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

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"I know I have."

"It's really more traditional than anything else." Katya answered, smiling. "Still, it's the one thing from my old life that I have kept... It reminds me of the choices I've made."

She polished off another shot of vodka, before staring down through the empty glass.

"It's my job to stay in control of everything around me." she continued "If I don't then the most important people in this city could get hurt. However, I can't be so egotistical as to think that there are no circumstances that I cannot foresee. It is in those moments, when I am faced with something that my training has never prepared me for, where God exists. Their lives are in my hands, and so for as long as my life is in His, I will flinch from nothing."

Katya paused, looking up at Edea, before smiling strangely.

"I do not pray. I don't believe God is kind, or just. As you said, I have seen too much blood for that. However, I respect Him, just as the ship's Captain must respect the sky, that can send a storm to strike him down at any time. What about you? Did you believe in anything before you started on this path?"

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

"She started it." Amy mumbled, before reluctantly releasing Allie. "What's taking everyone so long?"

"MORELLO'S HEADED RIGHT FOR YOU! O'LAFFERTEY, I NEED YOU ON THAT LIMO AS SOON AS MOON TAKES OUT THE DRIVER! OVER!"

"Aye aye," Bryan replied. As he watched, the limo came careening around the corner. Like clockwork, Jun took his shot, splintering the windshield and painting it red. The limo spun out, bounced off of a wall and came to rest, with smoke issuing from under the bonnet. The moment the shot rang out, Bryan was moving, sprinting and leaping across the rooftops with his swords in hand. Each jump made him descend until he was atop a squat single floor building overlooking the crashed limo.

As he had been doing this, three armed men climbed out, taking cover behind the limo against Jun's sniper. The guy even had guards in his personal car. Bryan wondered at the man's paranoia. But then again, he hadn't exactly been wrong, had he?

They were more or less safe from Jun in their current position, but they hadn't expected Bryan. Jumping down onto the car's roof, he crouched low and slashed out, catching the first guard's throat with the tip of his sword. The man went down with blood gushing from his neck.

The second man, toting a compact shotgun, ran up the car's hood, pumping a shell as he went. Meanwhile, Bryan could hear the last guy moving into position behind him. Pushing off to the side, Bryan cartwheeled through the air as the shotgun fired, with the cloud of buckshot moving harmlessly past him, and not so harmlessly into the head of the man trying to flank him.

Landing on his feet, Bryan stepped forward and slashed, cutting clean through the leg of the man with the shotgun. Screaming, he fell to his knees and Bryan drove the other sword into his gut. Wiping his blades clean on the jacket of the nearest corpse, Bryan sheathed one of them and yanked the car door open.

The first thing he noticed was the sharp smell of urine. Morello had actually pissed himself watching Bryan go through the last of his men. His fear didn't stop him from acting though, because as soon as Bryan opened the door, Morello lunged at him with a gaudily decorated switchblade. Catching the man's forearm on his own, Bryan hooked his other arm around it and pushed, snapping Morello's arm like a twig. All he could do was howl like a bitch as Bryan hauled him from the limo by the scruff of his neck, dragging him away from the wrecked car and towards the nearest alley.

***

They had been moving through the backstreets for about ten minutes. Morello had been yowling until Bryan had stopped long enough to give him a few good slugs in the gut, and he had now subsided into a low whimpering. But now he peered around at Bryan as best he could.

"Hey, uh..."

"Hey what?" Bryan replied.

"Look, whatever your name is..."

"You can just call me 'sir'," Bryan replied. "Except don't, 'cause I want ya to shut yer fuckin' mouth."

"Look, whatever those Russo bastards are paying you, I'll double it."

Bryan laughed. "I don't want yer money."

"Please!" Morello whined. "There's gotta be something. Anything!"

Bryan shoved the man on to speed him up. "Aw, suck my dick."

"I--yeah, sure, just please--"

"Jaysus fuckin' Christ, I was tellin' ya to fuck off, ya greasy old cock socket."

"Come on, sir, everyone's got their price. I bet--"

"Shut up," Bryan said tersely, flicking his sword up to Morello's throat. The man fell silent immediately, his eyes drawn as if by magnets to the blade at his neck. Ahead of them, the alley forked out in three directions. Bryan watched and waited. The faint pulse of colour on his vision was one he recognised. There were men up there and he could hear them breathing.

"Nice job at stealth, fuckwits," he called out. There was a pause, and then four men stepped out of the shadows, toting assault rifles. "Alright buddy," said one. "Hand over the boss, and maybe we won't ventilate you."

"Fuck off and maybe I'll tell yer mummy to give ya some extra pocket money after I'm done ridin' her," Bryan replied. Seizing Morello's broken arm, he bent it up behind his back, making the disgraced crime boss squeal like a stuck pig. Bryan advanced slowly with his meat shield in place. The men raised their weapons but were unable to fire without cutting down their superior.

When he was about ten paces away from the men, he stopped. One of them took this opportunity to speak. "So where's this go from here? You got that pretty sword of yours, and we got guns. Unless you're some kinda Rambo, we'll gun you down before you get anywhere near that piece on your hip.

"The fuck's a Rambo?"

"Just give us Morello, you sing song voiced fuck face," another man snarled. To this, Bryan grinned. "Ya want him so bad, have him!"

Releasing Morello's arm, Bryan slammed a palm into the small of his back, sending him stumbling towards the men who'd come to rescue him. Following in close pursuit, Bryan whipped out his other sword and sped past Morello, falling into a combat roll. With the hostage out of the way, bullets passed through the space Bryan had occupied less than a second earlier as he rolled between the men, coming up, turning and beheading the nearest one with a single stroke. The others whirled to face him and he stepped up to the nearest, catching the barrel of the man's rifle on his crossed blades and throwing it off. It was too late for dumb mook not to squeeze the trigger, however, and all he succeeded in doing was cutting down one of his own comrades before Bryan cut off both his hands at the wrist and punched him to the ground. Turning on the spot, he threw one sword and then the other, skewering the two remaining men through their chests.

As he yanked his blades free and wiped them clean, he glanced at Morello, who was sprawled on the ground, whimpering. "I'd tell ya to hire better goons, mate, but frankly I don't expect you'll have the chance."

"Wha... wha... WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU!?" Morello screamed.

Sheathing his swords, Bryan drew his pistol, hauled Morello to his feet and spurred him on down the alley. "I'm Irish."

***

Not too long later, the two of them emerged from the web of alleys. Bryan could see the Russo hideout just down the street. Thumbing his radio, he said, "Alright guys, the pig is in the poke. Repeat, the pig is in the poke. Taking him in now."

Approaching the warehouse door, he holstered his pistol and rapped on it. A slit at eye level was pulled back to reveal a pair of squinting eyes.

"Password?"

"Cement shoes. Now open up, I got a delivery I need ya to sign for."

With all remaining opposition crushed and the housing market of the street they'd done it on thoroughly crashed Mal got just a moment to look over her handiwork before they had to make their speedy escape, cops could make these jobs such a drag at times. That aside though... she was feeling pretty good about herself right now. This was quite possibly one of the cleanest drivebys in Paradiso history. With an uzi of all things. Not that she shared those morale boosting thoughts with her CO of course. That might make her burst a blood vessel. Well whatever, Mal could take in the sights and get some time to relax in the back seat while her driver headed for the hideout.
=======================================================
"Okay, okay. You two, time out."

"You know we've hit a new low when Jastor is the grown up in the room." Gale yawned, stretching out in her chair and resting her hands behind her head. She was all done with the setup of the controls and was gunna take this moment and relish the shit out of someone else being on Allie minding duty. She leaned back and let the noise just wash over her.

Actually it was kind of taking a while...

What was taking the others so long, weren't they warned there could be a military response?

Gale's gaze crept over to the ignition.

"Alright guys, the pig is in the poke. Repeat, the pig is in the poke. Taking him in now."

"Copy that," Tsubaki replied. "We'll meet you there. Over."

Tsu and Mal lost the third crawler in Morello's convoy down a narrow alley, shortly after their charge had been taken out. By the time they doubled back to the crash-site, Bryan and the banker would have been long gone. The authorities might have even beaten them there.

After stashing the motorcycle in a nearby safehouse, the two soldlers met up with Jun and made their way towards the rendezvous point--an old run down warehouse in the heart of Russo's territory.

"Good work, Mallory," Tsubaki said, shattering the prolonged silence. "They were right about you. You know how to fight like a bandit. Keep it up and this op will go down a hell of a lot smoother."

Then she peered over at Jun. "Moon, you're not going to like this," she sighed. "I'm giving you a bad report when I meet with Caputo. I'll tell him you almost missed your mark today. The powder's gonna kill you at this rate, but I need reasonable cause to take you off it. You might get chewed out... maybe even beaten... Just want to let you know what you're in for. Is that understood, Moon?" She clenched her jaw. "This is for your own good."

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

Katya's mini-sermon sobered Edea up rather quickly. Booze never could completely dull the dark places in her mind.

"... What about you? Did you believe in anything before you started on this path?"

"Believe?" Edea echoed, bitterly. "I was raised by the Lombardi's. They are just about the only gods I've ever felt the need to recognize. Don't get me wrong though, I despise the lot of them, but just think about it... Contessa? She can do whatever the fuck she wants. No one poses a threat to her. Unlimited power and no accountability? I imagine even your god would envy that."

The sobered warrior leaned in closer. "You get what I'm saying, Kat? Do you know what we're doing here?" Her breath wreaked of booze. "We're challenging a god. Now tell me, what higher calling is there than that?"

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

"I told Bennie we should have stuck to smaller jobs, the bigger payoff isn't worth the heightened risk of collateral damage."

Sprout had nothing to say to that. Once Lilith had left his side to join the others, he found himself staring at Bennie. There was a hint of regret in his eyes, but it was only a hint. Despite all the carnage they had invited, his captain was still standing tall.

Lilith was wrong.

There wasn't any job too big for Bennie.

***

Three hours later...

Before returning to the Maiden, Bennie had let their hostage loose to walk a few miles home in the rapidly chilling ash. Considering how much they had made off the score, he figured adding a ransom to the mix would only complicate things. Count your blessings, and all that.

Once the cash had been counted and secured, Bennie gave a quick debrief and the exhausted crew went their separate ways.

"Hold up a minute, Allie," Bennie called out before the little spitfire could sneak off. He gestured for those loitering to leave the bridge. "We need to talk."

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

Ada had no idea what to expect. Miranda and Tabitha were her client's usual girls, but were both busy tonight. It was pretty fucking late when the call came in and Ada was one of the only girls between Johns at the time.

On paper the job sounded like a literal walk in the park. The client apparently never actually wanted to fuck... or do anything worth paying for, really. According to her friends, this woman was kind of a nutcase. She acted all nice--played house or whatever with the working girls--but would randomly say disturbing shit or break down crying for no real reason. Really freaked them out, but she never hurt them and the money was good.

Don't sweat it, Ada. Can't be any worse than that bloake last night, she thought. Fucker had a right chode, that one.

And of course, her client just had to live in the shadiest part of town!

After hesitating briefly, Ada knocked on the front door. A few moments passed before several dead-bolts loosing in rapid succession sounded from inside. The door swung open to reveal a dark-haired woman in a black long-sleeved shirt and panties. Though it was difficult to see it in the dark, Ada noted a distinct, deep scar across her left eye. She was also holding a pistol.

"Get in," the woman whispered before ushering the girl through the door.

What had Ada stumbled into this time?

"Now tell me, what higher calling is there than that?"

"I have to be honest..." Katya admitted "I want to be there to see the look on her face."

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

When the got back to the ship, Amy went and cleaned up. She didn't know what had come over her before, but she was feeling much better now; and once she'd washed all the blood out of her hair and changed clothes, she looked much better too. The only signs of the fight were a small reddish bruise on her cheek from the bass knuckles, and a small cut under her chin.

'Not too bad...' She thought, smiling at the mirror, before setting off in search of Axel...

She found him in the canteen, getting some chow. Walking swiftly up behind him, she covered his eyes with her hands.

"Guess who?" she whispered playfully in his ear.

"Good work, Mallory.They were right about you. You know how to fight like a bandit. Keep it up and this op will go down a hell of a lot smoother."

"Will do, Ma'am." Mal said simply, smothering the urge to give anything close to banter.

'Wasn't gunna stop keeping it up anytime soon.. wait that's stupid.' The powder, and probably the Russo's were draining her brain cells out of her nose it seemed. It was still strange to her, being in this squad. With Chimera they were almost always cold and serious when out on the job too, Esteban had run a tight ship but she never felt like she was walking on egg shells like she did with Samsara. The rumours about them must have been true, or something close, because all Mal could get from any of them was that there was something nasty bubbling beneath the surface that all of them were trying desperately not to mention. Had Harel turning traitor hit them that hard?

'Don't start thinking about that!' Mal warned herself. Otherwise she wouldn't get off it for the rest of the day and she'd be on edge around their Russo friends as it was.

"You might get chewed out... maybe even beaten... Just want to let you know what you're in for. Is that understood, Moon?"

And that didn't help matters! God, this bitch just couldn't stop herself. First she got them hooked on it and now this. Was she going to serve thew whole damn squad up to Caputo one at a time? 'They wont go that far, the job was still a success.' And Moon did look like he needed to get off it more than the rest of them, Mal had seen that clearer than the rest from sharing a room with him. This still didn't sit right with her though, hanging him out to dry like that, there should have been another way.

'This whole assignment's bullshit.'
===========================================================
Everybody went their separate ways after the briefing. Gale went to the hangar, everywhere else was feeling too crowded and stuffy for her right now, she needed something close to wide open spaces. She found herself a perch and settled down under one of the vents, letting the cool air from the AC blow through her hair. This was one of the biggest scores they'd ever done in her time with the crew and she was getting a sweet cut of it. So why did she feel so crappy about it?

'Maybe cus you just got made obsolete by preteen and her frisby?'

That was mean of her, she shouldn't have felt so bitter towards Allie for just trying to help. But Gale had been pulling herself every which way back in that casino and she'd just treated the whole thing like a game! And just sauntered through the whole affair like it was nothing, looking back at it there wasn't even any need for Gale to be there, a wheelbarrow would have done her job just as well. And there was the real issue. Compared to the super geniuses and warrior women that just rocked up into this crew, what did she bring to the table? Wasn't like Gale could even claim be a beloved heart and soul kind of addition to the crew.

'Oh let's not bring the dry spell into this, Hun, come on now.'

There were cliques around here though, that much was clear to see. Not that it could be helped, that was just how Domers were, they closed ranks by nature, she'd seen it all her life. And Travelers never fared well from it. Gale had done well out of this setup though. She'd gotten tougher, stronger, learned to fight off pretty much any threat that came her way thanks to some of the older Maidens. When she went back to the caravan she could teach the others this stuff, they wouldn't have to sneak around anymore, afraid of anyone who saw them as an easy prize. She could even lead them, she'd seen worse stuff then half the men in the caravan by now she bet. But she wasn't ready to go back yet though.

It was just that... "I've stayed here too long." Gale sighed to herself. It was the way of things, her people stayed as long as they were welcome and no longer, preferably shorter. She wasn't much good here anyway, it wasn't long before the winds turned like they always did.

Sandra was wandering through the hallways, on her way to the bridge but taking her sweet time about it. She looked thoroughly miserable when she came across Gale.

"Hey." she said, smiling half-heartedly "What'cha doing?"

"What, me?" Gale looked up from her ponderings, a little taken aback by the sudden arrival. "Nothin' much, just waitin' for my ears to stop ringing. And the spots to go away, seriously never look directly at one of Allie's contraptions." Gale sniggered a little, shaking her head.

Sandra laughed a little.

"Yeah. You know, between keeping this hunk of metal in the air all by herself, where do you reckon she has the spare time to be a crazy inventor?"

"There's gotta be, like, a secret basement on this thing full of robots and stuff that her and Ruffles keep secret from us. You know I found he had a secret weed garden? Well Allie found it while he was gone, came to me asking if she was supposed to water it or pull it up."

Wow did this feel like awkward small talk. Outcasts from society and renegades on the run, but some things followed you everywhere.

"Let's just hope there's not an engine fire, or we'll all be going down transfixed by the gracefully undulating bulkheads." Sandra replied.

The awkward silence hung there for a few moments.

"So, what are you doing here, really?"

"Asking myself that exact same question." Gale said begrudgingly. "What you doing here, really?"

"I gotta talk with Cap the moment he's done with... whatever he's doing." Sandra said, forlornly. "I, uh... I got some news a couple of days ago. Didn't want to say anything when we were planning the job... still don't really, but, y'know..."

Her speech trailed off from there.

"Some things you gotta say?" Gale offered her.

This was weird. She'd never actually seen Sandra act in anyway that wasn't composed and in control. Well there was that time she went a little nuts and crippled a guy but she was in control of the situation at least.

"Something got you needing some time away?" That was the only reason she could think of needing to see Bennie.

"Yeah, a few days at most..." she muttered. "My Dad died. I need to go bury him."

"Shit." Gale said without thinking. "S... sorry." She didn't really know what else to say.

"Don't be." Sandra said sourly. "Frankly, I'm just pissed the bastard couldn't have done me a favour and died six months ago so I wouldn't have to go asking anyone for favours."

She bit her lip and turned her head.

"Sorry, that was... me and my Dad didn't exactly get along. I'm doing this for my Mom. It ain't her fault she loved him, and she deserves enough from me to show up and say some words."

"Yeah that makes sense." Gale's eyebrows raised. there was that knee smashing intensity raising its head again. "I mean you never even mentioned having a family before. The way you guys explained it it sounded like you and Amy were part of some weird hooker cult." Was that a bad thing to say? Gale honestly had no idea where the line was with this crew half the time, it seemed to change every day.

Sandra smiled genuinely for the first time in the conversation.

"Yeah, I suppose you could call it that," she said "But I'm not like Amy. I had a family before then, a big one. That was the problem. My Dad kinda figured his responsibilities towards us ended after he lit his post-fuck cigarette. It was him who got me into the hooker business. Three guesses as to whether or not I was consulted."

"Aw jeez, I'mma pass before we both start crying." gale cringed. It was one tragic family life after another with this crew. Gale didn't even know where to begin with that and deemed it best to not even try. "Well some do say they want their funerals to be celebrations."

"Well, he never got enough exercise." Sandra chuckled "So if I can make him turn in his grave a couple of time I think it'll be good for him. I just... just so I make it clear. I know you come from a pretty tough background yourself, but, you've probably never seen where I grew up. It ain't exactly the most enlightened place. My Ma got married when she was fourteen. She's never been on her own in her life, and all her life she's had a man calling the shots for her. It's all she knows. Just 'cause she couldn't stand up to my Dad didn't mean she wasn't a good mother. She loved us all, even when it wasn't easy. Maybe she didn't take all the swings for herself, but she was always there to clean me up afterwards. I don't want anything I said to make anyone think less of her. You tell people that, after they find out, if anyone's got something to say."

"Will do." Gale gave a little two fingered salute. "And I wouldn't worry about that anyway. I don't think anyone here's in a position to say anything."

"Okay then." Sandra said, a little sheepishly, before shaking her head clear "Alright, that's enough about me. What's your thing?"

"Ah never mind it, Hun." Gale gave her a little smile. "Just need to get myself some T.L.C." There was no need to pile on and turn this into a pity party.

"Oh, alright then." Sandra answered "Well, if you wanna talk later, I'll be in my room. I'll be packing for a while."

Allie yawned to herself quietly as Bennie gave his usual debriefing speech. The young girl had noticed the same key phrases after the first few times, and could predict their use with accurate consistency.

"It could have gone better." Allie mimed along with the captain as she twirled a ringlet of hair around her finger, he usually heavy sighed before he said that, generally preceded with something along the lines of "Good job people, but...".

As Bennie began wrapping up, Allie glanced around, catching Lilith's eye. The older woman subtly nodded towards the exit, arms crossed over her chest as she slowly shuffled to place herself between Bennie's line of sight and Allie.

As Bennie dismissed them, Allie began to quickly move for the door, she was so close too when...

"Hold up a minute, Allie,"

"Ahh boo." The young girl sighed, glancing up at Lilith with pleading eyes as she left.

"Sorry, kid." Lilith smiled sympathetically as she backed out of the door.

"We need to talk."

Drooping her head in defeat, Allie turned around and shuffled over to Bennie, hands stuffed in her pockets as she looked up at the big man. "Talk about what?" She mumbled. "I have to check the engines, make sure everythin' is runnin' smoothly." She was sure she could come up with a better excuse, but somehow she didn't think it would cut it this time.

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

"Poor kid." Lilith chuckled to herself, cigarette hanging loosely from her lips as she made her way back to her room, holding her red heels loosely by her side as the cold metal of the deck soothed her sore feet. She wasn't sure how women could wear those kind of shoes all the time, you had to either have feet of steel or be some kind of masochist.

It could be worse though, she could be Allie right now.

Ah well, it couldn't be helped, when she was around that age she was always getting chewed out by Bennie and Pixie, only seemed fair that the newer generation got their fair share of busted balls too. The girl's thoughts didn't linger on Allie for too long however, as she approached her room Lilith reached behind her and unzipped her dress around halfway, sighing in relief as certain areas became immediately more comfortable.

Dropping her shoes on the floor as she shuffled into her room, the young woman wiggled her waist as she unzipped the rest of her dress, letting it pool around her feet before stepping out of it. Removing her jewellery, both new and recently 'acquired', Lilith slouched down in her chaise longue in nothing but her frilly underwear.

Grabbing the radio receiver off the small table next to her, she flicked to outgoing transmission. The sound of static had become a recent constant in her life, there was a certain comfort in it.

"Hey Floribear, you home?" She closed her eyes as she rested he head on the arm of the chair. "I have sexy new underwear that you need to appreciate right now, it's lacey and frilly and everything." She ran a hand through her hair before draping her arm over her eyes.

The speech was over. Good. That meant Bennie would finally relax. Spinning around lazily on the chair by the systems report station, Whiskey waited for everyone else to leave.

"Hold up a minute, Allie,"

'Aw, dammit...'

Rolling a cigarette, Whiskey sighed and lit it. She'd wait this out. Millie wouldn't miss her. Whiskey had checked in on her before she'd come to the debriefing. Her daughter had been sound asleep with her head on a colouring book and hadn't even woken when Whiskey gently moved her to the bed.

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

Ruffles ambled down the gutted street, pocketing a freshly purchased baggy of weed. Even with the city gutted, dealers were still plying their trade. Hell, business seemed to be good. He supposed having your city bombarded was the kind of stress that made a good bit of substance abuse seem tempting. Still, his main reason for going out was to buy parts. The radio in his room was busted, and he wanted to call Maria. God, he'd vanished for two months. She was probably worried sick. That made him feel a flush of guilt, despite the fact he couldn't exactly have helped being imprisoned.

Eventually he found a shop that would serve his needs. It had been pitched in a building with a section of the roof blown off, although it still seemed structurally sound. There was a modest selection of tools for sale. Good enough for him to make do. The parts and wires and whatnot looked mostly to be salvage taken from the destruction across the city. He made a mental note to give everything he bought a good once over to make sure it wasn't fucked.

It didn't take him long to get find everything he needed to fix the radio. He was making his way to the counter when some small spherical casings in the corner caught his eye and an idea for a project started taking form in his head.

By the time he came out, he had almost more than he could carry, with most of the carbon he'd won gambling with Asad's men depleted. Allowing for what he needed to keep so he could win more off of them later, he thought he had enough for a drink. Casting around, he looked for a bar. There were only a couple still operating, so he settled on the first one he came across.

The place was pretty packed, but he saw a vaguely familiar back of someone's head. Taking care not to lose hold of the bags of tools and parts he was carrying, he started elbowing through the crowd of drinkers.

"Hey, Asad. That you, man?"

Maria collapsed into her bed after the debrief. Wasn't she supposed to get used to being an active member of the Maidens? She stretched. Even cleaning up crime scenes was easier than participating in heists, she could just focus on vanishing her nemesis: dirt. Maybe it was to do with the fact that she hadn't talked to Ruffles in a while; her radio only spat out static when tuned to his frequency. Damn man was owed a strict talking to at this point.

***

"...This is for your own good."

Those words summoned up a a sinking feeling in the pit of Jun's stomach. He knew that sniveling excuse of a sentiment too well. However the dread soon twisted in rage. Then and there he wanted to snap her neck. Oh yes, he understood. Jun understood what she was saying all too well: just an excuse to get the one person in her squad who wasn't her greatest fan out of her hair for a while, not to mention possibly and indirectly giving him a beating - what a bonus. Jun only had one thing to say to such an insult. Tsubaki would probably get a rise out of it, but playing nice with that manipulative bitch was a very low priority currently.

"Fuck you." He spat.

***

With no available females to flirt with, well, there were some of the ex-Austinites but the very thought of their deceased 'father' put Jesse off completely. It was like something out of a horror film. Nevertheless, he found himself practicing some shootin'. He still had to get used to the recoil of automatics from the looks of things.

'Maybe I should shave the beard off.' Florian pondered as he wiped the steam away from the mirror. Getting a cold shower seemed like a good idea at the time but a second in reminded him just how horrific they actually were and he'd spent enough nights without running water in the past to pass it up nowadays. Loathe as he was to admit it, he had gotten use to the tower standard of living. And it had also given him more time to get vain, especially now he knew that there were two hot blondes that liked him.

Of course it was incredibly immature of him feel at all smug about that! He was a working official that served the people and his dome, these next few days would decide Frostfall's future and the final decisions would be on him! He could not afford to let his ego or libido get in the way of any of this! He'd be going to war for god's sake!

'Fighting alongside my WOLFGUARD!!' He was grinning like an idiot now. Okay, so there were some cool aspects about this he could indulge in. There was nothing wrong with enjoying what he did. 'The beard was a big mistake though, I can't deny that anymore.'

Meanwhile, beyond the bathroom and Florian's hearing, the radio was getting an incoming call and spooking Rollo the cat from his nap. He liked sleeping next to it sometimes as it heated up at the back.

"Hey Floribear, you home? I have sexy new underwear that you need to appreciate right now, it's lacy and frilly and everything."

Of course Rollo did not care about lacy, frilly, underwear. He only cared that this warm silent thing was now making a lot of harsh noise and he did not like it. The half-blind tomcat looked over the talking box with bemusement. When it kept going he started to bat at it with his paw. Then when that didn't work he'd rub on it head first, marking it with his scent some more. Then he'd hit it again or gently bite the receiver... and then bat it around some more. This was fun!

["What are you doing over there?"] Florian called over, making the cat turn suddenly with a start. He'd finished up in the bathroom and upon getting out had come over to investigate the sounds of Rollo's play. As usual he was trying to break something, though whether he understood that was anyone's guess.

Rollo gave a loud hoarse, gargling, yowl at half clothed human. His little throat long since damaged by smoke and who knows what.

Asad had found his way back to the bar and continued his night of drinking, albeit lonelier than he had hoped.

'Such is life. Ah well, at least there's always Edea.'

Asad smiled at the thought of the French woman. He wouldn't lie, the accent played a big part in what attracted him to her. Oh, and the sex. The amazing, no strings attached sex.

There wouldn't be another like her, though.

'C'est la vie.'

Asad took a long drag on his cigarette before taking a sip of his whiskey. His self pity party was going great until he heard a familiar voice behind him.

"Hey, Asad. That you, man?"

"Mr Miller." Without turning around, Asad raised his glass slightly above his head. "How is your new found freedom treating you, young man?" His words slurred slightly. There was a very real possibility that he was drunk.

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

Lilith furrowed her brow as the static on the radio fluctuated slightly, followed by a dull knocking, as if someone was fumbling with the mic on the other end. She waited a few moments, just to make sure Florian wasn't in fact drunk and had forgotten how to operate machinery again.

The young woman smiled, a sigh escaping her lips.

"Rollo? Is that you? Are you fuckin' around with the radio again? You dozy cunt, what are ya like, eh?" She giggled slightly.

"How is your new found freedom treating you, young man?"

"'Young man' my ass, buddy, I'm thirty," Ruffles replied. Before he could say anything else though, the barman came over to him.

"What'll it be?"

"Ah, just gimme a beer," Ruffles replied. When his drink was in front of him, he turned back to Asad. "Freedom's pretty good, but I'm still a dead man. I spent two months in one of Payton's cells, which means it's been two months since my girlfriend's heard from me." He grinned. "That's gonna be a fun conversation."

"Your round Harry." Croft told him. "I'll have a Scotch."

"Lager for me." Bigsy piped up. "And try not to chuck half of it down some bird's tits on the way back this time, would ya'?"

"Are you forgetting you're speaking to a superior officer, Flight Lieutenant Biggins?" Harry shot back, fixing Bigsy with a faux death-stare. He was a little too drunk to make it stick.

"Humble apologies, most supreme and noble Flight Commander!" Bigsy retorted "I meant to say, would you kindly prove capable of walking three paces with a drink in your hand without sloshing it like some poor berk?"

"Of course, Bigsy old chap!" Harry cried as he stood up "You'll have a full pint... if you can finish it without falling down like a wonky plank!"

Leaving the boys to continue the banter without him, Harry made his way to the bar. It was a few second before he noticed he was standing right next to Asad.

"Harel!" he shouted, clapping the man on the back. "I see the bastards haven't got you yet. Good show!"

Laughing, he turned to the barmaid.

"Pint of lager, double scotch, and a rum and coke please Jenna." he ordered, slapping some carbon on the bar. "Oh, and whatever these gents are having is on me. Should be enough..."

It was only after referring to him that Harry remembered noticing the man Asad was talking to.

"Have we met?" he asked, squinting around Asad's shoulders at him.

"You dozy cunt, what are ya like, eh?"

Florian looked at the radio in mock shock. The mouth on this one! "Um, I will have you know I am super smart actually. Not many cats can work fancy human techs all on their own - meow." He said into the receiver, adopting his own interpretation of Rollo's speaking voice.

The cat in question tried to paw the mic and dangling wire away from Florian. They were his now.

Lilith grinned, moving her arm behind her head, keeping her eyes closed she blew cigarette smoke from her lips.

"Roly Poly!" Lilith cried with mock apprehension. "We discussed this! No talking unless we know we're alone!" She leaned close to the mic. "What if Florian learns our secret?!" She whispered

"I do what I want!" Florian said back before ditching the voice. "He's aweful this one, I lose a cleaning lady every time he does this."

Florian tugged his towel firmly back into place as he leaned against the table and casually faught off the ginger furball that was still demanding his attention by way of tiny punches and scratching. Seemed every redhead he got to know demanded that same treatment and used similar methods.

"This is a late hour for you. Don't tell me they've actually had you working on something this week?"

Lilith groaned as she placed her arm back over her eyes. "Yeeer." She took a long drag of her cigarette. "Gotta earn my keep apparently, hit that casino grav ship over Paradiso."

"Sounds like fun, I look forward to reading about it in the papers tomorrow." He'd have ask Franz if the Lomabrdi's had any stake in that ship. Even a spiteful victory could count. "Seems like the crew's stepping up their game."

"You could say that." Lilith chuckled sardonically. "Stealth isn't our strong suit it seems, there were bullets, I threw a shoe at someone, dropped a chandelier on some guys, Amy punched someone, Sprout punched someone, I punched someone, everyone punched someone, and Allie nearly killed everyone with one of her new toys." The woman sighed. "All in all, it went well." The young woman paused for a few moments, smoke crawling from her lips as she looked into the middle distance. "Someone got hurt, just... some random woman. Don't think it was one of our people, but..." She spoke quietly.

"These things happened on all the other jobs too, those risks aren't new." A little cold of him, maybe, but true none the less. He didn't remember it bothering Lilith before though, not out loud. "So you've brought Allie into the field."

He didn't want to bring that old argument up again, Lil had kept him up to date on the new recruits. She knew where he stood on the ever dropping age range of the Maidens and the two of them had gone in circles about it every time it came up.

"This again?" Lilith moaned. "The girl won't take no for an answer, she says there's only so many times she can dismantle half the ship and put it back together again." The woman put on her best Allie accent. "'I dinnae wanna sit on me arse all day missing out on all the fun.' she says, and you know that kid, she'll fight you before she gives in." Lilith pinched the bridge of her nose, scrunching her eyes shut as she yawned. "Bennie wants to make sure everyone is contributing, and if the girl says she can do more, he ain't gonna say no."

Florian was never subtle when it came to his disapproval of what the younger Maidens were up to.

"I know he wont." Florian droned sardonically. "Heaven forbid a bunch of career criminals get in an argument with a tiny child when she says she wants to go on a robbery. It's for the best really, you kind find engineers willing to work on airships these days that are over the age of 20, not without costing an arm and a leg."

"Can we not talk about this now?" Lilith whined. "It's been a long day, why don't you tell me about what you did today, any more assassination attempts?" It was just easier to change the situation than to argue.

"None today, no." Florian just went with it. He was tired as well and it wasn't like he was going to win any hearts and minds over a late night chat. "Just a lot of dinners and visitors today. But beyond that I can't really say. You know, state secrets and that."

Maybe he could have said more but there was so much cloak and dagger among Elizabeth's own people he wanted to keep things as simple as possible. Better to err on the side of caution. Unfortunately with that line of conversation juddering to a halt they didn't have much else to talk about besides the topic they were avoiding. Something that happened more often with each of these calls it seemed. 'So much for our honeymoon phase.'

As the awkward silence between them grew, Lilith smiled sadly. "I miss you." It was happening more and more lately. "Maybe I should come stay over again, we had a lot of fun last time."

Katya was possibly the easiest person in the world to wind up. It was very unfitting of a man of Florian's stature to be cavorting with some low born criminal such as her.

"Yeah..." Florian gave his own little sad smile, they almost mirrored each other, not that he could see that. "That'd be nice." Maybe she could stay longer this time. It'd make things a lot easier. "I'm heading down south soon so maybe we could meet up if we end up in the same neighborhood."

"We should totally do that." She said softly, pulling her legs up to her chest before rested her cheek on her knees. "Florian, I..." She paused for a moment, biting her bottom lip. "Ever since Merry died, I've been thinking..."

'Oh shit, I was about to tell her I'd been thinking!' She'd started it though so Lilith got to share her thoughts first. Though he'd never been in anything close to a long term relationship Florian had it on good authority that your partner telling you they'd been thinking could only be a bad thing. He'd have been lying if he said he wasn't nervous.

"Yeah, what about?"

"Well, I mean, Sprout and Amy are really happy together, and he's doing a lot better after... well, you know." Lilith still wasn't particularly comfortable saying it, even after all this time. "Bennie is giving Whiskey more and more responsibility, and Gale has taken to this life quicker than anyone I've seen, and she babysits the other rookies." Lilith let out a long sigh. "I dunno, I just, I feel like..." Her words caught in her throat for a moment. "I might be done, Florian, Axel is pretty much a man now and... after seeing the woman at the casino." She paused again. "I'm done, Florian."

That... was.... he was not expecting that! Lilith didn't get an answer right away as he was too busy mouthing 'OOOOOHHHH MY GOOOOOOOD!' in Northern and waving his hand around in Rollo's face. The cat didn't care for it and quickly left.

This was perfect! This was exactly what he was thinking of! All the fears he'd had about it, all the anxiety and ways it could go wrong, all of it gone! This was brilliant! 'Whatever you do don't fuck this up!'

He cleared his throat. "That's... that's amazing." She may have been able to hear his smile. "I mean not that you're done just that - that - that... you're done" Ever the skilled public speaker this one. "You know you're always welcome here - of course you know that - but if you want any help doing whatever you want to do next I... heh..." His words trailed off into faint little laughs as his mind ran away with the possibilities.

Lilith didn't think she'd ever heard Florian so excited, not since she knitted a hat for Rollo. "I don't know how the others are going to react, and I can't imagine it's gonna go down particularly well, especially with Axel, but... I'm just tired, of the whole thing." She took a deep breath. "I stole a necklace off some terrified old woman, and I have no idea why I did it, that's not me, even with the pseudo Robin Hood bullshit I managed to convince myself that I was doing something good, making some kind of a difference."

The girl closed her eyes. "Bennie isn't Meredith, with her we always gave something back, all Bennie cares about is big scores, and to be perfectly honest, I don't know why I'm here anymore, it's certainly not for the fucking carbon, I have more than I could ever spend, and I just..." She paused. "I'm tired of the fighting, I want to wear pretty clothes, and eat amazing food, and just... stop killing people."

It was clear she had spent a lot of time thinking about this.

"If you'll have me, I mean..." She added quietly.

Florian couldn't argue with any of that. He'd felt the exact same things just a few years ago, well except the need for pretty dresses but to each their own.

"As if you even have to ask!" He had to reign it in though, this was a big thing for Lil and he didn't want to be that guy and pile on the pressure.

"Alright then!" Lilith smiled, running a hand through her hair. "Just so you know, all that stuff I just said, pouring my heart out and shit?" She chuckled slightly. "I did all that in nothing but frilly knickers, how's that for ruining the moment?"

Florian laughed as the two of them found their stride again. "I'm in a towel, seems we can't have a serious talk unless we're naked."

"Nothing good ever happened when anyone was wearing clothes." The girl smirked. "Now put Rollo back on, I bet his day was more interesting than yours!" She cried.

"Every time." Florian smiled quietly. This could be their real chance. There were still plenty of hurdles in their way, he was enough of a downer to still see that clearly, but it was possible now. The two of them could make a real go of it, start the closest thing to a normal life the two of them were capable of having. A real life together.

'We can do that, can't we?'

"That's gonna be a fun conversation."

Asad chuckled quietly, "And somehow that'll be your fault." The man nodded his head gently before taking a large gulp of his drink, almost choking on it as someone slapped him on the back.

"Harel!"

He'd never forget that accent anywhere.

'Oh god no.'

"I see the bastards haven't got you yet. Good show!"

"D-De... M-Monfort." Asad croaked as he coughed the whiskey out of his lungs, before wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. "What brings you down to the ash with the riff-raff?" He sighed, as he pointed out what was left of his drink to the barmaid as De Monfort offered to buy a round.

The man was insufferably cheery. Just when the night couldn't get any more miserable.

"I see the bastards haven't got you yet. Good show!"

Ruffles glanced around to see some guy in a flight suit pounding Asad on the back. He sounded like the bastard child of Gents and Lilith, come back in time to ruin them all. Sipping his beer, he glanced down at the bar as a second drink was slid over to him.

"Have we met?"

"I doubt it," Ruffles said. "Only been to Sherwood once, and I was stuck in the bowels of the ship I was working on the whole time."

Glancing over at Asad, he grinned at the man's sour expression. "Hey, Asad-sack, what's wrong? This guy kill your dog or something?"

"I have to be honest... I want to be there to see the look on her face."

Edea held up a half-empty champagne glass. "I'll drink to that," she cooed with a wry grin. "You know, you're more fun than you give yourself credit for. You should let down your hair more often."

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

"Talk about what? I have to check the engines, make sure everythin' is runnin' smoothly."

Bennie put his hands on hips and frowned. "Hey," he groaned, "if you want me to treat you like an adult I expect you to act like one. Square those shoulders, hands out of your pockets and quit pouting. I may let you punks run wild every now and then, but I run a tight crew, and you're a part of it. There's a certain level of professionalism that comes with that. Now, do you know why we're having this conversation? Do you know why I snapped at you earlier?"

Despite their proximity in age, there was a stark contrast in the way Bennie treated Millie and Allie. Maybe she resented that, but then she had to know where it came from.

Millie was still just a little girl and Allie most certainly was not.

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

"Guess who?"

Sprout sniffed the air like a curious mutt. "Gee, I don' know," he chirped, playfully. "Smells like'a purdy lil' lady with a mean swagger. Probably rocks a snub-nose in 'er purse jus' in case some fresh punk crosses 'er." Reaching backwards very suddenly, the young bandit began tickling his lover violently.

She never saw it coming.

"GONNA MAKE YOU SNORT, GIRL!"

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

"Fuck you."

The calm, professional attitude Tsubaki had maintained throughout the op simmered and died as Jun's rebellion sunk in. This affront would not go unpunished. Jun had fucked up big time.

Tsubaki balled both hands into tight fists. "What the fuck did you just say to me, Moon?" she replied in a cold, gravelly tone. Then she turned around. "You want to say that to my fucking face?!" Grabbing him roughly by the collar, she pushed his back up against the wall of the alley and stared him right in the eye. He'd seen her mad before, but not like this. "You think this a fucking game, Moon?! You think this is some kind of fucking vacation?! Spend a few month snorting dust and whacking some mob bosses--that sound like a good fucking time to you, huh?!"

She held her knuckles closer to his throat and searched his foggy eyes. "You listen to me, you stupid mother fucker," she spat, "I'm your CO. I'm your commanding-fucking-officer. Last time I checked you listen to me, and if you give me lip, I bust your fuckin' head open. Now you're going to do what I say--quit the fuckin' blue and go straight, or I'm pulling you out. And if you back-talk me again, I'll break god damn jaw. Do I make myself absolutely FUCKING clear?!"

"GONNA MAKE YOU SNORT, GIRL!"

"Oh! This... this is..." Amy gasped as she twisted in his grip "You dirty... v-vengeance will be sw-swift!"

She collapsed into high-pitched giggles, before eventually wrestling her way out of his clutches. It didn't stay that way for long though, as when Axel turned around she draped her arms over his shoulders, pressing her body up against his.

"My turn." she said softly, before locking him in a deep, passionate kiss. As they broke apart, she sucked on his bottom lip for just a second, her eyes sparkling.

"Listen..." she said, walking her fingers up his chest "I bartered with Bennie this morning and got us the rest of the day off. For the next 2 weeks I have to clean the Captain's cabin, so how's about you make it worth my while..."

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

"You should let down your hair more often."

Katya's laugh was a little ungainly, as she ran her hand through her short crop.

"Poor choice of words." she told Edea "Still, thank you. It's nice to know I'm doing something right. I never really learned how to socialise."

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

Asad didn't look pleased to see him. Good! That just made it more fun.

"What brings you down to the ash with the riff-raff?"

"What on Earth makes to say that, old bean?!" he boomed "You know I like nothing better than a fine toddy with the plebs."

"Only been to Sherwood once, and I was stuck in the bowels of the ship I was working on the whole time."

"Well then jolly good to meet you sir!" Harry said, reaching over Asad to shake the younger man's hand. "Say, you wouldn't happen to know a thing or two about Hornets, would you?"

"if you want me to treat you like an adult I expect you to act like one. Square those shoulders, hands out of your pockets and quit pouting. I may let you punks run wild every now and then, but I run a tight crew, and you're a part of it. There's a certain level of professionalism that comes with that. Now, do you know why we're having this conversation? Do you know why I snapped at you earlier?"

Allie averted her eyes, frowning as she sighed through her nose. Straightening her back, she crossed her arms over her chest, clenching her jaw as she met the captain's gaze.

"No, I dinnae ken why you're having a go at me, I helped, you wouldn't have even gotten in the vault without me!" Her face went red as she tried her best to not shout. Allie did nothing but slave over a hot engine room all day, and in her spare time did nothing but make things that could be used to help the others, and this is how he repaid her? No, this wasn't fair at all.

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

"Say, you wouldn't happen to know a thing or two about Hornets, would you?"

"Sweet Jesus." Asad grunted as he down his whiskey and quickly ordered another. An engineer and a pilot, and here he was stuck in the middle of the two.

"Yeah Mr Miller," Asad mumbled as he lit up a cigarette, turning to face Jake. "do tell, do you know anything about hornets?" He glared at the man.

'For the love of all that is holy, do not indulge him, once he starts we'll be here all night reminiscing about the 'greatest dogfight of our time'. You do not need this in your life, more importantly, I do not need this in my life, but I already have it in my life, and I'd just love to remove it from my life, but I can't, and I'd just love to keep it to the fifth retelling, please, just... please?'

That's what Asad wanted to say, he just hoped the pleading in his tired eyes would carry the thought well.

"... For the next 2 weeks I have to clean the Captain's cabin, so how's about you make it worth my while..."

Sprout grinned like an idiot. "Hell yeah, you know I'm good fer some while werthin'!" After a quick peck on the cheek, the eager lover suddenly pulled away from his girlfriend and sized her up. "Wait, aren't ya' feelin' sick? Ya' sure you don' wanna take it easy? You got purdy banged up in the fightin' too. I reckon we'll 'ave plenty 'a time later if ya' wanna rest, babe."

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

"Still, thank you. It's nice to know I'm doing something right. I never really learned how to socialise."

"I guess I'm lucky that way," Edea laughed. "I learned how to socialize and fight. Few on the Rock could claim such fortune." There was a hint of bitterness in her words. "I think you need more booze, love." She said with a wink.

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

"No, I dinnae ken why you're having a go at me, I helped, you wouldn't have even gotten in the vault without me!"

"You're right," Bennie admitted, "you did your job, and you did it well. Breaking into the vault and helping the others make out with the cash? That was your duty. Using an untested, experimental weapon in the field without my consent? Allie... you should know better than that. It was Gale's job to keep you safe. You were under explicit orders to drop your bag and run if the score went south. You're not ready for combat. You're too young."

The big man sighed. "But shit happens, you haven't been trained for nothing. If you have to, you fight, but this contraption of yours? Jake got away with a lot of shit when Pixie was in-charge for two reasons: one, he's got decades of experience, and two, Pixie was calling the shots. I'm not Pixie. It's my policy to eliminate unknowns--to dissect a score thoroughly before I commit to it. Your weapon was an unknown. It could have gotten one of us killed! You understand where I'm coming from, don't you?"

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

"Sorry about the uhhh, well you know," the dark haired woman said as she sauntered into the bathroom, pistol held lazily at her side. "Can't be too careful in this part of town. Hot chocolate?"

Ada glanced around the hovel anxiously before finding a seat on the ratty sofa nearby. "It wouldn't be the first time I've had a gun shoved in my face," she muttered. "And sure, that would be nice."

Hot chocolate?

After a few minutes of sitting alone awkwardly, her client returned to the living room with two steaming mugs in her hands. "Careful, it's hot," the woman warned as she handed Ada her drink.

"Thanks," the girl replied. "Um, so what's your name, anyway? I only got an address for this place."

The raven haired woman hesitated for a long while. "Theresa," she finally said. "And you?"

"Ada," the girl said with a smile. Theresa returned the gesture.

A short time later their drinks were cool enough to sip. "It's really good!"

"Thanks," Theresa replied with a sheepish grin. "My, uh, dad used to make them for me and my... nephew."

A calm silence hung in the air as the two women sat together, drinking. Although she was wearing long sleeves, Ada could clearly see that this woman was incredibly fit. She was built like a soldier--albeit a curvy one--but considering her accommodations, she was more likely a mercenary or a gang-banger. She had to be pretty damn tough to live in a place like this all by herself.

"Mind if I ask about--"

"It's nothing," Theresa said. "Someone hurt me a long time ago. They don't matter anymore." Ada broke eye contact and nodded nervously. "Don't worry about it."

Ada furrowed her brow. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you or--"

"You didn't," her client interrupted. "It's a huge-ass scar on my face. Kinda hard to miss. I've got a whole lot more where that came from."

She hadn't noticed them until Theresa mentioned it, but the woman wore at least a dozen scars on her hands and legs. Ada could only guess how many she had under her shirt. "So are you a soldier?" she asked, hesitantly.

"I'm Clint-fuckin'-Eastwood," Theresa chuckled, lighting a cigarette. After a quick drag, she exhaled and downed the rest of her hot chocolate. "I kill so many people I frequently lose count of how many rounds are left in the chamber."

Ada looked uncomfortable.

The older woman rolled her eyes. "Relax, it was a joke," she assured, her. Ada grinned, nervously. "Sort of."

After another prolonged silence, Ada cocked her head. "Who's Clint Eastwood?"

Theresa glanced over to the old TV nearby and smirked. "Why don't I show you?"

"Wait, aren't ya' feelin' sick? Ya' sure you don' wanna take it easy? You got purdy banged up in the fightin' too. I reckon we'll 'ave plenty 'a time later if ya' wanna rest, babe."

"Hey, come on." Amy said "I took on seven guys and walked away with only a couple of scratches. One of them had an axe. Like, an actual fuck-off axe. I thought I handled myself pretty well, under the circumstances..."

She took his hand, and wound her fingers through his, as her expression grew a little more serious.

"I'm feeling much better now, I promise. Still, we've got the whole day to ourselves, so there's no need to rush.

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

"I think you need more booze, love."

Katya was cued in enough to pick up on the edge in Edea's voice, but didn't pry. Edea seemed like a straight-forward woman. If she had something to say, it would come out of it's own accord.

"Honestly..." she responded, looking around to find that they were among the last remaining at the dining table. "This stuff is weak. It's okay for tourists, but if you want a real Frostfall drink, you should come back to the barracks."

"You did your job, and you did it well. Breaking into the vault and helping the others make out with the cash? That was your duty. Using an untested, experimental weapon in the field without my consent? Allie... you should know better than that. It was Gale's job to keep you safe. You were under explicit orders to drop your bag and run if the score went south. You're not ready for combat. You're too young."

Allie opened her mouth to reply before the big man cut her off.

"But shit happens, you haven't been trained for nothing. If you have to, you fight, but this contraption of yours? Jake got away with a lot of shit when Pixie was in-charge for two reasons: one, he's got decades of experience, and two, Pixie was calling the shots. I'm not Pixie. It's my policy to eliminate unknowns--to dissect a score thoroughly before I commit to it. Your weapon was an unknown. It could have gotten one of us killed! You understand where I'm coming from, don't you?"

The girl pursed her lips as she looked down at the ground. Her inventions were always safe... mosly, she tested them herself, sure not in the field, but what did that really prove? If anything it proved how safe they actually were! It could have hurt someone else, if anyone had built it other than her of course, she ran the numbers! Spend days debugging the software, it was all sound! Did Bennie think he was dealing with an idiot?!

"I guess..." The girl mumbled. If agreeing with Bennie got her out of this situation quicker than she was willing to bite her tongue.

"Say, you wouldn't happen to know a thing or two about Hornets, would you?"

'AW SHIT YEAH!'

Ruffles was vaguely aware of Asad saying something, but he tuned it out. "Buddy, the first repair job back in Zephyr I was ever allowed to take on my own was an engine replacement on one of those old A1 Hornets. See, a common problem with that first model is they're prone to partially overheating, which mucks up the engine response time. So I took an engine from an Apex Skyrunner we were planning to scrap, did some jiggery pokery, juryrigged it to make it fit. That Hornet flew outta there smoother than when it was new, I tell you."

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

"Hey, you want a line?"

Bryan looked up to see one of the Russo mooks offering him a fat line of Blue off of the back of his wallet. "Nah, I'm good," he replied, pulling his hip flask out from his jacket pocket. "Stickin' to the Dutch courage tonight."

"Whatever. Your loss, buddy," the mook replied, sauntering off back to his friends, who were busy tying Morello to a chair. Looking around, Bryan saw Caputo overseeing them. Taking a swig from his flask, Bryan got to his feet and made his way over to their 'employer'.

"Now then, boss man," he said, offering Caputo his hip flask.

"Do I make myself absolutely FUCKING clear?!"

Two special words and Tsubaki was absolutely livid, that was all it took for the Commander to fly into a fury and slam Jun into the wall. The woman was hysterical. Probably was loving the power trip as well. As she stared at him, he stared back. Her eyes were wild; completely engulfed with rage. Piercing, even. Jun only had one reaction to the accusing glare.

'Go away go away go away go away go away go away go away go away go away go away go away go away...'

Jun's first thought was to lash out, somehow get Tsubaki off him but one question flew right in the face of that: but then what? Piss off Tsubaki more, potentially get let go, join the fucking Russos and snort lines upon lines until dead? And of course, there was the mission - the goddamn mission which had yet to be completed.

And so, Jun once again emptied himself of emotions, stuffing them down the hole. He replied in his familar monotone, "Yes, Commander."

He was powerless, and he hated himself for it.

***

Finished with peppering targets with holes, Jesse wandered around a while and saw Gale, alone. Walking up to her like it was no big thing, despite the ol' nerves kicking in - lying to her about his father hadn't been the best of ideas - he greeted her simply with, "Hi."

Well that could have gotten way more out of hand. Didn't though.

Mal had jerked her hands out of her pockets the moment she saw Saburo pin Moon and get up in his face. For a moment she thought he'd fight back or he'd go further and then nothing happened. A well oiled machine this squad was not. But there wasn't anything she could do about it here and now without making things worse. So Mal acted the professional solider and silently fell in line.

Of all the squads she could have been put in.

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

"Oh hi there, Jastor." Gale drolled, yes she'd taken to combining the fop's two taken names after his little bout of indecision. Honestly she wouldn't have busted his balls about the whole secret nobility thing under normal circumstances. On it's own it even seemed pretty cool to her, like something out of a story.

But his little drunken thing about his dad dying had rubbed her the wrong way, it hadn't been the first time a guy had lied to her in an attempt to get Gale into bed but that didn't make it any less sour. At least he hadn't been too creepy in his advances back then. It wasn't even that bad. Gale could have gotten over it too if he hadn't gone about awkwardly avoiding her every chance he got, looking at her like a guilty puppy that got caught chewing up her shoes. Which just reminded her that he was guilty of something and that he hadn't even tried to apologise for it!

"You deemed it time to mingle among the mortals, eh?"

"That Hornet flew outta there smoother than when it was new, I tell you."

"Ah, the A1!" Harry cheered, not really hearing much of the rest of what Miller said "I trained on one of those old girls! Stripped down, no weapons, but still never a dull moment. There's something to be said for the feisty ones!"

Clapping Asad on the back once more, enjoying the look on the soldier's face, Harry continued.

"Kitty's an A3X. She's got the spirit of an A1, but with more stamina. Most jockeys are flying A4's now, but they'll put me in one of those junkers over Kitty's dead body. They're just too... safe. Mass-produced not to punish mediocrity. Sure, anyone can fly one, but it's a pony, not a thoroughbred!"

The barmaid interrupted him by bringing the drinks, but that didn't deter Harry for long.

"Say... Miller is it?" he asked. "The rest of the squadron's getting sober without me. You should come and join us. Harel can be your plus one, the poor man won't get in any trouble if we leave him on his own."

"The rest of the squadron's getting sober without me. You should come and join us. Harel can be your plus one, the poor man won't get in any trouble if we leave him on his own."

Ruffles was sorely tempted. But then he remembered his prior engagement.

"Aw, I can't, man. Gotta get back and call the missus," he replied "But take Asad by all means. Just... y'know, try and return him with the same amount of functioning kidneys he had when you borrowed him."

He stuck around the polite ten to fifteen minutes. Harry had bought him a drink, after all. Once it was finished, and he was sure any more flying talk would make Asad stick pencils up his own nostrils and headbutt the bar, Ruffles got ready to leave.

Picking up his shopping bags, Ruffles nodded to the other two. "Later, guys. I'm outtie." With that, he began pushing through the crowd of prospective drinkers, towards the door.

***

It took about twenty minutes to fix the radio. Easy peasy. When it was done, he flicked the on switch and twiddled the dials to the frequency he and Maria used.

"Do not be alarmed. Do not attempt to adjust your radio frequency. This is not a malfunction. We have control now. We are... The Others, dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuun!"

Clearing his throat, he added, "uh, hey Maria. It's me. You there?"

Still, we've got the whole day to ourselves, so there's no need to rush.

Sprout grinned and led Amy in the direction of his quarters. "Reckon I can do with a few beers an' a nice sit," he said with a wink. "Been awhile since we gotta chance ta' relax. It'll take us awhile ta' burn through the cash we jus' made, so I'm hopin' we're due fer an extended vacation."

Once inside his room, Sprout crouched down by his bedside cupboard and browsed his selection. "What'll ya' 'ave, darlin'?"

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

"This stuff is weak. It's okay for tourists, but if you want a real Frostfall drink, you should come back to the barracks."

Edea grinned, mischievously. "Sounds like an invitation," she giggled.

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

"I guess..."

"Allie..." Bennie put his hands on his hips and sighed. "You're the smartest person on this ship and I'd never knowingly squander your talent. But kid, you have to stop treating this like a game. We lost Collin--what, three weeks ago?" Squatting down, the captain put his massive hand on the child's shoulder. "This is a dangerous job. You need to understand that. Until then, you stay on the ship."

It wasn't easy to take such a hard-line with the kid, but Bennie didn't see any other option. She would be a liability if she didn't adjust her attitude, more so for herself than the rest of the crew. He wasn't about to let the little spitfire get herself killed.

"You're dismissed," he told her quietly, before getting to his feet.

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

"Yes, Commander."

The tension was so thick Tsubaki could taste it on her tongue.

The Colonel searched her subordinate's eyes for awhile longer. "Good," she finally said before releasing him. She almost turned around and continued onward but lingered for a moment, sizing up the two soldiers before her instead. Jun was clearly terrified, as was Mal to a lesser extent. She could have ignored it. She normally would.

"Look," Tsubaki muttered, sighing deeply, "this whole op is bullshit. We're pros, but we weren't trained for long-term deep cover like this. These... disgraceful jobs the Russos have us doing. The ass-kissing. The fucking. The blue. It's all bullshit, but we'll figure it out. I promise you. We'll do our job, and we'll make it out in one piece." She looked between the two of them expectantly. "You with me?"

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

"Now then, boss man,"

"Where are the others?" Caputo cut straight to the point. "They should'a been here by now."

"Reckon I can do with a few beers an' a nice sit,"

"Ooh, careful..." Amy warned, winding her fingers through Axel's "Move too fast and we might end up snuggling."

"Been awhile since we gotta chance ta' relax. It'll take us awhile ta' burn through the cash we jus' made, so I'm hopin' we're due fer an extended vacation."

"They've got some great beach resorts in New Haven." Amy suggested "We could take some leave there. Me with the bikini, and you with the... suncream."

When they got to the room, Amy reclined across the bed giggling. With her head hanging over the side, she watched Axel open the cabinet upside down.

"What'll ya' 'ave, darlin'?"

She rolled off the bed and crouched down behind Axel. With her arms wrapped around his waist, she kissed his neck as she looked over his shoulder at all the liquor.

"Nothing like Tequila after a heist." she answered.

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

"Sounds like an invitation,"

Katya grinned "An invitation to beat your little Lombardi ass at poker maybe..."

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

"Aw, I can't, man. Gotta get back and call the missus,"

Harry recoiled in mock horror.

"Don't tell me this stallion is tamed and saddled?! I'm sure the fine lady won't wish to be woken up at this time of night. Come, we will speak as men do!"

Eventually, despite Harry's best efforts, Ruffles bowed out, leaving Asad alone with 9th Squadron.

"You look glummer than usual, Harel..." Harry said "I didn't hear about anything going wrong with the mission."

"He's missing Edea, I bet." Bigsy chirped "That woman has wiles."

"You deemed it time to mingle among the mortals, eh?"

"Y-yes, I guess." Jesse stammered, his nerves had crept up to his throat and had a deadly grasp on his vocal chords. Oh boy, the lady wasn't pleased. Why was it that every woman he met knew how to scratch his defences to nothing? Coughing, he carried on the conversation, making sure there were no gaps for Gale to throw more daggers through until her proper turn, "Thought I might end the whole charade."

He stood to attention, "I hereby apologise for lying about my father and my circumstances."

There, it was done.

Gale looked him dead on, her eyes narrowing as she seemed to take in all of Jastor's rigid form. She looked him up and down like some antique dealer appraising the wares before her. The poker face was on. Until she raised her hands and started up as slow clap.

"Well done." She droned. "Took you... long... enough."

Was that it?

Jesse had opened up the door and a blizzard had swept in, the wind was strong to push his skin back towards his skull. This was impossible! A quick retreat was required.

"Yeah. So, er, how are you doing?" He said.

"So how am I- uugh." Gale massaged her temples and had to resist the urge to just totally hold her head in her hands. That was the best she was going to get from this one she supposed. So much for all that talk of domer men treating women all sensitive like.

"I'm great, Jas, just got changed into some not-guts-covered clothes and finished washing the blood out of my hair, so I'm feeling peachy keen. Now I just gotta wait for the latest tantrum about robots to die down and things'll be back to normal, be like I never left home. 'Nuther job well done in my books." And she topeed it off with what was probably supposed to be a smile and not a snarl.

It dawned on Jesse that it probably wasn't the best to ask her to stop calling him Jaster. Just sounded so... artificial. Still, options popped up in his head. All of them probably the wrong thing to do. Goddamn old habits! So, he went with the least offensive one - the back rub could wait until later.

Jesse simply nodded, "Yeah, another great heist for the Maidens. Say, wanna sit down and grab a drink or something?"

"You know what? Yeah... yeah I could use somethin'." gale gave a little sight and headed off to get something to drink, she just assumed he'd follow her.

She raided the kitchen for whatever she could find as Jastor snagged them a table in the empty mess hall. The two of them settled down and Gale popped herself open a bottle of weird branded soda. After a little awkward silence she quietly piped up.

"Why'd you do it?" She asked him. "Run away, y'know. you must have had, like, everything you wanted in those fancy mansions and towers. Clothes, booze, toys or... whatever you're into." She was never sure how much of Jastor's pervert game was just talk or not. "Why'd you trade the high life for... this?"

Okay, that worked. Success! No bitch slap across the cheek or anything. Jesse was still shunned by the time they'd wandered into the mess hall. Like a robot he had obeyed her request to save a table and now he was sitting besides her. Jesse blinked. What was the conversation about again? Oh yeah, himself. Jesse could do that.

Then it sank in and he wasn't quite sure he do talking about himself to that personal of a degree. Jesse tried though. He scratched his stubble in thought; what to say, what to say...

In the end, Jesse shrugged, "A bit of classic Middle Child Syndrome, I s'pose."

"Seriously?" Gale stared at him in disbelief. "You robbed your dad and signed up for daily gunfights cus... you wanted attention? Or less? I'm not a middle child I so I'm not sure what that means but... but that's the most stupid thing I've ever heard!" Despite herself Gale actually started to laugh a little bit, coughing on some of her drink as it went down the wrong way. "That's just so... I mean... well you got it!"

Jesse drowned his embarrassment into a hearty gulp of his own beverage. Probably wasn't the best way to explain to but the less Gale knew about the Bovine Bride Incident the better. And well, a Gale choking on her own laughter was kinda cute, in its own endearing way. Regardless, he put his glass on the table and sighed, "Admittedly my understanding of the Iron Maidens was a lot more romanticised back then. But being a ghost in your own home ain't a nice feeling."

"Don't say aint, Jastor, you can't pull it off." Gale spluttered between snickers. He wasn't half wrong though. She doubted any of them really knew what they were signing up for when they first found this ship.

"If you insist, my lady." Jesse replied, waving his arms about in over the top hand gestures, "I'm afraid that hick has rubbed off on me, I do apologise."

"Oh god." She sighed happily. It was one extreme to the other with this guy. Well it made him stand out from the crowd around here at least, wasn't like Brock or Tal would go around callin' anyone m'lady. "Just drink something strong would you?! Check out the gentleman here." Gale chuckled, shaking her head.

Astor found himself laughing as well. This was good. Well, laughing at yourself with someone else was probably better than just having other people pointing and laughing. Supposedly.

Asad managed to tune out the next several minutes of conversation, instead focusing on the ice cubes melting in his drink, until Miller's departure shook him from his daze.

"Wait, don't..." But before he could get a word in, it was too late.

'Don't leave me alone with them!'

Almost groaning as he placed his elbows back on the bar, he lit another cigarette.

"You look glummer than usual, Harel, I didn't hear about anything going wrong with the mission."

"He's missing Edea, I bet. That woman has wiles."

"I'm missing something..." Asad mumbled under his breath. Could he kill these people? Would it really be that bad? Nobody had to know, it could be an accident. "Did you guys remember your masks?" He asked thoughtfully, a tinge of concern in his voice.

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

"Pull!" Allie called out as she slammed her fist down onto the button of a small make shift device, solely constructed for the propulsion of tiny objects into the air. As a tiny paper soared through the air, the little silver laser disk of disappointment shot it out of the sky, burning it to ash before it could even hit the ground.

"Nae, you're not the disappointment Disky, you did a great job." She sighed. Not even needless paper genocide could cheer her up. The engine room had gone through major re-decoration since Allie had taken up shop there. There were several new shelves, with dozens of half constructed bits and bobs, blueprints sprawled all over the walls, some of them were neat and detailed, while others were hastily drawn in what appeared to be crayon. There was also a small mural over the engine, a picture of the sun with a rainbow over it, a little something from Gale who thought the place was a little too 'suicidal'.

Probably for the best, she was going to be spending a lot of time there now. Hastily drawing a crude picture of Bennie's face on a piece of paper, she screwed it into a ball and set it on the tiny catapult.

"Pull!"

Theresa seemed like a fun girl, but Ada couldn't seem to relax around her. Despite her warm, welcoming attitude, the scarred beauty had a certain intensity to her. Like she was always uncomfortable. Always trying too hard.

It felt so... fake.

So artificial.

The way she treated Ada--a bought-and-paid-for whore--was akin to playing house. They didn't know each other. They didn't share any kind of bond or connection, and yet, that was exactly how they interacted. They were like old friends... or sisters.

It was just as the other girls had described. She was looking for companionship. Someone to lean on. Ada had dealt with lonely sorts before, but this was something else entirely.

Just who had she lost? Who had she left behind?

Though there were no clear signs, she could feel there was something wrong. The mask Theresa wore was a thin veil, concealing something truly hideous underneath.

She found it intriguing, if not a bit terrifying.

Ada passed out halfway through an old western called A Fistful of Dollars--snuggled comfortably against her client on the sofa. Theresa had apparently gotten up not long after that, unintentionally waking Ada when she left the apartment.

Shaking off the grogginess, the prostitute pulled herself off the couch and checked the nearby clock.

Where the hell could she be going at this hour?

***

Ada followed Theresa to a rundown bar across town. It was a rough place from the looks of it, with an active nightlife... if it could be called such a thing. The clientele consisted mostly of thugs and criminals, gambling carbon they didn't have for drinks their livers couldn't afford.

Not really Ada's scene, despite her line of work.

After pushing through the crowd (and avoiding the leering eyes of the destitute patrons), the small woman found what she was looking for. It wasn't difficult..

Just follow the the announcer's voice!

"In this corner, weighing in at two-hundred and fifty pounds, you all know him, you all love him--it's Bernie 'Back-Breaker' Sanchez!"

"You have gotta be kidding me," Ada muttered under her breath as the large, caged arena came into view. The man doing the announcing was on a podium in front of the cage, wearing sunglasses like he was some slick hotshot. The man he had introduced--this Sanchez--he looked like a tough customer. Not too tall, but built like a brick shit house.

After the cheers from the crowd died down, the announcer gestured towards to opposite side of the ring. "And in this corner, the challenger whose weight we didn't have the balls to fact check--the undefeated devil-bitch herself, 'Bloody Mary'!"

The crowd lost their shit completely.

Who is this chick?!

"You're dismissed,"

As Allie skulked her way off the bridge, Sandra sidled in.

"I hope you know she's just going to train the lazer-robots to recognise you as hostile now, right?" she told the Captain. Her confidence seemed to get smothered under the tension of the room pretty quickly.

'Okay, so that's the atmosphere we're going for, got it.'

She didn't understand what was up with half the crew lately. The Maidens were more successful right now than at any time Sandra had been aware of them, and yet so many seemed so down...

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

"Did you guys remember your masks?"

"The ground-jockey must think we're thick as shit!" Bigsy announced.

"That, or we're just used to thin air." Croft added.

"Nah. Little turd must think he's too high and mighty..." Bigsy said, not too drunk not to recognise Asad's tone, but drunk enough to rise to it. "A little bit of Basillio must have rubbed off on him. Open up Harel. Big-shot like you must have lots of war stories. We'll compare notes."

"Ease up." Harry ordered, suddenly sounding very sober and stern. "A man comes back from a mission, his drinks are on us. Those are the rules for my house, and I say Harel's welcome."

Bigsy scowled, but didn't question.

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

"You're dismissed," Bennie said. Whiskey's head snapped up. 'Aw, hell yeah!'

"I hope you know she's just going to train the lazer-robots to recognise you as hostile now, right?"

'Aw fuck no!'

Sighing, Whiskey put a fresh cigarette between her lips and went back to cleaning her newly acquired tommy gun, although at this point, it was already sparkling.

'It's okay, you can wait. You're patient. And besides, if she takes more than a few minutes, you're totally allowed to put her head through the nav console...'

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

"They should'a been here by now."

Bryan resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "The op wasn't exactly quick and quiet. They're probably letting the heat die down before they come home."

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