c_b_syndrome (c_b_syndrome) wrote in c_b_s,

Balance of Power ~ Chapter Six

“Mrs. Buttin—er Butterworth”
Arc One: Chapter Six
Balance of Power

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

Marc Holland, also known as Maes Hughes in another life, stopped breathing at that moment. His fingers went numb and he never noticed that he'd dropped the money bag when he spun and searched the crowd where he'd last seen the blonde. Impossible, he thought; but his body moved of its own volition through complaining teens. As soon as he was free of the press of silks, satins, and cloying perfumes, he broke into a trot.

April 29, 2006 – 10:45am
Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Edward goggled at the sheer number of cars on the streets and in the parking lot of the store. He’d grudgingly put on his seat belt before they left. It was the law, according to Reilly. After seeing the number of idiots who didn’t pay attention, or were just plain rude in the short 5 mile trip from her house to this store, he was glad he did wear it.

He also developed a new respect for the old hag, after watching her calmly and deftly avoid several potential accidents. Her ability to predict another car about to do something stupid was downright uncanny.

“Is there something going on around here?” he’d asked as they crept through heavy traffic along the main boulevard.

“Huh?” she said, just barely glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.

“All these people driving somewhere.”

Reilly snorted. “Nah. This is typical Saturday traffic. You should see this place when church lets out on Sundays.” She visibly shuddered.

The parking lot was even worse. Ed thought getting off the streets alive would afford some measure of safety, but it was not to be. Reilly explained that since traffic laws didn’t actually apply on private property, people forgot how to drive.

He believed it after she’d casually yanked him back by the collar a couple of times during the walk from the car to the store. People would back out of slots, and not even look where they were going, or damn near run a pedestrian over to get to a “good spot”. Ed learned quickly that “good spots” meant as close to the store as possible. This also seemed to increase the danger as they got closer to the doors.

By the time they made it inside the store, Ed almost… almost… found a deity to thank.

Until he got a good look at the crowd.

“Two words, Reilly,” he said, staring around him. “Freak show.”

She laughed, and grabbed a cart. “Welcome to Wal-Mart, Ed,” she said, and headed off.

He ran to catch up with her. “Hey! Don’t get out of my sight, Damnit!”

“Then keep up,” she shot over her shoulder with a wicked grin.


The photography studio manager was known as Mr. Holland or just plain Marc to all the people in town. An affable man in his late thirties, with sharp green eyes behind rectangular glasses, a singularly disobedient lock of black hair that constantly fell in his face, and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He seemed to be especially popular with the women. Married or not; young, old, or something in between. Being a widower seemed to attract them like ants to a picnic.

It was a minor annoyance, since he was hardly interested. But it did help keep the studio busy. His employers liked that. He put up with it in his usual warm, friendly manner, and considered himself lucky to have the money coming in.

Besides, he loved the kids.

The studio was packed today. It usually was on a Saturday, but it was moreso with prom coming up. Instead of the cranky toddlers and infants that Holland had a natural skill for getting to smile, he was surrounded by surly, snarky teenagers. They took more skill, but he was good enough. He’d had quite a bit of practice with one prickly teenager in particular. Long ago.

He sighed and finished up the mid-shift register change. Sometimes memories of an old life would come unbidden and it would cause him to be a little less sparkling the rest of the day. He’d been feeling that way since he’d woken up shaking early this morning.

Dreams. Faces of people so far out of his reach that he sometimes wondered if they’d ever been real. The dreams came less often, now; but the intensity of being tuned inside out and twisted into knots when he had them was just as strong and painful as it had been from the beginning.

He grabbed the money bag to drop off before he went on break, but didn’t really see what he was stuffing into it. He looked up and surveyed the crowd coming in the door near the studio. From the casual dress he saw of most of the customers, he knew things would be slowing down before long. His assistants could handle the rest of the formally dressed teens already there and waiting impatiently. Maybe he could sneak out early.

He barely registered the kid in baggy jeans, long-sleeved tshirt, and blonde pony tail. Typical style, typical looks from the back. Popularly androgynous. He couldn’t count all the girls (and boys, for that matter) in this town with long blonde hair. His eyes skated right over the kid without thought.

He turned the keys to the register over to Maggie, his best assistant, and wove his way through the line waiting to get pictures taken. In the middle of the waiting area, he froze as the image of the kid flashed through his mind again. He didn’t consciously notice before, but his brain did. The kid’s hands had been stuffed into the pockets of the baggy jeans, but a hint of white cotton gloves and a small glint of metal peeked out. As soon as that fact sunk its teeth into his brain, he heard a voice that seemed painfully familiar yelling, “Hey! Don’t get out of my sight, Damnit!”

Marc Holland, also known as Maes Hughes in another life, stopped breathing at that moment. His fingers went numb and he never noticed that he’d dropped the money bag when he spun and searched the crowd where he’d last seen the blonde. Impossible, he thought; but his body moved of its own volition through complaining teens. As soon as he was free of the press of silks, satins, and cloying perfumes, he broke into a trot.

He skidded to a stop when he reached the wide promenade separating the grocery section with housewares and quickly scanned the milling crowd. He saw no sign of the blonde, but he could have turned down an aisle. Hughes dodged around shoppers, looking down each junction. All the while, his brain was screaming at him that he couldn’t possibly have seen who he thought he saw. Not here. Not now. Not in this world.

The rational part of his mind finally caught up to him when he stopped and leaned against the wall just inside the lay-away section at the back of the store. So did Maggie, whose young face was etched in worry. “Mr. Holland?”

Hughes didn’t respond. That name wasn’t his.

“Marc?” she said, as she gently touched his arm.

Hughes blinked. Marc Holland. Right. He took the couple steps necessary to reach the bench nearby and slowly sunk down into it. My name is Marc Holland, and that was not Edward Elric, he reminded himself. He scrubbed at his face and fought the choking he felt. That life is over. Something that I’ll never see again except in dreams.

Maggie knelt down next to him and kept her hand on his arm, waiting silently while he struggled to get himself under control. Her eyes were soft with compassion and understanding. She knew he was a ‘widower’, after all. Everyone did.

When he finally looked at her; actually saw her, she smiled sadly. “You going to be okay, Marc?”

His smile was just as sad and more than a little embarrassed. “Yeah,” he said with a sigh. “I thought I saw—” He shook his head. “I was chasing ghosts, Maggie. I’m sorry I worried you.”

“Maybe you should take the rest of the day off,” she suggested.

His brows shot up and he said, “And leave you with those kids?”

“I think I can handle a handful of spoiled teenagers,” she said with a wicked grin.

Hughes knew she could, too. He’d seen it more than once. It was one of the reasons he liked keeping her on the staff. Another time. Another place. Maybe…

But he didn’t want to start taking time off every time he thought he saw a ghost. It would become a nasty habit. He shook his head. “Thanks Maggie, but I’ll be alright.”

She gave him a look that clearly said she thought he was full of shit, then said, “Make you a deal. Take your break. If you’re still looking puny, I’ll get Susan to chase you out of here.”

Hughes’s eyes went wide in mock fear. Susan was the store manager and she ran the place with the skill of a General. Everyone loved her, but everyone also knew never to argue with the woman. “Oh Lord, please don’t do that.”

The look Maggie gave him told him that it was no idle threat. He sighed, and a smile closer to his usual warmth spread across his face. “I promise, if I’m not feeling better…”

Maggie nodded and got to her feet.


“Reilly, this is the kids section,” Ed hissed through clenched teeth.

She calmly looked him up and down, and smirked. “Yeah? You need clothes that fit.”

He scowled and grumbled, and Reilly threw up her hands in mild exasperation. “Look, I have no control over how a small-town Wal-Mart stocks things. And I had nothing to do with your genetics. Just find yourself some clothes you can live with, okay? And stay within your budget, please.” She turned the cart and started to walk off.

“You’re just gunna leave me here?” he asked, stricken.

She glanced back. With a gentle smile, she said, “You’re an adult Edward. You don’t need me hanging over you to make sure your clothes fit. I have other things to get. Like food.” The last was said with no small amount of emphasis.

He just looked back at her, unblinking and unabashed.

Reilly chuckled and started off again.

Ed allowed himself a smile when she was out of sight. The woman got on his nerves. She was cantankerous, stubborn, opinionated, and diplomacy was not a part of her vocabulary. She had a strange sense of humour and Ed had apparently become her favorite victim. But she was spending her own money on clothes for him and she’d rallied her closest friends to help him find Al. And mixed in somewhere among her bizarre beliefs, there was knowledge of the gates that she was willing to share with him.

Okay, so maybe the old hag wasn’t so terrible after all.

Underwear was first on the list, and Ed found the boxers that were in his size-range. The selection left something to be desired, though. Mostly cartoon characters, from the looks of it. He sighed and kept digging. Surely there was at least a pair or two that were just… plain.

He felt a cart slip past a little close behind him, and then Reilly’s voice in his ear. “Mrs. Buttinski at three o’clock. Don’t look up, and don’t make eye contact or she’ll eat your soul.”

Naturally, he looked up. Eat my soul?!

He caught sight of a small, skinny, pale woman in about her fifties, with a permanently pinched look to her face. She was aiming herself directly at Reilly, and Ed was nearly knocked over by the force of just her personality.

“Mary! Mary Reilly, wait a minute. I need to have a word with you.”

Panicked, he turned to Reilly and saw her frozen to the spot. From his vantage point, he could see the pained wince on her face and the mouthed “fuck”, on her lips.

An instant later, the soul-eater had caught up to Reilly and Ed saw her expression change from agony, to a smile so fake, Envy would be… well, envious. She turned that terribly phony smile on the soul-eater and said, “Mrs. Butterworth. What a surprise to see you here.”

The old woman yanked Reilly down in a hug that had a lot more strength in it than was human and Ed only then realized that she was actually shorter than he was. The smile on Reilly’s face faded for a moment and turned into a grimace. She was also fervently gesturing for Ed to leave. Escape while he had time.

Ed had a much better idea. He crossed his arms and leaned back with a mild smirk. This is going to be entertaining, he thought. Even if the look Reilly shot him before the soul-eater let her go promised retribution later. He had a feeling it was going to be well worth it.

When Reilly was upright, Mrs. Butterworth patted her cheeks. “Look at how pale you are, Mary. You know it’s not good for your skin to spend so much time indoors, or running around with those freaky, gothy kids in the dark—“

“I’m allergic to sunlight,” Reilly said, but the soul-eater apparently didn’t hear, because she just continued on unabated.

“—Honestly, I don’t understand why a nice girl like you wants to hang around with those Godless freaks anyway. You should be dating a nice man your own age—“

“There’s nobody in this town I want to date,” Reilly said. Again, not heard.

“—You should start coming to church, Mary. There are some nice available men there that would be happy to have you—“

Reilly’s arms crossed. “Have me?” she asked archly.

“—You’re not getting any younger, you know. Why before you know it, you won’t be able to have any children—“

“I don’t want kids.”

“—And that would be such a tragedy. A good Christian girl like yourself should be more involved in the church, too—“

“I’m Buddhist.”

“—Oh nonsense! You’re just going through a phase, Mary. You’ll come back to the fold when you outgrow that—“

“It’s been a ‘phase’ for twenty years, Mrs. Butterworth.”

“—Honestly, I don’t understand the attraction of playing with some heathen religion from the Far East, when you could find a wonderful life with a nice, homegrown Christian church—“

“Christianity started in the Middle East.”

Ed tried to remain inconspicuous. He really tried. First his smile grew, and then he covered his mouth with a gloved left hand to muffle an escaped snicker; but his shoulders started to shake uncontrollably. Eventually his snickering became audible and continuous. He tried to cover it up with a fake cough, but it was useless at this point.

It also put him on the soul-eater’s radar. She stopped in mid-ramble and blinked up at him. “Oh. Hello.”

Damnit. Caught. He stifled the rest of his giggles, and nodded politely.

She blinked back at Reilly and said, “What an adorable boy! Is he a relative of yours?”

Reilly shot Ed a warning look when he started to seethe and said, “No. This young man is a friend of mine.” She gestured toward him, and said, “This is Edward Elric.”

Mrs. Butterworth’s spine snapped straight so quickly, Ed was sure he heard it crack. “Friend?! Isn’t he a little… young for you?”

“I didn’t know there was an age requirement for friendship, Mrs. Butterworth.”

The soul-eater leaned in close to Reilly and said in a conspirational stage whisper, “Well, he looks like he’s barely legal.”

Reilly’s eyes went wide in shock and she flushed a bright red. “Excuse me?”

“Well, I read Cosmopolitan too, Mary. I know that a modern woman your age reaches her peak and wants to play with those pretty boys for awhile—“

“What?” Ed squeaked, and felt his own face getting hot.

Reilly choked and coughed.

“—But you should really consider a man your own age. After all, what can you possibly talk about with someone so young? Oh sure, those young ones are raring to go again right away—“

Ed suddenly wished for the ground to open up and swallow him. And from the look on Reilly’s face, she wanted the same thing for herself.

“—But a man your age would give you so much more. They have experience, and can last longer, you know—“

“M-mrs. Butterworth!”

Ed could see that not only was Reilly highly embarrassed at the turn the conversation had taken, but she was rapidly losing patience. He started looking around for a distraction. Any distraction. As much of a pain in the ass as she was, he just didn’t have the heart to let her be tortured like this.

Especially if he had to suffer along side of her.

“—As a matter of fact, that lovely Mr. Holland in the picture studio is available, and he’s just your age, too. He’s a widower, you know. Such a tragedy; lost both the wife and the baby in a horrible accident. But he’s so wonderful with children. He’d be perfect for you! In fact I believe he’ll be at church tomorrow. We’re having a pot-luck for singles after the service—“

“Excuse me, Mrs. Butterworth,” Ed said. He lurched back when her attention turned to him. “Uh… I think I saw some gothy type over by the bakery trying to sell Satan to a couple of kids a minute ago.”

“Oh! That’s horrible! Why the management here should really do something about that.”

Ed nodded enthusiastically. “You’re right! It’s awful how they’re just stealing good Christian kid’s souls like that.” He pointed off in a random direction. “I think I saw the store manager going that way. I’ll bet you could catch up and let him—“

He saw Reilly vigorously shake her head.

“—er, her know about it.”

“Good idea, young man!” the soul-eater said, and charged off in the direction Ed had pointed.

“Hurry,” he called. “Before another soul is lost.”

Reilly stared at him, agog. Then she slumped over the cart, and just laughed. “Oh my God!” she gasped. “That was bloody brilliant, Ed. I so owe you for that.”

“Enough to take me somewhere else?” he asked. “I think I’ve had about as much of this freak show as I can deal with.”

She gave him a lopsided grin, and jerked her head toward the exit. “Let’s go. I’ll buy you lunch.”


“Maul?!” Ed asked. His eyes had gone wide as he stared around at all the different stores. The place was two floors high, bigger than any market he’d ever seen, and a cacophony of lights, sounds, and enticing aromas. He was silently grateful that Reilly had stopped at that Chinese buffet before they came here. He didn’t think he could deal with the sensory overload on an empty stomach.

“Mall,” Reilly corrected and Ed could barely hear the subtle difference in pronunciation. “Although, as cute as you are, I imagine that ‘maul’ might be apt too. At least Kitten seemed to think so.”

Ed tore his eyes away from the hypnotic view and gave her a withering glare. It had absolutely no effect on her. Instead she pointed at a slick black panel with different colored squares and they walked over to it. When they got closer, he realized that it was a map of the place. “Meet me back here in about two hours,” she said. “If you get lost, these things are all over the place.”

“You’re running off and leaving me again?”

Before she had a chance to answer, two teenaged girls paused as they were headed out and cast badly hidden glances at Ed. When he met their stares, they giggled uproariously and took off.

Completely baffled at the behavior, he looked at Reilly and was rewarded with a wicked grin from her. “Do I need to get you a big stick, Ed?”

He looked back at where the girls had taken off to with more than a little confusion and nervousness. “You might.”

Reilly gave a low chuckle and turned, walking off. “Anyway, remember to stay in your budget. I’ll see you later; I’ve got my own shopping to do.”

Ed turned back around, surprised when Reilly had already disappeared into the mob of people. “Damnit, old hag, quit disappearing on me like that,” he muttered under his breath. Sighing, he turned back to the directory. First thing’s first, Elric; let’s go clothes shopping. Lessee…clothing stores…

After studying the directory for a few moments, Ed realized something. Not one of the names of the stores gave him any idea as to what the stores sold. Ah, well. Time for the old-fashioned way.

Picking a random direction, Ed sauntered off with his hands in his pockets. Hopefully, this experience wouldn’t be too bad.


Ed rifled through the boxers on the rack, sighing in annoyance. This particular store was the third one he’d spotted for clothing, and he still hadn’t found anything that really interested him. He’d found some socks in this place, thankfully, and was working on the other essentials. He’d look for shirts somewhere else.

“Jeez, this almost makes me glad Winry was a machine junky; if she’d dragged me into clothing stores, I may have had to shoot myself.” Picking out a pair of black boxers, Ed blinked. “What are these made of?”

“Those are silk, sir.”

Ed jumped and turned around, clutching the boxers in one hand. “Jeez, don’t sneak up on a man like that,” he snapped once he got his heart to stop clogging his throat.

The salesgirl in front of him couldn’t have been much more than 16, with face, hair, nails, and clothing all impeccable. He supposed she might have been cute, if it weren’t for the feeling he had of being a canary left alone with the cat.

She grinned sweetly and pointed at the boxers. “Those are silk, just so you know. I think they’d suit you quite well.”

Ed felt his cheeks grow very warm and tight, and hid it by scrutinizing the boxers some more. “Who the hell makes underwear out of silk?”

“Well, it’s a very comfortable, natural material, sir.” The grin turned predatory, and Ed was absolutely certain that if the woman had a tail, it would be twitching right now. “Besides; I think your girlfriend would enjoy them.”

Ed could feel the blush rising into his hairline at that comment. “Idon’thaveagirlfriend,” he mumbled in a rush.

“Really?” The girl leaned in very close to Ed, and he noticed then that the nametag read ‘Marissa’. “Would you like one?” she all but purred.

“Uh, no thanks. Here, I’ll just be on my way now,” he said quickly. He made a grab for his socks, the boxers, and a few other pairs of underwear he’d already found, and looked desperately around for a way out before the woman really did pounce.

Marissa had a slight pout on her face. “If you insist. Here;” she said, and handed him a slip of paper. “You’ll need this later, I think.”

Not bothering to look at the slip, Ed stuffed it into his pocket and ran. “Uh right; thankyougoodbyenow!” he called over his shoulder, not breathing regularly until he reached the checkout stand.

It wasn’t until later that he discovered the paper had a phone number on it.


The next store he found, thankfully, was more to his tastes.

Ed was drawn to it by the very prominent color scheme of black and red; his favorite colors. Not bothering to look at the store name, he went inside, only partially fazed by the hair styles of some of the store workers at this point.

The slight blisters forming on his right foot reminded him that his current shoes were in desperate need of a change, so that was where Ed headed first. It was wonderful that Tom was lending him some shoes, but the man walked funny. “Lessee… boots, boots…”

“Hey, Ames, come over here and check this out!”

Ed ignored the two girls giggling down the aisle from him as he found a pair of decent low-rise boots in his size. They were heavy black leather, with impressively large silver buckles… and small but dangerous looking spikes sticking out from the tops. They also had about an inch of sole to them.
“What did you find?”

Ed broke out in a shark’s grin when he tried the right one on, and it fit comfortably.

“Panties! Really frilly ones!”

I didn’t hear that. I did not just hear that, Ed thought, trying to ignore the suddenly embarrassing conversation behind him. Now, pants…

“Ooooo, sexy. That’s a nice design for a T-back.”

Ed blinked as another girl called over. “What’d you guys find?”

“Look, Q! Panties!” called the first girl, holding up the pair in question. Ed got an eyeful, and was confused through his blush. All the girl held up was a tiny triangle of fabric with thin straps coming from each corner and intersecting at the back. What’s the point? he wondered, before getting distracted by a pair of plain leather pants. Heeey, they’re like my old ones!

Thankfully, the girls stopped being so loud giggling over their finds, and Ed managed to snag two pairs of pants, one leather and one in denim, and a nice long-sleeved hooded shirt with what looked like a primitive alchemy array on the front, before they interrupted him again.

He hadn’t noticed that two of them were behind him. He’d just been happy to have found something he wouldn’t mind wearing, and was just about ready to go pay for his finds when he accidentally bumped into one girl. “I’m sorry, excuse me,” he mumbled, trying to keep the clothes in his arms from falling.

The second girl—the one named Ames—grinned almost evilly at him. “No problem, gorgeous.” She indicated his clothes. “Feel like a new wardrobe, huh?”

Ed gulped. “Uh, something like that. Sorry, I need to get going—“

“Not a problem.”

Ed’s eyes went wide and he choked when she reached over and gave him a little pat… somewhere he was shocked anyone would touch in public. “You just be sure to visit again sometime. We need more hot guys coming into this store.”

“Uhhh, thanks… I think…” Ed murmured, his face flaming and his voice squeaking in panic as he turned towards the registers. “I’ll, uh, see you later?”

She gave him a blatant look up and down. “Dear God, I hope so.”

Trying not to swallow his tongue, Ed hurried to the cash register. Everyone here is fucking nuts! He thought, wondering if his blush would ever disperse.

He felt some relief when he saw the cashier was male, albeit a bit freaky with blue hair, piercings in places Ed never imagined anyone would want to put holes, and tattoos.

The man gave him a casual, friendly smile. “Looks like you were having some trouble with the ladies back there,” he saw fit to comment as Ed put his purchases on the counter.

Ed blushed again. Dammit, did the whole place see it?? “Uh, a little,” he murmured. “Anyway, I’d like to buy these.”

“Good selections; hit the clearance section kinda hard, too.” The man grinned and pulled out the leather pants. “Niiiice. Glad someone fits in these,” he murmured as he rung up the purchases.

Ed caught sight of a metal cap over the man’s index finger that reminded him of an eagle’s talon the way it was hooked and curved. The design and joints were impressive; but he wondered if it would even get Winry’s attention. Not quite as impressive as automail, he thought, and was half-tempted to take off his glove and compare.

“Bet your ass looks nice in them, too,” the cashier said, yanking Ed from his musings.

Ed couldn’t help it; he gaped. “Uh… I’m a man.”

“So?” The cashier smirked. “I enjoy a good cock every now and then.”

Ed wished the floor would just swallow him. It had to be more enjoyable than all these… comments. “S-sorry, I don’t.”

“Fair ‘nuff; straightness is wasted on you though, man.” The cashier went back to his job, and soon had a bag and a total for Ed.

He couldn’t pay and get out of there fast enough.


Ed needed a few minutes away from the crush of bodies and the ongoing feeling of being stripped naked by every set of eyes that landed on him, so he dashed into the nearest restroom and hid in the stall furthest to the back to change clothes. It was only then he really looked at the long-sleeved, hooded shirt he’d purchased. Had he not been mortified at the conversation around him, he might have been panicked at the design.

The pattern on the front did remind him of a more primitive array, but his practiced eye picked out the flaws quickly. Had it been perfect, it might have been able to transmute living tissue. He let out a silent sigh of relief when he touched it, and it didn’t react.

The idea that something like this was being painted all over clothing that anyone could wear was disquieting. That just didn’t happen in Amestris, unless one really was an alchemist; and it certainly didn’t happen in 1920’s Germany, because it would be looked at like witchcraft and magic.

Ed was beginning to think perhaps revealing the fact that he was an alchemist wouldn’t be so dangerous after all. He also wondered if Al was coming to a similar conclusion; which quickly put a damper on the good mood he was starting to develop.

We’re looking for you, Al, he thought. Just hold on a little longer.

He slipped the shirt over his head with a sigh, then scowled when he heard the subtle tap of metal on metal, and felt the scratch of something on his left bicep. He pulled up the cuff of the short top sleeve, and looked closer. Zippers, he realized with a soft laugh. He could, if he had a mind to, take the longer sleeves off, and have a short-sleeved shirt. For all the good that’s going to do me, he thought with a snort.

After changing, Ed felt a little more normal. He was less inclined to blush, at least. So he walked around the mall a bit, just people-watching and enjoying the fact that his new shoes gave him about an inch more of height. He was amazed at the variety of personalities he saw just by walking along; families shopping together at a leisurely pace, boys with their girlfriends resembling packhorses, and lots of groups of girls giggling together about something, but he never could figure out what exactly they found so funny.

Someone was selling hand-painted tshirts at a kiosk in the middle of the promenade, and one caught his eye. He took a closer look at it, and couldn’t help but smile.

The older man running the booth came up to him, and asked, “Can I help you?”

“Admiring the shirt,” Ed said.

“Thanks. I’m rather proud of it, myself.” The man gave him a cagy smile, but not predatory. “You know who that is, right?”

Ed gave him a don’t-insult-me look, and said, “Icarus.” He looked at the artwork on the shirt again, and added softly, “He dared to fly too close to the sun, and paid the price.”

The man chuckled. “I’m impressed. Not many kids your age know the old Greek myths anymore.”

Ed snorted, then took a look at the price tag and at his remaining funds. He really wanted that shirt. The irony was just too appropriate. He sighed in disappointment when he realized he didn’t have quite enough. “Damn,” he whispered. “Five dollars too short.” He gave the proprietor an apologetic look. “Sorry, I don’t have enough.”

The man held up a hand, and smiled. “For someone who actually knows what he’s looking at, I think I can knock a little off the price. Say about… five dollars?”

Ed’s grin was so huge, he feared his face might crack.

He was finally beginning to relax. Enough so that he nearly passed Reilly sitting at another small kiosk, before he noticed who it was. She was getting something done to her forearm that involved some kind of brownish dye and a very intricate pattern.

“Hey, Reilly,” he called, coming over. “What are you doing?”

“Getting a henna tattoo, silly.” Reilly looked up and grinned at Ed’s new outfit. “Nice threads. Looks like you have some decent fashion sense after all.” Her eyes landed on the boots, and she grinned wickedly. “Did you get a little taller there?”

Ed gave her a narrow-eyed glare, and asked, “Did you get a little older?”

She gave him a look that promised retribution later, then the grin returned and she jerked her head at an empty chair. “Why don’t you get one, too? They’re not permanent.”

Ed shook his head. “I’m broke, now.” He eyed the design she was getting dubiously and added, “Besides, I’m not into lace and flowers.”

The artist put the finishing touches on Reilly’s pattern, and looked up at Ed with a smile. “I can do whatever design you want.”

“Thanks, but I’m still broke.”

“I’ll buy,” Reilly said.

Ed sighed, realizing that he was thoroughly trapped. He took a quick glance over the designs she had displayed and saw none he was really interested in. Then an idea struck him. What the hell, he thought. May as well carry on the theme.

“You got something I can draw on?” he asked. She handed over a pad and pen, and he quickly sketched out the pattern. It was simple; a cross with a hooked serpent, a crown and wings.

The artist raised a brow, and smiled. “A modified flamel? I haven’t seen someone request something like that in ages.”

Ed was impressed that she knew what she was looking at, and suddenly very glad the sleeves of his shirt unzipped. He pulled off the left one, and slapped at the flesh near his shoulder. “Right there, please.”

When he cast a glance over at Reilly, she was watching him with that knowing look that always managed to make him nervous. There was no fear or judgment in that look; there never was. It was a look that said she knew a lot more than she was telling, and was patiently waiting for him to open up. He decided that perhaps a little more truth was going to be forthcoming. He just wasn’t sure how he was going to broach the subject.

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