c_b_syndrome (c_b_syndrome) wrote in c_b_s,

Balance of Power ~ Chapter Sixteen

A/N: Our sincerest apologies for the delay in getting this out. Real life has a way of biting people in the ass.

Also, we apologize for the end of this chapter. Please don't burn us in effigy!

“You Did What? To Whom? For How Many Cookies?”
Arc One; Chapter Sixteen
Balance of Power

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

“They said you were involved with a terrorist group,” he choked.

“T-terrorist?! And you believed them?”

June 2, 2006 – 6:32am
Somewhere in Northeastern Kansas

Sidney raced along I-35 back toward Wichita. He’d made a stop in Kansas City after getting a call from that annoying little blue-haired informant. For once it was good, solid information, and he had put up with her rambling off-track and incoherent babbling long enough to sift through the nonsense and get what he needed.

He’d just checked out of the hotel in Iowa City and was headed to some spot on the map in Indiana, when his cell had started playing that blasted theme again. He knew who it was. Only one person could do that to his phone. He’d answered it with a disgusted sigh and the hope that she had something worth his time. He really didn’t have the patience nor the desire to make a special trip out of his way to put an end to their ‘relationship,’ but if her call wasn’t important, he would.

What little she told him over the phone was intriguing enough to make him change his plans after all.

They met up in the sickeningly quaint ice cream parlor where Heist worked. She was too busy moping behind the counter to see him when he arrived, and it looked like it was going to require a little effort on his part to get her to her cheerfully gibbering mode.

“Welcome to Olde Tymes, home of the Colossally Caramel Camelot Sundae. Would you like to try a Merlin’s Magical Milkshake or an Excalibur Concrete?” she recited dully in his direction.

“I think I’ll have a malt today, shaken, not stirred,” he drawled. James Sidney Bond could be very charming when he absolutely needed to be, and he could turn on the charisma just as well as his movie namesake. Heist perked up and a shade of a maniacal grin crossed her face.

“Well, that’s a rather tall order,” she said cheerfully. “But I need to know what flavor. We have more than seven hundred possible combinations, after all.”

Sidney shrugged and leaned forward over the counter. “I have absolute trust in your discretion and good taste, my dear.” He smiled then; Sidney prided himself on his acting ability and all it took to win most people over was a flash of a sincere-looking grin. He loved how they never saw death coming until it hit them right between the eyes.

Heist wasn’t stupid, but it didn’t take much to make her trust him. She was a radical idealist. A bit of a flake, really. Part of the ‘Lunatic Fringe’. And she knew more about the Gates than anyone he’d met so far, but she also had no idea what she was sitting on. There was no reason to tell her that he was an alchemist and an assassin; all she needed to know was that he was from somewhere else and wanted to get back. He’d set out the bait, and she’d taken it.

She’d pointed him in the direction of that Reilly woman in Bartlesville, but that was a bust. The woman might have a Gate sitting proudly in the middle of her back yard, but she was too canny. She would see right through him and then he’d have to turn her into a nasty red smear. And that wouldn’t help him at all.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t get information from her, though. The few sneak-and-peeks he’d made during the rare times no one was in the run-down farmhouse elicited a wealth of information. Unfortunately, none of it told him how to open the gods-be-damned Gate.

Her research continued though and he would check back periodically to see how far it had advanced between other assignments. He had to keep up appearances, after all. It wouldn’t do to have his secret get out and have this country’s government haul him in for testing. He might have the protection of his current Commander, but that protection was not omnipotent. Especially if he were to do something stupid, like reveal who he really was to the wrong people.

Covering up the cause of death of a few nosey idiots was much easier than damming up an information leak, after all.

He’d never given up on the idea of getting back, even after four long, miserable years in this hell-hole. And it wasn’t all just playing Secret Agent and obsession over the Gates. He had every intention of returning to Hakuro bearing gifts. This world was far advanced in science and technology compared to Amestris and learning how to access that information was ridiculously easy. The intelligence he’d gathered and saved would fill the Central Library ten times over, now. With the weapons technology information he had, he would return a hero and Hakuro would be able to assure his position as Fuehrer. The balance of power would tilt radically in Amestris’ favor.

Of course all this would be a moot point if he couldn’t get back, but that was beginning to look like less of a problem, now.

The brief tease of Heist’s information made him wish he could get away with his own brand of house cleaning and dispose of the useless morons he had working under him. Agents, with access to the best technology this miserable world had to offer, and not a one of them could find that damned little alchemist. It took a scatter-brained, myopic hacker with the attention span of a gnat to find out the mouthy little brat had never left the hospital in Wichita in the first place.

After he’d blown up a local bar and a few of the more expensive-looking cars in the Sheraton parking ramp, Sidney had taken some time to rethink the situation. Someone on the staff knew more than they should. Why else would they fake the paperwork and hide the kid in plain sight? He was looking forward to showing them the error of their ways. Later, though. The kid wasn’t going anywhere. Not as long as they thought he was safe, and for the moment Sidney had no reason to make them think otherwise.

Heist finally produced a milkshake with a flourish and found Sidney a corner table by a badly drawn dragon. If he looked at it right, it seemed to be breathing fire at the knight attempting to fight it and he found it remarkably appropriate.

“You’re looking down today,” Sidney said, his voice oozing with false concern.

Heist prodded at her own ice cream. “I work here,” she gestured at their surroundings, “and Mandar was in here about an hour before you were crying about how she broke up with her boyfriend. It sucked, man. I gave her a free sundae and she just let it melt all over the table. The horror!”

Sidney nodded sympathetically and took a sip of his malt. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an oversweet frenzy of flavors like he’d expected, just tasting a touch of pumpkin and cinnamon with a mellow overtone of honey and the barest hint of tart citrus to offset it all. It was almost like drinking a good cup of tea, and he was forced to reevaluate his opinion of her usefulness.

Heist smiled brilliantly at his honest expression of enjoyment. “You think that’s good? Wait’ll you hear what I found out. I already told you that kid you wanted me to find is still in Wichita, right? Well, I finally figured out his story.”

Sidney sat up a little straighter and motioned for her to continue. Heist didn’t need the encouragement. “He’s got an older brother. Does the name Edward Elric mean anything to you?”

Sidney stopped listening at that point. Elric, he thought. The little Fullmetal Bastard. It had to be. It suddenly made perfect sense. Why the John Doe in the hospital looked so familiar. The little brother. But the little brother was a soul trapped in armor last he’d heard. It was supposed to be one the State’s best-kept secrets, but like any State Secret, there were always certain channels that gave them up with the right connections. The Fuehrer knew about the younger Elric, which meant Hakuro knew, and it filtered down to Sidney.

Heist rambled on regardless, and he snapped back to attention. “—thought so. Anyhow, Ducky didn’t come right out and say it, but this guy showed up at Reilly’s the night of that big storm, when all the ley-lines went haywire. I’m betting that he took a little trip down the wrong rabbit hole and ended up here instead of Wonderland.”

If he’s flesh and blood now, that would mean…

“You know what that means, right?” Heist asked excitedly. “Whatever brought you here isn’t a one time kind of thing. Tap your heels together and make a wish, Dorothy, you could find a way home!”

Not only that, Sidney thought as his heart raced and he used everything he had to keep his usual calm, cool exterior from cracking. They made the Philosopher’s Stone. Ruby slippers indeed…

The moment he came to that realization, he couldn’t get away from Heist fast enough. The temptation to fly from Kansas City to Tulsa then just appropriate a car was incredibly strong, but Sidney had a few loose ends to tie up here and preparations to make in Wichita before he could get to Bartlesville.

They made the Philosopher’s Stone, the thought ran through his mind like a mantra. Knowing the Amestrian government, it was highly likely that the Elric brothers had used it to escape through the Gate, to get themselves and the stone as far away from the military’s clutches as they could.

A grin spread across Sidney’s face as he drove. Had anyone seen it, they would have thought they were looking at their own impending death.

Perhaps there is something to fate, after all.


Wichita, Kansas

Al stared at his newly-freed left arm, flexing the atrophied muscles which ached after the intense rehabilitation he'd put them through. The therapist had said that the brace could go permanently, which was a very good thing in Al's opinion. He wanted to get his arm back to normal very soon.

Since the therapist didn't want him to overdo it with the arm, he'd been allowed to do some lifting and strength training, then told to do his forms and let it rest so that the fracture didn't re-break. After his forms were done, he was left with a good bit of time while Eugene trained his upper body. He’d told Al once that he wanted to get away from the remote wheelchair and into a manual one. So while Al waited, he pulled the wooden flute from his pocket and idly started playing a tune.

It was near the end of Gene's session, and Al was starting to feel very relaxed when he spotted a couple at the door. They were watching as Gene finished his therapy and he didn't look happy when he spotted them. Al pretended to be more interested in his music but watched out of the corner of his eye as Gene wheeled over and talked to them.

After a minute or two, Al realized that the couple was Gene’s parents and that it was none of his business. He lost himself in the music again, playing whatever tune came to mind and fingers. His eyes closed as he leaned against the wall, the melody soothing his own mind and making everything seem a lot more peaceful. So much so that he didn't even notice Gene sitting next to him until he heard a cough during a pause for breath.

"Oh! Hi," Al said as he came out of his musings.

"Got something for you," Gene said as he tossed a fluffy teddy bear onto Al's lap. "The folks thought I might want something cuddly, and I know how you like soft things, so..."

Al's face broke into a huge grin at the brown fluffy thing in front of him, and he gave it a hug immediately, enjoying the soft feel of plush against his skin. "Thanks, Br—er, Gene."

Eugene started at the mix-up, then gave Al a long, hard look. It strongly reminded Al of Winry when she realized Ed had concocted another stupid and dangerous plan. "All right, enough of this bullshit,” he said once Al was feeling very uncomfortable. “What the hell are you hiding from?"

The question hit Al in the chest like a sock full of cens. Trying desperately to hide the panic he felt rising, Al cleared his throat and tried to hide his face in the bear’s soft fur. "What makes you think I'm hiding from something?" He could still feel Gene’s sharp blue eyes boring into him from behind those glasses.

“Don't try to lie to me, your poker face is terrible,” the other teen said. “How the hell could I not have noticed? For one thing, you don't act like someone who's lost his memories and supposedly has trust issues. I mean, look at how quickly you came to my rescue when we first met, and you didn't even know me. Then you wandered away from Ray and went to talk to that computer guy, which is something else someone with trust issues would never do."

He lightly tugged on the bear in emphasis, which Al was hugging even tighter. "Also, there's the skin hunger. You’re always touching someone or something like you may never get the chance to do it again. If you had trust issues, you would shy away from that.”

Al gulped. Brother always did say I had a face made of glass. I didn’t think I was that transparent, though.

"Then there's the stuff you know, but shouldn't know! Like knowing that Scotland's original name was Caledonia, even if you got the country Stonehenge was in wrong. And searching for alchemy online is a bit strange in itself. Even your e-mail address tells me you're hiding something, since it contains a very specific idea, that of you being an 'armored alchemist', which I still don't get, but it obviously means something important to you."

Al's breath hitched and he clasped his hands tighter around the bear in an effort to hide the shaking. The paralyzing fear returned and he felt like he was caught in those headlights again, with no idea what to do to avert the wreck looming in front of him.

"And let's not forget that you've been e-mailing some stranger off and on for the past few days, and you nearly shit yourself with excitement when a new message comes in. If that doesn't mean you're making plans, I'll eat my damned wheelchair."

Gene’s hand rested warmly on Al’s forearm and his voice grew soft. "Look, John, you've been an actual friend to me, and I don't get those often. Your eyes didn't really register my little chariot, and usually that's all anyone sees." He sighed. "I want to help, if I can. Can't you tell me?"

Al swallowed hard and finally looked up. He shook his head, unable to say a word.

Eugene pinned him with a look and leaned forward. Then he gave Al a grin that smacked of Ed's personal brand of deviousness. "It's not like finding out what you've sent in those e-mails would be hard for me, you know," he said, voice pitched low to veil the threat. "Hacking e-mails are a piece of cake for me. And even if it's coded, I'd have it sorted out soon. I am a genius, after all."

At the last phrase, Al was startled out of his panic and he just stared. It was shocking to hear the same kind of bragging his brother used come from someone else. Then the incongruousness of it overwhelmed him and he gave in to the giggles.

Gene frowned. "What's so funny?"

Struggling to control his giggle fit and feeling a lot calmer, Al gave his friend a shy smile. "You sounded just like Brother, saying that."

His friend sat back in his chair, the canny grin back on his face. "So you do remember. Why hide it?"

Al loosened his choke-hold on the brown bear and sighed. "It’s a long story.”

Gene looked up and Al followed his gaze. Ray was coming for them. "Look, Ray’s coming, so why don’t we try to get together sometime this afternoon. You can tell me then."

Al gave a quiet sigh, then nodded and gathered his things. "All right."


Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Ed was in the garden practicing his forms. The day had grown to be a hot one, so he worked out in just shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. His automail gleamed in the bright sunlight, but he didn’t mind. He was out in the middle of nowhere with no one home, and no one expected. He could have been working out completely naked and he wouldn’t have had a worry in the world. Of course, that would never happen, but it was nice to know he could if he wanted.

The plans were all in place. Tonight they were leaving for Wichita. They were finally going to get Al out of that hospital. The waiting had driven him nuts; they’d all insisted that these things take time. But time dragged. And dragged. And DRAGGED. And matters were only made worse by the fact there was almost nothing he could do to help. He was in an alien world with different rules and he was as clueless as a newborn.

Admittedly, Reilly, Tom and Ducky didn’t hold it against him, but that wasn’t the point. When it came to his brother, Edward Elric did not give in and let others help easily. Okay, he didn’t let anyone help him in anything unless he had no choice, but he was especially stubborn when it came to Al.

Things had been quiet for the past couple of days, at least as far as the ‘Men in Black’ as Ducky called them, and Ed found himself hoping that it would stay that way. He just as quickly brushed the thought aside. Quiet was not in the cards for the Elric brothers, least of all for the oldest one. But maybe, one day… Perhaps the two of them could finally settle down somewhere and call it home.

He hesitated in the middle of one move as the photograph from the book floated in his vision. Noah’s face wore the years well but for the sorrow in her gaze, and he could only imagine how much of that grief had been caused by the sullen boy staring out from the pages. If he’d been anything like Ed growing up he’d have been a hellraiser. The half-fond thought died a bitter death as Ed remembered abruptly that he never had the chance to know. His heart clenched like a vice and his eyes burned with the threat of tears.

It would have been so much easier if he hadn’t given in to the aching loneliness that twisted his gut every night and pushed him to seek solace in Noah’s arms. Yes, he had Al with him, alive and whole. But it wasn’t enough. Everyone he loved, even that Bastard Colonel, was permanently out of reach. During the day he was able to keep his mind occupied, to push the memories of friends lost away. But at night, they haunted him. Regrets for things never said, but should have been. He’d never really thanked Mustang for helping them. It didn’t matter that it had helped Mustang’s career as much as it did them; if it hadn’t been for that self-serving asshole, Al would have been sent to a lab, and Ed would have been executed.

Hawkeye, Havoc, Breda, Falman, Fuery… Armstrong even… Ross, Brosh, Sciezka. The nearly endless litany of names and faces went though his thoughts. People he knew well and called friend. People he’d only met once or twice, but were impossible to forget: Russell, Fletcher, Rick, Leo… People who were the closest thing to a family he had besides Al… Izumi, Sig, Granny Pinako. And Winry.

Winry. He had the most to regret there. He’d never told her. He’d always thought he’d have the chance one day and that she’d be there forever. She’d been hurt so many times because he shut her out. He’d had no choice if he wanted to keep her safe. Then he went back through that damned Gate and as good as locked it and threw away the key. If losing everyone else felt like cutting out his own heart, losing Winry was adding salt to the raw wound and drowning it in bad alcohol.

It was months before he hit the breaking point. Whether it was the cognac that night, or something else entirely, he was never quite certain. If Noah hadn’t been there... Hell, he wasn’t sure if he saw her as Noah or as a poor substitute for what he really wanted, but she understood. Without ever saying a word, she understood so much more than he could ever voice. Her silent and gentle touches healed him more than any amount of alchemy ever could. She healed him in places even his own brother could never touch.

Did he love her? He’d asked himself that question many times over the following months. Maybe. It wasn’t the same as what he felt for Winry, the feeling that she was a part of him. He certainly cared about her, would do whatever it took to keep her safe. He wanted her to be happy. If that was love, then he supposed he felt it.

But if he truly loved her, wouldn’t he have been more responsible? Wouldn’t he have tried to prevent a pregnancy neither of them were ready for?

He’d stopped moving entirely, staring into the koi pond without really seeing it. All he could see on the water was the black and white face he saw in the mirror every day. Maes… he thought. My son. My sin. My selfishness cursed your short life to a Hell I can’t begin to imagine. And all I can say is… I’m sorry.

“Traveling is difficult when you carry a heavy heart.”

Ed spun at the sound and went immediately into a defensive crouch as he searched for the owner of the voice.

“It takes you off your center and causes you to lose your path.”

It took a moment, but he found the figure sitting on the wall under the catalpa, nearly hidden in the shadows. Had he not shifted to rest his foot on the wall, Ed would never have seen him; he blended into the deep shade that well. “Who the hell are you?”

“What day is it?”


Ed couldn’t see his face that clearly, but he caught a glint of light from glasses. Even still, there was something familiar about the voice and the form.

“I’ve been called many different things,” the man said lightly. “Some of them were not always friendly.”

“I wonder why,” Ed mumbled, and took a few cautious steps closer. “Why don’t you come out here? Let me see you better. Or are you afraid?”

The form in the shadows chuckled and slid down off the wall. “Should a man fear the butterfly?”

Ed’s ground his teeth and clenched his fists. “Are you saying I’m too small to kick your ass?”

The man ducked to pass under the branches of the tree and came into the sunlight. He stopped close enough to Ed to make him look up. He smiled down, which only served to piss Ed off more.

“Your size has nothing to do with it,” he said. “Your temperament does, though.” He removed his glasses and slipped them into the pocket of his fatigue jacket. With a mild look he turned his back on Ed and crossed to the bench. “You’ve got good form in practice.” He took off the jacket and laid it neatly on the seat. “But how are you with a real opponent?”

Ed felt his stomach clench. This guy wants a fight? Sure the guy was big, but that didn’t mean a damn thing. After all, he’d taken down bigger. He flexed his fingers and felt the knuckles crack in his left hand. “Don’t underestimate me,” he said in a low voice. “You think I’m a butterfly? I’ll show you I can sting like a bee.”

The man glanced back over his shoulder and grinned. “I think Mohammed Ali owns the copyright to that line.”

Ed stared for a second and shook it off. The guy was trying to distract him with more of that pop culture, throw him off his game. No chance, Ed thought. The man returned to hover over Ed. He crossed his arms over his chest, but the smile remained.

Ed glared up at the man for a long moment, but neither said a word.

Without warning, Ed surged forward, automail fist outstretched for a well-practiced strike. Before he could make an impact, the stationary man somehow caught him and twisted. The sky and the ground lazily changed places overhead, and he felt the vaguest sensation of flying. He hit the ground with authority and rolled smoothly back to his feet. He nodded in acknowledgement; he never saw the other man move.

A wolf’s grin spread on his face, and Ed circled around the man. He’d underestimated this stranger, but it wasn’t going to happen again. “Who are you?” he asked again.

“A traveler. Much like yourself.”

Ed’s face twisted into a sneer. “I doubt that.”

The man shrugged. Ed lunged…

…and missed him by a mile.

Ed skidded to a stop and spun. The man was still in the same spot, arms crossed over his chest and still grinning.

“Quit talking in riddles. What’s your name?” Ed said.

“Ah! See, you didn’t ask me that.” The man bowed graciously. “I am called Singer by most.”

Ed scowled. “Is that your first or last name?”

“It’s a name.”

“Stop jerking me around. What are you doing here?”

Singer chuckled. “Right now? Watching you use up all your energy.”

“Damnit!” Ed snapped and swung at Singer. He felt something solid under his fist, then found himself spinning around again. When he stopped and got his feet back under him, he turned to face the man again. “Why won’t you answer me?”

Singer shrugged again. “I am. Perhaps you’re not asking the right questions.”

Ed thought a moment, then narrowed his eyes. “All right. Why are you here?” he asked as he pointed at the ground.

Singer smirked. “I’m not. You are.”

Ed groaned and covered his face with a hand. Of all the people he’d encountered, why did he always seem to find the craziest ones? “Are you deliberately being an asshole?”

Singer laughed and turned to head back to the bench. “My mother says I come by it naturally.”

It was time for a change of tactics. Though it wasn’t exactly fair fighting, Ed went after Singer while the man had his back turned. He was going to bring the guy down, even if he had to play dirty. Singer had other ideas.

The larger man spun and knelt as he reached up and caught Ed’s right wrist in an iron grip. “You’re good, Iron Butterfly, but you let your emotions override your focus.” The two of them locked eyes and wills for a long moment, then with a grin and a blur of motion, Ed broke free.

They moved together in a deadly dance; Ed spun and jabbed and kicked, and Singer effortlessly deflected all blows. Ed kept at him with relentless determination, not backing down and not backing up. Then in a flurry, a clap, and a flash, he had Singer bent backwards over the wall with an automail dagger at his throat.

“Now, you gonna answer my questions? Or will I have to show you a new way to breathe?”

Singer’s eyes sparked with humor and the smile that never left his face grew warmer. “Impressive. So that’s why they’ve taken so much interest in you.”

Ed pressed just a little harder against Singer’s throat in emphasis. “They?”

“The Shadows.”

Ed realized then why the man’s voice sounded familiar. He lurched back. “You were in the house the other night,” he said low, as he returned his right arm back to normal.

Singer righted himself and lightly rubbed at his throat. “Yes. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, you’d already beat them back.”

“So you know why they’re attacking me?”

Singer half-twisted to pop his back, but stopped at the question. He gave Ed an appraising look and cocked a brow. “They’re trying to warn you,” he said as if the answer should have been obvious.

“Warn me? By trying to suck the life out of me?”

Sighing at the muted crack of his back, Singer rolled his shoulders and went to retrieve his jacket from the bench. He didn’t say anything as he donned it and put his glasses back on. Ed only watched in confusion, not sure whether to beat the crap out of him or to wait for the answers. Considering trying to beat the man didn’t seem to do him much good before, he opted on the second choice.

Singer flopped down on the bench and crossed his legs, then leaned over the side and pulled a reed flute from the duffle that had been sitting there. How the hell did I miss seeing that? Ed wondered as the man began to play.

Ed decided that he’d waited long enough and stomped up to Singer. “Hey! Are you going to answer me?”

Singer stopped playing and looked up at Ed. “All things have a price and we fear that which we don’t understand. Your protector has fought against the Shadows all her life and she believes that is necessary. The Shadows are a warning, but you can’t know what they’re warning you about if you don’t pay their price.”

“They feed off life energy,” Ed said. “Seems a pretty high price to pay if you ask me.”

“It’s the price they require,” Singer said with a shrug. “If you want what they have badly enough, you’ll pay it.” He reached out and tapped Ed’s right arm with the flute. “You’ve paid a high price for something already.”

Ed stepped back and his flesh hand automatically went to the automail. “What do you know about this?”

“The particulars? Not a damn thing. But I know what I see, and what I see is that you gave your right arm and left leg for something you greatly desired.”

“So what are they trying to warn me about?”

“You’ll have to ask them.” Singer gestured at the ground. “Would you sit down? My neck is getting a cramp from looking up at you.”

Ed opened his mouth to yell when what Singer said sunk in. His mouth closed with a snap, but he didn’t sit.

“Can you at least tell me what they are?” he asked finally.

Singer shook his head. “I can tell you they’re not from here, nothing more.”

“So you’re trespassing on Reilly’s land just to tell me you don’t know shit?” Ed said.

Singer grinned. “You could say that.”

Ed noticed the shadow that blocked out the sun an instant before something large and black hit him in the right shoulder and unbalanced him. He instinctively flailed and bat at the huge raven with the automail arm, while protecting his face with the flesh. He dodged and weaved to get some space between himself and the bird, while swinging at it with his right arm.

The raven kept close, always behind him where it was difficult to swing. The talons scratched at his scalp and pulled at his hair, but didn’t dig in as deeply as they could. Then with a final hard tug and a flap of powerful wings, the bird was off of him.

“What the fuck was that for?” Ed shouted at the bird as it landed on the back of the bench next to Singer.

Singer chuckled as he held out a hand and the raven dropped something into it. He then glanced Ed’s way. “Raven has his price, as well.” He held up what the bird had dropped in his palm. It was a thin leather thong with a pair of small glass beads on each end.

“What the…” Ed reached back and discovered his hair was loose and the tie he usually used to keep it up was now in Singer’s possession. “Give that ba—“ he snapped as he advanced on the other man, but the raven hissed and flapped threateningly and Ed lurched back with an arm up.

Singer pocketed the hair tie. “I’m afraid there’re no refunds in Raven’s world.”

“Price?” Ed said through gritted teeth. “What the fuck for? And why the hell won’t you tell me what you’re doing here?”

“I just go where I’m needed.”

Before Ed could respond to that, the raven started squawking and flapping his wings nervously. Singer watched calmly a moment, then said, “You’re gonna need to run soon.”

He faced Ed, and for the first time since the vagrant appeared, he looked completely serious.


“I’m sorry,” the receptionist said, although Reilly didn’t think she looked all that sorry. “Your check just isn’t in here.”

“Look again,” Reilly said as her fingernails tapped out a frustrated rhythm on the counter.

The receptionist sighed and rolled her eyes. “I went through the stack three times already, Ms. Reilly. Your check isn’t in there.”

Reilly’s hands came down hard and flat on the counter and she leaned forward. The receptionist –a young girl, and one she didn’t recognize—leaned back as her personal bubble was invaded. “I don’t give a rat’s ass if you have to go through the stack ten more times. I’m owed a paycheck and I’m not walking out of here until either I get it or you find out where in the bloody hell it’s at.”

“Is there a problem, Aylah?”

The smooth, velvet voice set Reilly’s teeth instantly on edge and she made it a point to turn toward the owner slowly. Jim Manheim, or ‘Manny’ as he insisted on being called, was the General Manager of this branch. He was young, ambitious, and very attractive. He also knew it. In the two years since she started at this place, she came to realize that he was quite adept at manipulation and had an uncanny ability to know just where any one of his employees weak spots were. It would explain the new receptionist. He seemed to have a new, pretty face in that position every month. It would also explain how the man managed to avoid a sexual harassment suit for as long as he had.

Reilly had succeeded in staying under his radar the whole time she’d worked here. Unfortunately, it looked like her luck had just run out.

“Mr. Manheim,” the receptionist –Aylah-- said. “I can’t seem to find Ms. Reilly’s paycheck.”

Manny gave her a smarmy smile and approached the desk. Reilly rolled her eyes when she saw the girl damn near melt. “Ah,” he said. “That’s my fault. I’m sorry Aylah, I should have alerted you. I have Reilly’s check.”

He finally deigned to give her some of his attention with a nod. “I need to speak with you, and holding your check was a guarantee that I could.”

He reached out to lay a hand on the small of her back, ostensibly to guide her toward his office, but Reilly dodged the touch. He just gave her a slightly crooked smile that didn’t reach his dark eyes and waved a hand toward the long hallway. She knew where his office was, she didn’t need to be shown. She remembered very clearly when he had the short-arm of the L-shaped hall added in and his new office built. Mainly because she and several other employees had lost their spots in the cube-farm to the remodeling.

It was a fallacy that all the cubes for the customer service reps were exactly the same. The area that Manny had claimed for his new office was prime territory. There was plenty of natural light from the windows, and due to the location it was also the quietest spot on the floor. Those who were lucky enough to get the cubes in that area had defended them jealously. Reilly knew it was petty, but she had never really forgiven him for stealing that from her.

Her hackles rose as he followed her down the hall and she caught glimpses of the poor drones that were working through various inlets from the floor to the main hall. A couple of people she’d gotten on well with happened to glance her way and she half expected someone to start chanting “dead man walking” from the grim looks they gave her.

She turned the corner and tensed at the mahogany door at the end of the short junction. Solid, she was certain, as opposed to the oak-veneer, hollow-core, cheap-assed doors any other office had. It galled her, and she knew it was only to be expected in Corporate America. He had the office built six months ago, and the money that was used to build it was part of a bonus package the shareholders had agreed to when this branch of the Cable Company had exceeded their projected profits. The employees who’d actually made the money didn’t see jack for it, though. Not even a piddly ‘Thank You’.

The office wasn’t really huge, but it was ostentatious. The mahogany desk dominated the room, as did the high-backed leather chair behind it. There were framed pictures scattered about the office --all aimed at whoever was sitting across the desk from Manny, she noticed-- of him in various outdoor activities. Hiking in Yosemite, fly-fishing in Alaska, and rock-climbing in Arizona were all interspersed with pictures of him accepting awards or shaking hands with various celebrities and politicos. All of them Republican, I see, she thought sarcastically. There was one other door which led to a meeting room, also mahogany; although the door that the peons used for team meetings that opened up to the floor was the cheap stuff.

There was one thing stood out in the entire office, and it wasn’t actually in it. It was the brand new, bright yellow Hummer2 SUV parked right outside. Another part of the bonus Manny was given, and his pride and joy. It made Reilly’s old beat-up truck parked next to it look positively ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ in comparison.

She tried to suppress the smirk at the thought that he was probably trying to compensate for a lack elsewhere.

Her nerves started to jangle when Manny locked the door and she shot him a distrustful glare. He gestured at a seat and said, “This is just so no one will disturb us.”

She crossed her arms and remained standing. He just shook his head and dug in his pocket. Her expression went from wary to downright disgusted when he pulled his keys out and tossed them into the center of his desk. It was showing off, she was certain of it.

He gestured to the chair once more as he came around the desk and said, “Please. Sit down. I’m not going to bite.”

“I don’t intend to be here that long.” Reilly held her hand out. “My check.”

Instead, Manny sat, took a file from the top of the stack on one side and opened it. “You’ve been with us for two years. Is that right?”

She sighed, and crossed her arms again. “Mr. Manheim—“

“Manny, please.”

Mister Manheim,” she continued, “if there is a point to all this, please just get to it. I’m short of time.”

He cocked a brow and closed the file. He folded his hands, rested them on top of it, and leaned forward slightly. “Very well. Your records and evaluations indicate that you’ve been a model employee until recently. Over the past month, you’ve frequently left early, called in, even quit at one point. I’m… concerned. If one of my valued employees is having personal problems that are interfering with their job performance, I want to know about it.”


She caught movement over his shoulder, out the tinted windows. An unfamiliar sedan was slowly moving through the parking lot, like the driver was looking for something. The nondescript car in basic black and windows tinted so dark seeing inside was impossible sent alarm bells off in her head. They wouldn’t be that much of a stereotype… would they?

Her response seemed to surprise Manny. “No? No, you’re not having problems? Or no, you don’t want to talk about it?”

“C, all of the above. D, take your choice. I don’t care. It’s not your problem,” she said absently. Her attention was more on the sedan, which was now stopped right behind her truck.

“Actually, it is my problem. If one of my employees is involved in dangerous or illegal activities, it reflects badly on the company.”

Manny’s phone rang just as the driver stepped out of the sedan, and strode over to the back of her truck. “Yes? Thank you, Aylah. Have him take a seat in the reception area and I’ll be right out.”

Reilly almost laughed at the driver. He was dressed in the typical black suit with the standard black sunglasses and the wire hanging from his ear. Hysteria started to rise in her gut, and she briefly wondered if the man’s name was ‘Smith’, or if he just went by a single initial. “You bastard,” she whispered.

Manny hung up the phone and gave her a questioning look. She ignored him, and stumbled up to the window. Feds, it had to be. She quickly yanked the blinds down, and spun on Manny. “You bastard,” she said louder.

“Just turn yourself in, Reilly. They can help you get out of this mess,” he said calmly, but Reilly could see the nervous dart of his eyes toward the door.

She swooped in and pinned him to his fancy leather chair before he could get up and run for the door. Her knees were shaking and she was sure she probably looked insane right then. Terrified and furious, she fisted the front of his shirt and bounced him back against the seat a couple of times. “Why? Do you even know what you’ve done you stupid son of a bitch?”

“They said you were involved with a terrorist group,” he choked.

“T-terrorist?! And you believed them?”

Reilly didn’t realize that she was twisting the fabric of Manny’s shirt so tightly she was cutting off his air until his face became a rather interesting shade of purple and he started to claw at her wrist. She barely loosened her grip, keeping him pinned, but letting him breathe. She didn’t need a murder charge on her head with everything else.

She heard Aylah pleading down the hallway at someone. “You can’t go back there!”

She was trapped, but she was too scared to just stand still and await her fate. More out of frustration than planning, she hauled back and decked Manny hard in the jaw. His eyes rolled up and he slumped bonelessly out of his chair. She gulped and nudged him with a toe. When he didn’t react, a short, sharp bark escaped her lips. She never thought she could hit someone that hard.

In her panic, she cast about for an idea. She wanted to escape, but she didn’t think she’d be able to. Even if she could get out of the office, there was still the sedan that had her truck blocked. Her first instinct was to block the door, and she jumped over to the chair to jam it under the knob.

Now what, genius? she thought as she heard someone rattling the door. She bit her lower lip as she cast a glance at the door for the meeting room and she wondered if she could sneak out of the building that way. Then she took a peek out the binds and felt her heart sink. She had an irrational hope that the other agent wasn’t still blocking her truck, but there he was, large as life.

Then her eyes landed on the keys in the middle of Manny’s desk and a hint of a smile tugged at her lips.


I don't have time for this!

Ed ran through the old farmhouse, hunting for any and all evidence that he had been there and hurling it into the black duffel he had slung over his shoulder.

Dammit, why didn't I think to pack before now?!

Singer's visit had been brief, but very informative.

"Danger's coming for you, and on swift wings.” Singer was entirely serious, the playfulness gone from his voice. “Swifter than yours if you don't hurry, Butterfly."

He stopped at the laundry room to grab the small pile of freshly cleaned clothing that was his and toss it into the bag dangling from his arm without bothering to do anything other than make sure it didn't go hurtling to the floor instead of to the bottom of the duffel.

"Don't call me Butterfly!"

Raven had cawed sharply, and Ed had begun to glare at the bird.

The Reichsmarks were still on the coffeetable from a few weeks ago. Ed grabbed those, shoving them into the pocket of his shorts.

"Raven has decided that he will watch out for you." The blonde vagrant grinned, the expression slightly lopsided. "He likes shiny things. Remember that."

I don't need that annoying bird's help,
he thought as he ran to his room, scouring the place for anything of his that was there. Spotting the small latex toolkit Hughes had made, Ed grabbed it and shoved it in the bag with his clothes, along with the few extra sleeves they had made to cover his arm.

Let's see, what else what else what else? Dammit, I don't have time for this! Hesitating in his room, Ed's eyes darted to the bookshelf, where several books still resided in a cluttered pile from his attempts to move them. Ed spotted some pictures spilling from one, and paused a moment.

She's never coming back, if that smartass was right. The album went into his duffel, as did the only pictures of his own family.

Ed grabbed for the pair of jeans he'd left in a pile on his floor, hurriedly pulling them on over his cloth shorts and shoving his feet into his boots, tossing the few pairs of socks on his floor into the duffel with everything else. With the shoes on his feet, Ed scrambled for the desk to grab the laptop carrier that had one pocket bulging with a DVD wallet, and the camcorder, before rushing to the closet and grabbing Reilly's already-packed bag, then sprinting out the door to hide in the tall grass and wait for her. He never noticed the piece of paper that worked out from the pocket of his shorts, down the leg of his pants, to land in the middle of the floor.

Dammit, Reilly, get your ass back here, now!
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