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

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Amy was dismissed with the rest of the Maidens, but hung outside the door to wait for Lilith, as they were partners on this mission and all. When the rest had dispersed, the Devil on her shoulder sorely tempted her to listen at the door, to find out what was so important that Lilith couldn't say in front of the crew.

No, she shouldn't... should she?

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As the Frostfall ground forces really didn't have much to do until they reached their actual destination, there wasn't much call for Katya to leave the ship, as her Lord had not requested that she accompany him as part of his personal escort (not that she wasn't totally okay with that or anything). On the other hand, it would probably do even the hardiest of soldiers some good to experience a little comfort before riding off to battle.

At first, she lead a small group, just her at the head of her direct subordinates from the Wolfguard, and Erik's officers. She made a good show of appearing not to sweat a drop even in the full regalia of her uniform. What she saw of Yuteni then... surprised her. So many scars were still so gruesomely visible on the cities surface, but the air of optimism that radiated from those who were hard at work rebuilding their homes was as palpable as the heat. It's it's own way, this place had been battered as relentlessly as Frostfall, and its people stood as resolute as their Northern cousins... and not half as dour in the bargain.

Beofre now, any time Katya had spent away from Frostfall had been on deployment, fighting the few enemies the Boykov's had ever bothered to have without their own city. She'd never seen civilian life in other parts of the world, and had always assumed the cold, grey north had bred a harder sort of man and woman. Perhaps it was time to let go of that prejudice.

'Perhaps the future Lady Maribel envisions for these people is worth fighting for after all?'

"[They do not lack for spirit, these southerners,]" she said aloud to her compatriots "[But there is always room for a little encouragement...]"

She turned to one of Erik's officers.

"[Did the Hussars ever teach you how to throw a parade?]" she asked.

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"If you ask me, Maribel needs you for what you know. She already has ships, right?"

"She does at that." Harry added, before turning to Jake. "Are we to assume that you didn't build an unstoppable armada for your previous employer without keeping a few counter-measures up your sleeve in case of imprisonment, torture, and liberation by a rag-tag collection of handsome revolutionaries? Not saying that I couldn't, but I'd rather not fly against the Wilkes-Vines fleet all by myself."

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"I was one of the first people she came lookin' for when she was buildin' her crew."

"Well, at least it doesn't sound dull." Sandra said, facing front again.

When they got to West Greenhill, Sandra parked up outside the town lock-up, as instructed. The Deputy Marshall hadn't been lying, the tension in the air here was palpable. The street was so silent that Sandra could hear the wet, repetitive squelch of an old man chewing tobacco on his porch the other side of the road. It was the kind of quiet that only ever came before a storm.

"Home sweet home." Sandra muttered, before she broke the silence in the air by rapping loudly on the door three times.

If you could isolate the gene for Being Too Old For This Shit, and clone a person from it, you'd probably produce something similar to Sheriff Cooley. A craggy, weathered face with beady dark eyes greeted them in his office, what parts of it weren't concealed beneath his bushy white moustache, shoulder length hair of the same colour, and a broad-rimmed Stetson. The man had to at least be in his late seventies, though it was clear he'd looked after himself all that time. Nonetheless, the just-perceptible stiffness in his joints as he stood up to greet his visitors betrayed that his body was at last beginning to fail him.

"Well well, how long's it been Sandy?" h croaked cheerfully as Sandra gently embraced him. He was the first person here that Sandra was clearly happy to see.

"Too long Old Man. Too long..." Sandra answered before releasing him "Talahassee, Doctor Machado, this is Sheriff Cooley."

"A pleasure." The Sheriff said, shaking Talahassee's hand with a firm grip, before turning to Maria and tipping his hat politely.

"A Doctor huh?" he continued "Well I know I won't be the only one happy to see you today, ma'am."

As everyone began spilling out of the bridge, Lilith got to her feet and sauntered over to the front of the room, placing a hand on the window as she looked out over the ashlands.

"You said you had something for me?"

Through either uncanny stealth, or simple daydreaming, Lilith hadn't noticed the big man next to her. Without pulling her eyes away from the wastes below, a sad smile curled the girl's lips.

"There's no easy way to say this, so I'm just going to come out and say it." She took a deep breath as she turned to look up at Bennie, holding one of his massive hands between her's. "I was the one who drew the massive cock on your head last week, you were just so drunk, and you passed out, I just couldn't help myself." The girl's face lit up as she smiled, breaking the ice a little couldn't hurt. "Also, I'm pregnant, and you're the baby daddy."

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

Asad nodded as he looked at the girl sideways. "I trust you're judgement, I just want you to be careful, we've come so far, but we've still a lot longer to go" The commander smiled slightly. "Business talk can wait I'm sure, I fully expect Rosso to bore me to tears with the debrief later, but for now you have a guest to entertain." Asad chuckled. "Well, entertain might be the wrong word, a strong breeze would probably topple the man right now, but he'll be okay, who knew having unlimited medical resources would be such a good thing to have around?"

"[Did the Hussars ever teach you how to throw a parade?]"

"[Well... I mean we had to stand straight in lines and look smart when the boss came by some times.]" One of them said uncertainly, thrown off by the question. By Boss of course he meant Vasa.

"[Otherwise you might get shot.]" One of the others nearby threw in for free.

"[Nobody got shot.]"

"[Well my cousin got fucked up for talking while the boss did once.]"

"[Yeah he did!]" The first Hussar practically cheered with a shit eating grin. Like it was a big old joke between them all. His friend didn't seem to appreciate it.
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Gale had only given the crawler a little glance over. She'd been helping for these things since she joined up and living in and around them even longer. A simple vehicle and something she found easy enough to read that she could just skim it. Plus more than any of that she was just looking over the scales left in her charge. Checking out the batteries, the sensitivity, looking over the wires just to see if they looked all proper so no one could question her trading ethics. She checked it again and again and ag- yeah it was probably okay at this point. It was probably a good thing that Sprout came along to snap her out of obsessing over the ungodly amount of money she'd be negotiating for.

"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?"

"Nah I reckon I'm gunna screw it all up beyond repair." Gale snorted in reply, sarcasm having honed itself into a reflex of hers since she started hanging out with Lilith more. The joke... may have fallen flat here. "Pfft, I'll be fine, don't you worry. Aint nothin' in the world I haven't had to haggle for, this'll be easy. Hell I had to cap, like, fifty dudes in that last job, after that my biggest threat's not falling a sleep in the talks."

'Yeah! Good recovery, Me!'

"Well I know I won't be the only one happy to see you today, ma'am."

"Thanks. Care to elaborate on that?" Maria asked. Given the quiet tension, the doctor wondered what exactly she had been brought into.

***

After the briefing, Jun paced back and forth all over the place. Walks were supposed to be relaxing, something that straightened tangled thoughts out, but they were just winding up and up, coiling around and constricting his mind. The only positive thought in the bunch was, 'At least that pig will die tonight and this farce will be over.'

But what then?

What fucking then?

The same clown show would continue with only one change: the clowns in question would be extra cranky as withdrawal symptoms gnawed on their brains and bodies. The monotony of mission then downtime, mission then downtime, would never cease.

Perks of the profession.

Jun found himself in the corridor leading up to his and Mal's apartment, it would be the fifth circuit around the base if he was counting. The question still hung in head. The trail towards the answer had led Jun towards pondering the future - was it always going to be like this?

He made up his mind and went inside, slamming the door shut. Jun crouched and reached under the bed, eventually his hand came across a pile of baggies then grabbed them. Afterwards, he rushed into the en suite bathroom - again, slamming the door behind him - and tipped out all of the blue in the baggies onto the onto the toilet's lid.

It was going to be fucking glorious.

***

Astor lightly tapped the steering wheel of the crawler, "So who's driving?"

"Also, I'm pregnant, and you're the baby daddy."

Bennie cocked an eyebrow and grinned. "You're trying to butter me up, aren't you?" he said. "You always do that."

"The only thing I butter up is toast." Lilith pouted, averting her eyes from the big man.

"What's up?"

"Right..." Lilith's fingers slipped from Bennie's palm as she took a step backwards, crossing her arms over her chest as she resisted the urge to fidget. "The thing is..." She paused again, biting her bottom lip as she looked at the floor.

"Things are different since, well," Lilith paused, "Merry died." She almost winced at the words. "Everything has changed so quickly, the crew seem a lot happier, and everyone just seems to have their shit together." She chuckled. "Which hasn't happened in a loooooong time."

Bennie shrugged. "Yeah, well reality hits you like that sometimes," he told her. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked towards the horizon. Paradiso was but a small speck on the vast, empty landscape. "People aren't the same when their god dies. Just look at the kids Austin recruited. If you think about it, after she died... we all followed their example.

"As much as I miss her... and I miss her more than anything... I think it made us stronger. Stronger than we've ever been. You, me, Aesop, Cam, even Sprout, I think. She taught us how to live life and enjoy the moment, and I don't think it really ever sunk in until she'd already left us."

"But it's not the same." Lilith shrugged her shoulders, a sad smile curling her lips. "It won't ever be the same, and..." she paused as she searched for the words. "I feel like..." She tutted in exasperation. "Everyone has someone now, Sprout has Amy, you have Whiskey, all the newer members are like this." She meshed her fingers together. "Jake is gone, Florian is gone, and... Merry is gone." Her voice cracked slightly.

Letting her hands fall loosely to her sides, she forced a smile as she looked up at Bennie. "That last job made me realise something, we've changed, and I don't think I like what we've become."

Bennie clenched his jaw. "And what's that?" he asked, looking back down at her. "What are we?"

"What are we doing? Really, I mean really. We're pulling in a shit tonne of carbon, but what's it all for? What have we done lately that meant anything." Lilith rubbed the back of her neck. "When was the last time we were, you know..." She knew what she wanted to say, but was afraid it would be too immature for the conversation.

'To hell with it.'

"Robin Hood?"

"Well," he began, but quickly fell silent. He studied the girl from behind his sunglasses, honestly lost as to how to answer her. "Pixie meant well, but even she would admit that being 'Robin Hood' is nothing more than a fantasy. The world doesn't work like that Lilith. You can't fix it by robbing and killing people. In the end, Pixie knew that. That's why she did what she did."

He sighed heavily and turned his gaze to the horizon once more. With a hand on his hip, he pressed his arm against the glass and rested his forehead on his wrist. It was as sombre a pose as he was willing to show her. "You're right about one thing though... it's not the same," he admitted. "There's something wrong. All these kids we have drinking, swearing and shooting? They deserve better than this." He glanced over his shoulder to ensure no one else was left on the bridge to hear. "I spoke to Whiskey last night. She needs more convincing, but I intend to institute some... changes. Changes that rely on the success of this deal going right.

"We've got money now. Enough to buy real professionals. The kids on this ship may think this is a family, but no real family flies around a desert robbing people. You might think so because you were raised here, but it ain't right. With the carbon we've pulled in, we can give these guys a real chance at a decent life. And that's exactly what I intend to do. Find them homes. Provide for them. Continue doing what we do best with a little less grey in our lives."

He grunted. "Trust me, I don't live for carbon. I want to make a difference too. But this is all I've got, Lily. This is all I know how to do."

Lilith followed the man's gaze. "Me too." the woman sighed. The two stood silent for a few moments. "I want... to go to school." She looked sideways at Bennie. "I want to live with my boyfriend, and go to school, and eat nice food in fancy clothes, I want to see the world through a different lens for a change." She leaned against the big man's shoulder. "Does that sound stupid?" She asked softly.

"No," Bennie almost whispered. He looked at her for a long time before continuing. "You want to be with Florian?"

Lilith didn't answer the question for a long time. Hooking her around his, she looked through the window. "Do you remember the day I came back from Frostfall?"

"Yeah. I'll never forget it."

"I promised myself I'd never leave him, that I'd never let anything hurt him the way Merry did." Her voice cracked slightly. "I spent so much time just trying to keep him focused on something, anything, just so he didn't even have time to think about her, because when you're doing 50 push ups, you don't have time to cry, or feel sad." Lilith glanced up at Bennie.

"And it worked, I think, for the most part." Hey eyes seem to lose focus, as if looking for something behind the man. "Not for me though, it never really did, nothing did." She looked back through the glass and out into the wasteland. "It still isn't working, not really. When I'm not sad, I'm angry, when I'm not angry, I'm lonely, and then I drink, usually until I'm angry again." She chuckled for a moment before trailing off.

There was a long moment of silence.

"Bennie, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"What were..." Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "What's it like growing up? With a family I mean."

Bennie pursed his lips. "I don't imagine I'm the best person to ask," he chuckled quietly. "Didn't have a very normal upbringing either, but it was... nice. My father was a bastard, but I respected him. My sisters, especially Mercedes, well... I guess they were my best friends. I could trust them with anything. And my mother? She died when I was young, but she was a tender soul."

Lilith smiled "That sounds nice." she had never asked anyone that question before, never even thought about asking, not until recently. "I don't think Merry was... like a mother. Not that I have a point of comparison or anything." She laughed softly. "I didn't really have anything until I came here, no friends, not real friends, and the nuns' attention was divided between so many of us, I didn't really see any of them as a 'mother'."

"Pixie had a friend once," he said. "Never told me much about her, but I knew she was special. She made Pixie who she was. I have a feeling she felt a similar bond with you. With the roles reversed, I guess. Kind of like... a big sister kind of thing." He shrugged. "You don't need a mother or father. Not really. You just need someone that will look after you. Show you the way. Despite what you may feel, there ain't no part of you that's missing. Voids get filled when they need filling. For you, that was Pixie and Sprout. Now, it's the Bejic boy."

"He has a name." Lilith smirked as she looked up at Bennie. "Don't pretend like you don't approve." She gave him a nudge.

"I still haven't met him," Bennie pointed out. "You talk him up a lot, but I remember some of your previous boyfriends. You had shit taste back then."

"I never had boyfriends!" Lilith squeaked, raising a hand to her chest in offence. "I was a free agent, fluttering through life on the wings of fate, without a care in the world." She stated dramatically, flapping a hand in the air slowly. "I always forget that you haven't met him, I should introduce you, I think you'd really like him." Lilith smiled "And if that fails, I'll introduce you to Erik, you'll really like him." She grinned. "He's a huge softy who hides it beneath a veil of passive aggressiveness too."

"Thanks?" Bennie replied.

"You're welcome." Lilith gleamed. "I mean it though, Florian's a great guy, he managed to push Merry away enough times, and you know what she was like with forbidden fruit.

"I can' hive him?!" She shouted in her best Boomhower accent, "Why, that jes makes me wan 'im more, challenge aaaaxecepted!" the woman shook her head. "Nope, pushed her away, every single time." She sighed happily "That's mah boy."

"He has a lot more willpower than I ever had," Bennie chuckled. "I melted in her hands every time."

"Yeah." Lilith nodded, a look of disappointment creasing her brow. "I think that's where Axel gets it from. Amy just looks at him and he's a mess." She smiled. "That's good though, I think." She fell silent as stared outside.

"He has someone now, someone who loves him, someone who will take care of him." A sad look softened her face.

"I won't feel so bad about leaving."

"He could have the biggest harem on the Rock and he'd still miss you, Lily," the big man countered. "Okay, that sounded gross. What I mean to say is: he's going to pitch a fit no matter what. But you know, Sprout's grown up a lot. He can handle it. I wouldn't let him hold you back."

"He's just been through so much lately, and I don't want him to feel..." Lilith paused for a moment before sighing and shrugging her shoulders. "I don't want him to think I'm abandoning him. We've been together pretty much since he can remember." The woman smiled sadly. "We're Lily and Sprout, the dynamic duo, hairy guy and waistcoat guy."

Bennie shrugged. "You have to leave the nest eventually," he replied. "Brothers and sisters learn from eachother and then they move on. Start their own lives. It has to happen eventually. You two can't be kids forever."

The girl pouted "Bu-but, Lilwy and Spwout." Her bottom lip quivered as she made big eyes at Bennie.

"You want me to convince you to leave or not? You can make this decision on your own, Lilith."

The girl pursed her lips. "Don't be that way, this is hard for me."

Bennie laughed. "Life's hard. You settle down with that boy up North and at least you'll get to dress pretty."

"You're talking this really well, considering you're losing the best person on the ship," She puffed out her chest proudly.

"Yeah well, it gets your safety off my conscious so it evens out. Six months ago I would have tried to convince you to stay. I would have told you I 'needed you'. But things are different now. If I can keep this ship running without your help I'd rather you be safe and happy somewhere else. Pixie'd feel the same way."

"So noble." Lilith smirked as she narrowed her eyes slyly. Without really thinking she moved in to hug the big man, wrapping her arms around his huge form before rest her head on his chest.

"Don't think I'm not grateful for everything you and Meredith have done for me, I don't want you thinking that, understand?"

"You owe me everything," he chuckled. "No way I'm forgetting that."

"I'm thinking this makes us even." Lilith sighed, closing her eyes. "As an added bonus, I'll even go on this last job. Once more into the breach, for what's looking to be a boring as fuck exchange."

"That's what you always say. Then shit hits the fan. You promise I won't get shit in my eye this time?"

"I'd say yes, but we both know that's not going to happen. Trouble follows us everywhere, you know that." She pulled away from Bennie, crossing her arms over her chest as a smirk curled her lips. "This one's easy, but I'll be there to cover everyone's backs if things go tits up." She rolled her eyes. "Providing Amy doesn't bore me to death in the hotel because the 'duvet isn't folded correctly, and what kind of man puts up two beautiful women in a dive like this.'" Her impression was much to be desired.

"You'll have time for fancy hotels when you're retired," he nodded towards the back of the bridge. "Go on and get ready. We'll celebrate your graduation when the job's done."

"Aye aye, Captain" Lilith stood to attention, raising a salute. She looked at the man for a while, her face softened before she winked at him and turned about face and began leaving the bridge.

Amy's moral conundrum has, of course, ended with her ear cupped tightly against the door, hanging onto every word. Luckily the conversation was long enough that she had time to pass over an entire emotional spectrum. First she was shocked, then she was angry, before she became deeply sad. Now, although her face was still streaked with tears, she was happy for Lilith. Amy had never had a home, but that didn't mean she couldn't realise that Lilith deserved one. A real one.

Lilith's approach was so abrupt that Amy barely had time to launch herself backwards, wipe her face on her sleeve, and adopt a casual pose.

"Hey, what was that all about?" she asked. Although no earthly torture would get her to admit it, she was absolutely sure Lilith knew that she had heard.

Lilith clenched her jaw as fought the urge to pick up the pace, her eyes tingling as she maintained her outer calm. Opening the door out onto the corridor she was about to break into a jog for her room...

"Hey, what was that all about?"

"Oh shit!" Lilith gasped, clutching at her chest as Amy seemingly materialised before her. "You made me-you ma-" The woman's chest spasmed as hiccups lurched from her throat. "Oh-oh great." Lilith half sighed before being interrupted. "T-thanks, A-my" She tried to laugh but to no avail. "Yo-you b-bell-end." Playfully tapping the younger woman on the shoulder, it never occurred to her that Amy could have overheard anything.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Amy giggled weakly as Lilith spluttered before her "Are you okay? We should probably head down and help prep the crawlers..."

Once Lilith had recovered, they walked for a little in silence, with Amy smiling sadly.

"You remember the first time we met?" She asked suddenly "When you chucked all my stuff out of your room?"

She chuckled a little at that, before pausing for a moment.

"You and Axel... You were the only two people who knew nothing at all about me when you first met me, and so you took me as I was, right in front of you, with no baggage. I still don't even know who I am really, but you saw me as a normal person. I liked that, and... just in case it slipped my mind, I wanted to say thank you."

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Katya gave Erik's men a withering look, that quickly bestowed silence on them.

"[Well, provided you can march in step without tripping over your laces, the rest shouldn't be too hard to take care of.]" she said, her scowl breaking into a smirk.

2 hours later

Honestly, Katya's military efficiency frightened even her sometimes. Not that the rest of the forces under her command should go without their fair share of the credit (how they built the floats so quickly she didn't want to know, provided they all held up). Either way, it was an impressive sight, watching platoon after platoon march in perfect unison to the beat of the drums beneath her.

Many of the local residents didn't quite know what to make of it. After all, the last army they had seen had come to kill them and steal their children. Of course, Katya had thought of that. She had the men on the floats distributing luxuries that she had 'requisitioned' from their ship. They wouldn't be needing it where they were going, and the ship would now be lighter and more fuel efficient. Any doubts that the locals had vanished fast when they were being presented with provisions that would have been rare to them even before their city had been demolished.

At one point, a little girl broke free from her mother's grip on her hand, and ran out into the path of the soldiers. She couldn't have been more than seven or eight. Th girl began to march next to the platoon leader, out in the front. As the platoon passed beneath Katya's pedestal, they all snapped off a salute in perfect time. A moment later, the little girl mimicked them, and Katya smiled down at her.

"You and Axel... You were the only two people who knew nothing at all about me when you first met me, and so you took me as I was, right in front of you, with no baggage. I still don't even know who I am really, but you saw me as a normal person. I liked that, and... just in case it slipped my mind, I wanted to say thank you."

Cigarette hanging loosely from her lips, Lilith looked at Amy sideways, the corner of her mouth curling slightly. "Was that before or after you drank all my whiskey and screamed at everyone I loved?" she chuckled. "No baggage my arse." sighing, the young woman held her hands behind her head. "We all had a rough day back then." Lilith's face hardened as she recalled all the old faces. "You were just crazy in a different way than everyone else, nothin' wrong with that."

"That's one way of putting it." Amy looked away awkwardly.

"I am getting better..." she said "You know, one day at a time. I just wanted you to know that, if I ever actually become the kind of person who can just relax and, well, not be a psychotic bitch most of the time, I'll owe that to you."

Lilith scoffed "Me? Why me? The kid's the one you should be thanking." The woman smiled "Axel's like that, has a way of grounding people, pretty sure the ship could be on fire and he wouldn't bail until his arse was on fire."

Amy laughed at that.

"Yeah, but he'd only wait that long to show off!" she said "He'd be all like 'Don' you worry none 'bout no fire, lil' lady' trying to keep a calm face on as his jeans started smouldering."

She smiled, looking at her feet.

"Axel's never let me down, and he's always been there for me to lean on no matter how stupid I'm being. Honestly though, even I get sick of talking about my feelings sometimes. Don't laugh!" she pointed an accusatory finger at Lilith. "The point is, whenever I've just needed a friend to hang out with, like a... normal person might do, I've always been able to count on you. Maybe if I'd had something like that when I was a kid, then maybe I wouldn't be so... maybe I'd actually know how to make friends without threatening to kill someone after a few minutes of conversation, you know?"

Lilith raised an eyebrow curiously. "You don't have to thank me for that, I like hanging out with you, it's not a chore." She blew smoke from the corner of her mouth. "You're my best mate's girlfriend, I've always got time for you." She furrowed her brow thoughtfully. "That's not what I meant, I mean, I'd hang out with you regardless." She wasn't very good at this kind of thing. "Who knows what we'd all be like if we had each other growing up, that's kinda the reason the Maidens exist to begin with, everyone who was meant to be here will kind of drift here eventually, some longer than others." she smiled sadly "Not everyone sticks around, some people don't get a choice and they're taken away from us, but this is the kinda place you make friends for life, you know?" Lilith looked at Amy, searching her face. "You found Axel, keep him close like I have, and you'll never be lonely ever again, I can promise you"

"You don't have to worry about that, but in the mean time though, let's try and make this mission a fun one." Amy replied, grinning. "Just in case... just in case Bennie decides we're too much trouble to pair us up again."

Amy paused for a moment and touched her belly.

"I don't know why, but I could really go for something cheesy right now." she said "Strange. I don't even like dairy."

'Sorry to disappoint you, kid.' Lilith thought sadly.

"What's wrong with you?" Lilith sneered with mock disgust. "Pizza is the greatest creation of mankind, how can you not like cheese?" The woman shook her head, holding up her hands in front of her. "That's it, I'm sorry." She started to outpace Amy. "We can't be friends anymore, you blew it."

Amy sneered and punched Lilith playfully on the arm.

"Well then, good luck trying to convince people you're sophisticated without my help." she said "Besides, what you call pizza is a gluttonous bastardisation of real Italian cuisine... a hot, thick, cheesy bastardisation... do you know where we could order some?"

"You fuckin' wot mate?" Lilith glared at Amy, "I'm well sophistimicated! You wanna fight?" She lurched her shoulders towards the younger girl before chuckling. "We can't get anythin' out here, but there's a place in Paradiso that delivers, we'll get somethin' from there while we're twiddling our thumbs waiting for Gale and Sprout to fuck up everything up so we can rescue them."

Amy smiled.

"Sounds like a plan. They'd better wait until we're full though."

"I won't be moving until I am, that'll learn 'em, gotta take care of themselves at some point." Lilith chuckled, "I won't be around forever, dumbass kids." The woman smiled sadly.

"An heir?" Tsubaki asked, utterly dumbfounded.

Dio nodded solemnly. Struggling to his feet, the bathrobe-garbed noble made his way across his study and looked out at the city below. He tried to avoid this place when he could. He could still smell his own blood soaked into the marble tiles on the floor. It made him nauseous.

He placed his palm on the window and sighed. "Tell me, Tsubaki my dear, what do you know of my son?"

The newly promoted colonel crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged. "He was killed when he was three years old," she said. "They never identified the killer."

"That's because there never was one," Dio admitted. "He was taken. Taken by the same woman who shot me all those years ago. The same woman that took my eyes."

Tsubaki clenched her jaw. Could it be him?

Dio chuckled. "That boy they call 'Sprout'? His real name is Alexander Basilio. My heir." He closed his artificial eyes, squinting in pain as he did so. "I was a fool before. I figured it out so long ago, but it didn't matter then. I didn't need him... or at least, I didn't think I would need him."

He was trembling now. "His bitch of a 'mother' is dead now," he muttered. "She can no longer poison his mind. I can still save him. There's still hope." He pressed his fingers hard against his temples. "I won't let him turn out like me. I'll be good to him. I'll make him into a true man. I'll be a better father than..."

Tsubaki placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He grew very still, and moments later, turned to face her. His expression was vacant of any emotion. Whatever he was feeling had been banished. "Your team won't be the only one in Paradiso," he began. "Our intelligence suggests the Iron Maiden is heading there for a score. I've dispatched Masakado to collect my son. I thought I should make you aware."

"Masakado?!" Tsubaki replied incredulously. "So you really have been using him. Even after all the trouble he caused? Is that truly wise?"

Dio nodded. "I've had my best men tweaking his programming round-the-clock," he explained. "There are no surprises hidden for us in his head. If I had to guess, Pym had intended on taking him with him when he betrayed me." His eyes found the floor, and a sudden silence fell upon them. "You would never betray me, right Tsubaki? I can always count on you."

"You can."

Tsubaki woke in a haze. Her head was pounding, her face was burning hot, her heart was racing and her palms were sweating. She was still high.

Looking to the window, she noticed it was dark outside.

How long had she been lying there?

The phone had probably been ringing off the hook for the past hour at least. She'd know for sure whenever she managed to find her pager.

"Where the fuck have you been, Motoko?" the man on the phone demanded. It sounded like Louis, but she couldn't be sure. Voices were hard to recognize on blue.

Tsubaki rubbed her aching head and sighed. "Where's Caputo? I figure he'd be the one chewing me out."

"I'm running the show tonight," he said, his tone lighter now. "Convinced the boss to let me handle the exchange while he gets his knob sucked at home. Now hurry up down to the warehouse. I need your muscle. I need your boys."

"Be there in fifteen."

Good, Caputo was right where she wanted him.

The Colonel threw on a flannel shirt and was struggling with her jeans when she called her squad over their comm. "Mallory. Moon. Meet me at the warehouse for the exchange," she said. "O'Lafferty, Caputo's at his apartment. He may have company. You're clear to engage when ready. Over."

After splashing some water onto her face, she tucked her sidearm into the waistband and bolted out the door.

*********

"... Hell I had to cap, like, fifty dudes in that last job, after that my biggest threat's not falling a sleep in the talks."

Sprout laughed. "Hell yeah," he said. "It'll be borin' as fuck, I reckon. Can' 'ave you fall asleep though. Yer doin' most'a the talkin'."

"So who's driving?"

"Yer already in the seat," the boy said to Jesse. "Reckon we'll finish up 'ere an' you can jus' sit tight where you are." Sprout glanced towards the door. "Where the fuck 'ar Lil an' Amy at?"

********

"Well, entertain might be the wrong word, a strong breeze would probably topple the man right now, but he'll be okay, who knew having unlimited medical resources would be such a good thing to have around?"

"How bad was he by the way?" Elizabeth asked. "I mean when you found him. I can't imagine anyone surviving seven straight months of torture. Especially the kind Wilkes-Vines can dish out. I was honestly shocked when the initial intel came in about him. I'd thought him dead for so long."

"Thanks. Care to elaborate on that?"

Cooley chuckled a little, half-swallowing a cough that it provoked.

"In case you haven't noticed ma'am, Greenhill has precious little to offer the outside world," he rasped "And the outside world usually has even less to do with us. We're not short on sickly folk, but a Doctor makes precious little here, and the Ashlands ain't traditionally a place of charity. We've got an apothecary in town, and a few of the ladies make fine nurses, but every now and then there's just no substitute for a real doctor, with the kind of supplies that nobody out here would offer to us for a price we could pay."

He laughed again, and this time there was more genuine humour in it, despite his hoarseness.

"I beg your pardon ma'am, but don't be surprised if you get more than a few marriage proposals while you're here. Some folk might figure marrying you to their sons a good way of getting you to stay on! Not, of course, to imply that you don't possess all other kinds of admirable qualities."

Sandra had missed the old man's rural sense of charm, but there was only so much time to chat.

"One of your deputies sent us your way 'cause of some trouble." she interrupted "What's happened. Is my family okay?"

"Ah..." Cooley's expression grew harried again as he returned to his desk. "Nothin' yet, Sandy, and if I still got anything to say about it, that's the way it'll remain, but..."

He chewed on his lip a little before continuing.

"Look, I don't like to admit it, but being the law down here has never meant being in charge, not really. That doesn't matter though when the real powers that be are on my side. This time last year, all the scum knew where things stood. Your boss and her... benefactor, kept the peace. When the Gentleman liberated you and took down the Grately Brothers, that created a lot of little fish, but being little fish kept them alive, so they stayed skulking at the bottom of the pond."

"But not any more?" Sandra shifted uncomfortably.

Cooley nodded.

"Now, nobody's heard a thing from The Gentleman in months. Lot of folks are willin' to declare him dead, and Miss Turner seems more interested in playing bandit these days..."

"I'll tell Amy what's happening down here." Sandra cut him off firmly "The gangs will scurry back to the gutters when they see the Iron Maiden hovering over Greenhill."

"If you think that'll work, I won't stop you, so long as you can promise the crew'll keep my peace." The Sheriff grimaced "But I've gotta warn you, that name ain't what it used to be either. Rumour has it these days the Maidens are a gang of schoolboys, led by a man not near as... inspiring, as the previous captain."

"Dare them to say that to his face..." Sandra muttered.

"Be that as it may..." he continued "If I know anythin' about the name Carmine, I have a hard time believing he'd be willing to shed blood over this pile of dirt. Anyway, let me worry about the long term. I asked you to come in because your father..."

Sandra knew what he was going to say from the tone of his voice, and just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

"You were more of a father to me than he ever was." she said acidly "Just get on and tell me who else he disappointed."

Now it was Cooley's turn to look uncomfortable.

"You know me Sandy. It ain't my way to speak ill of the dead, but your father had debts, to some of the more unsavoury characters who've been sniffing the air these past six months. He's no longer in a position to pay anybody back, so they've decided they want their carbon from his next of kin."

"How much?" Sandra dreaded the answer.

Silently, Cooley slid an opened envelope across his desk to her, which Sandra snatched up and read. A few seconds later, she scrunched the letter up and threw it at a wall in disgust, before burying her head in her hands.

"You have GOT to be kidding?!" she exclaimed. It was only the presence of the Sheriff that kept her from cursing her father with every name under the twin suns. Her share of the casino job wasn't enough to cover it. In fact, it wouldn't even have covered half."

"It's more than likely they're exaggerating." Cooley reassured her "Not that I can prove it, and in any case your mother can't pay. I've told them to leave your family alone, and that if they have any further business they can conduct it through me. I just wanted to warn you. Be careful how you walk these streets. They don't belong to you and yours any more, and your family name is marked with some very bad people until further notice."

"If they lay a finger on any of mine..." Sandra growled "Then my father won't be the only one I bury before I go."

"If it comes to that, you'll be leading my posse." Cooley said gravely "But the forces I have at my disposal aren't enough to take them on, if it comes to blood."

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

"Where the fuck 'ar Lil an' Amy at?"

"What a tone to use about the best women in your life?!" Amy teased as she and Lilith approached. "What do you say Lil', how should we punish him?"

"How bad was he by the way? I mean when you found him. I can't imagine anyone surviving seven straight months of torture. Especially the kind Wilkes-Vines can dish out. I was honestly shocked when the initial intel came in about him. I'd thought him dead for so long."

Asad looked sideways at Elizabeth, smirking slightly. "I got the impression the only thing holding him together was doing in kind what was done to him." The man looked ahead. "He thought his kid was dead, and all the time in the world to think on it." The Commander's expression hardened. "We can fix the physical, Elizabeth, that's the easy part." She glanced at the girl. "I would recommend a thorough psychological analysis as a priority."

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

"What do you say Lil', how should we punish him?"

Lilith crossed her arms over her chest. "He's sharing a crawler with us, I don't know about you, but I'm gonna poke him in the side until we get to Paradiso." She narrowed her eyes at the boy. "It won't be hard enough to hurt, but not so soft that he can get comfortable." She pointed two fingers at her eyes and over to Sprout. "You're mine, bitch." She growled.

Bryan sat on the flat, open rooftop of one of Paradiso's downtown restaurants, the Grassa e Troppo Caro. It hadn't been hard to tail Caputo. Arrogant, and reasonably affluent, Bryan had him pegged as a penthouse guy, but had kept watch for a couple of hours just to make sure. His assumption had been confirmed not too long ago, when Caputo had drawn back the curtains, standing in the arched window with his robe unfortunately open. If nothing else, it had also shed light on why the man felt the need to bluster so much.

The doorman was undoubtedly one of Caputo's men. And if he was any kind of smart, he probably had a couple of goons placed at strategic points in the complex's hallway. Not that it would make a lick of difference.

At first, Bryan had intended to scale the side of the building, and go in through the big window, but as he'd watched the doorman, a more nuanced idea had taken shape. All he had to do was make sure it wouldn't be traced back to Samsara, and let the family's natural paranoia do the rest. But he'd decided to take things a step further.

One of Bryan's first tasks upon their initial insertion into Paradiso had been to gather background info on any other players in the area. As he'd suspected, there were a few smaller operations working below the radar, including an offshoot from a slightly larger operation out east. The Hong Quan were just a small-time triad outfit with delusions of grandeur, but they suited Bryan's purposes perfectly.

Purchasing a stun grenade and a two part detonator mechanism from Paradiso's thriving black market, he'd put the grenade and the receiver into brown packaging, bullshitted a recipient name, and charmed some young woman who clearly lived in the building into dropping the 'parcel' off with the front desk.

"O'Lafferty, Caputo's at his apartment. He may have company. You're clear to engage when ready. Over." There was something odd about the way Tsubaki spoke. She sounded slurred. But Bryan had a job to do, and so put it to the back of his mind.

Taking a swig from his flask, he pulled a balaclava down over his face and checked his load out. No swords tonight. Too distinctive. Instead, a pair of combat knives and a karambit, as well as a snub-nosed revolver. "Aye, Commander."

Sliding down the restaurant's drainage pipe, Bryan peered around the corner, watching the doorman. Reaching into his pocket, he pressed the detonator. There was a muffled bang from inside the building, and the doorman turned around, startled. While he was searching for his keys to investigate, Bryan came up behind the doorman and put him into a sleeper hold, easing him to the ground.

Taking the keys from where they were dropped, he stepped inside. There was nobody at the desk at this time of night, as he'd expected. Even so, he was a little relieved. He hadn't relished the idea of stun grenading an innocent bystander. Crossing to the elevator, he called it, entered, and checked the buttons. The penthouse button required an electronic key. No way of bypassing that.

Prying open the emergency service hatch, Bryan climbed out on top of the elevator, he clipped his belt to the winch and started up the shaft. Eventually, he reached the top. Holding himself in position with an arm and his legs, Bryan produced a pencil torch and searched out the emergency box above the elevator doorway. Pocketing the torch, he opened it, he hit the emergency switch and the doors slid back. As they did, he drew the snub-nose. Two very confused guards were revealed, and before they could move, Bryan fired twice.

Unclipping himself and jumping out into the hall, he strode down it towards the penthouse door, double tapping the guards as he went. Doubtless Caputo had heard the gunshots, but unless he wanted to jump out of the window (unlikely, with his physique), there was no way out. Dropping the snub-nose and taking a pistol from one of the dead guards, Bryan kicked the door down.

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

"Are we to assume that you didn't build an unstoppable armada for your previous employer without keeping a few counter-measures up your sleeve in case of imprisonment, torture, and liberation by a rag-tag collection of handsome revolutionaries? Not saying that I couldn't, but I'd rather not fly against the Wilkes-Vines fleet all by myself."

"A couple of things," Ruffles said. "But my other job was training up more shipwrights for him. I couldn't exactly go putting Death Star exhaust ports on everything, or they'd have noticed."

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

"Boss?"

Payton looked up. Fargo was fixing him with a goggled stare. "Yes?"

"Your uh..." Fargo tapped the lense of one goggle, and Payton understood. He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. The silk came away bloody. It had been happening every now and then ever since Canton had kicked him into that wall. He was getting sick of it.

"So what is it you wanted to see me about?" Fargo asked.

"You're going to have a very big job ahead of you," Payton said.

"I'm listening," Fargo replied.

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

Eddie sat with his bed in the raised sitting position. He wouldn't have been able to raise himself up without it. Sleep was not happening tonight. He wasn't in the mood to deal with all those nightmares.

But if he didn't find something to do soon, he was going to drift off whether he wanted to or not. Reaching out, he pressed the nurse's button. About two minutes later, one of them arrived.

"Yes, Mr Canton? Is there anything you need?"

"Yeah. A pencil and paper, please. And an eraser."

"You're mine, bitch."

Gale had a little smile to herself amid all the talking, her lips curling up just a little. They were a nice bunch for a roving bandit gang, these guys. She actually felt like she could trust them to have her back if this all went wrong. Hopefully it wouldn't and Gale could lay claim to an amount of money bigger than any sum she'd seen in her life but the butterflies in her stomach kept on flapping their little nervous warnings. She just had to not think on the amount, treat it like any other haggle session she'd been in.

That was what she kept telling herself, hugging the scales under her arm.

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

"Mallory. Moon. Meet me at the warehouse for the exchange,"

"On...ugh... on it." Mal grumbled, throwing on her padded vest and almost stumbling on her way. Her head felt like a brick after last night. That's a last hurrah to drugs for you.

Wait did she even have any last night? Mal didn't keep a stash. What did she get up to last night? Maybe she joined a fight club. Whatever was up they could finally get this job rolling again, it felt like a life time since the road hit. Time in Paradiso just slowed to a crawl under a haze of blue and neon lighting. Call her blunt but Mal saw a lot more merit in just blasting the Russo's into oblivion at this point. Hell they could even keep up their sneaky streak. Contessa's agents wouldn't be bringing their A-game if they were kept busy looking for C4 charges.

'But mine is not to question why.' Maybe the exchange could offer her something of interest at least.

"I would recommend a thorough psychological analysis as a priority."

Elizabeth nodded in agreement. "I'll get someone on it right away," she said. "I need to make sure he's up to the task at hand. No one knows our enemy better than he does."

Eventually they made it to Mr. Canton's hospital room. Before they entered Edea called out to them from down the hall. "Harel, you're alive!" She slapped the bigger man on the shoulder and grinned. "Mind if I steal him for some drinks, m'Lady? You know how much I love his debriefs."

"Do as you wish," Elizabeth replied halfheartedly. She turned her attention away from the pair and knocked lightly on the door. "Mr. Canton, may I enter?"

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

"You're mine, bitch."

Sprout chuckled. "I'll jus' be sure ta' fart every time ya' prod me," he said. "Negative reinforcement, ya' know? It's a good thin' these breathers don' filter out stank." Grabbing shotgun, the boy swung into the seat beside Jesse and slapped the back of his head cushion. Come on' y'all, we're burnin' daylight. Reckon we aught'a move."

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

"Da fuck was that?!" Caputo cursed, nearly throwing the naked prostitute off the bed. "You call some friends?" He accused while scrambling for the pistol on his nightstand.

Shocked and confused, the woman struggled to her feet. "Were those gunshots?"

"Yeah, they were," he spat, pulling the hammer back on his pistol. "Fuck me..."

Both jumped at the sound of the front door getting kicked in. "STAY CLOSE!" He shouted, grabbing the woman by the shoulder. If anything he could use her as a hostage... or a shield.

"What do we do?!"

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" He screamed at her. He pointed his pistol at the door and whispered to himself. "Just try me you dumb mother fucker."

Allie skulked around the hangar, hands in her pockets as she gave some equipment a look over, not that there was anything to fix, she'd done the routine maintenance earlier that morning. Throwing an occasional envious glance over at the crew leaving for Paradiso as she pretended to look busy. This wasn't fair, all of her friends were going, so what if it was a routine drop off? If it was low risk than why couldn't she go?

Stupid Bennie and his stupid face.

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

"I'll jus' be sure ta' fart every time ya' prod me. Negative reinforcement, ya' know? It's a good thin' these breathers don' filter out stank."

Lilith grimaced slightly "Ehhhh, probably not worth it then."

Come on' y'all, we're burnin' daylight. Reckon we aught'a move."

Hopping in the seat behind Sprout, Lilith furrowed her brow in thought, pursing her lips she leaned forward, fingers laced together as she tapped her nose. Quickly she reach around the side of Sprout's seat and poked the boy in the side. "This will be so worth it!" She said triumphantly as she poked him again.

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

"I'll get someone on it right away,"

Asad nodded his approval of the decision, a small smile curling his lips.

"Harel, you're alive!"

Asad's smile widened into a grin as Edea approached winking at the woman playfully as she slapped him on the shoulder. "Such a way with words, Ms. Fontaine" the Commander chuckled, Edea's lilted accent was always a welcome softness to his day.

"Mind if I steal him for some drinks, m'Lady? You know how much I love his debriefs."

"As long as it's coffee," Asad nodded sagely "I'm still very much hungover from last night."

"This will be so worth it!"

"No! No! This will not be worth it!" Any cried as she caught Lilith's wrist.

"You have never had to share a duvet with this man, Lilith. Trust me, you know not what you do!"

The wicked wouldn't be getting any rest here as Florian had descended into a storm of networking and contact making. The wolfguard and friends may have come packing heavy artillery but he'd arrived armed to the teeth with the weapons of a governor. Those being... pens... contracts... business cards... none of these weapons were as cool as military hardware or lovingly crafted personal firearms, he had to admit. That was why Florian kept his father's ornate cane revolver strapped to the inside his coat, glinting in the light whenever the wind blew it aside. All the conflicted sentimental reasons aside it gave Florian just the little feeling that he could still be an active force in the remaking of his home dome.

It was a childish way, he knew, he could do far more with a smile and some well placed words now than he could ever hope to do with a bullet. But this was how he grew up, how he was raised and it was what he felt comfortable with. Fitting that he'd taken to calling that shining hand cannon "Folly". Because Florian WAS and ALWAYS would be someone who named his guns! May Cyka's metal soul rest in peace. No doubt she would have been proud of all the great work he was doing here today.

He mostly wore it as an unofficial symbol of office for the old hands of the family. The gaudy display the weapon made of itself did an admirable job of drawing the eye of any would be attacker away from the real threat of the pistol Lilith had gotten commissioned for him the last time she visited. A chunkier, rustic, counterpart that rested handily on his left side. Delivered the same day as her new rifle.

'Because we're that kind of couple it seems.' Florian smiled to himself.

To Erik's mind there was something very nostalgic about how the boy was quietly sinking his financial claws into Yuteni and setting up for other southern domes. Indeed his faith in the morality law was long buried but there was an artistic beauty to burying some poor soul under an avalanche of paperwork. The subtle skill of arranging and choosing each word with all the care of a spider spinning its web and watching someone sign themselves away to you. A thing of beauty. Not that the straightforwardness of smashing their face in and putting them through a table too.

["Not that it doesn't fill me with pride to watch you being underhanded and dubious but I could use a break."] The big man stretched out some of the leftover stiffness from the trip.

["Yes because you've been working so hard at all this stuff so far."] Florian droned over his ongoing battle with the written word. ["Can you get the curtains there."] He waved, blocking some of the light from his eyes.

Erik swung one of the curtains shut just in time to miss the tip of a parade float rounding the corner. ["I do things! Told you I was taking a step back from the political side of things, that's your thing. I have my own stuff to do on top of playing general thank you."]

["Like what?"] Florian sat up, turning to face Erik. He already knew about the adoption thing though why the old man was trying to keep it quiet from him he couldn't guess. He could have pulled some lordly strings and gotten it all sorted for him but he wasn't about to intrude on Erik's private matters that far. That'd just give him a world of trouble.

Erik, after thinking for a moment, cleared his throat and walked to the centre of the room like he owned the place. Oddly enough it sounded like music was drifting up from outside to accompany him. ["Florian... I've been a lot of things in my life. A young working class lad who became the first of his family to go on to higher education. I've been a struggling student. A downtrodden intern. I've gone from that to being a back alley lawyer all the way to a crime faamily's legal man and enforcer - even going free lance from time to time before finally becoming an outlaw rebel fighting against the rulers of his mother dome. I've been a friend, a lover, a husband and more to some."] He was loving this.

["Until fate threw more trials my way and forcing me to don the mantle of social revolutionary-slash-philanthropist-slash-right hand to the governor-slash-role model to the younger generation."]

["That's a cross you've carried with quiet dignity."] Florian chimed in glibly.

Erik ignored him as he so often did at times like this. ["But it isn't enough. I need more. I WANT a physical legacy to leave behind me, one that will leave the world in almost as much awe as I have. And the thing that will do that will be..."]

Slowly and with purpose he walked towards Florian, leaning down to look him in the eye. When suddenly he switched to the common tongue. "The F.W.F. Frostfall Wrestling Federation." And Erik grinned from ear to ear. ["And yes I am still open to investors."]

Florian was in shock! "Oooooohhhh!" Erik nodded along with his excitement. ["That is the coolest!"]

["I know."]

["Okay, yeah, yeah we're taking a break. We have to get some coffee or something, you're telling me everything about this! This is the real important stuff."] For Florian it seemed the hype was already alive and real as the two of them went on their way to top up their caffeine.

Who could say what was taking Katya and the other staff so long.

Eddie's breathing was slow and calm as he detailed the shape of the lighthouse he was drawing. Then there was a knock at the door that made him jump slightly, yanking him out of his concentration.

"Mr. Canton, may I enter?"

"Yeah, come in," he said, dropping the pad and pencil into his lap. Was that who he thought it was?

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

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Bryan heard, just as the door began to crumple and fall. He ripped the pin from another stun grenade with his teeth and tossed it through the doorway, and then pressed himself against the wall behind the frame of the door. The grenade detonated. Bryan bolted through the door, straight to the nearest counter as cover.

"Hey, 'Puto!" He called out cheerily. "I take it by the Rent-A-Pussy in the room that Viagra worked out for ya!"

["Then of course we can attract some fresh talent with Iron Sokolov as the poster boy for the company."]

["I can't believe Iron Sokolov survived the war."] Florian was gushing like a fan boy over that news, his inner child seemingly taking the reigns ever since Erik had dropped this bombshell.

The two of them had set out to stretch their legs and get away from the dust filled must of their rooms. Yuteni still had some way to go before it got back any of its old glory but the dome was finding it's feet again. Even inside there were morbid reminders of Frostfall's tower and how similar it had been not so long ago.

Still, life found a way and people fought their own little battles to restore their old lives. Like the spot the two northerners had found now where someone had gone about restoring what was once an old bar or cafe. It was hard to tell what it was originally and either way it was serving both purposes now with a mostly improvised menu. Well Florian was always happy to help small business as he looked over various forms of hot milk with a pinch of coffee.

ICED coffee! Back home that was just something you got if you stayed outside too long. How the other half lived.

The parade was going even better than Katya had hoped. The crowd following them had now reached self-sustaining, exponentially multiplying proportions. The mood was almost as if they had already won the war they hadn't even really started yet, and even she had to work hard to hide her smile, and glare disapprovingly at any of the troops who threatened to break formation whenever one of the local women attempted to attach themselves to them.

They were halfway down a quaint (despite all the rubble) side street when Katya noticed a large man and his handsome friend talking excitedly to each-other outside a ramshackle caf?, before turning to start in awe at the procession.

Wait...

"[SAULTE YOUR COMMANDERS!]" Katya yelled from the top of her float, and in panicked unison the column screeched to a halt, turned towards Florian and Erik's table, and snapped into immediate, identical salutes. A second later, the different players and the brass band halted in a flurry of discordant notes, falling into an embarrassed silence.

Katya held her own salute, trying not to think of what a fool she'd made herself look while waiting for Florian's response. Nobody made a sound, before the Frostfall flag mounted on the float behind Katya keeled over and clattered to then street.

Katya continued to stare straight ahead, but she couldn't do anything about the blushing...

Words failed. What first looked like a distant street party kept getting closer until the details became clearer and Florian could make out that it was... well it was that.

["Sh-should we be in that?"] Florian muttered out the corner of his mouth.

"Nyet!" Erik violently hissed.

And the two of them just looked and stared and just took it all in. Until Florian caved before their collective stares, raised his arm and returned their salute with a grin that looked too pure to have been practiced for diplomacy.

Katya exhaled, the look on Florian's face reassuring her that she wasn't fired (she was glad then that she wasn't technically under Erik's command). However, that knowledge did nothing to dull the redness in her cheeks.

"[Lord Bejic, my apologies.]" she announced, taking an at-ease stance. ""

The float behind hers chose this moment to collapse, the planks beneath its structure giving way with deafening cracks, dumping several civilians and half the brass band practically at Florian's feet.

"[I apologise for any interruption to our planned schedule, and assure you this action was my own.]" she continued, grimacing. "[My men and General Ablev's lieutenants were only following my orders.]"

["I never doubted it."] He grinned, managing to keep up the same smile as he approached the floats and helped up a floundering horn player.

Some waves to the crowd happened a few smiles and handshakes. All while Erik's shadow loomed long over the sidewalk as he looked on in disapproval, disbelief and... all kinds of skeptical emotions that did not care for what he was seeing.

"I hope no one minds but I'm going to have to reclaim my security chief for a while." All perfectly polite and approachable of course as he ushered Katya away from the ruins of their once proud float. ["Do I even want to know how you pulled this off?"] He whispered in her ear as the band started up again.

"[Honestly, I am not certain myself.]" Katya replied, hanging her head. "[I am always resourceful, but this...]" she looked back towards the procession "[I think hubris got the better of me.]"

Katya noticed the little girl from the crowd who had saluted her before. She was up with the band now, dancing with one of Erik's men.

"[I just wanted to do some good, while we were here.]" she said, turning back to Florian. I am of no use in diplomatic meetings, and we are about to travel to a front where my ability to protect you will be stretched. Before we go, I wanted to lighten some spirits, for them and us. The people of Frostfall know, when you have been beaten as hard as these people have, you lose more than lives and homes, you lose your pride...]"

"When I'm grown up, I want to have a name just like 'Wolfswrath'!" the girl exclaimed "And when I do, I'll do this every day!"

"[... I want to help them get it back.]"

["Just say all the card greetings he likes."] Erik rolled his eyes before getting a quick elbow in the ribs from Florian.

["It's above and beyond, Captain."] He reassured her. Even if he was putting it more than lightly.

Florian just had to take it in for a moment as the three of them watched the crowd gather around and dance along to the music. It was quite the thing, seeing men he'd always known as hardened killers with genuine smiles on their faces. This would certainly give public relations a tough act to follow. He'd spent all this time talking about bringing change to Frostfall and making the world see it as strong again he'd forgotten what it would be like for them to be seen as [I]nice. That was a good feeling.

["I think you brought a lot of pride into town today, for everybody."]

Back when he was just a priest this would have melted his heart. These days... well he could see the workable angles while still enjoying it for what it was.

["You think the local bigwigs will appreciate this?"] Erik interjected.

["I'm building them hospitals and schools. What are they going to do, tell us NOT to throw people a party? Let's see how that goes down."] Barked back his lord, feeling plenty smug about it.

"[Thank you, my Lord.]" Katya said, smiling broadly "[However, while you have called me away from the festivities, may I accompany or assist you with... anything?]"

["That remains to be seen."] Florian checked his watch if only because it seemed like something he should have been doing at that point. ["Unless we run into any of Maribel's people here in the streets then I think we're left sitting on our thumbs."]

"You have never had to share a duvet with this man, Lilith. Trust me, you know not what you do!"

"Ladies, ladies and my dear gentleman, please," Jesse began as he revved the crawler's engine, shaking his head at the others' antics, "Don't distract the driver. May end badly."

Still, nothing like being at the helm of some large mechanical beast. It hearkened back to a time where simply playing with the best toy cars nobles could buy was enough to get through the day.

***

Jun's eyes slowly opened, and one of his hands curled around his skull. He had woken up with one hell of a pounding headache. He gingerly staggered up, regarding the ruin he'd left on the floor: a thin trial of blood contrasted sharply with the spilt blue littering the bathroom. Jun approached the mirror and glanced into it, he was a mess. With a quick wash of the face, he got rid of most of it, including the bit of caked blood on his nose. Still, even traces of... whatever that was wouldn't be washed away with just water.

"Mallory. Moon. Meet me at the warehouse for the exchange,"

"Roger." Jun replied, and made his way to the warehouse in question, taking one moment to look back at the mess on the floor.

Guess it wasn't enough.

***

"...Not, of course, to imply that you don't possess all other kinds of admirable qualities."

Before Maria could reply, Sandra got right down to business. Just as usual, small towns bred large amounts of animosity and some poor sap had gotten into money troubles with the local gang - a tale as old as time. Not to mention one Maria had seen plenty of times before. Things could get ugly.

"Helleva mess." She muttered.

"Yeah, come in,"

Elizabeth took a quick, nervous breath, and entered the room.

She wasn't at all prepared for what she saw.

"Eddie..." she muttered, taking in his familiar, yet diminished visage. Her chest tightened as a slow chill rippled across her body.

What had happened to this man? Who would do such a thing?

Rushing over to his bedside, she took his hand in hers. It was cold. "I'm sorry," she stammered. "This is rude. Unprofessional. I just... I'm glad to see that you're... okay."

She really didn't know what to say.

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

"Don't distract the driver. May end badly."

That's when Bennie entered the hangar, breath in-hand and an oily rag thrown over his shoulder. "You kids good to go?"

Sprout gave him a thumbs up. "I reckon we are."

"Good," he said. "When you've set up shop be sure to radio the Maiden." He grinned. "The mission's yours, kid."

Once everyone had their breathers on the big man opened the bay door. Jesse punched it hard, nearly going airborne as he brought the crawler out onto the ashlands. The shocks absorbed the impact with easy, and it wasn't long before they were just a dust cloud on the horizon.

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

"I'm still very much hungover from last night."

"You partied without me, loverboy?" Edea asked, flashing a mischievous grin. "Well, I suppose that's fine. Where do want to take me then?" She held out her arm expectantly.

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

"I take it by the Rent-A-Pussy in the room that Viagra worked out for ya!"

"FUCK YOU!" Caputo spat, reeling from the sudden blast. Covering his eyes, the sleazeball fired his weapon blindly. It was hopeless, but he wouldn't go down without a fight, that's for damn sure.

"HEY, WHERE'DA FUCK D'YA THINK YOUR GOIN'?!" He roared, spotting the prostitute in his periphery. It looked like she was about to make a break for it, but before she could escape the room he grabbed her wrist and pulled her in close. She'd make an adequate shield. Maybe buy him some time to escape.

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

"Christ, you two have seen better nights," Tsubaki muttered just as Jun and Mal were entering the warehouse.

Can't say you're any better though.

"Look, Louis is a lot easier to handle than Caputo," she said. "We put on a good show tonight and it'll go well for us tomorrow. Stay frosty. Stay focused. Got that?"

There wasn't much else for Amy to do but sit back and relax until they reached their destination. As they sped away from the Maiden, Amy stared wistfully out of the window at the barren landscape. Despite its cruel and inhospitable nature, there was something about the way the suns blazed through the ochre haze that she'd always found breathtaking.

"You know they used to have these things called 'convertibles'?" she asked Lilith "Like Crawlers, but that you could take the roof down on when you were driving, and let the wind rush through your hair..." she smiled "We'd totally rock one of those."

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

"Thanks, old man." Sandra said, downcast, when her business with Sheriff Cooley was concluded.

"Don't mention it, Sandy." The Sheriff replied, as they stood. He placed a comforting arm on your shoulder. "You should head on up to the ranch. I'll make sure to call in on you later in the evening. Make sure you're settled in."

They were escorted out of his office, and when back on the steps outside Sandra sighed deeply. Back home not much more than an hour, and she was already too weary to even punch something out of frustration.

"Either of you want to catch a ride home I won't mind." she told her companions. "Looks like this won't be much of a vacation, and I won't ask anyone else to bloody their noses in my family business."

"You partied without me, loverboy?"

"I wouldn't really have called it a party." Asad furrowed his brow thoughtfully.

'Mostly a lot of self loathing.'

"Well, I suppose that's fine. Where do want to take me then?"

"Coffee." The Commander nodded his head sagely, lacing Edea's arm though his own before stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Just... all the coffee."

The pair left the medical building and walked towards the town square. "Did you guys organise a parade?" Asad looked at Edea from the corner of his eye, raising an eyebrow. "I mean I'm flattered, but you didn't have to..."

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

Lilith's arms were crossed over he chest, feet on top of Sprout's head rest as she watched the nothingness zoom by.

"You know they used to have these things called 'convertibles'? Like Crawlers, but that you could take the roof down on when you were driving, and let the wind rush through your hair...We'd totally rock one of those."

"Yeah?" Lilith tilted her head curiously, "Man they had all the cool stuff in the old days. Must be great living on a planet that doesn't actively try and kill you every day." She chuckled.

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