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

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"Look, this whole op is bullshit. We're pros, but we weren't trained for long-term deep cover like this.

Mal listened quietly and consciously stopped herself from tensing her jaw and grinding her teeth any further. This woman was all over the place. First she tried the cold and distant approach this morning, then it was the brutal hothead with Moon, now she was trying to backtrack herself into being a woman of the people. It was just one thing after another with these people. But Mal still stayed quiet while this went on, her judgment was as clear as it could be with the blue so fresh in her system and she knew better than to rock anyone's boat in any way right now.

"You with me?"

"Ma'am." Mal said flatly, not bothering to nod and clearly unconvinced.

She looked past Saburo and over to Moon, still against the wall, for a moment. Well at least they could all agree they wanted out of here as soon as possible.

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

"Whaaaat? Noooo." Asad mumbled under his breath, blowing smoke from the corner of his mouth.

"Nah. Little turd must think he's too high and mighty..."

That got a little chuckle out of Asad as he turned to look at the man, tilting his head slightly.

"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."

The Commander furrowed his brow slightly, what would a boy and his little toy know about war stories? Prick probably never killed anyone that wasn't a tiny dot in his cross-hairs. Just as he was about to voice his opinion, De Monfort stepped in.

"Ease up. 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."

"Listen to your commanding officer, boy." Asad smirked at Bigsy before turning his attention back to the Flight Commander. "Don't worry it, I was just about to head off anyway." He got the feeling he wouldn't accept that as an answer.

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

Bennie chuckled quietly. "I reckon we could use a few of those around here," he said. "Would make my job a whole lot easier." Noticing Sandra's discomfort, Bennie relaxed, sliding back into the captain's chair.

"What can I do for you, Sandra?" he asked her, grinning slightly.

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"The op wasn't exactly quick and quiet. They're probably letting the heat die down before they come home."

"Well get them on the fuckin' horn then!" the grease-ball shouted. "Unless you got somethin' you need to tell me... well then, spit it the fuck out! I don' like sittin' around with my limp dick warmin' my palm."

Caputo wasn't exactly the most tactful man.

The fact that Bryan hadn't already knocked his teeth out said more about his professionalism than every kill he'd ever made in Basilio's name. Or perhaps, it was his devotion to the woman he loved.

"What can I do for you, Sandra?"

Sandra repeated much the same story she'd told Gale. It was awkward, but it was easier to finish once she'd got started.

"So yeah, um..." she muttered "I know I'm already asking for a lot, but, I'd like to take Maria with me, y'know, if she wants to come. You see, the supplies back home are a little basic, and we still have a load of surplus medical stuff that Amy scored for us. I could just take some of the stuff over, but... folks down there could really use a visit from the doctor once in a while."

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"Listen to your commanding officer, boy."

Bigsy snorted and returned to his drink, muttering something that sounded like "Wanker".

"Don't worry it, I was just about to head off anyway."

"Come on Harel, don't be such a soft-touch. The boys didn't mean anything by it." Harry said.

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"Nothing like Tequila after a heist."

"I like the way you think, lil' lady," Sprout chirped over his shoulder. After snatching up a bottle of the 'good' stuff, he set about mixing drinks on the counter nearby. "Be a darlin' an fetch my sombrero." He said, nodding towards the festive hat hanging from the coatrack on the bathroom door. "Gotta be legit. This shit is serious."

"Sure thing, handsome." Amy replied, practically skipping over to the bathroom door to retrieve it. Returning, she placed the sombrero a little crookedly on his head.

"While you're busy with those, I'm gonna go and slip into something a little more... you know." she whispered in his ear, before heading back to the bathroom and shutting the door behind her.

"Don' take too long now," Spout hummed as she disappeared into the bathroom. Once the drinks were made, he brought them to the small two-person table in the corner of the room.

Amy stayed in the bathroom a couple of minutes longer than she needed to. She'd leave Axel alone with his imagination for a little while. He could get so impatient, but she knew what was best for him.

Sprout took a quick swig of his drink and did as instructed. "You better not take advantage of me," he warned playfully. "You know I don' like surprises."

"Oh, I think you'll make an exception for this..." Amy giggled, as she walked to the table. "Open your eyes."

She was wearing a cowgirl outfit. A red and white checked shirt, with the sleeves rolled up and the top three buttons undone; and denim hot-pants with a snake-skin belt, with a buckle in the shape of a set of bull's horns. The ensemble was completed with leather, knee-high boots and a straw hat.

"Howdy." she said, mischievously.

Sprout's face glowed red. Despite his sheepishness, he didn't look away. "Jesus, Amy," he muttered, suddenly exasperated. "You really know 'ow ta' tickle my fancy." He cringed. "That sounded more sexual than I intended."

"Why are you sorry?" She teased, sitting across his lap as she took a sip of her drink. "You know I'll tickle whatever you like..."

"You wanna watch a movie tonight?" She asked.

Distracted by her inuendo, the boy missed Amy's question. "What?" Then he replayed it in his head. "Oh, yeah, sure! Have anythin' in mind?"

"What about Tombstone?" she replied, absent-mindedly stroking his upper arms. Axel's build had become a lot more athletic in the past few months.

Sprout sipped his drink and nodded. "Sounds good to me. Not like we got too many options, anyway," he remarked with a chuckle. Sprout studied her carefully as she took her drink to her lips. "You sure yer okay, babe? I know ain't s'posed to worry so much, but I can tell when yer puttin' on a brave face. Jus' wanna make sure nothin's troublin' you."

"It's nothing you need to worry about." Amy told him, stroking the side of his face as she leaned forward to kiss him. When they broke apart, she sighed a little, her lips hovering just above his.

"Let's just enjoy ourselves tonight, okay?"

"Come on Harel, don't be such a soft-touch. The boys didn't mean anything by it."

Asad grunted with amusement at the thought that he gave two fucks what some pampered flyboys thought of him, but if they were offering free drinks, well...

The Commander sighed as he finished off his current drink. "Sure, why not." He shrugged his shoulders, stubbing out his cigarette, blowing the smoke lazily from his nostrils. "I've only been awake for like 40 hours, might as well make it a solid two days." He smiled weakly as he raised his glass and shook it gently. "Tell me a story."

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Lilith pouted as she wiped a damp cloth over her lips, smearing lipstick across her face as she did a poor job in removing her makeup, still the was something cathartic about the ritual. Rinsing off the rag in the sink, she glanced up at her reflection in the mirror, maybe it was the mascara and eye-shadow panda eyes, but she looked a lot more tired than usual. The girl didn't particularly feel any more fatigued than usual, in fact she felt pretty good after her talk with Florian.

Maybe that was it, finally making a decision about her future, the weight of the decision was making her look like crap!

'Maybe...'

Rubbing the cloth over her neck, it quickly became caked in foundation as it revealed what hit beneath, a pixie tattoo in black ink on the right side of her neck, taking up the space between her jaw and just above her collarbone. Identical to Bennie's.

Smiling sadly as she caught its reflection, she ran her fingers over it, a sigh escaping her lips as she began rinsing out the rag again and finishing up before having a hot, long shower.

Hair dripping wet, she slipped into a pair of shorts and large oversized zip up hoodie, nuzzling the shoulder, she closed her eyes, it still smelled like Florian.

This was the best decision, for her and for him, she had to cut the cord at some stage, stop living for other people and make her own way in life. Axel didn't need her any more, the Maiden didn't need her any more, not really.

This was better for everyone.

"... I could just take some of the stuff over, but... folks down there could really use a visit from the doctor once in a while."

Bennie scratched his goatee in thought. "Seeing as how this is technically a time-off request and not official Maiden business I can't ask Maria to do this for you," he told her. "Not that I think it'll be a problem, but you need to run it by her yourself. Maria's a good woman, but not everyone around here does hard work out of the goodness of their heart." Despite what he said, the big man grinned. "Take what time you need, Sandra. You've been kicking ass and deserve a vacation... even if this doesn't sound like much of one."

Crossing his arms, the captain wandered over to nav console nearby and glanced at the girl from over his shoulder. "I'm getting another score lined up, but it's a small one," he explained. "I'd only need four or five Maidens max. Just don't go vanishing on me, okay?"

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'Bloody Mary' paced back-and-forth before her opponent, slouching slightly with a deranged twinkle in her eye. She was wearing the same long sleeve shirt she had on from earlier, torn-up jeans and was barefoot. 'Back-Breaker' pounded his fists, snarled like a beast and dropped into a bower stance. He was shirtless, ripped like Jesus and wore jeans without shoes as well. The crowd was already going crazy before the first punch had even been thrown.

Ada had seen her fair share of fight clubs in this town, but this was certainly the shittiest.

A drunk fat man bumped into the much smaller girl, spilling some beer on her shirt. "Hey, watch wh--"

"AND BERNIE TAKES THE BAIT!"

Apparently the fight started in the brief moment Ada wasn't looking.

The tanned man swooped across the ring, delivering a flurry of blows at Theresa. She dodged and weaved like a pro, her bare feet dancing left-and-right with the rhythm of his assault. He grit his teeth and pushed harder, his blows coming faster but sloppier. The raven-haired woman saw an opening and took it, catching the side of his wrist with her own and pushing it aside, allowing her to roll inside his reach and crush his nose with a swift elbow. He reeled back, holding his fractured nose and before he could retreat or counterattack, Theresa ended the fight with a follow up attack--punching him savagely in the side of the head with her other hand.

"AND HE'S DOWN! HE'S FUCKING DOWN! 'BLOODY MARY CLAIMS ANOTHER VICTIM!"

Holy shit! Ada thought, holding her hands over her mouth in disbelief.

Theresa helped the man up to his feet and shoved him a long once he could stand on his own. "Who's next?" she called out to the crowd.

Two hours later...

After beating four more challengers and earning a modest collecting of new bruises, the undefeated champion of this hole-in-the-wall called it a night. Hesitant at first, Ada eventually joined her at the bar. She didn't say anything at first.

"How long you been here?" Theresa asked before the whore could speak.

Ada shrugged. "The whole time."

Theresa lit a cigarette and took a swift drag. "I imagine ya' 'ave questions."

"Yeah," Ada admitted, "but I don't imagine you want to answer any of them."

"Yer right, I don'."

Ada looked over her shoulder at the exit. "You want me to take you home? Patch you up?" she asked. "You could use some sleep."

'Bloody Mary' laughed. "Sure, but I ain't sleepin'." Ada put her arm around the woman's shoulder and escorted her out.

Despite how unnerving the fights were, Ada had to admit... Theresa was a bit of a badass.

"Just don't go vanishing on me, okay?"

"Don't worry." Sandra said, with a sad little smile "I don't plan on staying home any longer than I have to, and I doubt anybody will be throwing me a homecoming parade."

Nodding to her Captain, she turned and left, passing Whiskey on her way out.

"He's all yours." she said.

Another three hit combo, alternating sides. Then another, all to the right, and another to the left. Florian wasn't even trying to be efficient or to treat this like he was fighting a real opponent, he was just trying to make the punching bag rattle and push back as much as he could. Just to see if he could make Erik cry uncle. The old man himself was looking thoroughly miserable as he stood on the other end of the bag, holding on and cringing as he braced himself against each hit.

["Is there a reason we're doing boxing stuff today?"] Erik grumbled through clenched teeth and closed eyes.

["But we get up and do our exercises at this time."] Florian chirped smugly. ["That was your rule right? Get me back up to my former condition, right? you didn't seem to want to go running this morning and with us going back into a fight well, I gotta get my close quarters training back up... riiight?"] He couldn't hide the smik on his face.

Indeed it was Erik's demand to have Florian up at the crack of dawn doing laps and lifting weights. Making it a little odd that it was Florian waking him up to go down to the gym before most of the tower woke this time around. A situation which, as a freshly made lord, he would never be immature enough to exploit for childish revenge of denied any chance at sleeping in by torturing a stubborn man who refused to admit he had a hangover. No he would never do that, he was too busy punching this bag as hard as he could and dancing around with fancy footwork.

Erik groaned as quietly as he could.

["You sure you don't want a dose of caffine, mabye from some aspirin?"]

["I said I'm fine..."]

This went on for what felt like an eternity to Erik. To his credit though he stuck it out for most of the workout before Florian felt too mean to carry on... and he only dry heaved a little bit.

["You need to rest."] Florian said flatly, placing a hand on Erik's shoulder and stopping him in his tracks. ["Take as long as you need-"]

["I just need some water before the meetings."]

["As long as you need."] Florian said more firmly. ["I'll handle any meetings or breakfasts solo, you just look after you. You can't keep doing this at your age."]

Oh no. Florian realised it just too late. You didn't mention Erik's age, not to his face. He could say he was getting too old for things but no one else. Maybe he'd be okay about it, he could be mature about it, couldn't he?

Erik straightened his posture and wiped the sweat from his brow. ["You've had a good one this morning... but you'll need to push yourself further if you want to fight like a Hussar out in Boomhower."] He said plainly, as if it was a fact everyone could see clear as day.

["We're not Hussar's anymore, Erik."] But he wasn't listening. Erik was walking away and ushering over the squad of wolfguard who were unlucky enough to pull the daybreak shift and were stationed around the rooms perimeter.

Erik seemed to share some words with them before turning back and calling back to Florian over his shoulder.["There's no such thing as a clean one on one fight when you're out there!"] Then then three of the guardsmen politely started to advance on him and Florian immediately understood what kind of vengeance had been sent his way.

["We don't have to do this if you don't want to, Sir."] One of them offered, clearly feeling awkward about getting caught between him and Erik and whatever Katya might do if she found out about this.

But then Florian could see Erik looking at him smugly across the room. And the warrior's pride that Florian denied still having stirred to life. ["Let's get some gloves and head gear."] He said, not breaking eye contact with the big man. He could at least be practical about this and save any of them injured hands and concussions on the eve of battle.

Erik left the room just as the three on one kicked off, feeling very pleased with himself as he heard someone hit the matted floor. 'Try and win against me, will he?'

"Tell me a story."

"You ever hear of the Vladivostok?" Harry asked him after taking a sip. "You must have done. Real bitch of a vessel, flagship of the Frostfall fleet. Eight hundred meters from stem to stern, and even then, had almost more guns on her than she could carry. She fell into the hands of pirates a couple of years back, and I guess they thought Sherwood not having much of a fleet made us easy targets-"

"Christ Harry! You ever gonna get to the point?!" Bigsy interrupted, taking a swig of his own and jerking his thumb over at his superior. "He never tells it right!"

"Yeah, he misses out the part where you had a bad case of the shits when we were scrambled." Croft shot at him "Thank God your jump-suit was khaki already."

"If you're finished, gentlemen..." Harry called over them, smiling, before Bigsy could retort. "The first wave out of the aerodrome were us and 36th. Our mission was just to sting them harder than they were expecting. Command wanted us to scare them off, but none of them were expecting us to take that monster out of the sky..."

A detailed and highly dramatic account of the battle followed, which seemed at least to last a couple of hours, as all the people trying to tell it at once got steadily more drunk.

"I swear, watching her core light up as she plunged nose first into the side of Deadfall Mountain... that was the most beautiful I have ever found a woman and that, my friend, is saying something." Harry said wistfully "The biggest single piece of wreckage the salvage team could drag back was this huge bulkhead from the cargo hold. We claimed it as a battle trophy and propped it up in our mess hall, only that's when 36th decided they were the ones who'd given her the killing blow after all, and stole it off us. For six months after that, it kept getting nicked back and forth, until 36 decided to cement it into one of their walls, so in the middle of the night, me and a few lads took a forklift and a couple of jackhammers, and took their whole wall!"

The uproar of laughter from the table drew some disapproving looks from around the bar.

"The Station Commander gave both our Squadron Leaders a real bollocking after that one. From them on, they've made us share it, a year each. Good times." Harry slurred a little, finishing his drink. "Right! Your turn Harel! Shall we hear the dashing tale of how you rescued the princess, or something more exciting?"

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'461... 462... 463...'

Katya ignored the sweat trickling down her brow as she grit her teeth and kept going with the pull-ups. She'd been up for 4 hours, and had been working out for the last 2. Several cups of coffee and a couple of aspirin were keeping her hangover just about at bay, or maybe it was just willpower. She was on duty this morning, there would be no excuses for being tardy, especially not all the vodka she and Edea had powered through last night.

'475... 476... 477...'

If anything could summon a small smile of satisfaction from her right now, it was knowing that no matter how bad she was feeling, Edea was feeling worse. The woman had been an utter mess by the end of the night.

"[Good morning, Captain Ivanovich.]"

"[Same to you, Corporal Bielski.]" Katya grunted in response. "[Where is Lord Bejic? I must report to him.]"

'497... 498... 499...'

"[In the resident's gymnasium.]" Bielski told her "[Combat training with Secretary Ablev, I believe.]"

Katya ground as she crested the last pull-up. Her Lord really should inform her about such things.

"[Thank you, Bielski.]" she said, as she let herself drop to the floor. Striding over, she grabbed a bottle of water and downed half of it in one go, pouring the rest over her face, before drying herself off with a towel. "[You're dismissed.]"

When she was finished cooling down and making herself presentable, she went off to find Florian and Erik.

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A few hours later...

The fluttering static from the TV was the only source of illumination in the room, bathing the space beyond in a soft, grey glow. A few empty cocktail glasses were strewn across the bedside table, and discarded clothes lay across and beside the bed.

Amy and Axel were sat in the middle of it all, their naked silhouettes gleaming with sweat. Her legs wrapped around his waist, Amy gasped as she gripped his hair between her fingers, running the tip of her tongue up the side of his neck, before gently nibbling on his earlobe.

"Axel..." she moaned, as she drew back to face him, their breath mingling and the tips of their noses touching. "I love you."

Sprout was so out of it by this point he barely registered her advances. "Love you too," he gasped, grinning slightly. "I don' even remember what we watched." He remarked, chuckling.

Some time passed between the two of them before Sprout spoke again. "This is kind of a weird time to ask this but... you reckon you ever think about yer real parents?" he asked, looking up at her messy head of hair. "Like, who they were and where they are now? I didn' used ta' think about it, but now that Ma' is dead I can' help wonderin' what happened to... you know. I mean, I know she's dead but what kinda woman was she? Ma' told me she'd tell me one day... there were a lot of things left up in the air between us I guess."

The boy sighed. "Shit, sorry... I don' wanna ruin the mood."

"Yeah... maybe not so much right now with the talking..." Amy giggled, as she changed up a gear. Leaning back, her hands wound around the back of his neck, she pulled Axel in to her chest.

"Oh God. Oh..." Amy trembled as her legs constricted, feeling lighter than air. She held her lover close, her fingers digging into his back as she kissed him deeply, savouring the feeling of being one with him, wanting it to last forever.

Eventually, the two of them keeled over onto the bed. Amy kissed Axel along the collar bone, before resting her head on his chest, while stroked Amy up and down her back.

"I try not to." she said quietly, after a few moments of silence. "I don't remember anything about my life before, you know... all it would do is make me realise what I lost, and for them, assuming they're still out there... I don't want to inflict what I've become on them. It would be cruel."

She looked up at him, her hand reaching up to caress his cheek. The way he talked about his mother, it was so... he never stopped hoping for something better around the corner, despite everything that should have broken him by now.

"There's something I want to say to you, but..." Amy bit her lip and looked away "I don't know how it will sound."

Sprout cocked an eyebrow. "What is it?" he asked quickly. He was a lot harder to offend these days than he used to be. Whatever it was, he could take it.

"I'm not sure if this makes any sense..." Amy began "But there's a part of me, a part of my brain, right now, that doesn't believe you're real. I can see you, I can feel you, and I know I'm not dreaming. My dreams are... never this good, but all the same, I've got this little itch at the back of my head, not a voice but... almost, that's telling me you're not real. I mean, how could you possibly be real?! What would someone like you, if they even make them like you at all, possibly have to look for in someone like me?

I'm good at reaching inside of people, and finding the one unrequited desire that they'd do anything for. The One That Got Away, the one that no amount of money or power could buy, and make them believe for just one night that it could. Even after all that though, by the time morning comes around I'm just another uncomfortable reminder of the lies they tell themselves. Not for you though. You've never wanted anything from me other than, well... me, but I'm not sure I know what that's supposed to be? Do you even know? That's what makes me afraid, because none of it makes any sense, and I can't help but feel like the moment I relax, the moment I convince myself that there's nothing to worry about, the lights will go up, the curtain will be pulled back, and I'll see that it was all just a big joke at my expense."

Amy's eyes stung, and she drew a ragged breath, burying her face deeper into Axel's chest.

"I'm sorry!" she sobbed "I know that sounds horrible. I'm trying to do better, I want to do better, for you, but I need to know that if I can't... Can you love even the ugly parts of me? Can you love the parts that will never be happy no matter how much I want them to be, and the parts that hate you just a little for showing me something I thought I could live without?"

Sprout pet the back of Amy's head, hoping to calm her. "Of course I can, dumb dumb," he whispered. "You think too much, ya' know? Take a look outside, ya' think this world follows any kinda rules at all? Life ain't fair, but that don' need ta' be a bad thin'. Not for everyone. Shit 'appens. We live our lives an' that's that. Whether or not you deserve happiness is totally irrelevant. What's important is that ya' you cherish what 'appiness you get."

The boy had no idea where this was coming from, but he just kept talking.

"Ma' an' Bennie shared the purest love I ever saw," he explained. "The only reason shit didn' work out is 'cause they let thinkin' get in the way. You know how Ma' was... how Bennie still is. You really wanna make that same mistake?"

"Thinking bad. Got it!" Amy chuckled though her tears. She tried to focus on the feeling of his arms wrapped around her, hoping it would help calm her down. She knew he'd hold her like this sometimes when she had nightmares. Even as she thrashed and kicked and clawed, trying to beat back the monsters who only survived in her memories, he'd keep her from hurting herself until she calmed down, even though she'd drawn blood on him more than once. She'd see the scratches when she woke up, and would try her best to make it up to him all day, because she was too ashamed to say sorry.

She wished she could stop hurting him.

"I can ask..." she said eventually. "About your real parents. I still have plenty of connections, even if we don't know where to start. Someone out there knows something, and I'll find them... if you want me to?"

She shifted on top of him, her hair shrouding their faces just an inch apart.

"It's the least I can do for you. I just want to make you happy."

Sprout brushed the girl's hair behind her ear and gave her a swift peck on the lips. "You don' 'ave ta' do that to make me happy, babe," he told her. "I appreciate the offer, but you don' 'ave ta' pull strings like that for my sake. It's more of a... curiosity than anythin' else, ya' know? It ain't that important."

"If you're sure..." Amy said softly as she stroked his hair. "I just don't want you to feel like there's something missing from your life."

She began kissing him again, which grew quickly more intense as Axel's hands began exploring her body. She sighed as they tumbled over, Axel kissing her neck, on top of her.

"You know, I'm thinking of getting a tattoo..." she giggled "Something just for us." She cupped his face and gently lifted him so he could get a good look at her body, while her thighs brushed against his waist. "Would you like to pick a spot?"

"That's a lot of responsability, Amy," he said, chuckling nerviously. "What if I pick a bad spot an' ya' resent me fer the rest of time?"

"Oh, I think you know your way around me by now." Amy said.

"Pickin' a place to kiss an' a place ta' ink ar' two very different things, babe! You don' wanna end up like Lily, do ya'? On 'er neck? Really? Looks weird as fuck... don' tell 'er I said that."

Amy rolled her eyes and sighed.

"Six months Axel. Please tell me that one of these days you'll learn how to flirt?"

She took his hand and outstretched his index finger, running it down the line of her stomach, below her navel.

"You're lucky there are other things you're good at."

Sprout chuckled. "S'pose my tongue's good fer somethin', right?" He could flirt a little.

"Just your tongue, hmm?" Amy said, as she slid his hand down further.

One more energetic session later, and they were both exhausted. As they lay in a heap together, Axel fell asleep quickly, snoring gently into Amy's ear. She smiled at the sound, before soon drifting off as well.

When dealing with multiple opponents in close quarters it's usually better to focus on one at a time and break a hole in any formation or trap they may be trying to form. That's what Florian believed anyway and right now it standing him in good stead, paying lip service to fending off two of the guardsmen and focusing on breaking down the weak link of the group.

His opponents were quickly backing down as things went on. Especially his poor chosen target who was probably worrying about what he'd done to deserve getting singled out by the boss. Though now he wondered if that same thinking was making them all hold back, and Florian's pride couldn't have that.

["Tell you what, guys, if any of you manage to floor me.. you all get a weeks paid leave. That sound good?"] The wolfguard looked at eachother. Nodded to eachother, almost acting like the pack animal their unit was named for. And then it was on. ["Oh shit!"] Florian yelped, barely getting out of their way in time.

So that was what assassin style training looked like. He didn't get to admire it for long as the guard kept up the pressure with ruthless speed. Scary as they could be, Florian couldn't help but smile a little. It felt like forever since anyone had taken him seriously as a combatant and forced him to use the old skills he'd neglected. Plus nothing could beat the adrenaline fuelled rush being pushed like this could give him.

He shifted his weight just in time to turn a guard's attack to his advantage and crudely flip them to the mat. The warmup was over.
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The plan for Erik was to go back to his penthouse, down as much aspirin and juice as he could and close his eyes for the rest of the day. But he didn't make it far from the gym before deciding he couldn't be dealing with the trip there in this damn artificial heat. So he found the nearby canteen or cafe or whatever this tower called it's eating places and quietly begged a waitress for the needed supplies while he opened the biggest window as far as he could.

Now he could close his eyes and just let the cool air wash over him as he practically stuck his head out the opening. ["Aw yeah, that's the stuff."] He sighed contentedly. ["Now someone make me an omelette!"]
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Gale got back to her room, having made amends with Jastor (the name wasn't going away) and still a little bit buzzed. You could tell cus she was getting giggly and bumping into things at waist height. That didn't matter when you had the room all to yourself though! Allie was still too cool to hang out with her it seemed, probably making a jet pack or something. So Gale ended up making herself a nest, as drunk people often do, and started rummaging through her things for something to provide her with fun.

That was when she found something that had gone long ignored tucked among one of her many scarves. A lovingly wrapped and cared for deck of tarot cards. "My babies!" She cooed.

Where had they been for so long? She hadn't done a reading in aaages! She'd always ended up being too busy getting jobs from the chief. And when she took them out in public it'd bring on an avalanche of jokes at her expense from the other maidens.

'Hahaha you can't tell the future, Gale. Being spiritual i-i-in any way is stupid, Gale. Other cultures are nothing to us, Gale. Half of us used to worship an old man with a guitar, we're totally in a position to judge, GALE!' On and on they'd go, being so stuck up their own asses that she just stopped trying. She'd even stopped calling people by the names she'd given them when she first joined.

Why? She shouldn't have been embarrassed, these were her beliefs, ways her people had held for generations. That didn't change the fact that Gale had distanced herself from it though. Just so they'd leave her alone. Just to please this lot? She should have listened to the others when they said people could be cruel out in the ash. Gale thought they'd just meant violent folks, that was easy to handle.

"Fuckin' Domers." She muttered to herself. "I've got a guitar, I could start my own cult if I wanted." She reached for Martin the guitar and started to strum out a few chords. "It'd be fuckin' rad too." And the giggling was back.

["Now someone make me an omelette!"]

["Too busy to fry your own eggs these day?"] Piper said, suddenly appearing behind Erik. ["This pampered life style really doesn't suit you."]

She crossed her arms over her chest and grinned subtly. "Lady Maribel is off to a late start but she should be ready on time," she explained, switching to the common tongue. "I figured it would be beneficial to talk things through beforehand... that is, if you're okay with going over your Lord's head."

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

Thank God for Edea.

Despite getting even more trashed than Elizabeth, the sultry soldier had saved them both from a very painful morning. The girl really knew how to nurse a hangover. Despite her efforts, the young noble still had a killer headache, however.

Elbow resting on the kitchen table, Liz payed with her short hair as she reviewed Frostfall's conditions. "Christ, do they think we're made of carbon?" she gasped, clearly frustrated. "I'm going to look like a fool in there. I am asking for an army and all I can give them in return is a flimsy 'IOU'."

"Just lie," Edea said before taking a long, cathartic drag from her cigarette. She was sitting on the floor against the wall, her knees pressed up against her chest. She wasn't feeling too hot. "Florian'll kick a few million under the rug if you just show him your tits, I bet." She chuckled.

Elizabeth sighed. "Not helping," she said. "Seriously, what am I supposed to do? It's one thing lying to my enemies, but my friends? I don't just need their help to take Boomhower, I need long term allies. If I can't deliver..."

"Stop whining. Please, it's giving me a migraine, " Edea replied, pressing the inside of her wrist against her temple. "J-just... just do what you always do. Act confident. Act like you have better cards than you do, but don't stretch the truth too far. You find that sweet-spot and it will all work out."

"And how do I do that?"

Edea shrugged. "I don't know, you're the politician," she told her.

"Gee, thanks."

Elizabeth glanced up at the wall-mounted clock and cringed. There wasn't much time left. The moment of truth was quickly approaching.

There will be a lot of those in the coming months.

The frazzled woman closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, they found Margaret's journal on the table nearby.

What would you do, sister?

Erik let out an undignified bellow as he jolted upright and damn near hit his head on the angled window at the surprise of Piper's sudden arrival. "Don't do that! Only I'm allowed to do that trick round here!" That trick that he picked up from her! It was nonsense anyway, Erik deserved a pampering. He wanted those finer things in life. Otherwise he'd just be busting his back and getting shit all for it. Who was he, his father?

What was Piper talking about anyway?

"I figured it would be beneficial to talk things through beforehand... that is, if you're okay with going over your Lord's head."

"Literally everything I do goes over someone's head." Erik said simply, his voice a low, hungover, rumble. He sat up straight as he turned in his seat to face her, just stressing that his head came up to her shoulder just in a sitting position.

Katya rounded the bend into the gymnasium just in time to see private Petrov get slammed into the mat by a vicious judo throw from Lord Bejic. Before anybody in the room detected her presence, she smiled.

"[THAT IS ENOUGH!]" she bellowed, her voice echoing around the hall. The silence that followed was thick with anticipation. "[You call that a left hook? I've been more threatened by the breeze!]"

She stepped up to the mat, taking a combat stance opposite Florian, her mischievous smile returning.

They were going to all regret persuading Katya to loosen up.

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

Amy couldn't tell how long she had been sleeping, before she stirred. Lazily, she squirmed a little and looked up to Axel, still fast asleep, peacefully. The urge to wake him up and make love to him again was tempting, but she couldn't disturb that face. Even the little bit of drooling somehow made it more endearing. As carefully as she could, she wriggled her way out of his arms and climbed off the bed. She walked over to the wardrobe (to be honest, it was really more of a locker) and dressed herself in one of Axel's shirts. Walking back to the bed, she bent down and kissed him lightly on the forehead,before heading to the door, straightening her hair over her shoulder as she tiptoed out of the room.

She needed some coffee...

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

Sandra had spent most of her time since talking to Bennie packing everything that she could. She still needed to tell everyone she was asking to come with her, but after Gale and Bennie she really wasn't looking forward to more heavy conversations. However, if she was going to go she couldn't put it off any longer, and so set off for the med bay.

["Okay so.... teams? Maybe we split into-"] Florian trailed off from there as the wolfguard each backed away and left the mat. Each one citing reasons like office politics and punching above their pay grade.

Well, he kind of saw that coming.

["Alright, I see how it is."] He sighed at his noble protectors. ["Well someone give the captain their pads, we don't want her breaking her hands on my face before the big day."]

For all the talk of face breaking though he sounded pretty upbeat. Maybe because Florian thought Katya was as curious to see how this would go down as he was. Shaking some sweat from his hair, Florian loosened himself up took on a fresh stance. Now he'd really see if he still had it.

["Well someone give the captain their pads, we don't want her breaking her hands on my face before the big day."]

["I would never embarrass my Lord in such a manner."] Katya rebuked with a smirk, as she flexed her arms and loosened up her neck. ["All of the bruising will be under the collar, you have my word."]

The Wolfguard laughed, a little uncertainly. Captain Ivanovich rarely made jokes, even when she was just sparring with the grunts. Then again, they'd all been on the receiving end of it at least once, and they knew she wasn't kidding...

["As my superior, the first move is yours."] she said, as she finished strapping on her pads, and adopted a combat stance, poised yet fluid.

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

Amy was on her way back from the cafeteria, cradling her hot mug of coffee, when the sounds of the guitar from Gale's room pricked up her ears. The playing was a little disjointed, but it had a soul that couldn't help to captivate her. Smiling, she knocked lightly on the door (first checking that Axel's shirt was indeed covering her appropriately) before poking her head around the door.

"Having a party?" she asked, taking in Gale's den.

["As my superior, the first move is yours."]

"Oh, what happened to ladies first? No I have to be starting all the fights myself and starting brawls before breakfast." Flroian jokingly grumbled as he advanced forward and sent some light, swift, punches Katya's way. Textbook things she could block in her sleep but that was what you did in a polite fight. Probe people's defenses and warm things up. It helped that he could find his range too. And yes, he'd switched to the common tongue.

"Don't think I don't see what you're doing, making me throw the first punch and then everyone gets to sue me for smacking my staff around." Oh he shouldn't have used that word. That'd take them right back to the sexual harassment seminar they'd all been made to attend. And Florian's excruciating turn at public role play exercises.

"You're looking fine, Captain Ivanovich. Damn fine." Then he'd waved his hand in the general direction of Katya's ass and yelled "Smack!" causing her to tell him that this was sexual harassment and that she didn't have to stand for it. And everybody LOVED it. Erik and Irena were BIG fans!

The fight got silently awkward for a second after that. Maybe no one noticed. Either way they got back into the swing of things and two quickly formed a rhythm as they traded blows back and fourth.

"Did you ever get to spar like this when you joined up with the Boykov's? I can't imagine many of them wanting to go ten rounds with a young girl." Katya had given him all her details when she asked to join up of course and Irena had hunted down all her personal files over the course of her clearing process. The fact that she'd graduated basic military training at such a young age was common knowledge but for all he's heard of them Florian just couldn't see the Boykov military taking a chance on someone of her background or gender.

Then again he knew, his own education of them was pretty one sided. What things had they told her about the Bejic family during her education he wondered.
========================================================================================
"Having a party?"

"Mash session, more like!" Gale called out, her eyes still closed as she got well and truly in the zone. "Been trying to remember how this one went for days." Wait, who was she talking to? Oh it was Amy's head.

"Hey, Stranger. What are you doin' round here?"

"I can't imagine many of them wanting to go ten rounds with a young girl."

"My drill Sergeant picked on me during hand-to-hand combat exercise. It was a... 'hazing', I think." Katya replied, in her thickly accented English "He wanted to prove woman no match for man in fair fight."

Parrying two quick jabs from Florian, Katya waited for the hook, quickly stepping inside the brief opening in Florian's defence and tagging him just below the ribs, before dancing away again just as quickly. She grinned.

"I made him call me 'Momma' and ask me to rub it better before I let him out of my hold. It might have got me dismissed, if he hadn't been too embarrassed to admit what happened."

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

"Hey, Stranger. What are you doin' round here?"

"Nothing much." Amy replied, stepping inside the room "Just looking for some company. Axel's... gonna be out of it for a little while."

Smiling a cheeky little smile, Amy knelt down on a cushion opposite Gale, sitting back on her heels with her coffee cradled in her lap.

"I see you're not entertaining." she said "Surely with all the young boys on this ship somebody's caught your eye?"

"It might have got me dismissed, if he hadn't been too embarrassed to admit what happened."

"Why Captain, I'd never have pegged you for such deviant behavior." Florian smirked, even while wincing through the love taps Katya had given him. That's what he got for playing things patient. Well at least he got to show off how the new job had improved his foreign vocabulary.

Florian's attempts at banter died down for a little as the two of them danced around each other on the mat. Well, more like Katya pushed him around it. Hitting and chipping away at his defenses while Florian in turn offered up little in the way of an actual attack, just quick jabs and kicks, fleeting things that his captain could easily deflect or dodge that lacked any real bite or physicality. The spectating wolfguard were always in his peripheral vision. 'Have to play to the crowd today.'

"Tell me more about it." Florian said, trying to sound casual as his breathing got rougher. "The spec ops experience, military life." He backed up out of her range in time to avoid another blow to the chest. "Not the stuff in your files I know all that." He added, cutting off the obvious excuse. "I want to hear it from you, Captain. Come on!"

He was acting with a little mischief now, despite his attempts to rein it in. 'Come on, I like to hear people talk good about themselves.'
=============================================================================================================================
"Mmmmmhhmmm" Gale hummed at Amy's terribly unsubtle way of mentioning how she had had sex recently. Of course no one would have guessed by the way she was dressed or by the fact that it was literally all those two EVER did.

"Surely with all the young boys on this ship somebody's caught your eye?"

"Too married to the work, aren't I?" Gale said absentmindedly, not looking up from her guitar. She was trying to remember a certain song from back home. It was a simple little ditty but it'd been ages since she'd last played it and the number had slipped her mind. "No that's not it..." She muttered under her breath as she hit another dead end.

'This is gunna bug me all night.'

"I want to hear it from you, Captain. Come on!"

"Honestly..." Katya replied, not breaking her rhythm "Anything can become routine, even black-ops. Once you've dug a few shallow, unmarked graves, the memories all start to look alike. I have no stories of great fights, giving a target the chance to fight back was never the idea."

She paused, backing out of Florian's reach, looking a little awkward.

"That was... morbid. I am sorry." She said "In my files... were there any names? Any... friends of yours?"

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

Amy frowned a little, away from Gale's gaze. For someone who had grown up in such a social environment, Gale could be quite difficult to talk to. There was nothing wrong with a bit of gossip between girls, was there? She was just trying to be friendly...

Sipping her coffee, Amy put it out of her mind.

"No that's not it..."

"Mind if I try?" Amy said quietly "We saw travellers sometimes, in the bordello I worked in before I went into business for myself. When I was listening outside before, I thought I recognised the tune from somewhere, and now I think I remember."

'I was thinking more like stories from boot camp but okay...' Florian looked at her askance. Trying to ruin a perfectly nice chat and spar with sadness and regret, didn't she know that was his thing?

"I didn't really have friends back then, I don't think. Not how a other people have them, probably, I never got the chance to compare with child warriors my own age." He had to give Katya a little smirk at that. A look to silently say 'Look at us, eh?'

Truthfully, dwelling on her hit list in detail would have opened a can of worms that Florian couldn't afford to deal with right now. They had worked so hard just to get the bandits and loyalists to work together despite the collective baggage of an entire city. Plenty of them had given Florian a second chance despite his weighty list of deeds, who was he to deny someone the same chance? At least when they were being genuine, they'd dealt with their fair share of folk trying to exploit the new peace.

It was in that same spirit that he had to nip this melancholy in the bud. "I was too busy being 'The Red Wolf' and stuff." And with that it was like someone had pulled the trigger as Florian darted forward with the speed that'd set him apart from the rest of the Hussars and went on the offensive with almost feral intensity. Just a little though, until he suddenly pressed on into Katya's personal space, pushing her away from their audience and whispering in her ear. ["Not in front of the children, Dear."]

Hoping he'd done a good enough job to snap Katya out of any possible slump he went on, actually making the captain work for it this time. He had to smile a little. He'd forgotten the strange ways you could communicate like this, the way you could get a real sense of someone in a fight, how all their masks and barriers could disappear in an instant. He wondered what this was telling Katay in these moments. If it was anything like the nonsense in Florian's head it went along the lines of: 'Yeah I was trained to hunt people like you right back. Ah? Ah? Ah- okay.'

But then his eyes fell on the Wolfguard. They were seriously getting into the unexpected show. So now it was time for Florian to go back to work and do devious lord stuff because his fun had to end some time. He telegraphed his next attack, throwing a terrible hook at Katya's head. Florian knew he's only have a second before she punished him for such sloppiness, still it felt like longer. 'Aw this is going to suck.'
=============================================================================================
Gale looked up from her instrument skeptically. 'Yeah please, educate me in the songs of my people.' She still gave her the guitar though, even if it felt sinful to watch those manicured, moisturised, uncallused hands plucking at her baby. She watched as Amy worked away, still holding herself like a damn princess despite all the scruff. She was so out of place on this ship... so how did she manage to walk around like she owned the place.

"Why are you here?" Gale asked bluntly.

Katya had to keep her wits about her dodging and parrying Florian's attacks. If she were back on a mission, she could have exploited at least four brief weaknesses in his attack to finish him right now. Still, he was good, and the renewed intensity of the fight helped put the awkwardness out of her mind.

She had so much time to evade the hook, that Florian could see the expression on her face that read 'Really?'. Intentional or not, there was no way she could pass that one up...

About two seconds later, Florian was flat on the mat, face down. Katya stood with the bulk of her weight pressing down on his left shoulder blade, immobilizing his arm. She held the other up, twisted behind his back, the pressure point at his wrist held between her thumb and forefinger.

"[If you have duties, get back to them!]" Katya barked at the spectators "[The rest of you, pick a partner and start practising.]"

"Now, what do you say to Momma?" Katya asked wickedly, once they were no longer being watched.

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

Amy took the guitar from Gale, setting her coffee down beside her, and played a brief practice scale.

"Sorry." she said, grimacing at a bum note "I'm a little rusty. Haven't done this in a while..."

A little tentatively, she struck up the same tune Gale had been playing. The memories seemed to flow in time with the music itself. She was never quite sure of the next note, until the moment that she hit it and new she got it right. Amy smiled. Gale's guitar was a beautiful instrument. A short way in, she began to sing along. There were no lyrics, none that she new anyway, just a light, sweet harmony of something sad but hopeful.

"Why are you here?"

Amy stopped, a little taken aback. She mat Gale's gaze uncomfortably.

"I just heard you playing and I thought..." She started "As I understand it, this is a song supposed to be played among family."

"Now, what do you say to Momma?"

"That that is sexual harassment and I don't have to stand for it." Florian grunted through a face full of padding.

Eventually she let him back up and Florian was able to stretch some of the feeling back into his arms. The onlookers, it seemed, had been slow to go about moving on as Florian caught more than a few glances waiting to see what might happen next. Florian pulled off his head gear and gave them all the smiling shrug of a guy who was just happy to get some hits in.

The wolfguard cheered and clapped, shaking hands and patting Florian on the shoulder as he made his way through them, admiring how rough the pros had it. They'd be talking about this in the barracks later. About how the boss had stepped up to take the same punishment they did and how their captain wouldn't even hold back in the face of a lord. A nice little bit of public relations work for the morning if he did say so himself.

["Well that was a heck of a way to start the day."] He mused to Katya once the two of them were clear of the crowd. ["Now I better wash this stink off before I meet with the tigress."]
=========================

That was it. Once she heard it Gale knew, remembered it all perfectly as each part fell back into place. She couldn't believe she'd forgotten it!

How could she do that?

How did this domer know it when she'd lost it?!

"As I understand it, this is a song supposed to be played among family."

It was a little more complicated than that but whatever. "Yeah it is. Since when were we family?" She asked incredulously. "This is literally the closest thing to a conversation we've ever had. What, were Sandra and the chief busy?"

["Now I better wash this stink off before I meet with the tigress."]

"[Tigress?]" Katya answered sceptically "[What is it that intimidates you the most, the doe-eyes or the skinny legs?]"

It would seem she hadn't worked all the sass out just yet.

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

"What, were Sandra and the chief busy?"

It seemed socialising wasn't going to be as easy as Amy had hoped.

"Hey, there's no need to-" she retorted, before biting her lip. "It hasn't been easy for any of us you know? Most of us aren't even here by choice, not really. Things have just turned out this way, and we're taking it a day at a time. I'm sorry if I haven't done enough to make you feel welcome, but well... this is me trying."

The bitterness that she's swallowed crept back as she talked.

"Maybe you're right." she said, acidly "After all, what would I know about what a family's supposed to be? Some of us didn't get the luxury of starting young."

"[What is it that intimidates you the most, the doe-eyes or the skinny legs?]"

"[Never underestimate doe-eyes. They'll mess you up!]" Florian called out as he made his way to the shower. After this morning the heavy dose of politics he was due just might be relaxing.

============================================================================
"After all, what would I know about what a family's supposed to be? Some of us didn't get the luxury of starting young."

Gale almost spluttered out some of her beer as she snickered at Amy's glare. "Are you serious? Wow! That was like zero to sixty in no seconds flat." She laughed. "Fuck girl, take a chill pill. Is this where Sandra gets it or are you both just like this?"

She leaned back and carried on taking in Amy's death glare. Actually she couldn't lean back, Gale moved forward and gently reclaimed her little guitar. No way would she trust her baby with the walking hair trigger here. "-Yeah I've talked to her, heard her story and I know it was rough and I'm sure yours was too" Gale offered some open hands to placate the little one. "Sun knows domer prossies don't get it light. But guess what, no one got that luxury young around here. They've had me babysit every under eighteen on this ship over the past six months and all of them Austin's brood. Trust me, you don't want to hear how he got his hands on some of them. I've got caught up in enough of the 'who's got a better sob story' competitions around here that I've lost count."

The older maidens seemed to talk about her babysitting (and yes they sometimes called it that) like it was something Gale should have been proud of. Well she didn't feel that way. Not wanting to do that kind of thing anymore was half the reason she left home.

Now it was back to chugging beer. "Cus damn if you people don't try and make a sport of it. Cheapens all that pain. So don't think that'll work on me, Miss Temper." She was in full on chiding mode now. Gale was in full on chiding mode now, not getting angry or raising her voice, just looking Amy up and down and frankly being a little amused by the whole thing. How someone who got so much power on this ship could be such a baby was beyond her. 'Good thing I'm leaving soon I guess.'

"My point if you bothered to hear it was that you can't just waltz in someone's room and claim you're besties, let alone family. You can hardly blame me for being edgy when you've never been seen outside the clique or off Axel's arm. Hell most days it looks like you two can't breath without stealing air out each other's lungs."

She let that sink in for a moment and took another sip from her can. This wasn't six months ago and Gale wouldn't have another rowdy blonde burst into the place she slept to try and claim dominance.

"Now we can put the claws away and talk like two people and start over. Or we can talk as two victims and not bother, your choice."

"Now we can put the claws away and talk like two people and start over. Or we can talk as two victims and not bother, your choice."

"You know, for someone who's got this whole nomad, free-spirit thing going on, you sure don't waste time judging people." Amy replied. She didn't snap, but her eyes and voice were ice cold. "You think I was boasting just now? You think I want to hear what you have to say about the things I've done? I'll make you a deal: If I don't get to assume that we're buddies, then you don't get to assume that you have me or Sandra 'figured out'. You don't know anything..."

A part of Amy was definitely wishing she'd never got out of bed. Another part of her was sincerely grateful for the chance to vent. For six months she'd been trying, so damn hard, to make up for all the mistakes she'd made. To win Bennie's trust, Lilith's trust, Whiskey's trust, to help them all try and piece something together here, like when she'd first brought her sister's together. Hardest of all though, was to prove to herself that she was worth trusting, worth following, worth loving; and so she had done everything that was asked of her, never once questioning, all the while swallowing the dread of how much in the world still seemed to be spinning out of control, despite her best efforts. Now Gale wanted to sit there, behind all her quirky, country wisdom, and make out like she was some kind of pampered princess? Fine. Amy could sling some mud too.

"If I've been a little distant from 'The Kids', as if half of them aren't older than me, then maybe it's because I've been a little too busy on the front line of every plan Bennie's made to put food on their plates, something I've been doing despite the fact that most of them stood and watched while Austin blew my friend's brains out! You wanna hear a confession Gale? If it would bring Georgia back, if it would bring Claire or The Gentleman back, then I'd put them all out of their misery, one by one. They were my family, and if there's one thing I have figured out about family, it's that you look after each-other.

I'm trying to let that go. I'm trying to make a new family here, with all of you. That's why I came in here, because I thought you were lonely, and I wanted to help. If you wanna act like you're above it, then fine, I'm sorry I disturbed you; but while you're here, getting drunk on your own while you try to cling on to memories of home that you don't even recognise anymore, then you don't get to sit there with that smug smile and act like you're the one who's got me figured out!"

Option two it was, Gale sighed and squinted her eyes shut as Amy went on her self indulgent rant. Screw it. They may as well do this. The whole crew talked about her like this when she wasn't around, someone may as well have the courtesy to say it to her face. Gale let her finish up and was quiet for a moment, setting her drink aside and exhaling. She just had to 'win' all the time, this one.

"And you've got me figured out?" She said calmly. Almost sleepily. "You've got everyone figured out without of even bothering to look them in the eye or learn their names?"

Good thing Gale was cashing in soon, cus if this went wrong she was about to get on the bad side of the captain's favorite.

"Is it being above it all to feel uncomfortable when someone you've never spoken to comes into your room in the night and decides you're family? I was in a poor mood earlier, I'll admit and apologise. But if you did that in half the rooms on this ship the ex-cultists would kick your ass raw. How would you feel if they walked in and told you that you were their sister now?

Then when you reacted in a way they didn't like they bit your head off and said you 'wouldn't even recognise your home that you cling onto. What does that even mean. Sounds like a threat to most ears. Then they say how they're pain is so much greater than yours, as if that can be measured. They say they'd put you and everyone you knew 'out of their misery' to get what back the people they'd rather be here. Cus they'd act how they wanted. Now being told that would make someone feel like family." Gale went on, making sure to use the same words Amy had just given her.

"Or if this is you saying it to them, then it reminds them of the stories of how this girl burned the last person who crossed her alive and spread that word out to the world. Maybe they even saw the smoke and pyre themselves."

Gale was strumming out a few chords by this point. It helped her to keep her hands busy when things were tense.

"I wasn't judging you, Amy. I wasn't trying to attack you or break you down. I was being pissy, as people are want to do after a day of getting shot at and dragging a toddler after them. But if this is how we end the night then I'd give the advice that its hard to open up to someone who offers friendship with their first breath and death with their second. I mean are you like this if Axel or Sandra disagree with you, or do they know not to go off script? You want to try and form a bond worthy of being called family then stop trying to 'beat' everyone at it. Cus people can feel that. Most see masks clearer than you think."

Nooow she found the rhythm of that old song back. This was it. "Now, please listen or leave." Gale asked politely, sounding serene as her song. "I'm trying to jam." She gave a little yawn and hoped she wouldn't wake up in a gasoline bath.
==================================================================

MEANWHILE IN FROSTFALL

Now this was the stuff. Florian let the hot water pour over his back and fade out the aches and pains of his manic morning, turning and pacing as he enjoyed the space in his shower along with the fancy high water pressure. He'd taken the elevator back to his own rooms and was using his private bathroom. Because after experiencing this kind of luxury no way was he going back to using public places. He had seen the top of the mountain and was determined to enjoy the fun parts of this job between all the life and death decisions.

It was when he stepped out and the steam had cleared from the mirror that he had a moment to think on the sight in front of him. The scars had faded as much as they were ever going to. He'd always have that grid on his back but that didn't bother Florian as much as it once did. It still angered him if he dwelt on it, threatening to boil his blood in anger. But it was exhausting to keep thinking that way for long and Florian rarely had time for it. He didn't really think of himself that much these days, he had to put others first. Though not in the self hating, destructive, way he had under the priesthood. He just had something better to think on. He could get up and look out over that city like it was his baby.

Really he did. Literally he was told. As one morning he'd been looking out over it with a mug of coffee in hand, lost in thought, only to have Lilith sneak up behind him and whisper in his ear. "Mah baaaybeh." Along with things like. "I must go, Frostfall needs me, I am the night."

It really helped him get over the blind panic of hearing her just say about HER BABY as Flroian's mind had a quick breakdown. 'Oh shit, how? We used protection!'

He'd be seeing her again soon. He'd be seeing a lot more of her. That thought was enough to get him grinning like an idiot. He'd have to make more space for her stuff, maybe she'd want a moving truck to take that weird couch of hers. It could fit in the penthouse somewhere. Maybe they should move to a bigger one, or get an actual house? This whole thing was raising so many questions and he loved it. Florian would ponder on what they'd do as they lived together. What Lilith would do in Frostfall. She'd probably want some fresh language lessons. Maybe she'd use it as a chance to go to school? They were offering plenty of education incentives, he could hook her up with that. Hmmm, but then Erik would want to tutor her and make that hell. Maybe she'd go for a job instead. What would Lilith put on a resume? Good thing half the city workforce were ex-bandits, she'd fit right in.

'This is so awesome!' They were doing it like the normal people did!

Florian was half way through general grooming stuff right now. He wondered if Lilith would like the beard. He'd be travelling down to the boiling south soon, maybe it was time to ditch it and save his face the extra heat. No, not yet, then he'd be admitting defeat to Erik. He'd just give it a trim. Though while he was on that subject there were other areas that could do with a trim... ones that would be feeling the heat.

Lilith always sung its praises, though Florian had never tried it. She did drop hints about liking it if he did...

'What the hey, it's a time of change.' What a happy time indeed.

"I'm trying to jam."

So many different retorts and insults flew about in Amy's head that she couldn't string them together in a coherent order. It had been a long time since anyone had ever spoken to her like that. In fact, she didn't think anyone had ever spoken to her like that. She'd been called plenty of names; belittled, debased, gossiped about, but she couldn't remember anyone ever holding up a mirror in the way Gale had just done.

'Pixie did once, and you screamed in her face for it.'

Amy just sat there for a while, defeated. It wasn't until Gale was finished playing that she spoke again.

"About a month ago Axel and I had this big fight..." she began, her voice hollow. "It wasn't even about anything in particular, but I scared him, so much that he went and slept on Lilith's floor for four days until I'd calmed down. He still doesn't know why I got so angry..."

She looked up at Gale. She wasn't crying. Her eyes were strangely blank.

"It was because I'd broken a damn plate. I was cleaning up after dinner and it slipped through my fingers, and seeing the broken pieces on the floor made me feel... cold, all over. I used to get punished when I broke things; and I know in my head that Axel would never, ever hurt me but I couldn't make it stop so I lashed out. That's what I do. When I make mistakes, I feel vulnerable, and that feels awful, and the only way I've ever figured out how to make myself feel better is to make someone else feel worse.

I'm not saying this so you'll feel sorry for me. I'm not telling you this to win. Really, I'm not. I'm not trying to prove to you that I'm not perfect either. Clearly you weren't so stupid as to believe that to begin with. I'm telling you because... because I'm asking you for help. I have real love, and real friends, for the first time in my life, but I still feel like all I know how to do is pretend. I feel like I have to do better, to act happier, than everyone around me, and I have to try and tear down anyone who threatens that, because if I'm not always selling it, then I'm afraid I'll end up back where I started.

I need... I want to do it right this time, but clearly it's not working. You don't have to like me. You don't have to think anything at all about me. Just help me... please."

"Unless you got somethin' you need to tell me... well then, spit it the fuck out! I don' like sittin' around with my limp dick warmin' my palm."

Trying not to jam his thumbs into Caputo's eye sockets, Bryan sighed. "Sure thing, boss. I'll get right on it. But hey, I hear they make a pill fer that."

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

"He's all yours."

"Damn right he is," Whiskey said, getting to her feet. When Sandra was gone, Whiskey got to her feet and sauntered over to Bennie. "Just you and me now, honey."

"You with me?"

Jun was busy brushing himself down but he caught the gist of Tsubaki's spiel well enough. He couldn't help but think of petty little barbed retorts to the stream of hypocrital patronising bullshit coming out of that bitch's mouth. Woman was insane, back and forth like a goddamn yo-yo. Or perhaps she just didn't know what to do and had resorted to a stock mortal-boosting speech? Or a break in her latest facade? Saburo had switched gears even since that skirmish months ago. Probably thought the scar made a grizzled hardass. Nope. But at least the tryhard hardass routine was more bearable than the fucking friendly teamwork coach one. It was tempting, oh so tempting, to repeat the same mistake; rip that lying tongue right outta her mouth. But he would look like a right dumbass. Jun didn't grace the question with a verbal responsse, simply folded his arms and gave a weak nod.

"Mmmmm." A hooded Lilith inhaled deeply, resting against the inside of the door frame to Gale's room. "Smells like drama." The woman smirked as she looked down at the two younger girls, taking a small sip from her hot mug of tea. Lilith had eavesdropped on most of the argument between Amy and Gale.

"Can't be dealing with your overly emotional shit right now, ladies, either make up or fight it out, I don't care what you do, but any more of this prissy back and forth 'woe is me' bollocks and I'll sort you out myself." Lilith narrowed her eyes playfully.

The impact of the statement was slightly dampened by the long sleeves hanging loosely over her hands.

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

"Right! Your turn Harel! Shall we hear the dashing tale of how you rescued the princess, or something more exciting?"

Asad grunted, he wasn't really one for telling stories, but he was drunk and tired. "Have you ever heard of a robotic swordsman?" He started, a tired smiled curled his lips as he began the tale of how he and Elizabeth has escaped Feroxi.

Well it seemed she'd have no more interruptions. Lovely, gale could just close her eyes and play...

That was the stuff. That was home right there. It was always kind of tricky for Gale to really enjoy the music she played. It would always sound different to the one doing the playing. Her mind was never fully on listening as it focused on keeping her hands working properly to keep in time. Posture could be a big thing too but she didn't have to worry about that with this little guitar. The one doing the playing could never really relax and let it just wash over them, sure they could see a song from a different angle, get their own experience out of it... but something would always be missing from it for them that only the idle listener could get.

Not with this nameless number though. This one had followed Gale around all her life. It was home, warmth and even in those odd moments when the notes would jumble together in an unorganised mess could give her a sense of calm. It didn't matter to Gale how she played it, to her how she played it. It would always sound as beautiful as the first time.

'Sorry I forgot you...' She'd been letting little bits of home slip away over her time on the road, not just since she'd joined the maidens. That would have to change. Gale played on for just a little, the song actually had no set end, it would go as long as the player wished and then quietly sleep till they called it up again. She only needed to hear it a little tonight. It had done its job beautifully.

"About a month ago Axel and I had this big fight..."

'Oh shit, she's still here!' Gale's eyes flew open and she almost jumped out of her skin. She thought Amy had left in a huff! As it turned out Amy was just getting started again. Spirits below can she not go on.' At least it felt a bit less like bullshit this time, if a little whiny, as was the way around here. Still, Gale listened to the end.

"Smells like drama."

'There's another one!' Gale was just getting all the blondes tonight. Why was everyone coming into her room and demanding attention tonight, had she left a sign up? Whatever she'd have to practical wise woman the shit out of these two.

"Okay... so to your thing." She looked at Amy. "I would try, like, taking a breath and counting to ten next time you wanna wreck folks. Then maybe stuff doesn't seem so bad. And you, Princess." It was Lilith's turn now. "There better be booze or cards up one of those sleeves." Because you know that Gale and Lil had to have card nights where very little playing got done and lots of gossiping was had.

And that was the extent of her life advice. What did they want from her? She was tired!

"uh, hey Maria. It's me. You there?"

Maria rushed out of the bed as soon as his voice crackled out of the radio. The first call in months... Well, Ruffles had racked up a lot of bad boyfriend points and then some.

"It seems my radio's picking up ghostly broadcasts, and now my boyfriend is among their ranks." Maria snarkily thought aloud, "Shame, he could really use a good wallop."

"Well hey, someone beat you to it by like two months," Ruffles replied, rubbing the spot on his head where the guy in the spec ops goggles had hit him. "And to be fair, there's a really good reason I haven't been calling!"

Terratina: Maria sighed, "Let's hear it."

"Well..." Ruffles began, as he went about fishing his rolling supplies from his jacket pocket. "I've kinda been held prisoner for the past couple months."

"WHAT?" The question escaped her mouth before her mind kicked in. Of course trouble was no stranger to a Maiden but it was supposed to be a simple mechanic job. However Payton was involved so...

"Hey, hey, don't worry, I'm okay now," Ruffles said quickly. "Buncha spec ops guys stormed the prison ship and broke us out. It was really badass."

"Just... how did you get yourself clapped in irons?" Maria replied, scratching her head.

As Ruffles rolled, he told her how he'd stumbled across Eddie being held prisoner, their unsuccessful escape attempt and then their more successful escape from aboard the prison ship.

"So yeah, Elizabeth's building Yuteni back up. It uh... kinda seems like she needs all the help she can get."

"All grown up now is she?" Maria mused, thinking back to their first meeting.

"Well I don't really know," Ruffles said, taking a toke. "I haven't had a chance to see her yet."

"Vale." Maria nodded, "Well, on my end, Bennie's just been havin' us do heist all the time. Been busy."

As Maria spoke, Ruffles puffed on his joint and looked at the spherical casing he'd bought. He'd need it in two halves for what he intended, which meant he'd have to remove the clasp and hinge, then forge out the flaws.

"Well I hope I haven't missed anything good," he said, dropping the casing back in the bag.

"So how's Allie getting on?"

"Fine." Maria stretched, "Though Bennie had a go at her recently. He wasn't a fan of the laser disco bot thingy she unleashed in a middle of a gunfight."

"Oh, she's in her lasers phase, huh?" Ruffles said. "Don't let her near any mirrors and she should be fine."

"Mhm." Was the only thing Maria had to say to that. She jumped back her bed, "I've missed you a lot, y'know."

"Yeah..." Ruffles said, deflating a little. "I've missed you too. Thing is, I... y'know... I kinda think Liz needs all the help she can get right now. I don't think I can leave yet."

"Fiiiiiine. Long as you gimme as much attention as Tigerman's gettin' - call regularly if ya can." Maria said as she leant forward.

"I think I can manage that," Ruffles said, grinning. "Oh, and by the way, I totally have an afro now."

Maria raised an eyebrow, "How big?"

Ruffles shrugged. "It could be bigger."

"Helpful." Maria replied, "Just make sure small animals are kept out of it."

"You sure?" he asked, smiling even wider. "I've always wanted a pet."

"Thought you had one: Allie." Maria grinned.

"She's my apprentice, there's a difference!" Ruffles said defensively. "For starters, she feeds and walks herself."

"Well tell her to sort those curls out and perhaps speak a little clearer!" She said, "She's quite feral!"

From there the conservation cascaded onwards until they talked their throats dry. Maria gave out a laugh as she said goodbye and turned off the radio, thinking of an afroed Ruffles with little canaries in his hair.

"I would try, like, taking a breath and counting to ten next time you wanna wreck folks. Then maybe stuff doesn't seem so bad."

Amy sighed and looked down at her knees.

'They keep making it sound so easy.'

"There better be booze or cards up one of those sleeves."

Amy shook the depressing cobwebs out of her head and turned to Lilith, smiling.

"Yeah, come on." She said "You had a good day at the tables, somebody has to break your winning streak."

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

Harry and the others listened intently to Asad's story. At first, they looked sceptical, before the story passed a level of lunacy that none of them could see Asad being able to make up.

"That is the most fucking metal thing I have ever heard. Pun fully intended." Bigsy said with a low whistle, after Asad had finished.

"Kinda wished I heard this story before I signed up..." Croft added grimly "'Hey, so the bad guys have a cyborg ninja assassin, but at least we have dental!'"

"Look at it this way..." Harry replied "So far Masawhodawhat seems to have done a lot more damage to his own side than any other so far. If I was His Lordship I'd be regretting my investment somewhat."

"If I was His Lordship I'd be regretting my investment somewhat."

Asad gulped down his latest drink and slammed the glass on the bar, coughing as the whiskey burned his already ragged throat. "And that's the story of how I betrayed all my friends, my colleagues, my boss, and..." He smiled sadly, blinking drunkenly. "Well." A short laugh escaped his nostrils as he seemed to deflate, holding out his hands as if conceding.

"The things we do in order to sleep better at night."

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

"You had a good day at the tables, somebody has to break your winning streak."

Lilith snorted as she held back a laugh. "Y'all bitches can't even handle me right now, we didn't even need to rob that place, a few more hours doing my thing and we would have walked out with all the carbon fair and square." She struck a heroic pose, raising her pinky finger as she took a refined sip from her mug of tea.

"Just you and me now, honey."

Bennie flashed a weary grin. In a perfect world he would have asked her, 'business or personal' and then she'd have gotten down on her knees and answered his question. Unfortunately, despite what the big man wanted, there were pressing matters to attend to.

That didn't mean he couldn't enjoy the conversation, however.

Meeting her halfway across the bridge, Bennie brushed a stray hair out of Whiskey's eyes and kissed her on the lips. "Hey, baby," he replied in a cool, deep tone.

Though the flirting started shortly after Pixie left the Maiden, the new Captain and his first mate weren't an official item until two months after their first job together. Sprout was hesitant at first, but had warmed up to the idea overtime. As for Millie, she was on-board from the get-go. She was a smart girl of course, but Bennie figured she just wasn't old enough to fully understand the situation.

Whatever void Eddie was meant to fill in her life was on Bennie now.

No pressure.

"Bills are being counted as we speak," he told Whiskey. "Once we've got the total I'll call our contact in Paradiso and finalize the exchange. Hopefully the kids don't get too rowdy tonight. Still got a lot of work to do."

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

"Literally everything I do goes over someone's head."

Piper looked him up and down, arms crossed. He clearly wasn't in the mood for this.

Too bad.

"You and I both know how this'll end," she told Erik. "No matter what demands your boy makes, both of you will be coming back to Yuteni with us tonight. We all have too much to lose if this deal doesn't work and you know it. So just promise me you'll steer him towards a realistic deal, okay?" She clenched her jaw. "Neither of us are politicians. We don't bicker on-and-on like they do. We reach consensus. We plot a course and we commit to it. So let's get this done."

She held her hand out for him. "Will you go to war with me, Ablev?"

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

"Sure thing, boss. I'll get right on it. But hey, I hear they make a pill fer that."

Caputo's face flushed bright red. "What'd you say you fuckin' smart guy? Eh?" he barked, making ready to strike the Irishman. Before the scene could escalate, the door to the warehouse flew open. It was the rest of Samsara squad, with Tsubaki front-and-center.

They looked like hell... in more ways than one.

"Fuckin' finally!" Caputo exclaimed, turning towards the Colonel. He'd apparently forgotten all about Bryan's trespass. "The cops give you any trouble?"

"No," Tsubaki answered briefly.

Looking at the others, Caputo cocked an eyebrow. "Somebody die?"

Tsubaki grunted, slightly amused, and brushed by the mobster. "Got any drinks around here?" she asked, shedding her extra layers as she approached the cooler in the back of the warehouse.

"Yeah, jus' don' go drinkin' any of my shit," he warned. Looking to the others, he scratched his mustache and frowned. "Don't relax too much. We're expectin' Morello's son tonight. Remember that."

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

Amy had been gone long enough for her spot on the bed to go cold.

It was okay though. Solitude was a rare commodity on the Maiden, after all.

Sprout lay in bed, wide awake, gazing at the stars through the port window. It was times like this that he really missed her.

She used to walk the halls of the Maiden late at night, as if she were looking for something she could never hope to find. And when she gave up she would just... sit down and enjoy the view. Lose herself in the vastness above. He would follow her and watch her.

Back then, he didn't like being alone.

"Who were they?" he whispered, half to himself and half to her ghost. "Were they good people? Why did they die?" Sitting up, he reached over and opened the bedside nightstand. Inside, he found a faded photo Pixie. The picture was old. She was so young. So full of life. "Is there a chance... could they still be..."

He closed his eyes. "No," he choked. "I'm sorry, I jus'... I know that--no one can replace you. No one ever will."

He opened his eyes again, brushing the tears away before they could fall upon the photo.

She was so young.

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