Smoke led Que through the darkness of the sewers. They carried a pair of lanterns that Brogan had given them. Sneaking into the sewers had been simple, thanks to the map Smoke had. He had it stuffed into the deep pocket in his jacket.
Breakfast had been cold, but filling. And not long after that they were making their way through the underground on the outskirts of Sylvora.
They hadn't gotten close enough to the city sewers to run into any guards.
Que had already chewed on her lip so hard she'd drawn blood, using every last bit of self-control she could muster to keep quiet. Millions of questions about sewers, lanterns, and their task itself were begging to be asked, but Smoke had made it very clear that stealth was the most important part of their mission, so she had made it her goal to stay as silent as possible. Having not said a word for as long as she had was an accomplishment unto itself.
But curiosity always won out in the end. Que couldn't hold back any longer, so she asked, as quietly as she could, "How are we going to know what to grab from the Hall of Records?"
Smoke continued to move silently through the dark, watery halls.
"The records will have an order," he said, his voice low and soft. "First we'll search for the family files. Then for Blackthorne."
Que nodded, almost biting down on her lip again.
"I hope it doesn't take long."
They were nearing the city walls, according to their map, so City Hall wasn't more than an hour away. Que kept glancing at her gun, wondering if she'd have to use it. She shivered, both from being cold and wet and from her building nerves.
Smoke tugged off his jacket which was thankfully still dry and gave it to her without a word. He offered his hand and waited for her to relax.
Que looked up at him, frowning as she took the jacket.
"Thanks," she said softly, slipping her arms into the large sleeves. "This... this is all just really nerve-wracking. I certainly didn't expect my search to take this path..."
"Do you want to go back?" he asked. He took her hand and lifted the lantern with the other. Gently, he guided her through the sewers.
"I need to know," Que said, shaking her head. "If this is the only way to find out, then this is what I have to do."
Smoke didn't say anything in response to that. He continued to lead the way through the sewers trudging slowly and carefully. When he suddenly stopped, he turned to her and brought a finger to his lips.
He released her hand and moved to the corner. He pressed up against the wall.
Voices could be heard close by.
Que froze after folding her hands in front of her, trying to remain quiet and still as possible. She strained her own hearing to try and hear what had caught Smoke's attention, but did not move.
Smoke returned to her after a moment. He put his hands on her shoulders and pressed her against the wall. He face moved closed to hers.
"Stay here. Don't make a sound. I'll be right back."
He released and headed around the corner.
She nodded, pushing herself closer to the wall. Que didn't say she was worried about him, but she was sure Smoke had felt how hard her heart was beating. This was where things started getting dangerous.
A few minutes later the talking in the distance stopped. Then Smoke was back offering her his hand.
"What happened?" Que asked as she took his hand, prepared to follow him.
He didn't say anything as he picked up the lantern again and pulled her around the corner. They walked in silence until they came up a narrow staircase that led to an upper level of the sewer. At the entrance of the new tunnel two men lay unconscious on the ground, their breathing even.
Smoke led Que to the tunnel and they began to make their way through it.
"There may be few others on patrol as we head deeper into the city. Just stay back and let me handle them."
Que's gaze lingered on the two unconscious men for as long as they were in sight, then she looked back at Smoke and nodded silently. She'd ask him what he had done later to sate her curiosity. For now, she'd just do as she was instructed and play it safe.
Together they crept through the higher level of the sewers, slowly making their way up and following the path in the map Smoke had traced. They went up one other level, and like before, Smoke went ahead and took out the men stationed there.
The sewers became smaller, the water shallower, and the places to walk on the sides of the arching walls wider. There were sounds above them, but they weren't able to determine exactly what the sounds were from there.
Smoke turned a corner and saw two more men walking along their path near a manhole. He motioned her to stay and went on ahead.
However, this time, one of them saw him before Smoke could take him out.
"Ah! Citizen what are you doing down here? No one is allowed in the sewers!"
He drew his weapon and approached Smoke quickly. The other guard was headed their way.
Smoke said nothing. Once the man was close enough, he took the gun and used it to knock out the guard, the other came up on him immediately. Smoke cocked the gun and pointed it at the oncoming guard.
The man stilled.
"Don't make me kill you," Smoke said. "Toss it in the water."
His face twisted in disgust, but he did what Smoke said. Then Smoke's leg came up, slamming into the man's head and he hit the wall. The man collapsed, unconscious. Smoke left the gun he had taken with the two unconscious guards and headed quickly back to Que.
"Where did you learn to fight like that?" she couldn't stop herself from asking. "It's... a bit scary. And why aren't you taking the gun? Couldn't it be potentially useful?"
Que shifted from one foot to the other.
"That man didn't look like he would have hesitated if you hadn't been armed..."
"We want to remain stealthy. When they wake up, they'll probably sound an alarm. I need your help to get them into a place where they can't get out soon."
He lifted one body.
"There's a grate ahead. I'll open it and we'll stick them in there and seal it again."
Que was a bit hesitant, looking at the other unconscious man as she walked over to the grate to begin undoing the bolts.
"He won't wake up before we get them both over here, will he?" she asked, pulling out one of the tools they'd borrowed from Brogan just for opening such things. "And how are we going to reseal this grate quickly? We only have a few tools here."
"I'll do that. Just open it. It closes the same way it opens."
He watched her, holding the man.
"They won't wake up."
Que took him at his word, unfastening the bolts as quickly as she could, hindered by the sewer slime that coated most of them. She was a little disappointed that Smoke hadn't answered her question about where he'd learned to fight; she made a mental note to ask again later. Now was certainly not the time.
She got the last bolt off after a few minutes and slid the heavy grate off, dropping it to the ground with a very loud clang. Que cringed, looking up at Smoke apologetically as she waited to be told what to do next.
He didn't say anything. Instead, with a grunt he hefted the guy into the running sewage water of the grate. Then he went back for the other man and dragged him there too, putting him in the hole. After that was done he tossed the gun into the water and then lifted the grate, holding it in place.
"Now, screw it back on," he said.
Que nodded and set back to work. She didn't hesitate this time, trying to get the grate sealed back on at least as swiftly as she had unsealed it. Arguably, it took several minutes longer (because Smoke had to tighten the bolts more once she'd gotten them on), but it was still finished well before the guards would wake.
Once Smoke had secured it, he took her hand and headed through the sewer again. They turned a corner and there was an open hole where water poured out small like the one they had put the men in, but without a grate.
"Through here," he said and helped her into it.
Que easily fit into the small passageway, enough so that she was able to squeeze close enough to the wall that Smoke could get past her once he climbed in. She wasn't ready to lead this excursion, that was for sure, and the smaller these tunnels got, the closer she knew they were.
"What if we meet a guard in this tunnel?" she asked him.
"We won't. People don't fit in these. This is just for the sewage."
Smoke squeezed past her and began to crawl ahead.
He began to lead the way.
"But we fit," Que said, a little confused. "Aren't we people?"
"Can you attack anyone or run while crawling through water, sludge and sewage?"
"No," she agreed, knowing it was a rhetorical question. "But you could shoot from one end and be pretty well guaranteed that you'd hit your intended target if it was close enough to see."
"But one slip and you could kill yourself. People don't trudge through sewage, Que."
"Que. We're sneaking in the only way we can. If there was another way to get to your records we would be doing it. Do you like being drenched in cold water filled with trash and sludge?"
Que pouted, even though he couldn't really turn around to see her.
"No, and I don't like having a gun pointed at me either. Given the right make, the trajectory of a bullet could travel down this tunnel at a fair enough velocity to strike a fatal blow, even at a great distance. It's basic physics. There have to be more guards back behind us and certainly more ahead. I know we don't have much of an option, but that doesn't mean I'm not scared, Smoke!"
She was trying to keep herself calm, but it wasn't working.
Smoke freed a snort.
His voice was clipped.
"No one is going to be in this tunnel. It's a shaft for trash. That's why we're using it. No one is going to think to look in here."
He shook his head and continued crawling.
Que bit on her lip again, embarrassed and upset both by what she had said and Smoke's response. She'd agitated him.
"Sorry..." she whispered, continuing to follow him after she realized how far ahead he was. Smoke didn't have to help her, and in all honesty, Que didn't know why he was. That man confused her so much, she didn't know what to think, but she knew that making him upset was not likely the best of ideas.
Smoke didn't say anything else. He continued trudging along, pausing only to listen. There were several other tubes and tunnels, and Smoke carefully wove their way through them, headed toward City Hall.
Even if it was the shortest part of their journey through the sewers, it certainly felt like the longest. Que kept utterly quiet after her apology, even when she bumped into Smoke each time he stopped, unable to really see where he was. She kept as close as she could otherwise, not wanting to get lost in these decrepit tunnels.
Smoke eventually could hear the plumbing above them. He checked the map. Another hundred feet and they should be able to see the drain above them that opened to the lowest level of City Hall. He stayed silent and kept going until the drain appeared above his head.
It was dark above. Well, it was a cellar. If they went further and took a different tunnel up they would get to a kitchen, but it was more likely that there would be people there. Here in the cellar there shouldn't be anyone. He listened carefully for sounds, but heard nothing other than the plumbing, the rushing water, and his and Que's breathing.
He tentatively tried the grate above them. It took him a minute, but he managed to lift it up, ignoring the trash that fell down from the holes atop him. He pushed it aside carefully, trying not to make too much noise. One done, he stood up and hefted himself out of the sewer and onto the stone ground of the cellar. He lowered his hands for Que.
She had a fortunately easier time getting out of the drain, both in part because of Smoke giving her a lift and her smaller size. The look on her face alone was indication enough of her disgust with their overall appearance... not to mention the smell.
"First chance we get when this is done, we need a good scrub down," Que mumbled as she wrung out Smoke's jacket (which she was still wearing).
Smoke shook his head, but didn't reply. Once she was secure, he put the drain carefully back and then stood. He lifted her to her feet. Then he took out the floor plan of City Hall. He went to the dim lantern in the corner of the room and looked over it quickly, glad it was still... mostly dry.
He memorized the path they had to take and then put it away. He took Que's hand.
"Stay close to me," he whispered and led her toward the stairs.
"Not a problem," she assured him, no more eager to get lost here than she had been in the sewers. "How much time do you think we have to pull this off?"
"No more than an hour."
Smoke released her hand for a moment to pick the lock at the door. Then he opened it and took her hand. He looked out into the new hallway, saw no one and pulled her out. He closed the door and locked it.
Keeping Que close, he headed through the hall. He found the door he needed and tried it. It opened easily. It led to another narrow hall that had stairs off to the right. He headed to the stairs.
Que was having difficulty focusing, awed by the grandeur of Sylvora's city hall, but thankfully Smoke never let her get too off track. Maybe when things weren't as bad, she'd be able to explore a little less... sneakily.
Smoke pulled her aside a few times to avoid guards. They sneaked by them easily enough. Que learned fast and Smoke was quick and silent. Only one guard lingered probably because of the smell (they were a little closer to him than the others) but he was repulsed enough not to investigate.
Up another flight of stairs and down two halls later, Smoke lock-picked his way through the double doors of the Hall of Records. Once they were both inside, he locked the doors behind them.
"Look for families, histories or genealogy. The cabinets should all have labels," he said.
Que nodded and went off in one direction while he went in the other, both beginning they're search. Thankfully, she was quite an adept reader and was able to skim the labels of each cabinet very rapidly, moving down the aisles she had started with nearly twice a fast as Smoke searched his.
Smoke searched through them too, pausing a handful of times to look at the tables for any hints as to where they would be. Catalogs, references, a filing system.
Que gasped a few minutes later from the row she'd just begun skimming.
"I found census records!" she whispered as loud as she dared, so Smoke could hear her. "But this just starts the 'A' section."
Smoke moved toward her.
"Then keep going," he whispered. "I'll help you find Blackthorne."
Together they skimmed through all the records. There were hundreds of names, probably thousands in total. Once Smoke saw the Bs, he motioned for her to go into the following cabinet and look there. B would continue in the next cabinet.
Que ran her fingers over each of the folder labels: Bestor, Bett, Betts, Bevins, Bewley, Bickerton, Bigg, Bigge, Biggs, Billingham, Birchall, Bird, Birkin, Blackburn...
"Blackthorne! Found it!"
She pulled the thick folder out from between the ones labeled "Blackburn" and "Blake."
Smoke was at her side. They didn't have time to look at it now. He took it from her and stashed it in the small satchel he had brought with them.
"All right. Let's go."
He grabbed Que's hand and headed back toward the door.
But just as he reached for it, it opened.
The guard stared at Que and Smoke for barely a millisecond before he shouted an alarm. Smoke sent a punch into the man's jaw and he fell back, falling hard onto the ground. But the shout had been enough for all the other guards.
A flurry of them started to run toward the Hall of Records. Smoke didn't waste a second. Gripping tight onto Que, he pulled her fast along, away from the guards who were chasing after them.
Que was struggling just to keep up with Smoke (even though it did help that he was pulling her along with him) when things got even more complicated: gunfire sent bullets ricocheting off of objects around them. Either the guards had horrible aim, or Smoke was good enough at dodging to keep them both from getting hit. Que tended to believe it was more of the latter than the former, especially when several shots came close enough for her to feel the projectile whiz by.
Smoke knew that they weren't going to make it out into the city to get to the dam. He just hoped that if the alarm had gone off in the building, it had gone off in the whole city so Brogan and Liam knew their rendezvous point was out of the question.
He turned into one of the halls where they had been before and more guards were headed their way. He tugged Que into a different hall, just as a round of bullets rounded off by them.
He tugged her down into a new area that would lead them back towards the cellar, but when he got to the room he stopped and cursed beneath his breath.
That wall hadn't been there in the plans. And it sure as hell looked out of place.
He heard the guards gaining. He pulled her toward the door. It was locked. He busted it open with a hard, powerful kick. There was a stairwell. He hurried toward it, going up.
Que stumbled on the first few steps, running out of strength to keep up with him. She could almost match his speed when he led her, but she was definitely lacking the stamina. Her trip caused her to lag a few steps behind Smoke as they ascended the stairs.
Smoke had to stop at the top of the stairs to help her the rest of the way. Once there, he turned to figure out where they were and choose the next route. There were three doors. One of them opened and a man in a suit with blue accents stepped in. His hair was black, and he wore a mask that covered part of his face.
He lifted a rifle.
Smoke grabbed Que and ran toward the closest door. The man aimed. Smoke saw the rifle primed on Que as he reached toward the door knob. The rapport from the rifle echoed in the room. Smoke shoved Que through the door and protected her with his body. The bullet caught in his shoulder, spraying blood.
Then they were through the door, and Smoke slammed it behind them. He grabbed her hand and continued to run through the new room.
Que had shrieked when the rifle was fired, growing more frightened by the second. She was too scared to even notice that Smoke had been hit, though he didn't seem to make much note of the wound anyway. She had no idea where they were or where they were going. Her chest burned from breathing so hard, her throat dry, all of their running making it hard to catch her breath. Que's heart pounded against her ribcage, threatening to break through the more she pushed herself to keep going.
Smoke got them through another door just as the one they came from opened. They were through just as another shot was fired, splintering the door.
They were in a lab. An alchemist's lab. But there were machines everywhere, as if it doubled as an engineer's workshop as well. Smoke noted it, but didn't wait. He hurried through the next door at the end of the room and into a hall with stairs going up on the right.
He helped her up the two flights, moving fast. There was another stairwell at the end of the hall also going up. Smoke headed for that one. Just as they began to go up the stairs, the bottom, where they had just been, burst into flame. Smoke didn't stop. He helped Que as much as he could, ignoring the blood dripping down his arm from his shoulder.
"What...?" was all Que barely managed to cough out, too short of breath to ask a full question. She looked back at the burning door... or rather the charred, smoldering skeleton of what was a door. That was not natural. Wood did not burn that fast under normal conditions. She'd seen her father do such things with his work.
This was alchemy.
The closer they got to the top of the steps, the cooler it became, making the burning pain in her lungs even worse.
Smoke kicked the door at the top of the stairs open and hurried out into the roof, tugging Que along. The fire licked up the stairs behind them and the door. He searched the skies and prayed that Liam and Brogan could see them.
The fire spread out into the roof. It circled them, sealing Que and Smoke from the walls. From the fire at the door walked out a man. Or a woman. It was hard to tell from the glaring light of the flames. He was effeminate, with soft features and bright blond hair and golden eyes. He also wore a mask that covered part of his face and like the man before who had blue accents on his suit, this one had gold.
"What a pair of interesting rats," he said. His voice was soft, light, almost gentle. He put his hands on his waist and smiled. The flames flickered around him, bringing an eerie light to the gold. The flames by the door faded away allowing the man with the rifle to approach behind him.
"Mr. Ferdinand... what shall we do with our sweet little snoops?"
The golden eyes fixed their penetrating glare on Que.
"Oh? What do we have here?"
Smoke pulled Que protectively behind him.
That drew a laugh from the golden man.
"Why do they always stare at me?" Que whispered softly, remembering the muggers they'd encountered days ago. Her voice was a bit hoarse, and the cold air wasn't helping at all. The young woman shivered, eyes darting from the two masked figures to the surrounding flames. Her chest hurt so badly... Que could see no way out unless Brogan and Liam showed up soon.
"There!" Brogan shouted, pointing toward the flames and putting down the telescope. "They're on the roof!"
She hurried toward Liam.
"Get down as low as you can! DeeDee!"
The bot whirled toward Brogan.
"You're coming with me. We need to make sure we get both of them in a shot. We don't have a second pass at this!"
She hurried to the ladder.
Liam made a swift nod as he swung the ship as close to the flames as he could get without putting the ship into jeopardy. Even though they hadn't been entirely sure where City Hall was when the alarm sounded and the realized they had to move, the flaming beacon the building had become was a bit hard to miss. Liam hoped to God setting the place ablaze hadn't been part of plan B.
"Ready when you are!" the pilot shouted to Brogan once he had the airship in position. "Making the pass on your call. Which side are you tossing the ladder?"
"Starboard!" she shouted. She grabbed the ladder and hurried back to him. Before he could ask, she grabbed his lapel and tugged him down for a hard kiss.
"For luck," she said against his mouth, before she released him. Then she hurried, hooked the ladder and then tossed it.
"Let's go, DeeDee."
Gun tucked into her belt, Brogan grabbed onto the ladder and made her way down.
Mr. Ferdinand lifted the rifle. This time it was aimed at Smoke.
"Good idea, sir," the golden man said and stepped forward. "Get rid of this nuisance. I think... I'd like to keep the girl."
The flames became bigger.
"Any last words?"
Smoke had pushed them back as far as he could without getting caught in the flames. But the fire licked up higher. His gray eyes met the golden ones. Ice and fire.
"I guess not."
The man laughed.
"Kill him, Mr. Ferdinand. And don't dawdle."
A gunshot blasted into the air.
Mr. Ferdinand cursed as the rifle flew out of his hands from the shot. He went to reach for it, but Brogan's voice shouted as she swung on the ladder toward Smoke and Que.
"Don't even think about it! Grab on, Que. DeeDee grab Smoke!"
DeeDee flew down and headed toward Smoke. The bot noted the blood and knew it would be easier for her to carry him than to have him try to grab onto the ladder too. She flipped upside down, the propeller on her feet now up, and grabbed Smoke as she passed by, gripping his shirt and good hand tight.
"Hold on tight, Mr. Smoke," DeeDee said. Smoke held on.
Brogan shot off the gun again, pushing the rifle into the flames. She tucked it back and grabbed onto Que, pulling her onto the ladder with her.
The alchemist looked amused and didn't bother to stop them, even though the flames grew and soared.
"Book it, you lunatic!" Brogan shouted. She looked at the man in blue briefly and felt her spine turn to ice. He was staring at her and at DeeDee.
Liam took the airship up fast, pulling away from the flames with just enough clearance that the flames licked at their feet as they soared away. Thankfully the clouds hung low that night, and soon they had some cover.
Que clung onto the rope ladder and Brogan with all of her strength, and truthfully, if Brogan wasn't holding onto her, she probably wouldn't have been able to keep her grip. She looked over at DeeDee taking care of Smoke, and would have sighed if it didn't hurt so much to do so.
"Get your asses back on board!" Liam shouted down to them. That had been too close of a call, and he didn't want them dangling down there any longer.
Brogan looked at Que.
"You first. You have to climb up, Que. You're safe. Get up to the ship and rest."
DeeDee was struggling with Smoke. He was heavier than what she was meant to carry, but she hurried to get him up high and to the ship before he fell.
Grabbing the rung above her, Que's whole body shook as she forced herself to climb her way up. She was exhausted and it was far from easy, but eventually she was able to heft herself over the railing and onto the deck. As soon as she was there, she rolled onto her back and took several deep breaths, relieved that they had made it out intact.
Liam looked over from his post at the wheel.
"What the fuck happened down there?"
DeeDee got Smoke onto the deck and he dropped with a thud. DeeDee whirled around trying to reorient herself after the sudden loss of weight. Brogan climbed onto the deck a moment later.
"They caught us."
Smoke brought a hand to his still bleeding shoulder.
"They have an alchemist working for them now."
"Well fuck," Liam said, reaching into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. "That sure as hell explains how Sylvora got taken so quickly."
He turned after putting a cigarette in his mouth and held out the pack to the others.
"Anyone else need one?"
Que, still lying supine on the deck, shook her head and closed her eyes. Her heart had slowed to a more regular pace and the pain in her chest was beginning to fade, but she was still trying to ease her breathing.
"Smoke was shot," she said. "They wanted to kill him..."
Smoke didn't say anything. He still had the bullet in his shoulder.
"Can you take it out?" he finally said to Liam. He didn't wince, but his expression was tight with pain.
"Holy shit," Brogan said. She'd never dealt with a bullet wound. How the hell were they going to help Smoke while Liam was piloting this thing trying to get them out of Sylvora?
Liam's cigarette fell from his mouth unlit when he heard this news.
"You? You got shot?" he asked in utter disbelief. "Since when do you get shot?"
"I don't think they were aiming at him..." Que said softly, but the pilot didn't hear.
"Let me look at that," he grumbled.
Smoke stood up, his lips pressed tight. He walked over to Liam and took his hand away from his shoulder. Blood dripped off his fingers from the wounded arm.
While he approached, Liam opened a compartment on the floor beside him, pulling out a small wooden box and setting it on his lap.
"Didn't think I'd have to use my kit on someone else," he grumble, taking hold of Smoke's arm so he could get a better look at it. It wasn't the gentlest of gestures, but Liam was more concerned about getting the injury patched up than being gentle, and he knew Smoke could take it.
"It's still lodged in there, and deep too. Fuck, I need some better light to get this out."
BOB rolled over to them.
"You're going to have to sit on the floor," he said dryly. "And Smoke should probably lay down so you'll have a better angle."
BOB's eyes grew brighter and brighter, until the shifting lights were like beams focused on Smoke's shoulder.
Smoke took off his suspenders carefully and began to take off his shirt. Brogan looked at DeeDee.
"Dee, get some hot water from the boiler room."
DeeDee sped off and Brogan approached.
"Liam, you got any spirits on this bird? Brandy would be good. Or whiskey. Something to disinfect the wound."
"In my kit," he said, opening up the box. It contained a hodgepodge assortment of tools, from a pair of pliers to a thick, curved needle, as well as the aforementioned bottle of brandy. Before DeeDee returned with the hot water, Que walked over to them, frowning as she watched Liam prepare to take care of Smoke's wound.
"Are you going to be alright?" she asked, rocking slightly on her heels. "I'm sorry if I couldn't keep up so well, if that's why you got shot..."
"No," Smoke said. His voice was slightly strained.
Brogan pulled open the bottle of brandy and looked at Smoke.
She poured the alcohol into the wound. Smoke didn't move or shout, but his lips were tight and hard and his face went pale.
"God, you're a trooper," Brogan said.
Que sat down next to Smoke as DeeDee returned with the hot water. Liam pulled out the pliers and the needle and set them in the bucket to soak and become as sterile as they could, given the available materials. The pilot looked over at the two of them.
"At least tell me you found what you were looking for."
Smoke's gray eyes flickered to the satchel he'd dropped when he'd landed with DeeDee. He didn't say anything, but he looked at Que to answer Liam for him.
She nodded, understanding what he meant.
"We found a folder in the census records on the Blackthornes," Que explained as she rose to retrieve it from the satchel. "It's too dark to look at now, but hopefully this will tell us where we need to look next."
"If they got out of Sylvora," Brogan said. "I'm sorry, Que, but there's a chance that your mother's family might still be there. Trapped like everyone else."
She then took out the pliers and needle, rubbed them with the alcohol and handed them to Liam. Brogan shifted around the box, found a thick stick and gave it to Smoke so he could bite on it while Liam worked.
"Soldier's first aid," the pilot grumbled, looking over at Smoke. "Brace yourself. I'll really need to dig to retrieve this thing. Hopefully, it's all in one piece."
Que stopped a few feet back, just outside of the light, clutching the folder to her chest. Brogan's words worried her; after their ordeal, she didn't want to brave entering the city again. God, she hoped her family wasn't trapped there still.
Smoke gave a short nod and bit down on the stick.
Brogan motioned to Que.
"Come back here. Put Smoke's head on your lap and hold it in place. This is going to hurt him a lot, Que."
Smoke tossed Brogan a glare, but she just arched her eyebrow.
Que hesitated, catching Smoke's glare, but she walked back into the light, setting the folder aside. She chewed on her lip and looked at Smoke before sitting down behind him. If he would allow her to do what Brogan said, she would.
Smoke glance up at her and gave Que a short nod. Brogan smiled softly and motioned for Que to do as she had said. Once Smoke's head was propped in place on Que's lap, and Brogan was holding down Smoke's good arm, she nodded to Liam.
The pilot took a deep breath, readjusting his grip on the pliers, then dug the tool into the bullet hole in his friend's arm. He had to put some serious force on it to wriggle it far enough to touch the bullet, but getting a hold of the piece of metal was proving to be very difficult.
Smoke winced. The sound of his teeth rubbing on the wood echoed the pain. His entire body jerked. Brogan had to hold his arm and chest down, so he wouldn't move. She looked at Que to make sure she had Smoke's head secure.
The younger woman did the best she could, not want to hurt him any more than what extracting the bullet already was. She held his head firmly, making sure he did not slip or jerk out of her lap. Almost absentmindedly, Que brushed the hair out of Smoke's face while Liam continued to work.
"Almost... got it..." he growled, trying to twist the pliers at a different angle.
A broken grunt escaped from the back of Smoke's throat and he closed his eyes. Then he opened them again, pain swirling through him, and focused on Que's face. The intensity of his gaze met hers, his pain visible in his eyes.
"Talk to him, Que," Brogan said. "Try to distract him from the pain."
"Uh...umm..." Que stuttered in alarm, not sure what she should say. Her brows furrowed as she looked up at Brogan briefly before meeting Smoke's gaze again. Seeing that much pain in his face, especially in his eyes, made her eyes well up with tears.
"Just a little longer," she tried assuring him. "Once it's out, it'll stop..."
They could hear the clicking of the pliers against the metal bullet. Liam really was close.
Smoke winced again, pain twisting across his face as his teeth ground into the wood. Brogan held him down and looked at Que, desperate for the girl to touch him or talk to him, anything to get his mind off the pain.
Unable to think of anything to say, Que instead leaned forward and kissed his forehead, hoping that (perhaps) that would help.
Smoke's gaze met hers, but he winced again in pain and a shiver ran through his body.
"Got it!" Liam suddenly exclaimed, extracting the bullet and holding it in the pliers. "Damn... that's a big sucker..."
He raised an eyebrow and looked at Smoke.
"Want a souvenir for the occasion, or shall I pitch it?"
Smoke relaxed visibly, his eyes dazed. Brogan released his arm. He lifted his good arm, grabbed the bottle of brandy (which was still open), spat out the stick at Liam, lifted his head slightly and downed several gulps of the drink with a wince. He put down the bottle with a thud.
"I don't care," he rasped.
Brogan looked at Liam.
"Sew him up first."
Liam put the pliers and the bullet down on the lid of the box before retrieving the needle and the thick thread for it. As he began threading the wicked little tool, Que looked down at Smoke and sighed.
"Will you be alright?" she asked.
He winced as Liam began to sew him up. Smoke took another few gulps from the brandy.
"Yes," he croaked out. He put the bottle down and put his head back on Que's lap. He closed his eyes.
"Almost done," Liam said, making much better time getting the wound sewn shut. "We'll need to wrap it too, to keep it clean."
Que frowned and began playing with Smoke's hair while he rested in her lap.
"I'm sorry I put you all through so much trouble to help me."
Smoke didn't say anything for a long moment. He just lay there, eyes closed, wincing only slightly with the bothersome pain of the sewing.
"I'll get the wraps," Brogan said, looking at Que for a moment. Then she smiled and got up to get them.
"It's okay," Smoke said finally, his voice whisper soft.
Que nodded, even though his eyes were still closed. Liam tied off the end of the stitches and cut the excess thread away.
"There," he said. "Patched. As soon as it all heals up, we can take the string out. Sheesh, I never thought I'd need to sew you up, Smoke. Things a lot stickier than we anticipated, eh?"
"Couldn't let Que get shot," Smoke mumbled. He reached for the brandy again.
"Not yet," Brogan said. She took the brandy and poured a little more onto the wound to keep it clean. Smoke hissed.
"There," she said, and handed him back the bottle. He opened his eyes and took another swig.
"I've never seen someone use combat alchemy before," Que told them while Brogan worked on wrapping the wound. "Father used to say he worried about the day when men began using alchemy as a means for destruction rather than creation. I wonder if he's seen anything like this."
"If he has," Liam remarked, cleaning up his kit and packing it away. "No doubt he's upset about it."
Que nodded her agreement and waited patiently for Smoke to get fully bandaged. After only a few seconds, however, her curiosity had her talking again. Looking down at him, she asked, "Why do you think those men wore masks?"
Smoke looked up at her.
"I don't know."
Brogan finished bandaging Smoke and began to put everything quietly away. She remembered the black gaze of the man behind the blue mask. She remembered him looking at DeeDee. She couldn't let them hurt Que, Smoke, or Liam.
The pilot cocked an eyebrow once his kit was away.
"Men in masks? Sounds a little silly if you ask me."
"Well, I think it was two men," Que admitted, shrugging. "One of them... well, it was kind of hard to tell whether it was a man or a woman. I'm pretty sure it was a man though."
"Still sounds borderline queer..."
Brogan got up when she finished putting everything away.
"We should probably get Smoke into a cot to rest. And you should rest too, Que."
Smoke nodded and sat up. But the movement made him dizzy, so he had to stop for a long moment, just sitting there staring at the floor.
Que's brows furrowed, and she placed her hand on his shoulder.
"Are you sure you're okay?" she asked, very worried.
"Yeah," Smoke said. With Brogan's help, he stood up. She looked at Que and arched her eyebrow silently asking if the girl was going to come with.
The younger woman nodded, standing to follow them down to the bunks to get some well-deserved rest.
Left over food was used for breakfast. The morning was quiet and there was no sign of them being followed. Brogan let Smoke and Que sleep in. She was on the deck with Liam for a while after checking the engine room. When Brogan asked Liam about going back to Brattford, his response wasn't what she expected.
"I don't think we should risk drawing the Enlightened there," he said, lighting a cigarette. "If we'd been able to leave quietly, things would be different, but after that grand exit..."
Liam shook his head.
"A lot of refugees there. The last thing we need to bring them is more trouble."
"But Liam where else could we go? Anything that is unoccupied by the Enlightened is threatened. Doesn't matter if we go there or not. Besides, all they took were some files, nothing that should bother the Enlightened overmuch. We're not even sure if they're following us. It's been quiet the entire night."
"There's the problem: we don't know. I'm not sure it's worth the risk..."
The boards of the deck creaked as Que came from the bunks below, clutching the census folder again.
"How long until we arrive?" she asked.
Brogan threw up her arms.
"Arrive where? Liam doesn't want to take us back to Brattford because the Enlightened might follow us there."
She wished she could tell him that he, Que, and Smoke would be fine even in Brattford. As long as she wasn't there.
Que turned and looked at the pilot, her eyebrows raised as a frown formed on her face.
"But..." she started, looking as if she were about to cry. "But the files say that's where a lot of the Blackthornes are. We can't have come so far just to quit now!"
Liam stared at her for a moment before putting his hand on his forehead.
"God, don't look at me like that," he grumbled. "It would be our luck, wouldn't it?"
Brogan shook her head.
"Where else would we have gone, Liam?" she asked quietly. "My buggy is there and we can't just fly around forever."
Liam blew smoke out his nose and grunted something, but made no more of a response other than, "I guess it's to Brattford then..."
While he returned to piloting the vessel, Que turned to Brogan, the smile returning to her face.
"You should see all the information in here!" she said excitedly. "It's exactly what I needed to broaden my search!"
Brogan smiled softly and squeezed Que's shoulder.
"I'm glad to hear it. Hopefully, you'll find more clues to who you are soon."
Que tilted her head to one side, looking over the mechanic's face.
"Is everything alright?" she asked. "You've been kind of... well, somber since we left Sylvora. Why?"
Brogan shook her head.
"It's nothing. Just normal worrying."
"So did you sleep well? I heard water running earlier. Where is Smoke? How's he doing? He went to bed with that bottle of brandy."
"I think he's taking a bath," Que said with a shrug. "I slept well enough, being so tired from all of that running, but smelling like garbage made it a little difficult to get to sleep. I was out cold as soon as I did, however."
"I think Liam will need to restock his kit when we get back."
Brogan gave Que a friendly whap on the shoulder.
"Well, see if he's done and take one yourself. You kind of smell, yes."
The younger woman wrinkled her nose.
"'Kind of' is being too polite."
She went off to check on Smoke to see if he was finished with his bath. Que was already looking forward to getting clean herself.
Smoke opened the door of the room with the tub just as Que was about to. He was still a little wet. His hair had been combed back and a towel hung about his hips. Other than that towel, he was naked.
A myriad of scars decorated his torso and his arms. Burn scars and knife scars, and the black string on his shoulder from the bullet wound stood out stark against his skin. He had little to no hair on his chest. He had the body of a fighter. Lean, developed muscles and not an ounce of fat on his body.
His gray eyes pierced through her.
He released the door and stepped aside, allowing her entrance. He had already poured a new bath, knowing Que would need to use it. The water was still piping hot though. It would take several minutes before she was able to enter it. Steam curled in the room.
Que's cheeks instantly flushed, the heat of the steam only a small factor. For a moment, her gaze met his, and she stared in utter shock at having come upon him in such a state, though one would wonder what she had expected to find him in, since he had just been bathing. When the shock finally wore away, she moved her eyes to look over Smoke's many scars, as if trying to read what each one meant. Que tilted her head to the side, lifting one hand before poking his abs with one finger. She looked up at him again.
The abs she'd poked had immediately tensed up. His muscles actually rippled a little with an undercurrent of anticipation. His body immediately reacted to her touch and her words. Her understatement became fact, and he was powerless to stop it. Smoke's lips twitched a little, signaling an oncoming smile or laugh like before.
Smoke closed the door, trapping her inside the room with him. A smirk spread over his lips, as if he was holding back laughter.
Que stared at the closed door, again a little baffled.
"Um, did I say something wrong?" she asked, confused by his reaction. "Or was it silly to state something obvious?"
She looked back at the tub of water, then turned to face Smoke again.
"Um, I'll just let you be, Smoke. I need to get cleaned up before the water cools too much."
"It's boiling hot, Que. I expected to be shaved and dressed before I went to get you for your bath. So I made sure it was really hot so it would still be hot when you got in."
He headed to the mirror and the basin by the wall.
"If you don't mind water that could cook you, go ahead."
He crouched and grabbed a bucket of water by the basin. It was also hot. He poured it in and grabbed one the knives propped on that small table.
"Then why did you shut me in if it's too hot now?"
"I didn't want anyone to bother us. Do you want to leave?" he asked. He put the razor into the hot water.
"Um, well... I..." Que stammered, turning to face him again. "It seems a little silly to stand here while it cools, doesn't it? Maybe I should go get some cold water to speed things up a bit."
He had even more scars on his back, and she was resisting the urge to poke him again. Or just trace her fingers along the scars. Or just touch him for the sake of touching him. Que was very confused. She felt embarrassed all over... at least that was the closest thing she could compare it to. Que didn't even know what she was feeling!
The razor scraped over his skin. The sound echoed in the sudden silence of the room.
"You can do that. Or test it to see if it's okay for you. Or watch me shave while you wait for it to cool."
Que said nothing. She seriously considered testing the water, but she couldn't take her eyes off of Smoke. He was a distraction, to say the least, and a very handsome one at that. Chewing on her lip, she watched silently, trying to figure out all the strange feelings she was getting just by looking at him, and debating on whether or not this was a good thing.
After a couple of minutes of silence, Smoke said, "So what are you going to do?"
"Oh!" Que exclaimed, startled when he spoke, having been completely absorbed trying to figure things out. "I... um... I suppose I'll check the water..."
Scooting across the room (and trying not to look back at Smoke and get distracted again), she approached the tub until she was close enough to test the water temperature. She dipped her fingers in carefully, learning quickly that the water was still a bit too hot to bathe in. Turning back to Smoke, she found herself laughing with embarrassment.
"You were right; it's still too hot."
There was another bit of silence, except for the scraping sound of razor against skin.
"So what will you do while you wait?" he asked, pausing for a moment to look at her through the mirror.
Good question. Logic said she should just leave and wait until he was finished; by then, the water would likely be the right temperature. But for some reason, Que's mind went completely blank, and all she did was stare and mumble, "Um..."
Smoke's image in the mirror cracked a smile. He put down the razor, his face only partly finished and turned to her. He approached her in two strides, took her hand and brought her to basin. He released her and faced the mirror again, dipping the knife in the hot water and reapplying it to his face.
"Talk to me."
"Talk to you?" she repeated. "I... um... well, what do you want to talk about?"
Que shivered inexplicably. The last time he'd startled her so much was when he'd kissed her, but that was nothing like this. At least she'd been able to figure out what had caused her reaction then, but now there seemed to be no cause. It was just Smoke standing there, shaving, wearing nothing but a towel. Could that be it? Could just watching him really do that to her?
Que clasped her hands in front of her, resisting every urge to trace those scars.
His gaze shifted down to her hands.
"Are you all right?" he asked. He put down the razor for a moment and turned to her. The muscles in his arms tensed as he propped it on the small table and leaned into it.
"Yes!" she answered too quickly, then shook her head. "I mean no. Wait... I don't know... Sorry, I'm just... confused..."
Que looked up at him, chewing on her lower lip and she shifted from one foot to the other.
"I don't know what's gotten into me..."
He tilted his head to the side. His loose, wet hair brushed his shoulders.
"Confused about what? You ask about everything, Que. Ask."
"It's so embarrassing, and I don't know why," Que admitted, trying to figure out how to explain how she felt. "It was like back when you kissed me, only different... I don't know. Why is that? You're just... standing there, and for some reason, I get all tense and nervous and... gosh, this is so embarrassing..."
Smoke smiled. It lit up his face, despite it seeming completely strange there too.
"Actually, it's normal."
He straightened, turned back to the mirror and continued shaving.
"What do these feelings make you want to do?" he asked softly, the smile already gone from his face as he concentrated on shaving.
"It's... normal?" Que asked back, then considered his question. "Well, um... gee... to be honest, I just, um, kind of want to touch your scars. It's so silly..."
She shook her head, laughing a little.
"I poked you before. I don't know why it has me bothered now."
"Yes, it's normal. You can touch my scars," he said softly. His voice was practically a caress.
"I don't mind."
Que's face reddened entirely.
She released her hands from each others' grasp and carefully reached to touch Smoke's skin. It was so warm beneath her fingertips... she shivered again. Tracing the lines of each scar, Que relaxed a little, wondering where he'd gotten each of them, but (strangely enough) not asking a single thing about them.
Though Smoke continued to shave while she touched him, there were several times where he stilled, razor in the air and not quite at his face. Beneath her fingers, his skin shivered occasionally, and his muscles tensed, relaxed, leapt and flexed. His muscles practically danced for her, reacting to every touch. He had to focus to keep his breathing even, but he couldn't do anything about the growing hardness beneath his towel. His eyes watched her in the mirror between each scrape of his stubble.
A few times when Smoke's muscles moved, Que jumped, a little startled by the reaction, and then would giggle and continue exploring the marks along his skin.
"Are you ticklish?" she asked. "Sometimes you squirm when I touch you..."
His razor stopped mid-scrape. He finished it after a moment and rinsed the razor in the hot water.
"No... It's something else."
"Something else?" she echoed, then stepped back, looking towards the tub. "I wonder if the water is cool enough yet. I really do feel disgusting right now."
"Try it," he said, and brought back up the razor to finish up the last of his face.
Que walked over to the tub and dipped her fingers in again. She smiled.
"Ah, it's much better now."
She looked back at him.
"You, uh, don't mind if I go ahead and take my bath now, do you?"
"No, I don't mind," he said, and splashed his face with the hot water, patting his cheeks.
Que nodded and began undressing, apparently not caring that Smoke was still in the room.
"I'll need to wash these too, but I can do that later," she said to herself, folding each article of clothing neatly before removing the next.
Considering how shy she had seemed a moment ago, Smoke was surprised by her lack of modesty. He didn't show it. Finished shaving, he turned around and watched her, wondering how far she would go before she threw him out.
Que was standing in nothing but her bloomers and chemise before she turned back to Smoke, tilting her head to one side.
"Are you watching me?" she asked in her usual, simply curious manner. "I figured you would have wanted to get dressed after standing around in a towel so long."
Her cheeks flushed again, and she returned her gaze to the bath water instead.
"Yes," he said. His voice was soft, warm and liquid.
"Because I want to."
Que turned to face him again.
"Why would you want to? There's nothing exciting about a bath other than getting clean and smelling nice."
The corners of his mouth twitched.
"But there's something very exciting about seeing you undress, seeing you naked, and watching you bathe."
Que stared at him, one eyebrow raised in confusion.
"I imagine most people look the same naked, with the exception of some obvious features," she said. "How is that in any way exciting? I don't understand..."
"You got excited touching me."
"I'm not sure we have the same definition of 'excited'... If you mean that weird feeling like when you kissed me, then that makes more sense."
"'Excited' has different meanings depending on the context."
"Then I surely don't understand this new context. Either way, does that mean you're just going to stand there in your towel the whole time while I wash up? It's odd, to say the least..."
"Do you want me to leave?"
She looked away from him again, chewing on her lip as she seriously considered his question. Que thought about him staying, and that made her shiver with that odd feeling again. She thought about him leaving, and for some reason, it made her feel upset. Turning back to Smoke, Que smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't mind if you stay. You let me trace your scars, after all. It seems fair enough."
Before Smoke could answer, the door opened. Brogan stood there, staring at the two of them and her eyes narrowed at Smoke. He shrugged.
"Out," she said flatly.
Smoke did as asked, though he let his gaze linger long on Que before he left.
Brogan rolled her eyes.
"Hurry up and finish bathing," she said to Que. "I'm making lunch."
She left before Que could say anything.
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