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

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Among the grand hallways and opulent suites of the upper levels of Frostfall Tower, the barracks of the Wolfguard gleamed in it's own cold, efficient manner. It's stillness was broken by the short, shrill ringing of the alarm bell, sounding the call of the next shift. At once, dozens of occupied bunks came to life, as soldiers quickly got themselves up and prepared for morning inspection.

Katya had already been awake for a couple of hours, and had completed her morning routine. Now, she finished checking her weapons before marching into the room, to see parallel columns of enlisted men standing at attention.

"[Today is the most important day yet in the reign of our Lord.]" She began, marching up and down the line, daring any of them to move a muscle and searching for any faults. "[It is also the most dangerous. Lady Maribel is a young girl and a friend of Lord Bejic, but be under no illusions. She is here today accompanied by the power of Paradiso. Assume that all who accompany her owe their loyalties first to Lady Lombardi, and are not to be trusted.]"

"VSEGDA BDITEL'NY!" Her man chanted in unison, their fists over their hearts.

"Vsegda Bditel'ny." She responded, returning their salute. "[I must retrieve Lord Bejic from his chambers. I expect you all to be ready upon my return!]"

'I wonder if he'll need me to help him with his tie this time?' she thought to herself, suppressing a smile.

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The Gentleman awoke to unfamiliar surroundings... again. They had a habit of doing this, moving him from location to location while he was asleep, doubtless to try and avoid him figuring out where he was and getting a message out somehow. The faint soreness and the sight of a new track-mark on his arm confirmed it beyond all doubt. If they were going to keep moving him, the least they could do was throw some variety into the mix. Bland basement cells all began to look the same after a while.

On the bright-side, it was his regular relocations that allowed him to keep track of time, and thus he new the time to act was soon approaching...

In the mean-time, he wondered if he's be getting any visitors today.

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"So, Mr. Castello..." Amy began, fingers brushing the opal at her throat, and her other hand lightly stroking her mark's hand. "Tell us some more about your charitable works."

"Oh, I would be happy too, my Lady." Mr. Castello replied, clearly chuffed that these beautiful women seemed to be taking a sincere interest (thought he would have been perfectly content with them even if they weren't). "But are you sure you want to discuss such morbid matters now?"

"Oh go on Anthony, we don't mind!" Sandra piped up, leaning forward to give him a good view as she slid her betting chips across the table. "I can call you Anthony, can't I?"

"Why of course!" Anthony couldn't have been more delighted, before assuming a more rehearsed, sombre tone. "It never gets any easier to see, you know. You wouldn't believe the depths of depravity that ravage the children of this world..."

"I can scarcely imagine." Amy interjected, stealing a look to Sandra in a split-second.

"I know, I know. Just last week, a young lad wandered in to one of our orphanages in Sherwood with no shoes!"

"Perish the thought!" Sandra gasped, a hand over her heart "Well, it's a good thing such poor souls have you to count on them Anthony. I always say there's no greater quality in a wealthy man than altruism, wouldn't you say Mel-"

Amy had stopped listening, and was staring vacantly through the table, with a white-knuckle grip on it's edge. She had suddenly begun to feel very hot, and her vision swam in front of her as she grew dizzy.

"Melanie?"

The episode was gone as soon as it had begun, and Amy returned to the present with a shake of her head.

"Oh, yes of course. Forgive me Anthony, and you too Eleanor." Amy giggled "I'm sure I just need to slow down on the champagne."

'That's three times in two days now! What the hell's up with that?!'

"Come on, Moonshine. We got work to do, those mafioso aren't gunna whack themselves."

The only reply Mal got was a muffled groan. Shortly afterwards, Jun propped himself up and yawned, scratching a sorry excuse of a goatee. His fingers found a clump of blue powder and brushed it out. A waste of product. Well, it wasn't even enough to snort. First alcohol, now hard drugs, what was next? Hell, he'd might as well take everything going at this point; far easier to go down the slippery slope than crawl back up - since when was it worth it just to get back to the starting line?

Jun looked around, finding Mal had already gone ahead. The latest addition to Samsara was just the same as all the rest. It was like Asad never left. And of course, he was serving under Colonel Saburo now, medal and all. Why didn't that fucking bitch die when the tower got hit? The jagged scar on her face showed how close death had came, but the scythe hadn't finished the job. Banishing those thoughts, Jun grabbed a towel and some clothes then walked to the shower - his own private sanctuary ever since he got his hands back. Somewhere away from the constant buzzing of blowflies.

Hot water rained down his body, flowing down Jun's hair, forming rough rivers in the geography of his back. Those scars had served their purpose as a reminder many times however, now they were only etched promises of a threat which would never be followed up ever again. If only the same could be same for his head, which still ached from last night. It was worth it though. For once, Jun had found something he liked in the ashlands. The rush when Blue hit... The drug made him feel something he hadn't in a long time: ready and able to kick the world's ass. Usually it was the other way around.

Unfortunately, it was too early for a hit. He'd just have to do with feeling like a dirty thrown out rag for the moment. Well, maybe a clean one since he was done with the shower, changed and all. Jun walked back to his room and threw his pyjamas in there before stepping into the hall. A new day, another day closer to finally ripping the guts out of the Russos.

***

"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."

"Ain't about winning money." Maria shrugged, "Just fresas spending to excess 'cause they can afford to. Nobles love their little power trips."

Gale seemed to be in a good mood, something which was carrying Maria through the heist so far. A doctor in maintenance get-up, there was a joke about that somewhere. She wondered what her boyfriend would think of that. Speaking of which, why oh why was she placed in a position which required handling machinery? Apparently it was simple: turn the drill on, wait for the actual drilling to happen, turn the drill off and stuff cash into duffle bags as fast as their hands could manage. Not exactly a job for a doctor. Well, she was more of a combat medic now and that excuse was getting really fucking tired after about six months of it.

***

"Whiskey. Jesse. You're up, wait for Allie to give the signal. Go."

"Aye cap'n." Jesse said back, he would've done a salute if not for the circumstances. Though why couldn't he be the dashing millionaire in a tux with two lovely ladies on each arm? The ex-noble was perfect for the role! Not to mention the fact that the more experienced Bennie would be Jesse's place, surely a plus when the casino's security might be an issue. But here he was, posing as part of the help. Well, not every day is a winner and Jesse had come a long way from being a pampered pussy. However, he still was nervous. Just as they said, it never was any easier.

'Focus, focus.' Jesse almost slapped himself. At least he wouldn't get that look from Gale again. Maybe the exotic ashen flower was beyond his reach...

'Focus!' He was a ball of nervous excitement today.

This was the Castello Casino! Anyone who was anyone important turned up to the slots to gamble away their carbon. Bright lights and pretensions of glamour hid the sleaziness behind it all. Any bandit foolish enough to steal from the casino was either lauded in folk songs or... very, very dead. Mostly the latter. Jesse didn't want to join them.

A very familar heavily-accented voice came through his earpiece, "Chocolate Bear, this is Red Fox, I have successfully infiltrated Aladdin's Cave, over."

"Thank you, 'Red Fox'. Received, over." He replied and turned to Whiskey, who Jesse had decided was a decent substitute for two women on each arm for the moment, "There's the signal. Ladies first?"

"Would you mind going over the finer details again?"

Barzetti rolled his eyes. "Alright kiddies, that's the last joke I want to hear until Payton's bird is eating dirt," he barked. "Got it?!"

"YES, SIR!" his subordinates shouted in unison.

Moments later the cabin went dark and the red auxiliary lights kicked in. After their pilot gave him the thumbs up, the Colonel pulled and twisted the release for the door. A violent wind blasted into the cabin, whipping Barzetti's black hair about as the door slowly slid opened--revealing the blue-black night sky and the thick clouds below. It was absolutely freezing at that altitude, above the layer of ash that covered the globe.

The sun would be rising over the horizon any minute now, and when it did they would lose the element of surprise.

It was now or never.

The Colonel donned his helmet before the air grew too thin. "MATADOR!" he shouted over the booming gales filling the cabin. "YOU'RE UP!"

Those soldiers that weren't already in the zone looked between each other in confusion. A one woman vanguard? Was she really that good?

The one called Matador got to her feet and wordlessly passed by her comrades as if they weren't even there, only stopping so her CO could check her parachute. "YOU'RE GOOD!" he told her. She nodded in compliance and went over to the door. Gripping the door frame, she bounced a few times on her heels before launching herself into the black abyss.

The Colonel watched her until the blackness of night swallowed her whole. "ALRIGHT YELLOW TEAM, YOU'RE UP!" he commanded.

The silent soldier plunged through the darkness headfirst with only the light of the distant moon giving her context for where she was. Though her equipment had been custom tailored for such a drop, she could still feel nature's cold fingers around her throat. She felt gravity weighing down on her--squeezing her as she reached terminal velocity. Even the well-below subzero air had managed to chill her bones through her insulated suit.

After passing through the clouds--in which she was completely blind--her target came into view. The poor fools had absolutely no clue what was in store for them.

Anti-Gravity Ships typically came armed with state-of-the-art radars, making it nearly impossible to sneak up on them. Thankfully Contessa had access to high-altitude anti-gravity planes, vehicles that could breach the Rock's troposphere. Few radars on the planet could reach such a height due to the thick layer of ash that blanketed the planet, and this particular ship was no different.

Matador grit her teeth as the ship below her grew larger and larger.

NOW!

The assassin yanked a cord on her vest, releasing her pitch-black parachute. It caught the air quickly, jerking her here and there as it found its footing, so to speak. From here it was a slow descent to the ship below. Thankfully it was flying at cruising speed, standard protocol for routine, non-urgent flights.

As she got closer, it became evident the ship was actually moving slower than she'd thought. Was there something wrong with it?

SHIT!

She hadn't accounted for that!

As she closed in, it was clear she would overshoot the bow of the ship. Brandishing her carbon steel combat knife, Matador severed the parachute cord while she was still a good twelve feet above her target. She hit the ship hard, nearly dislocating her shoulder as she dug her blade into the hull with her other hand. It tore into the steel hull a good two inches before catching. The soldier held on just long enough to activated her magnetic boots, glueing her feet to the steel surface.

After prying the blade out of the hull, she got to her feet and surveyed her surroundings. According to the schematics, the utility room on the main deck was supposed to be near the starboard side of the ship. She made her way over there as quickly as he weighed boots would take her. Once she found the right spot, Matador slipped a fusion cutter off of her pack and went to work melting a large hole in a circle around her. The super-heated plasma ate through the military-grade steel like it was paper, and in no time the surface below her gave in--taking her with it.

Matador deactivated her magnetic boots just before impact, allowing her to roll with it when she hit the ground. After quickly scanning the room, she determined she was in the correct place--dimly lit and severely lacking in personnel. Still, she'd made a lot of noise on the way in. The Colonel's men would need to move fast if they were going to maintain the element of surprise.

"I'm in," she whispered into her radio.

It's showtime.

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

"Do you think anyone will recognise me?"

"Not a fuckin' chance," Sprout snickered. "You actually look like a proper woman fer once in yer life. Ma's probably pukin' her celestial guts out from beyond the grave. Way ta' disrespect the dead! Christ, woman!"

It was nearly three months before Sprout opened up to anyone about his mother's cruel fate, and even then it was only to Lilith. Some time after that he talked to Bennie about her, then Amy, and eventually, anyone who asked. He'd grown tired of grieving, and while it hurt to remember her sometimes, he took it all in stride. It was better to remember her for the good she did. For everything she'd done for him and his surrogate sister.

He knew Lilith felt the same way.

It was how his mother would want to be remembered.

"Thank you, 'Red Fox'. Received, over."

Sprout made eye contact with Bennie from across the room before looking back to Lilith. "Looks like thin's 'er movin' purdy fast," he said. "I reckon we best start this rodeo."

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

She wasn't even technically there yet and Elizabeth was already shivering from the bitter cold of the nightmarescape called Frostfall. How could such a wonderful man hail from such a dreadful place?!

As if Boomhower is much better.

Elizabeth had spent more time in the shower than she intended to. The hot water worked wonders for the dull pain in her back, and she would have stayed there longer, soaking it in, if not for the urgency of her situation. They would be docking any minute now, and if she wasn't on the bridge when they arrived the Captain would never let her hear the end of it.

Still naked, Elizabeth stood before the opulent mirror in her bathroom, examining the newly-finished tattoo. She was way too happy with herself. At this stage in her mission she couldn't afford such trivial distractions. Then again, it did serve as a good morale booster, and with Asad gone she would need every one of those she could get.

I know one thing that could 'boost' my morale, Elizabeth thought, giggling softly.

What did Florian like in his women, anyway? Elizabeth had cut her hair pretty damn short, so if he didn't like the look there wasn't much she could do about it. "If not the hair, then the body?" the young noble considered. She lifted her breasts up with both hands before letting them drop. They were certainly larger than the last time he'd seen her--which was to say they actually existed at all now. They were a modest size still, but they had a pleasant shape... if Elizabeth was one to judge such a thing. 'Perky' was a word. "I bet Frostfall women grow it all out to stave off the cold. Can't imagine he's the type of guy who likes the 'traditional' look."

Glancing down at the work she'd done in the shower, Elizabeth nodded to herself. She'd done good.

You're thinking WAY too hard bout this!

A sudden, sharp knock came from her door. "Darling, we're about to come into port," a familiar voice said from her bedroom. "What could possibly be keeping you in there? Is it something you need--ehm--assistance with?"

Contessa's son was the king of all cads. Just Liz's luck.

"No thank you, m'Lord. I'll meet you on the bridge," she replied.

"Are you sure you don't require my touch?"

Wow, really? Does that ever actually work?

Elizabeth faked a laugh. "That won't be necessary," she said.

"Fiiiine," Franz whined. "But do be quick about it. You know how Beatrix gets."

Suddenly the intercom came to life. "Lady Maribel, we're here," Beatrix explained. After a brief pause, she added, "Get your pasty ass down here, m'Lady. Northmen are a punctual people. They don't appreciate being made to wait."

"Fiiiine," Elizabeth echoed Franz with a sigh. A hardy laugh sounded from the other side of the door. "Would get out of my bedroom?! I need to change, God dammit!"

Fucking Lombardis, I swear to God...

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

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

"Some scrambled eggs would be nice," Tsubaki mumbled before walking over to their shared dresser. The only good thing about playing the part of a bandit was their disregard for proper dress. Sure, Tsubaki didn't like to half-ass her look, but despite her strict attitude she actually loathed dressing in uniform. It just looked so... unflattering.

Rummaging through the dresser, Tsubaki picked out a few pieces and went to work getting dressed. She'd wear a plain grey t-shirt with a black leather motorcycle jacket, tight-fitting blue jeans and black biker boots. As for the bow on-top, she wore her standard-issue Russo bandanna: pitch black with the outline of a rooster drawn in white. What was it with Paradisians and cocks, anyway?

Tsubaki sat on the end of the bed and put her boots on. "Rough night last night," she said. "Jun went at the blue pretty hard. I'm getting worried about him. The last thing I need is a sniper itching to pull the trigger. That shit makes him crazy."

With his noble clothes finally sorted out, and free of cat hair, Florian stepped out into the hallway. "I'll be back in a while, no wild parties while I'm out." He called back. Rollo promised nothing. A few moments later as he worked the locks Katya''d had put in place after that maid had pulled a knife while doing the laundry and he was away. Looking a proper aristocrat about town, even if he didn't have a tie. His neck had spent long enough being locked away, it was time to let it breathe. He met Katya further down the hall, no doubt on her way to collect him, as she was want to do.

"Morning! I'm guessing The Wolfguard's ready to welcome our visitors?" He called to her, waving as they got closer.

'I can't believe I have a WOLFGUARD!' The name alone was coll enough to awaken Florian's inner child. Every time they came up he had to stop himself from smiling too hard. At least he didn't laugh like a kid on Christmas morning anymore. It was so cool though!!!

"Big day today. Maybe we should hold some of the men back, don't want to scare the diplomats after all." He added a little hesitantly. The last time Florian had seen Elizabeth along with when he'd first met her was far from peaceful. Add to that the time she'd spent as a captive with the maidens. He didn't want her seeing him again backed by a squad of heavily armed soldiers.

Issues like this had been tricky during Katya's early days of working with them, before Erik had cleared her for that level of info. He'd huffed and puffed at Florian rushing it through but after that week of assassination attempts he knew there had to be an openness between them if they were going to be able to work together. Besides, between the countless stories and rumors that went around about what Florian had been up to during his time away it was hard to tell who knew what. He needed some clarity. 'That was one hell of an evening.'

It didn't help that Florian and friends had helped start half of them. Giving him an air of mystery gave him an edge against anyone who wanted to try gathering information against him as well as protect his friends. Keeping contact like the Maidens quiet would be useful later.

When she saw Florian approaching down the hallway, Kayta dropped to one knee.

"[Good morning, Lord Bejic.]"

"Morning! I'm guessing The Wolfguard's ready to welcome our visitors?"

"They are, my Lord." Katya answered, switching language to match Florian. She was not as adept at the languages of the other domes, but for some reason her Lord seemed to prefer this one. If she had to guess, Katya thought it reminded him of a happier time.

As their paths crossed, Katya rose and kept pace with him.

"Big day today. Maybe we should hold some of the men back, don't want to scare the diplomats after all."

"I had 20 men escort Secretary Ablev and the others to the docks, as you requested." she replied. Florian had previously negotiated her down from 50. "Eight more will accompany me as your personal escort."

"Oh he's going to make that nice and easy for them." Florian raised his eyebrows at the thought. Erik was still sour at Katya's men for locking him out of the tower the one day he'd forgotten his pass. And then tried to arrest him when he got belligerent.

"But eight, eight's okay. We'll keep them in the background once everyone reaches the tower. Not dismissed just, not obviously present." That could work, then on the rare chance things got ugly they could swoop in from the wings.

The two of them carried on for a while, meeting up with the men Katya had just mentioned. Florian wished them all a good morning and cringed as they, like their leader, got down on one knee. He thanked them awkwardly, urging everyone to get up as fast as possible.

"Our first interdome meeting, Katya, a moment of truth for all of us. You excited?" He smiled at her, a mixture of nerves and energy rising in the back of his head.

Katya had remained silent for Florian's instructions. Her men would stay at a respectable distance. She, however, would remain by his side. It had been a point she'd made to him several times. As good as the Wolfguard were, she could not guarantee the interception of a sniper's bullet at a closing distance of any more than five yards. The Wolfguard with the lowest performance evaluation would also be on hand on the kitchens, tasting the Lord's food.

"You excited?"

"Indeed." she said, sounding less than excited "It is... an auspicious day, my Lord."

She bit her lip, before deciding today was too important to be holding back reservations.

"Permission to speak freely, Lord Bejic?" she said‏.

"Always." He said without hesitation.

"As we are now, we are a beacon to the rest of the world..." Katya began "With the exception of perhaps Yuteni and Varrdenheim, no dome in living memory has known ruin like Frostfall has, and we raised it back up out of the dirt, faster and greater than any of us could have expected, or hoped.

We did it ourselves, an example to all of what can be accomplished with leadership that is as strong as it is compassionate. I will not question the intentions of your friends, but you must remember who is behind Lady Maribel in all this. Frostfall deserves better than to be made a client state of the Lombardi Empire, and to be drawn into her wars. We don't need them, and the only reason they wish to treat with us now is because we now have value, but if left unchecked, we could grow into a threat."‏

"The vanguard of things to come." Florian practically purred. "That's what some of the latest papers from Feroxi are calling us. All the other cyndicates are looking at us thinking, 'Well those knuckle dragging Bejics can do it so why can't we?'" He smirked to himself, leaning back against the elevator wall as it carried them down to the ground floor.

"You're totally right though." He said, his chirpiness fading as he cast his eyes downwards, looking into the middle distance as he mulled things over. "Lombardi is hoping to tame us. It's much better to control something than just destroy it. I bet she'd like to have your wolves on her leash." He looked up at her, a cheeky glint in his eye as he saw Katya's reaction to such a thought.

Depite the cocky tone he was putting on though Florian knew all too well he was about to walk a very fine line, made all the more dangerous by the public eye. He'd seen his family live as the attack dogs of the nobility and he'd be damned if he'd let it happen again.

"But Frostfall cannot stand alone, not again." The Boykovs had taught them what that form of stagnation could bring. "The dome's gates are opening again after a long time and I'd rather step into the world on our own terms. Besides," He straightened up, clearing his throat. "For now we have a common enemy... and I think there's more to Elizabeth Maribel than we're getting."

Katya nodded. Florian had proved an adept politician already, and she deferred to his wisdom on these matters. Still, she would not let the snakes slither through her halls unchecked.

"Then I hope, My Lord, that Lady Maribel is not star-struck by her new company, and speaks with her own voice."

"Her and me both." Florian laughed. They watched the floor counter go down as they neared their destination. Florian looked around him, at the steadfast soldiers surrounding them. They looked... right was the best word he could think of for it. That perfect mixture of military discipline and outlaw steel. Frostfall's shield and sword.

He hadn't walked the streets in a while. He wanted to see how the rest of the city had grown, if it had found its strength again as they had. With some help.

"You've done great things with them, Katya." He said quietly as the elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open. He turned just enough to look her in the eye. "I wont let you down."

And with that Florian braced himself for whatever was to come and stepped out into the lobby.

"Some scrambled eggs would be nice,"

"Comin' right up," Bryan replied as he zipped up the combat trousers he was wearing. They'd been the only part of military dress he actually liked, because they gave him good range of motion. To that end, he'd incorporated them into his casual wear for the mission. Pulling on a grey tank top, he reached into the dresser and pulled out a brown leather jacket. It was the same one he'd worn on their melodramatic trip to the pub back in Feroxi.

"Jun went at the blue pretty hard. I'm getting worried about him. The last thing I need is a sniper itching to pull the trigger. That shit makes him crazy."

"Bet it makes ya miss the days when all ya had to contend with was a sleazy Irish booze hound, eh?" Bryan said as he rummaged in the kitchenette cupboards for pans and plates. "Look, you're right, Tsu, I can see that problem forming a mile away, but I seen this shit a hundred times before. Ain't nothing we can do for him unless he wants to be helped," he continued, dropping the humour. "If worst comes to worst, it wouldn't be the first time I tied tweaker buddy to the bed and hand fed him fer a week. I just don't swear by the results."

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

"There's the signal. Ladies first?"

Whiskey raised her eyebrow and smirked. "Sure honey, but I don't see you moving."

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

Ruffles had actually nodded off in his seat. He was awoken by the sound of the automatic doors sliding back. Two men in Wilkes-Vines black suits came through. "You," one of them said, pointing to Ruffles. "You're needed in the engine room."

"And what if I don't go?"

The grunt answered by drawing his pistol and pulling back the slide ominously.

"Oh yeah," Ruffles said. "Right."

Eddie stirred, and opened an eye blearily. "What the fuck... Jake? What's... what's going on?"

"Nothing, buddy," Ruffles replied as one of the grunts unstrapped him. "These two just need someone to keep lookout while they go blow each other." That one got him a punch in the gut. Totally worth it.

Asad watched with interest as Matador took point, leaning outside the craft as he watched her descent, the Commander shook his head, a small smile curling his lips. "Show off." He mumbled as he put on his own mask, turning his back to the exit of the aircraft, he looked at his team. "See you on the other side." And with a casual two finger salute, Asad let himself fall backwards and out into the night sky.

Asad would never stop being amazed at what it felt like to fall through the sky like this, it was frigid, terrifying, and exhilarating. As the target came closer and closer, the Commander pulled the rip cord on his chute, grunting at the sudden deceleration.

The wind was a bitch at this altitude, it was all Asad could do to make sure he didn't overshoot, flying over the craft faster than he liked, the man jettisoned his chute, falling a good ten feet and, Asad braced himself as he hit the hard metal of the ship, planting his hands on the deck as he fell to his knees. Quickly getting to his feet, he scaled down the side of the ship and entered through the makeshift entrance Matador had made. Pulling off his mask, the man panted slightly, glad to be out of the cold, he quickly readied his rifle. "Yellow leader here, I'm in, on standby until rest of team has landed, over."

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

"You actually look like a proper woman fer once in yer life. Ma's probably pukin' her celestial guts out from beyond the grave. Way ta' disrespect the dead! Christ, woman!"

Lilith smiled at the thought. Axel had come so far in such a small amount of time, and she had tried her best to get him to this point. After the first month, people were still walking on eggshells around the boy while she was waking him up at the crack of dawn and dragging him down for training, some days literally.

Lilith didn't have many friends on those days.

Some of the others thought she was being cruel, couldn't understand how she wasn't upset herself. Lilith did her own grieving in private, she had never felt more alone in her life, but the others couldn't know, she had to stay strong, Sprout needed someone to look up to, an anchor.

A crutch.

Florian understood perfectly, was the only one telling her that what she was doing was the right thing. They had spent many sleepless nights talking on the radio, on those nights he was her crutch. Looking back at them now, she didn't think she could have made it through without them.

"I reckon we best start this rodeo."

"It's been so long since I did this." Lilith mumbled. "What if I've lost my mojo?" She looked genuinely worried, the entire operation hinged on the pair of them acting as a good distraction, if she couldn't win then...

Sprout cocked an eyebrow. "Where's this shit comin' from?" he teased. "'Casino' wins, period. An' she don' worry neither. She's a cocky bitch! Always has been! Why do ya' think she's banned at every poker table from here ta' Sherwood?!"

Lilith shrugged her shoulders. "I'll guess we'll see." A small smirk curled her lips as she glanced up at the boy.

Maybe she'd spent so long taking care of Axel, she hadn't really thought about herself.

"Now that's the Lily I know," Sprout chirped, nudging the sharpshooter's shoulder. "I reckon if thin's go smoothly we may come outta this deal with some extra change the rest'a the Maidens don' need to know about. If I'm gonna lose on purpose ya' gotta give me half the winnins. Whadda 'ya say?"

"On 'purpose'?" Lilith narrowed her eyes slyly. "You won't have to so much try to lose, just be yourself, it'll come naturally." She nudged him playfully.

Sprout rolled his eyes. "Ah, fuck yer tight ass!" he spat. "Jus' a second ago you were all, 'oh noey, can I still play cards'?!"

"Yeah, but like, I knew how to play in the first place." She winked at him. "All I'm sayin', is that I'm looking forward to the inevitable moment when you realise, again, that you're retarded, but not retarded enough to count cards."

Sprout pursed his lips. "Let's jus' play some cards," he groaned.

"You pick, what do you like the look of?" Lilith clicked her tongue as looked around the various tables.

"I reckon poker'd do jus' fine."

"Alright, take my lead, loser." Lilith chuckled as she tugged on Axel's arm. After walking past several tables, including a few poker games, the pair stopped by a table next to a large elaborate fountain. "I have a good feeling about this one." She nodded her head sagely before looking up at the boy from the corner of her eye.

Sprout looked at the gamblers already gathered around the table. There was nothing remarkable about them that stood out. "Reckon that's yer gambler's intuition?" he asked.

Lilith closed her eyes, holding out a hand towards the table, fingers splayed as she hummed quietly. After a few moments, and a few strange glances from passerbys, Lilith opened her eyes. "I feel it in my little toe, this table be the one we go...to...shit!" She never was any good at improv rhyming.

"That was... beautiful," Sprout teased. "I think I shed a tear."

"You ain't so tall that I can't still beat your arse, remember that." Lilith glanced at him menacingly.

Sprout simply laughed before moving over to the table and sliding a chair out for Lilith to take a seat.

"Why thank you, my love." Lilith said in her best high born accent.

Sprout grinned. "Of course, darling," he replied.

An old man sitting next to Lilith smiled at them. "Young love," he mused. "It's a beautiful thing."

"A beautiful thing for a beautiful woman," Sprout remarked.

Nailed it, he thought.

"Oh you!" Lilith giggled, holding the back of her hand in front of her mouth. "You're such a sweetheart."

Sprout faked a laugh and place some carbon on the table. "I have the fine lady covered," he told the dealer. The thin, moustached man nodded firmly before dealing the first hand. The scruffy Maiden glanced over at his companion to get a read on her before looking at his own cards. Hopefully Lilith still had her signature luck.

"Don't you peak, you." Lilith giggled again as she narrowed her eyes playfully at Axel, holding her cards close to her chest.

'Two aces in hand, and two on the table'

Lilith glanced up at Sprout and winked subtly.

'I'm back, baby'

"It's freezing!" Elizabeth whined once they had made it off the shuttle. Somehow the dome itself was colder than the surrounding ashlands. Did the natives actually prefer the cold?

Captain Beatrix hushed her. "Florian's men are waiting for us just beyond that threshold," she said. "Show some respect."

"Sorry..."

Elizabeth and Franz walked side-by-side with their entire entourage on their flank: Beatrix, Edea and several other armed guards. Everyone was dressed for the weather, even Elizabeth, who had been doing nothing but complain since leaving the comfort of her ship. Layers of fur apparently accounted for nothing in this hellhole.

Before Liz knew it they were in the main lobby, where Florian's people were standing by.

"Erik," Beatrix said with a small smile, "It's been a long time. When last we met you were a good thirty years lighter."

Elizabeth simply smiled. She hadn't expected her Captain to know anyone here.

"Is this Little Trixie I see before me? Do not tell me she still has not found another man who can tame her." The larger man stepped up to the group, looming over them as he squared up to their captain with a polite smile on his face and his hands on his hips.

Alexei was left to pick up the rest. "Lord Lombardi, Lady Maribel." He greeted them with his arms wide open, boy band pretty smile all shiny and charming. "Please, allow us to welcome you to Frostfall with great pleasure." He embraced them lightly and gave them a peck on each cheek, as was a local custom, leaving it up to them to respond. He couldn't tell how well behaved Erik was going to be yet so Alexie had opted to go full force with warm greetings.

"My name is Alexei Novak, I'll seeing to all your needs personally over your stay." He was going in all friendly and informal. "And this charming fellow by my side is Erik Ablev, don't worry, he doesn't bite." Lexei joked.

Erik turned to face the two nobles, his stern eyes examining both of them as he let out a low rumble from his throat by way of greeting. "Hmm. Greetings."

Beatrix grinned and gave the larger man a firm hug. "Please, you know you can call me Piper, you old bear," she told him. "It hasn't been so long that we're no longer friends."

Elizabeth nodded to Alexei and Erik. "It is a pleasure to meet you both," she said.

"Yes, a pleasure," Franz echoed. "I understand the man of the hour is waiting for us at his tower?"

"Lord Bejic regrets he cannot be here personally to greet you, he keeps a very busy schedule."

"There's a lot going on round here, maybe you heard." Erik said, bluntly interrupting Alexie's apology. After getting his hug of course.

"And Lord Bejic prefers to see to as many matters as he can personally. you understand." Alexei tried to recover things before Erik pushed them any further.

"He's a busy man. I can respect that," Franz said.

Elizabeth fought the urge to roll her eyes and proceeded past the two northmen. "I'm eager to see my old friend," she told them. "Let's not keep Lord Bejic waiting."

Edea walked alongside her charge wordlessly, followed by the rest of Elizabeth's personal guard. Beatrix shrugged her shoulders and gestured towards the young woman. "You heard the little lady, Erik," she said with a grin. "She's quite a handful when she's giddy, so I suggest we follow her lead."

This could have gone better. Alexei grimaced as he sped up to keep pace with the young noblewoman. Erik's long strides made it easier for him. "I can relate." He drawled. "You need to train her better, Piper, when they are young they'll walk all over you." Kids

Their party were greeted by the parked convoy of crawlers with squads from the Wolfguard assembled out in front of them. The camo clad soldier all stood to attention, looking as crisp as toy soldiers fresh from the packet.

"This would be our escort." Alexei told them, opening the door of Elizabeth's crawler for her to get in. The Wolfguard were all silent.

Edea checked inside the vehicle before nodding to Elizabeth. "Thank you, Alexei," Liz said before crawling into the backseat. Edea followed.

Beatrix and Franz got into the second vehicle with Erik. "Tell me friend, how long have you and the Captain know each other?" the young Lombardi asked.

"Since before you were suckling your mother's gold-plated teet," Beatrix joked.

"We met while I was travelling away from home for a while. Seeing to a client's legal needs." Erik added polity, trying to stretch his legs out as much as he could in passenger seat. Of course at that time Erik's use of the legal system had become a lot more... creative but he didn't know this new boy well and didn't feel like adding details for him. "I was a lot less grey then."

The crawlers trundled on, their route proving to be very peaceful as they passed some of the sights of downtown Frostfall. It was a lot better than it had been over six months ago. The scars of conflict still showed in places. It was going to take a long time for the rebuilding to be totally finished. Longer if they got half the renovations the regime wanted underway, but the place was finding its feet. Onlookers paused here and there to get a peek at the convoy and who was inside.

In Elizabeth's car Alexei was making himself comfortable in the back. "I hope you wont take this as too forward, Miss, but I can't help but ask. How do you and Flor- Lord Bejic know each other?"

Edea snickered, eliciting a sharp elbow to the ribs from her boss. Clearly Elizabeth had told her bodyguard too much... or at least enough for Edea's imagination to work with. "I was his prisoner, actually," Elizabeth explained. "Well, I was the Iron Maiden's prisoner. I didn't know it at the time, but my imprisonment was actually for my own good. Pixie, their captain... she knew things about Lord Basilio few others do. She was trying to protect me."

Elizabeth clenched her jaw. "And she ultimately died for it. Florian... he was assigned to watch me. To protect me. He almost died for it too. I owe him for that."

"Well... I... oh my god." Alexei gasped. He'd put his foot in it right there. "Well I was way off the mark!" He laughed nervously. "My bet was on him being yours. The Iron Maiden, wow." He laughed a little to himself. "I never even heard that story."

"'Yours'?! What do you mean by 'yours'?!" Elizabeth panicked.

Edea burst out laughing. "He means he thought the Lord of the North was plowing you, dear!"

"N-no!" Elizabeth cried. "Th-th-that---shut up!"

"Alexei laughed along with Edea, failing to hold himself back as he put his hands up in defense. "No! No, nothing like that, hun." He snickered.

"It's just that, nobody knows where Florian went while he was gone, no one who doesn't need to around here and there's just so many stories so - uh - we all tried to work out where you fit in. I bet on the one where he survived the attack but got wounded. Then he gets found by a visiting noble girl."

Alexei went on to explain the romcom tale that had taken his fancy. Of how Florian had been nursed back to health in a foreign dome by a kind young noblewoman. And though the two of them had been at odds at first they'd come around to each other as the beautiful woman had shown Florian the error of his ways, only to be whisked away by an evil fiance. Leaving Florian to return home, swearing to raise every gun in the north to rescue her.

"That's my favorite anyway, better than the bitter old horror stories Erik tells. I keep saying we should publish a book with all these in them. Just ignore me, hun, I'm just being silly."

Elizabeth would never admit it, but she fancied the tale quite a bit.

If only that were true...

The flushed noble rested her forehead against the window and sighed. "I suppose we could do with a little silliness," she admitted. "The coming weeks will be dreadfully serious, I'm afraid."

"Well you girls stick with me, I'll look after you on that end." Alexei smiled smugly.

The convoy rolled on and they made their small talk until reaching the compound where security buzzed them all through before pulling up at the base of the tower. In the distance they could see Florian, Katya and their guard waiting at the steps leading to the tower front entrance.

"We're here." Alexei hopped out and held the door open for them. "In your own time, ladies."

"You're too kind," Elizabeth said as she and Edea shimmied out of the backseat. She spotted the rest of her entourage gathering around the front of the tower, and proceeded alongside Colonel Fontaine. Florian was there, standing before the front doors, with a host of guards all around him. He looked different somehow--colder. He had clearly been through a lot these past seven months.

Franz smiled warmly at his betrothed and was about to intercept her so that they may greet their host hand-in-hand, but was blown off rather spectacularly. Elizabeth walked right past him without batting an eye and stopped a few feet in front of Florian, greeting him with as noble a curtsy as she could manage under so many layers of fur. "It's been too long, Lord Bejic," she said firmly, bowing her head so that he couldn't see her flushed cheeks.

Florian jerked to attention as he saw the crawlers pull up and put his best game face on. He scanned their faces as each of the visiting party got closer. There was no sign of her until - wait, was that her? The transformation was something to say the least. A far cry from the young girl he'd seen aboard the maiden.

"Lady Maribel." He greeted her. "It's good to see you again. And this must be Lord Lombardi, a pleasure, sir."

Franz hid his annoyance well. He had been groomed for diplomacy, after all. "The pleasure is mine, Lord Bejic. Trust me. You're already a legend in the oligarchy. More of a celebrity than myself," he grinned. "Quite a feat!"

"Yes, quite," Elizabeth said, dismissively. "Shall we see this tower of yours, m'Lord?"

"If only I could say it was all mine." Florian laughed awkwardly.

'Oh crap, am I supposed to know more about this guy? I only read some basic stuff in his file.' On the bright side, he thought Florian was a legend, that was pretty cool. Always the sucker for flattery.

He lead the way into the base of Frostfall tower, the internal heating hit their guests like a soft, welcome, wave. The building had lost it's old look of opulent splendor, there was no recovering it after all the heavy ordnance that had ravaged these halls. But it was nice, in modest, efficient, kind of way. Murals of The Long Night and the people's struggle. Memorializing the conflict that had lead them here. Florian had wanted some depictions of the myths and legends of their ancient ancestors but those were deemed better for other floors. Alexei offered some soft notes on the finer details of the place as they went.

Florian let him go on before finally speaking up again. "If you'd like to rest before we get to business we can get you set up in your rooms." He bristled a little at that. 'Can't believe she's engaged to that man.' He still couldn't believe that was Elizabeth standing in front of him.

Elizabeth smiled warmly. "I would like that, thank you," she said.

"Don't take too long powdering your nose, dear. Consider the timetable. We can't tarry here for long," Franz explained.

"If you're so antsy why don't you ask Mr. Ablev for a tour of the remaining floors."

Franz shrugged his shoulder and looked to the large man beside him. "What do you say, Erik? Care to sing me the song of your people?" he laughed.

While Franz was distracted, Elizabeth turned her attention towards Florian once more. Her eyes told him to, "stay put".

Florian noted her silent signal, he kept the psychic conversation going by shooting his own look at Erik. 'Humor him.'

Meanwhile, in Erik's brain. 'You don't get to call me Erik. You call me Mr Ablev, you get to call me Sir if you're lucky. Sing you the song of my people, I'll sing you my foot up your ass.'

"I have so much to show you, my man, you'll never want to leave." He gave a big beardy grin and clapped Franz on the shoulder. "Come! Ignore the boring ones, I will show you the real tower!" He cheered and lead the golden noble boy away. They owed him for this.

Florian waited until Erik had lead franz from the lobby and out of earshot. "He seems nice." He smiled.

"Nicer than his mother, perhaps," Elizabeth quipped before stepping closer to Florian. Most of their guards were gone now, following Franz as he explored the tower. Beatrix and Edea were the only ones who remained. They could be trusted.

Some of the few.

Elizabeth's smile grew warmer. "There was a time when I thought I had left you for dead," she whispered. "I... I hated myself for leaving you there. It's really good to see that you're okay."

"Ah, nothing I hadn't walked off before." He waved her off. Florian's eyes looked around the few escorts that were left, all too aware that the Wolfguard were dotted all around them, probably just out of his vision. "Katya, I'm going to assume you have fully automatic weapons trained on everyone here so I'm going to let my guard down for a second."

He pulled Elizabeth close and wrapped her in a tight hug. "I'm glad you're okay too." It wasn't too long ago he'd thought she'd been lost for good too. He quickly released her and composed himself again. "Forgive me. Had to get that out of my system." It was at that moment Florian noticed that Elizabeth's escorts were smiling a lot for some reason. "Well we should get down to business soon."

Elizabeth's face was glowing bright red. Had she squeeked when he hugged her?

Oh God, please no!

She probably did.

"I-I uh, um, y-you... YES!" she stammered. Elizabeth gave a new meaning to the term 'flustered'. "Let us get to business. That would be best. Yes."

LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIZ?! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!

"Sure honey, but I don't see you moving."

"Point taken, ma'am." Jesse replied, tipping his hat as his legs started to move. Things like this were all about confidence, fake enough and you could steal just about anything. Well, as long you had the skill...

"Alright," Whiskey drawled, checking the load on the pistol she was concealing in her maintainance jumpsuit. It was one of her matched pair of ten milimetres. The rest of her weapons had stayed on the Maiden.

"Guess I get to see the man that saved the Bandit Queen's son in action," she said, following after Jesse.

Oh, man was it? Jesse's cocky smile grew a little, though he brushed away the praise, "Please, we're just here to... adjust some wires."

"And when have you ever heard of a Maiden mission that didn't turn into a shootout?" Whiskey asked.

Although the corridor was deserted, she kept her voice at an undertone. "Hell, I hope ya had the foresight to bring a piece, honey."

"One could hope..." Jesse shrugged, "'Sides, of course I did. Safety first right?"

"Damn, it'd be too funny if having said that, you forgot to put the safety on," Whiskey said. "Hey, that looks like the maintainance door up ahead."

She thumbed her radio. "Red Fox, this is..." she trawled through her pocket for the scrap of paper Allie had pushed on her containing her apparent codename.

"This is Soccer Mom--Hey, fuck you! Uh... anyway, we're in position."

The Golden Empress never realized how lonely she would be without her son around. Sure, they'd been separated for long stretches of time before, but he was older now. He would take a wife soon and that would be that.

He wouldn't need his mother anymore.

Franz was a bit of a dimwit, but Contessa loved him for it. In fact, he was one of the few people on the Rock she cared about at all.

With her favorite son half a world away, she'd have to settle for her favorite prisoner--the only man alive truly worthy of being called her rival.

"Good morning, old friend," Contessa cooed as she entered the small space outside of the Gentleman's cell. He looked haggard, but acutely aware of his surroundings--as always. "I trust your new accommodations are sufficient?"

The Gentleman smiled politely at Contessa's entrance. Fighting his groggy, post-tranquiliser feeling, he got up off the bed and stood up straight. Despite everything, her visits has made for some of his favourite days in captivity. He had to be careful with that, even he wasn't immune to losing perspective in this environment. He had to always be mindful of who he was.

"Oh, you know me. I can't complain." he replied cordially "Though, if you could be so kind as to bring me a newspaper..."

Contessa chuckled. "Oh please, don't think me a fool," she said. "I know how your people work. My code breakers have already found over a dozen secret messages intended for you across several different outlets. Who knows how many we haven't found. No, I'm sorry my friend, but no news papers." She smiled. "I would be happy to answer any questions regarding current events myself, however. What are you curious about?"

So, the network was keeping Contessa busy? Good. The Gentleman knew that there was no chance of her cronies intercepting anything important. However, for as long as he could keep the Lombardi's chasing loose ends, the smaller chance there was of them trying to torture information out of him.

"Well then, whey don't we start with something more personal?" he mused "You're looking well. How are your injuries? .38 calibre wasn't it? I prefer the 5.7mm myself, strangely..."

Contessa caressed her scarred shoulder, smiling softly. "You know I'm no expert on guns," she said. "It did the job, that's all that matters. I bet you're disappointed you didn't get to see it yourself. I won't lie, it hurt. I think I may have shed a tear or two."

"Oh I'm sure your performance was more than convincing." The Gentleman rallied "However, I must confess I'm a little disappointed. I mean, what's the point of a having an infamous reputation all across the Ashlands, when no-one recognises your work when they see it... or rather, when they don't. Any half-wit should have been able to take one look at you and know that I had nothing to do with what happened."

Contessa allowed herself a small laugh. "Which is why I culled all your so-called 'half-wits' when I burned my tower to the ground," she explained. "Save for a few holdouts, I have the entire oligarchy under my heel now. Their brightest leaders are dead, replaced by those either loyal to me or too stupid to tell the difference. I took your strongest asset, your reputation, and made it my own. I thought you would admire that."

"A whole new crop of half-wits?" he mused "Exciting. Though, I'm sorry to disappoint you if you think my reputation now belongs to you. It's going to take far more that a little regime change."

"It belongs to me for as long as you remain here," she countered. "Don't worry, I am not being negligent about it. While my methods aren't completely aligned with your own, they are still of a similar flare and quality."

"Methods, you say?" The Gentleman was genuinely curious. "Why don't you give me an example?"

Contessa considered the request for a moment before grinning wickedly. "Okay, how about this: a young couple--this brash noble and his secret lover--are dining in his Paradiso suite. This young man is brave but stupid, and in his quest for change he's created more enemies than he can count. One of those enemies has deep pockets and hires a discreet professional to break into his residence undetected, and slay him," Contessa paused briefly, touching her tongue to her upper lip. "This killer is disguised and shoots the man in the head. He does not suffer. The young woman is a witness to this crime, but does not see the killer's face. This is of no consequence. What she will tell investigators is what the killer wants her to tell.

"The killer leaves a rose for the man and departs into the night, leaving his lover unharmed," Contessa laughed. "It is reported as a hit and the detectives waste no time in connecting this murder to that of a known killer: The Gentleman. Let me ask you this: who understands your methods intimately enough to copy them in such a way? Not just the actions themselves, but the professional courtesy they inform?"

The Gentleman was silent for little more than a second, before a wry smile crossed his face.

"Why, someone who's seen me at work up close, of course. I've only ever taken two partners in crime with me on a job... and both of them now work for you."

Contessa nodded. "And as we both know, one of those two does not practice the appropriate discretion when let off the leash," she told him. "The other? Well, she isn't exactly known for subtly, but she's far more disciplined than most assume."

Chuckling under his breath, The Gentleman began to clap slowly, in a manner that may have come across as condescending from most people.

"Congratulations." he said "I had assumed your plan was to declare me dead, and make yourself look all the more invincible for my supposed failure. But no, this is better. Use my image to strike down your remaining enemies, and frighten those still abstaining into thee arms of the only one who ever lived to tell the tale."

Sighing, he lowered his hands to his sides as his expression grew more serious.

"It won't work."

"And why do you say that?" Contessa wondered. "Besides Dio, who is left to stand against me? You're not going anyway, old friend, so who else could strike me down? The other nobles are too afraid to challenge me, as are the bandit families they employ."

"If it's all as in hand as you say, then why am I still alive?" The Gentleman asked, smiling. "We both know you're not so sentimental as to keep me around just for the stimulating conversation. Let's be honest, I'm not interesting to you when I'm cooped up in here, at least not if you think I'm going to stay forever. You have your copy-cat, and they've apparently proven convincing to the masses. What use is there left for me then? Why am I not just a loose end that needs dealing with?

It's because you want to see me beaten, but you know you haven't won yet. You know I still have cards in my hand, and you're waiting to see how I will choose to play them. You drug me and move me from place to place because you know I have it in me still to challenge you, and you keep setting me a time limit, waiting for the day when I'll actually attempt an escape. It would be dull to keep me alive just so you could gloat. It's all a game, and you don't play games after you've already won.

Your imitation can kill a thousand rivals for you, but I think you know enough to know that The Gentleman is more than just his method or his style. Keep fooling your world of fools, but you know, and you'll see, that I remain untarnished."

"Oh, dear friend, you do know me so well!" she exclaimed. Her sinister smile warped into something far warmer. She almost looked sane. "I see that no amount of discomfort will dull your wit. I'm fortunate to have a rival as dreadful as you. Tell me, if the tables were turned, would you simply put me down and call it a day, or would you savour the bond we share as I have?"

"That would depend..." he said "on if, in that moment, with my gun to your head, we had both found the answers that we seek in one-another."

"And what is it that you seek from me?"

"It's not so complicated actually." The Gentleman was smiling again "You are a woman born with the will to dominate. Trampling underfoot those whose will does not match your own comes as easily to you as breathing. I can't help but be just a little impressed. There are few, perhaps none, in this world who would have staged the events of these past months quite in the manner that you have, nor thrown so much of themselves into it."

Sitting back down on the bed, he steepled his hands under his chin and looked up at her.

"I wonder... has there ever been a single event in your life, any setback, that has truly fazed you? Have you yet had an enemy that was capable of leaving you a lost and frantic child, unsure of which way to turn? I want to see what real fear looks like in your eyes. I want to see if it suits you."

"There have been a few, yes," she said with a hint of melancholy. "Only one remains, though I intend to rectify that error in due time. I may have to disappoint you, however. The scared, little girl you seek was put to rest a long time ago. I'm not even sure you could wake her."

"Demons don't rest, Contessa." The Gentleman replied "They lie in wait."

Contessa shrugged. "Well then, I hope I'm still around when yours are done waiting."

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

"If worst comes to worst, it wouldn't be the first time I tied tweaker buddy to the bed and hand fed him fer a week. I just don't swear by the results."

Tsubaki ran her fingers through her hair and sighed. "If it weren't for his skill I would have kicked him off the team after my promotion," she admitted. "He's a time bomb, Br--I mean Val." She slammed her fist down on the coffee table and hissed through her teeth. "Shit!"

How many times had she slipped this morning alone? It was the blue--it had to be. Before they started hitting the stuff they never screwed up each other's cover names. Now Tsubaki's mind was in a constant haze. It took the taste of copper and gun powder to pull her out of it completely, and even then it was temporary.

A good way to keep the lowly grunts where they are, for sure.

They could power through it. She knew they could. They had to.

It was their mission.

"Let's scarf this down quick," she muttered. "We have places to be."

Katya spent most of the time Elizabeth and Florian were conversing watching their surroundings, only half paying attention to what was being said. After all, it wasn't her place to intrude. She had also taken the time to size up Lady Maribel's personal escort, the Captain and who would appear to be her personal bodyguard. She was fairly confident she could take both of them, if it came to that.

"Katya, I'm going to assume you have fully automatic weapons trained on everyone here so I'm going to let my guard down for a second."

"Of course not, my Lord." Katya was a little offended "Single shot only. The Wolfguard would never use automatic fire with their Lord in such close proximity to their targets."

Honestly! What had the standard of bodyguards come to these days?

She resisted the temptation to roll her eyes as Lady Maribel blushed like a beetroot and tripped over herself. The girl had a mind of her own at least, but she lacked discipline.

"Lord Bejic, Lady Maribel, if I may..." she said, stepping forward. "The East Wing of Level 14 is still largely under construction. Visitors will likely not enter, and the ambient noise will mean little chance of any discussion being overheard."

"Just fresas spending to excess 'cause they can afford to. Nobles love their little power trips."

"Y'know, we talk about 'em like they're jerkbags and people should hate them for doing this stuff half the time, but if I could... I would." Gale smirked to herself. Like anyone would pass up the chance just for a day to live as large as these folks did. Deep down probably half the hate the rich got was just straight up jealousy. And that could be an ugly monster.

'Not that I'd know anything about that...' Yeesh.

They made their way through the service corridors. They looked jarringly bland after seeing the glitz and glamour of the casino from the outside. Eventually they bluffed their way to just outside the safe, making themselves look like they were busy working on some AC or something.

"Hey there, Foxy." Gale said, nonchalantly leaning into the radio clipped to her overalls. "This is Gypsy Danger, we're in position." She still didn't get the code name, Allie kept smiling when she said it like it meant something. What was it? It sounded like a sex thing to Gale.
==================================================
"The East Wing of Level 14 is still largely under construction. Visitors will likely not enter, and the ambient noise will mean little chance of any discussion being overheard."

"Excellent, thank you, Katya. I'd lose my head without you." Literally, he would have, if that 'maid' had gotten her way.

Florian clapped his hands together and tried to power through Elizabeth's reaction. 'I must have made her feel so awkward, like she wants some hairy Northman grabbing at her.' He had to keep his emotions in check today, there was a lot riding on this visit. Their party crowded into the elevator and went up to the fourteenth floor. As promised the east wing was still under construction, yet another level that had been gutted in the various battles that stormed through the tower. Though most of the bigger pieces of damage were down to Erik. This was probably one of them. The old man was still too proud about it.

They left a pair of guards to keep watch and set themselves up for the meeting. Florian took his seat across from Elizabeth, stepping over various building materials.

He cut to the chase. "So you have a proposition for me?"

"This is Gypsy Danger, we're in position."

Brock and Tallahassee stood together just around the corner, disguised as security guards. Nobody looks twice at a couple of guards slacking off in a hall, so they'd managed to avoid suspicion so far. Once Jesse and Whiskey cut the power they would have about twenty seconds to round the corner, ambush the guards stationed in front of the vault, and drag their unconscious bodies to a surveillance blind spot before the power came back on.

A small window, but when it came to quick close-quarters take downs, Brock was the man.

"Meathead and Emperor are ready an' able, Boss," Tallahassee whispered into his comm.

Back in the main gambling hall, Bennie managed to sneak away from the craps table while Amy and Sandra kept their host busy. All the pieces were in place. "Copy that," the big man muttered into his comm. "Let's get this party started." Turning back towards the craps table, Bennie picked up on Amy's distress almost immediately.

You okay, girl?

"Nonsense," Bennie called out to Amy. "Melanie, was it? Let me get you another." While Castello was busy ogling Sandra, Bennie put a hand on Amy's shoulder and leaned in close. "Go take a breather in the lady's room. I'll cover for you."

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

Edea pulled out a chair for Elizabeth to sit before standing at attention behind her. While the others took their seats, the fair knight stole a glance from her counterpart across the table. Kayta took notice and was rewarded with a patronizing kissy face.

Uptight military types always pissed Edea off. Lighting a match under there ass got her off like nothing else.

"So you have a proposition for me?"

Elizabeth could feel her captain's eyes on her. The pressure was on now. "Yes, it's quite the proposition," the young noble admitted with a small sigh. Beatrix practically pinched her with her sharp gaze.

Nerves begone, Elizabeth thought, slapping herself mentally.

"As you know, the Wilkes-Vines bandit family has control over my home, Boomhower," she began. "Naturally, I want it liberated. Lady Lombardi has taken me under her wing--so to speak--and supplied me with the means to accomplish this task in exchange for taking her son's hand in marriage. Considering the Lombardi family's near limitless wealth, I could easily buy an army to accomplish this, so why come to you?" Elizabeth cast her gaze around the room. "Lord Bejic, do you trust everyone here? Truly? If not, please ask them to leave the room."

Katya seethed internally at the insolence of Lady Maribel's companion. However, she knew enough about those types to know that to get a rise out of her was exactly what the other woman was looking for. She maintained a stoic expression, pretending not to have noticed at all... until she was certain nobody else was looking, whereupon she batted her eyelashes across the table in as seductive a manner as she could manage with just her facial expressions. It was... bizarre.

God, if any of the Wolfguard had seen her making that face she'd never live it down! It was worth it though, to wrong-foot her opponent.

"Lord Bejic, do you trust everyone here? Truly? If not, please ask them to leave the room."

Katya did not speak up, of course. She would never do something so unprofessional as to undermine her Lord at the negotiating table. However, on the inside she grew ever more prickly, and stared daggers at the Maribel girl. How dare she come here and immediately start insinuating about her loyalty to Lord Bejic!

'You have made a powerful enemy this day, little girl...'

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

"Go take a breather in the lady's room. I'll cover for you."

'Dammit!' Amy winced. It felt like she'd only really just succeeded in ingratiating herself into the Maidens, with everyone feeling comfortable around her and treating her like family. The last thing she needed was people paying special attention to her now.

What the hell was even up with her anyway?! Why couldn't she keep it together?

"It's fine. Really." she whispered back "I've just... got a bit of a stomach ache. Nothing I can't work though. Let's... let's just get this over with."

"Lord Bejic, do you trust everyone here? Truly? If not, please ask them to leave the room."

The room's atmosphere got that little bit colder and any semblance of a smile Florian had dropped. He'd suspected the negotiations would go the way of the WV situation in Boomhower. The serpents already ruled the place in all but name and they were aiming to capitalize on Frostfall's chaos to do the same here. Even now they were having trouble driving them out, though this burst of unity along with Erik and Katya's combined efforts had helped keep them at bay. Now it seemed things were going to get more complicated. Of course they would. The Lombardis were involved now.

'Is she afraid?' Florian thought. He was. The thought of dealing with those people again, knowing first hand what they could do. 'Have you seen it too, I wonder?'

But he had to move forward. This was bigger than him. "A good point, thank you for reminding me!" Florian chirped and got to his feet, totally missing the flirtatious battle going on between the two bodyguards. He approached the two men he'd placed at the door, two of Katya's eight. "[I want your squad to set up a cordon around this area, clear out any other staff you find.]" He didn't bother lowering his voice for those in the room, even if one of them could translate for Elizabeth he had nothing to hide and none of them wanted any construction workers wandering in on them by accident. "[And get Miss Ellet on the line, we've kept her waiting long enough.]"

"Sorry about this." He turned to their guests, smiling bashfully. "We had a room setup an everything, ha. Can I get you some drinks while we wait? Maybe someone left a thermos around here... no... hmm. Aaw I'm a terrible host." He chuckled to himself. Florian's first go at politics!

They didn't have long to wait, luckily, before Irena found her way to the meeting. She'd grown her hair out over the course of her physical therapy. She was out of the chair now but she still walked with a clear limp and needed a crutch for longer distances. "I'm going to need a chair if you're going to drag me down to the scaffolding." She chided Florian.

"Sorry about this, Renny." He offered her his arm and helped her into the chair he'd claimed earlier.

"How far have you gotten, anyway, and where's Erik?"

"He's helping elsewhere and we haven't started yet." Flroian talked to her like he was going over plans to meet at the movies or something. As wary as he was about what Elizabeth might say he couldn't find himself getting too anxious. His friends just brought that out in him he guessed. "Now! Now we're ready. Let's get too it, Lady Maribel." He took a seat on a pile of building materials near Elizabeth.

"Yellow leader here, I'm in, on standby until rest of team has landed, over."

Matador moved over to the doorway and signalled for Asad to do the same. Moments later the rest of the team found their way into the room. Barzetti did a quick head count and looked to Asad. "We push down the corridor in a tight formation until we find the stairs to the lower deck," he explained. "That's when Yellow Team will break off and begin securing the detention level. Matador, you cover their flank when you get down there and head straight for engineering. Got that?"

The silent killer nodded her head.

"Affirmative." Asad mumbled, flicking the safety on his rifle into the off position. "Rules of engagement?"

"This is a Wilkes-Vines vessel," the Colonel said. "Assume everyone aboard is an armed hostile unless they're behind bars. Shoot first, boys."

"My favourite kind." Asad smirked, glancing at the other soldiers.

"Matador and Harel are on-point, Red Team has our flank," he commanded. "MOVE OUT!"

As the Lombardi soldiers moved through the cramped corridors of the ship, Asad and Matador led the way in silence. He was never a big fan of the silence.

"What's the deal with the lone wolf bullshit?" Asad whispered, glancing at Matador with a half smile. That didn't even appear to get her attention, let alone an answer. "Ah, the strong silent type, so mysterious." After a few more moments, with still no responses, a thought came to the man. "Say nothing if you want to go out with me for dinner after this." The woman's silence cemented the deal. "Awesome."

The Commander was silent after that as the tell tale sound of groaning metal and distant footsteps indicated they were closing in on where they needed to be. The pair picked off several lone guards as they moved slowly through the vessel, finally coming to a large intersection of corridors, with stairs leading up towards the control deck and down to where the holding cells were located.

The Commander and Matador held their position until the rest of the two teams arrived, several hand signals were exchanged, before the yellow team proceeded down the set of stairs, with Matador following closely behind.

Elizabeth watched curiously as Florian fumbled around with his staff. Clearly he was new to all this. When he sat down atop a toolbox beside her, she almost laughed.

"Now! Now we're ready. Let's get too it, Lady Maribel."

A hint of regret flashed across her face before she began. "The last time the Lombardi family came to Frostfall, they..." she furrowed her brow and sighed sharply. "You must understand, m'Lord, this alliance is out of necessity. I owe no loyalty to Contessa."

"They aren't my favorite people in the world." Florian put it simply and spared her any further rambling the subject might have caused. He didn't doubt that there was little love between Elizabeth and the Lombardi brood. She had already suffered through Dio and from what he knew of the man, he and the twins had plenty in common. He doubted she'd trade one maniac for another. Going on what he knew.

"But you haven't answered your own question. The Lombardi's have more than enough soldier and carbon to get you Boomhower back. So why come all the way up here for a band of known rebels killers when mercenaries would be cheaper and simpler?"

"Two reasons," Elizabeth replied. "Contessa wants a foothold in the new Frostfall regime, as you could imagine. She's planted a flag in nearly every dome from here to Sherwood, and she won't stop until even Feroxi is consumed by her glutinous shadow. Using me to accomplish this was the most logical course of action, given our relationship." Elizabeth paused for a moment--scanning the room one last time.

Beatrix nodded.

The young noble closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. "The second reason, is because... you're the only one I can trust. Mercenaries follow the money. If I buy them, Contessa could always sweeten the pot, and then..." She pursed her lips. "Florian... there is no one else. I need to have someone by my side that won't turn their back when the shit hits the fan--and it will hit the fan, sooner rather than later. Look, this is asking alot of you, but understand that Contessa's war will come to you eventually. It is inevitable. I'm offering Frostfall a chance to survive the coming war. To lead a global revolution."

She grinned slightly. "I hear you guys have a thing for those." she added.

"We're making a habit of them, yes." Florian leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees.

Things were shaping up as he expected then. Frostfall's days of reclaiming her place as the workshop of the Rock were still a long way off, the one piece of her industry that had survived - and thrived - the conflicts was the weapon industry. Grizzled fighters and finely crafted ballistics were the only sizable export they could offer. This could be good though. Irena's networks had given them a more insightful view of Contessa's expansion than the rose tinted media. They all knew it was only a matter of time before their turn came... and through Elizabeth's invitation they had a way of getting themselves into a better position to handle things. Better to just play the pawn than be made one.

'And to lead a global revolution.' Florian had been happy just to get by within his home's walls. To bring the dusty traditions of the north into the modern era and improve the lot of the citizens he served. This was bigger, massive.

But here she was offering it. with fire in her eyes and steel in her voice. He'd been watching Elizabeth since she arrived, she spoke like a woman far older. Whatever had happened since they parted had changed her as well. Well, not that much.

He looked her in the eye. "There she is." He smiled to himself. "You remember when we first talked aboard the Maiden? I was so full of righteous talk, thought I'd get to shame some stuck up, pampered snob of girl. But you stood your ground and put me right in my place! I was hoping I'd get to meet that woman again." That's what she was now. He couldn't look at Elizabeth and call her a girl anymore.

Elizabeth's face lit up. It took every ounce of courage she had to maintain eye contact. "I, uh--well, yes, I suppose I was quite 'righteous' then as well. I probably still am," she admitted, bashfully. "I came here hoping to find the brave man who saved my life. Looks like I found what I was looking for as well."

Beatrix rolled her eyes. Erik may have pulled the long straw, after all.

"One thing you have to understand though, Frostfall's situation isn't that simple." Florian looked to Irena who began sorting through the folder's she'd brought with her. "My people have lived through a cold, bitter, hell. Many of them have had more than their fill of fighting. The one thing that has helped keep many of us going is the promise of peace... they're tired, and rightfully so." It was moments like this that the sting of the part Florian had played in those same events felt all too fresh.

He straightened his posture and ran a hand through his hair. "Most are just taking one day at a time, they don't know about the larger political picture and don't care about what's happening in other domes. If I go to them with this they wont see it as tackling a greater threat. all they will see is me dragging their sons away to fight for a place they've never been, for people they'll never meet against an enemy that is already on their own doorstep. I Believe in your promises, but those rewards will come too late." Florian sighed, feeling like a tool for saying these things. "So... you must sweeten the pot."

Irena handed Elizabeth a series of in depth reports detailing the various deals the Bejic regime wanted. "You don't have to go through it all this second, there are some serious costs to pay right now. But having gone over them, it's my that this will help build the foundation of an alliance between Frostfall and Boomhower that will profit both parties."

Beatrix glanced at Florian as Elizabeth was handed the documents. Her eyes settled on Irena before she spoke. "There's no need for sentimentality, Lord Bejic." she said. "One look out a window could tell you what happened here."

"Politics aren't so simple, I'm afraid," Elizabeth added as she thumbed through the reports. "I will take the night looking over these and give you an answer in the morning. Boomhower isn't a wealthy city, but my family has money. Unfortunately, without knowing how much Wilkes-Vines has bled from our coffers I'm hesitant to make too many promises. After we're done driving out those vermin, I imagine my city will look very much like this one."

She locked eyes with Florian and smiled warmly. "The little guys have to stick together, wouldn't you agree?"

"Well if they don't who else will?" Florian smiled back.

"We're flexible as to the length of terms." Irena cut in, keeping things strictly business. "Especially since the Lombardi family will handling all initial payments."

"It would be a shame to make everything easy for them." Though Florian doubted such a move would be easy for them either.

"That we can agree on," Elizabeth said as she aligned the papers neatly between her hands and gave them to Beatrix. She checked her watch and nodded to herself. "It's nearly noon. Would you care for lunch, m'Lord?"

"I'd care for it deeply." Florian got to his feet, brushing the dust from his clothes. "My people will have already seen your bags to your rooms by now, we've got a whole wing of residential suite for you and your party, we can show you your own tour on the way."

"Splendid," Elizabeth cooed. "Well, if there's nothing else I think I'd like to get a taste of authentic Northern cuisine!"

"You'll never look at cabbage the same way again." Florian quipped as he helped Irena to her feet and their little group made it's out of the construction sight and back to the more presentable parts of the tower.

"[Shall I call the kitchen and get them to fix some goulash, start them off easy?]" Irena whispered to him.

"[Yes please.]" He almost sounded desperate.

"This is where we part ways, ladies, I'll be taking my meals at my desk." Irena gave them all a polite bow as she got into a separate elevator.

It was strange having them all crowded in like this. Florian could have sworn he kept seeing Elizabeth's bodyguard giving people funny looks. Maybe she just had one of those faces.

"You're late!" Caputo scolded as Tsubaki's crew entered the warehouse. He may have been hansom in his prime, but those days had long passed for the old Russo family lieutenant. He was mostly bald now, with a messy black comb-over, a potbelly and curly black chest hair peeking out from under the collar of his button-down shirt. His thick mustache looked suspiciously rat-like as well. "When I call your boys in, I expect you to fuckin' come runnin'! Should'a pimped you out when we took you in, I swear to Christ!"

Tsubaki greeted the furious man with an apathetic frown. "What's the score?" she asked him nonchalantly. Peering over at Caputo's subordinates told her she'd made the wrong move.

"You're not the one askin' questions you squinty-eyed, cunt!"

Charming.

The greasy mob boss sighed deeply and wiped his hand down his face. "Fuck me, I should'a taken another shot before I got outta bed this mornin'," he mumbled. "Listen Motoko, you know the blue we were supposed to ship out this mornin'? Yeah, well that ain't happenin'."

Tsubaki raised an eyebrow. "Why's that?" she asked bluntly.

Caputo pointed to one of his men near the back of the room. His face was covered in bloody welts, but beyond that he looked like he'd live. "Because fuckin' Ricky back there dropped the goddamn ball, that's fuckin' why!" Caputo spat. "His boys were s'posed to have this shop locked down, but a couple'a fucking Morello goons was apparently all it took ta' ransack the joint!"

"Who do we need to kill?"

The balding Sicilian flashed a wicked grin. "See this broad?" he asked, looking back towards his men. "Unlike you dumb fucks, this slut gets right ta' the point! She fuckin' means business!" He crossed his arms over his chest and turned his attention to Tsubaki once more. "The kid who pulled this lil' stunt was the eldest son of Tommy Morello, that fatass banker with the mansion on Royal Avenue. He's been a friend for a long time, but his son's been pullin' shit all over town for years an' he's failed to rein him in. I need your crew to intercept his convoy this afternoon. Kill all 'is men, but bring him to me--alive. We'll use 'im to draw out his son an' put the little runt out of his misery."

Tsubaki looked to Caputo's men. "What kind of intel are we working with?" she asked.

"One of our boys at the bank pulled his itinerary for us," he explained. "Find a good spot and get it done. Simple as that."

"Get me the itinerary. I'll be talking to my crew in the meantime," Tsubaki said, simply. Samsara made their way across the warehouse, and once they were out of earshot, Tsubaki looked to Mal. "We'll hit them while they're in transit. You and me will take a bike--I'll drive--and we'll herd the convoy into Jun's killzone. Jun, I need you to take out Morello's driver. Bryan, you'll be waiting nearby. When Morello's vehicle crashes, we need you to go in and retrieve the package. Kill anyone who gets in your way. Questions?"

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

"Forgive me Father, for I have sinned."

It was that woman again. The priest knew her well--or at least, he knew her voice. It was honest and small, but it was not her own. It was borrowed from someone else. "Speak, child," he would always say.

"I killed again," she almost whimpered.

"Who were you this time?"

"Same as always," she said. "An old friend."

The priest nodded his head knowingly. "Ah, that one. Was it the young revolutionary?" There was no response. "I see. Do you wish forgiveness for this sin?"

"What's the point?" the woman spat. "You know I'll do it again. I have to. I have no other choice."

"Killing one and killing many are the same in the eyes of God."

The woman laughed cynically. "That's stupid," she said. "Do intentions not matter either? Self defense or sadism? It's all the same to the big guy, huh?"

"You have good reasons for why you do what you do, but it doesn't excuse it outright. You must seek repentance, for your own sake--if not God's."

"It's all a cruel joke, Father."

The priest peered across the threshold and focused on the woman's silhouette for a long while before responding. "You're still running away from her?"

"I thought I knew myself. I was under no illusion that I wasn't a vile, despicable person, but somehow... I thought I was different. I thought that my sins would be justified in light of the good I did--or good I thought I was doing for others." She sighed deeply. "I was lying to myself all this time. I still can't believe it took me so long to realize it. In that moment... when I saw for the first time what I truly was, I... I couldn't accept it. I still can't accept it. To think I was no different from those who I blamed for my misery. To think I had used the same twisted logic to justify my atrocities... it's unbearable. It did it all because I wanted to. Because some part of me needed it. How fucked up is that?"

"Language."

The woman bit her lip. "Sorry, Father," she sighed again. "But what am I supposed to do? I'm this stupid, f--screwed up girl, and I have this..thing inside me--this evil--it's choking me. Suffocating me. It's there every night. Every time I close my eyes. Can someone like that have a happy ending? Don't these screwed up kids just end up dead? They inherent the evil of those that raised them and spread it around until their stupidity kills them? Isn't that how it goes?"

"So your answer to this is to bury that girl inside you? To become someone else?"

"What other choice do I have? The person buried within is a monster!" The woman slammed her fist against the wooden stall. "She's always there, you know? Under the surface--trying to claw her way out. She haunts my dreams. She shows me things I wish I'd never need to see again. Faces... of men and women... and of children."

The priest scratched his chin in thought. "You know, I have had many doubts about my faith throughout my lifetime," he began. "These poor souls you mentioned earlier... most of them are never given a chance. What justice is there in that? If God is supposed to love us all, then why does he allow such travesties to go unchecked?" The woman was silent for a long while. The priest chuckled. "I'm sorry, were you expecting an answer? Truth is my child, there are many things about our world we'll never truly understand. You say you know yourself, but do you truly? Is it so crazy to think that--just maybe, you're not giving yourself enough credit?"

"Father, you don't understand," she whispered. "The devil's inside me."

"The devil's in all of us, child. Sooner or later we all have to face him. When that time comes for you, there won't be anywhere else left to run."

***

Yellow Team made quick work of the few guards stationed at the bottom of the stairs, but once Red Team got the party started on the Main Deck the whole ship turned into a clusterfuck. Commander Harel pushed forward towards the first cell block, while Matador split off in the direction of the engine room. So far she'd only killed two men herself, but that was about to change. They had exhausted the element of surprise, and from here on out it would be nothing but blood and gunpowder.

Matador kept her automatic rifle steady as she weaved in and out of the tight corridors leading to engineering. She'd committed the ship's layout to memory, but hadn't realized how contrived it really was until she was down there herself. It made sense considering it was a prisoner transport ship. Don't want an inmate getting loose and sticking a wrench where it doesn't belong.

"SHIT! WE'VE GOT INCOMING!" someone yelled further down the hall. Matador filled him with lead before he could get to safety, and found cover behind a large pipe nearby. Her position was covered in a hail of bullets nearly instantly, forcing her to retreat into deeper cover. Moments later the large pipe gave in to the relentless assault, causing it to burst and bellow a cloud of coolant down the hall.

There goes the AC.

"I CAN'T SEE SHIT!"

"HOLD YOUR FIRE!"

Matador switched her helmet's optics to infrared and charged down the hall. One man stupid enough to peek his head out at the wrong time caught a bullet between the eyes. His friends didn't respond well. "LIGHT THIS FUCKER UP!"

The mute soldier rolled under the incoming fire and tossed a grenade into the intersecting hallway. The frag banked off the wall and detonated a few feet down the hall, frying one of the remaining soldiers and sending the other topping backwards onto his ass. Matador moved quickly--not wanting to squander this opportunity--and rounded the corner before the final soldier had fully recovered. The shock from the blast slowed his response, and before he could bring his weapon to bare Matador stomped on his wrist and emptied the rest of her clip into his chest.

The corridors would only grow more cramped the deeper in she went from here, so she discarded her spent rifle and drew her pistol and combat knife. She came down the hall slowly now, listening for any movement nearby. The distant echoes of bloodshed throughout the ship would have likely masked her most recent skirmish, but if there was anyone else down here they'd be ready for her.

There you are.

Once she'd gotten closer to the engine she had to shut off her infrared. The damn thing was burning hotter than the suns. Carefully, she entered the engine room and checked her corners.

Unfortunately for her, she had one hell of a blind-spot.

"GET 'IM!" One man shouted from somewhere in the room. She turned just in time to intercept one of her assailants as he came down on her with a metal pipe. She fired two shots, the first of which found its home in his heart while the other blew a hole between his ribs and ricocheted off the wall behind him.

Shooting in the engine room... not a good idea.

There was a reason he came at her with a pipe.

Matador dropped the pistol to the ground before the rest of the Wilkes-Vines soldiers fell in on her. There were four of them left, each wielding a knife or blunt instrument of some kind.

My kind of fight.

The first man lunged at her with a knife recklessly, and managed to get his arm pinned under Matador's as she weaved around his attack. She stabbed him in the side of the neck before he could break free and split his throat wide open. She dropped him to floor just as two more of his friends closed in, both brandishing blunt objects. Matador ducked low and sprung between them, narrowly escaping their reach. As she moved past them she tore a huge gash into one of soldier's sides. Facing him sideways, Matador kicked him in the back of the knee as he clutched his wound, forcing him to buckle under his own weight. Still facing him sideways, Matador grabbed the man by the hair with one hand and slit his throat with the other.

"MONSTER!" the other man yelled as he pivoted on his heel and swung his pipe at her head. Matador snapped her arm out and caught his wrist before he could hit her. "NOW!" The fourth man came at her with a knife, clearly intending to cut her down while his friend had her locked down.

His righteous charge ended with a knife sticking out of his forehead.

With her weapon now half a room away, Matador struggled with the larger man for possession of his crowbar. With great effort he managed to break free of her grapple and swung his weapon in a wide arc. The assassin bent over backwards, narrowly evading the blow and continued to weave in-and-out of his reckless attacks. When he began to tire she countered, dropping low to the ground and sweeping his feet out from under him. Matador straddled him once he hit the ground and began pounding on his face with her fists. He flailed, and even managed to club her on the back a few times with the crowbar, but it wasn't enough.

She stopped punching when he stopped breathing.

Matador sighed heavily before getting to her feet. That's when she saw him.

No way...

There was a sixth man standing near the engine. He had dark skin and several cuts and bruises on his face. Considering his attire and the manacles around his wrists, he was clearly a prisoner.

J-Jake?!

They were approaching the bowels of the monster now. Other maintenance staff passed them by through their little trip, just as faceless but as not inconsequential as the bandit duo while various wires snaked along the corridors and the tools jangled the toolbox Jesse was carrying. He turned to Whiskey, "Guess we're nearly there."

"Yeah, I see the central breaker box up ahead," Whiskey replied. There didn't seem to be anyone around, so Whiskey crouched down and began unscrewing the access panel. "Keep watch in case anyone comes this way," she said, letting the screws fall to the floor as they came free.

"Sure, ma'am." Jesse replied as got into position and placed his left hand on the piece hidden inside the jumpsuit. The squeaking of the screws echoed throughout the corridor. Jesse hummed to himself as Whiskey got started.

Several seconds later, the panel came free. Whiskey caught it and put it down gently, then straightened up.

"Alright," she said. "This is delicate work, kid. Stand back and watch a pro." Reaching into the toolbox, she pulled out an iron headed mallet. Running her hand down the length of a breaker box, she flipped all the switches down and the lights around them snapped off to be replaced by emergency glow lighting running in strips on the floor.

That done, she buried the mallet in the guts of the breaker box, following up a second and third time for good measure.

"See? Precision."

"Yes, you managed to hit the box precisely thrice." Jesse quipped. Still, somebody probably heard that. "Let's bounce."

"See? You're getting the hang of it already," Whiskey said, snatching up the toolbox and leading Jesse away into the dim half lit recesses of the grid level.

***

Slimely greaseballs like Caputo were just one of the many reasons behind Jun's dislike of Samsara Squad's current stint. Half of what the man said was simply hot air; the Russos seemed to be overly fond of posturing. Jun must've shifted around a thousand times by the time the man was done with his little speech. Still, it all boiled down to just another simple job. "No questions, Colonel." He said.

Bryan listened to their assumed lord and master rant and rave, meandering eventually to the point. Every insult towards Tsubaki made his fists clench tighter and tighter. He exhaled slowly and tried to content himself by imagining decapitating Caputo using his swords like giant scissors.

Eventually, Tsubaki led them away and gave them the rundown. "Bryan, you'll be waiting nearby. When Morello's vehicle crashes, we need you to go in and retrieve the package. Kill anyone who gets in your way. Questions?"

"Just the one," he said in an undertone, shooting a glance over his shoulder at Caputo. "When do I get to butcher that mouthy old cum stain?"

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

Ruffles had his head in the guts of the engine. Someone had accidentally dropped a WD40 bottle into one of the central mechanisms. He had the idea he'd been summoned so the mug responsible could play it off as some kind of genuine fault. As if there'd be something like that in his ship. Still, it'd be tricky to extract without losing a hand or accidentally knocking it deeper into the engine and if it wasn't removed soon, there'd be a great big lovely explosion. Reaching into the toolbox, he found a spool of wire and began twisting a strand into a makeshift hook.

No sooner had he popped out the offending blockage did all hell break loose. Ducking out from inside the turbine housing, he looked to see a faceless assassin dropping the WV personnel around them. He saw where a pistol had fallen by the wayside and considered diving for it. Then it occurred to him that his captors being killed was probably a good thing. More to the point, there was something... familiar about the way this mystery woman was moving.

Couldn't be...

And just like that, the men were dead and he was staring at his own reflection in her visor. "Shit! I'm friendly!" he called out, throwing up his manacled hands. "Or uh... y'know. Neutral. But if this is like... a prison break or some shit, count me in." He glanced back at the engine.

"Want me to ground this bitch, or are you guys gonna make off with her?" He smiled in spite of himself. "Wouldn't be surprised if you are. She's a beautiful piece of work."

"When do I get to butcher that mouthy old cum stain?"

"What, you tellin' me he isn't exactly where you wanna be in ten years time?" Rebecca quipped.

Christ, you'd think Samsara had never had to deal with assholes in their line of work. But then knowing how their Captain was Dio's bestest favourite ever Mal wouldn't have been surprised if they got their pick of jobs. In the past at least, somehow she doubted that getting stuck in a roach motel and hooked in the name of duty was the usual lot for the A-Team here. Just Mal's luck to get put with them just as they fell out of favour. Well bitching about it wasn't going to get her anywhere. The best she could do was try and ingratiate herself with the team and their temporary boss.

Lucky for her, the Russos were just the kind of gangsters Mal was used to dealing with from her teenage years. Just the fashion and the slang changed. It was actually kinda fun getting back into these old sorts of street jobs. They were bigger than the ones she used to run but the payoff was still clear and real. Not like the burned reports and blacked out bottom lines of Spec ops.

'You're still whining, Mal. What would the others say if they saw you like this?'
=========================================

They took a leisurely route through the residential floor, mostly because it was the only one they had in working condition right now. All the others had been given over to staff and a variety of government departments and facilities. Florian said he'd make jobs and he was keeping that promise! But work was easy to find in Frostfall these days, civil wars had a way of clearing out a lot of the competition.

"And just beyond here is where you'll be staying." Florian pointed down the hallway where staff were still handling the mountain of luggage their upper class guests had brought with them. Well there were a lot of them, Florian supposed. "Mr Ablev's rooms are just down the hall that way and mine a little further and down the left in case you need anything."

One of the maids approached him, looking awkwardly at Elizabeth and her group as she and Florian shared a few words. He nodded along with her and turned back to the group. "Uh they're not sure what setup you have with your fiance so they've tried to keep things open." He was quickly interrupted as rowdy laughter came from beyond the door's threshold. "Apparently Franz has been making himself comfortable."

"There you are!" Erik yelled, appearing before them, parting workers before him like the red sea.

"Along with one of my advisers." Flroian sighed. "[You enjoying yourself?]" Flroian chided him.

"[I don't know what the girl's so grumpy for, Franz is the coolest! We need to just keep him here, show you how to finally have fun!]" Erik slurred. "[This one too...]" He turned his attention to Katya, draping himself over her like a scarf.

"Captain, can you please see Mr Ablev back to his quarters. I can take things from here." Florian snatched the bottle of spirit from Erik's hand looking none too pleased.

"Yeah take her back to my place." Erik giggled as Katya saw him off. It wasn't until they were round a corner and out of sight that Erik suddenly calmed down and straightened up. "[So how's it going, what I miss?]" He asked her, all traces of drunkenness had left his voice.

Back at the business end of things Florian was still apologising as he saw his guests to a dining room that had been set up for them.

Katya wore the expression of a bothered cat when Eric draped himself over her. Were she not so well-trained, he would have been walking away with some nasty scratches.

"[I will pay you 200 carbon to get off me, Sir.]" she muttered under her breath.

"Captain, can you please see Mr Ablev back to his quarters. I can take things from here."

She snapped to attention so fast she practically catapulted the larger man off her.

"Yes, Lord Bejic." she responded, before turning on her heel.

"[So how's it going, what I miss?]"

"[A little girl making doe-eyes at Lord Bejic, mostly.]" Katya replied in sour tones "[Lady Maribel wants Frostfall steel to reclaim Boomhower for her, and by extension keep it out of Lombardi hands. In return, we've asked her to front the carbon to keep rebuilding our home. She was deliberately vague on how much she could offer us. The Lady's got front, I'll give her that much, but it's clear she's not in a good position to negotiate.]"

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

"I've just... got a bit of a stomach ache. Nothing I can't work though. Let's... let's just get this over with."

"If you say so," Bennie relented with a sigh.

Amy nodded, and wasted no time getting back to work. She and Sandra continued to flatter Castello for another couple of minutes, before all the lights went out to the sound of a dull whurrrrr of generators shutting down.

"Oh my!" Sandra exclaimed "Anthony, what's going on?"

Elizabeth waited for Erik and Katya to leave before approaching the maid. "My fiance and I don't share a bed yet," she told her. "Please give us separate accommodations."

"Oh, c-c-c-come on, dear! W-we are gettin' married soon! Might as well get s-s-s-s-started early, am I r-right?"

"Preferably on the opposite sides of the tower," Elizabeth added.

Franz rolled his eyes. "Whatever, you're no f-f-fun," he stuttered. "Well, let's go!" He clapped his hands sharply. "I could use a nap, anyway."

Florian provided translation as the maid looked between the nobles uncertainly. at the end he asked her if she could shepard him off to his lonely quarters. It took some haggling but she was happier to do it after Florian had promised her a bonus.

She ushered Franz on as he waddled after her. Florian could hear her say something about having the right to deny service to anyone who acted improperly. Not that Franz could understand her.

"So that happened." Florian died internally under the stares Elizabeth's guards. "I'm so sorry about him." He quickly tried to move things on and took them all to the dining area they'd had set up for them. The food waiters were just finishing setting up when they arrived. Florian thanked them and asked them to leave. Just in case more high level details ended up getting discussed.

Beatrix watched as Florian and Elizabeth took their seats at the small table. "I think I am going to do some catching up with Mr. Ablev," she told them. "Give you two some privacy."

Elizabeth blinked stupidly. "Oh, uh, sure," she said. She looked at Florian. "I suppose we have catching up of our own to do."

"If that's what you call it," Edea said, snickering loudly. "I'll be standing right over there if you need me, m'Lady."

Moments later, Elizabeth and Florian were alone... or as alone as VIPs could ever be outside their private quarters.

"So much catching up I don't even know where to begin." Florian laughed quietly. They'd put out quite a spread for them, allowing for whatever quirk of taste their guests might have, all with the old time Northern twist of course. The goulash had been given pride of place as Florian had asked.

"So much has happened and I've ended up hearing so much about what happened to you after the attack. All of it second hand. Please tell me this fiance is at least better than your last one." He smiled sadly, not really helping himself to any of the food.

Elizabeth didn't really care for the goulash, but she wouldn't let Florian know that. She powered through it admirably. "Dio was a lunatic," Elizabeth said after swallowing a harrowing mouthful of Northern cuisine. "Franz is a kitten by comparison. He keeps trying to get into my pants, but I've managed to navigate his advances so far. I'd rather die than give him my--I-I-I mean, I'd just rather not do that with him."

LIZ! COME ON!

"I can understand that." Florian nodded, not wanting to push her too much such a personal subject. Of course it would make her uncomfortable. It could do that to anyone. "Back when I was a priest people who found out about my vows always tried to shove sex in my face, some just find 'No' to be a hard word to hear." Well except Lilith and look what that had gotten her.

"This whole arranged marriage system is a strange thing when you're new to it. My people keep trying to set me up on dinner dates with girls from other noble families! Luckily no one wants to take calls from the bandit lord." He chuckled. "You're the first person to accept one of my calls."

"Those other girls don't know what they're missing," Elizabeth giggled. "So how did it happen anyway? Quitting the priesthood, I mean." She waved her hand in front of her face frantically. "I-if you don't mind, of course! Sorry, I don't want to be nosy!"

"It's alright." Flroian waved his hands back at her, trying to calm her down. "It wasn't a very glamorous thing anyway." It was an oddly happy thing when he looked back on it though. Like despite all that had happened to him over those past few days, casting off the collar had let him re-enter the world.

"Thinking about it properly I don't think anyone would say I made a good priest. I uh... I was back here, in Frostfall and failing miserably at doing anything of use as the fight between my family and Wilkes-Vines. A few days into the trip I saw the tower fall. A whole side of the thing burst out of itself in flames, just a few dozen floors above where we are now. They stormed it from the ground up." This wasn't the happy part of the story. It was still strange for him to think about sometimes. That so many people had died in the building he now made his home.

"I was out in the streets, same as everyone else and ran into the Lombardis -- and you seem to already know what happened after that." He grimaced at that. A mixture of shame over allowing himself to get caught and bitterness at the two who did it to him.

"By the time I got away the whole city had gone to hell. And I just couldn't do it anymore... the collar never felt like an actual collar until then. Like I was holding myself back from everything I could do, wanted to do. And I couldn't think of an honest reason as to why I was doing it. I imagine you heard about what happened next." It's a good thing he wasn't drinking yet. "I should have done it sooner... but I'm rambling now! It's all so crazy, I don't know who knows what anymore." He laughed, trying to lighten the mood.

'You traded one collar for another, Florian. In time, I'll liberate us both.'

Elizabeth forced a smile. "Give yourself some credit, m'Lord. I think you made a good priest," she told him. "Or maybe you were just a good man. I'm still working on that myself, actually. When we first met I was spoiled and naive. I've been humbled since then, but I still don't feel particularly 'good'. I want to help my people, but so far all I have managed to do is talk."

"I'm finding what's 'good' becomes a greyer thing the higher up you go in the world and the more people you take responsibility over." Florian leaned forward onto the table. "Usually if you don't have to try and justify it to yourself and can still look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day then you're doing okay." He offered her a supportive smile, it was a rough job, he found that out quickly. "Besides, last we spoke about this it was all about your people. That's what a leader should be." At least to Florian's mind it should be. A servant to the even now.

"And we've got to lead a global revolution you say." He grinned, pouring himself a drink. "tell me about this then!"

"About that," Elizabeth muttered. "Lady Lombardi is consolidating her power. In time, the oligarchy as we know it will dissolve and Contessa will rule over us all. Lord Basilio and the Wilkes-Vines family are the only obstacles that stand in her way, so far as I can tell. Had Dio's assassination attempt succeeded six months ago, I honestly can't say where we would be right now."

She took a sip of her wine and sighed quietly. "I am working with what remains of the Yuteni government to rebuild their dome. Contessa doesn't know about it. I've promised them substantial financial support once I have access to my family's treasury again, as I have with you. My goal is to rebuild these fallen domes--to raise them up from the ashes and show the world what I can do. While Contessa tries to control the nobility through fear, I will give the common people hope. I put my faith in them. They deserve a better world than the one Contessa's offering."

"While Dio tries his own version of that plan." It looked like he'd need his own drink now, taking a little sip. "And we find ourselves stuck between a lot of different enemies." Yeah he needed that drink. Whichever way Florian looked at it he say a lot of plates they needed to keep spinning. It was a lot to think on.

"All I wanted from doing this was to give the people of this dome a better life and that was enough for me. A few months in and we're finally close to achieving so much... so of course the world comes knocking with their usual trouble. Well I've gotten this far, why stop with just Frostfall!" He raised his glass to meet Elizabeth's.

Elizabeth tapped his glass with her own. "Thank you, Florian." she said sweetly. "I'll feel a lot safer knowing you have my back out there. I'm sorry it's come to this."

"Likewise." He nodded. "And as an added bonus you wont have to suffer through the horror of getting engaged to me for it to work." He laughed.

"Oh-uh, yeah," Elizabeth blurted, nervously. She faked a laugh so painful Edea shed a tear trying to contain her genuine amusement. "Th-that would be most unpleasant! Well, I-I-I mean being forced to marry. N-not you, specifically! Y-you know what you were s-saying earlier about arranged marriages being... I, uh, but no! No, nothing against you at all! Certainly not!"

The frantic noble froze in place awkwardly, lost as to how to salvage this disaster. "I-I think I need another drink," she mumbled.

"Uuh okay." Florian said, not entirely sure she did.

'And I thought I had trouble with courtly manners.' He thought, taken aback by all this rambling. Was this because she'd heard about his past now, was she afraid of him? Treading on egg shells in the hope to not trigger him somehow? He hoped not.

"I am going to need those trade agreements though. You haven't read them yet but don't worry in a few years time they'll pay for themselves." In fact knowing what they knew now he could extend them to Yuteni as well. In a few years time everything in those domes could have 'MADE IN FROSTFALL' printed on them.

"That's enough of that though. It must be rude to talk business at the table. I'm told the noble thing to do is gossip."

Elizabeth laughed. Thank God he changed the subject! "Well of course!" she exclaimed, cheerfully. "I could give you so much dirt on my betrothed! Even more on my brother, Shamus!"

The two young nobles gossiped for awhile longer, and before they realized it a full hour had passed. "Well, I suppose these reports won't read themselves," Elizabeth remarked with a sigh. "I will take these to my quarters and review them with Captain Russo. Thank you so much for this fine meal. Give the chef my compliments."

"Will do." Florian smiled, glad that the food had gone down better than he'd expected. "I wont keep you longer but this was fun, I don't think I've ever gotten to dish dirt on people before." Normally he'd have to keep that knowledge as a holy secret. 'If I let out half of what I know about the maidens on them.' Not that most of it could compare to Franz. Just what had he left Erik alone with?!

"I had fun too," she replied. "We should do this again sometime. Or, well, I'm sure these reports won't take all night. Are you doing anything later?"

"I can make time. You come before everything else today." He smiled.

"Oh, you!" Elizabeth giggled, nervously.

"Shit! I'm friendly! Or uh... y'know. Neutral. But if this is like... a prison break or some shit, count me in."

Matador stared at him in stunned silence.

"Want me to ground this bitch, or are you guys gonna make off with her? Wouldn't be surprised if you are. She's a beautiful piece of work."

"We don't need the ship," she managed to say after clearing her throat. Her voice was gravelly and low, as if deliberately masking any nuance it might have. She tapped a switch on her helmet and turned away from Ruffles. "This is Red Capote, I've secured engineering. Over."

After a few seconds of silence, Barzetti's voice came in over her earpiece. "Copy that," he said. "Hold your position and await further orders."

"I found a prisoner here," she said. "I think he's that Maiden we heard about."

"Look after him until Yellow Team's--HEY GIVE ME SOME FUCKIN' COVER FIRE OVER HERE, FUCK!" He shouted. "Keep an eye on him until the Commander reports in. Over."

Matador looked to Ruffles once more. "Roger that," she whispered.

What are you doing here, Jake?

"You're with me until the lower deck is secured," she explained. "I'm not shooting this bird out of the sky until the prisoners are clear."

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

Brock and Tallahassee sprung into action the moment the lights went out. According to their intel, the backup generator took roughly twenty-five seconds to warm up. Not a whole lot of time, but they would make it work.

"What the fuck's going on?" one of the guards in front of the vault spat.

The other flipped off the safety on his submachine gun. "I dunno," he whispered, "be on your guard." Suddenly the two disguised Maidens rounded the corner, and were coming straight for them. "DON'T MOVE!" The guard ordered, pointing his weapon at the two bandits.

"WHOA, relax man," Tallahassee said, his hands in the air. "We're with you."

"Oh, sorry," the guard muttered, lowering his weapon. "What are you doing here?"

Brock shrugged. "We came running when the power went out," he explained. "Was this a scheduled deal and I just missed it?" They were close now.

The other guard shook his head. "No, I don't think so. Something's u--" his words died in his throat when Brock suddenly elbowed him in the face.

The two Maidens made quick work of the unsuspecting guards and wasted no time in dragging their unconscious bodies off to one of the camera's blind spots at the end of the hall. Once they'd found the keys, Tallahassee and Brock raced back to the vault and assumed their assigned roles. Moments later, the power came back on.

"The red carpet's been rolled out," Tallahassee whispered into his comm. "Ready to proceed, over."

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

Tsubaki took one last look over the banker's itinerary before pocketing it. Any minute now, he'd leave the bank, get into the back of his limo, and drive across town to meet some business associates for lunch. Three lightly armored crawlers sat on the curb, near the limo, each with three to four armed men inside. Caputo had failed to mention their mark was so paranoid... rightfully so, all things considered.

Jun and Bryan were already in position, waiting for the show to start. Tsubaki was antsy as well.

"Mal," Tsubaki suddenly said, "if you have a problem with this assignment or my command, come out and say it." She tightened her grip on the bike's handlebars. "When you were assigned to Samsara, I was hopeful you would fill a niche we'd lost with Harel's betrayal. O'Laffertey and Moon are never straight with me, but he was. I need someone who can give me their opinions free of bias, especially during deep cover ops. It can be easy to forget yourself on these kinds of assignments."

The blue doesn't make it any easier, either.

As everything went quiet, Allie let out a sigh of relief. "'Bout bloody time." She grunted as she rolled onto her back, pressing several buttons on a small keypad on the roof of the case.

Despite Bennie's protestations, Allie had added a little addition to the case. As it opened dramatically, the sound of hydraulic mechanisms added to the effect

"Tadaaaa!" Allie cried theatrically, holding her arms out at her sides as she jumped to her feet, lights on the inside of the case creating a mysterious and eerie atmosphere, as fake smoke filled the immediate area from several small discrete vents under the lip of the top of the crate. The girl stood there for several silent moments, her expression frozen in a huge smile as smoke quietly continued to pour out. Something was wrong. Allie coughed as she kicked the inside of the case, in doing so, several strands of multicoloured paper and glitter erupted from a panel on the inside the case, as well as an audio recording of a party horn sounding a little less enthusiastic than she had anticipated.

"Smoooooth." Allie smirked, biting her bottom lip as she adjusted the old red cap on her head, back to front, her messy red hair significantly shorter than it was, tied in two short pigtails, although a few errant curls still protruded from several places, especially the front and the gap in the cap.

Quickly leaping out of the case, the girl made 'whooshing' noises as she sprinted to the camera mounted high on the far end wall of the vault, turning quickly she slammed her back against the wall, pulling a gun out of her holster.

Except this gun didn't fire bullets.

Sticking her tongue out, the girl closed an eyes as she aimed upwards and took aim at the camera that was far beyond her reach. "Pow!" She squeaked as she pulled the trigger, two metallic prongs, connected to the gun via wires pierces the outside casing of the camera. Red LEDs on each prong began pulsating, as the girl looked down at the small screen mounted on the back of the pistol where the hammer would usually be. Allie quickly began typing with one hand like an old pro, breaking down several barriers of security in seconds as she hacked the stream and placed some older footage on a loop, the case appeared to still be closed, and everything was normal, definitely no red headed master magician in the vault, nooooope.

Placing a finger on her ear piece, Allie grinned. "Red Fox here, lads, Bad Haircut's shower has run dry, I repeat, Pantaloons' mum is a classy lady, I dinnae care what the postman says." The girl sniggered. "I say again, Gypsy's Danger's guitar isn't out of tune, she just dinnae play very well." Snorting, she started to speak again. "Okay, okay, one more." She coughed through the laughter. "Once more, Chocolate Bear's shoes are last season, I repeat, last. Season."

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

Asad ripped his knife from the chest of the guard, letting his body collapse into a pile against the wall as he hurried alone through one of the many tunnels of the prison level. He had ordered his team to keep to the main tunnel, clearing the vast majority of resistance as he picked off any would be flankers from the shadows.

The Commander chuckled, he wasn't expecting this to be a cakewalk, but a fire fight this large and they might as well have come in guns blazing. Rushing through the many twists and turns of the ship, dispatching a couple more guards before he headed up a small flight of stairs, towards a control room that overlooked the cells, immediately diving back and into cover as a hail of bullets came down the stairs.

"This is Yellow Leader, the control room is hostile, I repeat, the cookie jar is closed, over!"

Who the hell came up with these codes?!

Grunting as he fell to one knee as another round of lead fell on his position, a small smile curled Asad's lips as he unclipped a flash bang from his holster. Couldn't use grenades or return fire and risk damaging the control panel, things were about to get messy.

Waiting for a lull in the suppressing fire, Asad leapt to the other side of the stairwell, tossing the flash bang up the stairs and into the control room. Quickly getting to his feet, he was already halfway there, pistol in one hand and an arm shadowing his eyes as the grenade exploded, the pained cries of the two men hold the room were cut short as Asad burst in, burying a bullet in one guard's face, before being forced to duck under the wild rifle butt of the second man, who seemed to have only been partially exposed to the blinding light. Before the guard could recover from the recoil of his missed attack, Asad grabbed him by the throat, forcing him across the room and laying him out over a desk overlooking the floor below. Jamming his pistol under the guard's chin, Asad blew his brains over the glass barrier, before quickly reaching for his earpiece.

"This is Yellow Leader, the control room has been secured! I repeat, it's..." He paused for a second, closing his eyes has he reluctantly continued. "It's all you can eat at Paradiso's Rockin' Ribs, over."

Asad jammed his palm against his forehead as he hated the world just a little bit more that day.

"[The Lady's got front, I'll give her that much, but it's clear she's not in a good position to negotiate.]"

"[Well neither are we, just don't tell her that.]" Erik grumbled. He'd have prefered to be there in person to see this kind of thing. The boy had gotten a bad habit of letting his softer side call the hsots these days. One Erik was trying to stop rubbing off on him. "[Doe-eyes is good though, we can work with that.]" It wouldn't be the first time they whored out Florian's haphazard charms.

"[What do you think of them so far, Captain, is it worth cleaning off our guns for these sun bathers?]" Katya was the only one around here Erik actually refered to by rank or title. It was nice to find someone that could be a damn professional these days, even if he hadn't forgiven her dogs just yet.

"[They have serious plans, even if they're not exactly serious people.]" Katya replied "[Lady Maribel, and the few who follow her, it's clear that they believe in something and are prepared to lay down everything they have for it. If I was worried before about dealing with Lady Lombardi's lackeys, I'm not anymore..."]

She paused mid-stride and looked around, just to make sure they weren't being snooped on.

"[However, if it were up to me, I'd tell Lady Maribel that if she wants Frostfall to liberate Boomhower, then she'd better be happy to see our flag flying from its gates. If we're the only ones in this alliance willing to prove our strength, then they should be following our lead, not the other way around.]"

"[But would that not make us conquerors instead of liberators?]" Erik mused at her, folding his arms casually.

"[In my experience, the distinction only depends on who's side your on.]" Katya answered "[People respect strength. No matter the nobility of her intentions, if Lady Maribel can't win her own city back, then why should its people respect her rule over ours or the Wilkes-Vines? I'd rather stay out of her mess altogether, but if we're going to commit to this, then we shouldn't trust that we'll get our due from Lady Maribel's promises alone.]"

She sighed, and resumed walking.

"[In any case, my rifle is Lord Bejic's. Whatever path he lays out for us, The Wolfguard will see it through.]"

She turned to Erik with a small smile on her face.

"[How is Franz? Don't tell me it's Contessa's pup of all people who can drink Erik Ablev under the table?]"

'Aw you beat me to the whole points of view part.' He was going to do a thing and all. with all the new reforms to education Florian had him pushing Erik was feeling the urge to indulge in the old habits of his higher learning days. 'Too far behind me now it seems.'

At least his criminal credentials could remain unquestioned. "[I've been on water since the second round.]" He smirked. "[The lad was eager to show he could keep up I don't thin khe'll be bothering anyone tonight. I'll tell you what, he has some amazing stories! I'd keep him around longer if I could.]" They carried on walking a little, Erik wasn't actually sure where they were going. He was following Katya and was getting that creeping feeling that she was following him too. "[He'll be okay, our boy's no fool. Keep this up though, captain. Never stop questioning him, for both your sakes.]" He wanted to make that fancy too. But going by experience it was better not to mince words on such a topic.

"[They're both fools,]" Beatrix suddenly said, joining them from an intersecting hallway. "[But they have vision.]" She squared her shoulders and came up between the two Northerners. "[Tell me old friend, is the boy's vision truly so humble? He's the splitting image of his father. Let's not forget what that man accomplished before finally finding his grave.]"

Katya's hackles were raised instantly. She made no perceptible aggressive movements as she and Erik turned to face the older woman, but her stare was deadly, and her holstered sidearm suddenly seemed a lot more visible than before.

"[Visitors should not be wandering around the tower without an escort.]" she said coldly "[Many areas are still off-limits, and are very... dangerous.]"

"[Your young master knows where I am, Captain,]" Beatrix replied in an almost amused tone. She looked to Erik. "[She's well trained, this one. Nothing like Fonaine at all. Could use a man though. The way she looks at your boy doesn't leave much to the imagination.]"

It was easy for Katya to ignore the jibes. Half of her job was dealing with people trying to get a rise out of her. The other half, she didn't reckon this bitch could handle.

"[Nevertheless, it would be my pleasure to make certain you have company.]" she growled "[The Wolfguard are very attentive.]"

"[I would expect nothing less.]"

"[Ladies. Ladies, please. There's enough man meat around here for both of you.]" Erik put his hands up as if to seperate the two of them before they started scratching at each other. 'If only it was just scratching they were capable of.'

"[And what are you doing here anyway, Piper? It isn't like you to hitch yourself to a greenhorn like Maribel.]" There was a story there for sure. For all her fancy talk the girl was giving nothing but hot wind to Erik's knowledge. "[Don't tell me you've made a mark out of her?]"

"[You know me, Erik. I don't play a hand unless I know I'll win,]" she said, allowing herself a subtle grin. "[Maribel is a gamble, but I believe in her cause. Having worked closely with Contessa for as long as I have, few know better than I how bad things will get with her in charge. Elizabeth is offering an alternate path. One already pathed, sure, but few others have the means to see it to the end.]"

"[And what means are those?]" Katya cut in "[Contessa could buy her whole family ten times over with the kind of carbon she finds under her couch cushions, and what wealth she can lay claim to in currently in the hands of the Wilkes-Vines. She said so herself. She has no money, no army, and no plan beyond: Hire Northern Muscle; Something-Something; Global Revolution.]"

Beatrix chuckled. "[What makes you think you're the only ones we've approached?]" she asked Katya.

"[Who else is there who isn't dead, or owned by either Lombardi or Basilio?]"

"[The ones they replaced.]" Erik added absent mindedly. That won him a look. "[Yes, I too can keep a track of the news. Nothing stings worse than being on top and getting knocked down.]" And the Bejics had been far from the only family aiming to take over the streets by force. "[But they lack the dome busting experience don't they?]" Erik tilted his head at Beatrix.

The old ship captain patted Erik on the shoulder. "[The Bejics are just one piece of the puzzle, Erik,]" she started. "[Payton has a small fleet protecting Boomhower. He's anticipating an attack. At this very moment we have an op wrapping up half a world away. By nightfall we will have the engineer who built Payton's fleet, one of his former Generals and several rebel leaders aligned with the surviving Santiagos in Boomhower.]" She crossed her arms over her chest and stopped to look out a nearby window. "[This will not be an infiltration, but rather a full frontal assault. There fleet will burn, and once we're inside the dome we'll meet up with allied Santiago and Maribel forces. Despite everything that's happened, Elizabeth still has friends in Boomhower.]"

"[Global revolution indeed. your girl's going to owe a lot of favours by the end of this."]

Katya scowled.

"[If our help is so tangential to you, then why bother coming all this way? It can't be for the weather, surely?]"

Beatrix shrugged her shoulders. "[Having more warm bodies never hurts, but Elizabeth didn't come this far north for a few soldiers. She needs Frostfall, and Florian, for what comes after.]"

"[You can address him as 'Lord Bejic'.]" Katya spat "[And even if all you say is true, I'm still not certain we need you in the bargain. Perhaps we will decide our own future for ourselves? All the scheming that it's going to take to get her to the top, what makes you so sure that once it's all done, you'll be able to tell Lady Maribel apart from the rest of them?]"

"[Because the 'scheming' will end with Boomhower, Captain,]" Beatrix refrained from giving the soldier an attitude. She didn't expect her to return the courtesy. "[Her intentions will be clear to all once she's made her stand. You may not see it now, but Lady Maribel isn't a typical conquerer. She's not deciding Frostfall's destiny--she's enabling it to make its own. Once this dust settles in Boomhower, Frostfall will be under no obligation to remain allied with Lady Maribel. If you wish, you can retreat back here and hide from the rest of the world, as you always have. Maybe Contessa will come knocking, maybe she won't. Somehow I doubt your master will allow the young lady to fight the world on her own, however.]"

"[He's gotten so travel happy it's hard enough keeping him locked own here.]" Erik sighed. "[Add a pretty young girl into the mix, ugh!]" It all sounded very demeaning given the weighty subjects the other two were throwing around but he had Katya here to be the stern one this time. Besides, he was learning plenty by sitting back and watching them push each other. This was just the kind of pitch Florian was like to give. He could just see where these negotiations were going to go.

"[Somehow I doubt your girl will aloow him to skulk off back here either. Just going by what I hear though.]" Erik shrugged, his smirk just showing behind his beard. "[Maybe they'll lock down an alliance the old fashioned way.]"

"[Maybe,]" Beatrix chuckled. "[Though I doubt there will be any need for that once the world understands the Lady's true intentions. Personally, I'd prefer they just get it over with and fuck already, so they can focus on what really matters. Virgins are such a handful.]"

"[True intentions? It's just one thing after another with you, woman.]" Some things never change. Though if that were true then Erik could see this getting tiring very soon. "[Nor does it fill me with confidence as far as Maribel is concerned.]"

"[I fear your political leanings align more with the young Lady's than you realize,]" she replied cryptically.

"[Is there any real reason you do nothing more than dangle scraps of bait in front of our noses, or are you just enjoying it?]" Katya asked firmly "[I have duties that won't wait for you to get to the point.]"

"[She enjoys it like crazy]" Erik leaned over and whispered in her ear.

Beatrix looked to the impatient soldier from the corner of her eye. "[I'm sorry, Captain, but I don't make a habit of sharing other people's secrets,]" she explained. "[Not unless I'm paid well.]"

It wasn't an invitation, but rather a statement of fact. Erik knew exactly what she was referring to, but Katya would be left to flounder. The old crone preferred it that way.

"[And I don't make a habit of standing by people who leave me with nothing but questions!]" Katya spat back. "[You talk like you have everything in hand, but when all's said and done you have come here expecting something for nothing. You insult us!]"

"[I'd get back to your duties, Captain.]" Erik said, calmly stepping in as he laid a hand upon Katya's shoulder. He could spare the poor woman's blood pressure at least. "[I can handle her from here, it's what she's been gagging for from the start anyway.]"

"[As charming as always, Erik,]" Beatrix remarked.

"[Worked on you as I recall!]" The old man laughed.

A muscle in the corner of Katya's eye was twitching. Usually, when that happened, people started dying...

However, Katya took a long, frustrated exhale, and turned to Erik, snapping a salute.

"[Of course, Secretary Ablev!]" she said, before marching off in the direction of the barracks.

Erik watched quietly as she left, waiting to see if Katya put a dent in the wall. "You should be nicer to the working folk if you're going to lead the people's glorious revolution, Piper" Erik turned back to Beatrix, switching languages as a polite host might.

"I'm sorry," she replied half-heartedly. "You know how I am with soldiers. I've spent decades ordering them around. I don't respond well when they yap like that."

"Could it be because she's right? Your girl's not offering much." He offered as sagely as his voice could.

Beatrix leaned against a handrail and looked out at the city beyond the tower. "It doesn't sound like you can offer all that much either," she countered. "We're not looking to use your entire army. We're looking for a political alliance. You spare what you can."

"And in return we get the world." It would have sounded more tempting if only Erik hadn't been made that offer before. He wasn't sure what he had left to spare.

"Out of respect for our friendship, I'll be straight with you" she said. "The way I see it, you have two options. Option A, you refuse Elizabeth's alliance and continue doing what you're doing. At most, I give Frostfall two years before it gets caught in Contessa's wake. When that happens you'll have no choice but to kneel. Even then, I don't know if Florian will be allowed to live." She met Erik's gaze. "Option B, you accept our offer. We liberate Boomhower and make war on Contessa's regime. There's no garauntee we'll succeed, but wouldn't you rather be the one to make that gamble? Isn't that preferable to pretending the outside world doesn't exist and waiting to die?"

She pursed her lips. "Frostfall's been making that same mistake since the beginning of time. Look at what that's led to."

"You don't know the boy as he is now, Piper, but he made this choice a long time ago. I just wanted the straight answer up front." Erik said wearily as he played with the chain around his neck and toyed with the two rings hanging from it. "I just... never mind." He just felt so tired by this point, the thought of a fleet and a war and more battles looking him down. Again.

Beatrix put a hand on Erik's shoulder and frowned. "We're both old, Erik, but we still have plenty of fight left in us. If I stopped now... I'm afraid I've wasted too much time as it is." She furrowed her brow. "Really, what have we done with our lives? We've killed. All of our lives. We built our kingdoms from the bones of the fallen, and for what? Money? Glory? Honor?"

She looked out at the city once more. "I want more than that, Erik. I want to look back on my life and know that I made a difference," she bowed her head. "My brother... he found something worth fighting for. He found something he could die for. I have no doubt he did so with a smile on his face. I envy him for that."

He'd forgotten about her brother. Erik had only heard about him after all this time thnks to Florian. Funny how lives could cross in these little ways. "Bah, we're bringing the mood down again!" Erik barked, turning from the view and lifting Beatrix a little way off her feet as he swept her on her way. "Come on, we'll talk about him and nicer things over coco like old people should." The two of them walked on back to his quarters, Frostfall stretching before them. "I'm adopting, you know. Well, trying, agency's making it hard as hell. Don't tell Florian." He chatted away.


"Ready to proceed, over."

"Roger." Maria replied and turned to Gale, "Time to hit the carpet and reveal ourselves as the real stars of the show, pretty dresses be damned."

"Who needs 'em when you got style like us?" Gale scoffed as the two of them made their run on the vault, fresh from it's changing of the guard. "Why boys! all that for little old us, you shouldn't have." Gale chimed as they made their way past the two other maiden's, lightly stroking Brock's arm as they sauntered past like they owned the place.

Once they were inside was when things got serious. "So many boxes." Gale breathed, taken aback by it all. And behind them was more carbon than she could ever hope to spend. Where to even start?

Maria followed behind, placing the drills down on the floor with a sigh of relief. From there, she unpacked the drills and push one over to Gale, "Hey, focus! We've only got about a minute or so of fame."

"Right... right!" Gale nodded, snapping out of it and readying her gear. She scanned the wall for whichever box silently called to her wandering whims. Oh they all looked so tempting! She quickly picked one and raced towards it, resisting the urge to mutter 'Mine, mine, mine, mine.' under her breath. She steadied the drill and let it rip into the box, ready to help herself to the goodies inside.

Maria, on the other hand, simply opted for the box which was closest to her. A few fumbles later and her drill was also doing some work on its front. Her fingers drummed the drill's handle as her other hand keep it steady; of course the drill could never be quite fast enough.

'Come on, come on.'

Beads of sweat ran down her brow as impatience increased. It was almost a relief when a clunk marked the death of the lock. Maria quickly pulled the drill out and whacked the box's door open, took out the goods and stuffed them in a duffle bag.

Gale's own box was quick to follow as she shoveled the piles of brightly coloured notes into the bag. 'Why don't we use this for all our money? It's so much lighter and easier to carry around.' Didn't matter. What really mattered was how much it added up to when converted into proper rock currency!

"And that's just two boxes! We got time for a few more, right?" Gale rushed back to her work. "Just thinkin' of the guitars I could buy with a piece of this. Not that you'll hear it, Missy." Gale called back to Allie who was still working away on her techno wiz kit. "Sounds like you've gotten too big for lullabies now."

That's right. She went there.
==========================================================================
Mal and Tsubaki looked like a real pair of biker chicks right here. Rocking leather jackets and stomping boots. Mal had always wanted to get a motorbike. Sure their gangs always got filled with fat old white guys with more beards than teeth but they usually got pretty fun names and cooler rides than the bangers she was used to. She'd was going to be riding shotgun to Saburo, pressed into her back and letting loose with the uzi Mal had won from one of Russo's men.

She was unusually edgy for just before a job. The others had always shown her how to be calm and keep a level head in their line of work... and she'd done it. Now she couldn't keep tapping her foot as she checked the gun over and over. The quiet didn't help. Must have been the blue, there was tons of it in the warehouse, maybe she breathed some in, maybe the old dose she'd had was working up again as she got excited, maybe they spiked her! Why wasn't the captain talking?!

"When you were assigned to Samsara, I was hopeful you would fill a niche we'd lost with Harel's betrayal. O'Laffertey and Moon are never straight with me, but he was. I need someone who can give me their opinions free of bias, especially during deep cover ops. It can be easy to forget yourself on these kinds of assignments."

FINALLY! Calm... calm... she had to calm down, this stuff was giving her the jitters like crazy.

"You mean I can say anything? Like... off the chain shit, no holds bared?" Mal piped up, her voice a little shaky.

Tsubaki hesitated for a moment. "Yes, anything." she told her.

"This team fucking sucks!" Mal suddenly breathed in real deep. "Sorry." She squeaked. "Powder's got me feelin' emotional and stuff. But seriously lady, how do you guys function? I heard stories, I thought I heard all the stories about you guys and the teen drama you all had going on but this... this is shit. For a start, a good dealer doesn't use their own stuff, I remember that. But I have to do this while I feel like my eye are killing me most days and I'm just haven' a bad ride -- have you seen the other guys?!" She stopped herself, she was rambling and at some point she'd gotten closer to Tsubaki. She took another deep breathe as that stern, scared up face stared her down.

"Sorry, had a moment there... think I took a little sniff before we left... they keep shovin' it on us. B-b-but that's my point. We gotta get clean or we're fucked.Why are we still on this stuff? We should'a moved faster, gotten a real in with them by now but everyone's too sad to do anything. I'm pretty sure Jun can't get out of bed without a hit and Bryan's too stuck up his own ass to say anything but I see him feelin' it. I see him looking at you too. " She pointed at Tsubaki. "And I don't think he's banging you for just the mission. you gotta creeper in the works right there... maybe. Like what are you guys, are you friends or squaddies or what? Cus with Chimera, we left it at the door. Out here was out here and home was home and never the two to meet." Mal took a big helping of the water that they'd brought with them, whatever episode she'd had it was passing now.

"What I'm trying to say is. We did fucked up shit out here... but that was work. Once it was done it didn't touch us, least we did our best not to let it. With all of you, everything's mixed together, you've got no room to breathe. It never ends. Jun's gunna keep looking daggers at you and Bryan's gunna keep looking at you like a puppy. Even after you leave this cover behind, you'll still be livin' it. Gotta have boundaries, y'know?" Not the most elegant or thought out pieces of life advice but what did this lady expect from a gun toting coke head?

Bryan and Jun were positioned on buildings on the opposite sides of the street. Although the rest of Samsara were familiar with Bryan's preferred tactics, Mal had seemed confused when Bryan had chosen to take position up high.

He was eager to get started. Part of it was just the old adrenaline rush, but like Mal, he'd had some Blue pushed on him before the operation. He'd taken to snorting as little as he could while doing the line, and then shaking the remaining powder from the note when nobody was looking. It was what he'd done in his younger years when Beard had cajoled him into trying that sort of shit. Still, he could feel it. There was a fizz in his blood. Artificial bloodlust.

He wanted to get this done as soon as possible so he could wait out the high. But even so, he was looking forward to the fight. It was good to be back on task with the squad, even if his best friend was dust in the wind.

The thought of Asad sent a shot of guilt burning down the back of his neck. He shook himself. It wasn't his fault. It was the nature of the assignment. Hell, Tsubaki was in the same situation. She was only sleeping with him because their cover demanded it.

That didn't exactly make him feel any better. Sighing, he looked down at the street below, vaguely aware he couldn't stop grinding his teeth. God damn Blue. He just wanted to kill something already.

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

"I'm not shooting this bird out of the sky until the prisoners are clear."

"Right, okay," Ruffles replied. Jangling his manacles thoughtfully, he looked around and spotted a large hardware cart in the corner of the room. He pointed at it. "There oughta be a blowtorch in there," he said, holding up his cuffed hands. "Mind getting these off me, Batman?"

What a day it had been. And it was only half gone! Florian threw his jacket onto the couch and stretched himself out. He shouldn't have felt this tired already, but just the thought of all the weighty decisions that were staring him down as of today was a harrowing one. It was made though, he'd pretty much given his word. And hadn't he basically made up his mind on the matter before it had even started. He knew Frostfall had to enter the world stage in some way and doing things with force was the best way they knew how. The dragon's were already at their door and well off Dio's leash. It was better this way. Fight them there before you have to fight them here. He still doubted it though.

Florian had never really been one for leading. He'd spent the last few years of his life trying to avoid taking responsibility for anyone but himself... and here he'd leaped straight to the next extreme. Fun. He could scheme though, Florian hadn't had much cause to do so as a priest but now he had to put that atrophied skill into overdrive. If this worked out they could spin this in all kinds of ways, just as Elizabeth said, Frostfall could become a leader among domes. But was it worth the risk?

'I'm just going around in circles now.' Florian groaned, rubbing his eyes. No wonder most nobles turned to drink and crazy sex habits.

He needed to get out of his own head for a while, no doubt the others would all have something to say on the matter later. He took a seat over by the personal radio he'd had set up in his apartment, only a handful of people had the frequency for it. He unhooked the mic, there was no need to tweek the dial, he only really kept it on one channel.

"[Maybe she'll be free today.]" The radio crackled to life, or maybe the sound was Rollo purring away as he jumped up onto Florian's lap. "Greetings from winter wonderland, calling southern neighbor. Anyone there?" Right now the radio in Lilith's room should have been blurting this out. Unfortunately the technology of the ashlands didn't give you the option to leave a recorded message or anything like that.

'That would be great, someone should invent that.'

Rollo the cat rubbed himself against Florian's chest more aggressively, giving little mews for attention. "I'm calling her now, you'll get your turn if she picks up." Rollo tried decided to bite Florian's hand in slow motion, as protest, he assumed. "You are this close to losing your catnip privileges young man."

He tried calling a couple more times, still no answer. Lil must have been out, probably on another job. With no way of keeping closer tabs on each other the two of them were left to make a guessing game of the long distance. The hours they kept made it even more difficult. How long had it been since he'd last heard from her?

"[I'm sure she's okay. Yeah's they do some dangerous stuff but she's tough, brushed you didn't she?]" Flroian told Rollo. The cat's remaining eye was squinting happily as he enjoyed his head scratches. "[We'll try again tomorrow.]"

"Mind getting these off me, Batman?"

Matador glanced around the room quickly, before making her way over to one of the men she'd killed. Kneeling down, she rummaged through his uniform until she found a keychain in one of his pockets. She got to her feet and tossed it to Ruffles. "Should be on there," she muttered.

She couldn't help but catch the corpse in the corner of her eye as she stood over it. His throat was still oozing fresh blood.

Poor fucker.

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

"What I'm trying to say is. We did fucked up shit out here... but that was work. Once it was done it didn't touch us, least we did our best not to let it. With all of you, everything's mixed together, you've got no room to breathe. It never ends. Jun's gunna keep looking daggers at you and Bryan's gunna keep looking at you like a puppy. Even after you leave this cover behind, you'll still be livin' it. Gotta have boundaries, y'know?"

Tsubaki listened patiently as Mal rambled on and on. There was a lot to unpack there.

"I see," Tsubaki said simply.

It would be easy to chalk this up as a case of the "blue talking", but it didn't typically bring out anything that wasn't already there. Mal resented what had happened to her original squad, and Tsubaki had no doubt she'd trade all their lives if it meant she could have her old friends back.

Friends? Really? How naive was she?

Tsubaki chuckled sadly. "It didn't used to be like this," she explained. "We used to be like any other squad. Thorough and professional. Then I made the mistake of getting too close. Treating them like friends instead of subordinates. I paid for that error in more ways than I care to admit." She sighed. "It may be too late for Moon and O'Laffertey, I'm honestly not sure--but for you? No Mal, if you're hoping we can mend that Chimera-sized hole in your heart you're sorely mistaken. You and me? We'll never be friends. I'm your CO, nothing more. You kill who I tell you to kill. That's our relationship."

I won't make that mistake again.

"The mission is all that matters," she said. "If O'Laffertey or Moon become a problem, I'll take the necessary measures."

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

Trejo stood against the cold, steel door of his cell, listening carefully to the firefight outside. Just what the fuck was happening out there?

"What do we do, jefe?" one of Trejo's subordinates asked. The lot of them were scared out of their wits. Cramped together in their cell, they were sitting ducks and would certainly die if they were made to fight the armed men wreaking havoc outside. Then again, there was always the chance the people attacking their captors were there to free them.

But who the hell would be stupid enough to do that?

"Calm your ass, pendejo!" Trejo spat. "I'm trying to listen." He pressed his ear against the door and scratched his handlebar mustache nervously.

The same subordinate backed off. "D-do you think it's Sofia?" he asked hesitantly. "Your---"

Trejo shushed him once more--this time with an evil glare. The bandito bowed his head and shrinked into the back of the room.

As much as he'd love to believe his daughter was still alive, Trejo wasn't ready to commit to anything yet. He'd already lost so much... what was one more daughter?

[Have some faith.]

After another minute of deafening violence, the hall outside their cell went silent. Trejo looked at his men, took a deep breath and called out to anyone that could hear him. "This is Javier Trejo of the Santiago cartel! Are you here to free us or kill us?!"

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

"Anthony, what's going on?"

Castello's eyes darted around the room frantically. "I-I don't know dear," he said, putting his hands on Sandra's shoulders. "It's okay, the back-up generators should be kicking in any minute now."

"You might want to tell everyone else that," Bennie suggested as the gamblers around them started getting antsy. Cries of "cheater", "we're going to crash" and "he stole my chips!" permeated the massive gambling hall almost immediately. Bennie's smug grin was concealed by the darkness.

Several of Castello's bodyguards surrounded him and his two female friends. "Don't worry about me!" he shouted in a panicked rage. "Get this place under control!" The guards immediately split off and started helping the rest of the security staff with crowd control. The power had only been out ten seconds and the place was already falling apart.

Bennie stepped away from the craps table once the power was back on and put his finger to his earpiece. "The place is in an uproar," he whispered into his comm. "Security's trying to reign in the chaos, but it won't last long. Take what you can fit into the bags and get out of there quick. Over."

Y'know it didn't really help Mal's first impression of Samsara as a squad full of teenage drama when her new captain sounded so proud of cutting herself off from her squad mates. Like she was just saying 'Whateva! Haters gunna hate, I done with them!'. That was what Mal said she should do anyway. Or did she say that. Maybe she just didn't say it good. Mal downed the rest of her bottle of water as Saburo went on. She was coming down easier than the last times though the way up wasn't getting any better.

'I must be having, like, a bad reaction to this stuff or something.' What were they cutting this stuff with anyway? the Russo's didn't strike Mal as the kind of guys to take huge pride in the quality of their product.

"If O'Laffertey or Moon become a problem, I'll take the necessary measures."

'Aw shit, son!' Good thing it wasn't too late for Mal. She just nodded and crushed the plastic bottle. "CO and nothing more. Fine by me."

Goddamn could they just get this shit-show on the road?
========================================================
"Security's trying to reign in the chaos, but it won't last long. Take what you can fit into the bags and get out of there quick. Over."

"Just finishing up." Gale buzzed back, more to herself than Bennie. She shoved her drill back in its little disguise case and zipped up her duffle bag with a flourish. It had only been a crazy short window but her and Maria had worked like the wind to get as big a haul as they could. It felt manic! Like Gale's heart was about to explode in her chest kind of crazy as any second could be their end.

It was awesome.

"Done!" She almost cheered, all triumphantly. "Let's get out of here." And just like that she was ready to walk back out like nothing had ever happened.

After dispatching the last of the remaining guards, Asad and his team convened in the central thoroughfare that connected the cells to one another.

"All clear, Commander."

"Good, Biggs and Wedge, take up defensive positions, the rest of you extract the PoWs to the hangar, try and get a finger on our main men."

"This is Javier Trejo of the Santiago cartel! Are you here to free us or kill us?!"

Asad raised an eyebrow as he looked at his men. "Well there's one." He smirked as he held up his arms, giving a thumbs up to the man he had put in the control room. "Let 'em out!" He called out.

As the cells opened one by one, the Commander started walking towards prisoners as they all slowly revealed themselves. "We're here to rescue you, all of you follow my men to the hangar and we'll get you off this shit heap!"

After several minutes, Asad checked each cell until he found what he came for. Standing in the doorway to the dark room, Asad crossed his arms across his chest as he looked down at the withered form before him. "Eddie Canton." The Commander nodded, a small smirk curling his lips.

"Lady Elizabeth Maribel would like to have a word with you."

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

"Let's get out of here."

Allie struck a pose as she flipped a switch on her pistol, the probes in the camera dislodged and retracted quickly into the barrel. "We have about half an hour before the feed returns to normal and everyone gets very, very angry and fired." She quickly jogged behind Gale and helped lift her heavy sack of sweet, sweet not-carbon. "I dinnae think paper is nearly as satisfying as the real stuff, but at least it's lighter!" She giggled as she adjusted her janitor's uniform with her free hand. "If anyone asks, I'm a young janitor prodigy, who's cleaning skills are up there with the best, like...er... Scruffy, and... er, Willie! Those are janitor names right?"

"We're here to rescue you, all of you follow my men to the hangar and we'll get you off this shit heap!"

"You heard the man, let's get the fuck out of here!" Trejo barked, ushering his men out into the hallway. "Vamonos!" Armed with the weapons of their fallen captors, the banditos formed up behind Yellow Team and started their journey towards the hangar.

Biggs signaled for Wedge to take point and retreated to the rear. "Prisoners are secure, moving on the hangar. Over," he said into his radio.

"Copy that, we'll fall back to your position," Barzetti replied. "Red Capote, get ready to blow your load. Over."

***

Matador looked at Ruffles in the corner of her eye. "Roger that. I'm sending the Maiden to you now, Yellow Leader," she said before turning to face the engineer. "They're on the move. Find Commander Harel and get out of here."

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

"Are we still in Frostfall?!" Edea gasped as she took in their lavished surroundings. Apparently no expense had been spared in preparing Elizabeth's suite. Were Lord Bejic's digs even this spectacular? "I mean, seriously, every surface in this place is made of marble. Looks like a Paradiso bathhouse in here."

Elizabeth ignored her bodyguard's chatter and began exploring the suite. It had a massive bedroom with satin sheets, a beautiful view of the city and too many pillows to count. The living room sported an antic sofa, armchairs and a cutting edge flatscreen. Even the bathroom was impressive. "Look at this bath!" Elizabeth exclaimed as she admired the massive tub. There were even lotions and candles on the mantle nearby.

"Never got the sense that Northerners bathed much," Edea remarked. "Think Florian gets freaky in the shower?"

"Oh, shut up," Elizabeth replied, rolling her eyes.

The Colonel laughed. "You know, you gotta take a bath in this badboy before we leave tomorrow," she said. "If for no other reason than you get to say you took a hot bath in Florian's house."

Elizabeth pouted at her friend, blushing slightly. "I really only have time for a shower," she said. "I still need to run through the reports before dinner tonight."

"Oh, come one Liz!" Edea said, shoving Elizabeth playfully. "Live a little!"

"Fine," Elizabeth relented. "But you can't let me doze off, okay? Make sure I'm out in no more than thirty minutes."

Edea saluted her master. "Yes, m'Lady!" she barked, sarcastically.

"Now, get out!" the young noble pushed her bodyguard out into the bedroom and locked the door.

Lilith glanced down at her cards, another knowing smile curling her lips as she locked eyes with the dealer. "Do you wanna give me the chips now? Or should we waste everyone else's time again?" She looked at the other people at the table.

The players were all at varying levels of gambler grief, one man was so angry his face was almost purple, and doing a very poor job of hiding it as he grit his teeth and whispered obscenities under his breath. One woman was coming to grips with how much carbon she had lost, her head in her hands as she talked about having to sell her dog, which was a rare breed, apparently. Lilith had won so much, that her lower value chips had to be re purposed to represent larger amounts, just so she could fit them on the table.

Sprout had succeeded in goading those prideful few into throwing their chips at Lilith hand after hand. His combative ravings were just obnoxious enough to make the others forget they'd come to this table together. The said part is that his attitude wasn't entirely artificial.

Would it kill her to let him win one hand?

"Bullshit!" Sprout whined. "I fold!"

At least no one was challenging him about his age.

"Daww, there, there sweetheart." Lilith pouted as she stroked Axel's forearm reassuringly. "Do you not want me to win?" She gave him the puppy eyes.

One of the bitter losers of the last hand leered at Sprout across the table. "You going to let you woman disgrace you like that?!" he asked. "You just gonna let her serve you your own balls?!"

The man's date--who happened to not be playing--rolled her eyes and grinned. "Like she's been doing with you?"

"Alright, alright, hit me again, let's go," Sprout said to the dealer. "If I'm going down I'll do it swinging!"

Lilith narrowed her eyes slyly as she leaned back in her chair. "I'll lend you some chips if you'd like, you're looking a little low." She placed the tip of her long cigarette holder between her lips and took a long drag.

Sprout pouted. "Fuck you, I'mma ram my fist up yer--" Sprout's words trailed off when the power suddenly went out. Like Bennie, Sprout's wicked grin was masked by the fresh darkness. "Might wanna keep yer chips close, Lily."

Lilith took another drag, her cigarette glowing in the low light. "Would you all kindly keep your hands to yourself?" She stated politely. "You there, dealer, what's happening? Why are the lights out?" The was an element of concern to her voice. She had to play the part after all.

"I-I-I don't know!" he replied, holding his hands out at the people around the table. "Everyone keep calm and stay where you are. Anyone caught stealing chips will get removed from the ship immediately!"

Sprout stepped in between Lilith and the table. "Anyone who comes near my fiancé's chips is going to be picking their teeth off the ground!" he roared.

This was fun.

"That includes you, mister." Lilith poked Sprout in the small of his back. "I know exactly how much is there."

As the darkness persisted the room grew louder with shouts and screams. One man particularly salty about Lilith's endless victories lunged out across the table and scooped up an armful of chips.

Lilith's eyes had adjusted to the darkness by this point, enough to see the purple man steal some of her winnings.

'Well Bennie, here's your distraction.'

Lilith kicked her stool from beneath as she got to her feet and pushed Sprout aside. "OI, CUNT!" She pointed at the thief. "Think you can steal my chips and get away with it? JUST WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK I AM?!" Lunging over the table she delivered a swift right hook across the man's jaw, sending him falling backwards off his stool and chips flying everywhere.

The man's date screamed. The dealer screamed. Sprout laughed.

It was pure chaos.

Then the lights came back on.

"BACK IN YOUR SEATS!" the dealer panicked. "KEEP YOUR HANDS TO YOURSELF!"

"Hey, what the fuck?! Someone stole all my chips!" Sprout spat. "Which one of you mother fuckers was it?!"

Lilith ignored the dealer's plea, sitting on the chip thief's back, as he tried to crawl his way to freedom. She took a handful of his hair and pulled back on his head. "GOT ANYTHING TO SAY TO ME?!" She roared in anger, all of it completely fake of course.

Well.

Most of it.

She hadn't had casino winnings in a very long time.

"OKAY, OKAY, I'M SORRY, I TOOK THEM!" The man cried out before Lilith pushed his face into the carpeted floor.

"You fucking wot mate, I didn't hear you!" She tried her best to hide the large grin forcing its way onto her face.

"I'm showwy!" The man mumbled through squished cheeks.

"Good!" Lilith's composure switched in an instant. Her knees touch each other as if she resumed her ladylike disposition. Getting to her feet, Lilith adjusted her dress before running a hand over her hair, returning it all to the right side of her head.

"Darling?" She turned to face Axel. "This place is awful." A small smirk curled her lips

"Yes, what kind of animals does Castello entertain when he's not running a charity event, I wonder?" Sprout said in as smug a manner he could muster. Adjusting his bow-tie was a nice touch.

Peering across the crowded gambling hall, Sprout caught Bennie's eye. The big man nodded and tapped his watch.

Sprout nodded in response and put his hands on Lilith's shoulders. "Keep your eyes peeled," he whispered. "The kids are makin' out with the candy."

"We should cash in what we have." Lilith muttered, grabbing a chip from her huge pile and flicking it into the air before catching it. "Splitsies, of course." She winked at the boy. "It'll be our little secret."

"Not until they're clear," he told her. "I know. I forgot we were working too."

"All work and no play makes someone a something." Lilith chuckled as she leaned in to kiss the boy on the cheek. "Don't look now, but I just caught a glimpse of our fiery little redhead."

Eddie was jerked out of his painful rest by the mechanized buzzing of the restraint pieces lifting off him. He felt ambivalent about their release. On the one hand, the tapestry of half healed scar tissue over his back had grown hot and itchy pressed against the seat back for hours. On the hand, he felt as though he might spill out of the chair at any moment. Ruffles was gone. Eddie hoped he wasn't dead. After two months in the cells before being brought on board the ship, the engineer had managed to grow on him, despite Eddie spending a lot of time away being tortured more aggressively than ever.

"We're here to rescue you, all of you follow my men to the hangar and we'll get you off this shit heap!"

Well that was interesting. He'd assumed his release had been due to them reaching the end of their journey. A rescue was the last thing he'd expected. The feeling of relief he felt was strange after the past few months. But after six months of agony from torture as well as grief for Millie's death, it was still tainted by cynical doubt. One rescue attempt had failed horribly.

At the sound of footsteps, he looked up and a tall dark man in unadorned special ops gear strode into view.

"Eddie Canton." The man was smirking. Eddie looked intently at him. His body might be worthless, but his eyes still burned.

"Lady Elizabeth Maribel would like to have a word with you."

Eddie's mind was hit by a replay of the ambush at the Breadbasket. The feeling of lead in his gut while Whiskey walked away. The gunshots as he took a pointless revenge on the friend who'd betrayed him. He laid his head back on the seat's rest and sighed, a smile curling his lips and tugging at the untamed beard he'd grown in captivity.

"So she's alive. Good..."

Looking at Asad, he raised an eyebrow. "You just gonna stand there, or do I have to fall on my face to get you to do anything useful?"

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