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

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Jun's index finger curled around the trigger of the sniper rifle as he waited for Morello Sr. and company to arrive. Skipping a snort or two might've been a bad idea, the headache from before had worsened - a monster was thrashing around inside his head, clawing around as it did so. One again, the finger uncurled. Had to keep these steady, had to keep things calm - something almost impossible with the side effects of Blue doing their work. Still, Jun was adamant in relegating the habit to an evening activity. His impatience flared. How long could it take Saburo and Mal to shepard to lead them into the kill zone? The sooner he could shoot something, the better.

***

"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?"

"Eh, better than Sanchez or Pedro." Maria shrugged, "Anyway, let's go."

Meanwhile, Jesse had the same idea.

After Contessa had left, The Gentleman went to the bathroom, to try and make himself look a little more presentable. He despised his long hair and beard, but there was no chance whatsoever of them letting him anywhere near a pair of scissors or a razor. Filling up the sink, he splashed cold water on his face, before staring at his reflection as the ripples settled. They were too careful to give him a mirror, so this was the best he could do.

The face that stared back at him didn't look like himself. It looked old.

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Katya had spent the better part of an hour working out her frustrations in the gym. First on a punching bag, then on a sparring partner, then on the pull-up bars when no-one wanted to be her replacement sparring partner. Afterwards, she cooled off in the shower.

After she'd showered and dried herself off, Katya put her gear back on once more, before heading off in the direction of Lord Bejic's quarters. Her workout and cool down had given her some time to think, and there were a few things she needed to say to him. Afterwards, she might even be asking to be relieved from duty to go and get drunk. She hadn't made up her mind yet, but it would be unprecedented.

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

Amy smiled across the room at Axel and Lilith's display. They were almost home free.

"Oh heavens! What a brawl!" she gasped "Gosh, this is all rather exciting, isn't it?"

Trying to ignore the huge bloodstain on the looted kevlar vest he was wearing, Ruffles picked his way through the bowels of the ship. He'd designed the thing, so finding a way back to the prisoner deck without running into any unwanted attention was easy. Moving through engineering and then deeper into the bowels of the ship, he eventually found the ladder he was looking for.

At the top, he came to a circular port door on the ceiling that made the prisoner deck's floor. Pressing an ear to it, he listened. Plenty of movement up there, and some ecstatic voices. The prisoners were free, alright.

Still, opening it up and sticking his head right through might alarm his gun toting rescuers, so instead, he knocked as hard as he could on the ceiling door.

"Hello? Anybody up there hearing me?"

Several seconds later, the door was yanked open, and hands reached down to haul him through. Suddenly Ruffles found himself with some ex-bandito glaring at him inches from his face.

"Hey, dude, c'mon, do I look like one of those suits to you?" Ruffles asked.

"Yeah man," said someone else. "That's the guy they locked up with that metal handed bounty hunter."

Reluctantly, the bandito let go of Ruffles' shirt.

"So," Ruffles began with a bemused grin. "Where's the guy in charge here?"

"You just gonna stand there, or do I have to fall on my face to get you to do anything useful?"

Asad chuckled, "I don't know, let's find out." The man gave the Commander a look that suggested he wasn't in the mood for jokes. Making his way over to Canton, he squatted in front of him and took a closer look at his condition, his brow furrowed. It was worse than he thought.

"I'm Commander Harel, I won't bother asking what the damage is, I can't even imagine how much everything hurts, so just tell me what hurts the least." A sympathetic smile curled Asad's lips.

Eddie considered the question. "I would have said my head," he replied. "But I've got some kinda fever on top of everything else. If you're gonna help me outta here though, just... try and avoid my back as much as you can. It's flayed to shit."

"Looks like I'm carrying you outta here on my back then." He grinned. He did think about giving the man the option of walking, but if he was as proud a man as Elizabeth had led him to believe, he would always take that option. Better to not give him the choice. Getting to his feet, Asad rubbed his palms together, "Right, how do you wanna do this?"

"Maybe get a girl in here," Eddie replied. "From what I hear, it ain't gay if it's in a threeway."

It felt good to be able to joke again, but he didn't suppose there was time for it. "Just let me get my arms round your neck. They've still got some strength in 'em, even if my legs don't work."

"Familiar with the fireman's carry?" Asad asked, squatting again as he positioned himself next to Eddie. "There ain't no way I'm gonna pick you up without it hurting, but I promise I'll do it as quickly as I can, sound good?"

"Should still be the most pleasant thing that's happened to me in the past six months," Eddie replied. "Go on."

"I'll make it up to you." Asad chuckled, "I'll buy you a beer and a cheeseburger." Grabbing Eddie's arm as firmly as he thought he could without hurting too much, he draped it over the back of his neck as he lifted Eddie onto his feet, supporting most of his weight. "How you doing, big guy?"

"Like I'm waking up two days after the best party ever," Eddie replied through gritted teeth. Damn near every muscle he had was screeching a protest. Suddenly, he bucked and started coughing violently. By the time he was done, he had to spit the blood from his mouth. "Oh, nice," he muttered.

"Eeesh, they really did a fucking number on you, huh?" Asad had seen torture victims before, but nothing quite like this. "If it's any consolation." Asad started, grunting as he supported more of the man's weight. "We have the best doctors carbon can buy waiting for you back in Yuteni."

"That's good," Eddie replied as they started moving. "The sooner I get strong... the sooner I can kick down Payton's front door." There was a pause, before he added in a mutter, "the sooner he'll pay for what he did to her..."

"Is this something I need to know?" Asad asked, raising an eyebrow. As far as he was aware, there was no major play by Payton regarding Eddie, other than the torturing him for months part.

Eddie sighed. When he spoke, his voice was leaden. Actually putting it into words was almost too much. "Payton wanted to bring me in alive. The only way he knew he'd do that was by taking my daughter hostage so he could coerce her mother into baiting me. Stashed her in Yuteni just before it got hit by Father Austin. Millie died in his captivity."

"Millie Canton? I... You know what, you might want to sit back down for this." Asad gently lowered Eddie onto the metal floor, placing him on his side. "We have an ETA for getting to the hangar." Asad chuckled, as he sat down. "But fuck it." The Commander grinned as he draped his arms over his knees. "Millie Canton, as well as Whiskey Fifer are both currently residing on the Iron Maiden as members of the crew."

It wasn't very often he got to deliver good news.

"I..."

Eddie was speechless. He wasn't a religious man, but he'd spent the past six months actually praying. Begging whatever god might care to listen that Payton be lying about Millie's death.

"The Maidens, huh?" he asked. Before Asad could respond, however, Eddie burst out in a huge fit of manic laughter that rocked his shoulders before turning into another bloody coughing fit.

By the time he was done, he held out a hand. "You got a canteen on you? Gotta wash this red out of my throat."

"That I do." Asad smirk as he reached for the flask hooked on his belt and handed it to Eddie. "Got cigarettes too, if you're interested, although I can't imagine that making you feel too much better." He chuckled as he reached into his jacket and pulled out a pack, lighting one up, he took a long drag before offering it the man.

"I'll take you up on that, thanks."

Allowing Asad to light up the cigarette, he took a long drag. "Yeah, that got most of it out. Least enough that this ain't gonna kill me."

When the soldier made to help Eddie back into the fireman's lift, he waved him off. Clamping the cigarette between his teeth, Eddie braced his hands on his knees. Exerting hard enough to make the tendons on his neck stand out, Eddie pushed himself up the wall with a prolonged groan of effort, but eventually, miraculously, he was standing.

"Fuck yeah," he breathed, trying to ignore the fact that his legs were trembling violently.

"Well that's impressive," said a voice. Eddie turned to see Ruffles approaching from around the corner flanked by a number of fellow prisoners and Asad's own men.

Taking a step, Eddie very nearly barrelled back down the side of the wall. Ruffles bolted forwards and caught him. "When we tell people about this later, we'll cut that part out. Deal?"

"Ah, Mr Miller." Asad crossed his arms over his chest. "That's another off the list, I believe that makes all three VIPs present and accounted for." Looking over at his men, Asad nodded before helping Ruffles get Eddie to his feet. "Anyone got anything to say before we leave? Because we seriously need to haul ass if we're gonna make the ETA."

"Well I was gonna do a twenty minute rap solo, but it can wait," Ruffles replied, taking Eddie off Asad's hands. Using the engineer as a crutch, Eddie could just about move. Once he had one of Ruffles' stolen pistols in hand, they were good to go.

"Feel free to do it on the way." Asad chuckled as he moved towards the cell door, the crowd parting to let him through. Reaching a hand to his earpiece, Asad called it in. "Yellow Leader here, all VIPs are accounted for, Red Capote, ETA seven minutes until we reach the hangar." He glanced back at Eddie who was doing his best to look like his entire body wasn't falling apart. "Make that ten. Fuck the engine in five, over."

"Roger that, Yellow Leader," Matador replied.

"Alright maggots!" Asad roared. "Better get off this shit heap before it falls out the sky, move!" Grabbing the rifle hanging from his shoulder, Asad lead the way.

Ruffles turned and glared at Asad. "Hey fuck you, man. This ship is a beautiful piece of cutting edge technology designed by yours truly. Give it some respect or we're gonna have a little friendly fire up in this bitch."

"Apologies, Mr Miller." Asad smirked, eyes still ahead as the group moved. "But when we're done here, they'll be lucky if they can even salvage the scrap."

"I'll mourn her the proper way later," Ruffles replied. "With a massive fuckin' doobie."

Asad and the others quickly moved through the ship the way they came, splitting off at a junction towards the hangar, the sound of distant gunfire gradually died down until they were a couple minutes away, silence fell mere moments before they entered the hangar. Holding up a hand to stop the group, Asad listened to his earpiece for a moment before motioning to continue. "Hangar is secure, move up."

Entering the hangar, the immediate smell of gunpowder and blood filled his nostrils, dozens of bodies were scattered everywhere, thankfully none of them were his men, and only two of the banditos were down, but not with mortal wounds it seemed.

Making his way over to the members of Yellow Team overseeing the hangar neutralisation, he pointed to the back of the group where Miller was still aiding Canton. "These two are with me, get everyone else on the ships."

Turning to look around the hangar, Asad furrowed his brow. "Mr Trejo!" He called out, trying to find the man in the crowd."

"Over here!" he called out, brushing past his subordinates as he made his way over to Asad. Trejo's knuckles were bloodied, but beyond that he looked unharmed. "You the one calling the shots?"

"Sir." Asad nodded at Trejo. He read the dossier, Trejo wasn't a man who took kindly to being ordered around. "We're taking these ships for extraction." He motioned to one of the small carriers." He hoped he would get the hint.

Trejo nodded. "Ay!" he chirped, then whistled sharply. "We're taking these birds out of here. Split up into groups of ten. Let's go! Vamonos!"

As everyone got themselves organised, Asad took Eddie and Jake aside to one of the ships. "How are we feeling, Mr Canton." Asad asked as he helped strap the man into his chair, not too tightly of course.

"Just Eddie is fine," Eddie replied. "I'm feeling... tired."

Ruffles, meanwhile, turned to Asad. "I'mma go take the pilot's seat. Might as well, seeing as I designed these dropships too."

"Go right ahead." Asad gave Miller a thumbs up. Turning his attention back to Canton, Asad placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "Get some rest, we'll be in the air for a while." He began leaving the aircraft before looking back at the man. "Today's your lucky day, Eddie." Asad winked as he smiled.

"And a very unlucky day for Payton Wilkes-Vines," Eddie replied. Then he grinned. "And it's only gonna get worse."

Nodding, Asad left Canton to get some rest. Moving a few feet away from the carrier, the Commander raised a hand to his earpiece. "Yellow Leader here, boarding has commenced, what's everyone else's ETA? Over"

After a brief silence, Asad's earpiece came to life. "This is Red Leader," Barzetti replied. "We're just coming up on the hangar now. Get those engines warmed up. Red Capote, you're clear to proceed. Over."

"Roger that," Matador said firmly before flicking the switch on the detonator in her hand. A sharp hissing noise sounded from the engine compartment, followed by a muted pop. The plastic micro-explosive Matador planted inside had begun a chain reaction within the engine--sealing its fate. She stayed just long enough to see the fire start.

"This is Red Capote," she said as she bolted down the narrow hall, "The engine's fried. En route to the rendezvous. Over."

Barzetti was already in the cockpit of one of the dropships. "Copy that," he said. "You've got one minute, Red Capote. Over."

Strapping himself in next to Miller, Asad ran a hand through his hair as he let out a relieved sigh. "Mr Miller." He nodded towards the exit of the hangar.

"Eeeeeeyup," Ruffles replied, flicking the various lines of switches in the final take off preparations. As the engine hummed into lift, the craft lifted from the hanger floor. Easing the stick forward, Ruffles swept the dropship forward, up and smoothly through the hanger exit.

Once they were clear, he upped the speed, gaining as much distance and altitude as he could.

"Smoother than a Paradiso whore," he said, grinning. "See if you get that kinda quality anywhere else."

"Very well done." Asad smiled as he raised a hand to his ear. "Yellow Leader here, skies are clear, commence extraction, over." Barzetti would leave last with Matador.

Reaching into his jacket, Asad lit a cigarette before also offering one to Miller. "Don't suppose you built liquor cabinets in these things?"

"Afraid not," he replied. "But you should see the weapons on these things. Underslung railguns, side mounted plasma cannons, and my own personal touch: An ADS crowd control cannon. Doesn't harm anyone, but you can make whoever you aim it at feel like they just took a napalm shower until you let go of the trigger."

"Niiice." Asad closed his eyes as he leaned back in his seat. "I never introduced myself back there." The Commander held out a hand. "Commander Asad Harel, Elizabeth Maribel sent me, I believe you two are already well acquainted."

Ruffles took a hand off the stick long enough to shake Asad's hand. "Call me Ruffles. I guess you'd know my name from my brief, but uh..."

He pointed to the T-shirt he'd been wearing through his captivity, revealed now he was out of the bloodied kevlar. The words 'Stop Calling Me Jake' were emblazoned on the chest.

"Good to hear Liz is some kinda bigwig now, though. She seemed like one of those 'good people' I've heard so much about." He winked at Asad. "Good enough I'm willing to help her plan how to deal with my unstoppable super fleet of death, anyway."

Asad chuckled "All in good time, Mr Mi... Ruffles, all in good time."

It was time to go home.

Matador gunned down a few stragglers barring her path before finally reaching the hangar. "LET'S GO!" Barzetti yelled back at her from the cockpit of the last remaining dropship. "MOVE IT!"

Once inside, she took a seat far from the others and sighed deeply. Their lift off, and the loud cheers of Red Team didn't even register on her radar--she was already too deep in thought.

Jake was going to work with Elizabeth now, but how long would he stick around? How long until he gave in to the Maiden's call?

How long until you do?

Matador removed her helmet and dropped it to the floor, carelessly. Leaning back in her seat, she rested the back of her head against the bulkhead and lit a cigarette. She took a deep drag before exhaling sharply. The smoke hung in the air above her for a good while.

She allowed herself a small smile.

"It was good to see you again, Jake," she whispered to herself.

"Eh, better than Sanchez or Pedro." Maria shrugged, "Anyway, let's go."

"So long as nobody call's me Esmeralda it's all good." Truthfully Gale thought it was a pretty name but she knew an Esmeralda back with the Caravan and she was a total cow! Always making fun of Gale cus of her weight or voice.

'Look at me now, bitch, toned as shit and hangin' around fancy dome casino joints.' She was ignoring the reason she was there for the sake of her imaginary bragging. 'Kick your ass, and you're boyfriends''

They stepped out into the casino proper, somehow it wasn't as pretty as the pictures. Weird. Anyway it didn't matter, they had a prize bigger than any at the tables and the finish line was in sight. They were so close now.

"CO and nothing more. Fine by me."

Tsubaki nodded and turned her attention back to the bank across the street. A few goons were loitering in front of the door, looking in every now and then. Their man would be coming out soon. The Colonel had just enough time to take a quick hit before Morello stepped out into the open.

"This is Saburo," Tsubaki said into her comm. "We have eyes on the package. He's getting into the limo--backseat. Flanked by three crawlers--light armor, no mounted guns. About ten men in his entourage." Tsubaki tilted the motorcycle, kicked up the kickstand and revved the engine. "We're tailing him now. Be ready. Over."

Tsubaki peered over her shoulder. "Let's herd some sheep," she told Mal before putting on her black motorcycle helmet. Before Mal could respond, Tsubaki peeled out onto the street--headed straight towards Morello's convoy.

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

A sharp knock came to Elizabeth's bedroom door.

Weird, she wasn't expecting anyone...

The young noble was dressed in little more than a nightgown and panties, but that didn't really bother her. It was probably just Edea.

What time was it, anyway?

Peering through the window by her bedside, she noticed the moon was full and shining a brilliant silver. She could feel its warm aura on her skin. It made her happy. Weightless.

Elizabeth scratched her scalp and pulled loose any tangles in her short hair as she approached the door. "I'm c-cooooming," she called out, yawning. As she opened the door one of the straps on her nightgown fell down her shoulder. "What is---F-Florian?!"

Oh crap! She couldn't let him see her like this!

It's too late! He already sees you!

Now he would know her for the dirty tramp she was! A woman without shame or modesty! An animal!

While Elizabeth was busy bludgeoning her own ego, Florian simply stood in the doorway looking at her. He wore a curious grin on his face. "I'm sorry," he said a confident tone. "Is this a bad time? I didn't mean to drop in on you like this."

Elizabeth blinked stupidly. "O-oh, you didn't mean to...? Wh-what am I saying? Of course you didn't!" she stammered.

"Well, maybe I kind of did," he said with a shrug, his charming grin wider than before. "Maybe I wanted to catch you off guard. Out of your element."

"Th-this is... I-I," she muttered, lost in his piercing gaze. Then she noticed her state of dress once more. She turned towards her bed. "I-I'm sorry, let me put something on and I--" Her words died in her throat when she felt his hand on her shoulder.

She froze.

Florian chuckled quietly and closed the gap between them. "No, really, it's fine," he whispered into her ear. "I like you like this." He caught the rogue strap of her gown between his fingers and tugged on it playfully.

"I, uh," she began, swallowing nervously, "Lord Bejic--this is... this is highly inappropriate. I, um, I don't--"

Florian hushed her. "It's okay, Elizabeth--call me Florian."

"F-Florian..."

He chuckled. "Are you nervous?" She nodded, her back still turned towards him. "Don't be."

Elizabeth was shivering now. "I--I don't know what to--I've never--" He hushed her again, but this time he didn't say anything to calm her. Slowly, he caressed her shoulders with his hands and began kissing the side of her neck. "F-Florian... I-I..." The kisses suddenly became deeper and more frequent, and before she could open her mouth again, he slid one of his hands off her shoulder and grabbed her breast.

Her nervous words were quickly replaces by gasps and moans. Turning her head to face him, she kissed the ex-Maiden deeply. Florian had to force her hands off his face in order to peel her nightgown off. As their lips parted he looked down at what she was offering. His smile told her he liked what he saw.

She returned the grin.

Then, suddenly, he pushed her on the bed and proceeded to strip her completely. Laying flat on her back, she bent her knees in and out nervously, as he groped and kissed her inner thighs. She arched her back and moaned wildly when his lips finally found---

***

A sharp knock came to Elizabeth's bathroom door.

"Hey, did you fall asleep in there?!" Edea's voice called out from the other side. "The Captain's on her way. Get your ass out of there!"

It took Elizabeth a minute to acclimate to her environment. Moments ago she was in her bedroom with...

Holy shit...

"I'll be right out!"

Why did she feel so hot?! She looked down at the murky water she was submerged in. She must have fallen asleep in the bath. But that... the water was lukewarm at best. Why was she so hot?

There were butterflies in her stomach and her heart was pounding.

Had she...?

Christ, get it together Liz.

She had work to do. No time for confusing dreams.

You can just... take care of this later.

Elizabeth sighed deeply before finally getting out of the bath.

There they were: three femme fatales making out with the score of a lifetime. Bennie couldn't help grinning like an idiot when he saw them stepping out onto the casino floor--duffle bags slung over their shoulders--striding straight through the frenzied crowd like it was no big deal. "Head straight for the shuttle bay," he whispered. "Don't make eye contact with anyone. Just keep walking."

Every other Maiden nearby was watching them.

Almost there...

***

Tallahassee perked up when he heard some foot steps echoing down the hallways.

"What the shit?!" a man suddenly cried from the connecting hall nearby. He'd found the unconscious guards, evidently. Tallahassee and Brock flew down the hall, hoping to get to the man before he could radio the other guards. "I-I-I got two guards down near the vault! I repeat, someone's fucking us!"

Tal figured this would happen. One of the only parts of the plan that would come down to pure luck. Unfortunately, they happened to roll shit.

Reckon Casino would 'ave been a better choice fer this, Bennie-boy.

"You should'a done that!" Tallahassee roared as he came around the corner and clocked the panicked guard on the back of the head, rendering him unconscious. "This is Emperor. They know."

***

Shit! Bennie thought, gritting his teeth anxiously.

"Stick to the plan," he whispered into his comm, his eyes now glued to Castello. "Only draw if I give the go ahead."

Sprout stole a quick glance from Amy from the other side of the room before getting out of his seat. Reaching his hand into his jacket, he leaned over Lilith and whispered into her ear. "If shit goes down we'll take cover by the slots to your right," he instructed. "Most'a the guards'll 'ave their backs to us. Get ready."

Gale, Maria and Allie were almost there, but were starting to get an alarming amount of suspicious looks.

Just focus, girls. Keep walking.

"What?!" Castello shouted before quickly hushing himself. Discreetly, Bennie inched closer to the frantic man. While Amy and Sandra were there the entire time, Bennie only caught half of the conversation. "Have you fucking checked it?!" The security guard nodded. "Fuck! We've been made! GOD FUCK!"

"Boss, what do we do?!"

"Find those fucks and string them up by their entrails!"

Another man came running from a backroom nearby. "Boss, security cameras spotted three maintenance workers leaving the vault a couple minutes ago!"

Castello was seething. "FIND THEM!"

Bennie ducked away and practically yelled into his comm. "They're onto us, fucking leg it!"

The three girls did as they were told, but before they could make it to the shuttle bay, three security guards spotted them and moved to intercept. "DON'T MOVE!" one of them screamed, drawing on the three Maidens.

Shit was hitting the fan. There was no way around it now.

"SANDRA!" Bennie roared. "GRAB HIM!"

Castello didn't take too kindly to being manhandled by a woman half his size, nor did he particularly care for the cold steel kissing the underside of his jaw. "WHAT THE FUCK?!" he shrieked.

Before he knew it, there were guns being pointed all over the room. Bennie figured they could take the man hostage, but realized too late how trigger happy his hired goons were.

A choir of screams echoed all throughout the hall.

"SHOOT THIS BITCH!"

Moments later, the casino turned into a warzone.

'Oh cocking fuck!' Amy thought as Tal's warnings came over the radio.

"Is it hot in here? I think my mascara's running..." she said, not that anyone was paying attention to her. As she reached into her bag, her hand curled around her Walther, and eased the safety off.

"SANDRA! GRAB HIM!"

Sandra didn't need telling twice. Twisting Castello's arm behind his back and shoving her Glock under his jaw, wheeling him around easily to face the nearest approaching security.

"EVERY MOTHERFUCKER KEEP THEIR ARMS BY THEIR SIDES OR I MAKE A MESS!" she shrieked.

"SHOOT THIS BITCH!"

Amy didn't give them the chance.

She didn't waste time with warnings or threats. She simply dropped the bag and raised her arm, firing three shots. One by one, in less than a second, she dropped the three guards in front of them, before she and Sandra dived under the craps table, dragging Castello with them, as bullets ripped up the carpet all around them.

"WHERE'S OUR FUCKING COVER FIRE?!" Amy screamed over the comm.

With radio chats proving a bust and some time to kill until his next meet up with Elizabeth Florian tried to put another small dent in the mountain of legislative reading he was required to do. He wasn't getting far. Luckily someone had come to save him from his boredom as he heard a sharp knock at the door.

"[Just a moment.]" He called, getting up to let whoever it was in and trying not to trip over Rollo as he got underfoot. "[Ah, Katya, to what do I owe the pleasure?]" He ushered her in, not trusting Katya to make herself comfortable unless ordered.

'Making herself comfortable' as far as Katya was concerned stretched to standing at ease and not much else. As the door swung shut behind her, Rollo bounded of the bed in a way that only cats can make look lazy, trotted over to her, and began to wind his way around he ankles.

"[Lord Bejic,]" she said a little stiffly. "[I am sorry to intrude .]"

"[If you were intruding you'd have used your keys.]" He assured her, folding his arms and turning to face the captain. "[What's brought you here?]" Nothing good, judging by the look on her face.

"[Earlier, Secretary Ablev and I spoke to one of Lady Maribel's retainers...]" she began "[An old friend of his, I gather. I fear that my frustration with these negotiations caused me to act unprofessionally. I wanted to formally apologise, for not representing you to the best of my ability.]"

"[So long as you didn't deck anyone, Kat, I'm sure we'll be okay. But thank you for telling me.]" He said, genuinely thankful for some honesty amid the intrigue. He knew better than to tell Katya not to worry, besides it was her job to do so. "[This is the older woman?]" He remembered her mentioning Erik earlier. "[What did she do to get you rattled?]" He found it hard to believe she'd 'act unprofessionally' without provocation.

"[For starters, my Lord, she called you a fool.]" she said "[However, that is not why I got angry. I am angry at the lack of clarity in this whole situation. It is my duty to protect you, and it is a duty I will gladly lay down my life, and the lives of every Wolfguard, in service of should it be necessary. I can only protect you properly, Lord Bejic, when I know where the threat is likely to come from; and Lady Maribel wanting to use us while simultaneously keeping us out of the loop makes it harder for me to do my job. This is a professional concern, not a personal one. All the same... I don't like being stonewalled.]"

'She's calling me names behind my back? That's not very nice.' It did sound a lot like one of Erik's friends though. That was as lightly as he could take these matters though. Elizabeth was very animated when it came to talking about what she wanted to do, she'd been decidedly vague when it came to the how. Then there was the Lombardi's looking over her shoulder as she promised to save Frostfall from them. He didn't want to admit it but it nettled him.

"[You're not the only one.]" Florian sighed, leaning against the couch. "[Beatrix, did she give you any kind of information, let anything slip?]"

"[She let slip that the operation to retake Boomhower is already underway.]" Katya told him "[As we speak, a strike team is on a mission to sabotage the Wilkes Vines fleet, punching a hole for an invasion of the city, that shall be assisted by dormant Santiago and Maribel forces already on the inside. All the forces taking part are allegedly loyal to Elizabeth, and taking the city with them under her command would appear to be her first open act of defiance against the Lombardi family.]"

Katya paused, pursing her lips.

"[The way she told it, it's a plan that seems to rely on a lot of variables falling in their favour, though I don't think Lady Maribel would risk so much in hope of a lucky break at this point. As to what role we're supposed to be taking in all of this, all I got was that our contribution is supposed to come 'after'.]"

Florian furrowed his brow and looked at the floor as he mulled things over. This plan sounded familiar. 'Except she doesn't have to sleep on the street or get beat up by Erik to make it work'

"[Sounds like we're to be the big guns she pulls out at the last minute.]" That's what it looked like right now at least. The Santiago's downfall was public knowledge by this point and Boomhower's forces hadn't even been able to stand against them.

"[But we've gone over this before. Along with the WV and Lombardi's being a mutual enemy, this should be the simplest alliance ever. So what are they hiding?]" Florian went on thinking out loud. "[Well we have some answers... and more questions to go with them.]"

'I'm really starting to hate politics.'

"[Buuuut on the plus side, we know Yuteni is also in play and ready for our helping hand. and if they're going after Payton's fleet then they may want the inventor they got to work on it, who is a friend of mine!]" He had Lilith to thank for that piece of info. Florian was becoming more animated now, much to Rollo's bemusement. "[Maybe they'd like us to take that fleet instead of breaking it, then there's the trade with Boomhower -- She agreed to that by the way -- Oh I'm liking this.]"

Just as Beatrix had thought, Florian's ambitions had gotten a lot less humble over the last few months. Growing bigger as the dome got stronger. If he had his way Frostfall would never have to fear a second run at the stagnant brush with death it had experienced. He'd make it stronger than ever before and right now ways to spread its influence were lining up for him.

"[We can do this.]" He smiled at Katya, with a wild gleam in his eyes.

"[I never doubted for a second.]" Katya said, managing a small smile that was quickly dispelled.

"[Lord Bejic...]" she said again, far more tentatively than before. "[You said before that I always had permission to speak freely to you...]"

"[You still have it.]" Florian nodded.

Rollo added in a hoarse yowl.

"[So do you.]"

"[Lady Maribel is romantically interested in you.]" Katya blurted out, not really knowing how to do these thing subtly "[Are her feelings reciprocated?]"

"[Wh... I'm sorry?]" Florian looked at her in dumbstruck surprise.

Katya relaxed her posture, and gave Rollo a look that translated pretty clearly as 'Men!'. Rollo began cleaning behind his ears in response.

"[With all due respect, my Lord... when you embraced her in the lobby earlier, I could have cut the pheromones in the air with my knife.]"

"[Oh god that's a mental image right there!]" It was all pink and Katya was using a butter knife. "[Well it doesn't even matter because I'm spoken for.]" Florian blathered, honestly unsure of how to react to this. And trying to ignore the little feeling of smugness creeping up from the back of his mind.

"[I didn't tell you with the intention of giving you relationship advice, Florian.]" Katya continued, using her Lord's first name as a rare occasion. Her expression grew a little softer. "[I just wanted to make certain that there was nothing about these talks that might... interfere with your objectivity. People in love have the tendency to make dramatic gestures.]"

"[Oh I don't need to be in love to do that. Those are the whole reason I'm here!]" Florian waved her off. The Wolfguard would not have an easy time ahead of them. "[I'll try to keep them to a minimum, Katya. There's a bigger things than my love life at risk here. I'll try to keep my pheromones to myself.]"

"[That's good to hear. I imagine they're quite a force to be reckoned with...]" Katya teased, before turning towards the door. Just as her hand was reaching out for the handle, she paused.

"[She's a lucky girl.]" she said, quietly.

"[I'll tell her you said that.]" Florian laughed.

Florian couldn't see Katya's smile take on a sad tinge, and her still-outstretched hand ball into a fist just for a moment.

"[She implied I was in love with you too...]" she continued "[Beatrix, I mean. It was another factor that touched a nerve. It seems a woman can't dedicate her life to a man without the whole world assuming she waiting on being requited. in case such rumours had reached your ears as well, I wanted to assure you, I'm not.]"

"[Such rumours had not reached me, if they even exist.]" Florian assured her, any sense of teasing had gone as he saw Katya's mood grow colder. "[Nor would I expect them, you're men respect you too much to do anything so petty, Katya.]"

"[It's not their respect that concerns me.]" Katya responded "[I can discipline them, and myself. Still, I thought now might be a good time to clear some things up...]"

She turned back around, arms by her sides and head bowed.

"[I am ashamed.]" she told him "[I was your enemy once, and had we met back then, I would have killed you. I'd have done it in the name of people who demanded loyalty without ever thinking to reward it, an I'd have slept well that night. It takes... an extraordinary person, to give someone so blindly obedient a new perspective.

It would be all too easy for such sentiments to grow into romantic obsession, but I refused that path the moment I entered you service, and I continue to refuse it. I told you already, I will not hesitate to lay down my life for you, but not because of love... In fact, if I allowed myself to imagine, even for a moment, what your hand would feel like in mine, then... then I might want to live, to pursue whatever chance I had. I might hesitate at a crucial moment, and fail you. So I reject it, and I wanted to tell you now, as I am, that should you ever suspect I have faltered in that rejection, to dismiss me from your service, as I would no longer be fit to protect you.]"

Florian was taken aback. He'd been ready to cut her off, to tell her there was nothing to be ashamed of at all. Each regret she told to him was like a mirror image of his own from his days as a hussar. That shared understanding had been what had made them such a good team. As if he could hold any of that against her. Then she mentioned the hand holding part and, well, his words failed him.

That was... wow.

"[Understood, Captain.]" He nodded to her, using her title in a rare display of formality. Treating her words with the respect they deserved. "[You're dismissed for now. We both have a lot of work ahead of us.]"

Katya nodded.

"[Thank you, my Lord.]" she said, and left without another word.

Florian stood there for a moment, staring at the closed door as he let out a long breath. "[Well... that's something.]" Stirring romantic declarations and the affections of young noblewomen. He couldn't help but smile as he turned and walked back towards his chair. "[Looks like I've still got that smooooth Bejic charm -- BWAGHAGH!]"

Any self congratulating Flroian might have done was cut short with a yelp as his feet got tangles up in the ever underfoot Rollo. The cat screeched and went running off as Florian fell face first into the floor and knocked over the nearby coffee table with a loud crash.

Things got real heated, real fast, and just like Sprout suggested, they were both currently hiding behind a row of slot machines, their clinking and chiming offering a strange, but somewhat fitting chorus to the sound of weapon fire.

"WHERE'S OUR FUCKING COVER FIRE?!"

"Your mistress is in a spot of bother, darling!" Lilith shouted over the surrounding cacophony. "Methinks we should contemplate aiding her before she exits this mortal coil!" Even under pressure, the girl knew how to stay in character.

Sprout was halfway between humouring Lilith and panicking over his girlfriend's safety. "We'll roleplay in bed later if it'll make ya' happy," he told her as he peered around the corner of the slot machine he was hiding behind. "Let's jus' make sure ar' friends aren't filled with holes first!"

"That's what...she...said?" Lilith forced a grin as her brow furrowed.

"Hope yer aim ain't half as bad as yer jokes," he quipped. "Now let's kick some ass!" Popping out from behind the slot machine, Sprout emptied his revolver into a group of men closing in on Amy. He counted at least two down. Slipping back into cover, he reloaded his weapon. "Right in the back. Jus' like John Wayne would'a done."

"Who the fuck is John Wayne?!" Lilith called after him as she pulled up her dress to reveal her revolver tucked into a garter. The girl chased after the boy, doing pretty well for someone in heels. She had been secretly practicing for just such an occasion.

Downing a couple of men herself, she almost stumbled as she dove in next to Sprout. "No, seriously, do I know him? He works for the Tyrell folks right? On the farm?"

Sprout sighed. "You never read the credits before the movies do ya'?" he asked in a disappointed tone. "Gotta respect the classics, Lily. What's wrong with you?"

One security guard dashed right by without noticing them. Sprout took aim and fired a single shot.

He went down hard.

"Seriously," he continued, "I reckon we watched a dozen westerns with Ma'!"

"Is that the one with the hairy bloke?" Lilith pursed her lips, a confused look on her face. "With the beam sword thingies and the guy with a breathing problem?" She nodded her head. "Yeah, I remember that one, he was the 'These are not the haemorrhoids you are looking for' guy!" Hopping up from cover, Lilith popped another passing guard, grinning like an idiot. "That was a good movie!"

"Goddammit, Lily," Sprout groaned, "yer doin' this on purpose!"

Just then, two of Castello's goons spotted them from a several yards away. One flipped a nearby poker table over for cover while the other brandished a... tommy gun?!

"GET DOWN!" Sprout cried as he dove to the floor, taking Lilith with him. Sparks and shrapnel rained down on them as the well-dressed henchmen shot up the slot machines around them.

Lilith's revolver slipped from her fingers, falling several feet away as she fell. "Shit!" She fumbled around on the ground for a second before reaching for her foot. "EAT SHOE, BITCH!" Quickly slipping off one of her heels, she clumsily hurled it at the machine gun wielding assailant, miraculously hitting him in the face. The pair rolled sideways along the carpet behind a nearby slot machine, Lilith recovering her revolver on the way. "Did you fucking see that?!"

"You threw a shoe at him," Sprout uttered in disbelief. "I'm pretty sure that ain't supposed ta' work in real life."

A sudden burst of machine gun fire peppered their cover, forcing them deeper into cover. Apparently the shoe hadn't done enough damage.

Peering around the slot machine, Sprout noticed they were standing directly under a chandelier. If they were using bullshit movie logic Sprout figured they'd at least honor all the cliches. The boy quickly rolled back into cover before the gunner could see him. "Above them!" he shouted, pointing to the large ornament hanging from the ceiling. "Think you can hit it?"

"By your mother's slutty ghost, I will damn well try!" Lilith grunted as she got to her feet, she went to move but stumbled slightly. "Bollocks." She muttered, hopping on one leg, she grabbed her remaining heel, dropping it on Sprout's lap. "Take care of this as if it were your last nudey mag that you have stashed behind the toilet that you don't think anyone knows about."

Sprout frowned intensely. "Sometimes Amy jus' ain't in the mood," he muttered. "Forget I said that."

"REALLY?!" Lilith laughed, turning quickly, she dug her bare feet into the carpet, twirling her revolver at her side, she shifted her weight before dashing towards a slot machine across the way. "I was bluffiiiiiiiing!" She cried as she dove through the air, firing a single shot at the supporting beam of the chandelier where it met the ceiling base.

Slamming her elbow into the ground, Lilith followed through with a combat roll, the tails of her ever so sparkly dress following in her wake, followed by slightly less sparkly bullets as she managed to get behind the slot machine.

Moments later, the crashing sound of success pierced the air.

Unfortunately Sprout missed the spectical, for as soon as Lilith dove out from behind the slots he noticed another guard coming at them from behind. Their assailant only managed to squeeze off three shots--all of which missed--before Sprout returned fire, forcing him into cover behind a blackjack table. "I GOT 'IM!" the boy announced as he charged the table, firing his weapon until it was spent. Thankfully it lasted just long enough for him to close the gap.

Vaulting over the table, Sprout kicked the pistol from the man's hand and came crashing down on top of him. He was bigger than Sprout, but not stronger, and after a few good swings he was seeing sheep. "HE'S DOWN!" Sprout called out, shaking the pain from his hands.

"THAT'S WHAT SHE SAAAAAAAAAID!" Lilith roared as she dashed around the opposite side of the slot machine, vaulting over a poker table as she closed in on the dazed chandelier victims, smashing one around the face with her revolver as he struggled to get to his feet.

The second guard, still on his back, looked up at the woman, sighing as he clumsily twirled a finger in the air, "Yeah, yeah, let's get this over with."

Lilith smirked as she took a step and kicked the crestfallen guard hard in the face.

Holding a hand in the air, Lilith whistled over to the boy, who responded in kind by tossing her a shoe. "Thanks, sweetheart." She called out as she slipped a foot into the other shoe lying close by. "I wouldn't abandon you my babies." Lilith made a kissy face as she looked down at her frankly brilliant footwear.

Elizabeth leaned back in her recliner and rubbed her temples furiously. Though she was only mildly farsighted, reading for too long without a break gave her brutal tension headaches. "They're asking for a lot more than I would have thought," she remarked. With so much capital already invested in Yuteni, she wasn't convinced they'd be able to make good on half of the provisions Florian had requested. Apparently financing the reconstruction of two cities was an expensive prospect.

Who would have thought?

Removing her reading glasses, Elizabeth rubbed some of the tension out of her eyes and sighed deeply. "I think I need a break," she whispered. "I'm going to make a cup of coffee. Anyone want some?"

Beatrix was too far down the rabbit hole to reply while Edea simply shook her head.

Before Elizabeth was halfway to the kitchen, her bodyguard called out to her. "You should go to dinner in that," Edea told her. "You look cute."

"What?" Elizabeth blurted, blushing slightly. Cute? She wasn't even wearing makeup! "I can't go in this!"

Edea tilted her head. "I don't know, I think Florian would like it," she joked. "The striped, un-tucked button-down shirt with the top few buttons undone--the sleeves unbuttoned and the collar a mess? And no bra underneath? If it was one size bigger you'd look like you were wearing your lover's shirt. Guys go crazy for that sorta thing, you know!"

"Enough about Florian!"

"And those black pants and bare-feet? Yummy."

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. "Okay, now you're scaring me," she half-joked.

"You've got cute frames too. How come you don't wear them all the time?"

"I usually wear contacts," Liz said with a shrug.

Edea frowned. "You should wear them more often, they suit you."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes and continued her journey into the kitchen. "I appreciate the confidence booster, Colonel, but really, me and Florian aren't a thing," she said loud enough for her voice to carry into the living room. "It's never going to happen."

"Not with that attitude!"

"Drop it," Elizabeth scolded.

"Fiiiine."

Elizabeth put her glasses back on and started brewing herself some coffee--pushing thoughts of the young Bejic to the back of her mind. There were already a million things to worry about as it was. Why complicate things further? It wasn't worth it.

Your people come first.

Still, she had to admit... he was damn fine.

The young Maribel returned to her recliner a short time later and took a sip of her coffee. It took her a moment to realize Beatrix and Edea were both staring at her. "Um, yes?" she asked, slightly worried.

"How are things with Franz?" Beatrix asked, bluntly.

"Oh," Elizabeth mumbled before setting her coffee down on the end-table beside her. "Nothing's happened yet if that's what you're asking."

Edea glared at Beatrix. "Come on, don't be a buzzkill," she whined.

"This isn't a game, Miss Fontaine," the captain snapped. "Lady Maribel can't afford to dwell on these pointless fantasies."

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. "Piper, it's okay, I--"

"No," Beatrix interrupted, "it's not okay, m'Lady! I don't think you understand how delicate your situation is. Franz might be a simpleton, but his mother isn't. If she determines you don't intend to marry her son, this gambit of ours will fail. Most of our fleet owes their loyalty to the Lombardis. Not you. Not me."

"I get it."

"No, I don't think you do," Beatrix continued. "I've put my ass on the line for you, Elizabeth. Everything we've built together--everything we plan to build in the future... I won't let a schoolgirl crush compromise that!"

Elizabeth glared at her adviser. "Okay, fine, you're right about Florian," she conceded. "It's a needless distraction, I agree. But what of Franz. You don't seriously expect me to... you know..."

"Fuck him?" Edea blurted.

"Thank you, Edea."

The bodyguard shrugged. "You've been engaged for two months," she pointed out. "You're telling me nothing's happened in that time?"

"I don't know," Liz said, nervously. "He's stolen a few kisses. Grabbed my ass once or twice. Beyond that? No. I've been spinning him this tale about pure Maribel girls. He says he respects traditional virgin marriages, even if he doesn't agree with them."

Beatrix frowned. "I'm not asking you to sleep with him," she clarified. "I just don't think you need to give the man any reason to doubt your intentions."

The old captain didn't look entirely pleased with her own answer.

"What is it?"

"He's become more persistent over time, has he not?" Beatrix asked.

Elizabeth thought for a moment. "Yeah," she muttered.

"You might want to give him something," Edea said.

"Ew, no!" Elizabeth spat.

Beatrix clenched her jaw. "You'd rather him take it by force?" she asked in a grave tone.

Elizabeth looked at her friend in disbelief. "You really think he would do that?"

"I couldn't say," she admitted, "but the man's lived a pampered life. He's always been given whatever he desired. Nothing is out of his reach. Then you come along--his fiance of all people, and you won't even kiss him? He's a Lombardi, Elizabeth. They're the biggest hedonists on the planet. He's bathed with his own mother for Christ's sake!"

"Okay, I did not need to know that!" Elizabeth cried.

Beatrix sighed. "Look, I'm sorry. I'm just worried about you," she explained. "I don't want you to get hurt."

Elizabeth rested her hand on her abdominal scar--the wound she'd usurped from her tormentor six months ago. "I can endure a lot more than you think," she stated in a flat tone. "Let's focus on these reports. We have a lot of work to do before tomorrow morning."

"We've got an hour before dinner," Edea pointed out.

"All the more reason to focus," Elizabeth replied. "Come on, back to work."

Until now, Elizabeth had been simply brushing him off--thoughtlessly dismissing his advances. She'd believed Franz to be a harmless flirt. But what if Beatrix was right? Would he take what she was denying him? Was he capable of that?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. There's no point dwelling on 'what ifs'.

If Franz became a problem, Elizabeth would take care of it.

It was as simple as that.

"WHERE'S OUR FUCKING COVER FIRE?!"

Slipping his hand into his tuxedo jacket, Bennie brandished his revolver and looked to Amy. "Yes, ma'am," he called out, taking aim at an enemy on her flank. Amy could practically feel the man's head pop behind her. "Where'd Sandra go?!"

"I'M HERE!" Sandra yelled from under the table. "I'VE GOT CASTELLO! WHAT DO YOU WANNA DO WITH HIM?"

"UNHAND ME YOU BIT-OW!" Castello tried to say, as Sandra clipped the bridge of his nose with her Glock.

"Oh don't pretend this isn't your dream come true!" she told him.

"Convince him to stand down," he told her. "If he doesn't listen... make him bleed." Bennie fired five more rounds at group of guards across the room, but was accosted by another before he could reload. Ducking under the man's opening salvo, Bennie kicked the craps table against him--sending the man staggering backwards onto his ass--practically gift-wrapped for Amy.

"I don't think he's the one who needs convincing..." Sandra muttered, as bullets continued to whizz around them. Nevertheless, When Bennie kicked the table off them, Sandra was on the move, dragging Castello over behind a row of slot machines and out of the line of fire.

"Finally, we're alone!" she exclaimed, a devilish grin on her face.

Amy, meanwhile, had got to her feet and emptied the remaining three rounds in her clip into the guards chest, before holstering it in the bodice of her dress. Many of the guards also now had empty magazines, they'd been so trigger happy, but that didn't mean they were standing down just yet. Seven of them surrounded her, wielding batons, brass knuckles, and even one broken chair leg, a bent nail still sticking out of the end.

Amy smiled.

"What's a girl to do with so many dance partners?" she mused, as she calmly assumed a combat stance, cricking her neck from side to side. "Alright boys, who's first?"

She was answered by a goon wielding a baton coming in from her left. Ducking under his first swing, Amy caught the man's arm on the backswing, before kicking out his knee. Reaching behind her hear with her free arm, Amy removed one of the long, ornate needles that held her hair in place at the back, before driving it through the man's eye and out the back of his skull in a vicious overarm swing.

"Bennie, be a dear and make sure nobody tries to shoot me for the next couple of minutes." she said, as she let the man's body fall limply to the floor, and unsheathed the other needle still in the hair. Her golden locks shimmered as she shook them loose, while the other men around her hesitated.

Bennie had been busy beating a guard in the face with his pistol grip when he noticed Amy's current predicament. "Shit, Amy," he cursed under his breath. Could she really take on so many by herself? She'd been training a lot, sure, but she was no Pixie. Not yet, anyway. Before he could move in to help her, he spotted a young woman lying on the floor near the slot machines across the room. She was bleeding profusely, but moving...

It wasn't supposed to go down this way. He figured Castello's men were professionals. Taking him hostage was supposed to be a fool proof plan-B.

But it didn't go down that way.

The Maidens were only carrying small arms... nothing that couldn't be precisely controlled. If this woman had been shot by one of his own people, he hoped to God they didn't know it.

Worry about that later!

Pushing the crippled civilian to the back of his mind, Bennie reloaded his revolver and dispatched a few men closing in on Amy's position.

The next one came screaming at her with a knife... and a second later that knife was on the floor, his severed hand still clinging to it with a white knuckle grip. Amy swerved to his side and buried one of the needles in his chest, before pulling him across to use as a human shield against the next. The table leg was smashed to splinters against his head, before Amy kicked both of them away. She dodged just in time to avoid getting a jaw full of bass knuckles, but they still clipped her cheek, sending her staggering back towards the roulette table...

"You're outnumbered. My men are gonna take you apa-AAAARGH!" Castello was busy screaming behind the slot machines.

"You've got seven fingers left." Sandra told him, leaning out to pop a couple of shots off at the men approaching her position. "After that, we start moving onto ribs..."

Brass Knuckles came at Amy again, but this time she was ready. He swung high, trying to clock her round the temple, but she dropped low, jamming her remaining needle through his foot, and through the floorboards under it. He barely had time to scream before she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and slammed his face down, once, twice, and three times, onto the brass centrepiece of the roulette wheel, smearing it red. Yanking the needle out of his foot, she turned and threw. The gilding glinted of the lights as it spun end over end, before puncturing through Chair Leg's windpipe.

While Amy was busy entertaining friends, Bennie continued picking people off around them--getting closer to the scuffle with each kill. Before he could get close enough to help her, however, he got blindsided by a well dressed man with pool cue.

Probably a friend of Castello's.

"Wrong move," Bennie choked, holding the spot on his abdomen where he was hit. The blow had struck hard enough to knock the pistol from Bennie's grasp, but he still had his fists. The bandit captain intercepted the follow-up attack, catching the cue in one hand before it could come down on his head. The man's eyes buldged in horror when Bennie suddenly grabbed him by the throat with his other hand and slammed his back against a nearby pillar.

Heavy footfalls sounded from behind him.

Shit!

Turning on his heel, Bennie tossed the man behind him, bowling over three others intent on shooting Bennie in the back. While they were tangled on the ground, Bennie dove for a discarded handgun on the ground--firing wildly at the group as he crawled around the pillar for cover.

Still on the floor with his back against the pillar, Bennie called out to Amy. "Go make sure Sandra's okay!" he called out to Amy before peering around his cover to unload on his attackers.

"Just a minute!" Amy called out, as she flowed around Taser, before dropping to her knees and rolling away from a vicious swing by Fire Axe. There was a sound of fleshy impact, a curse, and the wet thud of Taser's head dropping on the floor.

As Amy rose, she kicked a fallen chair under the legs of a charging Claw Hammer, tripping him. He skidded face first on the bloody ground right to her feet, where she stamped down hard with her heel on the back of his neck, breaking his spine.

That just left Fire Axe...

He came at her, covered in Taser's blood and with a crazed look in his eyes. The axe head whistled down through the air and split the floorboards where Amy had been just a second before. As the henchman struggled to free his weapon, Amy charged. Fire Axe, however, anticipated her, and caught her with a savage uppercut that sent her reeling. She fell back against a slot machine, grabbing the lever to steady herself.

Cherry...

Fire Axe had freed his namesake, and howled as he charged. Amy rolled away, and the axe sheared through the lever she'd just been clinging too.

Cherry...

Fire Axe pressed the attack, taking another swing while Amy was still down. Desperately, Amy grabbed the closest thing to hand, and held it aloft in front of her. Her hand had found the dismembered arm of the slot machine, and she had caught the axe on its handle, the blade only a couple of inches away from splitting her head in two. Taking advantage of Fire Axe's brief surprise, she kicked him viciously between the legs. The axe fell to their side, and Amy rammed the sheared end of the lever twice into his gut, and one last time under his chin.

Cherry!

Leaving the lever stuck in his face, Amy threw Fire Axe off her, and head-first into the jackpot bucket, just before a tonne of carbon was ejected, burying his head.

"S-Stand down everyone... Argh! Stand down!" Castello whimpered, As Sandra dragged the badly beaten man out from behind the machines. "I surrender!"

Amy got to her feet and brushed herself off, before going and pulling her weapons out of Knife and Chair Leg. Cleaning them on a discarded handkerchief, before readjusting her hairdo.

"Well, that escalated quickly..." She said to no-one in particular.

Bennie crawled out from behind his cover, retrieved his revolver and got to his feet. "Holy shit, Amy?" he gasped. "You okay girl?" She was covered in blood and he wasn't sure how much of it was hers.

"Take Castello up to his office," Bennie ordered Sandra, pointing to small glass paned, room overlooking the casino floor. "These bullets won't stop flying until these lunatics can hear their boss over the intercom."

"You got it!"" Sandra nodded, wasting no time dragging Castello around the edges of the battle, in search of a stairwell.

"Um... yeah. I'm fine Bennie... I think." Amy replied, giving herself the once over, sounding far more calm about it than her Captain. "Didn't expect things to get so messy. Good job I brought my new toy-"

Without warning, she bent over mid-sentence and vomited all over the bloody floor.

"Damn." she coughed, wiping her mouth "That wasn't cool, was it?"

"Amy!" Bennie shouted, rushing to her side.

Just as he went to lay a hand on her shoulder he spotted another enemy peaking his head out from behind a toppled poker table. "GOD DAMMIT!" He cried, throwing Amy to the ground just before the man opened fire on them. Bennie took a bullet to the abdomen, but stood his ground--blasting six holes in the man's cover.

As soon as he was sure the man was dead, Bennie dropped to one knee, winching in pain. "Shit," he hissed. "Fuckin' hurt." Sticking his hand inside his bloodied shirt, he fingered the slug stuck to his kevlar. It didn't pierce through, but it probably cracked one or two ribs. "You okay, girl?"

"I *cough* I'm fine." Amy said, still spluttering a little. She sighed with relief when she saw Bennie also wasn't hurt, before she began to laugh. "I think the stomach ache might be a little worse than I thought! Still, we've got bigger problems. You got any 9mm? I'm out, and there's no room for spare clips in this outfit."

Bennie shook his head and sighed. "I'm spent," he said. ".357 too." After making sure the coast was clear, he helped Amy to her feet and escorted her to a safer location. "Sorry Amy, but I'm benching you. You're in no condition to fight right now."

"Wait! Bennie, I don't..." Amy tried in vain to argue as she was being escorted, before looking to the heavens in appeal.

"I just killed a man with a roulette wheel. Does that count for nothing?!"

When they heard the gunfire up ahead, Whiskey and Jesse broke into a run. When they heard the other maidens yelling over the radio, they started sprinting.

Barging through the door onto the casino floor, Whiskey found herself standing in front of an armed man turning to face her. They were inches apart.

'Long as you do something they don't expect, it'll probably work.' A piece of advice Eddie had given her years ago.

Stepping forward, Whiskey reared back and delivered a brutal headbutt, catching the man in the face. There was a wet crunch as his nose broke, and he staggered backwards, pitching over the railing and landing on one of the slot machines below. Drawing her pistol, Whiskey started moving towards the stairs.

Jesse was taken aback, though not by Whiskey's brutal headbutt - the casino floor was swarming with security. His grip on the pistol tightened as the ex-noble brought the weapon of its hiding place and followed the senior maiden down the stairs.

It didn't take long for their presence to be noticed, one of the mooks decided to charge at Jesse, probably thinking he was the easier mark. Jesse proved him wrong, a bullet shattered the mook's kneecap, disabling him.

A quick shake of the head from Jesse indicated it was a bad idea to try anyway after that.

"What a mess." Jesse sighed.

"Nothing wrong with getting messy, kid," Whiskey called out as she vaulted the side of the staircase, landing in cover behind a slot machine. No sooner had she touched down did the machine's casing start to get peppered with bullets.

That sure as hell wasn't a pistol being fired at her. If she did the predictable thing and poked out from the side of the slot machine, she'd lose whatever she stuck out there.

Taking a breath, Whiskey moved into a crouching position and shuffled back. Lunging forward, she landed a foot on the casing and stepped up onto the top, bringing her pistol up to aim and planting three bullets in her attacker's chest and one in his head. As he fell, she jumped down the other side of the machine and sprinted over to where he lay. Snatching up the weapon he'd dropped, she looked at it. "Oh, baby..." she muttered. These guys had actual god damn tommy guns. This was gonna be fun.

Meanwhile, Jesse had found a nice corner of cover behind an overturned craps table. Surely Castello had spared no expense when furnishing his casino, the finest felts to line the top of tables made from the best wood money could buy... And tommy guns for his men. How ridiculous.

Nevertheless, Jesse was stuck behind the table as bullets from tommy guns pierced the felt and sank into the dense wood. Jesse had to resist poking his head out as he yelled, "Little help here!"

Taking only the time she needed to loot extra ammo from the man she'd killed, Whiskey slammed a fresh oversized clip into the tommy and straightened up to see a pair of men laying down supressing fire on Jesse's position. She leveled her newfound weapon at them and squeezed the trigger.

"GET SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOME!" she yelled as the gun jumped to life in her hands, eviscerating the men. It was a good thing the casino's carpet was already red.

Jesse immediately rolled out and grabbed a tommy gun and some ammo off one of the dead men. He couldn't resist. There was power in his hands, not a pathetic little pistol. Jesse turned and buried a couple of bullets into a mook coming up on their flank, the immense recoil almost weakening his grip on the weapon. He laughed nervously, "This gun is a brute!"

Whiskey grinned. "A compact submachine gun chambering .45 caliber ACP bullets, firing twelve hundred rounds a minute." She patted the gun's barrel affectionately. "I've always wanted one of these."

"Well, your wish has been granted." Jesse replied, "All we need now is some fancy duds and some violin cases."

Whiskey turned to him, pausing to fire a couple of bursts at some mooks trying to flank them from the stairs, which they proceeded to fall down.

"Do not start wearing a fedora. You're too young, you'll look like a prick. A prick that never gets touched."

"More of a trilby man, myself. Or is that too close?" Jesse said, then cursed behind his breath. He let himself get distracted. Thankfully, a squeeze of the trigger solved the problem of a guard approaching from the side.

"That... that's even worse. Jesus," Whiskey muttered. "Trust me on this, kid. I've got your best interests at heart."

"But..." Jesse began - he couldn't help but feel a little petulant after that - however before he could continue, a bullet grazed his arm.

"Shit!" He yelped, bringing down leaden retribution on the attacker. Afterwards, Jesse turned to Whiskey, "Christ, just how many people work for Castello?"

"Hey, quality over quantity, right?" she replied. "You think you could have handled these guys a few months ago?"

Crouching behind another machine, she thumbed her radio to Bennie's frequency. "Hey honey, you still alive? 'cause I'm gonna be real disappointed if one of these shit rags shot you."

Gale did her best to zone out as much of the radio chatter as she could. It was all getting pretty tense in here but all they had to do was keep their eyes forward and walk out the door. They were almost in the clear. The guards were just on alert, it was still good. They were just a little angry, it was still good. Their cover was just a little blown, it was still good! The door was right there, no one was in the way.

"DON'T MOVE!"

And then the entire world turned to manic hell. People were shouting, guns were firing, things were crashing all about and mean looking men in suits were pointing weapons at them. There was only one thing Gale could think to do.

"Cheese it!" She screamed and threw her hefty drill box at the nearest guard, not looking to see if it hit him as she sprinted for the nearest piece of cover. She hoped it conked him right on the head.

Gale slipped down behind a row of slot machines and started frantically patting herself down, trying to remember where she hid her tiny revolver inside her overalls. Of course she couldn't bring her trusty rifle, no way of hiding that. Not like Allie and her freakin' laser guns or whatever. Finally she found it and thumbed back the hammer, well this'd have to do. Gale leaned round the side of her machine that was ringing for all it was worth as it got filled full of lead and let off a couple shots in the direction of her attackers. She couldn't make out what the others were doing but seeing how the casino was practically exploding she guessed they were doing well. So long as she still had her loot close then she was still doing well in her own boo- oh shit!

"No you don't!" She yelled as one of the security mooks rounded the corner on her and Gale double tapped a couple rounds into his chest, clotheslining him off his feet. It wasn't smooth of her but she was still standing and unperforated. And four bullets down, damn these things held nothing.

"You girls okay out there?" She called out to Allie and Maria. "Talk to me, dearies."
==================================================
"Let's herd some sheep."

"What's a sh-" Mal didn't get to respond properly as Tsubaki peeled straight out into the street, forcing Mal to quickly slam on her own black helmet. Times like this she was glad she'd tied her hair down into braids or fitting her unruly hair in there would have been impossible.

They were headed straight for the convoy, the more agile cycle weaving through the traffic with ease, allowing Mal to raise herself up in her seat and bring her uzi to bare. Of course they needed the occupant of the limbo intact, but like that thing was going anywhere fast. These wide open crawlers full of moody armed men on the other hand, they had to go. Mal braced herself on the bike with her free hand as she and Tsubaki came up to the side of the nearest crawler. They were easy to see being this close but by the time the occupants got suspicious enough to act it was too late.

All they saw was two black clad, faceless figures glide up beside them as one calmly raised her arm and let loose a hellish spray of bullets, shredding them and the crawler alike.

Between the gun's spread and how tightly packed they all were all Mal had to do was stay steady and gently squeeze the trigger.

Of course the heist had to end like this, in a firefight. And things had been going so well! At least the strategy of making a beeline for the exit was still working. It was simply a matter of not getting shot. Hearing Gale, Maria called out, "JUST FINE, THANKS."

Allie dodged and weaved between tables and slot machines, it were times like these that she was thankful for her small frame.

"GUYS!" She called out as she slid beneath a poker table, popping up on the side to get an eye on their pursuers. "I MAY POSSIBLY HAVE THE BEST PLAN!"

Of course she did, she always thought she had the best plans. And how many times had those brilliant plans ended up in her waking Gale up in tears because she'd burned off her eyebrows or gotten her hair caught in some gears? If this was anything like motherhood Gale had no idea how Whiskey could stand it.

"Now's not the best time hun!" Gale said, rushing over to the kid and shoving Allie's head back into cover as a fresh salvo came their way. She fired off her last two shots, just to give them something to think about and set to reloading the finicky revolver.

"Gaaaaaaale!" Allie pouted, tugging on Gale's shirt. "Hear me out! Okay, bullets are great, nobody is arguin' with that, but what if we could harness the power of the suns?! More specifically, light, even more specifically, if we could focus the spectrum into a concentrated form through the use of various refle-LASERS GALE, I'M TALKIN' ABOUT LASERS!" She grabbed the girl's collar as a huge grin curled her lips.

Maria caught up to them, "Less babbling, more getting outta here!"

"Right." Gale nodded, looking over to the distressed doctor and trying to pry Allie off of her. It didn't help that the two were almost the same height by now. Stupid puberty. "Come on, Hun, this is not the time to try a new experiment." Gale pushed Allie on in the direction of their exit, all while laying down what covering fire she could.

"STOP DISMISSING ME!" Allie wailed as she turned back, stamping her feet. "YOU WANNA FIGHT?!"

Oh God, Allie had brought the proverbial foot down. Back on the Maiden, that would probably be followed by whoever was nearest to Allie going to the infirmary with a couple of bruises. Here, it was just another inconvenience out of many. Maria sighed, "You are loco. Go ahead and start another fight in the middle of a massive firefight. Bound to go well."

"SHUT UP YOUUUUU!" Allie wagged her finger at Maria. "Whi' do you even do?! A doctor? PFFFFFT! Any moron can put people back together! People are easy! I on the other hand can craft devices of AMAZIN' AND TERRIBLE PURPOSE!"

There was no talking to her when she was like this, Gale affectionately referred to it as Allie's 'Mad Scientist Tantrum'.

'Ash and sky, it's like dealing with a pack of little kids.' If Gale had wanted more of this she'd have stayed with the caravan.

"If you two don't get a move on we're all gunna get fulla holes! Don't take a genius to get that!" She turned around to look at the two of them just in time to see a guard moving to flank their little group just a few steps from them.

Gale fired off another pair of slow shots. One went in his knee, sending him down onto the floor with a scream. The other ripped through his neck, cutting him off and leaving him just a crumpled mess on the ground to be stepped over. "Now help or run!" She screamed at the two of them.

Allie quickly rummage around in her pockets. "BEHOLD!" She cried out as she held a small silver disk in the air.

"I swear I am this close to leaving you." Gale muttered under her breath, winging another one of the endless wave of guards that were trying to close in on... everywhere it seemed with little luck.

And just like that, Allie had given security their position. The small sliver disk caught the casino lights and shone like a beacon. Between Allie's antics and Gale's nagging, Maria felt crushed. Choosing the latter out of the option Gale had given her, Maria grabbed Allie and ran towards another piece of cover, "Whatever it is, we don't have time. WE NEED TO GET OUT."

Those words probably wouldn't get through to Allie but it was worth a shot.

"TO A TABLE!" Allie wailed as she squirmed in Maria's grip. "Somethin' whi' cover!" Allie was already doing the maths in her head, this next gambit would all be all about positioning.

Maria stopped and yanked Allie behind an overturned poker table, some of the chips on the floor next to had been crushed by wayward feet. "This good enough for you, madam?" She asked.

"Watch the bag!" Gale called after them. If they got the loot all shot to shit this whole thing would be for nothing. Much fun as Allie could be with her tinkerings back on the ship she didn't seem to grasp that she was in a room full of people activly trying to kill her. This is what they got for bringing a kid on a heist. "This is why you wait till they can actually handle themselves." Gale gritted her teeth as she shot over Allie's head and nailed another suit in the throat. Practise was paying off.

"Ach, I'll show you who can handle themselves!" Allie pressed a button on the small disk, which on close inspection was slightly dome shaped, and had dozens of small red glass panels dotted on its surface.

"You're both gonna eat ya harsh words later." Allie chuckled as the device begin to hum, as if it were thinking. "Jus' waiting for it to calibrate our position aaaaaaaand there!" The device pinged.

"Do you two ladies wanna say anythin' before I blow your wee minds?" The girl grinned.

"I hope this doesn't kill us." Maria muttered.

"In the time it's taken you to do this we could have already left." Gale panted as she sprinted over to the other two and their cover. Just as yet another goon loomed over their cover. 'Cut one head off two take its place.'

"Gotcha you shi-" The guard got cut off as Gale plugged him at close range. The power of her revolver blasting a chunk of his skull out and spraying gore over everyone nearby to varying degrees.

"Ah shite!" Allie grimaced as a chunk of brain landed on her shoulder. "Okay, enough talking!" Quickly getting to her feet, the girl tossed the dome into the air. Before gravity could reclaim it, however, the device began spinning and flew on the spot for a moment before humming loudly, like it was powering up something. Possibly something lasery.

"WELCOME TO THE LASERDOME, BITCHES!" Allie roared, and instantly the little device began shooting red beams everywhere, seemingly at random, except in the direction of the three Maidens.

One guard was hit directly in the chest, he was propelled backwards into a wall, his clothes and skin singed as he lost consciousness.

"Fucking shit!" Gale yelped and ducked for cover, losing whatever little piece of class she might of had.

Maria turned to Allie, her free hand over her eyes as she watched the madness go on, "Okay, okay, you've had your fun, let's go!"

"Relaaaaaaaax" Allie sighed as she put her hands behind her head. "It won't hit us, it always calibrates to the user's position, so only hot lasery not-quite-death-but-stings-nonetheless is rained down on ya enemies!"

"So now we have to dodge that thing as well as bullets if we want to get out of here?" Gale hunkered down further as people tried to shoot the spinny laser machine out of the air. "And how does it not hit the others?"

"It's remote controlled too!" Allie grinned like an idiot. "I can programme new calibrations on the fly, and tell it to not give second degree burns and possibly permanent blindness to our friends!" Allie grabbed Gale's shoulders and shook her. "ISN'T THAT AMAZING?!"

"Focus!" Maria interrupted as she peeked out to get a full of the battlefield. Between the endless swarm of casino security, there was Jesse and Whiskey messing around with tommy guns and Bennie and Amy in one corner - they didn't look so good. Maria swore, "Mierda, we gotta head over there. Those two need some help."

"Hang on a sec..." Allie's tongue was in the corner of her mouth as she fiddled around on her PDA. "Okay, we can go now, it won't fire on anything between here and the others!" Allie glanced at Gale. "That means someone needs to go back ta usin' boring old lead."

Gale didn't say anything for a second. Just took a deep breath and reloaded again. She'd gone through most of her rounds covering Allie while she rated and set that thing up. She buried the little bitterness she felt over the remark.

"Come on. Most of 'em are dead by now anyway." she said, getting to her feet all too calmly. She'd come along way from almost puking at a couple broekn bones on her first job. They all had she guessed. Compared to back then this was a walk in the park. Not literally though, as Gale went from cover to cover laying down covering fire.

"I guess I don't need to drag ya now, missy." Maria remarked then ran for it as Gale had the goons distracted, dragging the duffel bag and the rest of the kit with her. The doctor weaved between the mess of knocked down tables and slot machines to the other side, where Bennie and Amy was. Only when she was behind another piece of cover did she drop the goods and pulled out of a gun of her own, firing a few shots. She turned to the bandit captain, "You alright?"

"WHY IS NOBODY MORE IMPRESSED BY THIS?!" Allie stood behind the others, marvelling at her creation as half a dozen guards tried to take pot shots at the thing while also trying frantically not to get a face full of laser. "PEW PEW!" The girl laughed as she held up finger pistols.

After 'escorting' Castello off the main floor, down a few flights of stairs, and along a few service corridors, Sandra arrived at the security room. No instructions from her captive was necessary, she remembered its location from the blueprints they'd had to prepare for the job. They met no trouble on the way. I seemed like pretty much every single guard in the whole place was now committed to dealing with the carnage above. In fact, only one remained inside the security room, staring at the violence on the monitors in front of him in transfixed horror.

"If you'll be so kind, Anthony..." she simpered, motioning Castello to the keypad for the door with her gun. When his access code was granted, Sandra shoved him bodily threw the door, before following after and levelling her gun at the guard still in his chair.

"Out." she growled "Unless you wanna end up like all your mates..."

For emphasis, she adjusted her aim and put a bullet through one of the monitors right passed his ear. The man didn't need telling twice after that.

"Start squawking..." she told Castello, pulling him roughly by the collar over to the intercom "While you still have bits of you I don't need."

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

"WHY IS NOBODY MORE IMPRESSED BY THIS?!"

"I worked with The Gentleman..." Amy said, looking green around the gills as she slumped down behind cover. Despite that, she smiled cheekily. "I saw him disguise a heat-seeking missile as a champagne cork once. I'm sorry, but stuff like that makes you pretty hard to impress."

"Stand down men!" The reedy, pained voice of Castello sounded over the intercom. "It's over. Let them go."

Amy breathed a sigh of relief.

"Axel!" she called out. "Babe, are you okay?"

"I saw him disguise a heat-seeking missile as a champagne cork once. I'm sorry, but stuff like that makes you pretty hard to impress."

"I ser hem disgerse a hert-serking merssle as er champerrrrrne cerk wernce." Allie rolled her eyes as she mimicked mockingly. "Why dinnae you just marry 'im then?!" The young girl pouted. "Did the stupid cork do this?!" She quickly pawed at her PDA and within a few moments the laser light show behind them turned from red to purple. "Yeaaaaaaah!" Allie bit her bottom lip, nodding her head as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Suck it, Gents."

Competitive? Who said Allie was competitive?

That was it. That was the last of the paperwork. Not really of course, it would never be over, the mountain would never shrink, it would loom over Florian for the rest of his days and stalk the dreams of all those that followed him in his bloodline. But it was all he could do today. stifling a yawn and rubbing his eyes Florian stretched in his seat. He needed to get more staff for these kinds of things.

"[I swear there was something else I was supposed to be doing tonight.]" He muttered. A moment later there was a light knock at the door. "[Aw dang it!]" He'd forgotten about dinner plans!

"Just a moment." He called through the door, leaping to his feet. Florian checked himself over quickly in the mirror. How did he always end up looking so disheveled at the end of the day. Maybe scruffy chique was in right now, they were just being casual, right? 'Whatever there's no saving it now.' He sorted himself out as quickly as he could.

"Hi there!" He smiled, opening the door for Elizabeth. "Come on in."

Though it was a little strange when she didn't answer or move. That was when he looked back to see Erik dressed in fitted formal attire and filling the doorway. Florian blinked back at him.

"It's not going to be just a little informal thing, is it...?"

"Put a jacket on before you shame us all." The big man sighed. It didn't take long for him to forcibly make Florian presentable and herd him to the dinning hall. It was certainly not going to be a quiet, informal, get together.

Elizabeth and Franz entered the immaculate dining room--arms locked--and took their seats at the end of the table. Still believing himself to be a relevant player in this game, Franz sat in the seat opposite the head, where Florian would be sitting. His fiance sat beside him, along with Beatrix and Edea. Elizabeth was the only one out of the four of them not wearing any kind of military uniform. She did have one, but she wanted to look nice for her host.

Hopefully I didn't overdo it.

She wore a low-cut, pure white, backless dress, with all manner of silver and white-gold jewlery. Under the light of the chandeliers, she was 'sparkling'.

Their small gathering made small talk with Irena and some of the others at the table until the door finally opened to reveal the man of the hour. Elizabeth couldn't help but grin when she saw him.

How did everyone else pull these looks off so much better than him? Florian felt like he was playing pretend, stuffed into the tight dinner suit and vest they'd set him up with. The bow tie was more cloying than his collar had ever been. And, frankly, seeing Erik in anything but combat gear was weirding him out! Not that he had any right to complain.

"Sorry to keep you all waiting." He smiled abashedly as the two of them took their seats. His eyes easily looking past Franz to the pale display of light that was dancing across Elizabeth's slender frame.

'A little on the angelic side.' He mused before remembering Katya's words earlier. There couldn't be any of that now.

A word was given by someone and drinks and starters were delivered across the table. Local spirits or foreign wines if the guests wanted a taste of home, of course. "This is the new hall's christening." Florian started, keeping things light. "Hopefully it can hold a candle to Parodesian standards."

Franz grinned and raised a glass. "Few halls can," he chuckled, smugly. "But, yes, it is quite beautiful. It's hard to imagine this was the site of a war not long ago."

"Hopefully we can repeat that success," Elizabeth mused quietly.

"Ugh, the war all anyone talks about with us is the war. we do other things here." Erik mock grumbled as he helped himself to everything in front of him... while still looking classy.

"Like drink with the guests and invade my rooms." Florian remarked with a smirk, eyeing Erik's steadily filling glass.

"And how well it's gone. To new friends!" Erik toasted, Still riding high on his first step into the world of espionage.

"I'll drink to that!" Franz chirped.

Elizabeth said nothing--simply smiling at Florian from across the table as she sipped her champagne. Franz tried to hold the attention of the room for as long as he could, but the collective focus of his audience waned as the wine continued to flow. It didn't take long for the discussion to splinter.

After waiting for a lull in the conversation, Elizabeth found her chance to chat up her host. "So, have any of your retainers nagged you about tying the knot yet?" she asked, trying not too come off too flirty. "I imagine you could fill a stadium with the amount of suitors you have!"

"You'd think so but at my age romance is more of a hassle than anything, I just want to focus on me for now. That's what people say, right?" Erik blathered, happy to enjoy himself with some flighty gossip. He didn't get why the girl was looking at him so surprised.

"I uuh... I think the lady was talking to me." Florian leaned over.

"No I don't think she was though." The two of them looked at Erik awkwardly... like this wasn't the case. "Oh I see! Well fine, I need to go to the bathroom. Be a small stadium anyway." Erik sassed them as he got up to leave the table, leaving a sizable space in his wake.

"He's not wrong." Florian added. "Not many women of fine breeding lining up to come see the Bandit Lord. Well except for-"

Wait, could he tell her about Lilith? Of course he could tell Elizabeth but he wasn't just talking to Elizabeth. For a moment Florian's eyes darted to the man by her side. The relative of the two psychopaths that had tortured him and the woman that was aiming to rule the dome he called home. Better to be careful, he couldn't risk anything about Lilith getting back to them.

"Well except yourself of course." He smiled at Elizabeth. "Forgive me I should have said earlier, but, you look stunning tonight." Looking at her here he had to admit that dress flattered Liz in all the right ways. Maybe not the wisest thing to say given what he knew now but she was literally sparkling. He had to give credit where it was due.

Elizabeth laughed off the flattery. "Oh you," she dismissed him, awkwardly. A quick glance to her right told her Franz hadn't overheard the exchange. The man's head was already swimming. "Give yourself some credit, m'Lord--'Bandit Lord' is such a demeaning title!"

"It is kinda badass though," Edea remarked.

"True," her Lady admitted, "but Florian's too... I don't know, dashing?"

Edea shrugged. "He's 'roughish'. I think 'Bandit Lord' fits."

"I disagree."

"Well what about you?" the tipsy bodyguard asked. "Seems like every Lord and Lady has a cool title. What about yours?" She pointed at Florian. "What do you think?"

"Edea--"

"What should we call her?" Edea pressed. "And please God, nothing to do with fucking tigers!"

Okay ladies. Florian looked between the two of them, their cheeks already blushing from the drink. Wasn't this Edea person their security staff, Elizabeth's Katya counterpart?

"Why not tigers?" He asked. "Does Boomhower have a dark history with the animal?"

"It's nothing like that," Edea replied. "She's just got some strange fascination with tigers for some reason."

Elizabeth rested her forehead on her palm and sigh deeply. "Please, just shut up," she whined.

"Asad, the man who led her to safety in Feroxi, calls her 'Tigerman' all the time. Teases the fuck out if her. Makes her squirm. Kind of like she's doing right now!" Edea mocked.

"I swear to God."

Edea practically spat out her salad as she laughed. "She even tried to name her ship 'Tigerman'--or at least, that's what Contessa said."

"That was a joke!" Eliabeth whined.

"She's so lame," the bodyguard 'whispered' to Florian.

Elizabeth wanted to die.

Seemed like Florian was missing some context here. "I wouldn't worry about it." Florian offered Elizabeth as she steadily disappeared into herself. "We seem to have the same thing going with wolves."

'Between the Red Wolf, Wolfswrath, Wolfguard, maybe we overdo it.... nah.'

"Can't say I'm totally sure what a tiger is but I'm sure it's cool. Besides, I heard what happened in Feroxi," Though he wasn't sure he believed half of it. "I wouldn't call anyone who could get out of that lame." He took a sip of his own wine. Only a little one, he wanted his head about him. "If all goes well in Boomhower maybe they'll call you Elizabeth the Bold. Iron Elizabeth -- no that one's no good." If there was one thing the Frostfall bandits had fun with it was making cool nicknames. "You really have to earn these names first though."

Elizabeth couldn't help smiling. "I can't imagine what I would do to earn a title like that," she admitted. "Maybe lead a charge through the streets of Boomhower, waving my saber around wildly? Sounds fun."

"Sounds suicidal." Edea added.

"Save it for after the fighting maybe." Florian chuckled.

The food stopped coming after a while but the drink kept flowing and their formal gathering was threatening to turn rowdy, well on one end of the table anyway. Beatrix did her best to keep Franz in line and Florian offered apologies to the wolfguard stationed nearby. Edea's interests seemed to leave her charge the more she drank and quickly turned to Katya.

Florian was left with Elizabeth in this sloshed tag team setup. He did his best to keep her from getting too hammered and though her flirting was obvious for even him to see it still couldn't say anything... and well... it didn't hurt his ego any either.

At some point Beatrix escorted an incredibly drunk Franz back to his quarters, and appeared to have something to report upon her return. Standing behind Elizabeth, the captain rested a hand on her exposed shoulder. "Pardon me, m'Lady, but I have good news from Yuteni," she explained.

Her face glowing with blissful inebriation, Elizabeth grinned widely. "Oh, did my brave Asad accomplish his mission?"

"He did," Beatrix replied, cringing. "Contessa's men have returned to Paradiso and Asad's are waiting for us in Yuteni. Zero casualties to report."

Elizabeth sobered slightly. This was serious, after all. "And the prisoners?"

"They're all accounted for. Mr. Canton is being treated for... well, now's not the time to discuss it."

"Thank you, Captain," she told her.

Beatrix squared her shoulders and glanced at Florian. "Keep an eye on her, will you?" she requested. "I need to get to bed. Long day tomorrow."

Florian nodded to the captain as she made her exit. "This would be one of the pieces falling into place then?"

Elizabeth nodded rather aggressively. "That's right!" she declared. "Many pieces, in fact! Gonna build me a conspiratorial jigsaw puzzle!" She then clapped her hands together before waving them wildly in the air. "More wine!"

"Less wine!" Florian yelled over her as if by reflex. 'She would make the worst spy... or the best.' Either way it was clear Elizabeth Maribel was a woman of extremes.

He weaved around her flailing arms and took Elizabeth's hands in his own as he tried to calm her down. "Maybe this isn't the best place to talk about these things." he urged her.

Elizabeth froze up, losing herself in his steady gaze as he attempted to calm her. Like the very dress she wore, the flustered noble woman's eyes were sparkling. Her lips puckered instinctively, as if preparing for a kiss. Several awkward seconds passed before she realized what was happening... and what he had said to her. "Th-the best place?" she stammered. "Wh-what would be the best p-place? What things?"

"I think we should go somewhere private if we're going to speak of such... puzzles." Florian lowered his voice and leaned in closer. "Such as your quarters." It was clear she needed to call it a night and years on the maiden had trained Florian in how to defuse drunk, randy, women. At least this one wasn't likely to pull a knife on him.

Is this really happening?!

He was taking her to her room... just like in her dream. Well, sort of.

Elizabeth was truly panicking now. "I uh, okay," she muttered, fighting to maintain eye contact. Her heart was pounding and she was blushing intensely. "You're too kind."

"It's no problem." Florian waved to the security that everything was fine as he helped Elizabeth from her chair.

The two of them left together and walked down the empty hallways. Well, Florian walked, Liz lurched. It was almost rhythmic, the way she swayed from side to side. It was just as she moved ahead of him that Florian noticed just how revealing at the back her dress was. 'Damn -- wait.'

"What's that on your back?" He asked, totally surprised.

"Wait, wha?" she slurred. "What's on my back? Is it a spider?!" She frantically pawed at her back, searching for the nonexistent bug.

"No I think it's a cat." Florian suppressed the urge to laugh at her display. "Did you always have a tattoo?"

"Oh, you mean Byakko?" she said. "He was actually just finished today. Took weeks and it hurt like a bitch! You like him?"

It had a name too! He never had her down for the type to name her ink. Then again Florian named his guns so who was he to judge? "It's amazing." He moved around her, getting a better look at the details.

'She really does like tigers.'

"You're braver than me. I was never a big fan of tattoos." Florian chirped.

"Nonsense, I'm just a glutton for pain. Bravery has nothing to do with it!"

"I'll keep that in mind."

Did he just say...???

This man was too much!

Suddenly Elizabeth was feeling extremely hot--like in the bath earlier. Or maybe she had been feeling it all a long but didn't realize it until just now.

She replied to him with a sinister grin and took his hand in hers. "My room's not much further," she said, pulling him a long.

"And mine's just down there." He said, half joking. Suddenly very aware that Elizabeth had grabbed his hand. Towards her room. 'Damn.'

They got their quickly as Elizabeth miraculously managed to move at such a fast pace in those heels without slipping. She fumbled with the door for a few seconds before she managed to get in. Florian walked on before thinking better of it. He didn't follow her across the threshold.

Elizabeth turned to look at him. "Are you waiting for an invitation?" she asked, tilting her head to the side like a curious pup.

There was a moment when he looked at her in that light. Her dress had lost its sparkle but it showed Elizabeth's slender frame off so perfectly. The way her chest rose and fell as her breathing had quickened and the pale smoothness of her skin. There was a piece of Florian, a very vocal piece that knew what to do with this situation, that knew just why she was looking at him that way and why her cheeks were so flushed. And then there was the other part of his brain that was totally at odds with it. He breathed in deep before letting out a quiet sigh, his arm reaching out and gripping the door frame.

"No." He said, certain of his answer.

Mal made quick work of the rear crawler--filling the exposed cabin with a torrent of hot lead. The men inside were packed together like sardines and had no room to maneuver. They never stood a chance.

The horn blared as the flaccid corpse of the driver collapsed onto the steering wheel. Without a driver, the crawler spun out and crashed through a storefront, forcing nearby pedestrians to scramble out of the way. Panicking, the driver of the second crawler swerved in front of Tsubaki and Mal, nearly ejecting one of its passengers as he wrested control of the vehicle. "TAKE 'EM OUT!" he cried as he steadied the vehicle. Tsubaki slammed on the brakes, narrowly dodging a hail of gunfire from the back of the second crawler.

"HOLD ON!" Tsubaki barked as she slipped her sidearm out of her jacket and emptied her clip at the crawler. Her seventh shot found its mark, punching a hole straight through the crawlers's rear-left tire, causing them to swerve back-and-forth, uncontrollably. "STAY LOW AND FIRE WHEN I SAY!" Speeding up now, Tsubaki brought her motorcycle up to the side of the swerving vehicle, weaving in and out of enemy fire. When she saw an opening, she gave the order. "NOW!"

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

"Axel! Babe, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine!" Sprout called back before delivering one final blow to a man he was holding up by the collar. Brass knuckles really fuck people up! On his feet again, he jogged into the center of the room, thompson at the ready. "YOU HERD YER BOSS! NO ONE FUCKIN' MOVE!" Many of Castello's men--still stunned by their boss' order--looked at the young man in disbelief. "DID I FUCKIN' STUTTER?! I SAID WEAPONS ON THE GROUND, YOU DUMB FUCKS! ANYONE EVEN LOOKS AT ME FUNNY AN YER GOIN' HOME IN A FUCKIN' BODY BAG! COMPRENDE, MOTHER FUCKERS?!"

Yeah, he certainly was his mother's son.

Content that Sprout had the situation under control, Bennie looked to Allie. "Get that shit out of my face," he ordered, pointing to her contraption. Then, he turned his attention to the other women nearby: Amy, Whiskey and Gale. "Secure the shuttle. Take the cash. Jesse, keep an eye on this spitfire and make sure she doesn't cause any more trouble." Casting his eyes across the room, the big man spotted the woman he was looking for. She was still there, bleeding out on the floor. She wasn't moving. "Maria, you're with me. Everyone else, get ready to go. NOW!"

Jogging over to the unconscious woman, Bennie knelt down and checked her vital. Her blood pressure was way down. "You're the doc," he said, looking to Maria. "Just tell me what you need me to put pressure on and I'm your man."

They'd lost civilians before, but it was never supposed to happen. If he left this woman to die, he may as well have been the one that shot her in the first place.

Bennie was no murderer... not anymore.

"ANYONE EVEN LOOKS AT ME FUNNY AN YER GOIN' HOME IN A FUCKIN' BODY BAG! COMPRENDE, MOTHER FUCKERS?!"

'That's my man.' Amy thought, smiling.

"Secure the shuttle. Take the cash."

"Aye aye, Captain." she said, before turning to Whiskey and Gale "I'll just be a second..."

Feeling much more energetic that she did a minute ago, she hopped over the overturned table and strode to the centre of the room.

"See you on the ship." she told Axel, before kissing him eagerly, her hand running through the back of his hair. on her way out, she picked up two of the duffel bags of cash that were on the floor.

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

"Err, hate to rain on your calm, commanding parade Cap..." Sandra spoke up through the intercom "but what about me? What do I do with this clown here?"

The rest could hear the sound of Castello getting smacked around further in the background.

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

Katya was subdued for most of dinner. On the one-hand, her talk with Florian had left her feeling good for getting it all off her chest. On the other, she was worried that she had sacrificed some of her closeness to her Lord, and that Florian might be more inclined to keep her distant from now on, in order to avoid things getting complicated.

Overall, she just tried to focus on dinner. It needed more paprika, in her opinion.

While she wasn't on duty, Katya still wore her uniform, for its ceremonial significance. No body armour of satchels full of ammo obviously, though her side-arm was still holstered across her hip, and two medals were pinned to the breast of her khaki dress-jacket. She had more, but she only wore the one's she'd earned during her service to Florian now.

"I really like your necklace."

Edea had begun speaking to her, leaving Florian and Elizabeth to their flirting.

"Thank you." Katya replied, a little awkwardly but smiling politely. She touched the crucifix at her throat, supended from a loop of small pearls, with the tips of her fingers. "It's an heirloom."

"STAY LOW AND FIRE WHEN I SAY!"

"Easier for some!" Mal's muffled voice grunted through her helmet as she hung on for dear life on the back of the bike, practically hanging off the side and humping her superior officer as she struggled to stay on. Thank god for that spec ops mental conditioning or she'd of been losing her shit staring down the prospect of a face full of asphalt.

Not that she didn't come close though as she was swung to and fro. Lucky for her the other guys were terrible shots.

"NOW!"

'God, just lemme throw up in my helmet first.' next time, Mal was driving. She swung her arm out towards her target, squeezing the trigger early and letting the recoil carry her hand further upwards to get a lazily steady spread to mix in low, middle and high shots. A trick Esteban had taught her early on. 'Don't fight weapons like this, roll with it and let the gun do its share of the work.' Whatever cover or armour these guys were wearing they were getting hit in something vital. Just like the first car, lather, rinse, repeat. This little group got fucked over hard and Mal's gun went dead with a click.

"Reloading!" She called out. Being the team player she was.
============================================================
"Secure the shuttle. Take the cash."

Gale sighed wearily. She'd busied herself lifting the wallets from the fallen guards as everyone else did their own thing. They didn't need her help with any of it. She finished emptying the last one she had in her hands, throwing away the empty leather carcass. "On it, on it." She said wistfully.

There wasn't anyone left that'd give them trouble so Gale could be causal about breaking into the shuttle and taking the drivers seat for herself. She was already comfortable driving most things with wheels and over the last few months she'd pestered the others into letting her go over the controls to work the Maiden on the bridge. Compared to that this little can was a piece of pie, and seemed to run kinda similar. Well, it wasn't like it was made with complex maneuvers in mind or anything.

"Everything looks good here." She called back to the others as they piled in their massive bags of money.

As the guards surrendered and Bennie started giving out jobs, Allie smiled as everything started to fall into place, quickly pressing the kill switch on her PDA, the laser drone ceased firing and casually hovered in place, humming gently.

The young girl quickly brought her hand to her forehead in a salute as her captain addressed her.

"Get that shit out of my face,"

The smile quickly disappeared and was replaced with a look of confusion as she slowly lowered her hand. Why was he mad at her? Didn't she do a good job? "Aye... Cap'n." Allie mumbled as she began to miserably type on her PDA, initiating the shut down sequence of her little robot. It hovered over to her and gently landed on her head, its lights blinking once before turning off.

"What's his fuckin' problem?" The young girl mumbled under her breath, pouting as she grabbed the drone and cupped it in both her hands, her distorted reflection looking back at her from its brilliantly polished surface.

"Secure the shuttle. Take the cash. Jesse, keep an eye on this spitfire and make sure she doesn't cause any more trouble."

Allie glanced up at delegated babysitter, an angry look creasing her brow as she stuffed the drone into her pocket. "I can take care of my bloody self." She grumbled as she shoved her way past the boy and began following the others, not bothering to try and help with the bags. Why should she help? She helped before and now she was in trouble, apparently.

"Cuntin' bollocks." Allie mumbled as she turned her cap around, hiding the top half of her face beneath the brim before stuffing her hands in her pockets, shuffling along slowly.

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

Lilith sauntered around the immediate area, one hand on her hip, the other casually holding her revolver upright as she kept an eye on things, periodically aiming it at anyone who got a bit too fidgety. Messy, but they got the job done, besides, it was more fun when things got a bit messy.

"DID I FUCKIN' STUTTER?! I SAID WEAPONS ON THE GROUND, YOU DUMB FUCKS! ANYONE EVEN LOOKS AT ME FUNNY AN YER GOIN' HOME IN A FUCKIN' BODY BAG! COMPRENDE, MOTHER FUCKERS?!"

"Relaaaax, kid." Lilith smirked, rolling her eyes slightly. "I think they got the mess-Ooooooooh." The woman halted as her eyes fell on the prettiest thing in the room. Slowly squatting next to a terrified elderly woman, Lilith narrowed her eyes as a catlike expression came over her.

"I like your necklace." She purred.

Moments later, after Bennie had given everyone their orders, Lilith sidled up beside Bennie as he and Maria inspected the unconscious woman, keeping her eye on the guards.

"You didn't need to be so short with the kid." Lilith sighed as her gaze fell on Allie as she sulkily followed after the others. "She gonna be okay?" Lilith asked, glancing down at the wounded civvie.

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

Asad nursed the whiskey in his hand, elbows on the bar as he kept to himself, which was rather difficult at this time of night. As he was jostled for the fifty seventh time, a small splash of whiskey soaked his hand. A sneer curling his top lip, the man took a deep drag from the cigarette gripped loosely between his teeth. His expression was one of a man who had enough of today.

The Commander had no real reason to be in a bad mood, the Op went well, there were no casualties, he got to tell Canton that his daughter was very much alive and well, and the brass had given him nothing but praise in the debriefing.

How the fuck was the bar this busy? Wasn't Yuteni supposed to be bombed to shit? Well, it still was. Maybe that was why, it was probably one of the few bars still standing after Austin's attack, and labourers needed somewhere to lighten their moods from this slag-heap of a dome.

"Goddamn thin air, putting me in a shitty mood." Asad chuckled to himself as he raised his hand to the side of his mouth and licked the excess whiskey from his skin.

"Yeah, the temp air purifiers ain't too great, hun." Asad looked up at the woman behind the bar, pretty young thing with dark hair, probably the same age as Elizabeth. "We told them folks at the council that folks aren't gonna be able to drink if they have to wear masks indoors, and you know what they did? They suggested that people should use straws!"

"That's the dumbest fucking thing I've ever heard." Asad grinned, puffing smoke from his nostrils as he chuckled.

"I know right?!" The barmaid laughed. "As soon as they realised what they'd have on their hands if the workers couldn't drink after a long day, they put in these shitty purifiers." The girl sighed as she shook her head. "Better than nothin' I guess, but a word of advice, if you start getting a little light headed, just put your mask on for five, maybe ten minutes." The girl placed her elbows on the counter, cradling her cheeks in her hands. "Ain't seen you around here before, and y'all too well dressed to be a new worker if you don't mind me saying." She smiled, her large green eyes fixed on his.

"Just passing through." Asad took a sip of his drink, placing the glass on the bar before scratching at his beard beneath his chin. "Believe me, I don't want to be here any longer than I need to."

"Hey, watch it!" The girl pouted, furrowing her brow angrily. "That's my home town ya talkin' about."

Asad closed his eyes for a second as a short chuckle escaped his nose. "I'm sorry, sweetheart." The man's face softened as he met the girl's gaze. "It's just been a long day, and it appears I need copious amounts of oxygen or I get cranky."

"That's okay!" The girl immediately perked back up at the apology. "Y'all should put your mask on, you'll feel better in no time!"

"Ah, you see, that there's the problem." Asad sighed. "How can I drink when I'm wearing a mask?" The Commander shrugged his shoulders as he grabbed the cigarette from his mouth. "You guys should get some straws or something, why has nobody suggested that?"

The barmaid blinked a few times before a snort of laughter erupted from behind her lips. "I like you, y'all can stay." The girl ran a hand through her long hair. "I finish my shift in an hour, if y'all feel like hangin' 'round a little longer, maybe you wouldn't mind having a drink with me?"

Asad raised an eyebrow as the corner of his mouth curled slightly. Suddenly he didn't feel so cranky anymore.

"Cuntin' bollocks."

"Cheer up kiddo." Amy said, draping her arm around Allie shoulder as they boarded the shuttle. "We'll all be glad to have you at the annual Maiden laser-tag tournament..."

She peered down at the younger girl, frowning slightly.

"Too soon?"

"Too soon?"

Allie kept her eyes on the ground as she shuffled along, she'd be lying if she didn't need the sentiment right now.

"Bennie said the laser-tag tournament had a..." pausing, she sighed through her nose sadly. "'A real motherfuckin' risk of motherfuckin' blinding a motherfucker.'"

She may have been paraphrasing.

Putting the tommy gun's strap over her shoulder, Whiskey picked up as many bags of cash as she could carry while still being able to wave her pistol threateningly. Off to one side, she was vaguely aware that Bennie had upset Allie. Ignoring the maternal desire to cheer the kid up, she followed after Gale.

"Everything looks good here."

Freed of her burden, Whiskey dropped into the copilot's seat next to her. "Don't forget to change gear," she said with a grin. "And if someone steals your parking spot, you're totally allowed to whoop their ass and bust their tail lights."

Thumbing her radio, she said, "the spoon is in the cake hole. Repeat, the spoon is in the cake hole." Really, who the hell came up with this shit?

With nothing to do but wait for the others, she shifted the tommy gun onto her lap. "Hmmm... I think I'mma call you... Steve."

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

Eddie woke up screaming, thrashing far harder than he thought himself capable in this state. Then suddenly he felt a sense of weightlessness and came crashing down on the floor. The lights in his room clicked on and a man in a white coat came running in.

"Mr Canton!"

When the doctor had managed to get Eddie back into the bed, he sat down in a chair by its side. "So, ah... what happened?"

His strength gone, Eddie flopped down hard on the pillow. He was drenched with sweat and it was running down into his eyes. Reaching up, he knuckled at them feebly. The doctor produced a handkerchief from his coat pocket, which Eddie accepted gratefully. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he sighed. "Bad dream."

"I'm not surprised, after what you went through."

"So..." Eddie said. "Where am I?"

"Yuteni," the doctor replied.

"Huh." That was where Austin had attacked. Where Millie had supposedly died. Turning his head, he looked out the window. He could only see a couple of buildings close up. Didn't look too bad. A couple of shattered windows, but that was about it. And this medical ward seemed okay. He'd been worried about what kind of damage Austin could do with a stolen ship. Two buildings and a room wasn't much to go on, but he dismissed it for later.

Putting a hand to his face, he realised that while he'd been unconscious, someone had shaved the beard he'd grown in captivity. His regular stubble had grown back in its place, though. So you are...?"

"Doctor Elijah," the man replied. "As I understand it, you must be very important. I've been ordered to exclusively oversee your treatment."

"Who ordered that?" Eddie asked.

"Well, it came by missive. But I'm told my orders are directly from Lady Contessa Lombardi herself. She's given us the money to get this place up and running properly again, as well as to fund your ah... extensive treatment."

The distaste at the apparent debt he was racking up with the Lombardi family was replaced by a sense of forboding. "Be honest, doc..." he looked down at his deteriorated body. "What the hell can you even do here?"

"Oh, if you put the work in, I expect you'll make a complete recovery," Elijah replied.

"Right. And how long's that gonna take?" There was a pit in his stomach now. He knew how bad it was. He was going to be in this bed for years.

"A few months, give or take."

That stopped Eddie short. "Wait, what? You're fucking with me, right?"

"Oh, not at all. A member of Lady Lombardi's personal R&D department came with... well, quite frankly, the most incredible piece of medical technology I've ever clapped eyes on. He stayed long enough to train me in its use. Eddie... uh, may I call you Eddie?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I'm not gonna lie, Eddie, there's gonna be a lot of grueling physiotherapy. A lot of hard work and a lot of sweat. Maybe tears, hopefully not any blood. But if you stick with the regime I have set out for you, you'll be back on your feet a lot sooner than even I would ever have thought possible."

"Aw, but you see?" Amy replied, giving Allie an encouraging pat on the back "That's just an opportunity for you to invent some super-science-safety goggles, or something..."

They took their seats behind the cockpit as Gale got to work.

"Bennie's responsible for all of us, and he takes that seriously." she said "Sometimes, that means there's just no greasing that stick up his ass, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care."

"That's just an opportunity for you to invent some super-science-safety goggles, or something..."

Allie dumped herself into her seat with a huff, arms crossed over her chest.

"Normal tinted goggles are enough, Bennie just dinnae like lasers, or fun, and he probably hates puppies too." The girl punched the seat in front of her angrily.

"Bennie's responsible for all of us, and he takes that seriously. Sometimes, that means there's just no greasing that stick up his ass, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care."

"Dinnae mean he has to be an arsehole about it." Allie glanced up at Amy. "I worked really hard on it." The girl pouted, her voice cracking slightly.

"I worked really hard on it."

"I know girl. I know." Amy said, as she hugged Allie a little harder. "Tell you what, I'll make it up to you: Would you like to tinker with my shock glove? I'm sure you could make some upgrades..."

"Tell you what, I'll make it up to you: Would you like to tinker with my shock glove? I'm sure you could make some upgrades..."

Allie blinked a few times before a small smirk curled her lips. "Is... that a euphemism?" Allie playfully pushed Amy away out of their hug.

"HALP, I NEED AN ADULT! BAD TOUCH, BAD TOUCH!" She wailed.

All was well, the job was done and now Jesse had been given the important task of looking after Allie?

While the boy knew he had been given the duty of looking after the ginger pile of trouble, Amy seemed to be getting fine with Allie. Perharps a perfect time to spend some time with Gale?

"HALP, I NEED AN ADULT! BAD TOUCH, BAD TOUCH!"

Maybe not. Something had to get in the way, always. In a flash, Jesse was there, "What seems to be the problem, ladies?"

***

Maria sighed as the goon stood down. Now there was only cleanup to contend with.

"Maria, you're with me. Everyone else, get ready to go. NOW!"

"Roger." Maria replied and followed the bandit captain to a wounded, unconscious woman. Probably got hit during the firefight. Wrong place, wrong time. Poor woman.

Bennie was over her, already checking her vitals, "You're the doc, just tell me what you need me to put pressure on and I'm your man."

The wound itself was obvious, blood was leaking out from her leg at an alarming rate. After a brief examinating Maria raised the limb up, produced some bandages from an inside pocket and wrapped it up tight. She then turned to Bennie, "¬°Joder! She might be in shock. Put pressure on the banadges, I'm going to prepare a tourniquet."

The combat medic did so, using a bunch of banadages and the woman's own large hairpin and twisted them tight in place. Maria rubbed her forehead when she was done, "If she survives, she's gonna have a lot of physio ahead of her."

"No."

Elizabeth blinked stuipidly--clearly confused. "Oh." she muttered, "I--you don't want to come in for another drink, or....?"

Had she done something wrong?

"No, I uh... I don't think that would be a good idea." Florian said, though not without pause. "It's been a long day and we have a lot more ahead." Now it was his turn to struggle to maintain eye contact.

"That's what you're worried about?" Elizabeth sighed with relief. "It's okay, we can afford to linger a bit longer. The night is still young!" She giggled.

'That's what I'm afraid of.'

"I don't think that would be a good idea." Florian said simply, trying to be polite and nip this whole thing in the bud before it got more complicated. "Besides, we've both had enough to drink." He backed away and made to leave.

"Goodnight, Lady Maribel."

"Oh, okay." she replied quietly. Despite her inebriated state, Elizabeth could tell her host was uncomfortable. Before he could make his leave, she laughed nervously. "I-I'm sorry, m'Lord. I-I think I've had one too many drinks tonight. I didn't mean to--if I offended you in any way..."

"No, no it's nothing like that, not at all." He assured her in a hurry. He didn't want to hurt her feelings. And those eyes! 'Oh god I'm a monster!'

"I just... shouldn't stay is all. Thank you for a lovely evening, Elizabeth." There. That was it. He could leave on good terms now.

The eager noble held her hand close to her chest, attempting to calm her nerves. Whatever she'd thought would happen tonight clearly wouldn't. Perhaps it was for the best. "I did too," she said with a sad grin. "Good night. Let's do this again, okay?"

'Dammit.' she thought.

Florian gave her an anxious nod, trying not to look at her hand or the cleavage it was covering and turned to leave, closing the door behind him. Why did he feel so tense? That was a stupid question, he knew why, he just didn't like admitting it. He walked a little further down the hallway and leaned his back against the wall, taking a moment to feel the air and cool off.

"Bliiiiiin" Florian sighed through gritted teeth and ran his hands through his hair. then he undid the top button of his shirt just for good measure. He was going to need a cold shower tonight.

This should have been so simple. Why didn't he just tell her he was seeing someone? Franz wasn't here to spread the word, he could just do it now, go back and clear up this whole misunderstanding. In fact he'd do it right now, do the mature thing. Florian turned around and walked back towards the door, he hadn't realised it but he'd been looking back at it the whole time anyway. Sure it might be awkward but in the long run it was for the best. And he could trust --

["Heeey, FLOWER!"]

-- for a certain someone to screw him over.

["...Hey Erik."] He muttered.

["Where'd you run off to? That party died hard once people started leaving anyway but n-now I'm up, ready to be cool and do stuff!"] Erik was upon him now, a hand around his shoulder and judging by the smell of his breath he wasn't playing at being drunk this time. ["What are you doing here, you trying to get into the tiny girl's pants?"]

["All girls are tiny to you, Erik."] Flroian said wearily as he struggled to guide Erik away from Elizabeth's quarters and back towards their own. ["And no!!"]

["Like you even could, Franz is the coolest! you aint got shit on him!"]

["So that's where you got to. Looks like he got you this time."] Florian gave Erik a firm pat on the shoulder.

["A little. At least I can s till walk. That boy doesn't know limits I tell you that!"] The two of them stumbled on, Erik didn't even know where they were going. ["We never have fun anymore."] Erik said after a pause, his voice going all drunk sad.

["You have more than enough for both of us, big guy."] Flroian smiled wearily as he struggled under his charge's weight.

["Not with you though... you never smile anymore."]

["Sure I do."]

["No! no you don't!"] Erik was getting louder again as he freed himself from Florian's grip and rounded on him. He put a hand on the side of Florian's face and looked at him with the kind of intensity that only someone who was out of their head could. ["Cus... cus it never reaches your eyes. You think I can't tell but I do! you used to be happy."]

["I'm happy."] Florian said, getting defensive.

["There's a difference between being happy and NOT being sad."] The old man almost sounded like he was pleading. He suddenly moved forward and grasped the back of Florian's head. They stood there, pressing their foreheads together as they'd done before. It was the closest thing to a hug Erik was willing to give most people. He only did it when he was feeling serious. ["You can't keep blaming yourself. You've done it enough."]

["Go home, Erik, you're drunk."] Florian leaned his head back against his old mentor's and nudged Erik away. They were near his rooms now.

["But in the morning... I shall be sober!"] Erik sauntered off, sounding way too proud of himself.

Florian walked back in silence. Why did Erik have to bring it back up? He'd done a good job of not thinking about it for weeks now. That it'd happened just a few floors above them. Not that he was special in that regard, he had no right to complain, he didn't deserve to. This tower was full of ghosts for so many people. He didn't get to act hurt by it.
===============================================
Florian tried the radio again.

'Where are you today? What time is it there?'

"Hey Lillybean." He said into the mic. There was no answer. Just that empty crackle. "Really missing you tonight."

He hung up. He still needed that shower.

"Reloading!"

Tsubaki shot around the backside of the crawler as it spun-out--toppling end-over-end across the street before colliding with a food stall on the sidewalk. With the rearguard out of the way, they had a clear line to Morello's limo. Revving the throttle, the two-woman hit squad burst forward after the speeding vehicle. No doubt the banker was pissing himself right now.

As they caught up to their mark, Tsubaki fired a few random shots at the passenger-side window. Just as she thought: bulletproof.

Good.

"LAY INTO THEM!" she ordered over the roar of the motorcycle engine. Mal did as commanded--covering the right side of the limo in a torrent of machine gun fire. Up ahead, Tsubaki spotted the final crawler looking for an opening. "I'M MOVING UP! LET'S PUSH THEM TOWARDS THE NEXT TURN! THEY BETTER TAKE THE BAIT!"

The limo swerved back and forth across the street, desperately hoping to clip their bike as the two women pressed the attack. When the turn finally came, the driver took the opportunity to break away from their pursuers--making a sudden sharp turn left, onto the connecting street, nearly flipping over in the process. With the limo gone, the last surviving crawler finally had them in their sights.

So far, so good.

Tsubaki weaved in and out of incoming fire, hoping Mal could get a steady shot despite the turbulence. "MOON!" she shouted over the comm. "MORELLO'S HEADED RIGHT FOR YOU! O'LAFFERTEY, I NEED YOU ON THAT LIMO AS SOON AS MOON TAKES OUT THE DRIVER! OVER!"

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

"See you on the ship."

Sprout fought off the sudden lightheadedness and gave his lover a wink. "Aye, aye," he chuckled.

"Relaaaax, kid. I think they got the mess-Ooooooooh."

"Keep yer eye on the ball, Lil," he whined. "Don' waste time pilferin' shit off'a grannies. We got mooks ta' watch over!"

"I'm not a mook..." an injured security guard groaned.

Sprout spun on his heel, pointing his weapon squarely at the man's head. "DID I SAY YOU COULD SPEAK, MOTHER FUCKER?!" he roared. The man shrank. "THAT'S FUCKIN' RIGHT! SIT THE FUCK DOWN AN' SHUT THE FUCK UP LEST YA' WANNA EXTRA ASS HOLE!"

Castello's men did as they were told.

***

"She gonna be okay?"

Bennie shrugged. "Ask the doctor," he said. The big man remained silent as Maria worked, doing exactly as instructed. The young woman wasn't looking too hot, but Maria was a pro. If anyone could save her...

"If she survives, she's gonna have a lot of physio ahead of her."

"You!" Bennie shouted, pointing at a nearby civilian. He was a well dressed man--likely a noble. "You know this woman?" Terrified, the man shook his head. "She's in rough shape, but she's stable. Look after her, okay?"

The man simply stared in disbelief.

"DO I HAVE TO REPEAT MYSELF?!" Bennie inquired, aggressively.

The man complied after that.

On his feet now, Bennie cast his gaze across the room. "Let's get the fuck out of here," he muttered before putting his finger to his comm. "Tal, Brock, do you copy?"

No point in using the codenames now.

"I copy you, Captain," Tallahassee replied. "Just made it to security. Sandra's here, Castello too. Orders?"

Bennie thought for a moment. "Take him with us for insurance. We'll set him loose once it's safe," he instructed.

"Roger that."

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

Elizabeth stood in front of the door awhile after Florian's departure. Some small part of her was holding out hope that he'd change his mind. Once she heard Erik's voice echoing down the hallway, that dream died.

Oh well, she thought to herself, bitterly. Would have been a bad idea, anyway. Maybe. Probably.

She was exhausted anyway... and drunk! She couldn't make such important decisions in such a state!

I wish Asad were here. He'd feed me toast and rub my back until I fell asleep.

Sauntering into her bedroom, the weary noblewoman slipped out of her dress, leaving it in a crumpled heap on the floor. Elegance wasn't really a priority at this point. She nearly bashed her forehead against the night stand as she struggled to remove her earrings, and once they were finally discarded, Elizabeth flopped onto her bed--instantly sinking into it's deep, fluffy satin sheets. She usually wore a nightgown to bed (she didn't want to catch a cold, after all), but that was way too much work for drunk Liz. No, a g-string and a mountain of blankets would have to do.

It didn't take her long to get comfortable, but after lying down for several minutes she realized she really wasn't all that sleepy. She was utterly pooped, sure, but still buzzed. Still alert. That was when she remembered the bath from earlier.

She recalled the heat. That hansom grin on Florian's face. His flirting. His charm. The dream.

The heat had returned.

Before she'd even realized it Elizabeth's hand had found its way between her legs. As if controlled by another entity, her thighs pressed tightly together, attempting to expel the invader. She would not give up so easily, however. Biting her bottom lip, the young virgin caressed her inner-thighs with one hand while teasing the brim of her thong with the other. Her thighs couldn't withstand her touch for long, and eventually relented.

Elizabeth gasped sharply as she slipped one hand inside her thong and touched her fingers to what lay underneath. In her mind she saw the object of her lust--the man who held her heart, melting in his hand. She didn't know exactly what it was that she found so fascinating about him. Perhaps it was his mystique, or the honesty in his eyes. Maybe it was just because--underneath it all--he was just a plain good guy.

He was also fucking hot.

"Oh, sh--it," Liz moaned, suddenly feeling something well up inside her. Biting hard on her lip now, she clutched her breast with her left hand and sped up her efforts bellow.

They could share their scars--and not just the physical ones either. They would connect in both body and soul. She knew he could do that for her.

He could also ram his fat---

"F-f-f-f-fuck!" she cried, digging her fingers deeper than ever before, as if compelled by some primal instinct. She was a slave to her lust. There was no stopping it now.

After her sixth climax, Liz's wrist was beginning to cramp.

Satisfied, the exhausted noble rolled over to the other side of the bed and curled into a tight ball. As she drifted off, she thought of the world she wished to create, and who she wanted standing by her side at the end of it all. Perhaps it was too much to ask.

Or, perhaps not.

"HALP, I NEED AN ADULT! BAD TOUCH, BAD TOUCH!"

"I can't help myself. Your eyes are telling me 'yes'." Amy ran with the joke, before putting Allie in a headlock and ruffling her hair.

"Jesus, how can you ever get a brush through this mess?!"

"What seems to be the problem, ladies?"

"Allies gagging for it and in denial." Amy relied glibly "Make a woman of her, if you want to make yourself useful."

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

"Roger that."

"Hear that Pumpkin?" Sandra asked wickedly "We're going for a ride together..."

Castello looked weakly up at Tallahassee.

"Can I ride up front with you?"

"Jesus, how can you ever get a brush through this mess?!"

"What the hell is a brush!" Allie squealed as she tried to break free from Amy's grip, pawing at her hands as Jesse poked his head into view.

"Make a woman of her, if you want to make yourself useful."

"I DINNAE NEED TO BE MADE A WOMAN, I AM ALREADY A LADY OF SCIENCE, THE ONLY MAN I NEED IS SIR BARNABAS WRENCHINGTON THE SEVENTH!" The girl wailed, blowing her wild hair from her face. "UNHAND ME, YE BASIC PEASANT!"

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

"Let's get the fuck out of here,"

"If you say so." Lilith nodded her head once, glancing back at the wounded woman, her brow furrowed as she quickly moved over to Sprout. "You heard the big guy." Lilith tugged at Sprout's sleeve as she walked past him.

"I don't think I'll ever get use to seeing civvies getting caught up in this shit." Lilith mumbled over her shoulder towards the boy. "I told Bennie we should have stuck to smaller jobs, the bigger payoff isn't worth the heightened risk of collateral damage."

This was supposed to be a fun job.

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

Asad quietly closed the apartment door behind him, slipping into his long black peacoat as he walked down the carpeted corridor of the apartment complex. The place must have been packed, he could hear nothing but people living, above and below him, music and laughter, all happy things. He had to give credit to the people of Yuteni, despite losing nearly everything, they were making the best of it.

As he exited the building out into the cold night, the violet light of the moons lit up his lone figure. Stopping just before the steps down onto the street, the Commander lit up a cigarette and took a long drag, sighing the smoke from his lungs into the dark air. The barmaid's name was Madeline, but she liked to be called Maddie. She was nineteen years old and enjoyed cooking, in fact she was doing double shifts, working at the bar on nights, and during the day she volunteered at the kitchens that fed the workers who were rebuilding the dome. Maddie had a cat called Murrey, a black tabby that reminded him of another cat.

The thought brought a sad smile to his face.

Asad enjoyed spending time with the young woman, she insisted that she didn't usually drink a lot, but she was putting them away like nobody's business. Maybe that was true, because by the time she asked him back to her place she was already quite inebriated. At this stage, it would have been scummy to sleep with the poor thing, although Maddie wasn't making it particularly easy, she couldn't keep her hands off him the whole walk back to her apartment. By the time they were in her bedroom, the walk had tuckered the poor girl out and she quickly passed out on the bed. Asad had removed her shoes, draped her comforter across her and placed a glass of water on her bedside table. Stroking Murrey on his way out, he placed the keys to the apartment on the kitchen counter top and left.

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Asad walked down the steps and onto the street.

Maybe the bar was still open.

The woman known as 'Matador' returned to her dingy apartment late that night--the fatigue of battle having finally caught up to her. After several rounds of drinks at her favorite hole-in-the-wall bar, The Swanky Skank, it was a miracle she was able to find her way back home at all. "Home sweet home," she muttered under her breath, taking in the vacant living room before her. Even after all this time alone in this God forsaken city, she hadn't gotten used to it.

She'd always been lonely... but never like this.

Stripping down to a loose-fitting tank-top and underwear, Matador locked all five deadbolts on her front door before retreating to her bedroom. She'd become extremely paranoid since coming to Paradiso, and if the locks weren't enough, she also had a shotgun behind her bedroom door, a 9mm pistol on her nightstand, a hunting knife under her pillow and a potted plant on the windowsill.

If anyone managed to track her down, they wouldn't live to tell the tale.

The moment she hit the bed she was out like a light.

***

She opened her eyes, yet saw nothing but a vast blackness. It had surrounded her. Engulfed her.

Had she gone blind in both eyes now?

Sitting up, she noticed she could see her bed underneath her. It was practically glowing due to the complete absence of light around it. Inching over to edge of the bed, Matador carefully touched her toes to the frigid, featureless "floor" below. On her feet now, she scanned the vast abyss and as her vision adjusted to the darkness, she spotted something. Curious, she made her approach, only stopping when its shape became clear.

It was a twisting, writhing rift in the vacuum around her. It almost looked... alive.

Steeling herself, she continued forward, stopping a few feet in front of the large opening. She studied it closely, attempting to understand what it was she was looking at. Then suddenly, a dull hum rang out from behind her. When she turned to look what it was, she noticed her bed had vanished.

Then the cries started.

A harrowing chill ran up her spine as she faced forward once more and saw the portal for what it truly was. A mirror. One that reflected the ugliness inside her. The true nature of her doomed soul.

Countless faces of children--twisted and disfigured--rose out of the abyss like waves, crying and howling like starving wolves. Though they had no eyes, she could feel their gaze. Their blood was on her hands. She'd killed them. Every last one of them. And what sickened her the most, was that she'd do it again.

"NO!" she cried. "THAT ISN'T ME!"

"I died for you," a distorted voice suddenly said. The woman shrieked in horror when she realized she was holding a severed head. He was looking right at her--his scarred face creased with a deranged grin. "What did I die for?" Shocked, she dropped the head reflexively. It melted into the void below.

More familiar voices called out from the mirror of her soul. They screamed curses at her. Cried for help that wound never come. "I LOVED YOU!" one said. "I PROTECTED YOU!" cried another. "I BLED FOR YOU!" claimed a third.

The woman clutched her ears and shut her eyes, attempting to banish the ghosts that taunted her. Then, she heard a beastly laugh. She knew that laugh all too well. When she opened her eye she saw something looking back at her--a devil wearing her face. It reached out suddenly, clutching her forearm and pulled her into the twisting nether beyond.

She tumbled end-over-end in the darkness for what felt like an eternity, eventually landing in a black pool at the bottom of the pit. Soaked in a frigid, viscous fluid, the woman calling herself 'Matador' lifted herself above the surface--gasping for air. "Wh-what is this?!" she whimpered. All around her lay the decaying corpses of children--their bloated forms floating on the surface of the waist-deep pool around her. "WHAT IS THIS?!"

"WELCOME TO MY TROPHY HALL!" the devil replied from across the gulf. "OUR TROPHY HALL!"

"FUCK YOU!" the woman spat back. "I'M NOT YOU! I'M NOTHING LIKE YOU!"

The creature laughed her familiar laugh. "So weak," she remarked. "I hate the taste of weaklings." She could see the creature now, a great, black hound wading through the water beyond the sea of corpses, its fiery eyes barring into her own. It was out for blood.

Panicking, Matador turned and ran, pushing past the floating corpses which seemed to increase in number the further she went. Eventually she made it to land, but was too slow. She cried out as the beast lunged at her, sinking its teeth deep into her ankle before pulling her to the ground. Tears streaming down her face, she kicked at the beast, but it was no use. It pinned her effortlessly under its massive form. Its crazed stare paralyzed her.

"I AM YOU!" it roared. "DO NOT DENY ME!" It bore its bloody teeth. "FEED ME!" It bit down and ripped her tanktop open. "IT'S OKAY! IT'S OKAY!" It called out as it mangled the poor woman, tearing open the flesh on her chest and abdomen. "THEY FORGIVE YOU! THEY ALL FORGIVE YOU!"

Wracked with pain and fear, the desperate woman swung wildly at the beast with her fists and managed to hit it in the eye. As it recoiled from the blow, she got on her hands and knees and scurried away.

She didn't get far.

"NO MORE RUNNING!" the beast howled as it closed the gap between them in an instant. Catching her underwear on one of its hideous fangs, it tore it open and mounted her. "DO NOT DENY ME!" It demanded, thrusting inside her.

"STOP IT!"

"I AM YOU!"

"NO!"

"ACCEPT ME!"

***

Matador woke suddenly, her heart racing--covered head-to-toe in sweat. Her sheets were drenched as well. "Fucking christ," she muttered, as she pressed her palms to her eyes. Her head was pounding.

She sighed sharply. "Every fuckin' night..."

Sitting up in bed, she glanced over at the corded-phone on her nightstand.

She couldn't sleep alone. Not tonight. Not after that.

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

"It's an heirloom."

Edea rested her cheek on her palm and smirked. "Don't imagine there are many religious folks around here nowadays," she remarked. "How about you? See enough blood to jade you yet? I know I have."

"UNHAND ME, YE BASIC PEASANT!"

Was this going to be going on the entire way back?

Jesse sighed, "Okay, okay. You two, time out."

***

"MOON! MORELLO'S HEADED RIGHT FOR YOU!"

It was about fucking time. Jun's reply was brief, as always, "Roger. Firing."

All of the waiting had led up to this. He readied the rifle, full of anticipation. For a moment, nothing existed in the sniper's mind except for himself and his target. Nothing could be simpler; nothing could be clearer. Well, apart from the clawing inside his mind.

Ignoring it, Jun held his breath and lined up a shot - nothing but a simple puzzle - then fired, unleashing a .50 calibre bullet which smashed through the bulletproof glass, leaving a hole on the driver side of the limo's windscreen.

And there it was, the rush of self-assurance.

After that, Jun reloaded the sniper rifle and spoke through the comms, "Driver down."

***

"Let's get the fuck out of here,"

"Yeah." Maria said as she began to walk out of the casino. The solution of foisting the injured woman onto some other civvie wasn't exactly an elegant one but it was one that would have to do. Still, what a mess.

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