Chapter 46 of Lead Heart is up!
Wind playfully tussled Leliana’s hair as she sped through the clearing. It almost tickled until it, and the air in her lungs, departed at a sudden stop. There was a loud CRACK and she collapsed to her knees.
She looked back just for a second, long enough to confirm the beech tree was the one who cracked, not her.
A shadow blocked the sun for a fraction of a second and it was time to move. Leliana threw herself to her feet and kicked off the sturdy tree just in time. Vea’s naked fist impacted the same trunk, shards of wood falling into a growing collection of debris on the ground.
“You are getting faster.” Vea complimented in her slow, southern drawl.
“Not fast enough.” Leliana’s back was like liquid fire burning without end. Every tree in the forest must have had an imprint of her ass
Her opponent smiled and crossed her arms. The wide A-stance Vea took let Leliana know she had a few seconds to catch her breath. She used it. Afternoon sunlight shone brilliantly off the monk’s dark complexion, the sheen of perspiration taking a golden hue. Damn she looked cool.
“So when are you going to teach me that awesome boomie clappy thing?”
Vea smirked. “When are you going to make me?”
Leliana smiled back. Two seconds later, pain exploded up her forearm as she split the rock with her fist, the same one the other woman had been standing on moments ago. Leliana grabbed a fist-full of gravel and sprang to the left, rolling to her feet so Vea’s bare foot sailed harmlessly overhead, quickly followed up with a much more successful backhanded strike. Sparks decorated Leliana’s vision, although she did stay conscious this time.
That was an improvement.
Rocks whistled through the air, chipping away at the trees as they missed. Leliana bounced a few stones and put a spin on a few of the big ones to help alter their trajectory, so she was in the perfect position to receive the monk as she ducked from the last of them. Vea’s eyes grew wide as her opponent’s arms wrapped around her waist and flung her three meters straight up.
Leliana smiled. The Protector had taught her how difficult it was to control oneself while flailing about in midair. She launched herself after Vea and grabbed her from behind, hurling her straight at the tree which Leliana herself had face-planted in moments ago. At the last second, the big woman threw out a hand and grabbed a thick branch. She kicked off the intended tree trunk with lightning speed, meeting Leliana’s landing spot at the same time as Leliana herself. Two rough hands circled under her arms as Vea somersaulted over her head and the next thing she knew, Leliana was soaring through the leafy canopy of the trees.
“OH.” Was all she managed. The clear, blue skies and the rocky terrain below mingled as she flipped end over end, her stomach threatening mutiny if she didn’t cut it out. She tucked her limbs and curled into a ball, leaning into the spin to get some control. Leliana’s pose was victorious when she finally straightened out and hurtled toward the ground at breakneck speed. Only to land safely in Vea’s arms before the impact, and yet another crater opened up beneath the monk.
It hadn’t been the first time she’d been sent flying, nor that she’d been caught by the huge woman. It was the highest she’d been thrown, though. Ever. “What was that!” She could barely restrain herself, bouncing as her feet touched the ground.
Vea was less enthusiastic. “I apologize girl. I should not ha-”
“That was amazing!” Leliana cut her off. “I’ve never known a man who could so much as toss me into a swimming pool, much less put me onto an airship from the ground!” The hammering in her chest was going wild, and she found it difficult to control her voice.
Vea looked away, but not before Leliana caught the smirk on her face. “Let us call it a day for now. We should get back soon or Carkus will eat our supper.”
Leliana gasped and stopped bouncing. The taste of the hardtack bread she’d eaten the first day was not one she was keen to retry. They stepped through a war-zone of shattered stone and splintered trees before they entered the shadows of untouched forest.
“I am pleased with your progress girl.” Vea commented. “It reminds me of a talented protege I trained beside when I was younger.” This time it was Leliana’s turn to be uncomfortable.
“Er…thanks. Is she a war brother too? Or uh, war sister?”
“She’s dead.” Was the reply.
“What!? Don’t compare me to someone who died!” Leliana’s reply wasn’t meant to be genuine, though Vea’s eyes dropped. “Uh sorry, I mean, what happened to her?” Vea gave her a small smile.
“Do not worry. My friend Quinra died honorably. She was undefeatable in strength on our home island. Yet nature did what man could not do, and she swept away when the great sea came for us. She lifted over two score of our people out of the waters that night. Do not grieve. I know she watches from Teppu Lei Lei in heaven, waiting for me to join her.”
“Slag and ash. Sorry to hear that.” Leliana hoped that was the right thing to say. Usually she was the one doing the killing, so condolences weren’t really an issue.
She was about to ask what in the nine hells Teppu..what? Even was, when her focus was stolen by a tiny, pink-haired engineer furiously waving and yelling her name.
“Go.” Vea gestured. “You are free the rest of the night.”
Teena hopped up and down, hurling insults at a wrench under her feet refused to budge. “Leli! I can’t turn these bolts, can you do it for me?” She pouted playfully and sealed Leliana’s decision on the matter immediately.
“Yeah sure I- Wait what did you call me?”
“Leli? It’s your nickname I made up for you today!” Teena’s transition from pout to joy was too adorable, so she let the name slide for now. She’d never wanted a cutesy nickname, but nobody had ever bothered to give her one before either. She tightened a score of nuts and bolts Teena pointed to, on the top and bottom of the…
“What is it?”
She almost took his head off when Bristol’s huge head popped out of a tiny opening. “It’s an individual airborne transport!” He bellowed. “We finally got all the pieces we need for a test flight!”
“Don’t do that!” Leliana forced herself to lower the wrench, away from his head. A thought struck her. “Wait, why didn’t you help Teena if you’re right there?!”
Bristol laughed. “Can’t get out!” He tugged the edges of the ‘window’ to demonstrate. “Had to make some sacrifices to get it built in a day, after all!”
Leliana shook her head, handing the wrench back. She was positive it weighed as much as the tiny tinker, but Teena hefted it with a professional’s familiarity.
“Yay! Now we can test it out, stay and watch Leli! Okay Bristol, HIT IT!”
Big, bushy eyebrows shot up. “I thought I was supposed to kick it?!” Teena huffed and crossed her arms. Bristol laughed and went to work.
Leliana wasn’t sure what that work was exactly, but he was suddenly bouncing rapidly in his seat, hooting and hollering. Four huge blades shaped out of something Leliana couldn’t identify jerked into motion, pinned to the center of the top of the vehicle. They spun faster and faster, until they were an insubstantial blur. Inch by inch, Bristol lifted off the ground in the ridiculous contraption, until he was about ten feet up. From her vantage point on the ground, Leliana saw the ridiculous sight of a grown man pedaling furiously on a de-wheeled bicycle.
“Woooo!” Teena cheered him on. “We did it!”
Bristol’s face was a concerning shade of red after just two minutes of exertion in the craft, his shirt slick with sweat. The rotating blades slowed as his energy waned, until it was seated firmly in the grass once more. Leliana couldn’t help but giggle at their excitement.
“Sorry guys. An aerial transport that puts a guy like him in a state like this after two minutes of flight that low to the ground? I don’t think it’s going to be useful.”
Teena rolled her eyes. “No silly, Bristol isn’t what we had in mind for the actual working model-”
“Maybe!” He cut in.
“It’s just a model to test our hypothesis on the equations for the surface area to mass ratios required to offset the-”
“Stop.” Leliana crossed her arms. “Pretend I’m Gib when you explain things to me.”
“I am?” Teena said.
“I get it.” Teena sighed. “The ultimate design should have a steam engine or something to apply the mechanical force required to get into the air, silly. Bristol is just a prototype.”
“Test am I? Could I test some fresh air then?” Bristol’s body was contorted and almost halfway through the tiny window somehow, but he appeared to be stuck. They all laughed and disassembled the device as quickly as they could.
“So this is what he’s been teaching you this week?” Leliana asked when they set off toward their main camp. Bristol barked with laughter as Teena giggled.
“Nay, lass. The wee one is the brain behind this particular operation. Today at least.”
Leliana was far too drained from an afternoon of breaking rocks with her face to be surprised. They cleaned up the campsite, clearing away scrap metal and fed a stack of discarded blueprints to a big fire blazing under the evening’s meal.
Two days left.” Leliana mused. “Anything else you hope to get done?”
“Nah.” Teena scoffed. “Indulging my inner inventor was amazing fun, but I miss Gib and Karina, and Sekkel! And Jovi. Plus-” She focused her attention on the lengthening shadows of the forest, suddenly intense.
“Plus what?” Leliana asked, curious.
“Well…It’s just that, Karina did some things to help us get by back when I was building The Nightmare…”
Teena quietly tore at the grass for a while. Long enough that Leliana thought she was finished. She was about to offer some of her own experiences when-
“Some things she did weren’t the best. They were scary!” She wove grass into a tiny crown. “She mentioned a few days ago that she was thinking of training again. Because she’s useless now. It makes me nervous.” Teena’s big, blue eyes suddenly bored into Leliana. “She’s not useless, I told her and Gib told her, but she doesn’t believe us!”
“Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine for now at least.” Leliana plucked the crown from Teena’s hands and put it on her head. “We have a ways to go before Gungrave still, so she can’t be too scary until then. Besides,” she patted the girl’s back. “I got nothing else to do. Maybe I can hang out with you guys for a while? She’ll be safe with me around.”
“Maybe.” Then her eyes suddenly narrowed. “Wait a second – nobody ever crashed my ship until you came along!”
She still sounded worried, but Leliana thought she detected a hint of hopefulness, and couldn’t help but laugh at the good-natured jab. A change of topic was in order. “What else did you and Bristol do this week? Today’s the first day I’m conscious enough to realize I have no idea what you two have been up to.”
“OH! Mostly theoretical discussions and diagrams for the most part.” Pink pigtails bounced enthusiastically. “First I wanted to know how he made that coooool wagon because I think if The Nightmare had had some hot swappable gun placements we would’ve saved a lot of money hiring useless mercenarie-” Teena gasped. Deep red blanketed her cheeks when she remembered who she was talking to. “Uhhhh, no offense.”
Leliana smiled. “I hate ‘em too, don’t worry. Besides, I only turned merc because I wanted to fly on your pretty ship, otherwise I would’ve just blown through town on my way North.” This cheered Teena somewhat, it was at least enough to get her chatting again.
From pint-sized engines to the personal aircraft they’d built earlier today, Teena and Bristol had mainly focused on vehicular design and mechanical force. Most of the details flew right over Leliana’s head, she had to admit. But it was still relaxing to lay under the stars and listen to someone passionately describing the subtleties of copper tube design.
As the first tiny snores signaled the end of the conversation, and Teena curled up in her plump little sleeping bag, Leliana took care to sneak further toward the edge of the clearing. She’d felt sick every time she remembered almost hurting that adorable engineer and, bad dreams or no, was determined to never repeat the mistake.
Leliana drifted into sleep to the deafening chorus of the night insects and birds, reflecting on the conversation. Could she really stick around for a while? Was there nobody coming to drag her back?