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Chapter 12

"Home sweet home!"

It wasn't often Liam got to enjoy the ride on an airship; he was always the pilot. As the gentle hills of Escer came in sight below them, he took a deep breath of the air and then a short drag on his cigarette, blowing a few rings that drifted back along the deck towards the others up there. Que was leaning against the railing, watching not the approaching city below them, but Eric, who stood a few steps over.

"Why did you decide to join us?" she asked, a little surprised that he'd come along on for the trip. "I thought you were going to stay in Lucatica."

"I was, but the head of the militia there said I need to take a vacation from all the fighting. Since they're working on another assault on an Enlightened stronghold, he didn't want me around to be tempted to get involved."

Eric looked her way when she giggled.

"Maybe you should have told him that this lot is a little danger-prone," she suggested. The militia commander laughed, shaking his head.

"Doesn't matter. He's probably right about one thing: the change in scenery will do me some good."

"What about Mark? Why did he come along too?"

"Don't know. Maybe he needed a change in scenery too."

Malcolm smiled at his brother. His voice was soft and low when he spoke, edged with nostalgia.

"It has been a while, hasn't it?"

Ophelia sat in a chair (brought up by one of Malcolm's crew she had sweet-talked) not too far from Eric and Que, because that was where the shade was. Her clothes were new and clean and her hair, finally dry from the wash she had given it, hung down almost to the floor as she brushed and braided it back up into its previous hair style.

"That, or Gunner is the only person he has left. Why would Mark leave the only person he knows?" she said, not looking up at them but still braiding her hair with long slender fingers.

"Could be that," Eric said with a shrug. "He's still has family that survived the assault on Croydon, but he's an only kid. And only a kid, for that matter; he's only in his late teens."

"All the more reason he probably should've stayed in Lucatica instead of coming along. Perhaps he has a crush on Que?" Ophelia said, her voice lilted with amusement.

Que wrinkled her nose in disgust, clearly not keen on this idea, but Eric chuckled.

"Maybe that's it. I know he admires your shooting, Que."

"He sure has a funny way of showing it," she said. "How many shooting contests have we had since we left Lucatica?"

"Only four."

"And every time, he got angry when he lost. That doesn't sound like admiration to me."

"Well, Que is right. He does seem to be too upset to be harboring too much of a crush," Ophelia said. There was a smile in her voice.

"Maybe the crush is on Commander Gunner?"

Que raised an eyebrow and started giggling. Eric's cheeks flushed as he in turn wrinkled his nose.

"That's absurd!"

Ophelia laughed as she pinned up the braids and and began to work on arranging the curls in their coiffure.

"What truth lies in the hearts of men? Only the truths they will forevermore deny."

Smiling wide, Ophelia looked up at Que and Eric from beneath the waves of her dark hair.

The militia man turned around to look over the railing, mumbling angrily to himself. Que could barely stop her giggling, but when she did, she tilted her head to the side: a sure indication she was about to ask a question.

"So are you coming along because of Brogan?" she asked. "For your arm, or to make sure she heals alright?"

Ophelia looked over at Eric and then to Que.

"Which do you think?"

Que shrugged.

"I figured both, but I know it really doesn't matter. I was just curious."

She paused to chew on her lip.

"How did you lose your arm anyway?"

Ophelia's hands stopped. She looked at Que and arched an eyebrow.

"That's a little personal, don't you think?"

The younger woman frowned.

"No, I didn't think it would be, especially since you make no effort to hide that your arm is mechanical."

"True, I don't."

Ophelia got back to working on her hair.

"Why the interest though? Most people see this arm and avoid discussing it, rather than the opposite."

"Well," Que began. "I've never seen a fully-functioning mechanical prosthetic before, or any sort of artificial limb, for that matter. I'd read about them, but never seen them. "

She rocked from side to side.

"It's very unique."

"Brogan is very skilled."

Que nodded her agreement.

"Yep! It's really nice that she lets me help her out sometimes, like when she was fixing BOB earlier."

"Oh? Are you learning much? You seem to have a knack for it."

"I think I've picked up enough that I could do some minor repairs, if necessary. I've never actually seen her start from scratch, but..."

She reached into her satchel. Ever since she got it back from losing it on Liam's ship, it had never left her side. Que pulled out her journal and flipped through the pages until she found what she was looking for.

"I've been working on this schematic for a few days. Kinda got the idea a while ago, when I realized how much I missed the cats back home."

She walked over to Ophelia and held out the journal so she could see.

"It's not done yet."

Ophelia arched an eyebrow. She looked at the notes and then back at Que. Something was definitely off about this girl.

"I haven't shown Brogan yet," Que added. "I want to surprise her. What do you think?"

"I think if you really want to impress Brogan – don't surprise her."

Ophelia's emerald gaze met Que's blue eyes, cold and sharp.

"Ask her for help to make it better, to fix your kinks and to help you when you're stuck... if you're stuck. But do not surprise her with a completed, perfect, first-attempt project."

Que's brows furrowed, and she pulled the journal back, looking at her illustration.

"I wasn't planning on trying to build it on my own. I just wanted to surprise her with the design, to show her that I'm really paying attention to what she's saying."

She frowned a little.

"I don't expect it to be perfect, by no means. What gave you that sort of impression?"

Ophelia lifted a shoulder.

"Maybe it was the mention of surprising her. You aren't quite clear when you speak, Que. You are always open and upfront. You said you haven't shown Brogan yet. You said you want to surprise her. If you intended to have her help you, you would've said so. If you intended to surprise her with the design, you would've said so. If this is what you meant, then normally... you would've said and not been so vague."

Ophelia arched an eyebrow.

"What are you hiding, Que?"

"I'm not hiding anything," she answered, a little upset to be accused of being secretive. "I thought that it was obvious that the design I was showing you was the surprise."

"Obvious to who?"

Ophelia smiled.

"Only to you. This is a design for a project. To say, 'it's a surprise' could mean the design or more likely, the project. It's obvious from your statement that you meant the project, not the design. If you meant the design, you should've said so."

Que raised her eyebrows.

"I'm confused..."

Ophelia shrugged.

"It happens."

The conversation was thankfully ended when Liam walked over and Que put her journal away.

"We're about to land," he told them. "Any of you got plans for when we get there?"

"Nope," Que said, rocking on her heels. "I'll just go wherever everyone else is going."

Ophelia went back to tending to her hair.

"I believe I may just stay on the ship and relax a little."

With the answers from the ladies, Liam turned towards Eric.

"What about you, Gunner? Got any plans?"

"I may take a small tour, but otherwise no."

He snorted.

"God, I don't know what to do with myself without working on something militia related..."

"Sounds like you wanted to stay," Ophelia said.

Eric only snorted and walked to the other side of the ship. Liam rolled his eyes, starting towards the stairs to head below deck.

"I'm going to tell the others we're about to land. Whatever you end up doing, if you plan on getting a ride out of Escer, let Malcolm know."

Ophelia glanced up.

"Yes, sir," she said in a mocking sing-song voice. "Oh, and no matter what Brogan tells you, get her off the ship. She's been cooped up working on her chair and BOB for days."

Liam waved to let her know he heard her and disappeared below deck. Que ran back over to the railing to watch the ship make its landing.

"Ophelia?" she suddenly asked, looking back over her shoulder. "Can I ask you something without you getting upset or accusative?"

Ophelia arched an eyebrow.

"With that kind of question, I'm already leaning toward ignoring you altogether. For one, not once did I get upset. Please. Who on earth would waste the energy being upset with you?"

She rolled her eyes.

"And second, you interpreting my questions as accusatory is a reflection of you –
not of me."

Ophelia continued to braid her hair.

Que said nothing to this, chewing on her lip. Even if she did ignore her, she'd still have to hear the question.

"Why are you always so cold towards everyone?"

Ophelia blinked and then looked at Que for a long moment. Then she laughed. It started like a chuckle, but it got louder and boisterous and more uncontrollable, until Ophelia slumped forward holding her stomach as she laughed some more.

Que turned around to stare at her, head tilted to the side.

"I don't see how my question was funny..."

That made Ophelia laugh even harder. She almost fell off the chair and had to grip onto it. She held it so hard with her metal arm that the wood cracked a little under the pressure. The other arm was still wrapped around her stomach, as she tried to hold back the ache in her guts from the laughter. The braid she had been doing came undone and fell over her shoulder as she laughed.

By now, Eric was sick of listening to them, and before Que could ask anything else that would put Ophelia in hysterics, he walked back to where he'd first been standing, took Que gently by the wrist and pulled her along towards the other side of the ship.

"God, please stop provoking her, Que. She's bad enough on her own."

Malcolm looked at Que and Eric with an eyebrow arched. He took a drag from his cigarette.

"Hey you two. I thought you guys were having a good time over there. You even got Ophelia to laugh. I didn't think that woman was capable of it...? Or did I misunderstand what was going on?"

"Well, I'm still not sure what..." Que began, but Eric cut her off.

"Just land this thing so we can stretch our legs. I don't think I can stand the company here much longer."

He released Que about halfway across the deck, walking back to his spot by the railing. The young woman looked over at Malcolm, both eyebrows raised, not sure if she should even try to say anything.

Malcolm mimicked her expression with a shrug.

"Don't look at me, kiddo. I know as much as you do when it comes to people. I just don't get 'em sometimes."

He turned the helm and called down to the men in the engine room through the tube beside him to decrease altitude.

Que rocked on her heels for a moment, then decided to go below deck. She didn't like the tension that had built on deck, and being confused enough as is, thought it would be better to ask Smoke about things first.

Smoke had his sleeves rolled up to his elbows as he mopped the floor of the hall and into one of the rooms. He paused, cracked his neck, and then continued to mop.

Que peered around the corner and down the hall, careful not to step where Smoke had just mopped.

"Smoke? Can you help me? I'm a little confused..."

"Okay," he said. Smoke didn't look up, but continued to mop. "What do you need?"

"Well," she said. "I was upstairs talking with Ophelia and Eric..."

Que did her best to explain what had happened during the conversation, right up until Eric skulked off to the other side of the ship and she left to find Smoke. She rocked on her heels again.

"I'm just a little confused," she repeated.

Smoke shrugged.

"Sounds like Ophelia thought what you said was funny. Weird for her, but we don't know a whole lot about Ophelia, do we?"

"I suppose not," Que admitted. "But why does she shut herself off? That's all I wanted to know: why she's so cold towards the rest of us."

"I don't know any warm friendly mercenaries, Que. They kill for money usually. They don't make friends," Smoke said.

Que shrugged.

"I still don't see what was so funny about my question. Why would she laugh at that?"

Smoke looked up at her.

"Where you trying to be funny when you asked if I was gay?"

She blinked, staring at him. She shook her head.

"No, but I was confused why you laughed at that too. I was only curious..."

Que chewed on her lip and frowned.

"Are my questions really that strange?"

He tilted his head to the side.

"Sometimes. That kind of question is usually very unexpected to the person being asked. The suddenness of it can make someone laugh. Also, it's personal. It's not the kind of question a person normally asks another. Not to their face and not so directly. So the suddenness and randomness of a question someone would never ask bluntly or to the person's face... makes it funny. It comes out of nowhere and it's not something anyone would normally ask the way you did."

He shrugged.

"I'm surprised Ophelia laughed because she is so cold. The fact that she even laughed tells you that she can be... normal."

He shook his head.

"But I think the fact that you and Eric left her there to laugh alone probably hurt her. Someone like that, Que... There's a reason they're cold. So I think you may find Ophelia even colder now. She let herself laugh, and she probably never does, and you and Eric left her there. How would you feel if you were laughing at something you found funny, really having fun for the first time, and then the people you were with suddenly left you?"

Que's brows furrowed and she sighed.

"I know I wouldn't like it, but I didn't mean to leave. Eric kind of dragged me along when Ophelia was laughing."

Smoke shrugged.

"Eric probably thought she was making fun of you and wanted to protect you. He doesn't like Ophelia at all. Even though she really helped a lot in Croydon and she didn't have to."

"He seems really closed off too," Que said, sighing again. "I guess it's probably not a good idea to ask him why either, although he could use a good laugh. He doesn't smile enough."

She was tired of talking about all the grouchy people on board. With no real agenda, Que was eager to explore Escer. She was tired of being on the airship.

"Once we land, can we go exploring?" she asked.


He looked up at her, his face shadowed by his hat. Smoke just stared at her face.

Que's expression quickly brightened, a smile spreading across her face.

"Yay! Thanks Smoke!"

She wrapped her arms around him with a quick hug, giggled, and gave him a small peck on the cheek before releasing him.

Smoke's cheeks reddened and his hat was a little askew from the quick hug, but he gave her a smile.


"Attention passengers," came Malcolm's voice over the series of tubes that littered the ship. "We'll be landing in about twenty minutes, so sit down or get on deck and hold onto something."

Que giggled again as she looked over at Smoke.

"Can I hold onto you?"

Smoke stared at her for a long moment. Then he turned away to put the mop against the wall. When he looked back up at her, his gray eyes were intense. He took her hand, and with a small jerk – just as the ship jumped from their dropping altitude – tugged her to him so she fell against him.

"Sure," Smoke said again.

Que squeaked as she fell against him, cheeks flushing as she rested her head against his chest. Her giggling died into gentle chuckles, and she wrapped her arms around his waist to hold on.

"I like holding onto you, Smoke. You're warm."

"And you're soft," he said into her hair. "And smell nice."

This, of course, made Que giggle again.

"I do? What do I smell like?"

"Almond soap. Earthy. Kind of oily and inky from working with Brogan and taking notes. Like Que," he said, his voice soft as his arms wrapped around her.

"Really? I smell like all that?"

Que felt her cheeks turn even redder.

"Yup. You always smell like that," he said, his lips and words closer to her ear.

"I do?"

Que chewed on her lip, nuzzling against him.

"You usually smell like sweat and newspapers," she said. "But now you smell like that and soapy mop water..."

He chuckled so low and quiet that only the small tell-tale shaking of his body gave away his humor. Smoke pressed a hand to the small of Que's back, while the other slipped around her neck and cradled the back of her head. He kissed the space were her jaw meets her neck just beneath her ear.

"You don't mind that I smell like wet mop?"

Que shook her head slightly.

"Nope. You smell clean."

She looked up, pulling back slightly so she could look at him better. She opened her mouth as if she were going to say something, but then pursed her lips and simply smiled and leaned against him again.

Smoke chuckled again and pulled her head back.

"Sometimes you think too much," he said. With his thumb he lifted her chin and kissed her. His lips caressed hers until they parted, and his tongue slipped into her mouth for a moment before he continued to kiss her lips.

Que started, but only for half a second, before she relaxed. She couldn't make up her mind whether she had expected this to happen or not. Most of her knew she'd expected it, perhaps even wanted it to happen. She liked kissing Smoke. She'd said so before. Even the brief moment when he slipped his tongue into her mouth left her with a warm, exciting feeling she was grasping to in her mind for as long as she could, trying to figure out exactly what it meant.

Que made her mind stop. A small laugh escaped the back of her throat, both because of Smoke's kiss and because of the realization that he was right. She was thinking too much.

It took a little effort for her to stop trying to analyze the kiss. Que's fingers curled into the folds of his shirt, a couple snagging around his suspenders as she pulled herself up, bringing her on her tip-toes in her effort to deepen the kiss. She almost began to wonder if this was what she was supposed to do. Que reminded herself to stop thinking about it and stopped wondering. Just try it, she told herself. You won't know until you try.

Smoke felt her tighten her grip on him and pull herself up against him. He felt the sudden pleading of her mouth and it shot like fire through him. His fingers caressed her nape as he held her head in place and deepened the kiss.

Que was a fast learner after all.

He parted her lips and let his tongue slip into her mouth. He caressed the inside of her lips and rubbed his tongue against hers, slowly drawing it into his mouth. He was teaching her how to kiss, but was getting himself consumed by the passion behind it. His hands flexed against her, his body hard and tight and wired. He wanted her to react instinctively to the passion she felt for him (or at least he hoped she felt something for him), not to think about it or calculate. Just feel. He teased her with his mouth, challenging her to kiss him back.

Que was still a little hesitant, fighting her usual tendencies. She tried to mimic him as best as she could, allowing her tongue to be drawn into his mouth as she adjusted her grip on his shirt. Que pulled herself up a smidgen more, toes perched on top of his shoes for that extra leverage and little bit of balance.

Smoke chuckled against her mouth when he noticed what she was doing. Without breaking the kiss, he lifted her up so her feet dangled in the air. He took a breath his mouth still against hers, suckled her bottom lip and then kissed her again, his tongue and lips compelling hers to respond. Smoke wasn't thinking anymore. He was hot and hard and wanted nothing more than to kiss her breathless.

Que squeaked and giggled when he lifted her, and – without the slightest bit of hesitation – wrapped her legs around his waist, released her hold on his shirt, and wrapped her arms around his neck. One hand moved to loose his hair (Que briefly wondered where that idea had come from) and run her fingers through the free strands; the other reached for his hat, running up his scalp to slide under the rim and coax it from his head. A small sound rose from the back of her throat. All the while, she held the kiss, her lips seeking Smoke's even if they moved away for only the briefest of seconds.

The world spun. He didn't notice his hat fall to the floor. He didn't notice when Que loosened his hair, but he felt it when her fingers gripped onto the strands. Her body was hot against his and the moment she wrapped her legs around his waist, he knew she would be able to feel the change in his body. Somewhere in the back of his foggy, passion-filled mind, he knew kissing was just the first of many steps, but the desire for her was quickly running away with him. Smoke pressed her hips against his, felt how hot she was and moaned into her mouth. His tongue stroked hers and then gave it a small suck, before he forced his mouth away to kiss her jaw and her neck. Then he made his way back up and took her mouth again. He wasn't thinking anymore.

She barely had the time to let out a small gasp before his lips returned to hers. It was a new experience unlike anything Que could remember, her body aching for his. A heat rose just below her stomach and intensified when Smoke pressed against her, and she was only barely aware that she was pressing back, pulling in her legs to bring him closer.

Smoke's hands couldn't be still any longer. He moved up and down her back, her sides, and caressed the thighs wrapped around his waist. He kissed her until he was gasping and then kissed her some more. His fingers slid up her sides and brushed her breasts. Then his hands moved back to her back to her shirt and slid beneath it, flesh touching flesh.

Que shivered and gasped, arching her back against his touch. God, she had never felt like this before! She dug her nails into his scalp, one hand sliding to his shoulder to steady herself against the overwhelmingly new sensation. Que found herself wanting him – wanting his caress, his kiss, all of him – more than anything.

"I think you two need a room."

Smoke froze. He held Que tight against him, half of him praying that what he'd just heard was a figment of his imagination, and half of him hoping if it wasn't, that Que would be all right. He slowly helped Que to her feet and glanced up.

Malcolm stood there, arms crossed, cigarette smoldering on his lips. He had a wide, amused grin on his face.

"We landed," Malcolm added. At Malcolm's words a round of applause, whistling and hooting sounded from behind Smoke and Que. Smoke felt his face heat up.

"All right!"

"Way to go you two!"

"My man, Smoke!"

"Find yourselves a nice hotel room!"

"Don't let that girl get away!"

"Woo hoo!"

"Awesome, man! Just awesome!"

If Que's face hadn't already been red as it could get, it would have flushed even deeper. She tried to hide behind Smoke, or at least use him as a shield. She was small enough, but there were so many people watching them...

Tears began to well up in her eyes. She went from the most exciting, wonderful feeling she'd ever experienced to the most embarrassed in a matter of seconds.

Malcolm approached them and put his hand on their shoulders amidst the cheering of his crew.

"Go on, you two. Get out into Escer and have some fun. The town isn't all that big, but it's a nice place."

He grinned at them.

Smoke gave him a nod, and still holding on to Que, guided her back to the stairs and up them away from Malcolm and his crew.

Once on deck, Smoke looked at Que. He put his hand on her cheek.

"You okay?" he asked. His voice was still hoarse from passion. The men had done little to take that away.

Que shook her head hurriedly, sniffling as she wiped away some of the tears.

"No... Smoke, how long do you think they were watching? I'm so embarrassed..."


Smoke smiled at her.

"Are you ashamed of being caught kissing me?"

She sniffled again.

"No... I don't know. I don't know why it bothers me. It just does."

Que looked up at him, chewing on her lip.

"Maybe it was because of all the comments they made. I don't know..."

Smoke kissed her forehead.

"Don't think of it in a bad way, because it wasn't meant to be bad. They were... encouraging us. Which is a good thing, you know."

He pressed his forehead against hers.

"But I promise, next time I kiss you it'll be someplace where no one will see us," he whispered.

Que finally calmed down, wiping the last of the tears from her eyes as she nodded.

"I'd like that."

She took a deep breath.

"I need a few minutes to recover."

Que looked up at him, trying to smile.

"Can we go for a walk for a little bit?"

Smoke nodded.


He smiled at her.

"Hey, Smoke."

Smoke turned around and saw Malcolm.

"Here. You forgot this."

He tossed Smoke his hat. Smoke caught it.

"Thanks, Malcolm."

"No problem."

He waved at the two of them.

"You two go have a good time, all right?"

He shook his head as he went back down the stairs, chuckling. Smoke tied back up his hair and put on his hat. He took Que's hand.

"Let's go."

While Que and Smoke made their way off of the ship, Eric was still at the railing. He really didn't feel like going into town, but Malcolm had made it clear that no one was going to be allowed to stay on the ship, and he didn't feel much like debating it either. He was, however, willing to prolong leaving as much as possible.

Besides, Ophelia was still on deck and Malcolm hadn't kicked her off yet.

Without much else to do, Eric left his spot by the railing and approached her, daring to actually say something.

"Lingering as long as conceivably possible too?"

Ophelia had finished putting up her hair by now and collected her cane. Her eyes slid toward him, the green orbs like emeralds in ice. She pulled on a glove.

"No. I'm eager to get off this ship. I expect the people of Escer will be far better company than any one on board."

She flexed the fingers of her metal arm.

"Enjoy your lingering, Commander Gunner. I'm sure the last thing you want to see is people enjoying their lives."

She turned away and headed off the deck, clearly not wanting to spend another moment in Eric's presence.

That comment alone was incentive enough to follow her. Eric shoved his hands in his pockets, waiting a few minutes for Ophelia to get a safe distance ahead of him. Not that he cared if she noticed him. After all, he thought with an amused chuckle as he started tailing her, I'm the one who doesn't care if I live or die. Then Malcolm couldn't complain that he hadn't left the ship yet. It would be far more amusing (and decent practice for when he got back to his militia duties) than standing around all day, anyway.

Ophelia wondered why on earth the idiot man decided to follow her. Was he that incapable of enjoying anything on his own? Or was his paranoid, suspicious nature eager to find something to accuse her of? He would be hard pressed.

Ophelia ignored him and headed to the main street and the market. The smells of fruit, pastries and meat cooking filled the air. The people of Escer chatted, their voices animated and blending into a cacophony of sounds. She let herself forget about Gunner –
after all the man could do as he pleased as long as he didn't get in her way – and enjoy the town. There was something about the place. It seemed almost untouched by the war. It helped that Escer was located in the mountains and far from the Enlightened's reach. Escer had no value to them.

All it had was the spirit of hope.

"Ah, lovely lady, did you come in on that new ship?" called an older woman.

Ophelia approached her and her stand of chocolates. "Why, yes. Just a passenger. Our pilot has family here and I hear this city is much safer than most other places these days."

"Oh, yes. We've gotten a few refugees, but no' many come all the way up the mountains ta get here. Would you like to try some chocolates?"

"Try? I'll buy some from you."

"First you have to taste before you buy! Why would I make ya buy something you didn' like? Go on," the woman offered up a tray. "Choose one and tell me honest what ya think."

Ophelia smiled and tried the chocolates. They were delicious. She stayed talking with the woman for a little while, bought chocolates and asked her about Escer and about the city, its origins, and the Trumbles.

Eric watched the exchange from a fruit stand just far enough away that he could still make out most of their conversation. It wasn't so much what was specifically being said; that Ophelia was having a normal, everyday conversation was interesting enough. And she was smiling. Eric bit into the apple he had bought. A smile suited her much better than her usual scowl.

"Is there anything you recommend I see?" Ophelia asked the woman.

"We have a garden in the center of town with a labyrinth in it. It was built over the years by the mayors of Escer who were all descended from farmers and gardeners," the woman said.

"That sounds wonderful, thank you."

Ophelia took her little bag of chocolates and headed through the rest of the market. She paused once or twice more to chat and ask questions. A slew of children came up to her once and Ophelia gave them each a chocolate. They ran squealing away past her, holding their prizes in their hands as they headed down the street.

Ophelia turned and headed up the hill toward the center of town to the garden.

Eric followed. The mention of a maze meant it was going to be more difficult to follow her if she chose to visit it, if he didn't pay enough attention, so he closed the gap between them by about a yard. As he finished off his snack, he glanced back at the children she'd treated with the candy. If he hadn't seen it himself, he wouldn't have believed Ophelia was the one who had made them so happy.

So the mercenary wasn't as cold as she pretended to be.

The trek up the hill to the center of town was decently steep. People passed Ophelia on the way down and greeted her and she nodded back, and then the people would keep walking suddenly talking about her. She did look out of place in her rich violet and burgundy clothes, cane, and yet wearing pants instead of a skirt with her bustle.

When the ground leveled out, Ophelia saw the garden up ahead. It was in full bloom, carefully designed and arranged. She was already getting tired of the man lurking behind her and wanted to be rid of him. Best way to do that was to either lose him or piss him off. Maybe she could threaten him. She walked up to the garden, and paused at the entrance to feel the breeze. Shade was strategically placed around the entire area. It seemed more like a garden combined with a park. There were benches, people sitting under the shade and talking, a handful of families with picnics.

This place really did seem distant from all the war they had seen. Ophelia headed into the garden and toward the labyrinth, fully intending to be light of step and lose her stalker.

Eric was up for the challenge. The maze was just one large puzzle, after all, and if there was one thing he was really good at, it was puzzles. He might lose Ophelia in the twisting turns of the labyrinth, but that didn't mean that he wouldn't find her again. Or – and this would be even more amusing – she might find him instead.

When he reached the labyrinth's entrance, he deliberately went in the opposite direction.

When Ophelia realized her stalker had gone off in another direction, she relaxed. She wandered the labyrinth calmly, stopping to glance up at the sky and inhale the scents of flowers and green. She turned a few corners, pausing to admire how cared for the walls of leaves were and the craftsmanship of the benches and statues that decorated the labyrinth.

At one point along the path was a simple but elegant mosaic map, set in the ground at a T-intersection. It made no indication as to where one was in the maze, but it revealed that, from an aerial view, the various turns and curves of the hedges formed a gigantic rose with what looked to be a fountain at its very center. From the sounds of it, that fountain wasn't very far away, and Ophelia could hear the gentle trickling of its waters from where she stood.

Ophelia headed toward the sound of the fountain, assuming there would be places to sit. She had wanted to stay on the ship and rest, so she supposed sitting by the fountain with her chocolate in the middle of a labyrinth would give her the same kind of solitude she sought.

She couldn't have been more than a turn or two away from the entrance to the center of the maze when Eric reappeared, leaning against a statue just after the corner she'd turned around. He raised an eyebrow, snorted, then laughed a little at the sight of her.

"Was beginning to wonder if you'd find your way. Get lost?"

Ophelia, who had been relaxed up until this point, tensed. Her eyes narrowed and lifted her cane, pointing the end toward his throat.

"Apparently, not lost enough."

Eric smirked. He couldn't help but find her instant change in demeanor amusing.

"Hmph. And here I thought you were actually enjoying yourself. Imagine that. I could have sworn you were smiling a few seconds ago."

"What do you care if I was or wasn't? You've already formed a low opinion of me, you're already insulting at every chance you get, and the only one I've seen who can't seem to enjoy life," she stepped close to him so her face was barely an inch away from his, "is you."

The smirk became a wide, awkward grin.

"This is fun," he said with a tone somewhere between playful teasing and sarcasm. "The very fact that I can affect your mood simply by existing is perhaps the most hilarious thing I've ever encountered! I can't help but find it amusing that you could enjoy yourself without killing something."

Ophelia sidestepped around him and walked passed him. The man was an utter and complete moron. She didn't plan on wasting anymore breath or words on him.

But Eric just turned right around and followed her.

"Oh, am I annoying you?"

Rhetorical question. He knew he was.

"I find it hard to believe that the man who blushed at the mention of his friend being attracted to him, who has a bad tendency to brood, and who insulted someone the last time they were being completely normal, would find me so interesting now."

She tossed her braids over her shoulder.

"You really must be bored if your source of entertainment is harassing the person who wouldn't hesitate to kill you."

He shrugged.

"Maybe I have a death wish."

That's when one of the things she said hit him.

"And when did I insult someone for being normal?"

"Oh, you must certainly have a death wish. After all, you can't even enjoy your own life, or the lives of those around. The Enlightened have already killed you."

She whirled around, bringing up her cane so it tapped him in the shoulder.

"Just because I can laugh, when you can't, doesn't give you the right to diminish my god-given right to have a good time when something is funny."

She gave arm a harder tap with her cane and then whirled around again, walking away.

Eric stopped following her for a moment, completely taken aback. He caught up again before she could get too far ahead.

"Humor at someone else's expense is hardly funny at all."

Ophelia stopped. She sighed, put a hand to her temple and let her fingers rub in circles.

"Go away. I'm not going to explain myself to someone who wasn't even there to hear what Que said. You're going to make me do something I will regret. So leave me alone. You're usually very good at that. I don't know why suddenly you feel the need to grace me with your presence."

"Well, just like you, I have nothing better to do," Eric grumbled.

"Oh, bloody hell."

Ophelia started walking away again.

"What? It's true. Neither of us wanted to leave the ship. Besides, as annoying as it may be, company is company."

"Company like you is like an overhanging cloud of death. I kill people. You make death into a way of life," she said, her voice clipped, cold and hard.

"I make death into a way of life?" Eric snorted, the agitation in his voice clear. "Do you actually think I enjoy watching others die?"

"No, but you linger on their deaths as if that was the only part of their existence that had any meaning. It hurts when friends die, but to forget your own life and forget the lives they led only focusing on their deaths robs their lives of any meaning."

She shot him a cold glance over her shoulder.

"And you're very good at doing that."

Eric's eyes narrowed. There was no way he was going to drop the subject now.

"I don't linger on the deaths of my friends. I miss them dearly, but I suppose it would be easy for you to confuse one feeling with the other. What friends could you have lost? You make no effort to make them."

She stopped and turned around sharply. Her gaze met his, unyielding.

"You know nothing about me. You don't know who I've lost. You don't know what I've lost. You don't know why I kill. You know nothing."

She took a step toward him.

"You do linger on their deaths. You envy them. All you can think about is your own death. You linger on their deaths to avoid living your life. Because you," she lifted her head so her face was only an inch from his, "are ashamed to be alive. And you fight this war to destroy your shame, or yourself. Whichever comes first."

"Oh, so you are an expert on my life?" Eric snarled right back. "You're delusional if you think there's a smidgen of fact to any of your suppositions. Think what you like about my life. You're the one who clearly avoids everyone, never has a kind word to say, has to criticize everything, and has more interest in pushing others away than making any sort of effort to at least appear approachable."

"You see only what you want to see," she said. She moved back and waved her hand dismissively.

"Have you even forgotten why and how I got involved with this little ragtag group of saviors?"

Eric crossed his arms and scoffed.

"Of course not. She's your friend."

The statement oozed with sarcasm.

"Convenient, since she's also the only one who can fix this!"

He reached out and grabbed her mechanical arm, firmly grasping onto it.

"Lucky break for you, huh?"

Ophelia's eyes widened and a strangled scream broke from her throat as pain shot through her arm and body. Her cane came flying up to slam against the side of his head as her legs gave out from the pain that seared down her spine.

Eric released his grip, stumbling more from the shock of the strike than the actual power behind it (even though it was a considerable blow). Though the sword part was still sheathed, the metal tip of the cane drew blood. His other hand shot up to the small wound as he looked down at Ophelia. He hadn't expected her to scream.

Ophelia dropped to the ground. The mechanical arm lay useless and Ophelia's body shook as she leaned over it – as if it had been a real arm where the bone had been shattered. She looked up at him, her face drawn and pale. Her green eyes stood out against her face, pain etched in her eyes.

"You fucking coward..." her voice cracked. It was hoarse and edged.

Other people in the labyrinth had heard the scream. Ophelia and Eric could hear the hurried footsteps getting closer to them, trying to locate them in the maze.

Ophelia took the cane and tried to force herself to stand. A cold sweat broke over her skin as she her breathing became labored from fighting back the screaming of all the nerves.

Eric wasn't sure what to do. God, he hadn't meant to hurt her. After some hesitation, he knelt beside her, wondering if she would even accept his help after what he had done. He placed one hand on her normal shoulder, the other on her back in an effort to help her stand. He braced himself, fully prepared to get whacked in the head again.

Ophelia dropped the cane and held onto him, her hand curled in a death grip. She tugged him toward her so she could hiss into his ear. The moment caused a visible wince, and Ophelia swayed slightly fighting back unconsciousness.

"Get me back to the fucking ship and find Brogan."

She gave him a shaky, angry smirk. Her expression said she would kill him if she could.

"Brogan is going to kill you."

Then she collapsed against him, unconscious.

"Fuck," Eric cursed under his breath, scooping Ophelia up in both arms, subconsciously avoiding touching her mechanical arm again as he grabbed her cane and rose. People had started to arrive at the scene, some gasping, most confused. Eric paid little attention to them as he started out of the maze, pausing only to ask, "What's the quickest route out?"
I take back my comment about the last chapter being the most intense. This one has a lot of emotional turmoil that just takes the cake.

This story is also posted on :icondulcis-absinthe:'s page, my co-author. She formats a bit differently.
RaineeLuv Featured By Owner May 25, 2009
Haha, they caught Smoke and Que. xD
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner May 25, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Yes, yes they did ^^;
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