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Robin coughed and shoved her work goggles up onto her forehead, only faintly amused by the curl of dark smoke that puffed by her face. The edges of the black cloud swirled into nothingness, stirred by a second violent exhale.
"Gee, thanks, WINGS," she sighed once she had her breath back. She smeared the back of her thick work glove along her cheek. It came away black with soot and mechanical grease, burnished with oily rainbows under her amber work lamp.
Her skin was hot, but it didn't feel like she'd been burnt. The faint acrid scent of singed hair lingered in the air, and she wondered how much eyebrow she had left. If that wasn't where the smell was coming from, then she must have shortened the wisps of hair that always clung to her ears when she tried to put her hair back in a messy bun.
Gently, soothingly, she patted the casing of the rocket pack splayed open on the workbench like a flayed bird.
"Look, I don't like taking you to pieces like this any more than you like being taken to pieces," Robin crooned. "But you are full up with rust and other, uh, stuff, and . . . just . . . I want you to be healthy, you understand? So no more spitting up on me."
The casing made the soft pinging sound she liked so much as it cooled down.
"Please?" she added, for good measure, because WINGS was the type of machine that sometimes needed a bit of sweet-talking, as well. She brushed her fingers gently across the lines of script stamped into the casing's side—Frankinese, Saskwyan, and Klonnish—digging her fingernail into one of the grooves. Velph would have teased her for talking to the pack, for calling it a "her," and for asking nicely. It would have been annoying, and haughty, and a little bit snide. And she would have given anything for him to be needling her right now.
"Keep nattering to that thing, and it might just talk back," said a voice from the doorway. Robin's heart leapt into her throat, and she whirled around, hope building against grief and—
The entire frame was blocked by Taddeus Thorne.
Never again Velph.
Robin swallowed what was left of her heart and offered Thorne a shaky smile, blinking hard, forcing herself to see the person in front of her, and not the one she'd been hoping for. Not the one she would never see again.
Thorne had voted himself Robin's bodyguard, and had made her security measures his personal mission ever since . . . well, just since. He followed in her footsteps exactly like a big, mountain-sized shadow. And now he was throwing said mountain-sized shadow from the hallway onto Robin's worktop.
"Wouldn't mind if she did speak to me," Robin admitted, pulling the gas lamp closer to the worktable to dispel the shadows. She leaned over WINGS to peer at the fuel hose. It was still intact, so the small backfire hadn't happened inside the casing—ah, the output ports, then. Robin grabbed the lamp's flexible neck and yanked it after her as she crouched at the end of the bench, staring up into WINGS's belly. "At least then she could tell me what was wrong. She's rattling something awful when I climb to cruising altitude, and that pretty song she makes when the blades are deployed is a bit strained. I'm afraid that . . . some, uh . . . you know . . . when I . . . I think some, uh . . . got into the casing, and it's all gummed up with . . ." blood, she wanted to say, but couldn't. Brains. Flesh. "You don't normally bother coming inside, though. Were you worried about the backfire? Or did you—?"
Robin turned to Thorne, and the rest of her words jammed up behind her teeth. Thorne's expression was completely poleaxed. His pale eyes rounded comically at the sight of her face, and he doubled over, wheezing with surprised mirth. He laughed like a mountain, too—rumbling, and gravelly, and shaking all over like an earthquake in the foothills.
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BONUS EPILOGUE - The Skylark's SacrificeAdventure
This epilogue was originally part of the official version of The Skylark's Sacrifice, but was later removed for pacing, and because the ending as it stands now is far more satisfying. Here's the ending as it originally appeared! Warning: this short...