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"Click Your Heels Together Three Times"
Arc One: Chapter 29
Balance of Power


Part Two


WARNING: Post Series, Post Movie, **SPOILER HEAVY** and just a bit AU





September 5, 1919
Rush Valley, Amestris


"So when do you expect you'll try again?" Havoc asked. "And have you decided where to set up your array?"

Roy frowned across the table and murmured, "Keep it down, Havoc. We don't want anyone to overhear." He glanced furtively over his shoulder at the sparse sprinkling of early morning patrons. Fortunately there weren't many of them this early, and the five or six people who had found this little place were passengers who'd just arrived on the train, as he and his companions had. Everyone was still pretty bleary from the trip, and he was willing to bet that their powers of observation were at a low ebb right now.

And nobody was likely to recognize the three of them anyway. They had waited till all the other passengers had gotten off the train, and then had quickly changed into the alternate clothing Pinako had found for them before they'd left her house. Havoc was hardly recognizable in his heavy blue jacket, shaggy red wig, and several days' growth of beard -- also red.

Riza, sitting next to Roy, wore a pair of Winry's old overalls and a red and black checked shirt, her short black wig and round glasses making her appear positively boyish. It was... rather a nice look on her, actually, Roy reflected...

He dragged his attention away, pulled his wide-brimmed black hat further down above the bandanna still covering his eye, and shifted a little in his long black trench coat. Jean had laughed and called him vain when he'd first put it on, but Roy felt it made him look rather dashing. Riza hadn't expressed an opinion, but when he'd come out of the men's room on the train, in his new garb, she had smiled as she'd grabbed her small suitcase and headed down the aisle toward the exit.

Now the three of them sat in the little cafe half a block from the train station, ravenous for breakfast, and ready to kill a little time while the rest of the town woke up. Armstrong had gone scouting, claiming that he felt he'd draw too much attention if he joined them in the restaurant. Roy didn't think that was the only reason he'd vanished, but... they'd have to sort all that out later. When he had either succeeded or failed at this one last attempt to bring the boys home.

He settled his right arm on the table, still in its sling, and wiggled the fingers experimentally. It hadn't been a bad break, and it was already healing. He was sure the arm would be good enough at least for the transmutation.

"I might do it later today," he finally said. "Or more likely this time tomorrow. We'll need to ask around, and find out where the tremors were, so I can set up as close as I can to the epicenter."

"It's that important to do it right on that spot?" Hawkeye wondered. "What if it was under a bank or in the middle of a school or something?"

"I'm sure it will work if I'm not in the exact spot," Roy conceded, "but it's wise to be as close as possible, so the connection is as strong as it can be."

"You all ready to order?" came a lazy voice from the end of the table, and they turned to see a yawning, aproned, middle-aged waitress standing there, notepad poised. She cast a glance at Roy, raising her eyebrows, but he shook his head.

"Sorry, give me a minute," he responded.

"Sure. How about your wife?"

"She's my sister." "She's his daughter." "I'm just his friend."

The three of them stared at each other. Then Hawkeye lifted her menu and turned, straight-faced, to the waitress. "Bacon and scrambled eggs for me. And coffee," she said.

Havoc folded his menu. "Same here," he said, "but make my eggs over easy."

Roy handed over his own menu, saying, "Sausage and eggs, brown toast, and make the coffee as strong as possible please."

The waitress departed, and Roy glared at Havoc. "My daughter?" he repeated acidly.

Havoc grinned. "Well, for all the waitress knows, boss, your hair is white under that ridiculous hat. And Riza looks almost young enough, in that getup."

"You're both ridiculous," Hawkeye smiled, folding her hands on the table. "Though I'm impressed at how quickly your beard grows, Jean. I wouldn't have guessed how red it was."

He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You should see a couple of my uncles. Their beards are so bright you can almost hurt your eyes, looking at them."

A shadow fell briefly across the table as someone passed by the window outside. Roy murmured, "I wonder where Armstrong went."

"I'm sure he's lurking around somewhere," Havoc replied.

Hawkeye chuckled. "If it's even possible for someone that size to 'lurk'." She moved her hands as the waitress returned with a coffee pot and cups.

Havoc leaned back in his chair to give the woman some room as she poured, stretching his arms out as he yawned. "What I'm looking forward to," he remarked fervently, "is sleeping in a real bed again. Two nights on that train, and I think every muscle is stiff."

Hawkeye slid a cup over to Roy, where he curled his left hand around it and stared into the hot, life giving liquid. "We'll check into a hotel tonight," he said, "and probably stay tomorrow night too. And hopefully we'll almost have doubled the size of our group by then."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Havoc glance sharply at him, but didn't have time to wonder about it, for suddenly another voice interrupted from the space at the end of the table just vacated by the waitress. "General Mustang? What in the world are you doing here? And what is that you're wearing?"

That voice. The one voice above all others that he dreaded hearing. His stomach clenching, Roy dragged his head around, forcing himself to look up. And there, as he'd expected, stood Winry Rockbell, staring at him, completely undeceived by the disguise.

__________


September 5, 2006
Central Oklahoma


"Al," said Heist. "Your bird's staring at me. Make him stop."

Reilly glanced over to where Al was using a small broom to sweep clean a large patch of dirt near the lip of the ravine. In the vague dawn light, she almost imagined that she saw his left shoulder hunch slightly, as though to block the view of the large raven maintaining a solemn vigil, perched on a bush at the far edge of the open patch of ground.

"He's not my bird," the boy replied, not looking up from his task. "I'm sure you can scare him away if you just wave your arms."

"Brother Raven doesn't scare easily," Redfeather remarked, from the closer side of area, nearer to where Reilly, Tom, and Maes stood conferring.

"He's just curious," Llyn added. "Nothin' t'be nervous about." He stood beside Heist, his hand hovering near hers, but not quite touching. Reilly decided it was rather cute, and wondered how long it would be before he finally committed himself, and just grabbed it. She wondered, actually, how long it would be before she gave in to the temptation to just to go over there and smush their hands together and get it over with!

"Anyway," Maes put in, "he's probably not looking at you at all, Heist. He's probably too interested in the way Al is sweeping the dirt off the... dirt."

Reilly snorted in a most unladylike way, and Maes grinned at her. His excitement was palpable this morning; after all, this time their attempt to go home was going to succeed. She could read the confidence in the lift of his head and the jutting of his chin, perceive the anticipation in the brightness of his green eyes and the flashing of his teeth. He was going home today.

Don't think about it. Save that for later.

Just as she caught the first glimpse of something in Maes' eyes that might soon turn to pity, she turned back to Tom and returned to the business at hand. "So anyway. Ducky said he was close to the turnoff, so they should only be a few more minutes. He'll hardly have to detour at all."

"And once they get here, we say our goodbyes and that's that?" Tom said. He watched her thoughtfully as he asked, and she wondered what bothered him about the question. Everything was pretty straightforward at this point, after all.

"Of course," she nodded. "But what I don't get," she added, turning her attention back toward Al's activity, "is why he's going to draw another circle. I thought the flute was supposed to take the place of the circle this time."

She hadn't spoken loudly, but Al seemed to be listening to the surrounding conversations even as he worked. He straightened up for a moment. "The circle won't be for opening the Gate, exactly," he explained. "It's more for stabilizing the forces so they don't get out of control while it opens. It's for our protection while we're in the circle, but it also keeps the energy from flowing outward and doing harm to you and the others."

"Not to mention," Hughes put in, "keeping you from blowing up the world?"

Al flashed a quick smile. "Something like that," he agreed. He shared a long look with Llyn, and bent back to his work. Reilly gathered that Llyn had somehow helped the youngster to learn how to play the instrument Singer had given him, so it wasn't surprising that there now seemed to be a considerable bond between them.

A lot of bonds had been formed since that day Ed had appeared almost on her doorstep all those months ago. And a lot of them were about to be broken.

Later. Not now.

Hughes sidled up to her and murmured in her ear, "So, d'you think he's going to sweep right down to the bedrock?"

She snorted again, and whispered back, "I doubt it needs to be quite this flat. I think he's just keeping himself calm till Ed gets here."

"Reilly..." He hesitated. "Look, I just want to say -- "

"Don't, Maes. Don't even start, okay? We're cool, so don't worry about that now." She let expression soften into a warm smile as she reached up and cupped his face. "You're going home. Don't carry any regrets with you, please?"

Maes took her hand and lightly kissed her palm, then said, "I promise."

She searched his face for a long quiet moment, looking for any indication that he was just saying that to make her happy. Finally, she whispered, "You never gave up hope." Then she turned and strode over to Tom's side near the treeline with her back straight. It was good that he was going home, after all. He didn't belong here. And Reilly was damned if she was going to let his last image of her be a tearful one.

__________


Rush Valley

They halted outside the diner, a few feet down the sidewalk near the corner of the building, to avoid being on display to patrons looking out of the wide window. (Though Roy knew that Hawkeye would be peering out anyway, to try to watch them from whatever sharp angle she could manage.) They couldn't achieve any real privacy out on the street, but they did have some anonymity as the sidewalk traffic increased with the opening of stores and people hurrying on their way to get to their jobs or other appointments. The sun had finally climbed high enough to peer over the tops of nearby buildings, and the night chill had begun to dissipate. Later on, the awning would be rolled down, to shade the window and keep the diner cool when the sun rose higher in the sky, but for now it remained rolled up above their heads.

Winry stood on one overalled leg, leaning back against the brick wall, one hand and the other foot pressed against the brick, and her other hand pressing a satchel to her side while clutching the bag containing the muffin she'd just bought in the diner. Roy understood, from her hurried explanation, that she stopped here every morning before heading to work. It was his own damnable luck that the diner closest to the train station was exactly the one she came to, so regularly.

He stood before her in his long black cape (in which he suddenly felt ridiculous), the now pointless wide-brimmed hat dangling loosely in the curled fingers of his left hand, hanging at his side. He noticed in passing that the bandanna tied around her head to keep her long blond hair out of her face was very similar to the one he himself still wore over his ruined eye.

He suppressed his natural impulse to take control of the situation, and waited for the girl as though awaiting the verdict of a judge. He always waited, now, to follow Winry's lead.

He should have expected her first question, given who and what she was. "So what happened to your arm?" she wondered, nodding at the right arm still cradled in its sling against his chest.

"I had an accident," he answered promptly, then hesitated before adding, "in Risembool."

Her eyes widened a little, but she didn't seem surprised. "What sort of accident?" she asked.

"Something exploded. I got burned, and my arm was broken."

Now her eyebrows shot up. "You? Got burned?"

"I know," he nodded wryly. "Kind of poetic, huh?"

"You couldn't stop the flames?"

"I was in the process of being knocked unconscious. So I was kind of busy." At the flare of amusement in her eyes, Roy decided to offer more. He might as well admit to as much as he could. "Actually, your grandmother took good care of me, or I'm not sure I'd have recovered. I owe her a lot." I owe her everything I have, he thought to himself, but that's a different story.

Or maybe not so different. Because Winry nodded, saying, "I thought so. That would be where you got my bandanna, then. Because you seem to take whatever you want from my family, whenever you feel like it."

The breath froze in his chest, choking off any possible response. There was no response he could make, ever, to any accusation she cared to fling at him. What he wanted to do was fall to his knees at her feet, and weep. What he did instead, after the initial shock and the first deep stab of pain, was to drop the hat, and reach up to the nape of his neck where a knot in the bandanna held it securely at its angle around his head. But the knot was so tight that he couldn't work it loose with only one hand, so at last he just dug his fingers under the edge of the cloth and yanked the thing free with one upward jerk.

"Wait - I didn't mean - you don't have to - " Then Winry gasped as the bandanna came free and his entire face was bared. She ignored the hand holding the cloth out to her, and simply straightened up, stepping away from the wall, staring.

She was probably the only person he knew whose automatic response was not to look away as quickly as possible. Roy lowered his hand as she stepped closer, eyes narrowed, examining the livid red of the lumpy skin, the closed and empty socket, and the angry, upraised, snaking seams where flesh and skin had been sewn together to heal in whatever inadequate way his body could manage. The skin wanted to itch at the unfamiliar touch of air. He flinched as she raised her hand, but all she did was brush the fringe of his hair aside, gently, to get a better look.

"I had no idea it had been that bad," she murmured.

The urge to fling his good arm across his eyes and hide from her gaze was almost irresistible. The effort it took to remain as he was, unprotected and open to her scrutiny, was already making him shake.

"Sir, is everything all right?"

Hawkeye - damn the woman! Instinctively, hand flying to his face to hold the crumpled bandanna over his eye, he turned away. "Get back inside, Hawkeye!" he barked.

"I just wondered if you needed my help --"

"I'm fine - everything's fine. Just go!" He took a shaky breath. "Please."

"Very well." He could tell by the tone of her voice how reluctant she was. "But...please call if you need me."

Out of the corner of his good eye, he watched Winry watch Hawkeye leave, and only when the girl turned back to him did he lower his hand, and face her again.

"You silly man," she said. "She wouldn't find it as horrifying as you think." She hurriedly stuffed the muffin into her satchel and set it on the ground. "Here," she reached for his hand and, uncurling his fingers, took the bandanna away, "let me fix this. I didn't mean you should take it off."

Roy obediently bent forward as she ran cool, efficient fingers through his hair to tidy it a bit and then wrapped the bandanna around his eye and the upper part of his head. She pulled him even lower as she reached behind to tie the knot, and he breathed in the bracing aroma of her soap, and perhaps the slightest metallic tang from her overalls.

Straightening up when she was done, he absently touched his fingers to the covered eye. "Thank you," he murmured.

"Now. Tell me why you're here. Were you looking for me? You must have been, if you went to Risembool first."

And now came the worst part of his dilemma. Because if he could bring back Edward and Alphonse, it would make Winry very happy, and go a long way toward atoning for some of the losses he'd caused her. But if he told her what he was hoping to do - and then for some reason couldn't do it - he couldn't begin to imagine how devastated she'd be. How she'd blame him for lifting her hopes, and then plunging her into fresh loss.

He didn't know if he could bear to do that to her - again.

So he did what he always did to her: he lied.

"Actually, Miss Rockbell," he said, bending to pick his hat off the sidewalk, "it's hard to believe, but it's just a coincidence that we were there, and then came here. Both times, we've been on military business. We're investigating earthquakes."

"Really? They've got you doing that sort of thing? That doesn't strike me as your type of investigation at all."

"It normally isn't." He lowered his voice. "But in this case, there may be an alchemical connection of some sort. Which is why I was sent, and why we're trying hard not to be recognized. If there's some sort of rogue alchemist doing this, we don't want to give him or her any warning that we're on to them. So I'd really appreciate if you wouldn't mention to anyone that you've seen us. And it would probably be wise if you tried to stay away from us while we're here." He embellished his lies by tapping his good hand on his injured arm. "I wouldn't want anything like this to happen to you, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time."

He was rather proud of his creative tale, and watched to see if he'd convinced her. Winry frowned thoughtfully as she regarded him.

"All right," she agreed slowly. "I guess I can do that. I hope you find out what's going on. The earthquake here was pretty bad, and I've been dealing with the repercussions myself. But I'm not sure you're really going to go unrecognized."

"That's why I've got this hat." He plopped it back on his head and smiled, pulling it down at a rakish angle over the bandanna. "Maybe you just recognized me because you know me."

"Well...I wasn't actually talking about you." She pointed across the street. "I was talking about him."

Roy peered across to where she was pointing. To see an immensely tall, immensely broad lumberjack at the newsstand on the opposite corner. Armstrong had somehow acquired the full regalia: checkered shirt, short pants, long socks, suspenders, long-handled axe - even the damn wool cap perched on the top of his head. He was currently, pretending to read the morning newspaper while casting furtive glances back and forth over the street.

Roy covered his eyes with his good hand, shaking his head. "Oh dear god," he muttered. "What did I ever do...?" Winry giggled, and he was almost ready to join her, except he wasn't sure he could prevent himself from going hysterical. "Thanks, Winry," he smiled again. "I'll see what I can do to...tone him down."

"I'm not sure that's possible, but good luck. I suppose I should get to work, then, if you don't think we should be see together." The girl bent and retrieved her satchel, slinging it over her shoulder. "I hope you figure out what's going on."

"If we do, we'll try to let you know," he assured her.

"Good," she nodded. "Well...goodbye, then. Oh, but general..."

"Yes?"

"If that arm starts going gangrenous or anything - I get first dibs, okay?"

__________


Central Oklahoma

"Okay, everyone back," Ducky instructed, waving his arm as the flat area overlooking the ravine seemed to flood with people. He didn't recognize half of the people gathered here, though he knew some of them were Redfeather's friends. But the others... he looked back and forth in alarm until he realized that these appeared to be the local sheriff's men. So Redfeather had been right, that they'd have that sort of help. Good.

Meanwhile, he kept one hand on Ed's shoulder as he tried to wave Maes Hughes aside, but almost immediately he found himself face-to-face with Reilly instead.

"What's going on, you two? Ducky, what the hell happened to your face?" she demanded, frowning as she looked back and forth between them. As soon as she'd gotten one good look at Ducky in the gradually increasing light, he could tell her inner alarm bells had started going off. And Ed seemed to have dropped back into his earlier uncharacteristic reticence the moment the van had come to a stop and he'd seen all these people, but hadn't found Al in their midst. So that just made it worse.

Ducky hurried to intercept Reilly before she could start interrogating him. "We're both tired, that's all. And nothing happened to my face -- well, I mean, I banged into something hard, but that was just an accident. We didn't run into any trouble, if that's what you're thinking. I don't know what all the fuss is -- I did call to say we were almost here, and we were fine." He noted with some despair that Tom had joined Hughes nearby, and behind Reilly he could see Llyn and Heist coming toward them through what seemed more and more like a mob of people.

"I know you phoned," Reilly answered, "and everything sounded fine, but... you don't look fine and Ed's too quiet. What's going on?"

"Nothing. He's just tired. It was a long trip, and you know he pushes too hard." Ducky tried to brush past her, but she stopped him, a hand on his arm, half-turning him to face her. He could feel Ed beginning to shake under his own hand, so he mustered a leer, and crooned, "I'm flattered, Reilly. Seriously. But you'll have to wait for a rendezvous. This morning I've got a headache named Edward Elric."

"Very funny," she snorted, but her eyes continued to dart from his face to Ed's, sparking with speculation.

Relentlessly, Ducky steered past her anyway, but now Llyn stepped forward, frowning toward Ed. "Are you all right, Edward? Can I give you something--"

"He's fine," Ducky said. "He just needs to see Al, everybody, he doesn't need an interrogation. Where is Al, anyway?"

"I'm here," came a disembodied voice from the other side of the crowd. At the sound of his voice, Ed's head jerked up. The milling people gradually stepped aside, leaving the way clear for Ducky and Ed to head toward an open space at the edge of the ravine. And at last, there was Al in the middle of it, bent over, hands on knees, surveying what he'd done so far to prepare for the creation of the transmutation circle.

But as he peered up at the two of them, he took one look at Ed's drained white face and rushed forward, pulling his brother close and slipping an arm around his shoulders.

"That's right," Ducky nodded, following the two of them and waving a shooing hand over his shoulder at everyone else. "You talk to him, Al, and I'll make sure nobody interrupts you. That's the last thing you guys need right now." As the brothers moved closer to the center of the area where the circle would be, he turned around and planted himself at the edge, determined not to let anybody get past.

"Ducky." It was Ed, pausing behind him. "Come over here with us."

The young man cast a warm glance over his shoulder. "It's okay, Ed, I can stand guard. Talk to Al."

"You have to be here. Come on. Please."


Turning back toward the onlookers, Ducky could see the dubious surprise on their faces.

"Look," Hughes said, "are you really all right? That's a really nasty bruise on your face, and Ed looks... well, strange."

"And why," Reilly demanded, her suspicions still rampant, "would he say you 'need to be there'?"

"We both really are fine," Ducky answered softly. "Ed just wants to tell Al about some stuff we talked about yesterday, that's all. And then they can get started on the circle. Everything's okay. I promise."

"Ducky...?" Ed again, from the center of the circle.

"All right, people," Ducky announced cheerfully, "time for everyone to back away a little bit. Nothing to see here -- these aren't the droids you're looking for. We'll let you know when we're done, okay?" And with that, he backed toward the brothers, noting that Hughes had begun to shepherd the rest of the people away, back toward the vehicles. He was a good guy, even if he did keep darting wordless questions back over his shoulder.

Ed had put his arms around Al, laying his head on his brother's shoulder, his pony tail falling forward to half-cover his face. "Al," he whispered, voice breaking. "Oh, Al..." And he sighed heavily, blinking away the beginnings of tears.

Pulling Ed tightly into his embrace, Al cast Ducky a look of alarm over Ed's shoulder. "What's going on?" he demanded. "He sounded fine on the phone. What happened?"

Ducky drew nearer and laid a hand on Ed's head. "Hey, Term," he said softly. "Why don't you sit down and rest? Maybe go back to the van for a bit? I can tell him everything."

Ed shook his head before lifting it and, sniffling, wiped the back of his flesh hand across his eyes to clear away the tears. Already they seemed to be fading, and some color had returned to his face. It really seemed to help, now that Al was at his side again. "No," he murmured, "this is my job."

"Don't you think it's partly my job too, now? You don't always have to do everything, you know."

Ed favored him with a surprisingly warm smile, a little of the old bravado creeping into his brightening eyes. "No. You're the surprise. I'm the one who gets to spring it."

Ducky laughed a little. "No fair, Ed. You haven't even wrapped me. But seriously. Are you okay to do this?"

"I wish," Al grumbled, "that you'd just get on with it, whatever it is. Should I be worried, or not?" He pulled back slightly, peering with a critical eye into Ed's face. "You do look a bit strange, Brother."

"I've just had a surprise, and it's partly happy and partly sad. All those lost years..." For a moment, Ducky held his breath, as Ed's gaze lost its focus and he stared into the distance, brows drawing together. For a moment, Ducky wondered if he might break down again, the way he'd done back at Gramps' house.

But somehow, like he almost always did, he pulled himself back to the present, and the task at hand. He pulled out of Al's embrace and began to pace, a couple of short strides back and forth across the open space while his brother waited patiently, being quite used to his modes of expression. At last the spark of excitement had kindled in Ed's eyes, and Ducky began to relax. "Al," Ed began, "you're not going to believe this..."

__________



Rush Valley

"The difficulty," Roy said, "will be drawing the circle. In fact, I don't think my right hand works well enough yet to do it," he twiddled the fingers sticking out of his sling, "and I'm not quite steady enough with my left hand to create that sort of precision. And it's crucial not to make an error with this circle."

"Agreed," Armstrong nodded. "One slip with this circle, and I can see what a backlash there could be."

Jean watched the two of them confer in the early evening shadows in the center of the short alley Roy had chosen as the site where he'd make his next attempt to open a Gate to the other world. Roy had only moments ago given Armstrong the diagrams from his previous attempt, and the looming alchemist began to study them carefully. Jean knew that he'd have to note and understand the purpose of every line, whorl, symbol, and curl, since he'd have to reproduce them perfectly to avoid either bringing down the surrounding buildings or blowing something up and getting them all killed.

Riza had already taken her place at the other end of the alley, standing with arms folded, at the corner of the three-storey warehouse to one side, ready to stop any random passers-by from entering. Jean would shortly move to the nearer end, the one that opened onto more of a main street, and stand guard there. Both of them had changed back into their military uniforms for this exercise, hoping that would grant them just enough authority to keep nosy people out and give the two alchemists time to get the job done. Roy, meanwhile, had dropped his hat and cape to the roughly paved ground, standing only in his black trousers and black shirt, the only color he wore being the bright red bandanna on his head. Armstrong, however, remained dressed in that colorful but ridiculous lumberjack outfit, though sometime during the day he'd at least lost the little woolen cap. At least he'd propped the axe against some boxes piled along the wall behind him, so it would be out of the way.

"You see how this line diverges," Roy murmured, standing on tiptoe to outline something on the diagram. Armstrong leaned further over to make it easier to reach, and Roy continued, "that's designed to try to divert any harmful energy as the circle activates."

"I see," the big man nodded. "Which means that this curve just below the branches must contain the diverted energy."

"Not quite 'contain,'" Roy shook his head. "You see these slight perforations. It's not so much 'contained' as dissipated."

"Ah yes, I see," Armstrong nodded again. "The perforations weren't visible at first, in this light."

"I'll fix that once you get started. I'll set some flames going above the circle, so you can see the diagram and see what you're drawing."

"Thank you, sir."

"Now then." Roy looked down the alley and asked briskly, "Are you ready, Hawkeye?"

"Ready, sir. Be careful."

"And you, Havoc?"

"Ready to go, boss."

"Good. You know the cover story. That should hold people off long enough to get the circle drawn. I'll let you know when I'm about to activate it."

Roy pulled a glove out of his pocket and tried to pull it onto his left hand, but with the weakness of his right, he couldn't quite work it all the way on. He raised his hand to try to pull it the rest of the way with his teeth, but Jean was already there. "Let me." He gripped Roy's wrist with one hand, and with the other, pulled the glove on the rest of the way. "Need the other one?" he asked.

"No, I won't have the strength to snap my fingers anyway. If I need the flames, this will do. Thanks, Jean."

Armstrong had already knelt and pulled a big chunk of chalk out of his pocket, and was beginning to draw. Jean stood with Roy for a few more seconds, watching, and then turned on his heel to take his place at the front end of the alley.

Behind him, he heard Roy comment, "That's good, you're doing it perfectly."

"Thank you, general," the other alchemist murmured.

Roy spoke again. "Just a few minutes now, and the Gate will be open, and hopefully Edward and Alphonse will be ready to come through. And what do you think, Alex -- will they be alone, do you suppose? I wonder what sort of companion they might bring with them. Can you think of anybody?"

Jean's steps faltered, and he fought the urge to look back over his shoulder. But he made himself move forward and take up his post, relegating his concern for later.

But, Armstrong, my man, he couldn't help but think as he stopped in the center of the opening and began to watch the street, you are in big, big trouble.

__________


Central Oklahoma

"Dude. I need to talk to you."

Llyn looked up in surprise to find Ducky at his elbow. The young hacker had been glued to Ed's side all morning since the two of them had gotten back from their trip, but now for some reason he'd joined Llyn and Helene as they stood to one side, watching Ed and Al create their big circle on the ground. Ducky's eyes darted to the circle and back again, and he tossed a tiny bean bag weight from one hand to the other, over and over, as though he couldn't bear to keep his hands still.

"What can I do for you?" Llyn asked.

"We need to talk. Privately."

Helene peered around at her friend, frowning. "What are you up to, Ducklord? I know that look."

"I just need to tell him something," Ducky retorted defensively. "About Ed, okay? I'll bring him right back."

Even Llyn could tell that her suspicions weren't allayed, but he obliged the other man by taking a few steps away. Llyn was sure Ducky could feel her eyes boring into him the way he did, but he tried to ignore the feeling that the skin was being flayed from his back.

"Is Ed all right?" he asked quietly when no one could overhear. "He's been very quiet since you got back, but it didn't seem like anything was wrong when I gave 'im a quick check. Did something happen?"

"It's not Ed," Ducky supplied in a rush. "I just said that so Heist wouldn't bug me. I can't deal with her right now. I need to know -- I need to ask you--" He couldn't seem to catch his breath.

"Calm down." Llyn put a hand on the young man's shoulder. "We have time. Just ask."

"Do you... do you like her?"

"I beg your pardon? Do I like who?"

"Heist." Back and forth, back and forth went the bean bag.

"Well, of course I do. What's this about--"

"I mean really like her. I mean like like."

Llyn fought the urge to look back over his shoulder at the young woman who had laid such an enchantment on him since the evening of the bonfire back home. Instead he glued his eyes to Ducky's agitated face and said quietly, "I think you need to explain why ye're asking such a question, my friend."

"We've -- we've always taken care of each other, see, ever since we were kids. We didn't get married like our families wanted -- we just didn't feel that way. But we still love each other, you know?"

"That's been pretty clear from the start," Llyn nodded, wondering where on earth this was going.

"The last few months -- they've been really tough on her. That whole fiasco with Bond... all the running... then almost getting killed, and everyone being mad at her... she's going to need someone she can count on, while she tries to recover from all that."

Llyn's breath caught. "Ducky. What are you saying?"

"I'm just -- just speculating," the other rushed on, not meeting his eyes. "Say that -- just say -- I was out of touch for quite a while. Or something happened to me, or something. Would you -- would you be around to help her? Or would she end up trying to cope by herself?"

"Look, nothing's going to happen to you, we're going to see to that--"

"Just answer me!" Ducky hissed in his agitation. He swallowed, trying to force it down. "Please. Just humor me. Tell me if you'll be there if she needs you. I -- I have to know, before I -- well, just before." He managed a shrug and a weak, unconvincing smile.

Llyn examined the other man's face, lips parted to ask more questions, but they died away at the pleading in Ducky's eyes, wordlessly begging him not to ask. He suddenly realized that he probably didn't need to ask anyway. He was beginning to guess.

Instead he nodded solemnly. "Very well. I do. I like like her," he said, smiling at the other's sheepish grin. "And if it... becomes necessary... I'll never let her out o'my sight till I know she's safe. And not even after that, I swear, for as long as she'll let me stay. Does that help you?"

Ducky closed his eyes in relief, his hands stilled at last, crossed over his chest as though to contain the leaping of his heart. "Llyn," he faltered, voice shaking, "you're a good guy. I'll never be able to thank you."

"But ye do know," Llyn reminded him softly, "that she'll guess something was goin' on, and that you told me. What is it I'm supposed to tell her then? If, say, you happen to go... out of touch?"

"Tell her...," Ducky took a deep breath. "Tell her to visit Gramps, and he'll explain everything. She'll get it then. She won't be mad at you then, I promise."

"All right. I'll do that. But now I need to ask you something."

"Oh please -- please don't--"

"Not about Helene. About Ed. Ducky... who is Edward to you? Really?"

He registered the surprise, then immediately on its heels, the furtive evasiveness as Ducky's eyes slid off his face. "I don't know what you mean," the other began, but Llyn interrupted firmly.

"I need to know this much, Ducky. I need to understand this."

The young man bowed his head for a moment as though defeated, and then nodded slowly. "All right. Gramps will tell you later, but... he's Ed's son, from back in Germany. Ed's my great grandfather, believe it or not." Ducky glanced up, a spark of hilarity in his eyes. "Weird, huh?"

Llyn slowly sucked in his breath. That explained everything. Absolutely everything. It didn't even surprise him that he believed it.

"Weird," he murmured, "doesn't begin to describe it. Are y'sure ye don't want to tell Helene yourself--" His cell phone began to twitter with his mother's special ring, and he broke off with a Welsh expletive. "This can't be good," he muttered to his companion, flipping the phone open. "What, Mam?" he said.

"Llyn, if they aren't gone yet, you'd better get them away," she began without preamble. "You've got cars bearing down on you from the west, almost on top of you. And others are heading your way from the east. You have to get out now. I can't divert them any more without suspicion."

"Got it, Mam. I'll call back in a bit." Llyn snapped the phone shut and said, "They're coming."

"Shit. Shit!" Ducky yelled. "Ed! Al! You have to get that thing done now!"

"Just about ready!" Ed called, neither he nor Al so much as glancing up from their work.

The others were already looking to Llyn, having heard his phone go off. Tom barked, "They're here, then?"

"Yes. Very close in the west, but others coming from the east too."

"Right then," said the Sheriff. "Red and I'll head off the closest bunch. There may be time for the rest of you to nip off a side road headin' south before the eastern boys get here."

"Tell you what," Llyn said hurriedly. "I can drive east and maybe stall the people on that side. Or at least give you an idea how many there are."

"Do that," Sheriff Tanner nodded. "I'll send a car after you, and you might delay them just long enough. But you people in the van had better get outta here quick."

"Okay," Helene said. "Ducks, you got your keys? Let's get the van started."

Llyn met Ducky's eyes. "Wait -- Helene. Come with me instead."

"What are you talking about?"

"That's right," Ducky put in. "They're not looking for him -- and his mom's an agent, even. They might not bother him at all. You'll be safer that way."

"C'mon, Ducky, don't be stupid, I'm not just walking out on you now," she retorted.

"Heist, listen to me!" he cried. "I have to stay till the very last minute, in case the circle doesn't work and they all need a ride out of here. But somebody -- somebody has to get away. Don't you get it?"

"Helene," Llyn murmured, his heart beginning to pound. "Please come with me."

She looked from one to the other, her previous suspicions obviously flaring again. All around them, the Sheriff's men and Redfeather's were hopping into vehicles and beginning to race away. "Why just me?" she demanded.

"Well, you're still weak, after losing all that blood--"

"That's not good enough, Ducklord. Why?"

"Because I love you, you idiot," Ducky urged, voice shaking, eyes blinking back sudden tears. "And I want you to be safe. So will you please, please not argue just this once, and go with Llyn? Give me a little peace of mind while we wait here and bite our fingernails?"

She stared at him for what felt like the longest ten seconds in the history of the world. Llyn's heart sank, pain stabbing through him in the midst of the urgency and fear. Helene wasn't stupid, by a long shot, and he'd bet any money she'd guessed what her friend was doing. And she wasn't going to come with him. Choosing between him and Ducky -- she was going to choose Ducky.

Then finally she muttered, "Dammit, you're such an ass." And flung herself at her long-time friend, throwing her arms around him, sniffling against his shoulder. "I don't know if I'll ever forgive you for this."

Ducky held her tightly. "Just be safe and happy, H." Almost immediately he pulled away. "I'd better see if I can help Ed and Al," he said, swiping a hand across his eyes.

"Helene," Llyn said again, holding out his hand. It was shaking; he couldn't help it. "Please. Come with me, love."

One last look back at her friend, and then -- he could barely believe his eyes -- she reached for him, and took his hand. He drew a sharp, gasping breath at the surge of joy that went through him at the touch of her fingers.

It was nothing but a rushing blur, then. People running everywhere, cars screeching off in all directions. Maes grabbing Reilly, moaning, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," until she stifled his wretched good-bye with a last kiss. Ed yelling, "We're finished!" and Al sitting back on his heels, catching Llyn's eye, and flashing a final confident smile.

Helene called over her shoulder, "Catch you later, Stone Age!" And as Ducky burst into wild, cackling laughter behind them, Llyn intertwined his fingers with hers and they began to run, hand in hand, toward his car.







A/N: There's one more chapter left! But it won't be the end of the story, because we're plotting the sequel now. And because you've been so patient and stuck with us all this time, we want to throw a special contest.

The most anticipated scene for the sequel is the reunion between Roy and Maes. All the Cracked Bunnies want to fight for the chance to write it. But we're going to be diplomatic and let the readers have a shot, too.

So, here's how we're going to do this: Write the scene. Make it no more than 2500 words, and no less than 500. Email your entry to chaos (dot) fractured (at) gmail (dot) com. In the subject line, put "Hughes/Mustang Reunion", and post the story in the body of the email (-NO- attachments, please). Give it a good title, and pour your heart into it.

fractured_chaos will strip the scene of all identification (ie; who you are), then forward it to the judges (who will not be entering). Judging will be scored on a point system in three categories -- Technical (grammar, spelling, punctuation), Style, and Characterization.

Judging will be blind. This makes it fair and no complaints of favoritism, because those Cracked Bunnies who are not judging are also free to enter.

The winner, based on score, will be invited to write the plum scene in context with the story as it unfolds, and will be invited to join Crackbunny Syndrome, if he or she desires. The best runners-up will also be invited to join us, as well (the number chosen will be dependent upon how many entries we receive).

Now -- and this is important -- You do NOT have to know what's planned for the sequel. You just need to write the scene the way you imagine it'll happen.

You have until midnight, Central Time (as in the central part of the US, NOT Central City, Amestris) November 1st to get your entry in. We will announce the winner and runners-up December 1st.

DO NOT post your entry anywhere until the winners are announced. If you do, you will be disqualified, because that defeats the purpose of making the judging blind.

That is all!

FC
 
 
 
 
 
 
And we're soooo looking forward to your return! ***hugs***