c_b_syndrome (c_b_syndrome) wrote in c_b_s,

Balance of Power ~ Chapter Three

“Time Doesn’t Fly, It Crawls… Slowly”
Arc One: Chapter Three
“Balance of Power”

WARNING: Post Series, Post Movie **SPOILER HEAVY** and slightly AU


Ducky's brows shot up and he laughed as Tom peeked cautiously around the corner into the kitchen. "Damn, for a little guy, he's got one hellof a pair of lungs on him."

"You might want to go for cover, Ducks," Tom said mildly.

Reilly's voice went low and quiet; a very bad sign in Tom's experience. "I know you did not just call me old."

April 24, 2006 – 6:48am
Wichita, Kansas

Ice chips.

Al stared at the papery cup sitting happily perched on the wheel-about table-thing in front of him, vaguely wondering if the hospital staff was trying to make fun of him. Or kill him through starvation. Either one worked.

They gave me ice chips. Instead of food. Are they nuts?

When Heather had brought the doctor back with her, both of them had proceeded to give him a complete check-up, asking him questions. Did he know his age? Did he remember any names? Places? Did he remember any siblings? Answering them had made him feel very hassled, and had made his head hurt even more, but the frustration didn't seem to bother the good doctor or the nurse. They obviously just chalked it up to Al being horribly frustrated that he couldn't remember anything.

To top it off, he'd started coughing due to a hoarse throat. The doctor checked his breathing with a stethoscope that nearly froze skin when it touched him, and added a nasty cold to Al's list of injuries from his night in the rain.

And to add insult to injury, they wanted to wait until breakfast before feeding him, which was thankfully in a few hours. He was nauseous, but it was probably due to lack of food. However, their paranoia was the reason why he was currently engaging in a staring contest with a waxy cup full of chipped ice.

This day just gets better and better.

Sighing and deciding to take what he was given, Al picked up the cup with his right arm, frowning at the tube coming from it (An IV, Heather had called it) before settling down to placing the chips in his mouth one at a time. It was a slow way to quench his thirst, but at least the ice soothed the scratchy feeling running the length of his throat and some of the turmoil in his stomach. He looked around his room for the first time without worrying about whether someone was in the hall, trying to remember everything his nurse had told him before she'd left.

Heather had explained how a few of the gadgets around him worked, demonstrating each one before moving on. She'd held a slim pen-like contraption before him, pointing at the white button on its top. "If you need something, you can push this button right here, and in a few minutes either myself or someone else on the nursing staff will come get you what you need, all right?" She'd pressed it, and Al caught sight of a small light outside the room turning on before Heather reached to turn it off. "This pad-type thing adjusts how your bed is; if you want to sit up, press this button, and it will let you. Wanna sit up?"

Al had nodded, wondering just what the bed was going to do to him. When the bed itself started moving, he'd tried to stay calm until he was sitting entirely upright. He felt woozy after that, but got over it after a few quiet moments. "And how do I put it back down?" he'd asked after getting over his initial shock, taking the little control in his right hand.

"Just press the down button, and it'll go back. And this black remote--" here she had grabbed a similar contraption, with little bumps all over one side, in neat little rows, "--controls the TV."

Al had blinked in confusion. He wasn't familiar with that term. "TV?"

In response, the nurse had hit the one red bump on the whole thing, and the black box in the corner lit up and started making noise. It sounded like people talking, and a picture -- a moving picture -- appeared in the glassy part. Al swallowed hard, only listening with one ear as Heather explained how to adjust the volume, and "change channels" as she called it. It must be like a Cinematograph, Al thought, remembering that moving pictures were fairly new back home and in Germany. He never had much of a chance to actually see one, but he’d read about them. But I think I'll leave it alone for now.

"You need anything else? Feeling okay?" Heather asked, turning the pictures off with another press of the red button. Al thanked whoever was listening that the frightening thing was quiet again.

"My head and arm hurt a lot, and I'm kinda hungry and thirsty. My stomach feels weird, too."

The nurse smiled wryly. "I can get you some ice chips; no solid foods until breakfast. The doc doesn't want you getting sick and vomiting, not when your head is still kind of swollen. Okay?"

Since there had been really nothing he could do about it, Al had nodded. Now he found himself eating the least filling thing ever, a new dose of pain meds dripping into his veins via the IV-thing, and wondering where his brother was.

He knew a few things for certain. Firstly, he somehow knew that both he and his brother had been dragged through that gate; he remembered the sensation of being ripped apart from his brother, though his next coherent thought was awakening in the rain. Secondly, if his brother had been nearby the place where Al had landed, the woman who had gotten him to the hospital would have done the same for Ed. Since he was apparently the only "John Doe" in the hospital, it ruled out the possibility of Ed being nearby. This meant that, while Ed was in the same world as Al, they weren’t in the same place.

That was the thought that made Al panic.

I just need to stay alive and out of sight, he thought to himself, finishing the cup of ice and shoving the wheeling table away. Once I get out of this place, I'll find brother. Living here can't be too hard, can it?

Trying to calm himself with those thoughts, Al adjusted his bed very cautiously, and settled in for some more sleep. The pain meds made him sleepy, and he should probably take advantage of being left alone while he still could.


As was the usual, the selection was limited to black, “herbal,” some perverse variety of honey-flavored green and “mandarin orange.” It was disgusting, and he told the woman at the register as much. She suggested he help it along with NutraSweet and lemon. Typical. Americans were always dumping sugar and lemon and cream into the mix, and Sidney had no desire to drink glorified cough-syrup. He managed to choke down half a cup of stale black tea before he gave up entirely. He would kill for a decent cup of tea, then remembered that he had in the past. If nothing else, the Ishballans knew the secrets of the cuppa.

Sidney rubbed a hand over his head, and was annoyed at the lack of hair. That was another thing someone was going to answer for later once he got home, and he headed back upstairs to wait the boy out. He was so close he could almost smell the strong, yet subtle gradations of cinnamon and chamomile in his favorite tea as it intermingled with the rich seethe of his CO’s cigars.

He’d arrived in Wichita after he’d gotten a tip from one of his less useless sources, and he hadn’t been disappointed. The road was a warped disaster, and all the particles had fused into a nightmarishly hard amorphous mess. Alchemy, his world’s alchemy, was written all over it. It was a simple matter of tracking down the culprit from there. That might have been easy enough, but the boy was playing dead, and he couldn’t just barge in and intimidate the kid into talking. He was pretty sure the laws against that kind of thing hadn’t lapsed, and he was in a damned hospital. Gunshots probably wouldn’t go over very well.

Sidney took up residence on an ass-killing hard bench across the hall from the boy’s room. He’d taken a peek when the kid first got in, and he’d thought he looked a bit familiar, though he couldn’t place the face. He allowed himself a shrug and settled in to wait. In his former life in Amestris, he’d been a state-sanctioned assassin, one of the best, and being the best meant having enough patience to wait for the perfect moment. He was more than patient enough for this.

After all, he had all the time in the world. This one, at least.


Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Reilly’s property was a combination of willful neglect and controlled chaos. The twenty acres out back had been left to lie fallow, while the house itself and parts closest to it were in various stages of demolition, or repair. With the exception of one patch; a small, lush walled garden, with a healthy weeping willow curtaining a well-worn wood bench, a pair of Japanese maples, and a burbling koi pond. There were other plants, and shade trees, but Reilly had made it a point to take extra care with the maples and the willow.

It was her pride, and her escape. It was also where she found Ed an hour after he went into information overload. He was squatted down on a flat rock under a huge, fully-bloomed Catalpa tree, scratching a metal finger in the dirt, then wiping the image away. She almost missed him in the dappled shade cast by the dinner-plate sized leaves. The entire garden was white with the blooms that had been blown off in the storm last night, and still more were snowing down on the warm gentle breezes of the fresh morning. Several had landed in the boy’s hair, where they remained unmolested and unnoticed.

She said nothing while she gave the statue of Quan Yin her morning greeting. She lit the stick of incense, and stuck it in the pot of sand in front of the statue that sat serenely next to the pond full of excited Koi; then she brought her hands together in supplication and bowed three times. She gave silent thanks for what the female Buddha had taught her, and considered that those lessons were about to be tested in the near future.

She remained quiet, contemplating the direction she saw things going as she knelt down and fed the Koi. She watched the play of light on the moving water a moment, marshalling her own thoughts. She knew there was more to Ed than he was telling, but at the moment, she saw no reason to press. He was bright, but she wondered just how adaptable he was. She hoped that he would adjust eventually.

Reilly tried to tell herself that the only reason she was even interested, was because he was proof of what she’d been researching for years. She was also concerned because he was a fellow human being. It was just a part of her beliefs to assist where needed, and this kid definitely needed it. Once she’d done what she could, she’d send him on his way. She didn’t need the hassles otherwise.

Except that she knew more would be coming, and they were unavoidable now.

Change, she thought with a sigh, is the natural order of life. Without change, life cannot exist. But damn, does it have to come charging in on gale-force winds?

She got up, dusted off her hands and approached the boy. He was so deep inside his own head that he didn’t register her presence as he etched another image in the dirt. Reilly watched as a circle was formed, and several archaic symbols followed.


He started and froze with his hand hovering over the symbols. An instant later, he hastily wiped it away and looked up. Reilly smiled as some of the white flowers fell unnoticed from his hair. Another fell from the tree and bounced off his nose, causing him to blink and watch it land in his lap. He picked it up in his metal hand, surprising Reilly with the gentleness of the movement.

“Catalpa,” she said as she knelt down in front of him. “They grow like weeds in this part of the country.”

He looked up at the profusion of huge leaves, white flowers, and long, chocolate-colored seedpods. “It’s pretty,” he said.

“It is,” she said. “I love them. Most people around here can’t stand them, though. They hate the flowers. They get into everything.”

Ed remained silent, examining the flower for a long moment.

“What do you want?” Reilly asked, finally. “Other than to find your brother.”

He thought a moment. “Ideally, I’d like to be able to go back home,” he said softly.

“Home being Germany?” Reilly asked. “Or where you originated from?”

Reilly watched the gold irises contract, then return. Then the brightness dimmed a little as he went thoughtful. “Where I originated…” he mumbled. He looked down, and wiggled his metal fingers. “The gate we crossed from there can’t be opened again. We can’t go back.”

She reached out and laid a hand over his. “Going back to 1924 Germany may not be a good idea either, Ed. Even if we can figure out how to get you there.”

His brow furrowed. “It’s not so bad,” he said. “And it’s not that different from Amest—from home.” He pointed back at the house. “Not like this. With computers and pixies, and strange voices screaming.”

“I can understand that you’re scared, Ed.”

He jerked his hand back from hers and clenched his teeth. “I’m not scared.”

Reilly smirked. “Really? Hell, if I’d been hurled almost eighty years into the future, I know I’d be scared.”

His glare softened, but didn’t disappear. “It’s just…”

“Overwhelming?” Reilly offered.

He nodded. A moment later he smiled sadly. “Al and I… We’ll manage though.” He looked up at her. “You don’t think we can go back, do you?”

She shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. I don’t even know what you did to get over here in the first place. I suppose we can figure it out together, though.”

“You don’t need to—“

“Oh,” Reilly said with a wicked smile, “I most certainly do. Do you think I’m going to let you disappear without picking your brain for everything it’s worth? You can advance my research by leaps and bounds, kiddo. I’m not about to let that opportunity slip away.”

Ed stared at her, stunned. She got to her feet, and offered him a hand up. “Look at it logically,” she said. “I have tons of research here already. Take advantage of it to see if you can get what you want. And I’ll learn what I can from you. Quid pro quo.”

He gave her a crooked, determined grin and got to his feet. “Equivalent Exchange.”

“First things first,” she said as they strolled back to the house. “Getting you acclimated to this time period. It might take some time to find Al, and I’m not going to have you hiding out doing nothing but waiting. Tom and Ducky will help out.”

“Ducky’s an ass,” Ed grumbled.

“That he is. But he’s a good friend, and good at what he does.”


Wichita, Kansas

Someone was moving around in his room.

Al cracked an eye open, feeling tired despite sleeping like a log after finishing his ice chips. Apparently, there was a nurse in his room, and it wasn’t Heather from earlier. This one was a very large male, but he looked completely harmless. Almost like a less-sparkly Major Armstrong, Al thought with a slight smile. Followed quickly on the thought’s heels was a wave of homesickness, making Al sigh sadly.

"Hey there, Tiger," the man said, wheeling a cart into Al's room. "I hear you don't remember anything."

Nodding once, Al winced as his head started reminding him it was injured. "Uh, yeah. I don't."

"Eh, most amnesia caused by head injuries is temporary, so I wouldn't worry too much." The nurse lifted the thing in his hands. "I'm Ray. I've got food for you, if you're hungry."

Al blushed as his stomach gurgled plaintively, unsure if it was nausea or just plain hunger. "Yeah, kinda."

"I think 'kinda' is a bit of an understatement." Chuckling good-naturedly, Ray set the tray on Al's little wheeling-table, nudging it in front of the boy and helping him raise the bed so he could eat. "It's biscuits and gravy today, Tiger. Count yourself lucky; that's the best breakfast they make here."

"It smells wonderful," Al admitted, savoring the scent of spices and bread as he unwrapped his silverware. Upon looking at the two glasses on his plate, he blinked and poked at the top. "Uh, what's on my milk and orange juice? And what's written on it?"

Ray chuckled, unwrapping Al's straws and poking both through the film covering the drinks. "It's Saran-wrap. The kitchen staff does that so the drink doesn't spill when we take the meals around, and the room number is so they know what tray it goes to. The new girl Lisa is really good at it; we can just puncture the stuff when she does it. It's, like, vacuum-sealed."

Deciding it didn't matter what the 'saran-wrap' was, Al let the nurse uncover his tray before getting down to eating, letting the surprisingly good food send his tongue into ecstasy before chewing and swallowing.

"Well, at least you have common sense and aren't scarfing it down." Picking up the chart from outside, Ray started making those notes Heather had last night. "Don't force yourself to eat it all, okay? Don't want you making yourself sick."

"I won't."

Al worked slowly through his meal, trying to shake the exhaustion and pain that still permeated his body as he filled up on biscuits, gravy, and bacon. It was disconcerting, having his body feel this sluggish and unattached, but he had a feeling the medication he was receiving was at least partially responsible for the sensation.

Going through the routine of checking Al over, the nurse got a strange contraption and clipped something onto the tip, then grabbed Al's ear. "That Fed guy might come and talk to you, too. He wouldn't leave us alone about you last night. Just a fair warning," he said, inserting the tip into Al's ear and holding it there.

Oh, crap, Al thought, pausing halfway through his first biscuit at both Ray's actions and the words. "Thank you for telling me. Uh... what are you doing?"

"I’m taking your temperature. Sorry it feels weird. You have a cold; wouldn't do for you to get a bad fever too, would it?" The thing beeped, and Ray smiled before writing down the number. "Looks like you're fine in that department, though."

"Good. I hurt enough as it is."

The nurse laughed, inserting the tips of his stethoscope into his ears. "I'll bet. Lean forward, I wanna check your breathing."

Al obeyed; thankful the nurse had warmed the flat part up this time. Once he was finished checking his breathing and Al went back to eating, Ray started talking some more, tidying up the room a bit and apparently determined to liven up Al's morning. "By the way; I think the doc's moving you to Pediatrics later this morning, since you aren't in a coma anymore."


"Yeah. They treat kids in pediatrics." Al made a face, and the nurse laughed. "I know you're a teenager, kid, but people go to pediatrics until they're eighteen. Don't get offended."

Al smiled. "I won't. Maybe I'll get some actual sleep there."

"Pfft, you were sawing logs with Paul Bunyan; it's just the pain meds that are conking you out so bad. They'll lighten up on that once your head isn't so painful."

Paul Bunyan? Al wondered as he went back to his food. I wonder who that is. Thankfully, Al was allowed to finish his meal after that, though Ray gave him a teasing look once he was done eating. "Hey, you wanna pick what you want for lunch?"

Al blinked. "I get to choose?"

"Well, sorta. You get choices of a few things, but if you don't pick, the cook staff gives you whatever they feel like. Do you know if you still remember how to read? If not I can read it off for you."

Al snorted, taking the little menu and looking through it. There was a pen on his table, and he checked off one box in each little row before giving it back. "There."

"Ah, good choice; their chicken is usually awesome." Ray put the menu away. "Anything else I can do for you?"

"Nah, I think I'm going to sleep some more."

"Probably wise. Save your energy for Fed-boy when he gets here."

Al sighed and lay back, closing his eyes against the light in the room, his head hurting again. I really hope I can bluff my way out of this, he thought.


Bartlesville, Oklahoma

After Reilly chased Ducky into the living room with his laptop, she spread a giant global map out on the table. All over it were spiderwebs of lines spreading out from several central points. Ed studied the map with idle curiosity while Reilly prattled on about leylines and sacred places. It all sounded like superstitious mumbo-jumbo to him.

From the living room, he could hear Tom and Ducky debating search parameters. The argument sounded like a common one between them, but it didn’t sound like any real heat was involved. He could also hear the low strains of music, as well. It was a style he wasn’t familiar with, but the raw voices and simple melodies touched something deep within him. He decided he liked this style of music.

When the woman sang, voice whiskey-rough and filled with emotion, “Freedom’s just another word, for nothin’ left to lose…” he blinked and felt a smile tug at the corners of his lips. Never quite thought of it that way before. Then he noticed Reilly watching him with that knowing look and he realized he hadn’t heard a word she’d just said.

“Sorry,” he said. “You were saying?”

“Janice Joplin.”


“The singer,” Reilly said. “Arguably the greatest blues artist ever.”

She dropped a box of pushpins and string on top of the map. “Anyhow… leylines,” she said, getting back to the subject at hand. “They’re the alignments between ancient, sacred places. In other words, it’s the straight line from sacred place ‘A’, to sacred place ‘B’. Most of them are about eight to ten miles long. Theory has it that there is energy that comes from them. The energy… in theory… is supplied by the power of the sacred places; which in turn, supplies the sacred places.” She paused, and looked up at him. “With me so far?”

Ed pulled himself from his amused thoughts and smirked at her. “Energy. Religion. Theory. Got ya.”

Reilly chuckled softly and shook her head. “No religion, Ed. These places existed long before anything that we would consider religion was born.” She picked out a pushpin and looped the end of the string on it. “Anyhow, the gates seem to exist where the energy is strongest; namely, sacred places that have several leylines leading into them.” She jabbed the pin into a spot on the map at approximately north-eastern Oklahoma. The spot radiated straight lines from it like a wagon wheel. “That’s us,” she said as she pointed.


“Smart ass,” she mumbled. “Anyhow… if you will be so kind as to indulge me a moment… Some people believe that the leylines aren’t very long. Like I said, eight to ten miles. Some less, some more, but not by much. Mainly because you run into another sacred place at that point.” She unrolled the string, and pulled it across the Atlantic, and toward Europe. “But what if there was nothing between one place and the next that was hundreds, or thousands of miles away?”

“I take it Atlantis doesn’t qualify as a ‘sacred place’?”

“Atlantis is a myth,” she said, as she studied where the string lay.

“As opposed to leylines?”

“The leylines are real. They’re just straight lines from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. The energy they carry is the theory.”

“Ah. That makes so much more sense,” Ed said.

She just gave him a mildly dirty look, and went on. “If you can find a leyline that long, it’s possible that it would carry with it a lot of energy. Possibly leeching from shorter lines that intersect—“

“In theory.”

She pulled the line taut and reached for another pin. “Aachen, Germany, right?”

Ed nodded, and then covered his mouth to hide the snicker threatening to escape. If Reilly were talking about archeology and paleo-archeology, there were two chances she would be able to find a direct, clear line from Oklahoma to Germany. And those were slim and none. Atlantis aside, there were thousands of Paleolithic monoliths and structures in Europe alone. And those were just the recorded and mapped ones. He didn’t care to take a guess at how many were in America.

She pressed the second pin into the map at Aachen, and Ed’s snicker disappeared. The line went directly from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, and didn’t run into another supposed ‘sacred’ place. There were tons of lines that intersected with the string, but none of nexi from which they emerged were touched by the string.

Reilly stared down at the map in silence a moment, then cocked a brow at Ed. “Mind you, this isn’t anything definite. There could be places I don’t have mapped yet that this line would stop at. Besides,” she added as she looked over the map one more time. “This thing’s far from exact. We’ll just have to see if this theory’s right.”

“Okay,” Ed drawled. “And this helps us find Al… how?”

Reilly smirked at him. “From the starting point of Aachen, we can search for other possible gates. It can narrow the search somewhat.” She shrugged when he gave her a doubtful look. “At least we have a good idea of where not to look.”


First things first, Ducky thought as he logged into some of the numerous websites and forums he haunted. His first leg of the search for the brother of Reilly’s new toy-boy was to find out if anyone had reported anything strange and unexplained within the past 24 hours. Because of his association with Reilly and her paranormal group, Ducky had quite a few connections across the planet that were into similar activities. These connections and forums were his primary starting point.

Tom might give him a ration of shit over the ‘scandal-sheet’ legitimacy of some of these sites, but Ducky wasn’t about to discount them completely. Not under the odd circumstances that brought Reilly’s slightly prickly guest to them.

He started up Diogenes; a script he’d created when he first started helping Tom with his missing person’s cases. It was what was often referred to as a spider; it would crawl the web, searching for anything that would fit within specific parameters. Ducky made those parameters specific to discount vague references to paranormal activity that had little or nothing to do with Ed’s arrival, but loose enough to hunt down things that may be what he wanted, but were described in different words.

It was a damn good script in his personal opinion, and he was quite proud of it. Even Tom had to give a slightly grudging nod when it had helped track down more than a few tough cases.

He knew it was probably going to take a few days to run the spider through the web enough to give him something to work with. At least it didn’t use too much RAM.

His next step was to start a manual search in the familiar places; the websites and forums he was already a member of. If he didn’t find what he wanted then, he would pose a question to the forums, and email a few connections.

Ducky cracked his knuckles and got ready to rock and roll, but hesitated. There was a missing element to this search. The music. Blues was just not conducive for a hard-driving search like this one. He fished his MP3 player from the soft case he carried the laptop in, selected a playlist, plugged in the earbuds, and got to work while the hard, industrial sound of Rammstein thumped into his head.

Oooooohhhhhhyeeeeeaaaaaah! He thought with a wolfish grin.


Tom shook his head when he saw Ducky ‘go under’, as the boy called it. He knew the young hacker would be unreachable for the next few hours. He sometimes questioned his methods, but he certainly wasn’t going to question the results. If his way of doing things found Ed’s brother, then so be it.

Tom, on the other hand, preferred some of the more old fashioned ways. Starting with checking hospitals, police stations, and the like. The information age made it a lot easier these days, but more often than not, these places were where he found most of his leads.

That and a few shady connections that owed him some favors.

“What the hell do you mean my theories are specious?!” he heard Reilly snap from the kitchen.

Tom’s head jerked up from the computer at the tone and quickly weighed the pros and cons of playing mediator. If the boy is challenging her, he’d better have a damn good argument to back it up, he thought. Else this is gunna get ugly.

“Just what I said,” Ed said. “Or did the definition change over time? This whole thing is bullshit, Reilly! You can’t research a ‘gut feeling’. You need hard evidence, and so far you don’t have squat.”

It’s gunna get ugly, Tom thought with a sigh and got to his feet.

“That ‘gut feeling’, as you so politely call it, saved your skinny little ass from drowning last night. Or did you forget that?”

Tom tapped Ducky on the shoulder, who was completely oblivious to the impending explosion. The hacker tugged the earbuds out, and gave Tom an annoyed glare.


Ducky’s brows shot up and he laughed as Tom peeked cautiously around the corner into the kitchen. “Damn, for a little guy, he’s got one hell of a pair of lungs on him.”

“You might want to go for cover, Ducks,” Tom said mildly.

Reilly’s voice went low and quiet; a very bad sign in Tom’s experience. “I know you did not just call me old.”

Before it could reach disastrous purportions, Tom took a deep breath and headed into the fray. “Okay, you two. Neutral corners.”

Ed waved a dismissive hand, then stormed past Reilly and Tom. “No need. I don’t have the time or the patience to listen to superstition and myth.” He paused at the doorway, and glared back at Reilly. “When you have something we can actually put into practice, tell me.” He turned and left the room.

Reilly made to go after him, but Tom locked his arms through hers from behind. “That arrogant little bastard,” she growled.

He had to smile. For once there was someone other than he and Ducky with enough balls to challenge her, and she wasn’t quite sure how to take it. And from the sound of things, she’d found his hot button, as well. He wasn’t too sure of either person’s life expectancy if they continued to poke at each other like this; but he couldn’t deny that it was going to be very interesting while it lasted.

“Settle down, woman,” Tom laughed softly in her ear. “Think about his position a minute.”

She sighed and he felt her relax and lean back against him. Tom let go of her arms, and wrapped his around her waist in an affectionate hug.

“He’s still an arrogant little asshole,” she grumbled, but without the heat from a moment ago.

“Well, at least he’s been promoted from bastard to asshole. There’s some hope for the boy, at least.”

“What’s the old saying?” Reilly said after a moment. “Be careful of what you wish for?”

“You’d think you’d know better by now. But nooooo.”

Reilly snorted. “Kiss my ass, you old fart.”

Tom planted a kiss on her temple, then let her go. “I love you too…” He gave her a wicked grin as he slipped past her and out of arm’s reach. “…Ya old hag.”

He ducked just in time to avoid the ball of string hurling for his head.

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