Arc One: Chapter 30
Balance of Power
September 5, 1919
Rush Valley, Amestris
Roy paced back and forth behind Armstrong, trying not to wiggle the fingers of his right hand, trying to save whatever strength he had in that arm for the moment when he’d really need it. He felt that he should be doing something to prepare himself, but really, the greatest preparation was the transmutation circle itself, and Armstrong had that well in hand.
Several flares glowed softly in the air above the array, so Armstrong could clearly see both the original rendering and his own efforts. They required only a fraction of the Flame Alchemist's attention to keep going. He would snuff them out when the work was done.
The true epicenter of the last earthquake had been about half a block west of here, with the corresponding collapsed walls and cracks in the ground to show for it. He was sure that this alley was close enough. The connection to the portal in the other world would be strong enough to allow the Gate to open. There were some worrisome cracks in the walls surrounding the alley, but Armstrong had examined them and said the walls were sound enough. So unless something dreadful happened inside the Gate itself -- again, they should be safe here as well as unnoticed -- for as long as it took to accomplish what he needed to.
There was still time, he was sure of it –- though not much. Whatever it was that connected him to the Elric brothers, it didn’t provide him any details about their situation, so he couldn’t be sure how ready they were to make the attempt from their side. Yet somehow he knew that they were close. Not this moment –- but soon. He would be ready.
He walked toward the far end of the alley for a moment, then stopped and looked at Riza Hawkeye, standing still and silent in the center of the opening, unobtrusively keeping watch as always. She didn’t turn, not even slightly, though his footsteps set off a faint echo between the buildings on either side. She waited, arms at her sides, back straight.
Roy turned and began to pace in the other direction, back toward the almost completed circle. Beyond the kneeling Armstrong stood Jean Havoc, watching as faithfully as Riza, albeit a bit more casually: leaning a shoulder against one wall, ankles crossed, arms folded across his chest -- and of course the inevitable, unlit cigarette was dangling from his lips. Everything fine there, too.
Just a few more lines. Armstrong was an excellent alchemist, and very adept at drawing arrays. He was adept at a lot of things, wasn’t he?
Roy grimaced briefly at the thought, thinking again of the stupid question he’d posed just as the man had begun to draw the design -- a question which would likely be answered in just a few minutes anyway. Very unwise thing to do –- had Armstrong been less confident in his own abilities, he might have started to second-guess his work, and a flaw would almost certainly have crept into the lines and patterns. Fortunately, though, the other alchemist had kept his head and continued drawing, slowly and carefully, and as far as Roy could tell, it was perfect.
And almost finished. One particularly finicky rune to go. Which was why Roy was more irritated than aghast when a familiar voice suddenly burst into the alley, breaking the spell of concentrated, anticipatory silence.
"Lieutenant Havoc, let me see! What’s going on in there? What are you doing?"
Roy’s heart sank. He could see her silhouette against the light of the brighter street outside the alley, past Havoc’s now outstretched arms. She kept trying to duck around the rangy lieutenant to see into the alley, and Jean kept stepping in her way.
"Winry, please, can’t you just go?" Jean hissed in furtive tones. Not even Fullmetal could have missed the hint.
Winry was having none of it. "There’s something going on, Havoc. I don’t think General Mustang told me the truth. I want to talk to him!"
"You can’t... maybe later–-"
"I’m not leaving," the young woman continued, loudly enough to draw some curious glances from passersby, "until I get some answers."
Roy sighed. "It’s all right, Jean, let her by. We’ll attract more attention trying to keep her out than if we just let her in."
Jean cast an apologetic glance back as he stepped aside. "Sorry boss." Winry marched into the alley, and then another girl quickly followed her in, ducking sideways as Jean tried to grab her arm. "Hey! Look here-–"
"She’s with me, so you can leave her alone," Winry shot over her shoulder. As the two women strode up to the far arc of the ring, Roy saw that Winry’s friend wore overalls as well, but hers curved over a distinctly distended and pregnant stomach. But even more striking was the fact that both legs jutting below the pant legs were constructed of automail. Roy suspected that was how she’d sidestepped Jean so easily; the man was quick on his feet, and usually not so easily outmaneuvered.
Roy graced her with only a brief glance as he said, "You shouldn't be here." Then he pointedly turned his focus back to Alex and the array.
Undeterred, Winry grasped his good arm and forced his attention back to her. "Why? Because you're doing something illegal? You’re not just here to investigate something strange, are you, Roy?" the girl demanded. "You’re here to create something strange."
"I can't get into this right now, Winry," Roy said as he gently, but firmly, pulled away from her, "there just isn't time." Then he strolled toward the other side of the array, fully intending that to be the end of it. "I can explain later when I've done--"
"And what is that?" she snapped as she pursued him, carefully skirting the array. "Did you cause that earthquake? Because if you did-–"
"Of course not!" Roy said as he reared back at the accusation.
"Well you’re always up to something, and the results aren’t always healthy, are they?" she insisted, advancing close enough that he could smell the subtle hint of machine oil on her. "I said I wanted answers, and I’m going to get them, General. I want to know why the four of you were disguised when you got into town this morning, and what you’re hiding now."
"Winry," he said tightly, as he raised his hand, placing an invisible boundary between them, "I swear, we're not going to hurt any--"
"Why should I believe that?" she interrupted once again, ignoring the hand and leaning closer. She wasn't much shorter than he was, but her proximity caused her to glare up at him -- determination and relentlessness practically humming through her. "You're always doing something to hurt someone. I’m already dealing with the results of the earthquake; I don’t want to have to patch people back together when you’ve finished--" she waved a hand at the ground "--whatever it is you’re doing here. So I want to know what it is, General!"
"I’m trying to bring the Elrics home!" he blurted.
She took a shocked step back and stared at him. "What?" she said blankly.
Roy's head dropped and he ran his hand through his hair. This wasn't what he wanted her to know yet. He couldn't carry the guilt of shattering this girl's life once again if he failed, and yet he let himself get pushed into doing it anyway. "Edward and Alphonse, Winry," he said, softly, "I’m trying to bring them home."
Armstrong’s arm curved in front of him, the steadily moving chalk making the last connection, completing the last line. "Done," he murmured, sitting back on his heels. "It is ready, General."
The pregnant woman slipped an arm around Winry’s shoulders, saying urgently, "Win? You okay?" While Winry continued staring at Roy in stunned silence, the blood draining so swiftly from her dangerously pale face that he thought she might keel over.
September 5, 2006
"I'm going to miss your brand of insanity, you know," Ed murmured as he gripped Ducky's shoulder.
Al still found it hard to believe, but as he'd spent the past couple hours digesting it, he started to notice little things in a different light. Subtle hints that Ducky was, indeed, an Elric: in the shape of his face and eyes, the way he could be just as stubborn as Ed, himself...
"No you won't," Ducky responded, as he turned to Tom and tossed him the keys to the Ninjavan. "You'll need these." He faced the brothers once more with a grin that sent a thrill shooting through Al -- and if the narrow-eyed, tense-jawed expression on his brother's face was any indication, Ed had come to the same conclusion.
Tom stared down at the ring in his hands as though expecting it to bite him, and said, "Are you out of your ever-lovin' mind, Ducks?"
"Heist is going to need you." Ed clenched the other man's shoulder tightly enough that the fabric of Ducky's loud, flower-print shirt gathered between his fingers and Al was grateful for the other man's sake that it wasn't the automail hand. "Maes will need you."
Unlike his bother, Al wasn't so certain. By all logic, Ducky had no business jumping the Gate with them. He didn't belong in their world any more than they belonged in his... yet at the same time, there was a sense of rightness about the idea. Like a circle, the Elric legacy had begun in their world, and perhaps it was fitting that it would eventually end there, as well. Al found that he kind of liked the idea of Ducky coming along.
"Heist has Llyn. She'll be all right." Then Ducky's expression softened, as he said, "Gramps wants me to keep an eye on you. Besides, Uncle Al deserves a break once in awhile."
Ed glanced at his younger brother and Al shrugged. "Can't argue with that, Brother. You are pretty high-maintenance, after all."
"You're not helping here."
"Wait a minute!" Reilly blurted. "Uncle whu--?"
Al snapped around, having nearly forgotten this wasn't exactly a private moment, and scanned the varying degrees of shock on the faces of Tom, Reilly and Hughes. But before he or Ed could offer any sort of explanation, Tom's cell beeped with a text alert. "No time, folks. Ducks, are you staying or going?"
"I'm going." "He's staying!"
Okay, so maybe Ducky coming along on this adventure wasn't going to be easy -- but then, when had anything ever been simple for them?
Both men glared at each other with identical stubborn sets in their shoulders and Al glanced from one to the other, then threw up his hands and flopped down on the ground. He pulled his flute from his pocket as he muttered, "As if one of them wasn't enough." He flexed his fingers and settled them over the holes in the instrument, then shot over his shoulder, "Make up your minds, already. I'm opening this Gate."
"Dammit, Ducky, you can't go with me. It's not your world."
"It's just as much mine as it is yours!"
Al hesitated with the flute barely to his lips and twisted around to watch the fireworks. Explaining this should be fascinating, to say the least, and he wasn't going to be able to center himself when those two were yelling at each other anyway. He just hoped they wrapped it up fairly quickly.
"What?! Are you nuts?"
"Think about it," Ducky reasoned. "You came from there -- and you're my great grandfather -- that makes it my world, too."
"That's the stupidest argument I've ever heard," Ed said as he shook his head and tangled his fingers in his hair. "That logic's more twisted than using a fucking flute to open a Gate."
"I'm confused," Hughes murmured to Reilly and Tom. "Are you confused?"
"I've gone way beyond confused," Reilly said.
"It's Ducky," Tom said. "He projects confusion like really bad body odor. You can't avoid smelling him, and the stink clings to you even after he leaves. Unfortunately, he's completely oblivious to it."
"It makes perfect sense," Ducky argued, jabbing a finger, like a fleshy punctuation mark, in the direction of the array and leaning in toward Ed as if sheer force of will would get the blond to relent. "One fourth of my DNA originated on that side of the Gate, and if we could've compared Maes'--" he said as he aimed that emphasizing finger at Hughes, "--with his doppleganger, I'll bet you that they'd be identical, which would mean more than a quarter came from there."
Hughes took a stunned step back and whispered, "What are you talking about?"
"That's what I want to know," Reilly said.
"You're not going, and that's final," Ed said, as he took a determined step closer to Ducky and cut the air with his metal hand. "Your... DNA, or whatever, aside, you wouldn't survive in our world. You're the one who thinks we live in the stone age, remember?"
"Will you keep it down to a dull roar? I can't concentrate!" Al shouted. This had gone on long enough, and if he didn't put a stop to it now -- as stubborn as both of them were -- it would go on forever.
"Al, just play," Hughes said, pointing at the youngster sitting on the ground. Then he rounded on Ducky and said, "You... you're staying here."
"I made a promise!"
"One you can't keep!" Ed insisted.
"This isn't some game where you can just hit escape and start over again when things get tough," Hughes said.
"No shit!" Ducky exploded. "Don't you think I know that? If I wanted 'easy', I'd stay, but Ed and Al... and you in a bizarre, twisted way, are family, and I made a promise to the only blood that really mattered before now, and I'll be damned if I'm going to break it."
"You've got three seconds, then we're going without you, Ducks," Tom snapped as he tried to pull on Reilly's arm.
"Dammit, what in the bloody hell is everyone going on about?" Reilly insisted, while stubbornly refusing to budge.
Al caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to gaze at the raven doing a little agitated dance on the far side of the array. With a heavy sigh, he said, "I know what you mean." He could practically feel the Feds breathing down their necks, and it was going to take time for him to find his center if he wanted to lose himself in the music enough to open the Gate. As amusing as this argument might have been under other circumstances, it was time to declare a cease-fire. "Brother," he said softly, as he watched the raven become calm, "Ducky's going, and you can't stop him any more than you could stop me." He smiled up at the stunned expression on Ed's face and said, "He is an Elric, after all." He gazed over at Hughes and added, "He's also a Hughes."
"Okay, mystery solved! Time's up!" Tom shouted and yanked Reilly nearly off her feet.
"Wait!" Reilly protested as she stumbled backwards, "I want to hear the whole story!"
Ducky waved and called, "Go talk to Gramps! He'll tell you all about it!" To Hughes, he grinned and said, "I'll give you the details after the jump. Al, haven't you got that thing open yet?"
Al paused with the flute halfway to his lips and glared at the remainder of their group. "I'm trying."
"So what's the problem?" Ed asked.
Al's only response before he attempted, yet again, to start playing, was a frustrated groan and the rolling of his eyes. He suddenly remembered, with a bittersweet twang in his gut, Gene saying something once about a Chinese curse: 'May you live in interesting times'. Oh yeah, life was about to get very interesting, all right.
Rush Valley, Amestris
Bring the boys home.
He's bringing them home...
Winry's subconscious was moving a bit faster than the rest of her brain today -- that repeated and obviously unintended revelation wiping out all but the most basic motor functions. Had Paninya not been clutching her arms, she was pretty certain her backside would be greeting the concrete below. As it was, the concrete at her back served nicely as a sudden brace. "You... you're..." Come on girl, keep it together. Speech was definitely not a problem for you ten seconds ago! "You're what!?" Short but at least a complete sentence.
The General wasn't looking at her any longer -- that single glance his last before turning to examine the lines drawn by the Major. "Good work."
She still stared at Mustang -- but he was clearly not going to look back. He'd obviously not intended to share that little revelation -- he'd meant to militarily deny everything. She could demand it, she knew. She had influence with him that nobody else could ever claim to have. He would owe her for an eternity, and he knew it.
There was a time, about two years ago, where she would have accepted such a revelation unquestioningly. Roy Mustang's bald statement alone would have been enough to send hope soaring -- filling her heart with the truth that, where certain individuals were involved, anything and everything could happen. But that had been before...
Before that final battle... Before that final goodbye... Before she'd stopped looking back, and started looking forward -- knowing she couldn't count on anyone else to build her dreams for her.
He didn't plan to come back.
So how could anyone think there was a chance that he would?
That he could.
That he was even still...
A mental wrench to the forehead worked almost as well as the actual tool. Leave it to Edward to mess with her emotions even out of sight! If-- WHEN that boy returned, he'd
better be wearing a helmet!
Not letting the other internal voice state otherwise -- the need to act superseding self-coddling -- Winry brushed Paninya's hands (one cold and one warm... just like Ed) from her arms and stepped forward. "What do you need me to do?"
A single eyed stare turning back again -- that crisp and irreverent smile gliding with his lips -- Roy Mustang raised one brow in a look that nearly bordered on flirtation. "We need a distraction. A big one."
And heaven help her, excitement lurched beneath her ribs and Winry grinned too. "How soon?"
"Not long. An hour or two, at most." Mustang turned back to inspecting the array. An array that might bring Ed and Al back -- or it might slip the alchemist's control and obliterate the whole town.
Winry swallowed thickly.
Paninya grabbed her hand in her flesh one; cradling her stomach with the other. "I have an idea!" The young woman's dark eyes gleamed with enthusiasm and some mischief. "But we'll need some help."
The mechanic nodded in reply. "I know just who to ask."
Do they all get their fashion sense from 'The Matrix',? Sheriff Mark Tanner wondered. He squared his shoulders and met the gaze of the tall, icy blonde woman. She had to be at least 50% plastic -- no natural human being could be that flawless from head to toe. He was certain she'd never blinked the entire time since she took off her 'standard issue' sunglasses.
There was no way they were getting any further onto the 'res without the proper paperwork. Of course, they'd all conveniently have forgotten that the reservation was legally sovereign territory. Since they were government wage monkeys, they would think the laws didn't apply to them, and they'd expect federal ID and standard search warrants to suffice. After all, local cops were just brainless muscle to be pushed aside when they became inconvenient to the people who really mattered.
Well, they were in for a surprise. Tanner and half of his men were parked about five miles to the west of the sacred grounds, and Tanner's deputy, Maria Brightweather, and the other half of the reservation force, were blocking the highway from the east -- and this road was the only way into where the alleged fugitives were. There would be no end-run around them.
Tanner was planning to enjoy this. All they needed was a few minutes -- if all went as planned, Singer's friends would disappear like a puff of smoke, and there would be no evidence they ever existed in this world. But if he could, the Sheriff was going to milk the opportunity for all it was worth. He'd keep the Ice Bitch standing there into next week if he could. Then it wouldn't matter if the Feds brought the entire force with them.
“You're impeding the lawful pursuit of three dangerous criminals, Sheriff,” the woman had said as she'd emerged from the first governmentally nondescript black sedan.
“You're trespassing on sovereign Indian land, Officer. This is my jurisdiction. If there're any fugitives to be had here, my people will roust them out for you.”
She pulled a folded sheath of papers from the inside pocket of her suit jacket and handed them to him. “We have a warrant.”
Tanner took a glance and held them back to her, unimpressed. “Not from the BIA,” he said, but no sooner were the words out of his mouth than a male version of the 'Ice Queen' unfolded himself from the vehicle behind hers... carrying another set of documents. Tanner didn't need to see them. The victorious smirk on the woman's face was enough.
He took his time flipping through the pages anyway. Usually, he didn't care much for paperwork -- but these papers, he read every word of. Since they were printed in standard federal jargon, single-spaced, he could kill those few precious minutes even if everything was perfectly legal.
Is any of this shit for real? Tanner scanned through the first warrant in the stack. Edward Elric, wanted for questioning in connection with the murders of Ray Purdue, Katherine Letrowsky, multiple counts of larceny, bombing of Park City Medical, hacking of multiple government databases...who are these people? Singer's calm face came to mind. Tanner flipped to the next warrant. Alphonse Elric. More hacking, more bombing, more murder. Singer wouldn't have helped criminals like the ones described in these pages. Maes Hughes. Mary Reilly. Thomas Mears... This smells. What are the odds that this many psychopaths and criminal masterminds would join forces?
He finally ran out of pages. With a resigned sigh, Tanner pressed the button on the side of the mic clipped to his shoulder, and said, “Brightweather, if you got any Feds chomping at the bit on your end, let 'em go. They have the proper paperwork.”
"No Men in Black showing themselves on this end, Boss," his deputy responded. "We'll disperse, Sir."
Much to Tanner's amazement, the woman standing in front of him chuckled. It wasn't a pleasant sound, and if he'd been one to believe in demons or aliens or shit like that, Tanner would have pegged her as nonhuman just because her laugh was so fake. She smiled, another plastic, unfeeling expression, and said, “I suspected you would do your best to make sure the suspects escaped. You'll be hearing from the proper authorities about the disciplinary consequences of this little stunt. Fortunately, you haven't succeeded. While you've been wasting our time, Sheriff, several field operatives have made their way into the area. We--” she waved at the three sedans behind her, “--were the decoy.” Her expression went stony, and Tanner could swear the temperature dropped ten degrees at that very moment. “Now, if you don't want to be charged with obstruction of justice, harboring fugitives, and a very long list of other crimes that could conceivably get you and your entire force locked in solitary confinement at Leavenworth, I would suggest you get your ass out of the way, and allow the Federal Government to do its job.”
Rush Valley, Amestris
"I don't know, dammit!" Roy Mustang glared at the chalked array and scowled. "All I know for sure is that it's going to happen before sunset today, and that this is where I have to be if it's going to work."
"That's going to make it hard to create a distraction at just the right time," Paninya repeated for the fifth or sixth time. "Can't you... send up a flare or something?"
"Not without alerting the ones we seek to avoid," Armstrong answered gravely.
"How about a shot? Hawkeye and I are both carrying plain old non-alchemist service revolvers." Havoc took his from the shoulder holster under his jacket. "I've got a couple extra clips, so I can spare a round or two."
"Good idea," Mustang approved. "Your plan would work if we had more time, Paninya," He was careful to pronounce her name correctly, "but I don't think you two could safely set it up in the time we have."
"Leave that to us," Paninya flashed the Flame Alchemist a grin and grabbed Winry by the hand, pulling her into a headlong dash that lasted for about a block before Paninya slowed to a jog, then a fast walk, and then finally a chuckle-laced groan as she wrapped an arm around her large belly and leaned against a wall. "Urg-- life would be a lot more fair if men were required to carry these things at least part of the time. I should have had Dominic just rebuild me from the waist down when he had the chance."
Winry smiled, though she was worried about the other woman. "Are you sure about this? I mean, we can always get someone else..."
The brown eyes that met hers had a wild flash that reminded her of a pick-pocketing pixie from long ago. Still holding her stomach, Paninya straightened and grabbed Winry's hand. "Like there's anyone else who'd believe that crazy story about feeling Ed and Al trying to come home?" Her grin widened as she tugged them into a slow lope once more. "Besides, it'll be fun!"
Her own enthusiasm bolstered by the vibrant determination of her companion, Winry allowed Paninya to pull her into a shambling jog. Why shouldn't she hope? If everything worked like Mustang said...
...if Roy Mustang wasn't succumbing to the psychosis that seemed to be a part of alchemical mastery. If he wasn't telling some kind of elaborate lie to win her cooperation and silence while he worked another convoluted scheme to boost himself higher up the ladder of power. If he was-- she didn't think he was lying, but he was a master manipulator and he knew her weaknesses, damn sure he did -- if he'd lied about trying to bring Ed and Al home, she really would break his other arm. Maybe a few other things, too.
"I have to admit," Heist mused, watching Llyn drive as she turned sideways in the passenger seat with one leg curled under her, "you've got a lot more spunk than I expected at first."
"Which, I take it, is a compliment?" He smiled slightly, but almost immediately his brows came together as he scanned the road ahead for the first incoming vehicles.
"That would be a compliment, yes. And you've got nerve, too, driving straight into a storm like this."
"Maybe, maybe not," the young man murmured. He flashed her a mischievous wink, making her think simultaneously how adorable he was when winking, and wonder who ever winked at anyone these days? "I can play the doctor card first," he mused.
"Play doctor? You think the Men in Black will play along?"
He almost barked, as a laugh burst out of him of its own accord. The look he flashed this time was far less mischievous, and far more lascivious. "When next I play doctor," he announced, deliberately rolling the "r" with that Welsh lilt that, she had to admit, made her rather tingly, "it will not be with any number of men, in black or no. The lady, however, may wear black if she pleases. Though I doubt she'll be wearin' it for long, if you catch my meaning."
Heist giggled and fell silent. She watched his dark brows draw together again as he dragged his attention back to the road and continued to plan.
"What should I do as the doctor...? I could have begged for their help if you were pregnant, and maybe distracted them by demanding an escort to a hospital."
"I'm no help there, sorry," she snickered. "I've even lost weight while we've been on the run."
"We could be seriously lost, I suppose."
"That wouldn't be distracting enough. They'd just send us to the nearest gas station."
"I know," Heist suggested. "We've just been abducted by aliens, and need to talk to the feds about it right away. And by sheer coincidence -- these guys happen to be the feds. Our lucky day."
"Now, that's devious," Llyn responded in admiration.
"It's the company I keep. Half of my friends suspect they've been abducted already. Or hope to be, some day. In the meantime," it was Heist's turn to flash a naughty grin, "you and I can flip a coin to decide who got to have the anal probe."
Again the man barked out a laugh. "Stop distractin' me, woman! Are ye tryin' to make me go off the road?"
"Not till we get rid of the feds," she laughed back.
"Y'r creative imagination is goin' to take some getting used to. I'll be hard pressed to keep up with ye," Llyn remarked.
"It's called 'growing up with Ducky'," Heist snickered again. But suddenly, at the thought of her friend, another thought occurred to her and she exclaimed vehemently, "Oh no! Oh shit!"
"What's happened? What's wrong?" Llyn watched in alarm as she frantically patted herself down, wriggling about in the seat as she felt the back of her jeans and dug into the pockets of her jacket. With a small moan, she leaned over and frantically started feeling Llyn's legs near his hips and then ran her hands over his chest. "I'm flattered," Llyn stammered, frowning in puzzlement, "but shouldn't we wait until we get somewhere a bit more... private?"
Instead of answering, Heist darted her hand into his jacket, then drew it right back out with a "Hah!" Flipping open his cellphone, "Hold on," she answered shortly as she rapidly punched in the number to Ducky's cell. "Come on, come on," she urged as she heard the ringing begin.
"Helene, tell me what's happened--" Llyn began, but her voice drowned him out.
"Oh no no no! Not voice mail! Pick up, Ducky, or I swear--" She punched in the number again, hoping against hope that he'd answer, that they'd be in range, that somehow the phone would work this time -- that somehow he wasn't already gone. But no. The message began to run again: '...If you need me to tell you how to leave a message, then you're probably a total stranger, or from another planet. If you're a stranger, don't bother, but if you're from another planet I'd really like to talk to you...'
"I'll never forgive you for this, Tuckandroll!" Heist yelled at the answering message as it droned on, oblivious to her urgency. "I promise, Ducklord, some day you are gonna pay!"
"In the name of all that's holy and merciful, will you please tell me what is wrong?" Llyn cried. He looked about ready to pull the car over, the Men in Black or anyone else be damned.
Heist snapped the phone shut and slumped back against the door behind her. "I should have thought of it," she groaned. "How could I have been so stupid?" She fixed Llyn in her miserable gaze and wailed, "Ducky's still got my backpack in the Ninjavan!" She covered her face and moaned. "Everything's in there! Merlin, Mordred, Lancelot, Guenevere! All of them!"
"Ah, ye lost me, darlin'," Llyn said.
"My laptop and all my equipment," she wailed. "Do you have any idea how much trouble I'd be in if the Feds found it? I don't think even your mother could get me out of that."
"Do I even want to know what kind of 'equipment' ye're talkin' about? Never mind, no, I don't." Llyn pointed at the cell and added, "Try Tom or Reilly. P'haps one of them will make sure it's safe. After all, they'll be usin' the Ninjavan to get out of there, yes?"
Heist squeaked and wrenched Llyn's head around to give him a kiss, whereupon he swerved and nearly sideswiped an unmarked semi parked on the side of the road. "Of course! Why didn't I think about that?" She let him go and allowed him to recover while she dialed up Reilly's number.
As she held the phone up to her ear, she saw three black sedans race past them in the opposite direction.
Ducky tried not to strain for the sounds of the van receding in the distance as it drove away. It had gone far enough by now that he’d just be imagining the sound anyway, but it was hard to keep himself from trying to hear the last faint murmuring of the engine. He and that Ninjavan had been through a lot together. It was hard, hard to let it go after all that.
But he’d made his choice, and it was time to look ahead. He stood at the edge of the array with Ed, Al, and Hughes, and waited breathlessly to see where this wild and crazy life of his would take him next. Oh, Gramps, he thought.
The sun glinted off Al's brown hair in sparks of gold as he smiled at his two companions, finally relaxing at last into the relative peace and quiet now that everyone else had left. Again he put the flute to his mouth, closing his eyes and taking a breath. He let it out slowly, softly, and the notes began to emerge from the instrument...
...and almost immediately stopped.
He took another breath, smiled to himself, and began to play again...
...and after just a few notes, the music faltered and faded, and then stopped again.
Ducky exchanged a worried glance with Hughes, and resolutely kept his mouth shut. But he could tell the man was almost ready to say something, himself.
"Al?" Ed whispered.
His brother shook his head slightly, not opening his eyes. He took another couple of gentle breaths to calm or stabilize himself or something, and put his lips once again to the flute. This time the music came more steadily, more strongly, and when Ducky saw his shoulders gradually loosen and relax, he himself began to relax as well. He hadn’t realized just how tense he’d gotten in less than a minute. He had just enough time to flash an amused, 'Weren't we stupid to worry' grin at Hughes, and then...
And then... the music hesitated, spurted a little, and stopped again.
Ducky glanced nervously at Ed, still afraid to say anything, and fighting the urge to look over his shoulder toward the road. He’d begun to imagine that he might be catching the merest hint of sirens in the distance. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Hughes surreptitiously fiddling with something up his sleeve. Where, Ducky suddenly remembered, he kept his knives stashed. Meanwhile Ed watched his brother intently, biting his lip, obviously wondering if he should say anything. His very stance was uneasy, leaning forward, brows drawn, flesh hand gripping his automail arm so tightly his knuckles were white.
Still Al did not open his eyes. He lowered the flute for a moment, murmured, "Find the center," and lifted the instrument yet again to his lips.
And for the fourth time, all he managed were a few vague notes before he seemed to lose the melody he sought. At last he grabbed the flute in one fist and dropped it to his side, lifting his eyes to the sky in frustration. "Aaaargh!"
Ducky’s gaze flew to Ed’s face as he waited for an explosion, now that the cork had popped. Fortunately, Ed didn't seem ready to go critical quite yet, but he did seem relieved that he could finally say something.
"Al? What's wrong?" he asked.
"It’s not working," Al answered.
"I can see that. What’s the matter? You did say you knew how to use this thing."
"I did. I do."
"You...'did'? Would you suddenly just forget something like this? I thought you'd gotten it working before-–"
"I did. And I do know how to use it. I’m doing everything right, but it’s just not working. I don’t understand it."
"Well, you have to fix it somehow, Al. We don’t have any time left."
"Do you think I don’t know that?" Al retorted angrily. He buried both hands in his hair (the flute, Ducky thought hysterically, jutting up like some kind of antenna), and gasped a couple of deep breaths. "Can’t get mad," he muttered. "Have to stay calm."
"Is there anything we can do to help?" Hughes asked. He kept loosening his sleeves and shrugging his shoulders. He was getting ready for a fight, Ducky could tell.
Ed's demeanor was at last beginning to fray despite his efforts to keep his agitation under control. "Calm isn’t going to accomplish anything now. They're practically on our collective asses!" he pointed stiffly in the direction from which the Feds would come, if they were in fact on their way. "Al, you have to do something!"
"Don't start yelling now, Ed, please!" Al implored his brother, hands still clutching his hair. "I can’t think if you start yelling at me -– I can’t think-–"
"Stay calm, Al," Hughes put in, in his most reasonable tone. "Nobody's going to yell at you."
"That's right," Ducky agreed. "Because it wouldn't help anything, getting on your case now. Right, Ed?"
Ed turned and glared at him. "Look, just stay out of this, all right? We'll figure it out."
Oh, that was rich. "I have as much right to say something as you do," Ducky retorted. "I just know that yelling at Al wouldn't help him figure anything out, that's all." Again he thought of the Ninjavan with considerable yearning, though he regretted losing it for entirely different reasons now. Without it, they were going to be sitting ducks if Al really couldn’t manage to get the Gate open.
To his surprise, Ed nodded sharply. "You’re right. You’re right. There's no time to get upset. Al, don't worry that you can't use the flute -– I'll try something else instead. I'll get us out of this somehow. Don't worry."
Always the protector, thought Ducky.
At the sound of a loud fluttering off to one side, the four of them turned quickly, both Hughes and Ed automatically bending into a low crouch, arms up in fighting posture. But it was only the raven, returned to settle back to its previous perch on the bush. It ruffled its feathers before it lifted and placed each of its feet in turn, to get a better hold on the branch. Ed let out a sigh of relief, then went to one knee, eyes scanning the lines of the circle, his hands poised in front of him.
"Ed..." The unease on Hughes' face reflected exactly what Ducky was feeling. The man licked his lips and repeated, "Ed... you know you can’t make it work that way."
"Well, I have to try, don’t I? I can’t just stand around and do nothing."
Ducky demanded, "Then who’re you gonna kill to get it open? Me? Hughes?"
"Don’t be stupid." Ed didn't even look up, his brows drawn together in an intense frown as he calculated. "I’ll find another way."
"If you could’ve done that, you’d have found one by now."
"Well, I have to do something don't I–-"
"Ed." Al's quiet voice somehow cut through the conversation. "Brother -– I know why it isn’t working."
Ed sprang to his feet, turning around eagerly. "So what’s the problem? How do we fix it?"
Al wasn’t even looking at him, but remained as he’d been since the raven’s arrival, sitting utterly still, his solemn grey eyes fixed on the bird. The young man answered softly, "There isn’t a problem. It just isn’t the right time."
Rush Valley, Amestris
Roy let the flares fade away as the two girls slipped back out to the street. Paninya's idea was more than a little farfetched, but even if it only made noise and a little smoke, it would be enough of a distraction, for long enough. Roy returned to pacing the length of the alley, flexing the fingers of his right hand.
He couldn't sit still. Couldn't even stand still. He'd prided himself for years on his ability to keep his temper, to hide and control his every reaction -- and yet he couldn't school his face into neutrality or keep his body from pacing like a caged animal.
"Sir, you will exhaust yourself." Alex remarked quietly. Roy grunted in agreement, but nothing more. Armstrong was right. He was going to wear himself out before he even activated the array.
Center. Find the center. It wasn't time yet, but Roy knew with a certainty that he couldn't place a finger on, that he would know when it was.
Winry and Paninya reached Dominic's automail shop, both panting and disarrayed like playful children rather than adults with a mission. The older mechanic had one of his long-term clients in for an adjustment. The privacy curtain was drawn -- a barrier that existed as much in Dominic's head as the physical world. Interrupting a consultation with a client was a cardinal sin to the master mechanic's mind, and he would stoically ignore all clamor for his attention -- and possibly even his shop collapsing around his ears -- until he was finished tending to his client.
Not that that stopped Winry from trying.
"Mr. Dominic!" She threw aside the curtain, startling the client so that he lurched backward in the chair. As for her boss, however, he didn't even give her a glance.
"There's a bit of wear on inner plate. We'll need to adjust the fitting before we rebalance the center joint." He lifted the man's automail arm, rotating first the elbow, and then the shoulder, eliciting a small squeak. "Sounds like some of the bearings may be in need of a little grease." He stood then, knees popping loudly. in a few more years, he'd probably be considering automail himself. Some of their clients now had skeletal automail to replace damaged joints -- and the old man would be an excellent advertisement...
Winry shook her head. Don't get sidetracked! "Mr. Dom..."
"You can put your shirt back on, Tain. I'll schedule you for a refit later this month." He pushed past the two women, headed deeper into the interior of the shop. They dogged his heels, Paninya almost jigging despite the weight of her pregnancy. Winry was opening her mouth for the third time when the gruff man finally faced her.
"Girl, you know my rules." He said sternly. Folding his arms, he waited expectantly for an apology.
"We need help!" Winry launched full-force into her pitch as a single grizzled eyebrow climbed toward a receding hairline. She hurried on before Dominic could say no. "I was buying pastries at that coffee shop you like so much when I ran into Colonel Mustang, well he used to be Colonel but now he's a General, but he was undercover and Miss Hawkeye was with him, and so was Lieutenant Havoc but they were all in disguises -- they were bad disguises but they tried, you should have seen Major Armstrong, he should stick to military uniforms from now on if that's his idea of blending in with local fashion--" one breath was hardly enough to contain the bulk of words she thrust his way "--but they said they're bringing Ed and Al home and we need to create a diversion so that the rest of the military doesn't catch them!"
Whatever response she'd expected wasn't the one she received. After a second of unblinking examination, Dominic turned his back and headed for the workshop. "We've got customers waiting for their automail."
It was a good thing Paninya was hanging on to her arm because Winry was prepared to wing the first tool she saw at the man's head.
"That was Heist," Reilly said as she closed the phone. "She was freaking out about her laptop--"
"Figures," Tom grumbled, as he gripped the wheel of the Ninjavan tightly and negotiated the rutted cowpath as quickly as he could -- which was only about a mile or two per hour faster than normal. "We're about to get surrounded by Men in Black, and she's worried about her toys."
"She also said that a whole line of black sedans with super-dark windows just stormed past them on the highway," Reilly finished, undeterred.
"That would be the Feds," Tom murmured.
"That would be my guess, too. The good news is, we should be able to hit that service road across the highway before we get into their line of sight."
Instead of speeding up, however, Tom slowed the van to a stop and threw it into park.
Reilly gasped and darted furtive glances out the windows all around them. "What? Where are they?" she demanded as she twisted around in the seat to peer into the trees behind them. A warm grip on her arm pulled her back into the seat and she faced Tom. Something wasn't right. "What is it?" she asked, an edge of panic raising her voice.
"What are we running for?"
Ducky winced in expectation.
"What do you mean, it isn’t the right time?" Ed yelled, patience finally exhausted. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"It’s not the right moment yet," Al repeated. "There’s something we have to wait for."
Ducky expected a major explosion, and from the tightness in Ed’s jaw and the clenching of his fists, it was building, and almost ready to blow. But the elder brother hesitated, frowning in bewilderment at Al, who still sat gazing at the silent raven.
"Alphonse," he said. "You’re not trying to say..."
"We have to wait."
"Wait for what?"
"I don’t know."
"How do you even know we have to wait?"
Al made no answer, but just turned and looked up at him.
Hughes passed a hand across his eyes. "Oh boy," he muttered.
Ed’s face went still. His eyes flickered toward the raven, and back to his brother. Watching the color flood his face, Ducky could almost see the lava rising in his veins as his inner volcano prepared to erupt. "You," Ed said succinctly, "are completely out of your mind."
"No I’m not-–"
"If you think," Ed plunged on, his voice rising in both volume and strength, "that I am going to stand here quietly and let some uniformed goons blow my brains out because you believe some... some damned bird-–" he pointed an accusing finger at it "–-is telling you to wait here, you are completely out of your mind!"
Al, with a calm that contrasted sharply with his brother's temper, smoothly came to his feet. "Ed." He didn’t raise his voice, didn’t make any other move at all. "Do you trust me?"
"Of course I trust you, what kind of a stupid question is-–"
"I mean it, Ed. Do you trust me right this minute?"
Reilly stared at Tom a moment, certain the stress had finally gotten to him, and jabbed a finger at the windshield. "Hello? Men in Black? Gitmo? Alien Autopsy-type shit? I kinda wanna keep my skin whole, thankyouverymuch."
He tilted his head, thoughtful. "Yeah but... what's going to happen if we get away today?"
"Uh... we live?"
Tom focused on her once more and cocked a brow. "And we keep running. Why? For how long? The rest of our lives? What's the point?"
A chill snaked down Reilly's spine and curled up tightly in her belly. Striking quickly, she snagged his collar and tried to yank him out of the seat as she levered herself up, fully intending to take control of the van and get them safe. "Dammit, Tom, this ain't 'High Noon' and you sure as fuck ain't John Wayne! Get... out... of the... way!" But he'd gone limp and she couldn't drag him from the seat. Not willing to give up, she wedged herself over to the driver's side, but only managed to get her legs tangled in his and fell against the doghouse, cracking her head against the roof and whacking her shoulder painfully against the mirror. Rubbing her head and trying to stop the speckles behind her eyes from blinding her, she paused -- and that was when she heard the choked laughter from Tom. "Dear Goddess, you've gone completely around the bend."
Tom wiped his eyes and pried her fingers from his collar. Getting his bizarre humour under control and himself back in the seat, he shook his head and said, "Hardly. And no, I don't have a death wish."
"Then what in the hell are you talking about?!"
"Heist has Llyn, and hiding one slip of a girl is going to be a hell of a lot easier than finding a safe place for me and you--"
"Get to the point, Old Man," Reilly snapped.
"We don't have shit left here," Tom said. "And everyone else who matters is back there," he said as he jerked a thumb behind them.
Reilly stared as his point slowly sank needle-sharp teeth into her mind. "You can't be serious," she whispered, but even she couldn't ignore the hopeful excitement that bloomed in her heart.
His expression went soft as he reached up to cup her cheek. "How much longer can you keep running, Mary? When will it finally be too much for you?"
Her heart pounded and she started to shake. It was already becoming more than she could bear, and if she was honest with herself, she knew what Tom wasn't saying was more truth than speculation... that if they stayed here, they would never stop running and hiding. Not now, not with what they knew -- what they'd seen. "Not without you," she murmured.
"Hell no. We've always been a team," he said, smiling. "Besides, Amestris needs protection from the Ducklord."
Reilly sniffled and barked out a short laugh, then disentangled herself from Tom and flopped back into the passenger seat. As she snapped her seatbelt on, she said, "We'd better get a move-on, then--"
"Uh-oh," Tom muttered.
Rush Valley, Amestris
"Didn't you hear what I said?"
Hunched down over a box in the corner of the room, Dominic rattled his tools and boxes of spare parts. "I heard you. Heck, half the block heard you. What I didn't hear was whether or not you brought back a muffin for me."
A muff...? That's it, Winry thought. The man was dead.
Then Dominic sighed, dropping a scavenged metal limb back into the box. "Exactly how large of a diversion does your friend the General need?"
Ducky’s heart sank. How many times, he wondered, could Ed take a body blow like this in a 24-hour period, and not break? Ed hadn’t moved, yet Ducky could sense that Al's question had rocked him to the core.
He inched closer to Hughes and held his breath, both of them watching the brothers, who stood like statues, staring at each other as the feeling of impending doom grew more oppressive and their enemies drew closer. He could only guess at the details of the long personal history that had led Al to ask the question, and led his brother to hear it with such trepidation. All their years together, all the travels, the adventures... the rescues. 'I'll get us out of this somehow. Don't worry,' Ed had said. Could he ever relinquish control, ever truly allow himself to place his destiny completely in another’s hands? Even Al’s?
Alphonse smiled gently. And Ed closed his eyes, letting his breath out in a long sigh.
When he opened them again, he smiled widely, his golden eyes shining with a kind of reckless joy. "Yes," he said. "I trust you completely, Al. I trust you with my life." He turned to Ducky and Hughes. "So," he said. "We wait till Al knows it’s the right time."
There was a snap of a branch -- like an explosion in the quiet of the clearing -- and Ducky whipped around toward the sound only to find his view blocked by the barrel of a cannon inches from his nose. As he uncrossed his eyes and was able to look beyond the large caliber handgun aimed at him, he saw they were surrounded by agents in black body armor.
"You're gonna have a nice long wait," someone said. It was hard to tell from whence it came -- the full-face helmets hid faces and distorted sound. "Put your hands up and don't make any sudden moves."
"This would be one flight we don't want to mi--" Reilly broke off as she glanced up and felt her stomach drop with a splat down at her feet. "Sonuvabitch!"
Skidding off the highway and bouncing down the rutted path right at them were three black sedans with dark, smoked windows.
"I only count three. We couldn't be so lucky to think Tanner delayed the others, do you?" Reilly asked as she unsnapped her seatbelt.
"With you in the mix?" Tom sniped as he threw the van into reverse and floored the accelerator. "Might wanna hit the floor, kiddo."
Reilly didn't respond to the comment. Instead she flipped him a one-fingered salute and slid down below the dash. "What about you?"
Tom slouched down as he steered with one hand and watched out through the back. With his free hand, he pushed Reilly's head down further. "I've always been a hard target to hit, just stay down, will ya?"
"I am down, asshole!"
"Gary Cooper, by the way."
Tom spared a quick glance her way and smirked. "It wasn't John Wayne in 'High Noon', it was Gary Cooper."
"Like I give a shit right now?!"
Something small punched through the windshield and buried itself into the roof near the back seat of the van and Reilly squeaked, curling up on the floor and covering her head with her arms. She peeked up and said, "You all right?"
"Shit no," Tom snarked. "I've spent the last five months running with a sporadic psychic, an insane hacker and a hyper techno-geek trying to protect two alchemists and a manic intelligence officer who came from another world from a sociopathic assassin with a nasty grudge, whom, I might add, is also from this alternate world, and likes to make things go boom. Which, if any psychiatrist worth his sheepskin heard this, would consider it a good reason to lock me up in a padded cell. Let's not forget the the spiritual, flute-playing special ops guy who followed us around -- unbeknownst to me -- invisible portals to alternate worlds, flames being manipulated by music--"
"Were you hit, though?"
"Wha--? Oh, no. I'm fine."
"Then worry about driving," Reilly said as she rolled her eyes and started to squeeze between the seats and crawl toward the back, "you can vent your spleen later."
"I have not yet begun to ve--" Another shot broke through the windshield, ripped through the driver's seat and embedded itself in the seat behind it in a puff of fiberfill. "Damn, that was close," Tom said. "Reilly, what are you doing?"
"Looking for something we can use to slow them down."
"Like what? A Rubik's Cube? I don't think they'll be distracted that easily."
"What?!" Tom hollered. "Were you hit?"
"No!" Reilly flopped on her ass on the floor of the van and buried her face in her hands. "That... asshole! Of all the times to--" She glanced up at Tom, not sure if she should laugh or cry. "Ducky cleaned the goddamned Ninjavan!"
"Good God, it really is the Apocalypse," Tom said, with an edge of hysterical laughter in his voice. Then another shot came through the windshield and joined the previous one in the seat behind him. When he stopped turtling, he cocked a wry brow and said, "At least they're consistent. Hold on."
Tom cranked the wheel violently and the van teetered as it turned a hard right before it came to an abrupt stop and settled back down with a rough thump on all four tires.
Reilly didn't need to be told what to do next. Lurching up and leaning over the seat, she grabbed the handle for the side door and threw it open. "Get in!" she shouted to the four stunned faces turned in her direction...
It was only when they didn't move that she realized they were all lined up with their hands clasped behind their heads -- surrounded by Storm Troopers in body armor pointing really big guns at their heads.
"Get out of the van," a voice behind a masked helmet ordered. "Keep your hands where we can see them, and no one will get hurt."
She heard Tom mutter, as he opened the driver's door, "Damned Reilly luck."
...Then the ground rumbled low, as if in agreement.