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

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Erik didn't bother trying to stop his eyes from rolling, as if he ever would. Apparently no one was ever too old for this shtick. Honestly after all the times they'd worked together he would have thought Piper would have stopped bothering with this act, at least with him.

'You still give others too little credit it seems.' Maybe finally getting her own Florian was making her broodier than she'd admit, Erik knew how these things were. He also knew she was right.

"Will you go to war with me, Ablev?"

"Shit... I was going to do that anyway." He grumbled, wrapping her hand in his own, still a little hungover.

"What'd you say you fuckin' smart guy? Eh?" Caputo snarled, going bright red.

Caputo started moving to hit him, arm drawing back and everything. Though Bryan was stood stock still, he could feel the gears of his internal mechanism turning. Caputo was going to take a swing and Bryan would, in turn, wreck his shit on autopilot if he didn't check the motion. 'Aw fuck, I've fucked it, fuck!'

Then, suddenly, the warehouse door opened, distracting Caputo. The mob boss turned to see the rest of Samsara striding in. His arm fell to his side as though he'd forgotten about his own anger.

While Tsubaki and Caputo exchanged a few terse remarks, Bryan thought back to Caputo's reaction to his comment moments earlier and broke out in a grin. Catching Tsubaki's eye as she passed Caputo by, Bryan's smile of amusement widened and he had to fight the urge to start laughing.

Brushing a hand down his face and composing himself, Bryan turned and followed after Tsubaki. They had their role to play, after all, even if it was starting to make him feel a bit sick.

Matching her stride, he looked at her sidelong. "Hey honey, I was worried about ya. You okay?" The concern was real, but he played it up lovey, even slipping an arm around her waist.

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"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."

"Yeah," Whiskey said, wrapping her arms around the small of Bennie's back. "Gotta keep ourselves busy, right?"

Being as tall as she was, it wasn't often that Whiskey had to look up at anyone. Bennie was an exception to that rule, and so she looked up at him now. Admittedly the view was mostly jawline, embraced as they were, but she did it anyway.

"Maybe you oughta ease up on 'em a bit," she said. "They're only kids."

"Hey honey, I was worried about ya. You okay?"

Tsubaki didn't bother responding until she had a beer in her hand. "Yeah, I'm fine," she replied curtly. The Colonel popped open her drink before meeting Bryan's gaze. "How's the package?"

She'd keep their discussion focused on business. He didn't need to know about Jun's little outburst... at least not right now.

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"They're only kids."

Bennie frowned. "They gave up being kids when they signed on to this gig," he explained. "Their lives are in my hands. We've been lucky so far, but we have lost a few. I barely knew them, but it still hurt like hell. Hurt even worse for the rest of the crew, I'm sure."

The big man let out a deep sigh, one he'd clearly held in for awhile now. "Are we doing the right thing?" he asked Whiskey bluntly. "Back in Yuteni, we took those kids in because they had nowhere else to turn and we needed the bodies. We had no money, so we couldn't hire new hands. We had to rely on a handful of professionals to teach a bunch of kids how to kill and steal for a living. We've got money now. If this deal in Paradiso goes down without a hitch, we'll be practically swimming in it.

"I've been thinking for awhile... maybe we should find the younger ones a home. A real home. We could give them or their caretakers money to get by and we could use the rest to fill our ranks with professionals. People who've already condemned themselves to... whatever 'this' is."

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It was time now, the deal was about to be made. Just down the hall - beyond the ornate double doors - sat Florian and his entourage, waiting for her. Waiting to see what she could possibly offer them. She would ask them to move heaven-and-earth. To put their entire civilization on the line. And for what?

Hopefully they don't ask that, Elizabeth thought, choking back her anxiety.

And then, before she'd even realized it, she was standing before Florian's court. She greeted them with a brave grin. Edea stepped forward, pulling a chair out for her charge. Once she was seated, the young noble cast her gaze across the large table and spoke. "Well now, shall we begin?"

Florian had managed to arrive early this time and had eagerly sunk into the padding of his understated yet ornate chair at the head of the table. His muscles were still screaming from earlier and he had to keep reminding himself that the day was just starting. It probably wasn't going to get any easier either. Though he was flanked by friendly faces here, he knew he'd be answering to the collected voices of the dome council and the media and public opinion polls and drunk guys he might pass in the street and- oh Christ, it was all so much.

'Well this is what I signed up for.'

He turned to Irena who was sat to his left. She gave a little nod and brandished all the updated files she and her people had penned. If nothing else Yuteni would be coming out of this happily. They didn't have long to wait and discuss game plans before their guests arrived. Erik was almost late, of course.

"Well now, shall we begin?"

"Let's." Said Florian. "You've had our opening offer." He kept things formal for now and held back on their own offers for Yuteni. You never showed your hand early in bandit negotiations and Florian didn't see a reason for that to change here.

Elizabeth glanced over at Beatrix who had already been seated before she entered the room. The older woman responded with a reassuring nod. "I can promise you half," Elizabeth announced. "Unfortunately, I cannot be certain how much my family still has to their name, so I must temper your expectations. The remaining balance can be paid off over the next three years." She paused momentarily, taking in the alarmed response of those gathered around the table. "Frostfall, Boomhower, Yuteni - these cities need us. They need this alliance. Once this battle is over, we can rebuild, and as our allies prosper, so will we. I'm not asking for an army - I'm asking for a partnership. One strong enough to weather the coming storm. Carbon isn't the only thing you stand to gain from this."

"Isn't the only thing to gain. Look at this she's stealing my line, everyone's stealing my lines this week." Florian looked around at his assembled advisers, doing his best Frostfall stand-up voice.

They weren't going for the joke. Some could give a shrug, others were grumbling. Erik was saying three years was a good deal. Others said there was too much uncertainty, girl didn't even know how much money she had!

He heard out the expected arguments before quietening things down. "So this is our reply to that plan... and we think you might like it." He grinned.

The file got slid across the table. It was as dry as all the others they'd drowned Elizabeth under but it made it clear that Frostfall was willing and able to go halves on the Yuteni reconstruction.

Franz stole a quick peak and grinned. "It seems you're a natural diplomat, darling," he told his betrothed. "Mother will be proud."

"Oh, I bet she will," Elizabeth muttered under her breath. "This is acceptable." She said, looking at Florian now.

And that was that. No drawn out negotiations. No arguments. Nothing like the political battle Elizabeth had prepared for.

How much of this was Beatrix's doing?

"Now, logistics," she began. "How soon can you get your army to Yuteni?"

"Acceptable she says, Ooh." Erik grumbled cattily. Florian ignored him.

"I'll need to talk to the experts but the guard should be able to mobilise in a day or two, the airships not much longer. You'll need smaller units from us. The uuuh agile options but I'm getting ahead of myself in tactics. Erik, you'll want to bring your boys, how long do you think they'll need?"

"Eh, they can go tonight if you like. I'll bring drinks they can bring the music." The big man practically waved them off as if he was talking to friends at the bar.

Piper smiled. "Yuteni's life support capabilities aren't fully operational yet, but we should be able to house one or two modestly sized battalions for now. We'll use the city as a staging area, and once the remainder of your forces arrive we will mobilize."

"Ultimately the two of us command our own forces," Elizabeth said to the young Bejic, "but I propose we split command of the joint-force between Captain Russo and Mr. Ablev, with Ablev leading the ground forces and Russo providing air support."

"That sounds agreeable to me. Erik, how would you feel about having command of the ground troops?" Florian turned to his advisor.

"The ground is where I live."

"He'd be delighted."

Elizabeth chuckled and rose from her seat. "Well then, I think we've come to an agreement," she said as she crossed the room, joining Florian at the other end of the table. Once he was on his feet, she took his hand in hers. "This is the start of a long and fruitful partnership. It's an honor, my Lord."

"The feeling is mutual." Florian nodded as he gave Elizabeth's hand a light, symbolic, shake.

Kat stood on ceremony during the meeting in stiff silence. It really was just for show. Clearly, everything worth deciding had already been decided in back rooms before anyone had sat down.

Was Katya cynical? Of course she was. It was her job to protect her lord, and part of that job description meant keeping his feet on the ground. Such an alliance, so much of which essentially amounted to an I.O.U, went against a grain in so many ways.

She didn't say anything, however. It was her duty now to follow Florian and get him safely to the end of this endeavour. She would not fail.

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Harry's head was more than a little sore when he woke, but he'd had much worse. Nothing that a shower and a cooked breakfast couldn't fix. On the much brighter side, he still had his memory and as such was not surprised to feel a particularly lovely barmaid stir next to him. Her name was... he'd sure he'd asked at some point during the night? Was it Bella, or Bethany? Something like that.

Okay, maybe his memory wasn't quite crystal clear.

"Morning." he whispered soothingly as she woke "I was just about to make some breakfast, do you want anything?"

"Ohh, breakfast in bed." she cooed, batting her eyelashes at him. The effect didn't quite work thanks to how sleepy she looked, but it was endearing nonetheless. "I wouldn't mind, but I'd like to sink my teeth into something else first..."

That suited Harry just fine, as Becky wound her arms around his neck and pulled him into a close embrace. Breakfast could wait 20 minutes.

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They had set off pretty much as soon as the others were all packed (Sandra has wasted no time prepping a crawler for them) and had driven from the early hours of the morning all the way until dawn. Nobody had said much, during that time, least of all Sandra, who was driving. A part of her figured she probably should. It was her errand, after all, that was dragging them all out here at such short notice, and it was apparent from her mood that this was no vacation. At least she'd had concentrating on where she was going as an excuse not to talk, but now the quiet was beginning to get awkward even for her.

"We'll be in sight of Greenhill before long." she announced to Maria, sitting in the passenger seat, before turning around as much as she could in her seat. "You alright in the back there Tal?"

"I've been thinking for awhile... maybe we should find the younger ones a home. A real home. We could give them or their caretakers money to get by and we could use the rest to fill our ranks with professionals. People who've already condemned themselves to... whatever 'this' is."

"Maybe," Whiskey said. "But y'know some of 'em ain't gonna wanna go, either 'cause they ain't known anything like a family, or 'cause they're scared. But the question is, honey, what do you mean by 'younger ones'? Which ones are ya planning to keep? 'Jesse' burned his old life to the ground and pissed on the ashes for us. Gale, on the other hand, could probably pick up and leave any time she wanted, it's how she was raised. Hell, what about Allie? She's young as hell and she's acting out, but you gotta admit, Ruffles has an eye for talent."

"You alright in the back there Tal?"

"Absolutely," the cowboy said. He lifted the brim of his hat with his pointer finger and grinned. "Been ridin' in the back my whole life. Always gotta accommodate the ladies, I reckon."

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"... Hell, what about Allie? She's young as hell and she's acting out, but you gotta admit, Ruffles has an eye for talent."

Bennie shrugged. "A girl that brilliant doesn't belong on a pirate ship, Whiskey. She could be working in some lab somewhere, making a real difference. She could--" the big man cut himself off and began rubbing his eyes intensely. "I'm starting to sound like her, aren't I?" He chuckled sadly. "Sorry, I'll drop it. We should be celebrating, right?"

Pulling her into an embrace, the despair in Bennie's smile evaporated. "Think it's about time we retire to the captain's quarters. We can worry about work in the morning." He kissed her softly before suddenly sweeping her off her feet and into his arms. "It's time for your debriefing, Ms. Fifer."

It was a long, sleepless night, but nothing a shot of whiskey couldn't cure...

If you know what I mean.

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Sprout got up early the next morning. Amy never returned to bed, though that wasn't really unusual. She had a lot going on. Sprout could respect that.

I can relate to that, more like.

After scarfing down a quick breakfast, the scrappy lad sat down in the observation deck just in time to see Sandra and the others leave for her hometown. If he was in her position he'd be doing the same thing.

A small part of him resented her. She had a place to call home. She had a family.

Bennie and Whiskey were great, but... it just wasn't the same.

At least I still got you, Lily, the boy thought, smiling sadly.

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Elizabeth could still feel his hand in hers. The moment had been brief, and yet it lingered in her mind, even now. Cloaked in a thick, fur coat, Elizabeth stood at the stern of her ship, watching as Frostfall shrank on the horizon. She could feel the turbulent, ice-cold winds in her bones. Her breather fogged up with each shivering breath she took, but she didn't care.

The view was well worth it.

"He'll be right behind us, you know," Beatrix said, suddenly appearing beside her Lady on the deck. "There's no need to be dramatic." Elizabeth ignored her. "Come inside, my Lady. You'll catch a cold out here."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "That's not how it works."

"Even still," she replied. "Franz is looking for you."

"Let him look."

Beatrix sighed, clearly frustrated. "It's customary to celebrate political victories. You know that. This agreement was... monumental. The first real step you've taken as a political figure. Your absence from the festivities is--"

"Fine, okay, I get it," Elizabeth relented. "Just let me put my smile on."

"Good."

"Is there booze?" Elizabeth asked.

Beatrix grunted. "What do you think?"

"At least there's booze..."

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After getting patched up the night before, Theresa and her hired friend hit the town - shopping, eating and drinking in some of the dingiest locales in the city. That said, even the ghettos of Paradiso offered passable cuisine.

Nothing like a back alley pasta dish to nurse a hangover.

While Theresa hadn't shared much about herself, she'd somehow managed to bleed Ada's entire life story out of her. Honestly, there wasn't all that much to tell and Ada wasn't particularly secretive, but there was something about Theresa that just made it easy. Like no matter what she told her, Ada wouldn't be judged. Even the darkest, dirtiest stories elicited little more than a hearty laugh from the woman.

She had to find out more about her! She had to push harder! Theresa couldn't evade her forever!

"So," Ada began awkwardly, "how do you like your line of work, anyhow?"

Theresa took a swig of her sweet tea and grinned. "How do I like killin' people, ya' mean?" she replied, candidly. "I don' reckon I do. Not anymore."

Ada cocked her head. "Then why don't you quit?"

"I can'."

"Oh. Well, would you if you could?"

Theresa shrugged. "Quit my job or quit killin'?"

"Both?"

"Yer askin' fer one answer to two different questions," Theresa pointed out. "My job - bein' a merc - I can' walk out on it. Got obligations, ya' know. I don' like it, but I do what I gotta do. If I didn' 'ave those obligations, I'd walk. Killin' on the other hand..." She looked down at her glass and swirled the tea around with her straw. "I can' quit that."

Ada frowned. "Oh?"

"Not much of an answer, eh?" she said. "Let's jus' say it's a part'a who I am. To leave that behind would be like... cuttin' off'a hand. It's like a drug. An itch. I ain't doin' it right now, but it don' mean I ain't thinkin' about it."

Ada suddenly looked very uncomfortable.

Fuck.

Theresa glanced around the restaurant. "Why don' we blow this joint an' 'ave some fun," she suggested, digging into her pocket for some cash. "You know a place where we can really let loose 'round here?"

"Y-yeah," Ada muttered, sheepishly. "I know a place."

So this was what the mercenary life felt like. Everyone was keeping an edgy eye on the outsiders as they went about whatever it was gangsters did in the middle of the day. Shoot up and try to look busy if Mal was one to guess. Of course the commander was off with her boyfriend while they waited for their latest bout of orders and wondered just when they were going to start dismantling this family. Granted, they hadn't actually been at it that long, just that this assignment was feeling like an eternity to Mal. There was a reason she always got recommended sabotage jobs over espionage.

For now she just took up her moody sentry position next to Moon. "So the beat down didn't happen. Day's looking up, right?" She mused at him. because she'd found you didn't talk to Jun, just at him.
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Gale made her way through the ship, fighting to keep the wild mess of bed head out of her face and cursing the lack of sleep she'd gotten. Stupid blondes and their room invasions. She really needed to lay off the drinking for a while too, if she kept downing booze like most of the maidens did she'd end up replacing the water in her body with alcohol. 'This must be why everybody trains in hand to hand so much, it's the only way to fight off getting a beer gut.' Not that she was complaining about that. Thanks to the daily fight club Gale was in the best shape of her life and had learned a variety of ways to murder a man in the nuts.

But all good things had to come to an end. gale had made up her mind that she'd hand in her notice this morning while she still had herself worked up for it. At least this time she'd be telling the people she was staying with goodbye instead of vanishing into the night. Well, she had to get her cut of the casino job after all. "Maybe I should give Allie the news first." Gale pondered to herself.
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["Everyone set for the road trip?"] Florian called to the others in his party as they all began gathering in the hangar and giving out all their baggage for inspection. Their baggage mostly consisting of weaponry, body armour, medical supplies and anything else you might want to bring to war zone. Also toiletries. It was funny, Florian had grown up with this kind of thing being in the norm but he never remembered bringing this much stuff to it when he was younger.

'Just another part of getting older I suppose.' Normal families probably did the same thing when they were packing for their vacations. he thought as he went through the mental checklist of things he needed one more time. ["Vest... glock... G-Thirty six."] Florian loved himself a G-36C ["Toothbrush and paste... towel... gotta have something to read."] It was going to be a long trip after all.

Along with his father's ornate revolver, now free of its cane and holstered at his side, that made up the last of Florian's carry on luggage. The rest having been taken care of by his people. Everyone kept saying that he wouldn't even need all that weaponry and that he wasn't going to be doing the actual fighting but you never be too prepared in these situations. It wasn't that crazy the way he looked at it, besides, the glock was just for emergencies.

["We're all set on my end!"] Erik yelled over. ["My boys are riding up front."]

["Erik, no."]

["Erik, yes!"] The big guy had been demanding his own way ever since getting highly disputed control of the infantry forces of this invasion liberation. All the heavy armour and artillery support was still in the process of mobilising so for now they were rolling out with Erik's vanguard. A mixture of Katya's people and the Wolfguard, the cold professional crowd and Erik's gang of now ex-bandits who were treating this like a free holiday right now.

Florian had protested bringing them when Erik had reminded him that these were the same men that had stood alongside the two of them in Florian's early years and had successfully stormed a tower with only a few hours notice... and no one could really argue with that point so they got to ride shotgun in the airship so long as they promised to play nice with the southerners when they got there. All this took far longer and far more bickering than the actual negotiations that was bringing them to war!

["And doesn't that just sum up my life these days?"] Florian sighed as everyone started piling in.

It was then that Erik seemed to notice all the pressure on his young charge as he came over and placed a comforting hand on the lad's shoulder. ["Florian, there's something I want to tell you before we head out."]

["What's that?"]

["Something important. You'll need to think on this while we're on out way to Boomhower, for your own sake... shave that stupid beard!"] Snickering from Erik ensued.

["Get in the ship before I decide to banish you to Boomhower!"] Florian yelled as he chased and kicked Erik into the ship while everyone else discussed if he could actually do that to people now. And if Elizabeth was going to be their new 'Mommy' now, long after the ship took off.

Irena waved them off from the viewing platform. "And the Bejic boys are going to Boomhower."

Meanwhile in the canteen of the Iron Maiden...

"It's your move." Allie sat back in her chair, arms across her chest as she nudged Lilith's foot under the table. Pulling her face from out of her arms, Lilith let loose a drawn out moan as she slumped in her chair, head hanging loosely backwards as she continued to feel sorry for herself.

"You should stop drinkin' so much" Allie sighed as she tapped a finger against her arm impatiently. This must have been like the 4th time this week she had seen the older woman in such a state.

"You should stop being so..." Lilith closed her eyes as she searched for something witty in the hangover mind shroud she was currently experiencing. "Yeah..."

"Good one." Allie rolled her eyes. "It's your move!" She pointed at the chest board sitting between the pair.

"Okay, okay, I got this." The woman took a deep breath as she leaned forward, crossing her arms on the table. Lilith took a few moments to consider her options, biting her lip as she narrowed her eyes.

"Oh my god!" Allie raised her voice. "It's your first fuckin' turn!" The younger girl grabbed at her hair, shaking her head in disbelief.

"Patience, young grasshopper." Lilith mumbled, her voice cracking as she slowly reached down and moved a pawn three spaces forward.

"What are you doing?" Allie blinked a few times before looking up from the board, her eyes searching Lilith's face.

"What do you mean what am I doing?" Lilith rested her chin on her arms as she looked up at the girl.

"That's an illegal move." Allie gestured at the offending piece.

"What? Why? What's illegal about it? Are the chess police gonna arrest me?" Lilith moved a hand clumsily across the table, grabbing her mug of tea before sitting upright and taking a long sip, glancing at the girl from the corner of her eye.

"Pawns cannae move that far, only two spaces forward from the starting position, and then only one forward after that." Was this woman for real?

"Your pawns maybe." Lilith scoffed, glancing around the room as if looking for someone to agree with her.

"Are... I dinn...THOSE ARE THE RULES!" Allie roared, gesturing wildly.

"My pieces had a meeting." Lilith started, taking a sip from her tea before placing it back on the table. "After long deliberation, it was decided that the religious monarchy system they had in place, was both classist, out of touch, and limiting the progress of the nation overall. Both King Benedryl Cabbagepatch the Third, and the good Queen Pam, with the advisement of their council, as well as being rather nice people," Lilith affectionately tapped the respective pieces. "have decided to go against their cruel lineage of oppression, and have decided instead to give equal opportunities to everyone in the kingdom." She nodded her head sagely.

"No longer is Jimothy over here a mere 'pawn'" The girl tapped Jimothy the not-pawn. "He is an aspiring engineer, and father of two lovely girls, and husband to a beautiful wife. In recent weeks, young Jimothy here has devised several pieces of equipment that improve on the previous design, thus enabling more ease of movement on the battlefield, which he chose to volunteer for, might I add, no conscription in this new republic." Sitting back in her chair, the woman crossed her arms over her chest.

"And that, young Alison, is why Jimothy can move an extra space." Lilith tapped her nose, adding a cheeky wink for good measure.

Allie blinked a few times, narrowing her eyes as she tried to string together the nonsense she just heard. "Wha-"

"Also they have guns." Lilith quickly added. "Bang." She leaned forward and quickly flicked over Allie's king before inhaling sharply through pursed lips. "The royal council does not usually condone the use of assassins, oh Jimothy is also an assassin by the way, but some times desperate times call for desperate measures, and one bullet now will save the lives of hundreds, perhaps billions, in the long run."

Getting to her feet, Lilith stood beside Allie, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry it had to be this way." Lilith said with a sympathetic expression, tightening her grip for a moment before walking away slowly towards where breakfast was being served.

"Thinks she's fuckin' better than me at chess." Lilith muttered under her breath, "You fuckin' what, mate?" The woman chuckled as she lit up a cigarette.

Allie was still frozen in place, her eyes on the chess board as she tried to fathom what had just happened. After a few moments, the girl closed her eyes and exhaled slowly through her nose, remembering the little trick Gale had taught her.

"1...2...3...4..."

"Floo-sah-fa, little mop head." Gale breathed teasingly over Allie's head as she appeared behind the fiery tempered ginger.

She took hold of Allie's shoulders and rocked her back and forth for a second before being shook off and taking a seat beside the little one. She sat on top of the table instead of the bench because Gale was remembering to screw the rules this morning.

"It's a little early to be keeping your rage in check, isn't it."

"It's a little early to be keeping your rage in check, isn't it."

"Lily is a cheating slag." Allie pouted, crossing her arms over he chest as she slumped in her seat. "I dinnae why I play with her, I'm starting to think she don't even know the rules. Last time she said I couldn't go first because 'White going first is inherently racist', and then when I offered to swap, she was like 'So you're ashamed of your own people? Is that it?' and then stormed off, muttering something about 'blood traitors'."

Allie slumped further into her seat, almost falling off. "Everyone sucks."

"How's the package?"

"Broken arm and wet pants," Bryan replied. "So, basically fine. He'd be finer if he hadn't pulled a knife on me." Taking a swig from his hip flask, he lowered his voice. "Besides, we're bein' bad guys. They'da looked at me funny if he were still in mint condition."

When he was finished in the bathroom, The Gentleman dressed and then stepped back out in the the rest of his humble quarters. Now, what to do with the rest of his day?

Walking to the small table in the corner, The Gentleman leaned over the chessboard he had been given, and after a few moments, a black knight fell to the remaining white bishop. Playing himself, only making one move per day, he had managed to keep the game going for months.

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"Been ridin' in the back my whole life. Always gotta accommodate the ladies, I reckon."

"Damn straight." Sandra whooped, smiling for the first time in hours, before turning to Maria "Hey Doc, you awake?"

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The ride to Boomhower had been a little tense so far. The Wolfguard and Eric's enforcers were not exactly a match made in heaven. The old Bejic troops had experience, but the Wolfguard had discipline, and getting either faction to respect the advantages of the other would be a challenge. Perhaps fighting side by side would cement that bond? For now, however, it was up to Katya and Eric to get them to Boomhower without any fights breaking out. It didn't help that some of Eric's men were visibly not fond of taking orders from a woman, and a former enemy at that. However, none were stupid enough to say anything to her face.

After getting in another workout session, inspecting the men and checking her own equipment for the fifth time, Katya joined Eric on the aft observation deck. Frostfall was just disappearing into the dusty haze behind them now.

"[When was the last time you left?]" she asked him.

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"Harel!" Harry boomed as he hammered on Asad's door "Harel, get your arse out of bed and be quick about it! The Lady will be arriving soon, and you wouldn't want me to be the handsomest person at her welcoming committee would you?"

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With morning came yet more trials for Amy, as she once more found herself leaning over a toilet bowl. She'd hand't drunk that much last night! What the hell was wrong with her lately?!

She only hoped it would pass soon. She couldn't afford to be the invalid of the crew all the time. She had a job to do today.

"Come on, get a grip!" she mumbled to herself.

"Hey Doc, you awake?"

Maria roused from her state of half-slumber, stretched and yawned, "Just about. Ugh, crawler naps are horrible."

***

"So the beat down didn't happen. Day's looking up, right?"

Jun only folded his arms deeper into his chest, "Not yet."

"Besides, we're bein' bad guys. They'da looked at me funny if he were still in mint condition."

"I was more concerned with his lucidity than anything else," Tsubaki told him. "He won't be much use to us if he can't speak to his son." She sat down on the concrete floor and rested the back of her head against the wall. "He might not look it, but Caputo's content." She nodded to the balding man across the room before taking a swig. "Not that it should surprise you, but he's not well regarded within the organization. These jobs we've been pulling... he sees our value."

Tsubaki held the bottle to her lips and rocked her head back, chugging the remainder of her beer. With an exasperated sigh, she continued. "He's going to want to hold on to us as long as possible. Keep our aptitude on the downlow and take the credit for himself," she explained, gritting her teeth. "That complicates things. This op is way behind schedule, so if we're going to get back on track we need to take matters into our own hands."

She gave Bryan a serious look. "Later tonight - after the Morello situation is wrapped up, I need you to do what you do best," her eyes found Caputo's slimy form once more. "Do it quick. Do it quiet. And more importantly, make it look like it was someone on the outside. If Caputo goes down a higher-up will step in and evaluate. That'll be our chance to move up."

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

Bennie had a slow morning. After a shower and a nice breakfast with Whiskey and Millie, he took a call on the bridge - ensuring their contact would be ready for them in Paradiso. After giving the Maidens some time to rouse themselves, he checked his watch and figured it was time to get things rolling. "Rise an' shine," he announced through the ship's PA system. His voice was even smoother than usual. "I want everyone on the bridge in twenty. We've got some money to move."

He preferred to keep things short and simple.

A sullen Sprout wandered onto the bridge not but a minute later. He was already in the neighborhood, it seemed. "You okay, kid?" the big man asked, leaning forward in the captain's chair.

The boy nodded. "It's nuthin'," he said. "Jus' a long night."

"You're heading up this op, you know. If you need to take a day off, I--"

"No, it's okay," Sprout interrupted him. "It'll pass."

The captain simply nodded. He knew how the kid felt. The wound was still so fresh. No matter how far he'd come, Bennie couldn't expect Sprout to simply swallow his grief and move on like he had. There were others before Pixie. His sister. His father. His heart was far more calloused than the boy's.

Sprout would get to that point some day. For better or worse.

"Everyone sucks."

"Aw, everyone but you, that's right." Gale pouted as she gave Allie a stiff armed pat on the head. Pat-pat-pat. Apparently someone was going through their terrible ten's or however old Allie was again.

"Hey, Allie, there's something I want to talk to you about-"

"Rise an' shine, I want everyone on the bridge in twenty. We've got some money to move."

"Why do you have the worst possible timing?" Gale cursed at the PA speaker in the top corner of the room. Couldn't folks let a lady bite the bullet without pressing her for time on top? Freakin' rude. now that'd gotten Gale all flustered up. She didn't know how Allie was even going to take the news or her offer and then there was-

'Whatever. It wasn't going to be right away anyway.' She still had her cut to get after all.

Gale quickly composed herself and tried to salvage it. "After the job do you wanna go do something? We should be owed some shore leave after all this I reckon." She could butter Allie up there instead.
=====================================================
"[When was the last time you left?]"

["Me? Ooooh must have been something like... ten years ago maybe? I think it was about that much. Just on business obviously, I'm not going to make this kind of trip for social calls. Those bitches can come to me."]

Erik gave a little grunt as he turned his shoulders and heard a satisfying crack as he loosened himself up. Once the trip had really gotten going he'd found his way over the the viewing windows and stayed there. He wasn't like Florian, fooling himself into thinking there was any natural beauty here in the northern ash wastes but Erik had to admit that watching the lighter storms send the frosted ash swirling around was pretty mesmerizing in its way. He always wondered if those occasional lightning strikes left pretty glowing marks on the ground.

["You know once upon a time I thought I'd gotten away from here. Thought I'd left this place in my dust."] He meant his days back in glittering Paradiso. Back when Erik was going to be an educated kind of man and make a fancy life for himself. As well as finally breaking away from his north-dirt family. ["It was silly of me to think that'd work out though. She suck you back, the old girl, one way or another."] He smiled wistfully, thinking of the old boys that sank Frostfall's claws into him for her.

He'd never regret it. But he'd always wonder how things might have been. Human nature, Erik guessed.

["Paradiso?"] Katya cocked an eyebrow ["Don't tell me you ever got dressed up like a proper Southern dandy?!"]

It wasn't a term that translated very well into her native tongue, but like many things Katya wrestled it into submission.

["Lucky for some, I suppose. Boykov or Bejic, no-one ever takes me anywhere nice..."]

She turned back to the view, watching the storm crackle its way across the sky. Right now, nothing but a thin film of glass separated them from doom, but was that really any different anywhere they went? Even without all the war, crime and depravity, how humanity had ever clung on to life out here was beyond her understanding.

["We do seem to take it with us, wherever we go."] she said.

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

"I want everyone on the bridge in twenty. We've got some money to move."

Amy lifted her head up out of the toilet bowl and rolled her eyes.

"I'll be there in five..." she mumbled to thin air, before gingerly getting to her feet, flushing away the evidence, and making her way to the sink to get herself cleaned up.

By the time she got to the bridge she had managed to put a brave face on it. It was a good thing she was pale at the best of times.

"Morning Captain." she said, instantly clocking the atmosphere in the room, before taking her place beside Axel. She wasn't going to make a meal out of anything, but all the same she subtly and silently took his hand in hers.

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

"Ugh, crawler naps are horrible."

"Don't be so quick to knock 'em." Sandra told her "You haven't seen where you'll be sleeping tonight..."

Greenhill was actually quite a large dome... in a manner of speaking. However, it was mostly comprised of agricultural land, held together by three small, ramshackle towns connected by dirt roads. It might have even been called 'quaint' if not for the generally disrepair of... well everything. If there had ever been an Ivory Tower here, it was long gone. No noble family held sway over the people here. Who would bother to?

"Home sweet home." Sandra muttered, as their crawler moved up to the main checkpoint. "Greenhill folks aren't exactly used to strangers. Just... smile a nod a lot."

"Later tonight - after the Morello situation is wrapped up, I need you to do what you do best," Tsubaki said.

Bryan grinned. "But what I do ain't very nice." He'd always wanted to say that.

"Do it quick. Do it quiet. And more importantly, make it look like it was someone on the outside. If Caputo goes down a higher-up will step in and evaluate. That'll be our chance to move up."

"How Machiavellian of ya," he said, taking another nip from his flask. "I'll do it tonight, but I'll head out now. Got prep work to do."

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

The previous night...

"It's time for your debriefing, Ms. Fifer."

"Well, if you insist," Whiskey said as her weight was taken out from under her. As Bennie carried her along, she busied herself kissing his neck and undoing the buttons on his shirt. Then she paused. "One more thing, and I swear I'll drop it. It ain't just about Allie living up to her potential. She could do a lot of harm to the world if she wanted to. I don't know about you, but after all the shit I've seen, I don't think I trust anyone besides Jake to show her what's what. To make sure her genius doesn't stop her from being a good person."

With her piece said, she went back to Bennie's buttons.

"Aw, everyone but you, that's right."

"Yer everyone but me." Allie mumbled through her pout.

"Rise an' shine, I want everyone on the bridge in twenty. We've got some money to move."

The girl winced as the annoying man's voiced echoed through the canteen. It was time for her to get her orders. If her orders meant staying on the ship and doing nothing, because Bennie sucked.

"After the job do you wanna go do something? We should be owed some shore leave after all this I reckon."

Allie looked up at Gale, her eyes lighting up a tad. "Yeah? Like... like, the beach in Paradiso? That could be fun! We could go swimming, I dinnae know how ta swim, but how hard can it be? I can make a toaster sentient, not drowning should be easy!" She grinned. "And ice cream!"

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

Lilith sauntered onto the bridge, slice of toast in her mouth as she straddled a seat at one of the command consoles, draping her arms over the back of the chair. Nibbling on the toast, her attention on Bennie and Sprout.

"You're heading up this op, you know. If you need to take a day off, I--"

"No, it's okay, It'll pass."

The woman gently sighed through her nose, so today was going to be one of those days. They were fewer and far between nowadays, but every so often, he'd fall into a little slump. Not that she could blame him, Lilith had a fair share of shitty days too, but she could generally push through them. Sprout usually needed a little help.

'Maybe it's too soon to leave afterall?'

No, she had made up her mind, she couldn't look for excuses, she had to be committed to this one hundred percent, it wouldn't be fair on Florian to keep messing him around with false promises.

That didn't stop her with being anxious about telling the boy she was leaving after this job.

'One step at a time, just get through telling Bennie for now.'

"Welaaaax, Spowt." Lilith said with a mouthful of toast before swallowing. "Everyone knows I'll be pulling the strings, you're just there to look pretty." Lilith took another large bite of toast. "Unlesh we fuck it up big time, then you're compwetely in charge and I had nothin' to do with it." She narrowed her eyes as she grinned at the boy.

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

Asad jolted awake as what sounded like a tank was attempting to smash through his door, when remnants of the previous night hit him in all its fucking glory.

"Oh god..." The man croaked as he slowly raised his hand to his head, his mouth was dryer than Lombardi's cunt, and he was pretty sure he'd never wanted anything more in his entire life than the glass of water he clumsily reached for on the bedside table.

"Harel, get your arse out of bed and be quick about it! The Lady will be arriving soon, and you wouldn't want me to be the handsomest person at her welcoming committee would you?"

"Please stop..." He whimpered as Harry continued to punch the shit out of his door. Downing the glass of water with desperate speed, the Commander groaned as he made his way across the room and to the door, his head throbbing. Opening the door, he winced as the light of the outside world burned his eyes.

"Who knocks that loudly?! Let me die in peace!" He quickly glanced down at himself, realising he was still in last nights clothes. "How the shit are you up and about this early?" Asad asked Harry, somehow irrationally annoyed that the man wasn't feeling as bad as he was.

"Don't be so quick to knock 'em. You haven't seen where you'll be sleeping tonight..."

"Can't be that--" Maria began as she rose out of the crawler and glanced at her surroundings. The dilapidation stared back. A little dangling sign stated WELCOM O EEN ILL as creaked in the faint breeze. The noise was already getting on Maria's nerves. All it needed was a little oil and a little but, judging by the state of rusted relics around the place, Greenhill might've been called The Dome Which Care Forgot instead and nobody would've batted an eyelid.

'And just think of the results of living in such squalor!'

Maria frowned, "This place needs a lot more than a doctor..."

THIS SPACE FOR RENT

Sprout offered Amy a half-hearted smile when she entered the room. When she took his hand, he noticed hers was warm and clammy. Poor girl probably had one hell of a hangover.

"Welaaaax, Spowt. Everyone knows I'll be pulling the strings, you're just there to look pretty," Lilith said.

He chuckled at that.

"Unlesh we fuck it up big time, then you're compwetely in charge and I had nothin' to do with it."

"I don' reckon things'll go south," the boy replied. "We've worked with these folks before. Should be an' easy in-an'-out."

Bennie nodded. "You may be right, but the job ain't done yet. Until then, I expect y'all to stay frosty," he explained, casting his gaze around the room. No doubt those few already gathered on the bridge knew they had some part to play in today's job. They were among Bennie's A-team, if there were such a thing.

If the Maidens still had Valkyries, these guys would be among them.

"I'll go over the details once the others show up," he said.

They better hurry their asses up.

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

"I'll do it tonight, but I'll head out now. Got prep work to do."

Tsubaki nodded and saw him off.

A short time later she found Jun and Mal tending to their weapons near the back of the warehouse. Once inside the small room, Tsubaki closed the door behind her and began searching the room for bugs.

Just in case.

"You're in luck," the soldier muttered as she checked the underside of a nearby lamp. "I won't be reporting you to Caputo." After checking several more spots she was confident the room was clean. "I evaluated the situation and I think we're finally in a good position to move to the next phase without raising suspicion. I just gave Bryan the order..."

Her voice was cold and distant as she continued. "Caputo will be dead come dawn," she said. "If things go according to plan, we won't need to keep hitting the blue to maintain our cover. Our deeds will speak for themselves." She looked at Jun. "I expect everyone to go cold turkey as soon as I give the order. If you can't handle that, don't keep it to yourself. This shit is made to keep you hooked. Needing help is expected. It doesn't mean you're weak."

She wasn't sure if she was saying this for Jun's sake or her own.

"Everyone got that?"

"How the shit are you up and about this early?"

"Officer training at Sherwood is a treatment for taking one's ale." Harry replied chirpily, taking care to hold his breath as he breezed past Asad into the man's apartment. "'Any man who falls behind' and all that. I'm surprised they don't cover that one in Feroxi, or perhaps you're just in need of re-acclimation..."

Harry wasted no time. In a matter of seconds, the toaster was on and oil was sizzling in the frying pan.

"I've got breakfast. You get in the shower." he said, rummaging around in Asad's fridge for bacon, eggs and orange juice.

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

"This place needs a lot more than a doctor..."

"You kiddin'?" Sandra said out of the side of her mouth. "Even bandits don't come round here to raid no more. Not worth the fuel or the ammo. All the organised crime is 'in house', if you catch my drift."

As quick as slipping into an old shirt, Sandra switched to a broad, country-girl smile as the Deputy Marshall approached the side of their vehicle.

"Hey, little lady." the Deputy attempted to walk the walk, despite being old enough to shave by four years tops. "What brings you folks out here."

"Family reunion." Sandra replied. "The West Greenhill Burnhaus' are expectin' me."

"Oh." the wind was taken out of the boys sails a little. "Well, I'm sorry to here that ma'am."

"No need, an' I ain't nobody's 'ma'am'." Sandra said with a smile. "Thought we'd make ourselves useful aroun' here while we're stayin'. Miss err... Aberforth here's a mighty fine doctor, an' we got plenty of supplies to spare."

"Well, they'll be lot's of folks out West glad to here that ma-I mean Miss Burnhaus." The Deputy answered, recovering as gracefuly as he could, before his attention turned to Tallahassee. "An' may I ask, who's the gentleman?"

"Oh don't mind Slim." Sandra waved him off. We just needed some help shifting the supplies, an' in case Dr Aberforth would be in need of a nurse. May we be on our way?"

"Certainly, Miss." the man said, before his expression darkened. "When you get up to West Greenhill, you should stop in on Sheriff Cooley. There's been trouble out that way lately. The Sheriff will explain, but it ain't the wisest thing for a young lady, or a Burnhaus at that, to be ridin' round town with no escort an' a crawler full of medicine."

Gale couldn't help but smile as Allie's little face lit up at the thought of having a fancy beach getaway, hey, if their haul was as good as everyone said they could probably afford the full VIP treatment. She had to admit it'd be nice to

"-I can make a toaster sentient, not drowning should be easy!"

'She says that about everything she makes, I don't think she knows what it means.' Ah well.

"And ice cream!"

"Well that part just goes without saying!" Gale scoffed. "Come on, the sooner we let Bennie start the job the sooner we can get our beach on." And with that hey were off to the bridge.
======================================================
["We do seem to take it with us, wherever we go."]

["Fuckin' literally this time, the best way to do it."] Erik smirked.

He lifted his arms over his head for a bit, stretching out the stiffness that had crept its way into his joints, he got a few satisfying pops for his trouble. Back in the shady political planning phase of this whole thing he'd been so reluctant to go ahead with it. He'd just felt so tired at the thought of it all and the war for home was only a freshly healed wound. But that was past Erik, he'd had some time to get himself together now and calm his thinking and present day Erik was pumped for what lay ahead.

The wildfire energy his crew were bringing to it was proving infectious. Many of them were the kind of man who couldn't live without a fight now, they'd been a part of the gang life for too long and it was clear that peace couldn't keep them content for too long. Erik wasn't one of them, no sir, he wasn't some mindless punk... but he'd learned to appreciate a good fight. He had a natural talent for it and there was something very satisfying about embracing that skill. The desk life had proven more boring than he remembered, even more so after living the hussar life and this time they didn't have any of that tear jerking inner conflict of fighting former friends.

Now he got to break the skulls of some foreign assholes who'd made themselves his clear cut enemy and he'd get to play the conquering hero while he was at it. Yeah, that was how you went out on a high note.

And OUT he was getting. Proud as he was, Erik wasn't fool enough to deny that he was playing at a young man's game. Decades of the life had taken their tole and he couldn't honestly say how much longer he had in the field. So this time he'd retire on his own terms. Get out of the fighting, get out of the legal work... and enjoy the mountain of ill gotten carbon he'd amassed as an obscenely wealthy private citizen. Like a real man!

And maybe those shitheads at the agency would get it together and he could find himself someone to share it with properly.

["Well hey, Captain, maybe we can all go somewhere nice after. Have a big party holiday to celebrate our victory."]
===========================================
Mal was in the back of the warehouse, cleaning her gear. It always paid to be prepared and she didn't need an excuse to try and escape the grease stink that filled the place.

It was a pretty pleasant silence for the most part until their commanding officer got on the scene to explain how things were gunna go. It sounded like they were finally going to start taking charge of things here. Though Mal still couldn't stomach the mood swings Tsubaki was throwing around. She'd started the day as a stone cold power bitch and one drive by later she was fussing around them like a mother goose.

Maybe it was down to the blue. Maybe things would improve once they got off the stuff. Probably not though.

"Everyone got that?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Mal said plainly before turning back to her gun.

"Nooo, come on in." Asad mumbled under his breath as he closed the door.

"I've got breakfast. You get in the shower."

Asad blinked a few times, but he certainly wasn't going to argue with the idea of a good breakfast, bacon was exactly what he needed right now.

"Umm, okay." He shuffled across the apartment. "Thanks man." He grumbled, scratching the back of his head as he entered the bathroom.

"Everyone got that?"

Jun glared back at her. Tsubaki was lucky that his weapons were currently in pieces, shoving empty threats down his throat like that. Smug cunt. Still, Jun had to wonder if she know what she was doing or not; whether she was out to step on Jun's toes or simply was just very, very clumsy.

He grabbed a cleaning rod and began work on a rifle barrel before he replied, "Yes ma'am. No more messing around."

Jun sighed, he had to admit that Tsubaki's words did have truth in them.

***

Maria smirked. Making sure she was just out of earshot of any of the locals, she remarked, "Dr Aberforth? Did I get to put on a fancy accent as well?"

"Dr Aberforth? Did I get to put on a fancy accent as well?"

"Fancy ain't the first word that comes ta' mind fer me, darlin'," Tal whispered back. "Don' reckon this town 'as a god damn clue what that word even means. Reminds me of home, to be honest."

What a way to spend my vacation time, the cowboy lamented.

At least he got to spend it with two babes.

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

Twenty minutes passed before the final Maiden reached the bridge. Not record-breaking time by any means, but it was pretty damn early. Bennie could sympathize.

The big man hushed the crowd as they settled in and began pacing before them. "Your vacation hasn't started yet. We still have a job to do," he scolded. "Twenty minutes? Maybe wait until you have the carbon in your pocket before getting blackout drunk."

He could afford to be a hypocrite every now and then.

"Most of you will stay here on standby or help coordinate things with me and Ms. Fifer," he continued. "Sprout, Gale, Jesse and Cam, you're Gold team. Lilith and Amy, you're Black team. Gold team is scheduled to meet up with our contact in..." Bennie quickly checked his watch. "Eleven hours. We have the bills packed up in four cases. One case per operative. You're to meet Mr. Vanzant at the Dust Palace and things will likely move up to his private penthouse from there. It's a rough neighborhood, but he owns it and we've done business there before. Stay cool and everything should go smoothly."

The Captain signaled for Whiskey to give the Maidens their cases. "He's going to want to count the bills, shouldn't take long. That said, make sure he weighs the carbon before he hands it over," he explained before grabbing an electronic scale off the console nearby and handing it to Gale. "We'll use our own hardware so he can't screw us. Gale's got more bargaining experience than half the ship combined. Sprout, you let her do the talking. Otherwise, you're in-charge of the operation with Cam acting as a chaperone."

"Got it," Sprout chirped.

Cam gave the boy a small grin.

"Black Team's got things a bit easier," Bennie said. "You two will stay in a nearby hotel coordinating the operation with Gold Team. You're there to hold the fort, but first and foremost, I need y'all to act as first responders in case shit hits the fan. Once they have the carbon they'll meet you back at home base, lay low for the night, and leave the city together in the morning. Any questions?"

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

From the moment they landed Elizabeth couldn't find a second to catch her breath. The sudden flurry of questions, requests and status updates was enough to make her head spin. The rather lax voyage to Yuteni quickly faded into a distant, romanticized memory. There were no cocktails in her future, just more work.

Logistics wasn't really covered all that well in her sister's magnum opus. Turns out that's a huge deal.

Go figure.

After evaluating their living conditions, Elizabeth signed off on the temporary barracks for the northern soldiers. They would need to be well rested and well fed if they were to siege of dome, after all.

"Perfect," Piper remarked as she signed her name on the memo. "Now, I suppose you should meet with the new advisers. There will be plenty of time for paperwork later tonight."

"There's always time for paperwork," Liz whined. "Is Mr. Canton still in the ICU?"

Piper nodded. "He's still in rough shape, but he'll live."

"Good," the girl replied. "Have Mr. Miller and Mr. Trejo wait in my office."

"How long should they expect to wait?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "Send Harry too," she added. "He can entertain them at the very least. He may have some insight to share about ships once I get into it with Mr. Miller as well."

"Very well, M'Lady. Do you know how to get to Eddie's room?"

A sudden knock sounded from the door, eliciting an excited smile from the young noble. "Commander Harel knows the way."

"Any questions?"

"Oooh, oooooooh!" Lilith's arms shot up as she waved at the Captain urgently. "Request that Black Team is renamed to Team Ethnically Inaccurate!" The woman took a bite of her toast. "Alsho, requeshting mini bar an' room shervish privilegesh!"

As far as missions went, this one was looking to be pretty bog standard. She wasn't sure how she felt about that, she didn't want her last foray to be this boring and safe.

'Who knows, maybe things will go tits up and you can save the day.'

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

Allie frowned, crossing her arms over her chest as she felt a major case of the sulks coming on. Bennie was really serious about her not going out any more.

'We'll see about that...'

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

Asad would never admit it, but the breakfast Harry had made him was delicious. Paired with his shower, they had both perked him up and made him look mildly presentable, although his eyes were still slightly bloodshot. None of that could compare to how excited he was to see Elizabeth however, he always found himself worrying about her when he wasn't in her presence. Leftover anxiety from Feroxi, no doubt.

The Commander had washed up well, hair slicked back, beard trimmed neatly. Wearing his military uniform and peacoat, he straightened his back as he knocked on the door to the meeting room, waiting a few moments before entering.

A smile curled his lips as Elizabeth was the first person his eyes fell on. "My Lady." He stood to attention slightly, hands behind his back as he bowed his head gently. "Captain Russo." He nodded at the older woman.

"How is Frostfall these days? I trust you return with good news?"

["Well hey, Captain, maybe we can all go somewhere nice after. Have a big party holiday to celebrate our victory."]

Katya gave Erik a sideways look, sizing him up, and smirked a little.

"[Sounds like a plan.]" she said "[I imagine we've both had our troubles finding good matches for dance partners in our time.]"

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

"Dr Aberforth? Did I get to put on a fancy accent as well?"

Sandra sighed, furrowing her brow.

"I doubt you could imitate the local vernacular if you tried." she told her "Just try to sound official, they'll respect that. Oh, and if you have to hand out meds to anyone, make sure you explain the instructions clear as day. Ain't a lot of folk around here who can read."

She pressed harder on the throttle as their crawler trundled down the road. She was worried by what the Marshall said. While she'd kept in touch with most of her family, she hadn't actually been home in years. What is something had happened that everyone had been too proud, or scared, to tell her?

'Dammit Pops, what kinda mess did you leave them in now?'

"Reminds me of home, to be honest."

"Can't be many places as... unique as Greenhill." Sandra replied over her shoulder "Where you from exactly? Not sure I ever asked."

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

"Any questions?"

Amy shook her head.

"Nice and easy Captain." she said, though she was likely drowned out by Lilith's response.

"Alsho, requeshting mini bar an' room shervish privilegesh!"

Amy facepalmed.

"Dammit Lil." she giggled "One of these days you have to learn the benefits of asking forgiveness rather than permission."

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

Harry, now immaculately groomed and dressed for the occasion of the day, bid his armed escort a cheerful farewell when he arrived at Elizabeth's office. Upon entering, he discovered that Jake and Trejo were already present.

"Rather like being sent to the headmistresses office isn't it." he mused, taking a seat beside Jake. "I wonder what we've done?"

"Alsho, requeshting mini bar an' room shervish privilegesh!"

Bennie cocked an eyebrow.

"One of these days you have to learn the benefits of asking forgiveness rather than permission."

"Unfortunately I don't think you'll find either of those," he told them. "The area you'll be staying in is 'low-key'. Pretty minimalist. People laying low don't typical splurge on late night pizza deliveries." He shook his head and chuckled. "Any serious questions?"

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

"Where you from exactly? Not sure I ever asked."

"Boomhower," the cowboy replied. "Same neighborhood as Pixie, actually. Didn' meet 'er in person 'til she was on 'er way outta there though. I had a bit of a rep back then... an unsavory one, I reckon. I was one of the first people she came lookin' for when she was buildin' her crew."

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

"I wonder what we've done?"

Trejo grinned. "Sneakin' whiskey into school, maybe," he said as he pulled a flask out of his jacket pocket. After taking a quick swig he tossed it to Harry. "You weren't one of the gringos that saved me an' my men, eh? Too pretty for that kinda thing." He made a fluttering noise and flapped his hands at his sides. "You a flyboy?"

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

Just as soon as Asad had greeted them, Elizabeth was on her feet and going in for the hug. She buried her cheek into his chest and squeezed him tight around the back.

"How is Frostfall these days? I trust you return with good news?"

"It's still cold," Piper promised him. "Things went rather well, all things considered."

Elizabeth released the larger man from her hold and looked up at him with a more subtle grin. "Florian and his troops are on there way as we speak. They're committed to the cause," she narrowed her eyes. "You didn't doubt me, did you Commander?"

Her tone was dangerous... well, about as dangerous as could be expected from a one-hundred pound teenager.

"You a flyboy?"

"Correct." Harry replied, smoothing out his uniform as he took his seat "And unfortunately, I restrict my rescuing duties to fair maidens exclusively."

Sat in Elizabeth's office, Ruffles had two huge carry cases with him. They were sat at his feet along with a satchel stuffed with papers, and a collapsible presentation board. He had a machine on his lap that looked like a chunkier version of hoovering robot. He had opened up the casing and was fiddling with the circuitry when Harry came in.

"Rather like being sent to the headmistresses office isn't it," Harry said. "I wonder what we've done?"

Ruffles remained in silent focus while Trejo answered. He was just about to connect a wire that had a small but not insignificant chance of shorting and blowing up in his face. Squinting, he guided the wire into the hole with a pair of elongated tweezers. Once he'd gotten it fixed, he pocketed the them, and wiped his brow. Turning to Harry, he grinned.

"I'd agree with you about the feel of this, but I ain't ever actually been to school. His grin widened. "Now, excuse me while I go and make an extremely technical aerodynamics and weapons presentation."

Pulling a bottle of blue soda out of his satchel, he opened it and leaned back. "Y'know, what I'm technically about to do here is go in there and try to convince the noble leader of a noble backed army to let me build her a bunch of airships and other crazy shit to be able to counteract the huge fleet of ships I built this one guy. If I didn't know better, I'd say I was some slick cartoon villain con artist in a suit and hat, twiddling my moustache. But I know that guy in real life, so that can't be it."

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

At Bennie's signal, Whiskey whipped the tarp off of the cart, revealing a set of hard cases. "Alright, kids. Don't come back until you've traded paper for rocks. We'll get that scissors bastard if it kills us!"

"Any serious questions?"

Whiskey did have a bone to pick with Bennie, but it had wasn't about the mission. With the cash revealed, she moved to stand at his side.

She hoped Sprout and the others would be okay. As prepared as they were for this, the kids still set her maternal instincts on edge, and she wished she was going with them. As grateful as she was to Bennie for allowing her to spend much of her time with Millie by watching over the ship on missions, Whiskey knew she was a field agent to her core. She would always feel most secure if she could have the younger maidens' backs herself.

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

The contraption Eddie found himself in looked like a somewhat more science fiction version of an iron lung. What it actually was, was more of an iron maiden. The machine had something called 'micro-contact hypodermics', which Eddie took to mean tiny needles, piercing his torso and limbs from all directions. It was about as painful as it sounded. If Eddie hadn't prefaced this experience with three months of torture, he would have been quite discontent with the situation.

"Tell me again how you're not pumping me with steroids," he said.

"Well it's quite simple," the doctor at the machine's console replied. "The hypodermics are delivering a stem cell based chemical cocktail of what are basically like... 'smart proteins'. When muscles build from exertion, it's due to microtears in the tissue caused by the strain. When the body repairs these tears, it builds on them to prevent them recurring. This machine takes out a good part of the turn around between damage and recovery. It's not a miracle cure, and you'll still have a good couple of months of hard physiotherapy ahead of you, but that's nothing compared to what it would normally take you after all the torture and confinement you went throooouuuugh..." the doctor tailed off awkwardly.

Eddie didn't respond, deaf to the stammered apology. Exhaling, he stared at the ceiling and tried to control his breathing. He didn't much fancy a panic attack with sixty four needles in his body. He was aware of the doctor stammering an apology, but wasn't listening.

Gale only half paid attention to the joke making as she entered what had become her usual briefing mode. Swaying her balance from one leg to the other as she waited for Bennie to finish up and let them get out of here. Nobody ever brought up any serious questions anyway and the actual plans were usually quick and to the point. Gale'd just be escorting Sprout or Amy with a gun in hand while they did whatever the job was actually about. With luck she wouldn't have to wear a disguise that was too uncomfortable this time.

"We'll use our own hardware so he can't screw us. Gale's got more bargaining experience than half the ship combined. Sprout, you let her do the talking."

"Whut?" Gale mumbled as a big brick of scales got shoved into her hands.

Did she have a big role to play in this gig? Was she actually supposed to be important this time? Well that was just weird and uncomfortable. She'd been conditioned to get used to hiding in crates or barrels over the last few months. Or play the part of a housekeeper or janitor or prostitute with the rest of the ethnically diverse members of the crew as befitted their captain's views the on societal hierarchy.

"Any serious questions?"

Hell no would Gale be asking any serious questions or draw any attention to herself. Bennie might realize he'd made a mistake and meant to say Amy was doing this before telling gale she was supposed to be playing a tree. 'Nope, no questions here.'
======================================================
The Frostfall craft reached Yuteni just a few hours later. Florian closed his eyes against the migraine material that was the docking process as the inside of the ship briefly became a drum of shaking, rumbling and whining noises that he always thought were a result of the Maiden's ware and tear. Apparently it was just universal to all airships. Either way it all ended soon enough and was replaced by the muffled sounds of... machinery or something, Florian didn't know. Just that the whole process took far longer than anyone thought it should.

He made his way to the exit and waited for the hinges to blow, flanked by the current shift of wolfguard on top of all the other representatives.

["You know I can't even remember the last time I came down this far south."] He mused as they waited for the green light. ["Wonder if it's changed much."] It'd been a long time since Florian had been down south. It'd make a nice change of pace, even if he was here for work, the new scenery could do him good. Then the doors swung open and the wave of heat and humidity struck them all without mercy.

["Oh god... oh god I've lost all the resistance I built up. Oh this is the worst."]

After that it was all a matter of logistics as the troops they'd already brought disembarked, people met with liaisons and all the other multitude of things that happened when you were prepping for a big fight on foreign soil. The main retinue were quickly ushered away to see where they'd be staying and to meet with their Boomhower counterparts.

"Things are already underway, sir. We've been very busy over here but don't worry we'll get you right up to speed." He was assured by a chirpy attendant with glasses and a clipboard. Florian was kind of disappointed she didn't say y'all like you were supposed to in these parts. At least they were going somewhere that'd have air conditioning, hopefully the environmental shock would pass quickly.

["How you holding up, Erik?"] He asked the big guy who'd foolishly come dressed in his usual layers and heavy coat.

["It's like I'm walking on the sun."] He muttered. ["No one should live like this. This city is a testament to man's hubris."] Erik stated it like that was a fact. It still didn't take his coat off though, he wouldn't be beaten by something as meaningless and weak as the weather.

["It certainly got the Babel treatment worthy that description."] Florian mused as he looked up at the spiderweb of scaffolding and repair works that made up the dome skyline, breath steaming up his breather mask as they made their way to somewhere better ventilated. Ignoring Erik's cry of:

"Uuuuummmmnnnick!"

"Things went rather well, all things considered."

"That's good." Asad smiled as he draped his arms over Elizabeth.

"Florian and his troops are on there way as we speak. They're committed to the cause, you didn't doubt me, did you Commander?"

"Who me?" The Commander aimed a thumb at himself. "I have always been an avid and doubtless supporter of Tigerman and all of her flawless decisions that never come back to bite her in the ass." The man smirked before patting the girl on the head.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Asad's expression hardened. "So Bejic is definitely on board? Because if we do this, and they back out, we are, and mind my language my Lady, fucked."

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

"Any serious questions?"

Lilith waved her hand dismissively, "I need a word, but it's nothing important." The girl still didn't know how she was going to break the news.

"And unfortunately, I restrict my rescuing duties to fair maidens exclusively."

Trejo simply smirked at that.

"Y'know, what I'm technically about to do here is go in there and try to convince the noble leader of a noble backed army to let me build her a bunch of airships and other crazy shit to be able to counteract the huge fleet of ships I built this one guy. If I didn't know better, I'd say I was some slick cartoon villain con artist in a suit and hat, twiddling my moustache. But I know that guy in real life, so that can't be it."

"I wish we had that kind of time," the old gangster lamented. "Those pinstriped gringos know something's coming. My Sofia and her men can only hold the door open for us for so long. If you ask me, Maribel needs you for what you know. She already has ships, right?"

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

Content that there were no more pressing questions, Bennie dismissed his Maidens. After the others had cleared out, he found Lilith waiting for him at the front of the bridge. "You said you had something for me?" he asked as he leaned against the steel railing.

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

Sprout and the others spent the next hour packing supplies into the pair of crawlers they would be taking into the city. "So, you expect Bennie ta' lay that on you like that?" Sprout asked Gale as he popped the hood of the crawler. Coming around the front of the vehicle, the boy lifted the hood up and inspected the engine. "You looked pretty shocked.. It's good though, ya' know? The Captain sees somethin' in you. Offer'n you a chance ta' step up. Reckon yer gonna deliver?"

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

"So Bejic is definitely on board? Because if we do this, and they back out, we are, and mind my language my Lady, fucked."

Elizabeth gave Asad a serious look and signaled for him to follow her out of the room. "I won't be long, Captain," she told Piper.

"Of course, M'Lady."

When they were out in the hall, Asad took the lead. The ICU was in a building across the street, connected to the administrative building via a sky bridge. It wasn't a long walk. "They won't back out," Elizabeth finally said. "I trust Florian and Erik. They're good men and they know war. If their people are willing to follow their leader this far south they won't turn back until the job is done."

She nodded confidently. "They'll fight by our side until the end. Let's hope that's enough."

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

"Yes ma'am. No more messing around."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Tsubaki nodded. "Good."

Opening the door once more, she looked at them from over her shoulder. "I am going to get washed up. Prepared for tonight," she explained. "Just continue with your normal duties until I say otherwise." Then she was gone.

When she made it back to her apartment she noticed Bryan was absent. Stocking up on weaponry perhaps? He had a rather complex ritual when preparing for assassinations and she never felt the need to figure out exactly what it entailed.

Whatever it was, it worked. That was good enough for her.

It wasn't until she closed the door behind her that she felt weight in her chest. Sure, she'd been on edge since before the op this morning, but now that she was alone she didn't have to hide it anymore. She threw her shoes off and stumbled towards the nightstand, practically yanking the drawer off the track as she opened it. Plastic baggy in-hand, she threw herself at the coffee table and split it open, dumping it contents on the glass.

She hit three lines of blue and leaned her head back against the sofa. Suddenly everything was okay again. Everything was soft and weightless. Soon, however, things would speed up. Get hot. Real hot.

At least when she was on blue she could focus her energy. Without it she found she couldn't control her emotions at all. She would have random outbursts and then, suddenly, she'd apologize and coddle her victim. Or maybe she did that when she was on the stuff.

It was becoming difficult to tell the difference.

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