⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

"The road to virtue is not always the safest, and there are circumstances in the world where complicity in a crime is preferable to its denunciation."
— Marquis de Sade

⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Angel sits on the technical bed, picking at a piece of firemelon skin stuck between her teeth. She drums her other hand against her knee. As if trying to will her into action, her heart pounds in her chest, as rough and hard as the drive up the hill.

"You don't have to do this, babe."

She glances back at Gaige, standing in the grass, hands stuffed into her pockets. Angel purses her lips as she searches for that sweet, reassuring smile. Emerald eyes stare back at her, fraught with worry. The light breeze sweeps strands of red hair over her freckled cheeks. She brushes them away with her metal hand.

Angel turns her face to the sky, warming the right side of her face in the afternoon sun. A thin layer of clouds scatters rays of sunlight over the tall grass overgrowing the outskirts of the Highlands. In front of their technical, a few hundred yards over the hill, stands a derelict Hyperion robot fabrication center. A short trip that her legs refuse to make. She can't shake the dark nagging feeling that it would be a death march. She sighs. Her voice heavy with resignation, she says, "I can't run away from it."

The grass rustles as Gaige steps forward, into the corner of Angel's field of vision. She offers Angel a smile that neither of them believe. "Well. You don't have to do it alone."

Angel lets her chin drop, then shakes her head. As much as she's dreading what she might find in that facility, what's waiting for her if she turns and leaves is far worse. "Yeah. Unfortunately, I do."

She sets her gaze a hundred yards up, at the crest of the hill. If she hesitates now, she'll never be able to face her fate.

Gaige steps in front of Angel and hugs her. "I love you, Ange."

Angel closes her eyes, losing herself in the scent of Gaige's shampoo. Cinnamon, vanilla, clove. The same smell that she woke up to in Zed's clinic years ago. "I'll be right back," she whispers, kissing Gaige on the cheek. They pull apart, and Angel lets her fingers trail down the line of Gaige's jaw. Gaige tilts her head towards Angel's hand, but Angel pulls it away and stuffs it into her coat pocket. She pulls out a Jakobs Justice-line revolver, and double-checks that the cylinder is still loaded.

Gaige's faded voice buzzes in Angel's ears as she sets out towards the hill.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Angel knew the fabrication center was abandoned long before she saw it over the rim. Any electrical activity would've sparked her senses as digital voices whispering in her ear; tingling at her fingertips; static prickling the back of her neck. The only activity around is the faint buzz of her own shield capacitor.

The hinges on the double doors squeal as she pulls them open. She steps into a massive workroom floor, opening up to the ceiling some forty feet overhead – the end of the main fabrication line. Production has long since been stopped. Dozens of robot chassis still hang from the conveyors and claw arms, never to be assembled. Empty shells. The room's only light pours in through the windows some three stories up the wall to her right, casting soft orange squares of light onto the stamped metal floor, strewn with bullet casings, circuits, and severed loader limbs. Straight ahead, occluded by a control panel station, she sees an orange sodium glow on the wall. She takes a deep breath and approaches.

A slender figure – a woman – stands just in front of the light, her features obscured in darkness. Her cold, harsh voice carries over the distance between them. "No ECHO?"

Angel nods as she walks forward, her hands shoved in her coat pockets, her thumb brushing the worn wooden handle of the revolver. "No ECHO."

She comes to a stop ten feet in front of the woman, who nods and takes a half-step back. The overhead lamp catches her long, platinum blonde braids, and the three blue dots below her right eye. A warm smile crosses her fair-skinned face as she speaks in her mother tongue. "My dear lady. Come here."

The tension leaves Angel's shoulders as she lets out a silent breath. She releases her grip on her revolver and pulls her hands out of her pockets. Steele holds her arms out to her sides, welcoming her. Angel chuckles and steps into Steele, hugging her, feeling the electric warmth of her powers radiating from within her.

"The prodigal daughter returns!" Another voice chirps, in another familiar accent. Angel pulls apart from Steele and glances to her left, meeting a pair of gleaming eyes; one seafoam, the other mechanical and blood red. A gold lip ring glints on her quirked smile. "Like the rendezvous place? Picked it out myself."

Smirking, Angel shakes her head. "Wouldn't have expected anything less theatrical from you. It's good to see you, Scarlett." She checks her for new prosthetics before stepping forward, resting her head against Scarlett's shoulder as they hug. "Watch that hook."

"Oh, come on, now." Scarlett tousles Angel's hair. "You know I love to leave a mark to remember me by."

As Scarlett pulls apart from her, Angel catches a glimpse of purple out of the corner of her eye. Before she can speak, Nisha's hands are firm on her cheeks. Angel lets out a surprised squeak as Nisha steps into her, giving her a quick kiss on the forehead. Angel blinks as Nisha flashes her that glimmering grin of hers, letting her hands drop to Angel's shoulders. "Heh. That a .44 in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"

Angel's heart leaps into her throat, and she hopes the heat rushing to her face isn't showing on her cheeks. She casts a quick glance at Steele, but she is, to Angel's frustration, straight-faced as ever. They would understand. They must, or she'd already be dead.

She startles as Nisha claps her on the shoulder. "Lighten up, Magnolia. Just givin' ya a hard time." Chuckling, Nisha glances over at Scarlett, sees her raised eyebrow, then gives her a hard jab to the shoulder. Scarlett grumbles.

Angel flicks her gaze back to Steele, only exhaling when she sees the amused grin tugging at her lips. She glances past Steele, to the shorter, stockier figure behind her, standing straight, with her powerful arms folded across her chest. Angel clears her throat. "Athena. How's Janey?"

Athena rolls her shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "Concerned and nosey as ever. But, otherwise fine."

Nodding, Angel smiles at her. She'd like to give her a friendlier greeting, but Athena has never been one for hugging. She takes a half step forward, and Athena raises her hand. Angel grabs it, then winces at Athena's vice grip.

"Mais enfin! You'll break her fingers!"

Athena casts her eyes down as she lets go of Angel's hand. Angel glances towards her right, towards a woman with a shaved head and a scarred smile. Her black steel hand finds Angel's, and cradles it with surprising warmth.

Ember raises her left hand, tracing her fingertips along the buzzed edge of Angel's undercut. "It has been too long, mon p'tit ange."

Angel flashes an amused grin. "How are you adjusting to life off the Jackpot?"

"Ah," Ember says, then lets out a soft chuckle. "This planet is..." She purses her lips and glances up. "...pungent."

Steele steps aside, drawing Angel's attention to the square wooden table set underneath the overhead light. On top sits a rectangular bottle with a silver cap, emblazoned with a double cross, beside six empty glasses. On the floor, resting against a leg of the table, sits a black attaché. Steele uncaps the bottle and starts pouring.

Angel hopes the others can't hear the anxiety in her chuckle as Scarlett picks up the nearest glass. Steele picks up the next one and holds it out. Angel blinks, her eyes flicking from the glass in Steele's hand to the other four, laid out in a neat row.

Steele raises an eyebrow, and Angel silently curses herself. She hesitated only a second, but that might have been too much. There is no proper accounting for Steele's temper, and if there is one thing that sets her off, it is disloyalty.

"Are you serious?" Nisha mutters. With a scoff, she grabs the glass from Steele's hand and downs it in a single gulp. She raises an eyebrow at Angel, holds out the empty glass, and shakes her head. "Satisfied?"

Angel forces a smile as she berates herself. Stupid, stupid. Steele refills the glass and hands it to Angel, but the scrutinizing look in her eyes says enough.

Scarlett's ebullient laugh cuts through the air. "Alright, I'll take the blame for this one. I mean, can you bloody well blame the poor woman?" She gestures around the factory with her hook, at the dust-coated machinery, the crumbling walls, the rusting caged lights, the vines reclaiming the conveyor belts. "If this place doesn't scream 'last known whereabouts', I surely couldn't tell you what does."

Steele freezes as she moves to pour the last glass, staring down Scarlett with narrowed eyes. Angel holds her breath tight in her chest, looking sideways at Scarlett, who meets Steele's death stare with a lopsided grin. Angel isn't sure if she's more appalled by Scarlett's flippant attitude towards Steele, or that she would dare imply Angel had a right to be suspicious. Scarlett shrugs, holding her glass under her nose and sniffing it. Steele blinks, then lets out a quiet snort as her eyes flicker down to the table. A smirk pulls up the corners of her mouth, and she lets out a low chuckle that builds into laughter, rich and loud, and echoing through the building.

Nisha, Ember, and Athena each grab a glass off the table, leaving the last for Steele. Steele raises her glass, meeting Angel's eyes. "Do try and let loose some of that tension, dyevotchka. We're here to celebrate!"

Athena lets out a bark of a laugh that echoes down the walls of the factory. Scarlett wraps her hook arm around Nisha, its razor point resting just above her belt. Nisha looks sideways at Scarlett with an amused smirk. The tension starts to leave Angel's neck as Ember raises her glass. "À notre santé!"

A wry smirk crosses Steele's lips. "Poyekhali!"

Steele downs her glass in one gulp. Ember slams hers back in kind, then lets out a whoop. Scarlett and Nisha drink theirs as Athena takes a tentative sip, then purses her lips. Angel follows suit, sucking back half her glass in one go, trying to keep the stinging taste from showing on her face. Still, it goes down smoother than the cheap flavored stuff Gaige mixes with her Atlas energy drinks. Scarlett lets out an approving cheer and claps Angel on the shoulder. Angel can't help but grin. If they had just told her they were here to celebrate, she wouldn't have brought along her Jakobs.

Having finished her vodka, Nisha pulls a flask from her duster pocket; gold-plated with a walnut brown leather covering. As Steele sees the smile spreading over Angel's face, she gives her an approving nod. "There's the spirit. Today is a good day."

As she starts on her second drink, Angel ponders just what it is that makes today so good. Maybe it's better that Scarlett called her out for her hesitation. Everyone must have noticed it. But then, none of them batted an eye when Nisha noticed the revolver in her pocket. She adjusts her jacket, still too aware of the weight on the right side. Ember and Steele match each other with another shot. None of them care she showed up armed. Angel starts to feel lighter.

By the time she's finished her third drink, Angel has forgotten what had her so tense in the first place. Ember holds her mechanical arm aloft, showing Scarlett a new attachment on the prosthetic. Steele and Athena share stories and a spiteful laugh over old Atlas brass. Nisha steps up to Angel's side, wrapping her free arm around her, cupping her palm over Angel's shoulder.

"Takes a hell of a person to stand up to someone like your dad," Nisha murmurs, her eyes downcast. "Wish I'd had your courage when I was younger."

Angel takes in a deep breath as she studies Nisha's thoughtful frown. "Maybe you can't change the past. But you stood up to Jack, too. You're a big reason I'm standing here today." She means every word, maybe more than Nisha will ever know. She still remembers the curious swell of hope when she learned Nisha's mother, Priya, was so much like Jack. That, like herself, Nisha was fundamentally broken. But that she still survived Priya, and Jack, all the same.

Nisha lets out a dry chuckle and takes a drink from her flask. "Hm, yeah. The things you do to save a life."

Angel nods, hiding the gentle smile about to spread over her face. One day, Nisha might be willing to admit that turning on Jack was as much about her own guilt as it was about saving Angel. None of it matters to Angel. She owes her life to everyone in this room: maybe most of all to Nisha.

As she lets Nisha's words hang in the air, Angel's eyes fall on the attaché. Emboldened by the vodka, and eased by the chatter, she can't ignore her curiosity any longer. "So... what's in the case?"

Scarlett and Ember's conversation dies off. Athena clears her throat and glances down at her boots. Steele stares down at the case, pursing her lips. She looks up at Angel, her silver eyes cold and hard. She tilts her head, bidding her over.

Angel takes a steadying breath and steps up to Steele. She sets her empty glass on the table, her mind racing. Was it a mistake to ask? Were they putting off whatever burden brought them all here? Maybe this was a test Steele devised, and, sometime between now and when she walked in the warehouse, she failed. Angel gulps, trying to wrangle her runaway heartbeat. The attaché is about the right size for a pistol. Maybe the pistol they'll use to bury two shots in the back of her head.

Steele sets the case on the table, unclasps the latches, and pulls it open. Angel blows out a long breath. An unmarked cassette sits inside. Beside that, an ECHO device. Brand-new, judging by the sheen: a burner. She looks up at Steele, who nods back at her. "I trust you'll find what's on that recording as interesting as the rest of us did."

Scarlett lifts her peg leg and half-sits on the edge of the table. Nisha stands on the opposite side, leaning forward on her closed fists. Steele stands across from Angel, a hand on her hip, waiting for Angel to pick up the ECHO. Angel can feel Ember and Athena standing behind her: Ember, to her left, that powerful metal hand ready to reach out and grab her at a moment's notice; Athena to her right, bulky arms folded over her chest, feet set shoulder-width apart, primed to burst into a sprint if Angel tries to run. Their eyes burn hard spikes into the back of her neck.

Angel picks up the ECHO device and pops the recording inside. A man's voice speaks: gravelly, with a bit of a drawl. He sounds bored. "This is Akers. Been tracking your target for about four hours now. She's at home. With the other one you mentioned."

Another voice speaks: a woman. A harsh, clipped tone. She sounds familiar, but Angel can't place it. "No one's spotted you?"

The man heaves an exhausted sigh. "I know how to avoid being seen, Sachiko." The mention of her name snaps it all back into place. Jack's corporate espionage. Dr. Kitamura, one of the top brass at Maliwan's biological research branch. It's not much of a leap for Angel to guess who she hired the man to track.

There's a pause as Dr. Kitamura lets out a quiet breath. "Given your rate, I should certainly hope so."

Angel can practically hear Akers rolling his eyes. "Any idiot can tail somebody without being noticed. The reason my rate is triple your other options isn't because of the cargo, it's because of who's giving the orders.

Dr. Kitamura blusters, but before she can get a full word out, Angel cuts her off.

"And unless you want your superiors hearing about this little scheme of yours, I'd suggest you cool it with the constant complaints about my commission."

Angel's chest tightens. Kitamura has somebody trailing her? And clearly not on official Maliwan business. Jack's voice echoes in the back of her head. I wanna keep an eye on that one. Too ambitious for her own good. Too ambitious for anyone's good. If Kitamura got her hands on a Siren, it would launch her to the apex of Maliwan's leadership. But Jack had kept Angel a secret – he'd kept her such a good secret that, even after his death, still next to nobody knew about her. Steele and Athena had seen to that.

Angel snaps from her thoughts as Kitamura clears her throat. "Of course. What's your expected timetable?"

"Well." Akers clears his throat. "Last lights in the house went out about fifteen minutes ago. Figure in another forty-five, I'll make my move, once I'm sure everyone's asleep. Now: about this other woman—"

"I only want the Siren. The girl is useless. Eliminate her. Oh, but if you can bring me that arm of hers, I have a sizable bonus set aside from you."

Akers snorts. "Her prosthetic is worth more to you than her alive?"

"You'll have your hands full with the target as it is. I look forward to hearing from you."

The recording clicks to a stop. Angel shuts her eyes, trying to swallow back the dread and anger rising in her throat. The mechanical screech of the eridium injectors throbs in her head. The circular wall of screens flashes around her mind's eye. She shivers at the icy grip of the Control Core.

Scarlett steps into her, wrapping her arm around her, squeezing her shoulder. "Hey. They're not going to get you. We're not going to let them."

Angel's eyes flutter open, and she stares up into Scarlett's soft seafoam eye. "Thank you," Angel murmurs. She's not sure how much she can afford to believe in Scarlett's reassurance. Jack always told her he'd protect her, too. The heft of the ECHO weighs heavy in her palm. She holds it up. "What is this?" she asks, turning towards Steele. "Where did you get this?"

Athena steps forward, taking the ECHO out of her hand. "It came off the bounty hunter I killed outside your house."

Angel blinks as her stomach drops. How close had Akers come to kidnapping her? Where would she be now, if Steele hadn't known about him? If Athena hadn't been tracking him? She croaks out a timid "Thank you," at a loss for any other words. Athena shrugs it off.

Steele clicks her tongue and shakes her head. "You and I have both seen what these corporations are capable of when they get their hands on one of us. We will not let it happen again."

As she gives an appreciative nod, Angel can't help but wonder how much of this was motivated by their own self-preservation. Inevitably, working together as they have, Angel came to know the others standing beside her, and the skeletons in their closets. She maybe knew the most out of any of them, given her abilities. It was the most efficient way to prove their loyalty: if any one of them were compromised, they all were. "But..." Angel sighs. "Killing the bounty hunter is only a stopgap. Kitamura still knows about me."

"Ne t'inquiète pas," Ember says, with a flourish of her metal fingers. "We have already begun to address this."

"Akers knew Kitamura was tracking you behind Maliwan's back," Scarlett says, a wicked glimmer in her good eye. "And he's good at what he does – well, was good, anyway. Kitamura's got every reason to believe that he kidnapped you and took off to look for the highest bidder. And, unless she somehow got aboard the Bacchanal and ransacked Mercer's ice chests without my knowing, she's not going to find him. That is, not until we let her."

Angel blinks, then shakes her head. "A woman with her resources isn't going to give up just because her high-paid bounty hunter vanished into the wind. She found me somehow, and I doubt that it was through Akers."

The back of Angel's neck tingles as Nisha cracks a malevolent smile. "Oh, I've been wondering when you were going to ask about that."

With a tingling just beneath her skin, Angel can feel the tension in the room thicken. Athena's eyes gleam with determination. Ember chuckles and bites her bottom lip, staring at Angel with a sinister lift of her brow. Scarlett taps her fingertips against the point of her hook, while Nisha takes a deep breath in anticipation. Steele steps forward, resting her palm on the small of Angel's back. Warm electric energy surges from her hand. "Come along. Let me show you why we're really here."

Steele walks forward, guiding Angel alongside her. Scarlett pulls open a door with peeling red paint, and Steele ushers Angel inside.

They step onto a receiving dock, the defunct cargo of loader limbs still hanging on a rack by the far wall. On the center loading plate is a wooden chair. Strapped into the chair is a woman. Her head snaps up at the click of the door latch, and she turns her blindfolded face towards the source of the noise. Her cries are muffled by the duct tape over her mouth. She struggles against the rope binding her wrists and ankles to the chair.

As Angel steps closer, she starts to make out the details of the woman's suit under the layers of dirt and grime. Her chestnut hair is clumped and matted with sweat. Even with the blindfold, Angel is sure she recognizes her. The woman may have avoided attention from law enforcement in Hollow Point, but her crimes had become more ambitious over the past few months, reaching far beyond her usual beat of petty theft and small-time swindling. Fiona.

Steele walks Angel over to the side, as Ember, Scarlett, and Nisha stand side-by-side in front of Fiona. Athena walks behind the chair and watches Steele for a sign.

Keeping her focus fixed on Fiona, Steele leans towards Angel. "You know her?"

Angel shakes her head. "Only by reputation."

Steele lets out a sharp breath through her nose, then nods. Athena rips the duct tape off Fiona's mouth.

"Ahhh goddammit!" Fiona spits onto the floor, struggling against the ropes binding her wrists. "Who are you and what the hell do you want?"

Nisha's nose curls. "Shut up."

Fiona barks out a bitter laugh, turning her blindfolded face towards Nisha. "Well, if you wanted me to shut up, then ripping off the tape was pretty stupid."

"You'll speak only when I ask you a question," Nisha growls. "Or we're gonna start having a lot more fun than we can with just ropes and duct tape. Understood?"

Angel holds her breath as Nisha takes a small step forward, a manic glint in her orange eyes. She glances sideways at Steele, who keeps her icy focus on Fiona.

"Hmph." Fiona sighs, letting her shoulders droop. "Alright. Guess I've got some time to chat."

Nisha's jaw tenses. She starts to rub it as she looks sideways at Steele, who nods back at her. Nisha's palm cracks against Fiona's cheek. "Don't get cute with me. I promise it won't end well for you."

Scarlett steps forward, putting her hand on Nisha's shoulder and guiding her back a few steps. She starts pacing back and forth in front of Fiona, her boot and peg thudding and clicking against the dusty concrete. "You've been building yourself quite the reputation, d'you know that?" Scarlett chuckles to herself. "Well, y'know, not among most people, anyway: that would make you a bloody awful con artist. You thrive on people underestimating you. So it's really quite unlucky for you that we didn't."

"Petty theft here, a forgery there." Nisha clicks her tongue. "Should've stuck to that small-time shit. It suited you."

Fiona presses her lips together, then spreads her fingers apart, trying to wave her hands in a calm down gesture. "Look, if I've cost you ladies money," she says, "I'm sure we can come to—"

Athena cracks her wrist gauntlet against the back of Fiona's head, then grabs her by the hair. "This isn't about money," she hisses in her ear. "This is a matter of life and death."

Fiona groans, shaking her head as Athena releases her grip. "Life and—?!" Fiona scoffs. "No, no, I don't get involved in shit like that. What are you talking about?"

Nisha leans down, resting her hands on Fiona's wrists. "I'm gonna make this real simple for you. We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the fun way." She chuckles as Fiona recoils in her seat. "Now. Tell us what you know about Sachiko Kitamura."

"I've never heard that name in my life."

Nisha lets out a sharp exhale through her nose, then stands up and shrugs off her duster. Ember takes it from her outstretched hand and sets it aside on a wooden crate. Nisha takes a few steps away from Fiona, then glances over her shoulder at Athena. "Untie her. I wanna see her put up a fight."

Athena meets Nisha's request with a skeptical frown, then looks over at Steele. Steele flicks her chin up at Athena, who undoes the rope bindings on Fiona's wrists and ankles. Fiona massages her wrists, then pulls off her blindfold.

Angel starts chewing her thumbnail as Fiona pushes herself to her feet, her panicked green eyes scanning the room. Nisha flashes Fiona a wicked smile, and gets a slack-jawed look of fear in return. Fiona looks past Nisha, at Scarlett and Ember watching her with rapt amusement. She turns her head to the right. As her bewildered jade eyes find Angel's, a pang of guilt grips Angel's stomach. Blinking, Fiona looks over her shoulder, and lets out a small gasp. "...Athena?"

The grin falls off Nisha's face as she stares at Athena. "Somethin' you wanna share with us, Atlas?"

Athena bites her lip and takes in a reluctant breath, but Steele cuts her off. "Athena's prior relationship with our friend here is none of your concern, Kadam."

A sneer curls Nisha's upper lip as she watches Fiona limp towards Athena. "You sure about that?"

Steele lifts her chin, looking down her nose at Nisha. "Are you questioning my judgment?"

Nisha blows out a long breath through her nose, her eyes flicking from Athena to Steele. "Wouldn't dream of it..." Her voice drips with contempt. "...Boss."

Fiona presses her palms together, leaning forward to try and catch Athena's eye. "Athena, please."

Athena scowls and punches Fiona in the face.

Fiona falls back to the floor, clutching her nose. Nisha whoops. "Oh ho ho, holy shit! Now we're talkin'!"

Nisha closes the distance between her and Fiona in three brisk strides. Fiona gathers herself on her hands and knees. Nisha drills the toe of her right boot into Fiona's ribs. Fiona yelps and rolls onto her back, at Athena's feet. She looks up at Athena, her eyes wide with desperation.

"Get up," Nisha growls. "Get up, you little ratch. At least have the self-respect to put up a fight."

Ember and Scarlett spread out, forming a loose ring with Athena, Steele, and Angel, trapping Fiona and Nisha in the middle. Angel takes a half-step back, but Steele's hand finds her forearm and takes a firm hold.

Fiona shakes her head and pushes herself to her feet. She backs into Athena, who shoves her forward. Fiona steadies herself, glancing from Nisha advancing on her, then to Ember behind her. "Please, just tell me what you want, and I'll—"

"Nuh-uh." Nisha clicks her tongue and shakes her head. "You blew you first chance. You gotta earn another one."

Her hand flies to her hip, grabbing the handle of her whip. She flicks her forearm, and Fiona dashes to the side, dodging the crack of the whip's tail. "Please!" Fiona holds up her hands, palms out. "I'll tell you whatever you want!"

"Begging already." Nisha scoffs. "Pathetic."

Nisha swings her arm across her body. The whip lashes Fiona's forearm. Fiona yelps, trying to shake the pain out of her hand. She casts a pleading look at Athena. Nisha grabs her whip by the lash and swings the handle in quick circles. She sweeps it towards Fiona, missing by inches as Fiona ducks and darts to the side. With Nisha storming towards her, Fiona turns to Ember. Before Fiona can get a word out, Ember raises her metal leg and kicks her in the stomach. Fiona turns and stumbles face-first into Nisha's right fist. Her back hits the ground with a thud.

With an exhilarated whoop, Nisha paces a quick circle, slamming her fists against her thighs. She turns back to Fiona, one hand clutching her cheek. Nisha lets out a chuckle. "You just gonna lay there and take it like a little bitch?" She snorts, taking a step closer. "Let's see if you can still pick a pocket with a broken hand."

Fiona's eyes widen as Nisha raises her left knee. She rolls to her side as Nisha's boot slams down onto the concrete.

Angel grimaces and looks over at Steele, standing rigid beside her, the suggestion of a frown on her face. How long is she going to let this go on?

A frenzied scream draws Angel's attention back to the fight. Fiona rushes at Nisha, who sidesteps her and sweeps her legs out from under her. Fiona grunts as she hits the ground, catching herself on her forearms. Nisha stomps on her ribs. A pained wheeze escapes Fiona as she scurries forward on all fours. She springs to a crouch, then turns back and balls her fists.

"Not used to having to fight your way out of a mess, are you?" A bloodthirsty smile crosses Nisha's lips. "C'mon. Stand up straight. Show me what you got."

Angel holds her breath tight in her chest, looking from Nisha to Steele, wondering when they'll decide they've proven their point. Fiona wipes away the blood trickling from her nostril as she straightens up, glancing between Nisha and the door.

"Let's go." Nisha steps forward, coming to a stop an arm's length from Fiona. She holds her hands out to her sides. "You got a perfect shot. Come on. Take it. Hit me!"

Fiona steps forward and slams her fist into Nisha's stomach, just above the navel. Nisha wheezes and staggers back, then laughs, and lets out a hoarse shout.

"There you go! Maybe you've got some fight in you after all!"

Screaming, Fiona flies at Nisha. They grapple and pivot around each other, trading blows. Fiona lands quick hits on Nisha's upper body. Nisha knees her in the stomach. Fiona leans in and bites Nisha's shoulder. Nisha lets out a cry somewhere between pain and elation. She wraps her arm around Fiona's waist and leans back, lifting her off her feet. She kicks as she leans forward, sweeping Fiona's legs out from under her. Nisha slams her onto her back, and Fiona takes in a dry gasp, struggling to catch her breath. Before she can find it, Nisha plants her boot on Fiona's throat.

Angel winces, pressing her fist to her mouth. She leans her shoulder into Steele's, and hisses, "That's enough. I think she gets the message."

Steele stares at Fiona, her thin lips drawn tight.

"Not bad," Nisha pants. "But I'm better." Her eyes glimmer with malice as she presses her boot down. Fiona's eyes bulge. She grips the heel and toe of Nisha's boot. Her mouth opens and shuts as she thrashes her legs, twisting back and forth.

Angel nudges Steele with her elbow. Steele takes in a slow breath. "Kadam."

Nisha sighs. She eases the pressure off, keeping her boot rested on Fiona's neck.

Fiona sucks in a ragged breath, blood now trickling from the corner of her mouth. "Look," she wheezes, "in this line of work, I... I tend to piss a lot of people off. So—" She takes in a strangled gasp as Nisha's boot shifts on her throat. "So you'll have to... refresh my memory a bit."

Scarlett steps forward and crouches over Fiona. "Sachiko Kitamura. Face only a mother could love: Birthmark over her ECHO eye, burn scars on her other cheek that run down over her neck. Ringing any bells?"

Grimacing, Fiona shakes her head. "I don't know that name." As Scarlett lowers her hook towards her face, Fiona starts thrashing again. "No no no! Please! I'm not saying that I– nngh that I didn't work with her! Maybe I just never met her face-to-face!"

Athena looks down her nose at Fiona struggling against Nisha's boot. She takes out the ECHO and plays the recording. "I only want the Siren. The girl is useless. Eliminate her. Oh, but if you can bring me that arm of hers, I have a sizable bonus set aside from you."

"Sound familiar?" Athena says, slipping the ECHO into her back pocket.

Fiona grunts and nods, her eyes wide. "Yeah, yeah! That bitch! She just wanted a data lift!"

"What data lift?"

"I don't know what was on it!" A strangled groan escapes Fiona as she squirms. "She paid me five thousand up front. She didn't want to answer questions and I was too creeped out to ask!"

Scarlett grabs a handful of Fiona's hair, and rests the point of her hook against her cheek. "So you never met her face-to-face, and she didn't tell you what you were looking for. How'd you know what to bring her? And where to bring it?"

Wincing at the metal digging into her skin, Fiona tilts her head away from it as best she can. "She gave me the mark and told me to handle the rest!"

"'The rest'?"

"Yeah! I slept with her and copied everything off her ECHO before I left in the night! Kitamura had me leave everything at a dead-drop, that's all I know!"

Nisha narrows her eyes, rocking her boot back and forth on Fiona's throat. "Whose ECHO?"

Fiona screams and digs her heels into the floor. "I don't know her name! It was a younger chick with red pigtails and a crazy robot arm!"

The heat rushes out of Angel's face, and her stomach drops to the floor. She's lying. It can't be.

Nisha straightens up, her amber eyes burning into Angel. Scarlett releases her grip on hair, looking at her with a bewildered frown. Athena looks up at Angel next, her expression as infuriatingly flat as ever. Ember turns her head towards her, but keeps her gaze low, unable to meet Angel's eyes. Steele, though, stares straight at Fiona, her mouth hidden behind her gloved fist.

Fury smolders in Nisha's eyes. "That little bitch," she growls, stepping over Fiona. Fiona takes in a shuddering breath, rolls onto her stomach, and coughs.

As Nisha storms forward, Steele spits out a warning. "Kadam..."

"You better get your lapdog under control, Angel." Nisha breezes across the room in long, swift strides. "I am not letting her drag me down with—"

Static electricity surges up Angel's back as a burst of blue light flashes to her side. A phase-double of Steele appears behind Nisha, an ethereal blue aura flickering in her eyes. She twists Nisha's arm behind her back, buckling her knees. Nisha lets out a groan as Steele's double puts pressure on her shoulder. Steele takes a few steps towards her, glaring down her nose. "We're dealing with this right now, Kadam. All of us. Don't forget that."

Clenching her jaw against the pressure, Nisha grunts out a curt "Yes, sir."

Steele scowls, and her phase-double shoves Nisha to the ground before disappearing in a flash of blue light. As Steele steps back, Scarlett slinks up to Nisha and offers her hook to help her up. Nisha shoves it away and pushes herself to her knees. Angel blinks, then meets Steele's cold silver stare.

"Angel." Steele speaks in her native language to address her. "I need to talk with you."

A chill runs down Angel's spine at the glint of Steele's teeth, behind the curl to her upper lip. In her periphery, she can see the stares from the others. Some are suspicious, the others confused. "Sorry..." Angel murmurs, speaking in Thracian. Steele had just said 'we' were dealing with this. What happened to 'we'? "...is something wrong?"

"No." Steele shakes her head, ignoring the puzzled looks from the rest. "Just a minute of your time. Please."

Steele brushes past her, and a door latch clicks open. Angel stares at the rest of the group, at a loss for words. Athena stands over Fiona, looking down at her, still lying on the floor. Nisha pushes herself to her feet and rolls her shoulder: the fire in her eyes has fizzled out, been replaced with a cold suspicion. Scarlett casts Angel an uncertain glance, then puts her hand to Nisha's shoulder. Nisha shrugs her off. Angel can only look into Ember's calculating ECHO eyes for a moment before the intensity is too much for her to bear.

Maybe it's for the best she says nothing now. Nothing, until she talks with Steele. Until she's sure she'll even leave this warehouse alive.

She turns around, feeling the weight of their stares on her back as she steps into the small office. The door clicks shut behind her. Steele brushes dusty folders and pens onto the floor, and sits on the desk in the middle of the room. Her eyes flicker down to the chair in front of her.

Angel sits down in it, folding her hands in her lap, her shoulders slumped. Steele rests her hands on the edge of the desk, drumming her fingertips on the lip. Angel shuts her eyes, unwilling to meet her stare. She replays it in her head, once more. Gaige. After all they've been through together, after all Gaige had seen Jack put her through... it can't be.

At last working up the courage, Angel snaps her eyes open and looks Steele in the eye. "She's lying. She would've said anything to make them stop! I mean you- you saw them! You saw that look in Nisha's eyes! If Fiona didn't say something, they would've killed her. You can't trust anything that came out of her mouth!"

Steele folds her arms over her chest and inhales. Her braids roll over her left shoulder as she tilts her head. The silent treatment. Steele could at least dignify her with a tactic that isn't so transparent.

"Fiona could have implicated any of us in there. She's smarter than any of you give her credit for. How do you think she's gotten by for as long as she has, doing what she does?" Angel springs up from her seat and paces in front of the desk. "No, no, she must have figured Gaige would be the most believable person she could blame. Clearly Nisha bought into it, but I don't. Gaige wouldn't do this to me. It's bullshit, Steele. Don't tell me you don't see right through this! You were watching her the whole time!"

She stops pacing, waiting for a response. Steele leans her head back a bit and raises her eyebrows, letting the words hang in the air. Angel's throat tightens, and the back of her neck starts to tingle. Steele was watching Fiona the whole time. She was the only one watching Fiona the whole time. Steele may play it close to the vest, but even she wouldn't keep such a calm demeanor while having a bombshell of betrayal dropped on her.

Angel drops her chin, rubbing at the corner of her eyes. When she looks back up at Steele, she sees her eyes are heavy with regret. "You..." Angel gasps for air. "You knew. You knew, and you didn't tell me?!"

Steele blinks and sighs. "Would you have even believed me if I had?"

She searches for an answer, but Steele is right. Angel had to hear it for herself. She never would have believed it otherwise. She's not sure she believes it now. Gaige loves her, she knows. But she also knows they've been drifting apart. Talking less and fighting more. Spending less time together. Angel has tried for so long to keep her life with Gaige separate from her life with Steele and the others. She knew sooner or later she wouldn't be able to keep those worlds apart.

"I... regret that you had to find out this way." Steele's voice is soft and remorseful, in a way Angel has never heard before. "Understand that they... the others had to see it. They had to see your reaction."

A bitter taste rising up her throat accompanies the heavy pit settling in Angel's stomach. She takes a few deep breaths, trying to steady herself.

"This is bigger than you and her. They had a right to know, just as you did." Steele straightens up, her shoulders tensing. "This affects all of us."

"So..." Angel massages her temples, then runs her hands back through her hair. What else is Steele not telling her? "So what happens now?"

Steele arches an eyebrow. "'Happens'? You say that as if these problems will take care of themselves."

Angel's breath hitches in her throat. "So what are you trying to tell me?"

"I am asking you to consider the options available to us."

The blood rushes out of Angel's face, and she falls back into the chair. The whole demonstration in the other room was never about proving a point to Fiona. Angel's breaths quicken, and her heart thuds in her chest. What options? The ones running through Angel's head, or the ones Steele is going to leave her with?

⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Angel steps out of the receiving dock, her mind racing. Before she can collect herself, her vision is awash in a flash of crimson armor and blue hair. Athena steps into her, hard arms wrapping around her in a hug too tight to be comforting.

As quick as it started, Athena pulls away. "I'm sorry, Angel." A peculiar pang of remorse lingers in her eyes. "Just trying to imagine if Janey had... I don't know what I'd do." A weak smile crosses her face. "But I guess I don't need to tell you."

Angel chokes back a scoff. What does Athena know about how she's feeling? What do any of them know of a betrayal like this?

Scarlett nods at her. "How are you holding up?"

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Angel shakes her head. She's been retreading her whole relationship with Gaige since Steele told her. Every high and low; each sweet murmured nothing and spiteful argument; the nights they were miles apart and still felt as one, and the times she fell asleep in Gaige's arms, feeling lonelier than she had ever been. Maybe it was her fault for ever thinking they could have something normal. It never could have been fair to Gaige. She's a Siren. As much as she may pretend, she will never know a normal life. Half the people she meets will live in fear of her, and the other half will try to exploit her. Just like Jack. The closest thing she's ever felt to a family is standing beside her now, in a defunct warehouse torn apart by war, soaked in oil and blood. And now that they know Gaige has put her, and all of them, in danger, she's not even sure she has them anymore.

"I really am sorry." Scarlett heaves a weary sigh. "That look in your eyes, like the whole world's been pulled out from underneath you. I felt the same way when my father tried to kill me. Just know that I'm – that we're all here for you, yeah?"

Angel blinks and looks up at Scarlett. "Even after this?"

Scarlett furrows her brow and tilts her head, as if offended by the question. "You're acting as if this is somehow your fault."

The sinking feeling in Angel's stomach tells her it must be, somehow. Maybe she doesn't deserve people in her life – friends like this. They didn't have to save her from Jack. They didn't have to look out for her after they did. They certainly don't owe it to her to stand by her now. But they're still here. She glances around and looks at Nisha, sitting on a crate, elbows resting on her knees. The fiery anger in her eyes has burned out, leaving in its wake a thoughtful lamentation. Angel clears her throat. "Not even ten minutes ago, you looked like you were ready to kill me."

Nisha purses her lips and looks down, breaking eye contact. "Funny thing about loyalty, isn't it? But after I found out about what Jack did to you, I chose you over your dad. And if I had to do it again, I would do the same, every time. I..." She shakes her head, mulling over her words. "I ended up learning a lot about you, after Jack thought you died. And a lot more, after he died. How he made you act like you were a friend to the Raiders, to Gaige. How it became real to you. Must've been a dagger in their heart when you brought down Sanctuary's shields. Must've torn you up just as bad."

A flash of shame washes over Angel's face. She should've stood up to Jack sooner. Too many people died because of her. Because of what he made her do.

"They came around to forgive you, though, didn't they?" Nisha says, looking back up at Angel. "'Cause even though they didn't know the whole picture, they knew Jack was the one ordering you around. They knew it wasn't your fault."

Angel nods, thinking back to the late nights where Gaige would hold her and tell her that she wasn't the one to blame. She spent a lot of nights kept awake by the eridium coursing through her body, telling herself the same thing.

"Now you see the mirror reflected back at yourself. Jack made you betray them." Nisha's unblinking eyes bore into Angel, making her skin crawl. "But who made Gaige do it? Who had the gun to her head?"

Bilious dread rises into Angel's throat. She tries to swallow it back. Her chest heaves, but it keeps getting harder to get a full breath. The walls are closing in, and she still can't believe she's trapped. No matter how much she fumbles for an explanation, she knows she'll never find one good enough.

A metal hand comes to rest on Angel's shoulder, cold, but gentle. "Je suis desolé. But we are out of options."

Angel glances over at Ember, the spark in her silver eyes enough to make her heart burst into flames. A few feet past Ember, Steele and Athena look at her, a heavy sense of duty weighing on their faces. Angel steps back, shaking her head. They can't be asking her what she thinks they are. "Oh. Oh, no, no, I—"

She backs right into Nisha, who puts one hand firm on her shoulder, and the other on her side. "Do you want to live your life without looking over your shoulder? Or do you wanna go right back to being a prisoner?"

Angel shuts her eyes and clenches her jaw. Of course she can't go back. But this? "There has to be another—"

Steele steps forward. "There isn't. Not one that doesn't end with you in a Maliwan research laboratory. We can't afford to take half-measures."

"Believe me," Nisha murmurs, "the way Jack treated you will pale comparison in to what Maliwan will do to you. At the end of the day, you were still his daughter. And in his own sick way, he still loved you. You think anyone at Maliwan is gonna care about how they treat you?"

Angel starts to tremble, feeling the thrum of the eridium injectors feeding her poison. Nisha turns her around and wraps her in a tight hug.

"We'll do everything we can to make sure they don't get their hands on you. But if we're gonna fight for you, we need to know you will, too."

Angel clutches onto Nisha, panic quaking her voice. "I just want it to be over."

A firm hand rests on Angel's back, and Athena says, in her confident voice, "It will be. We'll deal with Kitamura directly later. But know that there are only two ways she'll stop looking for you. And one of those is if she's dead."

Letting go of Nisha, Angel steps back and wipes the tears from the corners of her eyes. "And what's the other way?"

Steele lets out a soft breath. "If she thinks you are."

Angel blinks as she looks over at Steele and Ember, watching her with apprehension, and the gas can set on the crate standing between them. Ember produces two curved pieces of metal from her digistruct deck. "With your... surgical alterations, faking your death will not be simple. But it need not be perfect. Simply good enough to buy us some time, and let you vanish, like a puff of smoke."

Angel gets a closer look at the pieces of metal in Ember's hand: replicas of the interfacing ports wired into her brain. A closer look at their thin profile shows they are not exact duplicates. Prototypes, Angel suspects, that they no doubt stole when they rescued her from the control core. Her stomach churns. She shuts her eyes and laces her fingers behind her neck, bringing her elbows together in front of her as she struggles for breath.

"Sometime later tonight," Scarlett says, "Kitamura finds two charred bodies in an abandoned warehouse, with Akers' and your personal effects. That takes the heat off us long enough to figure out a way to get Athena close enough to drive her sword through the bitch's chest – as much as I'd love to rip her throat out myself."

Angel's eyes snap open at a spark of electricity underneath her chin. Steele tilts Angel's head up with her finger and stares into her eyes. "You have trusted us this far, Angel. Don't think that any of us take this decision lightly."

Athena leans back into the office door, folding her arms over her chest. She gives Angel a curt upward nod. "Know this: she'll tell you anything she can think of to convince you not to go through with it. Don't listen to her. Remember what she did. Remember what it could've cost you – cost all of us – if we didn't find out sooner."

"She will promise you the world, jolie. Empty words, that's all they are." Ember brushes Angel's hair behind her ear with cold steel fingertips. "Alors, do you fill your lungs with smoke, trying to extinguish the blaze? Or do you step back and let it all burn?"

The tension in Angel's chest is starting to crush her lungs. She gasps for air. "I don't think I can do it," she whimpers.

Nisha tilts her head to the side. "Not even to save yourself?"

She shakes her head, her breath running short, her fingers going numb. "How can you ask me to do this?"

Scarlett taps her fingertip against the point of her hook. "How can you ask yourself to live a lie?"

⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

With a five-gallon metal canister under her left arm, Angel shoves the door to the receiving dock open. Metal clatters against the wall. Blindfolded once more, Fiona stands in the middle of the room, wrists shackled together, the bindings chained to an overhead crossbeam. Her voice breaks as she shouts. "I told you about the robot arm chick already! Just let me go!"

Angel sets the gas can down by a metal load-bearing beam. It didn't make sense before. Why would Steele go to the trouble of blindfolding Fiona, if she knew there was no way around killing her? But Angel thinks she understands now. The blindfold wasn't for Fiona's sake. But if Angel is going to do this – if she has to do this – then she doesn't want to make it any easier on herself. A decision like this shouldn't be easy.

She grabs the blindfold and yanks it down to her neck. She stares at the shaved side of Fiona's head, where blood drips down from chrome-finished interfacing ports. Far from a surgical job. A closer look shows they were simply drilled on. She doubts those small details will matter, after they're done.

Fiona winces, shutting her eyes against the light. She squints at Angel. "Please... please, just let me go. I won't tell anyone. I have a terrible memory for faces."

For half a second, Angel feels a wave of guilt at the desperation in Fiona's voice. But then she remembers what Fiona did, and anger bubbles in the pit of her stomach. She stares at Fiona, picturing how those jade eyes stared at her girlfriend when they were in bed together. Contempt drips in Angel's voice. "Clearly."

Part of Angel takes great satisfaction in watching Fiona rack her memory. "Do I know you?"

Angel scoffs. Her voice drips with contempt. "You should. You fucked my girlfriend and then tried to sell me to Maliwan."

Fiona's bruised, reddened eyes widen. Her mouth gapes as she glances down at Angel's Siren markings. "No. No no no, you've got this all wrong!"

Angel backhands Fiona. "Enlighten me."

Fiona shakes the slap off, then nods vigorously. "All I was told to do was lift info off her ECHO! I didn't know what that Maliwan bitch wanted, or what she was gonna do with it when she got it! I figured your girlfriend just stole some prototypes or something! All I knew was that they were gonna kill me and my sister if I didn't help them!"

"Self-preservation, huh?"

Her chest heaving with panicked breaths, Fiona nods. "Yeah. Something like that."

Shaking her head, Angel turns away. Her eyes catch Steele's for a moment as she picks up the gas can. "Then you should understand exactly why I have to do this."

Fiona shouts as Angel douses her in gasoline. Spluttering and coughing, Fiona tries skirting to the side, before the chains of her shackles rattle taut. The heady stench stings Angel's nostrils as another splash soaks Fiona's right lapel. "For god's sake, stop it!"

"The worst they would do to you is kill you!" Angel grits her teeth and swings the can forward again, splashing gas on Fiona's pants. "You have no idea what they would do to me!"

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Fiona tries to dodge from side to side as Angel rears back the can again. "Please, I'll do anything you want, just don't do this!"

Angel's jaw clenches. Nisha was right earlier: the begging is starting to get pathetic. "After what you did?!" She steps forward and aims a kick at her. The toe of her boot thuds into Fiona's shin. Fiona howls as she crumples, the bindings around her wrist snagging her in place just before her knees hit the concrete. "What could you possibly offer me?"

Straining to pull herself up and get her feet underneath her, Fiona grunts, "I can get you to Kitamura!"

Angel pauses, watching Fiona steady herself and shake the pain out of her leg. "How?"

Fiona takes a deep breath. "I- I could set up a meeting with her! Tell her I know where you are. You could set a trap for her. I'll even split her reward money with you! No, I'll- I'll give you all the reward money! Just untie me!"

Angel glances back at Steele. One glance at her disapproving frown confirms every doubt lurking at the back of Angel's mind. It's nothing more than desperation. The only way Fiona gets out of this is by giving Kitamura exactly what she wants. They both know it. And with the walls closing in, Angel only has one option. "Nice try."

She douses Fiona's face. Fiona splutters, coughing up gasoline. She thrashes her legs and screams. Angel splashes her again. Movement to her right catches her eye. Scarlett drags a man's limp body behind her with her hook. She drops him behind Fiona, who starts screaming even hoarser at the sight of him. Scarlett holds out her hook to Angel, and Angel holds out the canister. Angel steps away as Scarlett soaks Akers's body, then sets the can down beside Fiona. Scarlett walks back to the rest of the group. As Fiona struggles, she knocks over the can, spilling the rest of its contents into a spreading pool on the floor beneath her and Akers's body. "Please don't! You don't have to do this!"

With her jaw clenched and her breath held tight in her throat, Angel falls in line with the rest. She stands to Steele's right, trying to block out Fiona's panicked yells. Steele glances over at Angel. "You know we have no choice."

Angel exhales through her nose, unable to release the tension pulling through her shoulders. Though the tightness in her throat is making it difficult to find her breath, she manages to squeak out a resolute, "I know."

Steele stares at her a moment longer, but Angel keeps her focus on Fiona, kicking, thrashing, and yanking against the bindings on her wrists. Steele looks to her left and gives Ember a small nod. Ember takes a step forward, activating her digistruct deck and drawing Purge. She rests the stock against her metal shoulder, takes aim, and fires a single shot. The incendiary round zips through the air and slams into Akers's body. A column of fire rushes up to the ceiling and spreads out, engulfing Fiona in the blaze. The fire roars and crackles, but it can't drown out Fiona's agonized shrieks. Billowing clouds of inky smoke rise, and Angel is hit full-force in the stomach with the bitter smell of charring flesh. Nausea surges up her throat. Barely choking it back, she dips her chin and turns her head to the left, towards the others, the flames casting their faces in an unsettling orange glow.

Steele stands with her arms crossed, her lips set in a flat, determined line. Even in the flaming glow, her eyes are cold and dispassionate. Past her, Ember's chest rises as she takes a deep breath. The orange of the flames brings out the mechanical blue glimmer of her pupils. She purses her lips and lets out a long exhale through pursed lips. The gleam of an awed smile pulls at the corners of her eyes. Beside her, Athena has her fist pressed against her own mouth, her thumb resting underneath her chin. She shakes her head and looks down at the ground. Nisha, with her chin dipped towards her chest, watches from beneath the brim of her hat. A vicious grin is painted on her lips, and her eyes burn with a sadistic gleam. Scarlett stands straight at the end of the line, the suggestion of a scowl on her face, the reflection of the flaming bodies dancing in the crimson of her prosthetic eye.

When the crackling of the fire and her own pulse thundering in her ears finally drown out Fiona's screams, Angel turns to the door behind her with grim resignation.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The sun dips behind the mountains as Angel steps outside into the fresh air. A chill has settled into the Highlands, the gentle breeze picking up into short gusts.

Gaige lies on her back on the hood of the technical, staring up at the salmon pink waves in the clouds. Grass and dirt grind under Angel's boots. Gaige picks her head up and looks over at her. She sits up, a smile illuminating her face.

Angel walks past her, looking at Gaige for as long as she can stomach, before the vision of her in bed with Fiona becomes too much to bear. The joy fades from Gaige's eyes. The smile melts off her face. Angel brushes past the technical, walking up to the wooden fence overlooking the edge of the cliff. The canyon opens up into the Dust below, a vast expanse of rolling, craggy desert. Easy enough to disappear into. Start a new life. If not here, maybe somewhere beyond the horizon. If not Pandora, maybe on another outskirts planet, circling one of those indifferent stars above.

Sneakers thud in the grass behind her as Gaige hops off the technical. "Babe? Everything okay?"

Angel stares out at the snow-capped mountain peaks, far across the valley. She tries to remember things as they were. So simple, so happy. As things will never be again. "Who's Fiona?"

A gust of wind rustles the grass and howls in Angel's ears, amplifying Gaige's silence.

Angel clicks her tongue and tries again. "Who is Fiona?"

Gaige clears her throat. "Nobody."

The hesitation, the husky voice. Angel's chin drops her chest, the last bit of hope she was holding there lost to the wind. She turns around, putting her hands on the fence rail behind her. "Don't lie to me, Gaige."

Gaige takes in a breath. Her shoulders slump in defeat, and she bows her head. "She, uhm..." She sighs, her eyes flickering from the ground to Angel, then back down again.

Angel shakes her head. She can't even bring herself to tell her the truth. "Say it. Either say it right now, or walk away and never come back." A naive part of her hopes Gaige will take the latter option, but she knows Gaige enough to know she never would.

Gaige's mouth falls open, and she shuts her eyes over her brimming tears. "I... I had a moment of weakness. After our last big fight." Her voice breaks. "I'm sorry. I- I screwed up, Angel. I should've told you before, but I just..." She pinches the bridge of her nose, then shakes her head. "I'm sorry. And I will spend the rest of my life making it up to you."

Angel stands there, staring deep into Gaige's pleading eyes, feeling nothing more than contempt. A moment of weakness. As if there wasn't a whole series of decisions leading to them sleeping together. "How could you do something so thoughtless?" she asks, not expecting a satisfying answer.

"Angel, I'm sorry!" Gaige steps forward, taking Angel's hands in her own, loosening the grip of her metal hand when she sees Angel wince. "I'm sorry for everything. But Fiona, she means nothing to me—"

Angel snarls and pushes Gaige away. "You think that's what I'm upset about? Sex? I've got news for you, Gaige: you meant nothing to her, too."

Gaige shrinks back as Angel steps forward. Her emerald eyes are set wide in a mix of shock and fear. She sniffs the air. Her nose curls, and she looks Angel up and down. "Why... why do you smell like gasoline?"

"She was using you to get to me," Angel hisses. "All she ever cared about was money, and she could've gotten enough of it to buy her own solar system if she sold Maliwan a Siren."

Angel's jaw clenches as she watches the look of devastation spread over Gaige's slack-jawed face. It's bad enough that Gaige cheated: even worse with someone like Fiona. But for Gaige to be so blind not to realize the threat Fiona posed to her? The egotism, that Gaige never considered somebody could use her in order to get to Angel? That knife cut the deepest of all.

Gaige blinks a few times, then shakes her head and furrows her brow. "...'meant'?"

Angel's left eye twitches. She grits her teeth. "That is not even remotely the point!"

Her eyes start to widen. The realization is setting in, maybe before Gaige is willing to accept it. "Angel... what did you do?"

Angel's jaw tenses. After what Gaige did, she has the nerve to question her? Angel straightens up and steps up to Gaige, who stands rooted to the spot. She stands so close that she can feel the soft puff of Gaige's restrained breaths, she can see each individual worried crease in her forehead. Looking down into Gaige's shocked eyes, Angel snarls, "I did what I had to."

Gaige shuts her eyes as her breath catches in her throat. Her shoulders heave, and she rubs the sides of her neck as she struggles for air. Angel starts pacing in a slow circle around her.

"Did you forget what Hyperion did to me? What my father did to me? How could you forget," she says, stepping in front of her and gesturing to the interfacing ports in the shaved side of her head, "when you have to look at it every day? How could you forget that anybody else who looks at me might be thinking of doing the same fucking thing?!"

Fury thuds in her neck. She steps away from Gaige, back towards the fence, trying to calm herself down. She had hoped for so much better. That Gaige might have had some perfect combination of words that could fix everything, that could make her understand. But her hopes are no more than thick clouds of smoke, choking her, obscuring her only way out.

"Every night," Angel says, staring out into the depths of the valley below, "I lie awake in bed beside you, my body burning from the blood in my poisoned veins. How many lies do I need to hear from you, Gaige? How many sleepless nights do I need to spend, struggling to breathe? How many deaths do I need to die for you?"

"Angel..." Gaige's voice is tight, husky with choked back tears. "Angel, please. I love you." Her right hand comes to rest on Angel's shoulder. "I promise you, I—"

"Promise?!" Angel wheels around and shoves Gaige off of her. Gaige stumbles back a few steps, her eyes wide and confused. "Promises aren't enough! I've heard promises before. From you, from Jack—"

"Angel, that's not fair! Stop comparing me to him!"

"No, what's not fair is you expecting me to forget all the times I've been burned by empty promises before!" She storms forward, and Gaige backpedals. "What's not fair is you going after a little something on the side and then expecting me to shrug it off when you get caught and realize just how badly you screwed up! What's not fair is you asking me to live a lie!"

She glares daggers at that wounded look in Gaige's eyes. After all this, what right does she have to look so hurt?

"I mean, if you're that unhappy, why stay? Why cheat? Why not just do the honest, decent thing, and break up with me? Why not leave?"

Gaige's lip trembles as she glances to the ground. "Because... because I love you!"

Angel glances past her, at the crest of the hill, as five figures in a row walk into view.

"Look, Angel. I'm sorry about Fiona. I'm sorry about what I did. But I love you. You don't have to say anything about..."

Finally noticing that Angel isn't looking at her, Gaige trails off and looks over her shoulder at the source of the approaching footsteps. She wheels around, pulling a Maliwan revolver out of her digistruct holster, standing between Angel and the advancing line.

Angel sighs and shoves her hands into her pockets, freezing when her palm finds the cold handle of her revolver. She stares at the back of Gaige's head, watching her look from the others to the technical, judging if they have enough time to make a run for it. Gaige takes a half step back as Nisha, Scarlett, Steele, Athena, and Ember advance towards them. She raises her metal arm, and Deathtrap blinks into existence in a cyan flash of light, his claws deployed, awaiting orders. Gaige raises her pistol, aiming at Steele. "That's far enough!"

Steele slows to a stop, raising her hand, and the rest of line fall in line beside her. Some thirty feet separate them from Gaige. Angel stands behind her, hand still resting on the Jakobs in her pocket. Her eyes sweep over the rest of the group. Scarlett's good hand hangs by her hip, fingers poised over her personal teleporter. Nisha's eyes burn into Gaige, her hand resting on Law in her unbuckled holster. Steele stands with her arms folded over her chest, feet set shoulder-width apart. Athena has Aspis deployed, holding it to her chest. Her other hand rests on the grip of Xiphos, still in its sheath strapped to her back. Ember stands with Purge in her metal hand, hanging down by her side, the barrel pointed at the ground.

Gaige tucks her finger inside the trigger guard, ready to fire. "Let's go, babe," she mutters, reaching her metal arm back for Angel's hand. Angel stares down at it, waiting for Gaige to realize she'll never find it.

Angel swallows back the lump in her throat, taking hold of the energy coiled in her chest. Her tattoos flare, and Deathtrap digistructs back into Gaige's arm.

Gaige looks to her left at the flash of light, then spins on her heel. Her eyes are wide, her mouth slack. "...Angel?"

Angel forces herself to stare into those panicked emerald eyes. A decision like this shouldn't be easy. She draws her shoulders back taut and holds her chin up. There's no point in offering out pleas like desperate prayers. It won't do either of them any good anymore.

"Angel." Gaige's voice trembles. She throws a glance back over her shoulder. "What are they doing here?" The fear in her eyes tells Angel she already knows the answer.

Angel lets out a disappointed sigh. How sad it is, that Gaige even has the nerve to ask. Remorse tickles her throat. "Why didn't you walk away, Gaige?"

She stands tall, watching as tears start to crack Gaige's glassy eyes. Ember hits the safety on Purge and hangs it on the holster on her back. Athena lets her right hand fall away from the handle of Xiphos. The two of them start to walk forward. Gaige stares up at Angel, searching for an answer. "Angel, please."

Scarlett grimaces and averts her eyes, while Nisha keeps her laser focus trained on Gaige. Steele looks past her, straight at Angel, cold silver eyes piercing deep into her soul.

Ember's black metal hand wraps around Gaige's left elbow. Athena grabs her right wrist. Gaige's revolver drops into the dirt. She stares up at Angel, her eyes watering, pleading. Angel glances up at Ember, seeing the sorrow written in her eyes. What choice does she have?

"Angel..." Panic quakes Gaige's voice, and her tears now freely fall down her cheek. "Angel, please. You don't have to do this."

Unfortunately, she does. She can't play this game anymore. It's only through their help that Angel survived and escaped Jack's clutches. She will do whatever she needs to, if it means never again facing that kind of torture.

Angel stands resolute, staring into Gaige's lost eyes. The dread settles in a heavy pit in her stomach, accompanied by a strange weightlessness. It feels as if she were stepping off a seaside cliff, suspended in time, in that split second where she is hanging over the waves crashing on the rocks below: not quite flying, but not quite falling.

"I'm sorry, Gaige." The effort just to whisper those words weighs deep in her chest. She means it, she supposes.

Angel turns and looks out over the valley. The wind carries away Gaige's cries.