The remains of Croydon's militia herded the remains of the city's populace into place early in the morning, just after dawn. Liam and Malcolm still hadn't spoken to each other since their tiff, much to Que's confusion, now that she was awake and mobile again. It was hard to tell that she had been curled up in pain the night before, but rest, repair, and laudanum had done their jobs exceptionally well. Unfortunately, they did nothing to curb her curiosity, and since she couldn't get anything out of the brothers, she had resolved to bother everyone else.
Smoke listened to Que's barrage of questions with his usual emotionless expression and told her, for the fourth time, that he didn't know what had happened. He'd been by her side for most of the night.
"I still don't see why it matters. It's between them, Que. Don't meddle," Smoke said.
"But," Que insisted again. "What if Liam gets left behind because his brother's angry with him? He doesn't have an airship anymore. What if he's so angry with him that..."
Liam brushed passed them, hands shoved into his pockets to keep them from itching for a cigarette.
"I'm going to talk to him now."
He was certainly less angry than he had been the night before, and he didn't like staying mad, especially since it was his brother. Malcolm was the last family he had; he didn't want to lose him too.
Smoke arched an eyebrow at Que as if to say, "told you so." He took her by the hand.
"Come on. There's plenty to help with before we take off to Lucatica."
Que frowned as the left to do other things, just about the time when Liam finally found Malcolm again.
"Hey," he said, not really sure how to begin.
Malcolm looked up at Liam.
"Hey," he said back and put down the barrel of rice he carried.
So much for conversation starters. Liam shifted from one foot to the other.
"Look, Malcolm," he tried. "About yesterday... things were kind of stressful, you know? I didn't mean to be so blunt about Mum..."
Malcolm's shoulders relaxed a little.
"I know you lost your ship, and I know I was stupid in not contacting you, but I was only trying to protect you both, Liam. I get you were mad, but hell, I didn't do it out of fucking spite."
Malcolm felt his anger escape a smidge and reigned in it. He closed his eyes and looked away.
Liam sighed, thinking for a long while before he responded to that. His immediate reaction was to protest: he hadn't said it to be deliberately mean; it had just come out that way. But he didn't want to turn this into another argument.
Liam sighed again before continuing.
"She's still over in Escer. Got that spot on the hill she always wanted, facing east and everything."
A regretful snort escaped him.
"If it's any consolation, you weren't the only one who missed the funeral."
Malcolm was quiet for a long moment. His eyes stung, but he didn't want to show their redness to his brother. He was sure Liam could see him blinking anyway to hold it back.
"After Lucatica, I'm flying to Escer then. And everyone is just going to have to deal with it," Malcolm said, his voice soft.
Liam said nothing, but pulled his hands out of his pockets and wrapped his arms around his brother.
"Sorry I didn't break it to you gentler, bro. Can you forgive my idiocy?"
Malcolm finally looked up at Liam.
"Yeah. Mum wouldn't want us fightin' anyway. We got no one else but each other left now."
A smile at last crept across Liam's face, and he gave his brother a tighter squeeze.
"Yeah, and a visit home will do us both good. Besides, dead or alive, Mum will have our heads if we don't visit her."
Malcolm let his arms wrap around his brother.
"That's the truth."
He pulled away from Liam and gave a small, brief smile.
"I guess it's just still hard for me to accept that Mum isn't around anymore."
"It took me a while to accept it too," his twin admitted. "Now you'll get your chance to make your peace. I'm sure no one here will mind."
He shoved his hands back into his pockets.
"Speaking of which, are you able to get everyone on this ship? Seems to me it's going to be a very tight squeeze."
"It is. I'm trying to see how many can be fit. If there's a handful left over then I can get them into the crew's quarters until we get to Lucatica. But if there are too many, I'll do a count for how many I can fit comfortably and then see how many are left over. That'll help me determine how many trips we need. Hopefully, no more than two. Gunner is doing the head count right now."
"Too bad my ship's essentially kindling," Liam said with a sad sort of chuckle. "Else I could take on a small group. In the meantime, got anything you need help with? I need to do something with my hands until I can pick up another pack of cigarettes."
"Several of my guys are down in the hold moving the boxes so there's more room for the townsfolk. Smoke was supposed to go and salvage any supplies. You could do either, I guess. If Smoke hasn't left yet and you don't want to go with him I'll send either Lee or Bastian with him," Malcolm said.
For some reason, this made Liam laugh.
"I think I'll help with the heavy lifting. No doubt wherever Smoke goes, Que will try to glue herself to him, and frankly I'd rather not listen to her bombard him with questions."
He folded his arms and glanced back to where he had originally walked past them.
"Which reminds me, for someone who was shot just the night before, she's awfully chipper. If I didn't know any better (and hadn't carried her up the ladder myself), I'd say she put on a mighty good show of being hurt last night. You must have some expert medic on this rig for a result like that."
"I haven't talked to him yet about her. If you want to corner him and ask, be my guest. All I know about it is that Smoke was with her all night and Brogan was with them."
"For a silent bad ass, that guy likes that busybody a lot, doesn't he?"
Liam mirrored his brother's shrug.
"I'm fairly certain he'd be acting the same way if Que were a stray puppy. She's too damn cute to ignore, and no matter how many times you tell her to sit and stay, you still can't get mad at her when she decides to follow."
"Ah. So now we know Smoke's weakness. Puppies."
"And (apparently) insatiably curious young women," Liam added, again matching his twin.
"Same thing," Malcolm said and grinned.
"I'm just glad there's only one of her. Just watching her ask all her questions is exhausting. And I don't think I've ever met someone with such... varied talents. It's kind of scary, at least from her."
"The fun part is that we're probably scary to her right back. So at least it's balanced. I only know how you got here from overhearing snippets of conversation from cohorts," Malcolm said. "Once we're in the air, we'll split a bottle and you can tell me how you ended up fighting Enlightened in Croydon."
Liam rolled his eyes and started towards the ship's hold.
"Make it several bottles. It could take a while to explain."
Lucatica: the so-called Shining City of Alchemy, where many (if not nearly all) of the metropolis's inhabitants knew at least a little alchemy, and as a result, most of the architecture was in some way embellished with alchemical art. Also as a result, Lucatica's militia force was one of the most skilled around, and they'd fended off more Enlightened attacks than most other cities, with almost no losses on their side.
The Green Gambler arrived at mid-morning. It had made sure to send messages to Lucatica's port assuring them of their identity and purpose. At arrival, Malcolm let Gunner handle the survivors of Croydon, while he spoke to his connection a man named James Sturdivant who was an old army buddy whom Liam also knew.
Ophelia disappeared soon after landing.
Brogan, having already built a much more capable and advanced version of the wheelchair that had been abandoned on Liam's ship, was on deck with BOB. She felt uncomfortable being in this city, and a little jumpy.
Smoke kept to himself, hidden inside the ship. He helped Eric get people out of the cargo hold, but he didn't leave the ship.
Which, with Liam assisting his brother, left Que bored and very antsy. She would have left the ship on her own to explore, but at least five different people had told her not to go wandering. Getting shot in the side had scared her enough that she actually listened, but that didn't mean she had to like it.
"Brogan?" she asked, walking over to the other woman. "When can we see the city? Are we staying on this ship the whole time or finding a place to stay? Do you think Liam's brother will take us to Sylvora?"
Brogan rolled her eyes.
"When everyone is off the ship and settled, depending on the time. Probably staying on the ship since I heard Liam and Malcolm want to go to Escer. Probably not."
It took Que a minute to realize she'd answered her questions in the order she'd asked them. A second later, it hit her what her last answer was, and she pouted.
"But... I... I have actual addresses for Blackthornes there. And Miss Lillith..."
She chewed on her lip.
Brogan looked at Que.
"Honey, Sylvora is occupied. It was a miracle we got out of there alive. Smoke was shot. If we go back, there's even a less chance we'll get out alive. At the very least, if we go we'll have to have a great plan. There's no guarantee that those Blackthornes will be there, and no guarantee that they're not Enlightened."
"I know," Que sighed. "But... then where do I go next? If that lead dead ends..."
She closed her eyes.
"I just didn't expect to get so wrapped up in this war. I was only trying to find my family."
Brogan shook her head.
"The moment Sylvora was taken, finding your family and this war were going to be intertwined. You're just going to have to wait a little while longer, Que. You've only just started looking for your family; you had no idea that this war was going on when you started."
"There seems to be a lot of things I didn't know about before I left home."
Que opened her eyes, crossing her legs as she slipped down to sit beside Brogan's chair.
"Maybe Father was right; maybe I am too curious for my own good."
Then, almost as a side note, she added:
"Funny how I ended up back where I started."
Brogan's eyes suddenly became very wide.
"W-Wait. What the hell does that mean?"
Que looked up at her and shrugged.
"My father, Professor Atticus Arres, teaches Advanced Alchemy and Theoretical Alchemy here at the University of Lucatica," she explained. "The family manor is within walking distance of the university. I could see it from my window."
Brogan made a motion to stand up and then collapsed back onto the chair, having forgotten about her legs. She paled, her skin white, her face pinched.
"Que, you can't go home. You can't let anyone know you're Atticus's daughter or that you're here."
The younger woman's brows furrowed, and she tilted her head to one side in confusion.
"Huh? Why not? He might be a little angry with me for running off, I'm sure, but he never stays mad long. Besides, I just keep getting underfoot here; I may as well just go home..."
"No!" Brogan shouted at her. It got the attention of some of the people around them, but Brogan wasn't going to let Que do this again. She grabbed the girl by the shirt and pulled her toward her. Her voice was dangerous whisper.
"So help me, Que, this time you're going to do what I tell you to. And if I even catch a glimmer that you're going to not listen to me and head back over there, I will have Malcolm, Liam and Smoke hold you down to prevent you from going. Even worse, I'll sic Ophelia on you. Don't make me. You will do what you're told this time. I'm not going to let you get hurt again from you being stupid."
Que stared at her, eyes wide open, giving a small squeak when Brogan grabbed her. She shook a little from the shock, even more confused (and now frightened) than she was before.
"I... I..." she stammered, fighting back the tears that began welling in her eyes. "I don't understand. Why... why would it be bad for me to go home?"
Brogan let go of Que's shirt.
"Because Atticus Arres plans to kill you for running away, Que," she said quietly. "And I'm not going to let him hurt you."
All strength left her and she sank back to the floor.
"But... why... why would Father want to do that?"
She began to shake as the tears won out and filled her eyes. She trusted Brogan, but didn't want to believe her.
"Where did you hear this?"
"From the person Atticus sent to kill you," Brogan said quietly. "I didn't realize it was you he was talking about until later. Until I recognized the things he described in you. He doesn't know where you are, Que. You can't let either of them find you."
Que was silent for a long time, trying to keep herself from sobbing as the tears rolled down her cheeks in a steady stream.
"I don't understand..." she said. "Why would Father want me dead?"
Brogan looked away. She couldn't tell Que what she suspected even though it would eliminate the crazy idea to go to Sylvora (which would be good for everyone) from her head. Brogan was sure of it now, but she didn't have the right to...
"I don't know, Que. I only know that he sent someone after you to bring you back here so Atticus Arres could kill you. I don't know why he would do such a horrible thing, but you can't go back there. You can't."
Que went silent again. Wiping her eyes, she slowly stood, still a little wobbly from the overwhelming shock.
"I think I'm going to lie down for a bit," she choked out, and said nothing more as she carefully made her way to the stairs leading below deck. Que couldn't cope with this. She couldn't imagine any plausible reason why anyone would want to kill her, especially not her father. She wanted to get away. Away from everyone. But if what Brogan said was really true, then she couldn't just leave the ship. She knew there had to be somewhere secluded below deck where she could be left alone, so that was where she would go. Que sniffed back another round of tears and stepped lightly down the stairs, hoping she didn't run into anyone along the way.
Smoke saw Que's red eyes, her sniffling, her tears and immediately followed her.
She didn't notice at all, whether he was trying to be stealthy or not. She was too caught up the thought that someone actually wanted to kill her, and so wandered ghostlike down the hall until she found an empty room in the corner, walked inside, and curled up on the floor to continue sobbing to herself. Even then, Que still didn't know Smoke was there.
Smoke watched her for a moment and then moved beside her. He pulled her into his arms and against his body, letting her curl up and cry on him. He pressed his face in her hair.
"What's wrong, Que?"
The young woman forced back the tears again, trying to calm herself enough to tell him.
"B... Brogan got really upset when I said I might just stay home while I'm here..." she explained, sniffling. "She... she said that my father wants to kill me..."
Smoke froze. His arms wound more tightly around her.
"How did she find out about something like that?" he asked softly.
"She said that she heard it from the person he sent to kill me..."
Que's tears started to break through again.
"But she couldn't tell me why..."
"Maybe they didn't tell her," Smoke said. He was sure he was right, but he knew Brogan was no fool. He would have to talk to her and find out exactly what happened.
"But Brogan wouldn't lie to you, Que. So you best not get off the ship."
"It's just as bad as home," Que sobbed. "I have to stay inside, away from everyone else, and no one can tell me why!"
She curled up tighter, burying her face in Smoke's shirt as she tried to stop crying.
"We can tell you why, Que. Your father wants to hurt you. Maybe he went crazy after you left. Only a crazy person tries to kill his own child," Smoke whispered.
Que didn't know what to say to this. There was nothing she could say. Her father wanted her dead. It didn't make sense, but there was no reason for Smoke or Brogan to lie to her.
"I don't want to do this anymore," Que cried quietly.
"You don't want to do what anymore?" he asked.
"This," she said again, trying to reign in her sobbing. "Traveling around, getting shot at, running from everyone. I should've just stayed home in the first place. I should've just accepted that whatever the reason Father lied to me about my mother was a good one and just stayed home. But I can't even go home now..."
She sniffled, turning her head to lean against Smoke instead of burying her face against him.
"Que, there's no telling what would've happened if you'd stayed home."
Smoke lay his head on hers. He didn't bother to state the obvious. If she had stayed home, there would be no Smoke.
"It's all right to be scared."
"But I don't like being scared. It's... uncomfortable."
Que lifted a hand to wipe her eyes and looked up at him.
"Smoke? You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"
He stared at her for a long moment.
"Only if you wanted me to," he said. His voice was whisper soft.
Que lowered her head again and leaned into him.
"I don't like being lied to. It's bad enough people keep secrets."
She took a deep breath.
"You wouldn't do that, would you?"
"Only if I thought you would be hurt."
Smoke gave her a brief squeeze.
"Que, sometimes people keep secrets and lie in order to protect the person they care about. Sometimes people know things, but don't tell anyone because it would only be bad if it was said out loud."
"I don't understand..."
She closed her eyes.
"How can the truth be bad?"
"It's never bad in the end, but it can hurt very much. If you knew something that would hurt someone you cared about, but it was the truth, wouldn't it be hard for you to say it? If you knew they would cry, or hate you, or run away from you because of the truth you said, would you want to say it? Or would you just pretend you didn't know it?"
Que was quiet for a moment.
"I don't know," she admitted. "I've never had a secret to keep."
She yawned, having exhausted herself crying.
"What's going to happen after everyone has been settled in Lucatica and Liam and Malcolm have gone to visit their mother in Escer? What's next?"
"I don't think Liam and Malcolm are going to leave us behind. But what we do next is something we need to talk about," he said.
Que nodded, readjusting to look up at him again.
"I can talk now. It isn't like I can go anywhere off the ship. Brogan said we can't go to Sylvora to look for more Blackthornes unless we have a really good plan, and I don't think I'm up to creating a better one than the last we used. I don't know where to go from here."
"I don't know either, but that's why we need to talk about it with everyone before we do anything else."
Again, Que nodded.
She was finished crying, and was simply content to sit there and lean against Smoke. After another minute or so, she asked, "Smoke? If I'm not supposed to let anyone else know I'm Atticus's daughter, then shouldn't everyone else who knows know they're not supposed to say anything? I mean, what about Liam? He doesn't know this is my hometown, and he and his brother are out and about. What if he accidentally says something?"
"I don't think they're going to be talking about you, Que. They're going to be dealing with getting the refugees to safety and Eric may stay to do some militia work, but I don't think anyone is going to mention you by first and last name."
Que closed her eyes.
"I don't want to get into trouble because someone else doesn't know they have to be careful."
"You'll be fine, I promise," Smoke said. "You know I won't let anything happen to you, right?"
"I know, but what if something happens to you?"
Smoke didn't know what to say to that. There was no guarantee. So he said, "I'll be all right too."
Que nuzzled against him.
"You better be. I don't want to lose you."
Smoke flushed and looked at her for a moment. A small, brief smile came to his lips.
"I won't leave you, Que."
"No matter what?"
"No matter what."
Smoke had not intended to come out on deck. But after comforting Que, he went out to speak with Brogan about how she knew about Que's father and situation. In that conversation, both Smoke and Brogan made revelations to each other that for Que's sake they would keep to themselves until further notice.
After the conversation, Smoke sneaked away, avoiding Sturdivant who was still talking to Malcolm and Liam. He disappeared into the city, like he had so many times before, and headed out to the renowned alchemist's, Prof. Atticus Arres, manor just on the outskirts of the city.
He didn't bother to go up to the front door. Alchemists were rarely within their home. They were in their laboratories.
Smoke circled the house and searched for where the lab would be located. Most likely underground. Probably have a shaft somewhere to release the smoke from furnace that every lab sported. He found the shaft, smoke twisting out of it in swirls of dark blue. Near it was a shack that served as a storage unit and also an alternative escape route should something blow up.
He headed there, picked the lock it was locked from the inside as he suspected
and opened the door. A staircase headed downward. Not wanting to be blasted with god-knows what kind of alchemy Arres had by appearing to be a thief sneaking in, Smoke knocked on the wall of the shack and let it echo down the stairwell.
A little forewarning never hurt.
After a few seconds, the clattering of whatever experiment was being done ceased, and a demanding, suspicious voice called up from the darkness:
Smoke began down the stairs.
"Someone who has an important question to ask you. Nothing more."
As he drew closer to the bottom of the steps, a curtain parted, letting in some light and casting a long shadow from the figure holding it open.
"Was it too important to use the front door?" the man asked. "My servants would have called me if they knew I had a guest."
"I assumed you would be in your lab. I wouldn't want to drag you out of it for a single, albeit important, question. And there was no guarantee you would have come out to meet me over one question," Smoke said as he stepped through the curtain.
The figure tapped his cane.
"Single questions seldom lead to single answers."
The professor's laboratory was remarkably immaculate even for someone who treated alchemy as an exacting science though it was clear he had been busy at work on something when Smoke interrupted. On one counter was a stack of papers, some cracked and yellowed with age, beside an incomplete alchemical formula written in chalk across a blackboard. It looked like he'd made several changes to it already, but before Smoke could get a good look at it, Atticus walked over and flipped the board over, bringing up a clean side and hiding the formula against the wall. He turned to his guest, the wrinkles around his eyes and brow deep as he looked him over.
"I assume you know who I am, young man," he said. "But I would appreciate an introduction from yourself."
"My name is Smoke. I was once the student of Dr. Thaddeus Pharum," Smoke said.
"Hm," Atticus said, nodding his head as if to accept this answer before he started towards an armchair in the room. "I remember him well, poor Thaddeus. He was my colleague before he destroyed himself with his insane experiments. I didn't know any of his students were still alive, seeing as most of them either took after their teacher or fell pray to his lunacies."
He carefully sat down, his joints creaking as he sank back into the chair.
"It's good to see at least one survived his lessons."
Atticus gestured towards another chair, offering Smoke the seat.
Smoke took the offered seat.
"Thank you. Dr. Pharum was a good man, but my survival came first to his experiments. I heard of his death about a year after I had left."
Smoke's shadowed gaze lifted to Professor Arres.
"As for my question and I hope who I am and who I studied with helps you to understand my knowledge what do you hope to accomplish in creating human homuculi and then destroying them?"
The corner of the older man's eye twitched and he sat up, leaning forward against his cane.
"I take it you've encountered both of them, then, since you used the plural."
Smoke only smiled.
"Then the answer should be obvious," Atticus said. "They are unstable. Arguably, the most stable of my experiments with them, but still not stable enough to be considered successful. I did not intend to release them until the formula was fully completed and I was able to bring it to the public. They must be destroyed so that improvements may be made."
Smoke seemed to consider this.
"Perhaps if I knew your goal in creating a human homunculus then I could understand how they are unstable. What is 'successful' to you? What are you trying to do? Because both are capable of learning and through learning are able to become more and more human. Clearly, your earlier version is more human than the latest, but that is because of years of learning which the latter has yet to achieve. I know this is an expansion of my question, but I wish to understand. I learned that you wished to destroy them, and it confused me. Are you aiming for a homunculus to be as close to human as possible, or for it to be beyond human?"
Atticus gave him a thin smile, sitting straighter and placing his hand on his chin. He took several minutes before giving his answer.
"You see; this has become much more than a single question. I am only trying to advance my science, like any expert in the field is wont to do. Homuculi could have their uses in medicine, for one, if they were close enough to humans. Imagine: instead of mechanical limbs that need constant maintenance, create a homunculus instead and extract the needed arm or leg for replacement. No need to worry about ethics because they aren't human, and then the remaining components can be recycled for later use. We could test medicines on them, and learn their effects before giving them to the masses. Imagine the lives that could be saved."
"I understand. Thaddeus had a similar belief. But the problem with human homunculi is the very concept of 'human.' The alchemist plays god, creating life. Unfortunately one forgets that playing god comes with the responsibility that those lives are no longer controllable. A human homunculus may not be human, but it becomes human, therefore putting those beliefs you stated to the test. There is a reason why this is considered forbidden alchemy. Once created the morale question comes into play, and these homunculi so like humans have free will that comes innately with being human. The two are so closely tied that finding a division between them becomes impossible. Human homunculi have the ability to chose, to form relationships, to become human. The question is then, when do they stop being homunculi and when do they become human? Like the question of our own creation, there is no right or wrong answer."
Smoke smiled and stood.
"I understand to a degree now what your purpose is. I understand what you are trying to do. I also know there is probably some deeper, personal reason you are doing this, because no alchemist trifles with the darker parts of alchemy without it being close to their hearts. Still, I won't press you further or continue to interrupt you. However, I will offer in thanks for your clemency and honesty on the subject to let you know something that is vastly important to your well being. Your latest creation has become an ally of people who will use you, should they ever discover who his creator is. There is a possibility that they already know, and therefore be coming for you to force you to do their work. Stay hidden, Professor Arres, so you don't become their puppet. As for your first creation, all I can tell you is that she has already formed relationships like a human being has. In fact, all of them believe her to be human, because unlike the second you never told her of her origins. Even with the knowledge that she is homunculus, they will fight you ever step of the way to keep her alive. My suggestion to you is to abandon the idea of destroying them. They're already too human for you to destroy them without repercussions."
Smoke gave Atticus a small bow.
"I will take my leave of you now. Please consider my words."
"You're warning is considered," the professor answered, slowly rising to his feet. "But take mine in return: the homunculi can be studied by others, and those with less honorable goals can take them apart to learn to create their own. If not destroyed, the wrong people could learn from them."
He leaned on his cane, getting his balance.
"I gave up on finding my creations months ago when I lost track of the second. Unless they cross my path, there isn't much I can do about them."
Smoke nodded. "Thank you, Professor Arres. Be careful."
Smoke made sure he wasn't followed by anyone on his way back to the ship. He was good at hiding in the shadows, and he watched to make sure the professor didn't send anyone. The last thing Smoke needed was for Arres to find out Que was in town.
When he was certain he wasn't being tracked or followed, he continued to the ship, still remaining in the shadows.
Once at the ship, he tried to sneak past without being noticed, but this time he didn't get away with Sturdivant saying nothing.
"Smoke? Holy hell, it is you," Sturdivant said.
Smoke stood stiffly as the other man approached and then took his hand. Smoke, grudgingly, shook hands.
"It's good to see you, kid. It's been four years almost. What have you been doing?"
Malcolm lifted an eyebrow.
"You two know each other?"
"Damn, it's a small world, ain't it?" Liam said, echoing his twin's surprise. "And neither of you mentioned anything about knowing the other. You and your connections, Smoke..."
Liam was already on his second cigarette from his newly acquired pack. He'd just offered Malcolm one when Smoke appeared.
"Know each other, yeah, I should say so," Sturdivant said. "Smoke here lived in Lucatica for a few years back when he was still a runt. He filled out well. When he left he was one of the militia's better fighters and alchemists."
He looked at Smoke.
"I take it you heard about Pharum's death."
"Yes," Smoke said. His face was expressionless as usual.
Malcolm took a smoke, lit it and looked from Smoke to Sturdivant to Liam.
"Your friend here knows a lot of people, Liam. Anything or anyone else you know you'd like to share with us?"
"Still as closed mouth as ever. When did you meet Liam and Malcolm?"
"Two days ago," Malcolm said. "Don't know about Liam though."
"We've been acquainted (more or less) for about two years."
A chuckled escaped him.
"You should see him around this plucky lass we've got traveling with us, Que. He actually uses full sentences when she's around."
Sturdivant's eyebrows arched up.
"Well, that would be worth paying money to see."
Smoke shifted in place, clearly not liking the fact that he was the subject of conversation.
"Speaking of which, where is Que?"
Malcolm pointed downward.
"Still below deck."
"Thanks. Nice seeing you again, James."
Without another word, Smoke was gone.
Sturdivant shook his head and looked to the Trumble brothers.
"You got a hell of a powerhouse traveling with you. No wonder you guys were able to stop the Enlightened from taking Croydon altogether."
Liam blew smoke from his nose.
"He's not the only one. We picked up that mercenary in Croydon. She's a fucking killing machine, and doesn't think anything of it. I think Ophelia frightens even him."
"Oh? Never heard of her. Would've thought by now I knew every mercenary in the country," he smirked. "Though I'll admit my mind is still boggled by Smoke traveling with you and being talkative to a girl."
He shook his head.
"I suppose time and this war affects even the impenetrable."
He rubbed the back of his neck.
"Oh, well, back to business. I still insist that after Escer you all come back here. It's the safest city in the country and we could sure use more man power."
Malcolm shook his head.
"You can ask Gunner, after all, he hasn't got a city to protect anymore, but I've got a handful of supply runs yet to make to towns that are being strangled by the lack of imports."
"Smuggling is a dangerous game, Malcolm."
"I know, but I don't have a city to protect, and I can't get rid of the need to do something when no one else can."
"I'm going wherever Smoke is," Liam proclaimed with a shrug, whether or not anyone really cared. "He's gone and dedicated himself to helping Que, and frankly, she's growing on me. Annoying, yes, but damn if she ain't likeable. Doesn't hurt that Brogan will be there too."
Malcolm looked at his brother.
"Well, I guess that's something we'll have to talk about on our way to Escer. I'm not leaving y'all stranded without a ship."
"Ever the same, both of you. Loyal and dedicated to the bone. Glad even though you two retired you're not out of the game."
His smiled faded.
"Game. Ha. If only."
Liam finished off his cigarette and flicked the butt to the ground.
"All the same," he said, extending his hand. "It was good seeing you again. Maybe when this mess is all over, we can chat more freely, you know?"
Sturdivant took Liam's hand.
"That would be a pleasure. Hopefully it'll be under pleasant circumstances."
He gave it a firm pump and took Malcolm's extended hand.
"Take care, both of you."
Meanwhile, below deck on the ship, Que had finally found some way to occupy her time. Brogan had come downstairs not too long ago to fix BOB, and the young woman didn't miss the opportunity to watch. Naturally, she still had a lot of questions to ask while Brogan worked on her bot, but at least they were about mechanics and not being killed.
"He still kinda looks like a dented teapot," Que couldn't help but say with a small giggle, handing Brogan the tool she'd requested.
BOB made a fizzing grumbling sound.
"I take offense to that. I do not look like a dented te-te-te-tea pot. I'm a battle worn robot. I'd like to see how you look after being blown apart."
Brogan bonked BOB with the tool.
"Snappish comments are acceptable but please keep them within the bounds of good taste."
BOB grumbled again before saying, "When are you going to fix the stuttering that keeps happening?"
"You need a new voice regulator. I can make one from parts, but you'll sound just as bad or worse."
BOB rolled his lighted eyes.
Smoke opened the door.
"Oh, lo-lo-look. Mr. Deadpan is back," BOB said.
Smoke stared at the bot.
"You still have a stutter."
BOB looked away.
"I ha-hate him."
Que's face lit up when she saw Smoke, and she waved at him.
"You were gone for a while. What were you up to?"
It was like everything that had happened that morning was already gone from her mind.
Smoke really didn't want to bring what happened earlier back up, since she seemed so much better, but he had told her he didn't want to lie to her unless necessary.
But he was going to lie. Sort of.
"You won't be very happy if I tell you," Smoke said.
That got Brogan's attention.
"What? What's that mean? What the hell did you do Smoke?"
There was no way out of it now.
"I went to the Arres residence to tell the professor to give up trying to find Que. That wherever she was, she was going to be protected and no one was going to let him hurt her."
He shook his head.
"I guess I hoped to convince him that..."
"What? Convince him not to kill Que if he got his hands on her again?" Brogan asked, her voice sharp.
"Yes. I wanted to know why so maybe..."
He looked at Que.
"So I could tell you why."
Her smile quickly faded, but she still stared up at Smoke hopefully.
"You spoke with Father?" she asked, tilting her head to the side in her usual manner. "And what did he say? Did he tell you why?"
Smoke stared at her for a long while.
"Sort of. But I don't think he was telling me the whole truth."
He felt Brogan's gaze on him. He knew she thought the same thing he did. How far could he get before he had to lie?
Que's eyes narrowed as she tried to press further.
"What did he tell you? Please, I want to know why he would want to kill me."
Smoke took in a deep breath.
"Because you're not perfect."
Smoke took her arms to hold in place. He looked at her, watching her face.
"Alchemy has a way of changing people, Que, of twisting them. The man I learned alchemy from was so obsessed he almost killed me several times. Your father thinks you're not perfect, so he would kill his own child. He might even want to kill you to use you in an experiment. All he told me is that you're unstable and you need to die. I told him he would find it very hard."
"Perfection..." Brogan said to herself, her voice soft and painful. She rubbed her legs.
"Un... unstable?" Que echoed, brows furrowed in confusion. "What does that mean? I don't understand..."
She was beginning to shiver.
"What does he mean by unstable?"
"Que." Smoke gave her a brief shake. "It doesn't mean anything. He thinks only in alchemy. He doesn't see reality. You are not unstable. You're perfectly normal. Sometimes people see the flaws in the world and in people and think they can take it apart and put it back together the right way. But there is no right way."
"To be perfect means to be imperfect. Only the quest to become better gets us close to that impossibility," Brogan said. Her hands shook. She looked like she was in a daze.
But Smoke could only handle one woman at a time.
"BOB, get Liam."
BOB looked at Smoke and Que, then at Brogan and quickly rolled out, one of his arms clattering behind him limp because Brogan hadn't finished with him.
"Que, I spoke to him. The man who spoke to me has lost his grip on reality and on what is good and right. The father you knew is gone. He may never have been. There's no way to tell. We can't understand those who have lost their minds, just like they are no longer able to understand us," Smoke said.
"So what you're saying," Que said softly as tears rolled down her cheeks for a second time that day. "Is that my father has gone insane? That's why he wants to kill me?"
Liam came in moments later, starting to say something but quickly closing his mouth when he saw the scene. He turned to Smoke.
"What the hell?"
And then he looked at Brogan, his expression softening instantly. Liam made his way in and knelt by the chair.
"Hey, what's going on?"
Smoke answered for Brogan, but his eyes never left Que.
"I think she's flash-backing to when she was tortured."
He gave Que's arms a squeeze.
"I don't know if there's any way to make him see reason. But you can't do it. So... yes."
Que began to sob again, shaking her head.
"There has to be some way to make him better! There has to be!"
Liam put all his attention on Brogan, moving in front of her so he could look into her face.
"Hey," he said, placing his hand carefully on her chin. "Brogan, look at me. Everything's alright. Look at me, please..."
Smoke pulled Que against him and held her tightly.
"You can't do it though. Sometimes the only thing that can help is when something happens to them that makes them realize their mistake. I don't know what he's after, but whatever it is, it will probably not make him happy. Only after that will he realize that you are wonderful the way you are."
BOB had clunked in after Liam and rolled his way toward the pilot and Brogan, still dragging his arm behind him.
Her skin was cold and clammy to the touch. Brogan had been still up to now, her pupils dilated and her expression blank and far away. It was the touch on her chin and the please that drew her gaze from wherever it was to Liam's face. For a moment, she didn't even see him, then recognition registered and she shivered.
"Li-Liam?" she said, her voice a low breath. Her hands jerked forward and her fingers gripped onto his forearms like vices. She began to shake much more violently as she leaned toward him.
"Shh..." he said, placing his hands on her shoulders and bringing her close to him to stop her shaking. "I'm here; I'm right here, Brogan. You're alright."
Liam glanced back at Smoke and Que, wondering what had happened that triggered Brogan's memories. The younger woman had collapsed entirely into Smoke's arms, crying uncontrollably as she tried to cope with this information. Liam heaved a heavy sigh.
"We'll need to talk after this..."
Smoke's mouth flat-lined. This was why he usually said nothing. Meddling in affairs and then stating what he had done would only cause trouble.
"Sorry, Que," Smoke finally said. "I shouldn't have said anything."
Brogan relaxed little by little against Liam.
"It's not Smoke's fault. No one can know..."
She took a deep breath.
"No one can know what will remind me of what happened."
"Smoke, I'm scared," Que sobbed softly into his shirt. "Everyone I know keeps getting hurt: you, Brogan, and now Father. Who's going to get hurt next? What if the next person gets killed?"
Liam returned his attention to Brogan, trying to give her a reassuring smile.
"Will you be alright for now? Do you want to go upstairs for some fresh air?"
"I only got shot once, Que. Hardly worth worrying over. We know now that they want Brogan so we can protect her better. Your father... That may have been happening for a long time and it has nothing to do with you," Smoke said as he cupped her face.
"Fresh air is good. I need some before I can get back to fixing BOB," Brogan said.
BOB made a buzzing sound that could've been a snort or a sound of worry.
Liam's smile brightened, just glad that Brogan seemed to be better.
"I'll see you up to the deck then," he said, standing carefully so that she didn't have to let go of his arms if she didn't want to. "Smoke, when I get back, I want to talk to you alone about this."
"I want to lie down," Que sniffled. "All of this... crying... makes me tired..."
Smoke, with a deft movement, lifted Que into his arms.
"I'll take you to your room."
He glanced over at Liam, and though his features were expressionless, it was clear he didn't want to talk about it. But he gave Liam a grudging nod and left the room to head toward the room Malcolm had separated for Que, Brogan and Ophelia.
Liam heaved another heavy sigh and turned the other way to help Brogan get up on deck for air. He didn't care if Smoke didn't want to talk about it. He wanted to know what the hell was going on.
Brogan just held onto Liam as they headed up on deck. She took a deep breath and lifted her head, so the sun shone down on her face. Metal scraping on wood and the small whirling sound of wheels followed them.
"You know," she said, her voice soft. "You can ask me too. And I'm more talkative than Smoke."
"Not if it might trigger a flashback like you had a moment ago," Liam sighed, shaking his head. "I don't want you to hurt yourself by accident, Brogan."
She took a deep breath.
"What triggered the flashback was... talking about perfection. I..."
She pulled herself toward Liam and buried her face in his neck.
"Okay, yeah, I can't talk about what happened to me yet, but I can tell you what's going on with Que. Though we'd have to get out of earshot."
Liam nodded, carrying her towards the far end of the deck, as far away from the few crew members working up there as he could get.
"Will this do, or should we leave the ship entirely?"
"No, no, this is fine. As long as no one can here us." Brogan opened her eyes and looked at him. "Que's father wants to kill her. He lives in this city, so we're trying to not let it get around that Que is on this ship. The sooner we leave to Escer, the better."
Liam nodded, in complete agreement.
"I'm sure that won't be a problem, as soon as we see if Eric is tagging along."
But then he frowned a little.
"You aren't telling me everything, are you? I don't want to push you, Brogan, but I think you (and Smoke) are hiding some things. Now, I expect him to be enigmatic, but some of the things I've seen and heard during these expeditions..."
He closed his eyes and shook his head.
"God, things just aren't making sense."
Brogan gave him a squeeze.
"You're right. We're not saying everything. I only found out recently, Smoke has always known. God, that boy... There's probably more secrets locked in his mind than in the minds of every person in this city."
She shook her head and kissed Liam's chin.
"But for everyone's sake, this is something that needs to be kept unknown for now. At least... up until there's no other choice."
She touched his cheek.
"You have to trust me. It's nothing bad and nothing that can hurt us. It's just a small truth that is really kind of meaningless in the long run, though it does explain a handful of things. But that's all it does. This and that now make sense, but that's all it does. And yet, despite it being so small, it can be very painful to the person involved and can cause unnecessary tension that we really don't need now."
Liam sighed, looking down at her with a small, halfhearted smile.
"I didn't think you would tell me, but at least I know now I'm not the only one seeing these things. I just haven't been able to figure out what they mean yet."
The smile broadened the rest of the way and he kissed her forehead.
"I'll be sure to let Malcolm know not to ask questions, 'cause I already filled him in with my thoughts on the matter."
"I know it seems like a big deal, but it really isn't. Que's going through a rough patch right now, and the last thing we need to do is make it worse. That girl is overly sensitive as it is."
He looked out down the deck, towards the stairs heading below.
"Whatever's going on with her, it's not going to be pretty when it all comes to light."
"We just keep getting more and more trouble. It's a good thing we're all sticking together."
Brogan lay her head on his shoulder.
"But she'll be okay, because no matter what we're sticking by her, right?"
Liam gave her a determined nod.
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