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Alexa stares at Ramses, eyes wide and jaw slack.

In theory, she's pretty sure she knew there were this many kinds of tongue in the universe. But having them all listed at her? An encyclopedic litany of licks? She's not even sure where to start! Possible versions of herself strut across a mental catwalk--tasting the air! What an idea! Feeling out the environment, spotting enemies before they even know she's there! She gawps furiously as Tongues for Pleasure acts out something incredibly lewd on stage, and has to stop herself from blurting out, 'that one please.' A tongue for bathing! A tongue for war! Tongues for fighting and fucking flirting and flying and frightening and flyting and--

She listens as Ramses goes on, rapt at every word. No, that's not quite right--the words are amazing and she could spend hours just going over them in her head--but what really has her attention is the light in Ramses' eyes as they talk. That flare, that passion, that energy? She could sit and listen to Ramses gush for hours, a small smile growing on her face.

"I have never tasted anything before," she admits when Ramses pauses for breath and stares at her. "I can eat, yes. But it is all shapes and textures, never..." She waves a hand vaguely, having run out of words. "I can listen to people describe food, right? But it feels like describing green to a blind man. It would be nice to be able to, to see green for the first time."
Right… Now?

It's not that Alexa hasn't thought of what she wants to be. All those sleepless nights loathing what she is wouldn't be very good without dreams of what she could be.

She wants to be a strong defender, the invincible wall to keep her friends safe. She wants to never have to fight again, never have to worry about whether her friends are safe. She wants to chase Minerva, to read that letter, to hare off into the cosmos to find where she is. Is she well? Is she safe? Does she still laugh the way she used to? Does she still remember her? And at the same time, she almost feels guilty thinking that, because she also wants to see Isty smile more, learn about her, feel her in her arms. She wants to beg Athena for forgiveness at the same time as she wants to throw curses in her face, damn her for destroying her life.

She clings to Ramses' hand as the thoughts rush past. It's an anchor in a storm, something to bring her back to the present.

Those are all long-term destinations, though. Good girlfriend, pacifist, defender, those aren't now. They're things to work towards.

She rubs a thumb across his hand, feels the rough callouses. What do those say about right now? Why choose to keep those? What does it say that Ramses wants his hands to show the marks of work?

Right now. What does she want, in this second?

She stares at the plate. Reaches out with a spare hand. Turns it this way and that on the edge of the pool, studies the way the light plays across the discarded crab shells. Takes another bite, feels the texture on her teeth.

Tastes nothing.

"I think… I would like a better tongue."
"I thought Alexa was who I wanted to be."

She hates, instantaneously, the edge of weakness that creeps into her voice. That slight whine of bewilderment, of being adrift and lost, rudder- and anchor-less. She is meant to be strong, to be frank, to be a beacon of surety and protection in a changing world. A place where her ward can find peace and comfort, where none can creep in or make afraid.

But that's the thing, isn't it? She isn't--can't be--what she was.

It is strange to feel so safe, is it not? Here, in the presence of one of the order of Hermes? One who knows who she was, who was a match for her even before Athena turned her face away? She should be panicking, fleeing. Not inching along the bench.

"It means 'defender' in one of the old tongues, did you know that? I found it in one of my father's records."

A perfect name for one who, even then, would not be the Pallas. A name that would not slaughter innocents, or intimidate the weak. She did not want to fight wars, but surely she could defend? Could stand as a wall between those she loved and those who would harm them?

And see how well that worked out? Surrounding herself with those who could guard themselves without her intervention? Barring her heart fast unless she judged the person capable of managing themselves without her? One who locked herself away where she need not care for anything but her niche? A fine protector, indeed.

She doesn't cross the last few inches that would bring them close enough to touch. There's a barrier there that even now, even feeling so safe, is too dangerous to cross. But oh, to think that Ramses might reach back... Touch, any kind of touch. A brush, a grasp, anything to tell her that things might be okay.

"I do not--" She hesitates, swallows, and steels herself. "No, I don't know who I am. How can I choose to be someone who hurt so bad?"

Hurt others. Hurt herself.

"How can I even start that journey if I don't know in which way I'm going?"
Alexa groans and sinks fully under the surface of the pool. Take her now, Poseidon. Vent the pool, flush her into space, and save her from cuties with big muscles and bigger hearts.

It's odd to miss the days when she didn't know what to say. When she could remind herself that she was the background, and the background doesn't ask questions until it's ordered, suddenly, to be very much the foreground. When she had the time to put her thoughts in order before never opening her mouth.

Now, the words fill her throat like fifty plovers running through a hallway at once--they slam together, wedge against and through each other in their haste to get out, until the whole mess is stuck fast and immovable. There's an ambulance on the scene, but it's going to be a while before any words can be prised out and triaged.

Please, Ramses. Be patient, don't leave. Give her a moment to process, okay?

Reluctantly, she surfaces, and fumbles for the plate. She cannot taste the food, but she does her best to appreciate the way the sharpness of the tubers meets the soft fibers of the crab, makes notes of the texture of flesh against teeth. But while she eats, she can't answer questions. She can wait for the medics to emerge with suitable words.

"Molech never lost a battle, true. But the Pallas lost all the time."

Never this badly, though.

She takes another bite of crab, and admires the way the red of its flesh blends with the darker oranges of the yams. The dish is a treat for the eyes, symmetrical on the plate save for where Ramses has dashed sauce across the two halves. He's artful, too, and she dares meet his eyes over the plate.

Does everyone know who she is? Has she spent months, years, hiding what all could see?

"And in truth, I have not been the Pallas for… a long time."

Is that true? Is it just now that Athena has abandoned her that the Pallas finally dies? Did she die when she betrayed Molech and helped Nero? Could she yet be resurrected if someone else held her seal?

"I… I would not be called by that name, please. It is not a happy name."
Well, this is her life now.

She doesn't try getting up. What's the point, really? This is it. Rock bottom. Kinslayer, despised of her mother, and now two posturing muscleheads are enough to defeat her.

Oh, yes! Alexa, the Pallas! Beautiful, strong, graceful! Bow to her! Bow to the queen of garbage!

Why bother trying to move? Let her sit here, be still amongst the garbage heap. Redana can find Gaia without her. She's got an army now, and she never needed her in the first place. The others will manage with her. She'll just rest here with the rest of the garbage and feel quite sorry for herself, thanks much.

Redana would probably even let her go. Drop her off when next they make port, promise never to suck her back in. She'd...

She'd never see them again. But they didn't need her, anyway. Old relic of the past, too blind to see when its usefulness has gone. She'll just hurt them by staying, right? Better this way.

And she'd probably be able to do it, too, if it weren't for the nose digging into her back.

G'wan. Leave her alone, dog. You don't need her. The Alcedi will toss a ball for you, probably.

Nudge nudge. Whine.

Come on. Have you no pity for your elders? She is your elder, right? Maybe?

Bark.

Hrrmmmm. Fine. Fine. She's moving. We'll at least get you fixed up. And then she's coming back to the trash heap, you mark her words.

***

Alright. Fine, Not!Rusty. You were right. Baths were a good idea.

She sits in the steam of bathhouse, water up to her nose, and gently blows bubbles. At least the dirt of the garbage heap is gone. Not!Rusty even seemed to like having the soil of ages gently wiped off its surface. Now, if only the thoughts in her head were as easy to chase away.

A stranger. After dedicating her life to her service, one misdeed turns her to a stranger.

And what is she, if not a scion of Athena? What can she be, when her purpose is gone? No, worse than gone, shunning her? Who else could she turn to? Who else would listen? She can't just... exist, can she?

It'd be one hell of a pivot.

At the very least, it's not immediate. It's not as simple as knocking her over and bowling her out the door. She's getting her own hits in. But Alexa doesn't have time for flash, for call-and-response, for choreography. She doesn't remember how to make that happen--how to make the spear dance, how to twirl and pirouette to dance out of the way of the blows, to turn the enemies' energy against each other. She remembers the training! She remembers doing it! She danced through the battlefield, faced entire platoons on her own, was the ultimate in warfare.

And now, she must recognize that it wasn't her. That she has training and strength, yes. This isn't a helpless situation. But so much of what made her, her, was something else. And it's gone, now, and she doesn't know what it'll take to get it back or if she's willing to do that.

And what's worse, she's going to lose. She can see the signs--can't get enough hits in, is driven one step back, and then another.

"There must be some way I can earn your forgiveness!" Is she talking to the Magos, or hoping Athena might show pity? Probably the Magos.
Carefully, the Engineer takes his boots off and lays them by the cab door.

Iᴛ ᴅɪᴅɴ'ᴛ ɢᴏ ᴡᴇʟʟ, ᴛʜᴇɴ.

He snorts. That obvious, huh?

Yᴏᴜ'ʀᴇ ᴀʟᴡᴀʏs ᴇxᴛʀᴀ ᴄᴀʀᴇғᴜʟ ɴᴏᴛ ᴛᴏ sʟᴀᴍ ᴍʏ ᴅᴏᴏʀs ᴡʜᴇɴ ʏᴏᴜ'ʀᴇ ᴜᴘsᴇᴛ.

Coleman pauses, one hand mid-overall-unbuttoning. Is he really?

Iɴᴅᴇᴇᴅ.

Huh. Well, ain't that a thing.

Nᴏᴡ, ᴛʜᴇ Rᴏᴜɴᴅʜᴏᴜsᴇ.

Coleman scowls, folds up his overalls, and leans back against the firebox. It's quickly become his favorite place on the train. From here, he can see every gauge, every dial, can keep track of what's going on in his baby girl.

It's not that the council of Engineers doesn't believe him, naturally. You don't get to be an Engineer without a good dose of common sense and more than a good amount of cunning, and you'd have to be blind not to see how the number of accidents have skyrocketed since Wormwood imploded. Roundhouse lookin' a whole lot emptier'n normal, bunch of conspicuously empty spots for Engines that've gone missing.

But, well, he's also the newest Engineer, and he was there. Some blame him, others don't but feel he coulda done more, others just think that more seasoned voices--theirs--should be leading, and others still that just want to go their own way. Conagher's on his side, thank goodness--not sure what he'd'a done if the Mighty Natascha turned away from her daughter. It's not a faction, not yet, but it's at least a start--the beginnings of a new way of doing things, of working together, of coming to each others' aid. It's no Wormwood, for sure, but maybe it'll be enough.

Maybe Lucien could wrangle the rest of the Roundhouse for him? Coleman snorts to himself. Lucien'd have a coup for him within days, no doubt.

He'd sit there all day if he could, listening to Sasha hum. Would let Sasha's warmth suffuse him, seep through every scale, work out all those aches and pains he'd almost forgotten about. Would sink into her, watch through her senses, let himself be still for a moment.

But, alas, he has jobs to do. There's a man here to talk about that stained glass, and some kobolds waiting to be interviewed, and always, always some bits of brass to be polished.

He rubs a claw across the scrollwork as he turns to go. The patterns of Pappy's wrench are beautiful where they ran, the brass and gold melding with Sasha's hide. The history of the past, now molded into the history of the future.

"Come on, Sasha," he murmurs. "It's time to go home."
Damn.

Damn him for not backing down. Damn her for escalating to "we can do this the hard way" in the first place. Damn her spear for feeling wrong in her hands, for that little extra knife of betrayal. Damn him for reminding her that--

She's not useless. Yeah, arguably Redana doesn't need protecting, can handle things on her own. Yes, she's earned the ire of the gods. Yes, Athena's turned away from her, so arguably the best thing she can do for Redana is find her own replacement.

She should back down. Should heed her own warning, shouldn't pick fights where she doesn't need to. Has too few friends, divine or otherwise, to go making enemies. What's the next escalation from here, Alexa? What's your plan for when you, chest heaving, stand over your allies? What happens when he says "okay, maybe we do need the relics?" He's got them spare, and you haven't. He's got troops spare, and you haven't. He's not shunned by the war god, hasn't had the strength pulled out of his limbs, doesn't feel like his mind is clouded with--

It's worse for the knowledge that she used to know these things. Remembers what it was like, without the knowledge of how to do it anymore. Could get it back, maybe, if she were willing to get back in Athena's good graces. Could go back to it.

Could go back to what? Go back to being a tool? Go back to being the Pallas?

But what else is there for her? What else can she be? It's all she's ever known!

Not!Rusty tugs at her clothing, whines. It's not worth it, come on, let's go, let's get going, we'll figure out something else. You won't have to fight--nobody's ordering you to fight, here! It's not something you have to disobey! You have options! You can go talk to Vasilia, barter your memories with Iskarot, go whining to Redana!

All it will cost is your pride!

...

Step back, Not!Rusty. She's doing this for your own good. She sways gently, spear dragging and limbs full of unfamiliar reflexes. But what is she, in the end, if she is too weak to protect somebody else?
Alexa stares at the dice, before picking one up, noting its face, and contemplatively tossing it down again. The same face stares up at her again, and she turns away from the dice with a small huff of irritation.

"In my own name," she retorts, "and in the name of... Hmm. I do not know your name yet, do I, girl? Spot will not do. Hmm. Rusty?"

Two barks.

"Not Rusty? Okay. We can figure it out later."

She flicks a particle of rust off the wire brush and holds it out to the figure. "Realistically speaking, magus, there are two, three ways this ends. If you do not help, I will stay until you drag in an esoteric to evict me. And if my friend is harmed in that, my wrath will be terrible."

She lets her words hang in the air and adds, deadpan, "This would be detrimental to our team spirit."

Her tongue still chokes on the next words. Don't let them know you care for it. That's a lever they can push, someone they can threaten to get you to be a good soldier. The only way to keep them safe is to keep them away.

"But, if you were to help me fix this dog, you would earn my friendship. That is valuable coin, to be sure. And it would mean I have no reason to dig through your toolbox."

"What do you say, friend?

Of course the trains must run. What else could they do with all this power? Feel how it pulsates through them, pushes one limb after another, jogs them into a gallop? With a belly full of steam and a carnival of terror, what else but put that power to use?

No wonder the knights exist! How else could the engines live, if there were not people who cleared the way? Would you dream of taming the Engine? Of reining it in, when every rivet and plate ache with awful energy?

Even now, there's a part of them that insists that the only proper response to this insult is to kick the jet coaster off its moorings, and aim salvo after salvo of laden cars at the Long. How dare you not justify them with a fight? Do you not acknowledge them? You would simply leave?

But they know, terrible as it is, that this power is not infinite. Either the coal will burn through, or they will burn out under their own fury. They...

They must part. Must cease to be one, and become two, and the thought is agony. They finally understand what Mister Conagher had said, and will now separate again.

So, if they must be parted, they will make the most of it. Will shove the throttle to full, barrel through clowns, and run. There are friends to save, friends who must live, if they are to make it home.

Come, Lucien. Let them show you why you must not fear trains. Behold their beauty, their grace. Come, meet the new Sasha.
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