suns were beginning to peak their heads over the horizon. He found Lilith nearby. "You should have gone with Erik, gotten some rest." He smiled to her weakly, brushing a strand of hair from her face. It might have been more touching if it weren't for the urn Florian was carrying under his arm. "We better get going, it's a big day ahead."
==================================================

Gale didn't have anything to say to the chief's words. Didn't feel like she'd done much to help matters along. Though it had left her with a lot to think about. With where she stood with this setup and all.

And to top it all off Jesse wasn't even Jesse anymore! What the shit was that about? Son of a bitch, tryin' ta make her think his daddy had gotten killed back in the Austen attack. He was gunna get it for that. not here, but he'd get it. Already movin' onto his next try, and she thought Traveler boys had no shame. Looked like the stories about nobles were shaping up to be true. Whatever, Gale had bigger stuff to focus on right now. Once they were back she'd snag up any free time and shifts on lookout she could get, she needed some quiet after all this.

Lilith had spent hours outside the crematorium, she'd like to say it was because she was guarding the place, letting Florian have his this time to himself, but the increasingly large amount of cigarette butts in the immediate area betrayed her anxiousness. She was freezing, accidentally left her coat back in the building, but she wasn't able to go back inside, she couldn't face the man again, not right now, she felt so guilty, so this was her punishment to herself, smoking herself to death in the cold, unsure whether the man she loved felt the same way about her any more.

'You do know there's other rooms in the building where Florian isn't tending to his dead father, you know?'

No, this was fine, it would have to do for now.

Father Jameson had come looking for her, his breath showing immediately as he left the building to greet her.

"He has a job for me. "He wants me to... gather some certain people and tell them all about all about this an- and bring even more people to the cathedral. I-i-i-it's all very political. I'm sorry, I'm not very used to this kind of thing. What do you suppose he's up to?"

Lilith smiled weakly, it almost looked as if the cold didn't bother her.

Stiff upper lip and all that.

"I could hazard a guess." She took a long drag of her current cigarette. "A proper send off maybe? People tend to put grievances aside long enough to respect the dead." She shrugged her shoulders, the old priest returning in kind as he shuffled off to do whatever it was that Florian had told him to do.

-------

After a few hours, the suns began to raise, bringing what little warmth they offered. Lilith was thankful for it, regardless. Thankfully the sweater she wore was just enough that the cold was merely horribly uncomfortable, rather than lethal. There were more cigarette butts on the ground now. For the first time in a while, she was actually low on smokes. That was usually a bad sign. Chuckling to herself in self pity, her body tensed as she heard the door behind her close. It was Florian.

"You should have gone with Erik, gotten some rest."

Lilith shook her head silently, genuinely smiling as the man brushed a lock of hair from her eyes.

"We better get going, it's a big day ahead." Purposefully keeping her gaze from the urn Florian was carrying, she walked beside her man, hoping things would soon get better. They had to get better.

"... This isn't going to work if I'm always holding back because I don't know how you could love who I really am. That's just another way of saying I don't trust you, but I think... I think I do now, so It's time for me to start showing it."

Sprout nodded firmly. "Whatever you need, Amy," he told her. "If I'm anythin' at all it's a good listener. How else you reckon I survived all those years with Ma'?" He chuckled. "I reckon I 'ave a thin' or two I aughtta share too."

He pecked her on the lips. "Yer lookin' more n' more like a Maiden everyday. Thanks fer givin' it a proper shot," he said with a grin.

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

"Real heart warming as always, Bennie. But how long are we sticking around here for? I got someone to get back to, man!"

Bennie rolled his eyes. "Does everyone around here have a woman these days but me?" he groaned. "I s'pose stranger things have happened." His thoughts suddenly found their way to Whiskey. After a brief silence, Bennie glanced at Ruffles over his shoulder and sighed. "Be straight with me Jake, think there's anythin' there between me and the cowgirl? I'd like to say there's not, but I can't stop thinking about her..."

Doesn't matter, Bennie. It's a bad idea.

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

"Anyone else hearing me? Reckon if I don't get killed fighting my way outta here, that's me clocked off fer the night, 'less anyone objects."

Bryan didn't get an answer. After checking some other frequencies he managed to pick up chatter about the first few floors being secured. Activating Masakado seemed to have done the trick.

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

In the moment Pixie and Tsubaki locked eyes, time seemed to stand still. The chaos surrounding them no longer mattered. It was just two friends on different ends of a gun. Tsubaki's battle hardened instincts were culled by crippling grief, freezing her on the spot. Had she the will, she'd have ended it the moment she identified Merry.

Why...?

Merry had betrayed her in every sense of the word. Was there ever a moment in their conversations that she'd been legitimate?! Had everything she shared been a lie?! Was she just using her?!

Like everyone else...

"W-what is this?!" Tsubaki croaked. "Who are you?!"

Pixie's mind was a haze. She recognized Tsubaki, sure, but it didn't really mean anything. What was she yelling now? Why hadn't she opened fire yet? Pixie spotted Dio's dagger in her periphery. It was close. She could snatch it up and close the gap in the blink of an eye, but her success would depend on Tsubaki's state-of-mind. If she couldn't muster the courage to put her down Pixie's gamble might just work.

"ANSWER ME!" Tsubaki shouted.

The woman she'd thought was her friend did not answer. She offered only a cruel, deranged glare. Did she even recognize her? Had she just snapped? Gone mad?

Or was this just who Merry really was?

Just as it looked like Pixie was about to answer her, she instead reached out for the knife and sprung to her feet. Tsubaki's gasp was muffled by the knot in her throat. She opened fire too late, only managing to graze Pixie's shoulder before the bandit was upon her. She swung wide, severing the rifle strap. Then, she grabbed the stock of the rifle with her free hand and elbowed Tsubaki in the face with her knife-arm. The soldier crashed onto her back, knocking the wind out of her. While she was dazed Pixie leaped atop her. Before she could bring Dio's cruel knife down on her face, Tsubaki caught Pixie's wrist.

Tears streaming down her face, Tsubaki struggled against Pixie's superior strength. Despite her injuries, the bandit queen was still far stronger. The blade was closer now, almost licking her forehead. As she struggled her gaze found its way to Pixie's eyes.

This was not the woman she'd befriended.

The hungry rage burning there was enough to give life to Pixie's dead eye. It told Tsubaki without words that Pixie would take her life.

It told her who God was.

Tsubaki's fear weakened her resolve and moments later, Pixie drew blood. The smaller woman cried out in agony as she continued fighting against Pixie's rage--the blade drawing a jagged line from Tsubaki's right eyebrow to her left cheek. The flesh split open, covering her face in blood, intensifying her screams.

Was this how she'd die?

Not like this... NOT LIKE THIS!

Once adrenaline took over, Tsubaki's resolved strengthened. The tip of the dagger had left her cheek now and was hovering over her throat. She couldn't hope to turn the blade on time, but if she could get her sidearm out...

As the young soldier squirmed and cried under her power, Pixie's fury only grew. Why did this lamb struggle so? Didn't she understand at all? Didn't she know that it was her turn?

The Bandit Queen drank in her pain and suffering. It was intoxicating.

Then something strange happened.

Tsubaki's screams, her tears... everything... they'd been replaced. Instead of the soldier she'd met at Dio's ball, the woman before her was not a woman at all. It was a girl. A stupid, stupid girl.

She was screaming about a dead friend. Cursing the man who'd killed her. The man who'd butchered her; who'd taken everything from her. She cursed him as he took even more; as he carved her up, grinning like a spoiled child all the while.

She saw herself there, and in the mirror's of Tsubaki's eyes she saw someone else. Something alien. Something vile and ugly.

Something evil.

Pixie's rage drained out of her like a severed artery. The strength behind her knife had left her.

Oh God, Cherry... what have I---

Two gun shots drowned out Tsubaki's screams. Pixie's entire body suddenly went cold. She touched her abdomen. There was blood. Too shocked to form words, Pixie simply looked at Tsubaki.

Holding her bloody wound with one hand, the petrified soldier kept her pistol trained on the her attacker. Pixie said nothing before doubling over, unconscious. Tsubaki got to her feet and watched as the bandit's blood pooled around her, soiling the marble floor below.

What happened next was a blur in Tsubaki's mind. At some point she had taken Dio to an infirmary. Where on the tower, she wasn't sure. She wasn't even sure if the fighting was completely over, though it was much quieter in general now. The doctors had so much on their hands at the moment that they didn't even have time to look at her wound.

It was fine. Tsubaki didn't even feel it anymore.

In fact, she couldn't feel anything at all.

Everyone had arrived, claiming their places among the pews. Grown men who'd been fighting side by side just a few hours ago were now carving a holy place up like kids in the cafeteria. Even the Bejic men weren't immune to it as each crew made it's own space as they talked among themselves as they turned away from the rest of the world. When they weren't throwing abuse at whoever had looked at them the wrong way. There was a lot of that going around as they each got more restless from waiting, meanwhile the civilians the priest had gathered were caught up in the middle of it all, looking lost and fearful. Filling this room were representatives of every major group left standing in Frostfall and Florian was walking right into the middle of them.

"You sure about this?" Erik asked him, looking uneasily at the urn Florian had placed tenderly in his care.

"I have to be."

The cathedral floor went quiet as Florian strode out like he owned the place, meeting the eye of every man that looked his way. The crowd went quiet. "It was nice of you all come. I hope no one will take offence from my choice of language... but I'm aware we have a multicultural audience with us today and I plan to be understood by everyone." His tone made it clear he didn't care even if the old guard were annoyed by this. There was the small number of press he'd called for writing down in their notepads and already starting to take pictures. Good, with luck this would reach every dome on the rock soon. Florian only hoped it would go as planned.

"Why'd you call us out here, Bejic? We've been kept waiting long enough." An old bandit heckled.

Florian seemed unphased. "Yes, I called and you answered." He didn't elaborate on that, just let it hang in the air and stared the man down. The same way he'd seen his father do in the past. He dragged it out just enough before turning away and getting back on point.

"You're here because you've suffered, because you've fought and bled for this city, for its people and for the chance that our dome could still have a future." That got a few mumbles from them but no one rose to cheer or clap. "Or maybe I'm talking out of my ass." Florian sneered. "Maybe you stood among those that set these streets on fire and filled them with corpses, pissing everything the people who built Frostfall made just for your own short term gain. Then, after it didn't go your way, you turned on your old masters and gave it a second try. That sums up most of you here, doesn't it? Those of you that weren't on the losing side, who were left cowering like animals waiting for help to come!"

That got a reaction. from them as men from every group leaped to their feet, yelling about how they didn't have to take this.

"Oh that touched a nerve didn't it?!" Florian yelled back, drinking it all in and letting them run out of steam as his voice rose above them. "But that is all the world sees when they look at Frostfall, at us. Savages, finally given the keys to the kingdom, who squandered it on petty greed and infighting! I look around this room and I see men who I was once proud to stand beside, to call my brothers in arms... even men I felt pride in calling my enemy. Now look at you. Look at what you've become. Faded shells of your former selves. Dogs clamouring over the legacy of wolves, simply because you can howl at the moon!"

"Dogs that saved your ass." One of them spat back.

"Yes! Yes you did!" Florian pointed at him, advancing with fresh energy and taking his heckler aback. No one, no matter how tough they were, liked surprise audience participation. "You stormed a tower, some you twice! How many people living can claim that? Not many I'd wager, and most that can are sitting in this room. Meanwhile... what did the rest of you do? Those that didn't fight, survived. Held on to what they could." He was talking to the community leaders now, the ones the priest had gathered. "Helping the countless injured and homeless. Feeding folks while they themselves go hungry. Showing folks... in a city filled with fighting, that brutality does not mean strength, that compassion does not mean weakness." He looked to all those gathered before him. "This is what I see, when I look to home. Damn what the rest of the world says, I see a place that was once full of beauty and can be again! If we stand together."

"And you want to stand with us now, Wolf? After disappearing to God knows where!"

"You know damn well I do! What's more you know I can. Who was it that raided the southern cartel lines? Who was the first through the gate when we stormed away the Maximov Bratva? But perhaps these stories are too old for you, it's not as if I came back from the dead an my name was used to rally you as an army." Florian shrugged, all showy for his crowd. "No, that all happened too fast, all the shadows. How could a man even do that?" The crowd murmured to one another, they could tell he was going somewhere with this and Florian's rises and falls had gotten some of them going. Some on nostalgia and others on the patriotic pictures he was painting them. "Why he does it just by putting on a mask."

Some of them clocked it just then. Others needed it explained to them as Florian gave them all the candid details of how he had run the bickering crews around each other, playing their systems against them and claiming their supplies and spoils as his own and giving them to his collared contact to pass out among those that needed it. He hadn't been one for bragging over the last few years but right now it was a necessity. He played every card he could. Florian shoved it in the face of the doctor present that it was him they owed the medicine and supplies they'd gotten just a few nights ago. How the local shelter had gotten that generous donation from a drug dealer that Florian had brought down with his bare hands and that was how they afforded the clean clothes and fresh food they'd used to help the families in their neighborhood. All in a classy kind of way of course, he didn't want them to feel shamed, just grateful. He even threw it in the face of some of the bandits present, after all it was their men he'd outdone. He only did it to the ones he knew would be responsive though. Ones that respected strength over logic. It all sounded like the heroic speech, as if he was rising to the occasion and being the noble leader, returned from his exile in the wastes to reclaim his home, it all sounded wonderfully storybook and by the end people were going for it. Some were excited, maybe even downright loving it.

And inside Florian was playing them all, knowing his audience well enough to see which buttons to push. One thing they taught him growing up, not just Vasa but his mother, Anna too was how to play the game. His speech went on, questions were answered and promises offered until Florian reached the end. They still didn't know where he disappeared too, he doubted they wanted to know. The mystery held more power than the priest did.

"So this is where we all make our choice, where we decide what future we make together. Who will help me make it a reality?"

"And you'll lead us?" Someone asked. "What makes you good for it? There are other noble families, relatives of our old ones out there, some of them might come calling."

"Because he is not just the son of Vasa Bejic!" Erik interjected. he stepped forward and people parted ways for him to make his way forward. The white haired bandit held up some papers as if they were a weapon and spoke to the crowd like the experienced orator he once was. "He is also the first and only child of Anna of the family Pajari, Lady of the Hussars and heiress to the Pajari legacy." He shot a sideways look to Lilith, some distance across the room. There were bigger things to dwell on now but still he wondered how she'd take all this.

"That makes me the closest thing to your old masters left standing in this city." Florian said sternly to any loyalists that may have been left. "I was bred, not to be a bridge between the classes. I was made to rule you." He let a beat pass. "I do not wish to. Instead... I beg to serve you. I offer myself up as sacrifice for what has happened here, my will will become mine, my life will become yours. I do not ask you to kneel or bow. I ask, who will stand with me?"

"Erik Ablev stands with Florian Bejic!" The old man roared.

"Irena Ellet stands with Florian Bejic came a woman's voice from nearby.

One by one others joined their chorus. Florian's old pack were first, conrad, Hansel and the madman they just called Bleach, even Alexie was there to lend his voice and as each one did others followed them. Even the elderly priest lent his voice to the choir. Until the whole hall was joining in. Eventually they calmed down and the priest stepped forward, Erik had pulled him aside and let him know what to do if this worked.

Florian bent down on one knee as water was applied to his brow, repeating the words of the oath of the coronation as they were given to him. Offering his blood, his life and his soul for Frostfall. And so the priest spoke the words. "Then rise, Florian Bejic, first of your line. High lord of Frostfall and protector of the northern domes." And Florian rose to his feet and the hall erupted into the chant.

"LORD OF THE NORTH! LORD OF THE NORTH! LORD OF THE NORTH!"

"Be straight with me Jake, think there's anythin' there between me and the cowgirl? I'd like to say there's not, but I can't stop thinking about her..."

Ruffles tried to give Bennie a serious look, but couldn't quite manage it. Grinning, he got up and crossed over to a ventilation grill mounted low on the wall.

"See these? They're running through the entire vessel, like veins. And when you make veins outta sheet metal and concrete, then put 'em in something powered by explosions, shit's gonna wear out."

Turning, Ruffles put his back to the wall and slid down it. "So I honestly spend half my time crawling around the vents back on the Maiden, because it's also the easiest way to access some of the other stuff like plumbing, and the auxiliary cooling tanks. And you know what I learned being inside the veins of a ship? Veins and vents get a lot of acoustic backwash. I don't go listening, and I don't exactly hear everything, but there's a reason I've kept Allie mostly outta there since she's been here, man. My point being, if Whiskey had a problem with what you've been doing a half assed job of pedaling at her, you'd have woken up in Maria's infirmary by now."

Bennie chuckled. "I knew she was a tough girl, but I never took her for a 'Pixie'," he said. "Thanks, Jake. She has some things to work out on her end, but if she's interested later... well, you won't see me complaining." The big man turned away and looked out towards the horizon. "We're almost to the rendezvous. Go ahead and get the ship prepped for landing."

"Sure thing, Captain," Ruffles replied. Jumping to his feet, he grabbed his bag and left.

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

Were it not for the armored crawlers parked in formation around it, the hatch on the hill would have been undetected.

Payton was down the hatch, under the hill. He was sitting on a small hard backed chair in the hill's bunker, sipping scotch. The only other man in the room with him stood silently at the door. The only splash of colour on Fargo's black combat gear was the red komodo dragon bandana tied around one arm. The man was bristling with weapons, and those were just the ones Payton could see. Four pistols, two on his hips, two under his arms. A semi-automatic carbine was slung across his back, and there were numerous long handled knives across his body, along with who knew how many concealed weapons. The top half of the man's face was completely obscured by an ever present pair of heavy tactical goggles. What was left exposed still gave away nothing.

"Our guests?" Payton asked.

"Inbound," Fargo replied. "I saw them take the ship. Clean job, despite a few minor altercations. Seems they're breaking in the new blood."

"What about the one in Talbot's employ? The one you told me about; Vanco, I believe?"

"Dead."

"I see, I see. And who saw to that, then? Did the good Captain deal with that one personally?"

"Nope," Fargo replied. "The Bandit Queen's son went after him."

"And walked away? How impressive. Perhaps we've underestimated his progress. Vanco was formidable, wasn't he?"

"I believe the exact words I used were 'he's alright,' sir. Still, it wasn't the Monroe boy that finished him. He simply engaged the target. Talbot's own son intervened before Vanco could overcome the boy."

"The one who went missing?"

"Yes sir."

"Interesting." Payton took a sip of scotch. "This is why I always respected the Carmines, you know. They know how to bring the steel out in a man."

Fargo didn't exactly smile, but his lips became taut. "Didn't you have them destroyed?"

"Yes, but really, that I felt the need to do that is the highest respect I could pay them, Fargo."

"I understand, sir. They must have been an admirable threat."

"Loathsome would be the term I would use."

"Yes, sir."

Bennie hadn't set foot in New Haven in a long, long time. Not since the Wilkes-Vines family butchered his own.

Not since Payton drove Bennie's father to suicide.

He'd have to put all that behind him. Today was about settling a debt and had nothing to do with the Carmine family. They were dead and gone, never to return to the Rock. Despite how often Bennie reminded himself of this fact, it never became any easier to accept.

Once they had landed, Bennie dismissed the crew so Payton's men could get to work. Tallahassee and Ruffles were to accompany him during the meeting and no one else. The rookies needed a rest, after all, and after their last run-in with Wilkes-Vines, Bennie couldn't trust Sprout in their presence. Whiskey would stay aboard the Maiden as well. At one time she'd have made an ideal liaison, but considering the situation with her lover, Bennie couldn't risk taking her along. She would be way to vulnerable to emotional manipulation.

"Payton?!" Bennie blurted. "He's here?!"

The lieutenant he was speaking to nodded his head and signaled to the hallway behind him. "Yep, the man himself," he explained. "He figured he owed you some face time--or that's what he told me, anyway. You know how he is."

"Unfortunately."

"He's waiting for you down the hall," the bandit reminded the big man.

Bennie regained his composure and nodded. The trio of Maidens continued down the hall. "Be ready for anything," Bennie instructed. "Payton doesn't play by anyone's rules but his own."

Tallahassee nodded in compliance, but kept his thoughts to himself.

Don't snap on us now, Boss.

"LORD OF THE NORTH! LORD OF THE NORTH! LORD OF THE NORTH!"

Behind Lilith's smile was the sense of impending loss, everything was moving so fast, she barely registered the fact Florian was of noble blood, not that it would surprise her, most of the old families could trace their lineage back to one line or another. As proud as she was of this moment, and what they achieved, a stark reality was closing in around her.

She'd be leaving Frostfall alone.

Lilith couldn't expect Florian to go back to the Maiden with her, pick up where they had left off and pretend this was nothing more than another job. This was greater than her now, more important than her feelings, more important than her love.

As the crowd cheered Florian began moving through the throng of people, shaking hands, and was slowly swallowed up by his people.

Lilith suddenly felt very alone, and very tired. Laughing through her nose slightly, the girl ran a hand through her hair and turned on her heel, lighting a cigarette as she began moving away from the crowd. This was where he deserved to be, this was where he was needed and where he could do the most good. She couldn't indulge the selfish part of her who wanted to whisk him away back to the Maiden, but she could smile at the thought.

"Where is that radio tower?" She asked her self, sighing as she stuffed her hands in her pockets and began walking into the quieter part of town.

It was time to go home.

Jun leaned back slightly, tilting the chair he was sat upon. Through the window he saw the smoke was still billowing from Basilio Tower. However, the radio was silent. Had been for a while. The bratatat of machine guns and booms of explosions had slowly stopped. It was over. The bloody battle which never should've happened was over. He got out of the chair, switched the radio equipment, gave the pub's landlord a silent nod off and headed back to base.

There was always a quiet tension after a big battle, the question of whether it was really the end hung in the air. As Jun got nearer to the Tower, there were signs of cleaning up. Worned faced soldiers stood guard at posts where their predecessors had been shot down. Others were assessing the damage. Naturally, Jun had seen carnage before but the quiet aftermaths always reminded him of stories of the '79 bombing back in Mugunghwa-i. Hell, he'd seen the fifty year old wreckage left in its wake up close. The site of the destroyed state building had been turned into a training ground, complete with shock collar fitted prisoners to practice upon; an instrument of revenge against the Kumiho; the site of Jun's first kill.

Nevertheless, he reached the Tower and leant against a wall, hearing the chatter of the other soldiers present. It wasn't exactly easy to ignore the words of a particularly excited one.

"So, there were a few bouts of returning fire and then a motherfuckin' cyborg shows up and cuts the enemy down his sword. He was so fast!" The soldier said as he made cutting motions.

"Bullshit!" Another spat.

"Hey, we all saw 'im. Ain't my fault you decided to crawl inna hole somewhere." A third countered.

Before any more of the sillyness continued, Jun interruped. "Any news of O'Lafferty or Saburo?"

"N-none of O'Lafferty, Major." The formerly excited one replied, "Saburo, on the other had, saved our Lord from the Bandit Queen. She apparently threw herself into the frag when she saw our Lord in danger and survived to boot."

Jun nodded. 'How fortunate for her.'

As the wheel on the large iron door spun, Payton looked up.

Bennie Carmine filled the door briefly, filing quickly inside, followed by two men whose faces Payton recognised well. It was good to see he was taking this seriously. But then, Payton had expected nothing else.

"Captain Carmine, good to see you." He nodded to Ruffles. "Mr. Miller, I do hope you've thought about my proposal."

"Yeah, I have," Ruffles replied.

"Good, in due time." Payton turned his attention to Tallahassee. "Ah yes. Well, my boy, if you ever need good money quickly." Payton smiled as he said this. There was no laughter, but his tone held a certain amusement to it. They all knew Tallahassee wouldn't be caught dead working for Payton outside of obligation.

"Allow me to introduce my associate. I could tell you his name, but as I understand, he isn't fond of that. He prefers Fargo."

Tallahassee simply rolled his eyes. "Fuckin' knob jockey," the cowboy muttered under his breath.

"It's a pleasure," Bennie said, his disinterest apparent. He turned his attention back to Wilkes-Vines boss. "There's no need to drag this out, Payton. We delivered the package as instructed. I trust we're square?"

"I imagine so," Payton replied. "That leaves the issue of Mr. Miller, but after that, I'd like to have a word alone with you, Captain."

Bennie glanced over to Jake and frowned. "You sure about this, Jake?" he asked.

Ruffles sighed. "Yeah, pretty sure. Guess I'm staying behind after you guys leave, huh?"

"Oh, that won't be necessary," Payton said. "I expect you have proper goodbyes to make. A last celebration or something. I'll see you in New Haven, two days from now. The guards on the dome entrances, and on the gates to my estate will have your name and picture. You shouldn't have any trouble getting through."

"Can I expect any compensation for you poaching my most valuable man?" the big man asked.

"Of course," Payton replied. Turning, he motioned to Fargo, who produced a very large suitcase with a noticeable amount of heft to it, and planted it on the table.

"According to my calculations," Payton said. "That is thirty five percent of the Iron Maiden's selling price when it would have been new out of the shipyard. I hope that's satisfactory."

Bennie chuckled nervously. "You're too kind, Payton," he said. "I'd say Jake's worth three Maidens at least. Consider that an endorsement, not a complaint."

"Of course," Payton replied with a smile. "But if I spend the cost of a number of ships thoughtlessly, I'll find myself with no job for Mr. Miller here to perform."

"I don't know, he makes for a half-decent brewer."

"And horticulturist, if my sources are accurate," Payton agreed. "Now to our final piece of business, and then you can take our leave. If you'd be so kind as to dismiss your men, Captain."

With that, he turned and looked at Fargo, who, after a moment of hesitation, stood up, turned and left.

Tallahassee and Ruffles followed after Fargo. It was just Bennie and Payton now.

If the Maidens weren't in a vulnerable position, Bennie would have his hands around Payton's throat the moment they were left alone.

We can't all get what we want.

"What's this about?" Bennie asked in an unamused tone.

"Like it or not, Captain, you and I go back quite some way," Payton replied. Calmly and slowly, so as not to alarm his guest, he produced a revolver and put it on the table so he could get a look at it. It was ancient, dark metal, with an esoterically large hammer. The cylinder was smooth, and the barrel was engraved with the words, 'Non Timebo Mala'. There was a pentagram cut roughly into each side of the grip.

Eddie would have recognised the weapon on sight. It was the gun carried by his mentor.

It was followed by a box of bullets, from which Payton loaded it with a practiced hand. Flipping his grip on the weapon, he offered it to Bennie, with the barrel planted squarely on his own forehead.

"Let it not be said I never offered you exactly what you wanted," he said.

"You have a death wish, old man?"

"No. But I wouldn't be where I am if the idea bothered me, either. I'm still waiting. What will it be?" There was a pause, and Payton smiled again. "What will it be, old friend?"

"Fuck you!" Bennie hissed between his teeth, struggling to keep calm. This was all just posturing. Payton was just trying to get under his skin. "You think I'm gonna put my whole crew at risk for some petty revenge? You and my father had a lot in common, but don't think for a second that I intend to inherit your pissing contest. If and when I kill you it will be for one reason and one reason only..."

Payton straightened up, flipped the gun back into a proper grip, and dropped it in its holster.

"And why will that be?"

"Business."

"And that is why I respect you. But now with that necessity out of the way, I can ask you the real question."

Bennie rolled his eyes. "Knock yourself out," he said.

"I imagine you'll be sorely tempted to do that yourself," Payton replied. "It's been at the back of my mind for some time. Your answer will be wrong, but that's sort of the point."

Arching his fingers, he looked Bennie in the eye. "Why do you think I killed your family?"

"Payton," Bennie began with a sigh, "why waste my fuckin' time like this? You honestly think I give a damn? The Carmines are dead and gone. The Iron Maiden is my family now. Let the dead rest."

"And after this, they can. Believe it or not, this is important to me. We all need our closure. Answer the question."

"You're a coward?" Bennie guessed. "They were a threat so you had them eliminated."

"No," Payton replied. "I could have moved out to other territories. Your father's shadow wouldn't have stretched far enough to shade me."

Opening a drawer, he produced a picture in a gilted silver frame. The picture inside was covered in creases, as though it had been savagely balled up and thrown away at one point. It showed two men holding each other close. One, despite black hair and a clean shave, was recognisable as Payton. The other had thick hair in dirty blonde ringlets, and a classically handsome face. Payton slid the picture wordlessly across the desk.

Bennie cocked an eyebrow. "You haven't aged well, sorry to say," he said. "Haven't seen the other guy before."

"A shame you don't recognise him," Payton said. "He worked for your father."

"Well he's clearly not a family member. Must have been a contractor or something. If I ever met him I don't recall it."

"Oh, he was low ranking, to be sure," Payton said. "Before I had any real standing, and before I found the place I would one day make my own, I cut my teeth on mercenary work for a few different families, including yours. As parts of larger operations, of course, so my name didn't really come up."

Reaching into a gilded box on the desk, he produced a cigar, cut the end, and lit it. "His name was Damien. We stayed in contact long after I'd concluded my work for your father. Fast forward a few years, and I'm making a name for myself in a different family, the one I'd go on to usurp. They were coming to blows with the Carmines over a few territorial issues."

He took a drag on the cigarette. "By then, your father knew my name well. When I took control of my family and rebranded it under my own name, I tried to get Damien to join me. He refused. He loved me, but your father had afforded him certain opportunities, and he held a level of loyalty for him. He tried to convince me there would be a peaceful solution. I listened because he was saying it, of course."

Another drag on the cigar. "Your father wanted to shake me. The last I'd heard of Damien, he was going on some kind of secret mission. It wasn't until after some digging that I found out what it was. A textbook suicide run, with no backup. He was never meant to come back."

Bennie clenched his jaw. He allowed the silence to hang in the air for awhile before replying. "I never took you for someone who holds a grudge," he said.

"Just the one was enough for my taste," Payton replied. "So I deigned to take everything that man loved, just as he'd done to me. I never intended for him to take his own life, though. He had to survive to feel as I feel. When the news came through, I recall it was down to a margin of seconds to call off the operative I'd assigned to snipe you in the street. Not so you'd live with it, but... with your father gone, it was pointless. Contrary to popular belief, I do have a line."

"Am I supposed to be grateful?"

"No," Payton replied. "But I don't tell such a story inaccurately. I know you hate me, and I know you always will. But the point of my story is this:

"In the recent months we've been working together, I don't doubt there have been mutterings and discussions as to how I might snake oil you at the last second. How I'm going to inevitably betray you and condemn you and yours to a horrible death, or something equally melodramatic."

He stubbed out the cigar butt. "I wish to dash these concerns. Despite our history, Carmine, I do have respect for you. I quite like Miss Monroe, as a matter of fact. But the moniker of 'Bandit Queen' aside, you are one small crew on one small ship in a very large world. You think I'm going to stab you in the back when you're no longer useful to me? You are worth neither the time, nor the potential damage to my reputation. You are too small to be in any danger from me. So drop the goddamn arrogant assumptions, Bennie."

"Arrogant?" Bennie laughed. "If I were arrogant there wouldn't be any whispers at all. You're right, I will always hate you, but more importantly--I'll never trust you. You're a bad man with more power than you deserve. You can make all the promises you want, but we both know you'd sell us out if the pros out-weighed the cons. And it's not because you have beef with my family, or have any particular hatred for the Iron Maiden itself. No, no, you're far more simple than that."

Bennie sneered. "You're a business man," he said. "You're all about the bottom line. All about your rep. You take your vanity so far you're even willing to threaten the life of your surrogate granddaughter to make a fuckin' point, so excuse me if I don't take you at your word. Our working relationship ends the moment the Iron Maiden leaves this dome."

Payton sat through the tirade without reacting. When Bennie finished, he said, "exactly my point. But the pros will never outweigh the cons, because you are too insignificant for there to be any benefit in doing it. By all means, you could turn and start causing me trouble, but then you'd be the ones betraying me. But until that happens... well, the only crew member you've got who's particularly worth taking just agreed to work for me. So again, what have I to gain from lashing out at you in any way?"

"I'm sure you'll figure something out," Bennie said. "Are we done here?"

"More or less. I'd ask you to give Captain Monroe my regards, but I doubt you even know where she is."

"It's been a pleasure, Payton," Bennie spat before standing up.

"Be sure to come back any time you're feeling financially challenged," Payton replied as the other man got to his feet.

"I'll be sure to consider the offer," Bennie replied sarcastically. With that said, he turned around and headed out the door.

"One more thing," Payton called out as the door began to close.

"What is it?"

"I was hoping you'd bring Miss Fifer, so I could tell her in person, but... I'm afraid the father of her child recently passed on."

Bennie froze for a moment.

"Payton," Bennie began without turning to look at him. "I probably won't be the one to put you down, but when you do go--you'll die like a bitch."

It was the most honest thing either man had said since entering the room.

And with that, Bennie was gone.

The days following the hijacking went by quickly. After leaving New Haven the Maidens stopped by Crow's Nest, a small bandit-controlled dome not far from Frostfall. Lilith had contacted them the day before and told them all about what had happened there. Sprout was only mildly surprised when he realized they'd already been harboring an ex-noble before Jesse ever came around. Florian the priest, head of both a bandit and noble family? Casino was doing pretty well for herself, it seemed.

Then again, she was returning home now. Had anything actually happened between the two of them?

Then there was Cam and Aesop. The two Maidens had found their way back to the Maiden two days ago. Apparently Pixie had sent them back, saying the mission to kill Dio was hers and hers alone.

What 'appened out there Ma'?

Two towers on opposite sides of the continent were set aflame in the span of an hour. Towers belonging to the most powerful people on the Rock.

And the Gentleman was to blame?

Yeah fucking right.

Dio and Contessa had both survived their wounds, though neither were to make a public appearance until they had fully recovered. It seemed far too convenient. Had Dio foreseen Contessa's gambit and responded in kind? Were both attacks staged as part of some elaborate con? And what had happened to the Gentleman? His network went dark the moment Lombardi tower fell, and Amy was coming up empty everywhere she looked.

Everything about it reeked of conspiracy. And honestly, if not for his mother's involvement Sprout couldn't care less. Sure, he felt bad for Amy considering her... "connection" to Gents, but Sprout had never known the man to be anything other than a snake.

Who knows, maybe he was behind everything after all.

Look on the bright side, Lily'll be here soon an' you get ta' gloat about yer knew girlfriend to 'er.

Considering all that had happened in Frostfall it was a small miracle Lilith was returning unscathed.

Still gonna make 'er pay fer leavin' me behind. That fuckhead!

"Hey buddy, can I come in?" a voice suddenly called out from the hall. It was Bennie.

Sprout hopped out of bed and opened the door. "How's the negotiatin' goin' out there?" Axel asked.

"It's goin' pretty well, though I don't really feel comfortable packing so much carbon around here," Bennie admitted. "We've got protection in Crow's Nest thanks to Cranston's old contacts, but that doesn't always prevent up-starts from getting wise. I just finished going over our inventory. We just bought out half the town. We have enough weapons to arm a small army now. Word gets around, you know?"

"Yeah, well everyone in town also knows you pulled a job fer Payton," Sprout pointed out. "I reckon the punks out there shit their pants if ya' so much as mention Wilkes-Vines."

Bennie laughed. "I believe it," he said. The two of them sat down on the edge of the bed and shot the shit for awhile before Bennie shifted gears to something more serious. "Hey, look... I just wanted to say..."

"Don' say anythin' you'll regret, Bennie," Sprout warned him. "You know some of the younger recruits ar' shippin' us already."

"Don't remind me," Bennie said with a sigh. "Anyway... I wanted to say that, despite how I've treated you, I'm proud of you. You're coming into your own."

Sprout rolled his eyes and shoved the big man. "What'd I say 'bout the homo talk! Come on, Bennie!" Sprout whined before sharing a laugh with him. "You ain't doin' a bad job yerself. As Captain, I mean."

"Thanks kid," Bennie said. "I mean, Sprout."

Sprout simply grinned at that.

"Hey Captain, Sprout," Tallahassee's voice suddenly boomed over the ship's intercom. "We have a call incoming from Paradiso. Man on the line says Contessa wants to speak to the kid."

Sprout and Bennie exchanged a harrowing look.

This couldn't be good.

A short time later...

"Hello, is this Axel?" a woman's voice asked over the radio. She sounded weak.

"Lady Lombardi?" Sprout asked. "Yeah, this is Axel. Any news about Ma'?"

There was a long silence on the other end before Contessa finally replied. "I-I wanted to be the one to tell you this. I... I'm so sorry, son. She's gone..."

The bridge fell silent. Bennie bowed his head, attempting to contain his despair. It was only a matter of time until he snapped.

As for Sprout? That time was now.

The boy nearly broke his hand when he suddenly and violently punched the radio, totaling it after the third strike--and he didn't stop until his fist was a bloody mess.

Once he found his way back to his room he wouldn't leave it again for days. Not for Bennie. Not for Amy.

Not for anyone.

Ruffles stood on the open tarmac of Payton's huge shipyard, watching his crew, taking in the details of their work up on the web of scaffolding. He wanted to be able to get in there and help physically put his inventions together, even if it would only be for a small amount of the time. But the work crew given to him by Payton weren't ready for that, yet. For now, he needed to watch for errors. They were all accomplished engineers, but these were his designs. Now he had the freedom and finance to do as he wanted with them, the product was going to be cutting edge. The nobles in their glorified yachts could eat their fucking hearts out.

Hours later, when the twin suns were setting, he drove a dome car through the streets, leaving the main city behind entirely, until he came to a small, quiet district of villas. seven of the hugest on one side of the street had had the walls separating their yards smashed through by the occupants. He hadn't expected anything else from his family. Only one had the lights on, and there was a lot of noise coming from it. Some of it music, most of it cheering and conversation.

Ruffles was just a bit too tired for that. Maybe next time. He turned and got back into the dome car.

Back at his apartment, he cracked a can of blue soda, sat in an armchair by a coffee table, and started rolling a joint. When it was done, he lit it, and reclined back adjusting the chair low. It had been a good day, but he was exhausted.

He wondered what the others were doing right now.

He hoped Sprout, Allie, Maria and Bennie had liked their presents. They'd all reacted well, he thought. Ruffles smiled as he remembered giving them each their gifts in private.

For Sprout, he'd forged a new combat knife, and had even managed to get some stag horn off of the black market for the handle. For Allie, he'd made a portable, compact version of the ADS cannon he'd built. It was powered by a small plasma cell. He'd been young and dumb and in her position once. Maybe a bit older, but still. Young enough that he hadn't thought hard enough about taking a life before he'd had to do it. He wanted her to have other options.

He'd stolen Bennie's shoes one night, long enough to take measurements. He'd gotten some cash from Payton up front, so it hadn't been hard to have a good pair of boots made in an afternoon by a very handsomely paid cobbler. He'd always noticed Bennie went all in on his shoes. They always looked so fancy and easy to ruin. The boots he'd had made were handsome, but simplistic. Most importantly, they could have the shit kicked out of them and buff spotless.

Maria's gift was the one he was proudest of. He vaguely remembered the scooter she'd apparently lost before she'd come aboard the Maiden. So he'd built her a new one from the ground up. Concealing that had been hard. He'd taken to disassembling it partially and hiding it in the walls. The entire ship was rigged with wall compartments for the purposes of smuggling that he'd modified into the ship's design. It was times like this he was glad nobody knew about the ones in his lab. Hell, it was how he'd hidden his weed garden.

As he thought of Maria, his eyes drifted to the radio in the corner. He decided he'd call her tomorrow. Despite the fact he'd left the ship for a number of months, he wasn't totally ignorant of the fact that he had something pretty damn wonderful going with her.

The last few days had been a blur for the survivors of Frostfall's latest war. The period of it's turbulent history that had earned itself the name 'The Long Night'. It worked nicely, Erik was pushing it to everybody. Not only was it full of dark deeds but it was ending just as storm season was passing. The days were going to get longer, people's hopes were daring to rise, whole days had gone by without shootings.

The long night had passed.

And for Florian, a manic day was dawning. He spent his time being pulled to and from meetings, to planning sessions to being coached in the finer points of rule. People were leaping on the change and to their credit, no one was going to let this chance fail.

Orders were given to reopen schools and bandits that once laid wast to the streets escorted children to safely attend their classes. Military personnel gave their supplies and manpower to emergency rebuilding schemes as hospitals and shelters were flooded with fresh staff and volunteers. Not the greatest of deeds maybe but the city was making its first steps towards a peacful future.

What little personal time they had was visiting Irena in recovery. Things were tense between her and Erik but the old brute took everything she threw at him without complaint and went back everyday. Florian had gotten his own chiding from Lilith for going ahead and claiming his 'birthright' without running it by her first. He was loving it though, however rough the job ahead got, he kept going. He was helping people, in a far bigger way than he ever could as a priest. There was still a pain from Vasa's death... but he was working through that with the help of those around him. Diving into such demanding work helped.

And today they were working on a very big project. The renovation of the tower and their new base of operations. Right now they'd worked their onto the living quarters.

"I told you I'll have these rooms." Florian said, surveying the scorched penthouse.

"It's the smallest one though." Erik mused.

"It's cosy, I like cosy. Gunna snuggle up in here at night, put some tartan around the place."

"Why do you keep going back to tartan?!"

"Have you ever slept in tartan blankets, Erik? I have, they are ten times more comfy than any other form of blanket or sheet!" Florian said in the lordly tone he'd been practising.

"... You're enjoying decorating far too much." Erik rolled his eyes.

"It's great! I'm playing house for realsies." Flroian beamed like a child.

"You should have seen the kitchen back on the Maiden." Lilith chimed in, hands across her chest as she looked at the pair. "I think there are hospitals that are dirtier and less organised than that place when Florian was in charge."

Lilith had quietly resigned herself to what was happening. Florian was... well, not happy, not yet, it was far too soon, but he was keeping busy, doing good things, the atmosphere of the entire dome was already changing for the better, and that sense of accomplishment was having an effect on the man.

"And I will bring that to all of Frostfall and we shall have the prettiest dome in the world! I'm going collar some street kids painting graffiti but instead of arresting them, I'll get them to paint beautiful murals around their neighbourhood. They shall go through a heartwarming journey and believe in themselves for the first time." Florian went on, letting himself indulge in some wimsy while he could.

Not that Erik would let him. "That's stupid."

"Your face is stupid."

"Come on lads." Lilith chuckled. "Let's all agree that both your faces are stupid in equal measure."

"Turning on both of us like this." Florian sniggered. "And the old ladies at the women's institute thought you were such a nice girl."

"Satch a nice vyung gal!" Erik joined in, broadening his accent even further and putting on his best old lady voice. "I has grandsoon, is doktor, he give you good-" He didn't get a chance to get to whatever filthy punchline he was working up to as the radio clipped to his vest crackled up. "We need real phones around here, damnit." He grumbled.

"Shared a few words with the person on the other end, their voice was difficult to understand through the static. Erik nodded along before his brow furrowed. "It's for you." He said quizzically and offered the radio to Lilith.

Raising a brow curiously, Lilith pursed her lips, shrugging her shoulders as she took the radio. "Gimme a minute." The girl said quietly, winking at Florian as she took a few steps away from the two men.

"Hello?... Oh hey Bennie, yeah it's me, what's up?" The other two resumed their conversation, Lilith's voice fading into the backdrop as she walked away from the pair.

With Lilith wandering off Erik and Florian got back to their bickering.

"It's going to cost an arm and a leg to get all these buildings fixed, you know. How are we paying for half of this?" Florian asked. He was still learning the ropes when it came to balancing books on this scale.

"Dead noble estates." Erik said simply. "They owned most of these things and since nobody wants to step forward to collect... well except you."

"I guess between that and all the drugs and gun money we swiped we should be covered huh?" He smiled a little at the thought of all these gun runners seeing their loot going towards something like a sunshine daycare building.

"Plus when it's done we can rent out your new place to film a porn." Erik nudged him with a smirk.

"It's porno, or porn movie, you don't have a porn."

"Okay...yeah... I-I'll... yeah." Lilith lowered the radio from her ear, her arms going limp at her sides for a few moments before the device fell from her fingers, clattering on the ground.

Florian and Erik's argument over porn based grammar came to a stuttering halt as they turned towards the noise. Florian raised a hand quietly for Erik to stay as he followed after Lilith. It was clear to see something was wrong.

"Hey, what's up?" He asked her tentatively.

Lilith barely registered Florian's question as slowly began walking towards the exit of the building. "I h-have... to go." Her voice was shaking, her eyes wide and glassy as all the colour drained from her face. "A-Axel... I need to..." She trailed off as words began to fail her.

Florian was only taken aback for a second as what little she said clicked. He cut her off as she tried to get by, looking like a wreck, the same kind he'd looked like a few days ago. "What's happened, Lil?" He held her, his hands on her shoulders.

Lilith froze as Florian grabbed her, slowly her body began to shake. "S-she's de..." She couldn't bring herself to say the words, as if refusing to acknowledge their meaning would somehow change things. Turning around slowly, she looked up at Florian. "S-she's..." her bottom lip began to quiver as tears welled in her eyes. "I-I..."

He didn't say anything more, Florian just pulled her closer into a tight embrace and let Lilith pour it all out. While this went on Erik quietly retrieved the radio and spoke to the person who'd contacted her. The look he gave Florian confirmed it.

He couldn't think of anything he could say that would possibly comfort Lil at a time like this. He just held her tighter, just as she'd done for him when he'd needed it.

"I... Flori-" She couldn't even speak, the sobs that wracked her chest were too much. The feeling of loss was instant, like something had reached into her and ripped away a part of her soul. It was like Axel in Feroxi all over again.

'Axel'

Squeezing her eyes shut as hot tears streamed down her cheeks, Lilith gripped Florian tight, tighter than she'd ever held anyone, terrified that the world might swallow her right now if given the chance.

"You do what you have to." Florian said softly. "I'm here for whatever you need... you just do what you have to." He knew her well enough to know where her mind was going and that he couldn't stop her.

After a few more minutes, Lilith's sobs had quietened slightly, and then after a few more moments, as she tried to calm herself, one sentence kept echoing in her mind, something to focus on, something that she made stand out above everything else.

'Axel needs you.'

For everything she was feeling, Axel was going through worse, and knowing him, he was doing it alone. He needed her, he needed her now more than ever, more than he'd ever need her ever again.

Through sheer force of will, Lilith calmed her breathing, sniffling as she pushed away from Florian, running her coat sleeve across her face. "I'm going." She said simply, wincing as she demanded the tears to stop. Turning on her heel, the girl quickly made for the exit, hands balled into fists, purpose in her step.

"Wait- what, now?" Florian headed after her. "You can't go now, you're in no state to travel out there!" He carried on, warning her about brewing storms and travel conditions, just trying to get Lilith to pause and take a breath. All to no avail it seemed. Erik followed at a distance, calling someone to get some emergency travel supplies.

Bursting out of the doors of the tower, Lilith didn't register the stares of several guards as she walked across the courtyard, the cold air stinging her eyes and cheeks as she maintained her pace. Florian was quick on her heels, begging her to see reason, but it didn't matter, nothing mattered, only getting back to Axel. She need to get to her bike, near the outskirts of town, a crawler, she needed a crawler, right now.

"She's going to leave all her stuff behind too." Erik added, leaning up to Florian and sounding like this whole thing was just a little bit boring. The exact kind of old man calmness that really got on Florian's nerves.

He shot Erik a look and immediately got back to chasing after Lilith, rounding on her as she got to the closest group of parked crawlers. "Please, Lil, just take a moment!" He pleaded. "There are fresh storms brewing out there that'll bury you if you rush off now. We have special crawlers, we can get some guides. You don't need to rush this alone."

"Now." Lilith mumbled as she tried the doors on the first parked crawler she saw. Locked. "I need to go now." She stated, getting more frustrated as the doors on the second crawler she tried were also locked. "I need..." the girl started breathlessly as the doors on the third crawler also failed to open. "I NEED TO GO NOW!" She cried, smashing her fist against the glass.

Florian took a deep breath and composed himself, he wouldn't look at her with pity. She had given him that same courtesy. He reached out slowly, placing a hand over her clenched fist. He wanted to comfort her, to help her somehow, but he had to stand his ground here as well.

"You can't help Axel if you get yourself killed out in the ash." He locked eyes with her, forcing her to take a moment in the quiet. "You aren't alone." However much she felt it, he had to make sure she knew otherwise. "Let me help you."

"Fuck you!" For a moment she fought against him, trying to pull herself from his grip. Locking eyes with Florian, her gaze was a both one of fury and despair. "FUCK OFF!" With her free hand she lashed out at the man, it was a hard punch, but fortunately didn't entirely connect.

She'd clipped his jaw. Florian didn't say anything. His grip on her hadn't been firm, though her hit hadn't been strong enough to stagger him back properly. Still, he let go. He knew from the start he couldn't stop her, he just hoped it would go better than this.

["Keys. Who's got the keys for this?"] He called out to the nearby staff who were trying desperately to look like they weren't watching. After some hesitation someone stepped forward and handed him the keys to one of the nearby crawlers.

Florian wordlessly gave them to Lilith.

The girl snatched the keys from Florian's hand, panting angrily as she glared at him.

Then over the span of a few moments her breath went ragged as her eyes softened and glistened again. "I didn't mea..." she winced as she hesitantly raised her hands.

"You do what you have to do." He said softly, reaching out just enough to brush the tips of her fingers with his before quickly pulling away. "You know where I am." He stepped back and gave her space to drive away.

Lilith sobbed slightly, quickly stepping foward, she hugged Florian briefly before pushing away, fumbling with the keys in the crawler door before crawling into the driver's seat and firing up the engine on the crawler. He met her eyes as she looked at him through the windscreen, a part of her begging her to stay, to do this properly, like he'd said, but she couldn't, this was the only thing stopping her from completely breaking down.

'Axel needs you.'

Tearing her eyes away from the man she loved, Lilith kicked the crawler into reverse, tyres screeching as she quickly backed up and spun the vehicle around before heading to the outskirts of town to retrieve her bike from Irena's apartment.

Florian watched her go, managing to hide most of the hurt in his eyes. A punch and an embrace seemed to be the natural way of things for them. Things never got to stay simple for long... if they ever managed to get there.

["What happened? I went away for a second."] Erik knocked him from his thought, suddenly appearing by Florian's side.

["She'd gone."] Florian sighed.

["Couldn't wait, huh?"]

["Nope."]

["Sucks, right?"]

["Yep!"] Florian blew air threw his nose and turned back to the tower. ["I have work to do."] He called behind him, shoving his hands in his pockets. Part wondering if Lilith would ever be back.

Erik hung back, knowing when to give the boy his space. He watched the crawler speed off through the narrow streets, taking a moment to enjoy the strong breeze across his face. This could make things interesting. ["The queen is dead. Long live the queen."]

Lilith stumbled around Irena's apartment, grabbing as many thick jumpers and blankets as she could fit into her pack. The Maiden was docked at the Crow's nest, that was less than day away, even less if she gunned it and drove through the night. The fact that this didn't register as remotely dangerous in her head was an indication of just how unclear she was thinking.

Kick starting the bike, Lilith wrapped herself in as many layers as it was feasibly possible, climbing onto the bike, she headed for the exit to the dome, grabbing a couple of tanks of gas on the way.

The cold hit her instantly, clawing away at her as she made the bike give her everything it had. She didn't think of the rapidly declining temperature as she hurtled through the ash, she didn't think of what would happen if the bike broke down, how getting stuck this far away from the dome was a death sentence, she barely acknowledged the thundering storm bellowing above her.

Nothing in the world could stop her right now, not the cold, not the weather, not her grief. Not even Florian. That all paled in comparison to what she needed to do right now, where she needed to be.

As darkness fell, the storm lulled as she travelled further and further from Frostfall, Lilith's hands were completely numb, even in two pairs of thick gloves, what little moisture there was exposed on her skin and hair had frozen, forming crystals on her eyelashes. She had never felt cold like it, and yet she immediately quelled the voice of reason in the back of her mind.

'Get to shelter!'
'No.'
'Turn back!'
'No.'
'Go back to Florian! You can wait a day!'

The answer was always the same. Pixie would be proud of her stubbornness.

Would have been.

Several unbearable hours passed, and not once did Lilith slow down, if this was any other day, she'd have been convinced she'd travelled faster than anyone had ever travelled by land between Frostfall and the Crow's Nest. Any other day.

As the dome finally peaked over the horizon, Lilith's gaze was drawn to a smaller speck miles West, she'd recognise that tiny silohouette anywhere.

'I'm coming, Axel'

---

"Cap'n!" Allie called out over the intercom to the bridge. "Cap'n I got somethin' incoming on the sensors, a wee thing, it's fast, might be a crawler? Do you have a visual?"

Bennie was busy nursing a whiskey bottle when the call came in. "One sec," he replied before making his way over to the bridge's main window. Brock handed him a pair of binoculars so he could get a better view. "That was fast."

"It's Lilith," the big man said into the mic. "Let 'er in."

"Aye Capn'" Allie quickly flicked off the intercom and rushed down to the hangar.

Pulling a breather off the wall next to the control panel, Allie locked down the hangar as she initiated the opening procedure, visibly shivering as the colder Northern air hit her. Blondie was coming in hot, for a moment it didn't look like she was going to slow down as she hit the ramp. Barely travelling more than a few feet into the hangar, Lilith dismounted the bike before it had even come to a complete stop. Without even acknowledging Allie, she stumbled forward clumsily, as if she had forgotten how to walk. How long had she been driving that thing? Allie glanced at the bike, it had certainly seen better days.

"Bennie'll want ta see you." Allie called after Lilith, closing the ramp and taking the hangar off lockdown. Blondie ignored her as she moved down the hangar, quickly regaining the proper use of her legs, and began peeling off what looked like blankets and a sweater or two, leaving them behind her on the floor, along with her breather.

Bennie was halfway down the hall towards Sprout's room when he spotted Lilith marching towards him. "Hey Lilith," Bennie called out, his voice weary. "Sprout, uh... he hasn't spoken to anyone in days."

"I know." Lilith mumbled, the first words she had uttered in almost a day. Barely looking up at Bennie, her determined, almost panicked expression told him everything he needed to know. She brushed past him quickly as she moved further down the corridor.

"We'll catch up later," Bennie whispered mostly to himself as she passed by.

If anyone could get through to the boy, it was her.

Standing in front of the door to Axel's room, Lilith gently tapped on the door, ignoring the painful chill that still lingered in her fingers.

No answer came.

Resting her forehead against the door, Lilith closed her eyes for a moment, her body screaming at her to sleep. "It's me, Axel." She said softly, placing her palm on the cold metal.

A full minute went by before the door finally opened. The man Sprout had grown into over the past few months was gone, replaced by the frail, broken boy that stood before her now. He looked directly into Lilith's eyes.

She couldn't stand what she saw behind them.

Lilith's fatigue was instantly replaced as she searched the boy's face. His eyes were bloodshot, his cheeks were raw from where he'd been wiping away the tears. She wanted nothing more than to break down with him, just the two of them crawl into a corner somewhere and never leave.

But that's not why she came back.

Exhaling slowly, Lilith fought back the rising at the back of her throat.

'Be strong for him.'

Forcing a sad smile, her eyes glistened as she held open her arms.

"I know, sweetheart."

He collapsed into her embraced and simply... existed there. He had no tears left to shed, but even still, the pain persisted. He was grateful for her, even if he couldn't find the words to tell her.

Lilith closed her eyes, cradling the back of the boy's head as she held him close. "I know." She said again, her voice cracking as the threat of tears closed her eyes.

She didn't let them fall.

Amy maintained her silent vigil, sat against the wall outside the door to the Captain's Quarters... Pixie's room. This was where she spent her free time now, not that there had been a lot of that lately. With no particular speciality to speak of when the Maiden was docked like this, she tried to help out wherever an extra pair of hands was needed (or rather, where a thin excuse for one could be found for one). Through her contacts, she'd managed to requisition such a surplus of medical supplies for Maria that finding a place to put it all became its own logistical problem, and she must have cleaned every gun in the ship's now ample armoury by now. Between that, training, helping Whiskey look after Millie, and begrudging pauses for food and sleep, she'd been trying to find ways to divide her time down to nothing...

And still she felt so useless.

Axel still wouldn't come out of his room, and Amy hadn't tried to force him. She understood enough about grief by now to know that it just had to run its course. When he needed her, he would come. Until then, she would wait. As for her own feelings? Right now, it was all white noise. So much sorrow and anger fighting for attention inside her head that she couldn't focus on any one piece of it. What first? Her mourning for Pixie? Her guilt at how they had left things? She didn't even know what to feel about The Gentleman. She'd never really thought of him as a friend. The man didn't have friends, and until recently neither did she; and yet, he was the first man to have ever treated her fairly, the first to ever put the power in her hands. Even now, she couldn't think of anyone among those she loved the most who understood her like he did. And now this silence? That could only mean one of two things: Either that the network was critically compromised, or that The Gentleman himself had ordered it to go dark, in anticipation of a storm he'd seen coming. The one thing she was sure of, was that Contessa Lombardi was lying through her teeth. Blowing up an Ivory Tower was not his style, and if he'd wanted Contessa dead, she would be.

There was no sign of Claire either, after the attack on Feroxi. The original mission Amy had sent her on with a simple nod of the head, that night at the heist, was long past void by now. Perhaps she was laying low as well? However, the dull pit in Amy's stomach begged to differ.

On the outside of all of this, Amy was a picture of calm. Well, that's what she was good at. Savouring the pain, cataloguing it, keeping it safe and contained until she could find its rightful owner, and return it to them in kind. This time, however, where was she even supposed to start?!

"How much more?"

Amy was pulled out of her tangled train of thought by Sandra coming to sit beside her.

"What do you mean?" Amy replied faintly.

"Just the last few days, I've been thinking..." Sandra said bitterly "How much more of this shit are we going to have to take, before we get to wherever we're going? First Georgia, now this. I can't stop myself from trying to second guess who's next."

"Lets not start placing bets." Amy told her, continuing to stare straight ahead.

Sandra looked a little embarrassed with herself.

"I'm sorry." She said, putting her head on Amy's shoulder "I didn't know her as well as you did. To be honest, she scared the crap out of me."

"That's fine. I'm not certain I really knew her at all."

"Still," Sandra continued "I know this must be hard for you. Kinda makes you wish you could go back to being stone-cold and independent, huh? Just bow out and go your own way, you know, before anyone has to cry over you too. Not that I'm planning to, or anything. I go where you go."

"Sandy," Amy cut in "I brought you on board because I wanted to keep you safe, but I don't know where the hell passes for safe anymore. I only narrowly escaped a broken neck just a few days ago, remember? If you want to leave, I'll set you up wherever."

"Well, on balance, I'd rather be somewhere with a lot of guns." Sandra replied firmly. "I'm staying."

For the first time in days, a small smile crept onto Amy's lips.

"To answer your question, no it doesn't." she said, after a few moments of silence. "A month ago, I'd have been right there with you. Cut and run while nobodies paying attention. Stay in control. Never bet anything you can't afford to lose, and never win something you really want. Worked out pretty well for me for a long time. At least, it never led to me sitting staring at a fucking door like she's waiting right behind it... waiting to jump out the moment I give up and say she won."

Amy's good hand balled into a fist, and she hung her head.

"I'm not saying you'll find it on this ship Sandra. You'll find it where you find it, but some day life is going to hand something to you that's gonna hold on to you tight. When that happens, don't you dare let it go, cause every day there are a few less good people in the world. From now on, we find the ones we can call our own...

and we will fight for them."

Maria tried to keep her aim steady as she squeezed the pistol's trigger. Half a second or so later, a tin can didn't look so healthy. Whiskey's training might've left her with a aim decent enough to hit whatever was in front of her but didn't help any bit with combating the wave of grief following the news of Pixie's death. The doctor holstered her weapon. It was certainly a little more effective than the hoedad she'd bothered carrying around for long. Though, there something to be said about a doctor with a pistol...

...Which would be probably be in lost under the sound of gunfire.

Setting aside the tin cans, Maria walked to the infirmary. An infirmary filled with medicial supplies rather than patients. While many would never see such an amount in their lifetimes, the mass of medical supplies was quickly becoming a messy monster. Maria must've organised and organised it a thousand times in a vain effort to contain it. She sighed as she spotted a part where a bunch of boxes had fallen over. Typical. Time to start again.

A lot had happened in the past few months. First there was the end of the Talbot rain, which brought the revelation that Jesse was in fact of noble blood. While that did explain a few things, Maria still thought the boy was a bit... touched in the head at times. Even if he was starting to dial it back a bit. Then Ruffles left. The goodbye contained more sass than smushy stuff. Maria smiled as she thought of his goodbye gift: a reincarnation of an old friend. She wondered where the original was, perhaps some bandit had swiped it and made a name for themselves like with the Iron Maiden.

Suddenly her smile stopped.

Though she'd only had a conservation or two with the Bandit Queen, her absence echoed through her ship's hull. The boy Maria saved had locked himself up in his room. No surgeon could fix what ailed him, or the the rest of the crew for that matter. Even the ever upbeat Jesse seemed under the weather.

That was the problem with bereavement, the maddening void where a person was supposed to be.

Maria tried to brush those thoughts away as she slayed the monster of boxes, leaving to wake again another day. Well, on the bright side, at least Lilith had returned home safely. Right?

With her home under Wilkes-Vines control, Elizabeth had very few places she could go. Dio had survived the attempt on his life and knew of Elizabeth's involvement. His vengeance would be swift and merciless. If she joined up with the Maidens or sought protection from the Tigereye family, she'd only endanger their lives. There was only one real choice.

And Asad wasn't at all happy about it.

"Seeking asylum in Paradiso" was an epitaph if he had ever heard one--a point he'd made clear a dozen times since they left Feroxi. Still, he relented in the end.

It was the only choice that made sense.

And here she was now, a fugitive noble sitting in the waiting room of the most expensive public hospital ever built. With her tower in ruins, the Golden Empress would have to settle for a bed among the "common rabble" until her condition improved. Contessa's prized possession had crumbled the same night Dio's was set ablaze, and yet she managed to survive with some minor burns and a bullet wound in her shoulder. Odd that--both women getting shot in the same spot by the same man. That was assuming Contessa's story was true, of course.

Elizabeth had her doubts.

Though she hadn't yet spoken publicly about the attacks, Contessa's people claimed the attacks on Feroxi and Paradiso were perpetrated by the illustrious Gentleman. Elizabeth knew the truth about Feroxi, and if Contessa would lie about that she could be lying about Paradiso as well. Even about Pixie's apparent death.

If Dio had a body he'd happily leave it out for display.

Maybe that was just wishful thinking, but was it any more crazy than taking Contessa at her word?

If Contessa was behind it all it would certainly explain a lot. The summit being held that night had within it some of the most powerful and influential leaders among the nobility. Their deaths would lead to power vacuums in the oligarchy--vaccums that could be filled by shills and idiots that the attack's lone survivor would place there. Lady Lombardi would court order by employing chaos--the very same tactic Dio had adopted. Any blame leveled against her--if any existed at all--could be easily reasoned away considering she was in the building when it was bombed. Given his rather exaggerated resume and the nobility's general fear of the man, the Gentleman was an ingenious scapegoat--the perfect boogieman to rally the weak willed against.

Despite how much conjecture was involved, Elizabeth knew it all to be true. Contessa was a power-hungry tyrant. Just as much the control freak as Dio had ever been. She would cast the people of the Rock into darkness, and have them cower from a shadow. She would tell them she could save them, if only they follower her lead--and they would believe her.

Elizabeth would not count among their number, however.

She'd been through so much since the train robbery. She thought she'd opened her eyes, only to have her new found insight tested time and time again. Elizabeth didn't have all the answers, but she knew evil when she saw it and no longer had reason to fear it. Elizabeth would play her just as Contessa was playing the rest of the world.

And when the Golden Empress finally let her guard down, Elizabeth would usurp her ambition.

"How long have you been out here?" someone suddenly asked from Elizabeth's periphery. She had been so absorbed in thought that she didn't even notice the stranger's arrival. "Lady Maribel?"

Wait... I know you...

"Dr. Pym," Elizabeth said. "Sorry, I was just drifting off. To answer your question: I've been out here quite awhile, actually. It seems the good Lady doesn't enjoy unannounced company. If you're going to stay, could you give these flowers to her for me?"

The graying scientist cocked his head and shot the girl a curious grin. "You're not going to ask me why I'm here?" he replied.

"It doesn't take a genius to figure it out."

"Is that so?"

Elizabeth's expression grew serious. "You were working with Contessa the entire time," she claimed. "That, or you are working both sides." Adrian only smiled. "Let me guess, you're going to tell me something cryptic."

"And why's that?" he asked, his smile larger now.

"You seem the type."

Dr. Pym broke eye contact and nodded to himself. He had one helluva shit-eating grin. "You're just as cocky as she was, you know?" he told her. "Well, you are now anyway."

"Is this about Margaret?" Now Elizabeth was the one with her head cocked.

"I wonder who will bring her dream to life first," he said. "I wonder who she favors." Elizabeth simply watched him, unsure what it was he was getting at. "You mean to outwit the very Empress who freed you."

Elizabeth clenched her jaw, but otherwise remained calm.

Adrian laughed. "Honestly, I'd like to see you try. I'm genuinely curious if you can succeed," he said.

"What's your angle, Doctor?" she asked him, finally. "Whose side are you on?"

Adrian laughed harder. "I'm on the same side you are, m'Lady," he assured her. "I'm on the side of the people. I am working for a better tomorrow. For a better Rock, just like you are."

"We have very different methods, apparently."

"Perhaps," he said. "We all have different parts to play in this script, m'Lady. I have a good idea where most of us fit, but you remain a mystery to me. I'm glad you didn't end up as a bloodied plaything for that maniac."

"Like my sister, you mean."

Dr. Pym's cheery expression evaporated. "Yes," he said in a grim tone. After an awkward pause he walked over to the young lady and took the flowers she offered him. "Lady Lombardi will love these."

Elizabeth pursed her lips into a half-hearted smile and got to her feet. "You say we're all following a script," she began as she started down the hall, "yet I've been improvising--learning as I go." Before turning down the adjacent hall, Elizabeth looked over her shoulder and smiled confidently. "My sister wove a compelling story, but I don't intend to simply co-opt her work. I'm going off script, Doctor. It'll be interesting to see if you can keep pace with the new plot."

"Curiosity?" Pym asked whimsically. "You would have made a good scientist."

"I'll make a better conqueror," she said, chuckling slightly, before disappearing around the corner.

Adrian simply stood there for a good long while--staring down the hall--before suddenly crushing the bouquet in his hands and shoving the flowers violently into a nearby trashcan.

Only one of them would be standing at the end of this tale, and Dr. Pym wasn't quite sure who it would be.

That's what terrified him most.

End of Chapter 5

The Ashlanders - Chapter 6: The Blind Man's Last Gambit

Six Months Later...

Was this Elizabeth's tenth or eleventh session? She'd lost count some time ago. After countless hours laying down on that table, she never really got used to the pain. Still, Sebastian's pen couldn't hold a candle to Dio's knife.

The young Latino did a decent job keeping her mind off of it. He was charming in his own way, but he learned early on that telling jokes wouldn't fly. When Elizabeth started laughing she became a very difficult canvas to work with. He'd done considerable work on her--possibly his best ever--and he couldn't risk spoiling his masterpiece now. The young noble would just have to suck it up.

Something told him she'd gotten rather good at that.

"All done!" he announced with a sharp clap of his hands.

Elizabeth sighed with relief as he finished wiping her back. "How's it look?" she asked.

"See for yourself," he told her as he snapped a picture of her back with his Polaroid camera. Once the image appeared he handed it to his client. "It's still a little red around the paws, but the swelling should die down. If it doesn't look quite right once its down, come back to me and I'll touch it up."

"It looks fabulous, Sebastian!" Elizabeth declared with a huge grin on her face. "I can't believe it's finally done!"

Elizabeth was no longer the naive little girl she once was, and now she finally had something to prove that. Could any other noble claim to have a yakuza tattoo on their back?

All that pain had been well worth it.

Sebastian put his hands on his hips and cocked an eyebrow. "You know, you never told me why you went with this," he remarked. "Why a white tiger?"

"In New Roppongi they call him 'Byakko', White Tiger of the West'," she told him. "It's said that he only appears when the emperor rules with absolute virtue and the entire world knows peace."

"Sounds dramatic," Sebastian chuckled.

Elizabeth nodded. "I suppose so," she admitted.

Asad would say the same.

"So, Lady Maribel plans to win the Rock with peace and virtue?"

"I do," she replied. "I may crack a few skulls while I'm at it though."

Sebastian laughed and slapped her on the shoulder. "I'll be sure to stay clear of the explosions then," he said. "Come on, let's get you back to work. Captain Beatrix says we'll be arriving in Frostfall with the hour."

Elizabeth took the man's hand and got to her feet. Considering his unconventional proclivities, the virgin noble had no problem standing half-naked before him. "Thanks again," she told him as she slipped on her bra (she'd upgraded to a b-cup!). "I still can't believe its all over. I'll have to think of another one to get before too long."

"I don't know m'Lady," he said. "You seem like a one-tattoo kind of woman. But if you do think of something, you know who to call."

Elizabeth offered him a warm smile. "Of course," she said with a wink. "Well, duty calls." After putting on her white tank-top, she threw her jacket over her shoulder and headed out the door.

Her transformation was finally complete! A badass tiger tattoo on her back, a super-short, independent woman haircut and a lean build? That's a recipe for a badass noblewoman! Wasn't it?

Still a child when it comes down to it, Elizabeth thought, chuckling quietly to herself.

If she'd learned anything after all this time it was that she needed to lighten up. Taking herself too seriously wasn't good for her blood pressure, nor was it particularly effective against Contessa's people. They were all about pretension and humbling their peers.

No, she had kept her theatrical flair--even her dramatic intensity--but she'd also learned to laugh at herself. She figured the more she laughed at herself the less Asad would laugh at her.

Stop thinking of him. You're about to see Florian again for the first time in months!

Not only was her crush alive, but he was a noble now too!

Focus! This isn't about boys!

Being a virgin sucks.

"You couldn't bother getting fully dressed, m'Lady?" Captain Beatrix asked when Elizabeth arrived on the bridge. Despite being Elizabeth's subordinate, Beatrix never gave her an inch. Apparently she was just like that with everyone. It reminded her of Cranston.

Guess it runs in the family.

Elizabeth looked herself over. A white tanktop and slacks that flared out at the bottom. No shoes. Well, she was half-dressed anyway. "I just got out of an appointment," Elizabeth told her. "I understand we're about to dock outside Frostfall. I figured checking in with you took precedents over dress code."

Beatrix squared her shoulders. "You wear shoes on my bridge, m'Lady," she told her, pointing to the woman's bare feet.

Your ship?! I own this ship! I---I get what you mean.

She wasn't about to argue with the woman.

"Wait a minute, who's the noble here again?" Edea suddenly chimed in. The tall blonde approached the two women and offered the Captain a mischievous grin. "Forgive me if I forget who I'm sworn to protect."

Considering his extensive operational experience, Elizabeth had taken Asad off of security detail months ago--replacing him with Edea Fontaine, a minor noble who had spent her entire adult life serving the Lombardi family. She was a fencing expert and always kept her rapier close by. She was a pretty good shot, too.

"Can it Fontaine," Beatrix snapped.

"Status report," Elizabeth commanded, ignoring her bodyguard's quip.

Beatrix crossed her arms over her chest. "Florian's people will be there to greet us when we arrive," she began. "They'll escort us to the tower where the negotiations will take place."

"How do you rate our chances?"

The older woman shrugged. "There are a lot of factors at play, m'Lady," she said, "it's hard to judge. You are personal friends with their leader, however. That gives us an edge."

Elizabeth nodded to herself. "He's a good man, he'll understand," she said. "What about the Santiago op?"

"Colonel Barzetti and Commander Harel are about to engage," Beatrix explained. "They're above the prison ship as we speak, ready to make the drop."

"Good."

"M'Lady, we'll be in port soon," Beatrix said. "You should return to your quarters and get dressed before your betrothed sees you."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Fine," she relented before turning to leave.

The next 24-hours would seal the fate of Elizabeth's campaign. Santiagos and Bejics. If she didn't have their support there was no hope for Boomhower.

I'm counting on you, Asad.

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

Colonel Barzetti stood by the exit ramp--his free hand hanging casually from the metal handle on the ceiling. The rest of the soldiers under his command were sitting against the walls, on opposite sides of the cramped cabin, prepping for the drop. The red lights hadn't come on yet, but their pilot assured them it was almost time. The Colonel cast his eyes around the cabin and whistled sharply to get everyone's attention. "We drop in five minutes," he announced. "Red Team's with me. We're to secure the main deck and bottleneck the enemy. Commander Harel's in-charge of Yellow Team. Once we've breached the hull Harel's team will enter the bottom deck and systematically free the Santiago PoWs one cell-block at a time. Go it?"

"Yeah, yeah, Colonel, we've been over it a thousands times," one of his men whined.

"Then go over it a thousand more times in your head, Sergeant!"

"What about her?" another soldier said, pointing his thumb towards the back of the cabin. A lone soldier sat in the darkness apart from all the rest. She sat hunched over--her black hair obscuring her face. She didn't seem to notice the rest of them as she secured her ponytail into a bun and donned her helmet.

She hadn't spoken a word the entire flight.

Barzetti grinned. "A gift from the Golden Empress," he said. "Matador." Suddenly the cabin erupted in nervous whispers. They didn't last long. "Shut up! Don't worry about her, she's got her own assignment."

"She's not part of a squad?" one of the soldiers closer to the Colonel asked.

"No, she works alone," he replied. "She'll neutralize the engineering staff for us and drop the bird out of the sky when we make our escape." There was a content silence after that. "Anymore questions?! Harel?"

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

"Get up!" Tsubaki spat as she threw open the curtains, bathing Dio's half-conscious form in the light of the afternoon sun. Again with this? It was getting worse everyday. "You missed three meetings, m'Lord. Get your ass out of bed!"

The half-naked noble pulled himself up into a sitting position and rubbed his eyes. "You don't give me orders, Colonel," he groaned. "What time is it?"

"Too late," Tsubaki replied with a sigh. "You need to stop doing this. Sleeping in every day. It doesn't--"

"Shut. Up," Dio cut her off as he buried his eyes into his palms.

Tsubaki furrowed her brow. "Does it hurt?" she asked.

"Every second of every day," he replied in a grim tone. "Why the fuck do you think I stay in bed? The pain goes away when they're closed. When I don't need to see."

"And what of your vision, m'Lord?" Tsubaki asked. "How can you realize it if you won't open your eyes?"

Dio looked up at Tsubaki. His new eyes were empty. Lifeless. Much like the man himself these days. "You will have to be my eyes, Tsubaki," he whispered in a defeated tone.

Tsubaki clenched her jaw. "I am the instrument of your will, m'Lord," she said firmly.

"Thank you, Tsubaki," Dio whispered with his head hung low. "I knew I could count on you."

Tsubaki snapped herself out of her daydream and got out of the shower. Glancing into the adjoining bedroom she spotted Bryan, still asleep from the previous night's "festivities". Their "relationship" was part of their cover, but she still felt weird fucking him. Wasn't he in love with her or something?

After everything that's happened, he'd be a fool to.

After drying herself off with a towel, Tsubaki blow-dried her short hair before allowing it to settle into a natural bob. She still hadn't gotten used to seeing it--that deep, jagged scar that started at her eyebrow and ended on the opposite cheek. A souvenir from a previous life: one she'd gone to great lengths to put behind her.

Baka.

Being a war hero--saving Lord Basilio's life, hadn't really changed anything. Sure, people in Feroxi treated her like some kind of goddess now and gave her anything she wanted, but she never did want for much. After everything that had happened, she really just wanted to run away. To be left alone. But no, she was a hero now. She had a future now. She had to be Feroxi's savior now. Dio's savior.

It made her sick, but it gave her purpose--something she sorely needed, especially now.

Dio's plot had taken an unexpected turn and he needed her now more than ever. Pixie had crushed his spirit. Whether he would admit it or not, their encounter had left him scarred. He couldn't do this alone--even when Dr. Pym had his back. But Pym had betrayed him, just like Asad had betrayed her.

Baka!

Contessa was consolidating power. Uniting the nobility under a common cause. Her cause. Dio's vision wouldn't allow for that, which is why Tsubaki was in Paradiso now. While Contessa focused on uniting the nobility, Dio's forces would fracture it. A dozen teams had been spread out across the ashlands, and were doing their duty for their lord--working to sabotage everything Contessa had built over the past six months.

Tsubaki's team was a little different.

The new Samsara squad had been tasked with infiltrating and dismantling Contessa's oldest ally: the Russo family, Paradiso's native bandits. In a similar vain as their Frostfall mission half a year ago, Samsara was undercover as mercenaries looking to join the family. They had done well for themselves over the course of the past three months, but they had a long way to go before they were in a position to dismantle the entire enterprise. It was bold quest, but Tsubaki knew it could be done.

"Rise and shine Bryan," Tsubaki commanded as she stepped into the bedroom. "We've got work to do."

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

"What a generous donation, Mr. Dotson! The 'Castello Foundation for Underprivileged Children' appreciates your contribution to the cause!" Anthony Castello announced to a crowd gathered around his craps table. The sleazy, mustached noble patted Bennie on the shoulder and greeted the roaring applause with his pearly whites. Bennie, playing the part of the humble millionaire, averted his gaze from their prying eyes and grinned nervously. Anthony pointed to the heavy, metal case Bennie had brought to him. "Security, please take Mr. Dotson's contribution down to the vault. We can count the carbon later tonight."

"Right away, boss," one of the men said before kneeling down to lift the crate. "Christ, this weighs a ton!" The man said to the other.

Allie, keep your ginger trap shut or so help me, God, Bennie thought to himself as he watched the two security guards lift the case containing the little spitfire onto a dollie.

Moments later the eccentric casino-owner had forgotten about Bennie entirely and was looking at the two beautiful women on either side of him. Amy and Sandra were pros to be sure.

"Whiskey. Jesse. You're up," Bennie whispered into his comm. "Wait for Allie to give the signal. Go."

Sprout watched Bennie's display from across the casino, nodding in approval once Allie was carted off.

Don' fuck this up, kid.

Despite their recent successes, this op had everyone on edge. A casino heist took far more finesse than most, especially when the casino you're robbing blind happens to be aboard a ship that circles the parameter of the largest dome on the Rock--Paradiso. If anything went wrong they'd have to contend with a mountain of security and possibly even the military.

Still could be fun.

Content with Bennie's performance, Sprout turned his attention to Lilith. She was eye-balling a nearby poker table. It was almost time for them to make their move. "Hey sexy," Sprout joked. "Let's 'urry up 'an get this over with. Fuckin' tux's chokin' the life outta me."

Florian doubled over, hands resting on his knees and his brow dripping with sweat, one ragged breath rapidly following the other. Maybe he'd over done it. Seemed like Erik had passed on the gym nut bug to him. The old man wasn't even here and he'd still forced himself to go on as if that polar bear turned man had been snapping at his heels. The rush was worth it though. These points when he went through the old bandit style training regime were the closest things Florian had to personal time and he needed to get his blood pumping here, anything to help him stave off falling asleep in whatever meeting awaited him next. It was fun the first time. Florian had actually stopped and smiled to himself.

'I'm bored. I'm actually bored! When was the last time I had the luxury of finding something so dull I actually dozed off doing it, this is amazing!' This was what normal life was supposed to be like. How naive he'd been. To think he could stand before this torrent of budget meetings and audits with a smile. What a fool.

This wasn't going to be like the other days though, today he was meeting delegates of Boomhower, Elizabeth Maribel among them. Never had a tiny teenage girl made Florian so nervous before. It was one doozy of a situation to explain to Erik.

"You see it might just... be awkward since, when I was with the maidens I was.... kind of her jailer."

"How can you be KIND OF someone's jailer?!"

Oh he was never going to hear the end of that one. How was he even going to manage this? He got why she was coming, what she might want from them and Florian had been through negotiations plenty of times... but that was always with criminals! You knew where you stood with them, the mistrust was clear for all too see. Maybe they'd threaten to break your knees just to be clear. But this... he didn't know how to handle nobility politics! Irena had even hired an etiquette teacher for them, useless! All it had resulted in was Florian getting countless cane swipes from a bitter old crone and being confounded by the number of forks people apparently used at dinner. Was this all part of the great game his mother had once told him of? Somehow he'd pictured it differently.

No matter, he'd handle it as it came, just like he had everything else. The elevators were all back in working order and racing Florian back up to his little penthouse, now totally refurbished. He showered off the stink sweat and gave himself one last look over in the mirror. His scars had finally been given time to heal properly and most had faded to a colour closer to his natural tone. Most. They'd never go completely. The ally cat nick in his ear was in good shape. He'd been worried it wouldn't stand up well to the elements after he'd gotten his hair cut. worries that had quickly faded. Not like Florian's usual scruffy stubble, that had grown in force, despite how much Erik made fun of him and claimed that Florian was just trying to copy his beard. For a moment Florian allowed himself to look over the muscle he'd put on since getting back under Erik's thrall, feeling pretty smug for it. 'Oh God, maybe I am turning into a mini him.' That was a scary thought.

He moved onto the bedroom and looked through the collection of freshly pressed clothes, trying to decide what would look proper and formal. Most of those outfits were muted, military looking things. Florian's staff had told him it would look commanding while fitting with the image he'd shown to the world, an image they continued to refine. Being lord had certainly given him a bunch of nice material things, better clothes and living conditions than he'd ever experienced, Florian would never deny that but he might have traded it all just so he didn't have fight for the right to fight for the right to dress himself. 'You knew you'd have to play the part.'

He was half way through getting dressed when a vile howl erupted from the other room, breaking the pleasant quiet. "Not now, Rollo!" Florian shouted back.

A great mass of ginger fur shuffled through the door as the scarred up cat leaped onto the bed with a grace Florian had never suspected to look at it. It looked him in the eye and meowed again in its rasping, nasal little voice.

"Myeeeeh! That's you, that's what you sound like." Florian retorted. Rollo looked unimpressed as always and made himself a nest among the bed sheets. "You know none of the other cats are allowed past the fifth floor, but do you appreciate that?" (They had adopted a sizable chunk of the city's stray cats as 'security guards' to deal with the tower's rodent problem six months ago.)

Florian had first found Rollo the cat hiding among the ruins of the tower, back when reconstruction had just begun. As big and fluffy as he was Rollo was cowering among the rubble and shivering from a mixture of cold and fear. A pussy scar over one eye and missing a couple toes from one of his paws that left him with a slight limp. Just wishing the whole world would go away. Florian had seen a kindred spirit in that brutalized little creature, two scarred brothers in arms. He'd gotten a vet to see to Rollo's wounds and had made sure he was fed and watered over the coming days. Rollo had been slow to trust humans again and it had taken time until he would let Florian near him without hiding or lashing out. Then one night he'd edged closer to Florian and allowed the man to stroke his fur and purred. He suddenly changed his mind and fled later but it was progress.

Then Lilith had come to visit a few months later and the ginger bastard practically leaped into her arms! Snuggling away like no one's business. Dick cat.
======================================================
"Do you think they should have sent more people for this?" Erik mused.

"No, a big escort makes it look like we don't think they'll be safe. Besides, who could be better than us? Give 'em some sugar and spice to warm them up when they get in." Alexei smiled.

Erik did the same. The two of them had been talking in common all day, for Erik it had been weeks. Florian had childishly refused to acknowledge him whenever Erik spoke in their mother tongue. All part of the learning process he said. All to get Erik's language skills back up to the level they were back law school. Well he'd show them, he'd sow all of them! 'I'm gunna be mister dictionary over here!' Despite all the complaining he was having fun with it though. In fact they'd all been having a lot of fun these days, as if years had been taken off them. It was amazing how relaxed you could feel when you didn't live under threat of roving death mobs.

Things were changing in Frostfall and Erik was changing with them. Shedding his old bandit skin and remembering the man of the world he'd once been. It came easier to him then some of the others, he hadn't been born to the bandit world like Florian had. For Erik, it had been like finding an old friend. With their own people in charge he'd really been able to play havoc with the legal system of the city, the same thing he'd lost faith in all those years ago. His crowning achievement of course being "Ablev's Law" The legalization of same sex marriage in Frostfall. He touched the two wedding bands hanging from a chain around his neck and tucked it under his kevlar vest. The others may have sold out but Erik had kept his bandit work clothes. 'If you could see us now, Petrov.' Those queens back at the bar had better be praising his name, they'd never have to have a secret, illegal, wedding.

Thankfully Alexei hadn't made a thing of it. Erik had been worried the younger man would be a awkward to be around once they'd broken things off but he'd been surprisingly chilled about it. 'I guess we were never really a couple.' A Handsome you bi-boy like Lexei, he'd be fine, Erik'd bet carbon on it. Now if only things could go so smoothly with that lady from the agency.

"Oh- ooh I think we have incoming!" Alexei perked up.

Looking out the large viewing window of the dock they could see an airship approach from over the horizon. The view being nice and clear now storm season had passed, the closest thing Frostfall got to summer. "Remember you're on your best behavior."

"I promise to only mess with them a little." Erik smirked.

This was going to be... something.

"We've got work to do."

Bryan stirred and opened his eyes. Kicking off the blanket, he got out of bed, yawning all the way. He hadn't bothered putting on clothes after last night. It'd at least been going on long enough that any awkwardness either of them felt at the strangeness of their situation was, if not gone, at least on the back burner.

Crossing to a chest of drawers on the far side of the room, he searched out a pair of fresh underwear and started putting them on. "We may have work to do, but first, we've got breakfast to eat," he said.

"You want me to fix something up, or do ya wanna go out and get this pantomime o' ours started nice and early?"

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

For the umpteenth time, Ruffles tried to work free of his restraints. It was just principle, really. He'd designed them. Nobody was getting loose.

He was restrained in a moulded metal seat, pinned with a chestpiece like the safety restraints he'd seen on rollercoasters in places like Paradiso. On top of that, his wrists and ankles were in heavy duty cuffs. The WVS Shawshank was at half prisoner capacity, but he and the man next to him had this section all to themselves. As the man next to him was still unconscious, Ruffles had had a lot of time alone with his thoughts.

Giving the man a sidelong look, Ruffles winced, not for the first time. He'd thought Eddie looked like shit before, but the past couple of months had put him in a different league.

'So this is what you've been reduced to, Allie, you've been reduced to luggage.'

The young girl couldn't say she was surprised, being one of youngest members of the crew.

'Hey, you're fourteen now, ya practically a woman!'

Allie didn't feel particularly womanly, being jostled around in that metal case. Maybe she should have made it a big bigger? She hadn't realised that she'd grown a few inches taller, and wider in certain areas, as all growing young women do.

"You fucking drop me, ya cunts, and I'll shove this case so far up your arses, you'll be tastin' the fine embroidered leather lining." The girl sneered under her breath.

Suddenly the case stopped moving, and presumably the people carrying it.

"Did you hear that?" One man said.

"Hear what?" Replied a gruffer sounding man.

"I dunno, something about fine leather?" The fist man chuckled.

"Are you fucking high again? I swear to god, don't ruin this gig for us man, this is good fucking money." The gruffer one complained as the case began moving once more.

"Yeah, that's right you fookin' move." Allie sniggered quietly, bracing herself for more jostling.

After several minutes she heard several door and gates they passed through, the last being the largest and presumably the vault, if the sound of several mechanisms moving were any indication.

"Just drop it here." The gruff man grunted as the case lowered was lowered indelicately to the hard floor. Allie held her breath as she heard the pair walk away, followed by the sound of the vault door slamming shut.

Allie awkwardly raised a hand to her ear piece. "Chocolate Bear, this is Red Fox, I have successfully infiltrated Aladdin's Cave, over."

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

Lilith eyed up the joint, no amount of floor plans and blueprints gave her the feel of a place such as this, all the magic and pitfalls in a casino were the things that couldn't be mapped. The number of people, the frostiness of the security, the tables with high rollers, the tables with the high winnings, takings, all factors to be taken into consideration. One thing was for certain, the young woman was in her element after a long time.

"Hey sexy,"

Lilith raised an eyebrow as she glanced at the boy.

"Let's 'urry up 'an get this over with. Fuckin' tux's chokin' the life outta me."

Lilith turned to get a better look at Sprout, crossing her arms over her chest as she rolled her eyes. "I'll choke you if you don't quit your bitching." Taking Axel's arm, the pair began slowly moving across the casino floor, looking for the best place to start their mischief.

They couldn't look more the part, Axel was taller than Lilith now, by a good two or three inches, something he like to mention at least five times a day, much to her disdain. His stubble was thicker now, more defined, with very little patchiness. His long mop of hair was gone too, instead he now sported a very fetching buzzcut, although it had been a few weeks since his last trim. Lilith hated to say it, but seeing the boy fill out that tuxedo the way he did, with his broader shoulders and leaner figure, she couldn't help but feel a sense of pride in that.

She had been working him to the bone for the last half year, after all.

Not that she hadn't been holding herself to the same routine, Lilith was also a little leaner, more defined. Not that anybody could tell, with the long dress she was wearing. It was a sparkly little number, cinched in at the waist and strapless. A glittering diamond necklace hung delicately from her neck, resting comfortably above her bosom, with matching earrings. Allie referred to the dress as 'So fuckin' glittery, I think it's givin' me a seizure."

It was very glittery, white fabric, with long gloves to match. But the most important part was the shoes, red high heels, with a glossy finish.

"I fucking love these shoes, I don't care that my feet feel like they're being molested by a crawler engine, I'm fucking stunning." She gleamed at Axel, brushing a strand of long hair from her eyes. She'd grown it out like she'd planned, only with a slight change. The left side of her head had been buzz cut short, to where her side parting was, leaving the rest of her hair to be swept over to the right, reaching just past her shoulder.

"Do you think anyone will recognise me?" She whispered. All things considered, Lilith's make up job was perfect, she had Amy to thank for that. Her scars were barely noticeable.

If only Pixie could see them now.

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

Asad rolled his eyes as Barzetti rambled on, they had prepared for this mission a thousand times, they all ate, breathed, and shit the mission, the Colonel had made damn sure of that. The Major frowned as he scratched his thick, but short beard. It was a simple extraction mission, he'd done this dozens of times before. His thoughts wondered back to Elizabeth for the umpteenth time that day. Even though he hadn't been on her personal guard in a while, he still couldn't help but worry about the girl.

And that stupid tattoo she was getting finished.

'Ermergerd Asad it's sewwww kewwwwl!'

'No. Tigerman is not cool, stop trying to make Tigerman cool.'

But did she listen to him? Nooooooooooooooooo.

"Anymore questions?! Harel?

The Colonel snapped Asad out of his internal monologue, sighing as he brushed a hand through his long swept back hair.

"Only one, sir." Asad smirked, crossing his arms over his chest. "Would you mind going over the finer details again?"

Exasperated groans filled the cabin.

Janitors... again!Gale had been okay with it the first time she had to dress up as some shlub job, it made sense to go in disguise for the heist. And in the other jobs she'd been helping with over the last few months, they needed her to be low key, needed a subtle touch. She was good at that, Gale was a light handed girl, she was a team player.

But here, really?!

They move up to robbing the flaming ritz! The fanciest place Gale had ever laid her eyes upon where half the walls looked to be made of diamonds and pure light! And here she was in overalls again. Everyone else got to dress up all fancy and laugh it up upstairs where the champagne never stopped flowing, trying their hands at all sorts of fancy games - games they knew Gale'd be good at. They'd seen her cut decks with her eyes closed!

Gale huffed along, determined that she better get a good cut of this job. She'd gotten herself a nice little nest egg now that the crew could work for themselves now. Yeah she never had time to spend it on anything nice but that just meant she'd have an even better time of it when it when she finally got to cut loose. Maybe she'd finally get to go see a movie, even if it was by herself.

She and Maria were making their way down the back halls of the casino, far from the eyes of the tuxedo clad punters. "Makes you wonder why they dress up so much for it, right? Like, I get showing off how fancy you are but like hell do any of these folks walk away winners. You wanna keep that tux clean... get the best price when you try and make back all the carbon." She mused, tipping her hat at a passing security guard.

Gale had lost some of her road weight since she joined the crew and got to learning all the kung fu stuff bandits all seemed to prefer to using their guns. And she. Was. Feelin' it. 'Shoulda' put me in a slinky dress, see the distraction I make.' "Mmm hmm."
==============================================

"Come on, Moonshine." Mal kicked the leg of the bed, trying to rouse her moody room mate from his sleep. "We got work to do, those mafioso aren't gunna whack themselves."

Moon had proven to be just as cold as she'd heard from all the gossip from the other squads. It was kind of a shame, Mal hadn't been that put out about the prospect of sharing a room with him, having a fondness for Asian men like she did. He was kind of intense she guessed. Even more so since they'd had to try blue.

That part still rankled her! Mal was under no illusions that as a black ops soldier she'd be asked to do some morally shady shit, she'd already done plenty. Or that their boss was the nicest guy around but usually her targets had been people who'd brought it on themselves somehow, earning a hit on their head some way or another. Keep it simple, keep it business like but this, drugging themselves up like this. That wasn't like anything Mal signed up for. Would Esteban have stood for that? Like hell he would have, Mal thought. The moment that greasy peddler tried anything he'd have smashed his jaw and rammed that blue powder down his throat. He'd have found some other way in, he'd have thought of a plan around it.

But he was was dead. Esteban, Mila, all of them... and Mal hadn't done shit to stop it.

She left the room and paced out into the hall, her blood up and boiling like it was most of the time these days. She felt trapped here, suffocated by this buzzing hangover the drugs had left her with and stuck with this teenage drama show of a squad!

She needed out of here! She needed to vent on some Russo skulls.

"where the hell are the others?"

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