Arc One: Chapter Seventeen
Balance of Power
Mustang had taught him that sometimes discretion was the better part of valor, and he decided now might be a good time to actually put that lesson into practice...
June 2, 2006 – 12:03pm
South Central Kansas
Sidney couldn't believe his good luck as he calmly drove towards Bartlesville. His plans to trap the Elric brothers were going better than expected, and he even had some unanticipated help in getting the younger one in custody, thanks to his mentor.
That had been one encounter he hadn't planned on, but he was glad he had stopped for a sub-par cup of tea at that annoying coffee establishment. Thinking about the encounter as he drove the long stretch of K-15, a small sneer curled the edge of his lip…
"Well, fancy seeing you here."
His hackles rose at the unmitigated gall of the woman who dared to interrupt him in the middle of explaining to the dull-witted cow on the other side of the counter how he wanted his tea. The voice was all-too familiar, and that was the only thing that kept him from snapping her head off, both figuratively and literally.
In the space of a breath, he adjusted his expression to one he thought would be far less dark, and turned to see no one behind him. He clenched his jaw and adjusted his sight down. It never failed to confound him how someone so tiny could have a voice with that much confidence and -- he hated to admit it -- authority. Even when she was being… friendly. "Hello, Amber."
"Jeez, Sid, you don't have to act all enthused to see me or anything," the tiny woman groused, settling down in the booth directly behind him. "Hey, hurry up and get whatever tea you think you can stomach. I'm really glad you're here; I wanted to ask you a few things."
Ever since she'd trained him almost four years ago, his mentor had never shown an ounce of fear at Sidney's moods, despite the fact she knew how dangerous he could be when provoked (although not how dangerous he really was. Oh, no. The only people who ever found that out told no tales). Sidney thought it was a pity he couldn't show her the error of her ways, but his own superiors would be put-out to lose such a superb undercover agent. Besides, his mentor never asked for help unless she really needed it and that could be an advantage he could turn to his own agenda.
He gave up trying to describe to the gum-snapping imbecile taking his order how to make a semi-palatable cup of tea and just ordered off the menu -- something called "raspberry chai" that smelled very similar to one of those scented candles women seemed to favor -- and sat down across from Amber. "May I ask what you're doing in the area, Amber? Surely you didn't drive all this way just for a mediocre cup of tea."
Amber rolled her eyes and downed some of the coffee she'd ordered. "Hardly. I'm here on assignment. The higher-ups want me to investigate a bombing at a local hospital; they think it was a terrorist attack." She snorted in a most unladylike manner. "Of course, they'd think it was a terrorist attack if someone farted at a White House dinner party, but they think this one looks really fishy even though the prelim didn’t turn up a damn thing. It wasn't that anyone was hurt, but it has something in common with a few other bombings that've happened around the country over the last four years."
Sidney sipped his tea and grimaced. It tasted like one of those scented candles, too. “And that is?”
“Forensics can’t pin down the accelerant.” She picked a corner off her sandwich and popped it into her mouth. “For all intents and purposes, there isn’t one, which has everyone scratching their heads, since the materials used shouldn’t explode without it.” She swallowed and shrugged. “None of these bombings fit into a pattern. The devices used are all different; the targets don’t even have anything in common. Hell, there isn’t even a signature. But the Powers That Be are convinced they’re all related by virtue of that one little thing.” She took another sip of her coffee and pulled a face. Setting the cup aside, she said, “Ever since 9/11 they’ve been anxiously chewing their own tails anyway, but they might have something this time.”
Sidney kept the expression on his face very bland, but he realized with cold certainty which bombings she was talking about. The fact that this tiny woman was currently assigned to investigate them was very bad, indeed. Of all the agents he’d had the misfortune to be forced to deal with in his time here, she was one of the most brilliant –the most capable of thinking outside the box, as it were. Unfortunately, the surest way to stop her from snooping too deeply wasn’t an option at this moment, because she could still be useful. What Sidney needed was a red herring; something that would get her off the trail, albeit temporarily. He estimated that he only needed a little more time, and then this would all be academic. And if she figured out the truth before he could get back to Amestris, well… he could always take the other option. "So the higher-ups want you to see if you can catch who's responsible."
"Right. And I'm Agent Midget, so people aren't intimidated, nor will they be frightened enough to try lying to me." She picked up the sandwich and took another bite. "It's really annoying when people equate danger with height."
"Which hospital did this occur at? I wasn't informed," he asked casually, although he was certain at this point he knew the answer.
"Park City Medical."
Beautiful. Sidney knew he had his diversion and his own bomb had given it to him. It was elegant in its simplicity. He could get Amber off his scent for the moment, and keep the younger Elric under close watch. Disguising the newfound glee he was feeling, he took another sip of the horrid tea and laid his trap. "I've been there. That John Doe I was investigating is being treated there still. Perhaps you should pay him a visit."
He watched as Amber's eyes narrowed, and knew she was considering several different possibilities. He had little concern about being linked directly to this bombing, since he was ‘elsewhere’ at the time it occurred –the use of alchemy on a time delay was an art form that few could truly appreciate.
"Why were you investigating him? You never told me," she asked, finally.
Sidney allowed himself a small smirk. "I suspected him of terrorist involvement. He did something to the road when he was hit that smacks of some sort of new weapon, but there wasn't enough evidence to have him taken away. Now might be a good chance to try and confirm his involvement, especially if they’re developing weapons like that. It sounds like there might be a connection to your mysterious bomber and the kid."
"Really." Amber frowned thoughtfully for a few moments, then stood, taking her half-eaten sandwich with her. "I'll have to look into it. Thanks, Sid."
Sidney had watched his fellow Agent leave the coffeehouse, a sly grin spreading across his face. "Believe me, Amber. The thanks belongs to you."
Sidney took the left onto Highway 166 and headed east. With his miniature mentor keeping the younger Elric brat under surveillance, he was free to deal with the older, more dangerous—and far more useful—Fullmetal Bastard. Things were finally looking up for James Sidney Bond. He could practically taste the Ishbalan tea now.
It didn’t stand a chance in hell of succeeding, Reilly knew this, but she was committed. As she raced down the two-lane highway toward her house in a stolen Hummer, her mind spun in circles. From the moment Ed had arrived, soaking wet and dressed out of period, she knew this day would come. She just didn’t expect it quite this quickly.
Idiot, she silently cursed herself. She knew she should have just taken Ed and gone to ground the moment her account had been frozen; then she wouldn’t currently be trying to race the Feds to get to the kid and save his ass. And for all I know, they have people there already.
She’d panicked. There was no other way to explain her actions. After she’d decked Manny, she’d grabbed onto any chance of escape she could find. In this case, it was the keys to his new Hummer. Her truck was blocked by the Feds sedan, but the Hummer wasn’t, and her only thought was, if she could make it to the enormous SUV she could get away. She didn’t bother to think beyond that.
She groaned low at the thought. This was going to end badly, no matter what she did. I should have just given myself up. Maybe they’d go easy on Ed then.
Too late for that now.
The instant her hand had wrapped around those keys, she’d gone on automatic pilot. She slipped through the second door into the meeting room, and ran out the other side. There was only one way out from there without being seen by the Fed that was currently trying to kick Manny’s door in. Unfortunately, it was like being a rat in a maze. She had to stay low and weave her way through the cube farm in a path that took her further from the way out at first. There was a straight shot to the service exit, but it was wide-open and she wouldn’t have a chance of hiding if she took it.
She glanced up into the rearview, but didn’t see anyone behind her. This is bad. Of course, they don’t have to stay on my tail, she realized with a horrible, sinking feeling. I’m driving a bright yellow Hummer with an active GPS tracking system. Oh yeah, I’ll be able to get away. Suuuuure.
And pigs can fly. StupidstupidstupidReilly.
It had been close. At first no one paid much attention to her because they were all acting like prairie dogs with their heads up, looking around to find the cause of the disturbance. That was, until a shot was fired.
Reilly had frozen. She had no idea where in the call center the retort had originated from, it echoed and distorted even with the sound-damping materials used for the cube-farm. She had managed to get as close to the service exit as she could under the little bit of cover she had. Now she was staring at a gap between her hiding spot and the exit that could have been as wide as the Grand Canyon for all the chance she had of making it.
After the initial screams and panic of the employees, there was a deathly silence. Reilly was certain that her heart was beating so loudly that it could be heard through the entire call center. Fear locked her into place. She knew if she didn’t get to that exit, she would be caught. But she was afraid that if she ran for it, she would be shot. If the bastard was willing to fire a gun inside the call center, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill her.
When she heard the explosive splintering of Manny’s door, it felt like she’d been launched out of a cannon. She nearly leapt across the expanse and slammed into the service exit. She practically tripped over trash barrels and a cleaning cart as she charged down the short hall to the outside. She didn’t think; she just shoved the things out of her way, and barely registered the crash and clatter as they fell over behind her.
As she burst out that last door, she slipped and pitched forward, the keys flying out of her hand to slide out of reach. She heard the inner door crash open, scrambled to her feet, and scooped up the keys as she ran. She heard the second door bang open and someone yelling at her to freeze. Instead she pushed harder and dashed around the corner of the building just as she heard a shot fired.
She hugged the building and stayed low behind the bushes as she made her way to the Hummer. It was only a few feet away, but it felt like a mile.
As she reached the passenger side of the Hummer, she saw the other Fed running to the sound of the gunshot. She dropped and rolled under the giant SUV, then out the other side. When she came up, she scrambled with the keys to find the one to unlock the door, her hands shaking so badly she nearly dropped them again. She kept low but peeked over the hood of the Hummer to see where the Feds were. No time. There’s no time. They’re going to reach me any second.
What possessed her to forgo the key and just try the door, she’d never know, but she almost froze in wonder when she discovered it wasn’t locked at all. She mentally shook herself and climbed into the SUV, then closed the door quietly. She stayed low while she went through Manny’s keys for the one that would start the behemoth. She made the mistake up coming up when she shoved it into the ignition, because that exposed her to the Feds. She started the Hummer and slammed it into reverse at the same time one of them fired, sending a bullet through the windshield. Had she not ducked again, it would have hit her right between the eyes.
Without looking, she hit the gas and lurched backwards. There was a satisfying crunch and screech of metal as the rear of the Hummer clipped into the front end of the black sedan and shoved it out of the way.
She caught sight of one of the Feds coming her way and hit the lock on the door just in time. He grabbed at the door and tried to get it open and when that didn’t work, he aimed the gun right at her. She pressed harder on the gas, causing the Hummer to lurch and throw the agent to the ground. She also felt the crunch of metal again as she backed into another car parked somewhere behind her.
She shifted into drive, sat up, and turned the huge vehicle. Unfortunately, doing so caused her to clip other cars parked there and she felt bad for about a second. She didn’t have time to wallow in guilt. She had to get to Ed.
She didn’t bother to take the actual exit from the lot, but instead jumped a low barrier, tore across the grass divider between the lot and the street, and leapt into traffic. Nor did she didn’t bother trying to lose them or to take a round-a-bout route. She knew that if there weren’t agents already at her house, those at the Cable Company wouldn’t bother chasing her. They’d just go straight to Ed. They knew she’d eventually have to go home.
She was only a quarter mile from the turn-off to her home and still didn’t see anyone behind her. Instead of relief, it made her heart sink. They already had people there. She was too late.
Then she saw the glimmer of black in the rear-view as it crested the hill. Nope, there they are, she thought. Joy.
She turned down the dirt road to her house with a sense of fatalism. One way or another, she was going to have to face them. But she wasn’t going to do it without at least trying to protect Ed.
Ed saw the enormous, yellow... well, he had no idea what the hell it was, just that it was incredibly huge and it was coming down the road fast enough to kick up a rooster-tail of dust behind it. Mustang had taught him that sometimes discretion was the better part of valor, and he decided now might be a good time to actually put that lesson into practice as he slipped around to the other side of the house to hide until the yellow monstrosity hopefully passed on by. Once hidden, he could hear it coming up the road, and he was in a position to see it as it passed by the house without being seen himself.
Except… it was slowing down. Not good, he thought, and looked around for some form of cover. As he took a step away from the wall to peek around the corner of the house, he felt a tug in his hair, and briefly thought that damned bird was back. The thought was instantly overruled by logic and the scratch of thorns on his hand when he reached back to free himself from the climbing roses he’d been leaning against. His eyes followed the trellis up the side of the house… to the roof. Perfect.
Reilly fish-tailed into the drive and it was only her quick reflexes, a heavy foot on the brake, and instinctive counter-steering that kept her from slamming into the garage. As it was, she ended up at a 90 degree angle once she finally stopped. She rolled down the window and tried to yell as she laid on the horn but choked on the dust she’d kicked up.
When Ed didn’t come right out, she waved the dust away from her nose, laid on the horn again and opened her mouth to call him. His name mutated somewhere in the vicinity of her vocal chords to a startled, wordless squeak when there was a loud bang on the roof and then a fierce-eyed hell-cat landed with a crouch on the hood. His long blonde mane was wild, his lips pulled back in a snarl… he was absolutely predatory. It was only the automail arm with the deadly dagger protruding from it that enabled Reilly to recognize the savage in front of her.
“Ed! Stop jacking around and get in here!” she said when she finally swallowed her heart down out of her throat. “The Feds are on my ass!”
The change was instantaneous. His look went from murderous to merely injurious as he returned his metal arm to normal and bounced off the hood of the Hummer. Reilly closed her eyes and took a second to get her breathing back under control and think about her next move. She opened them at the sound of one of the back doors opening and saw her emergency duffel fly in. How the hell-- She didn’t get to finish the thought, because as soon as a second duffle flew into the back seat, she saw the black sedan heading down the road. “We don’t have time to pack the damned house. Get in n—“
“Go!” Ed said as he leapt in and pulled the back door closed.
Reilly threw the Hummer into gear and tore off through the yard as the black sedan spun into the drive.
Ed flinched as Reilly skidded around the corner of the house and clipped the corner of the shed. The space between it and the garden wall that Reilly was trying to thread the behemoth through was too tight and Ed ducked as bits of asphalt shingle flew in through the driver’s window to bounce off his head.
“Stupid question,” Ed said as he deflected a large, pointed shingle aiming right for his face. “But wouldn’t it be faster to take the road?”
“I wanna lose the bastards,” she said as she hit a bump that nearly threw him off the seat.
Ed scrambled to regain his balance and chanced a glance back to see the sedan fish-tailing around the corner of the house. “News flash, Reilly. It’s not working.”
He expected her to panic or cuss or… something befitting the dire situation they were in. Instead he heard a low sound come from the front that took a moment for him to realize was a demented chortle. Oh great, he thought. I have assholes behind me that want to dissect me, and I’m trapped in a tank with a crazy woman. I think my life expectancy just dropped to nil.
He felt her gun the engine as soon as they were clear of the tight conduit, then ended up in a tangle with a pile of ropes on the floor when she hit another bump. He struggled to get back into the seat, but was bounced back down again and his left hand slapped painfully down on something sharp and metallic. All thoughts of cussing out the psycho-woman behind the wheel disappeared when he pulled a ring of metal spikes from under the ropes. They looked different from what he was familiar with, but it was clear as to their purpose; he recalled seeing Havoc with similar gear once. “Hey, Reilly,” he said. “Where did you get this thing, anyway?”
“I borrowed it.”
“From a mountain climber?” he asked as he climbed back into the seat and laid flat on his stomach.
Ed dug through the equipment on the floor with his flesh hand and felt a small, fabric bag under the ropes. He pulled the draw-string and peeked inside. Satisfied, he tucked it into a pocket and got up to take a cautious peek out the back window. He made a quick assessment of the lay-out of the short bed, noting the box resting against the cab under the window. At the same time he caught a glint of chrome from the edge of his vision as it came out of the passenger window of the rapidly gaining sedan. “Shit! Duck!”
He barely saw Reilly scrunch down before the bullet came through the rear window with a loud pop an instant before he heard the gun retort. “You okay?”
“I wasn’t hit,” Reilly said.
The vehicle bounced again and launched Ed backwards into the middle of the front seat. He was thrown into the center armrest and came down with it, wedged between the passenger and driver’s seats. “Think you could find a smoother trail there?” he snapped as he twisted around the pull himself loose.
“This is the smooth trail.”
“That’s comforting,” he grumbled as he was jostled and wedged into the space tighter. When he finally managed to get turned over, he spied a half-full bottle of water in the cup-holder. “Ah!” he said as he snatched it.
“I don’t know where that’s been, Ed.”
“I’m not going to drink it.”
She spared him a brief, confused look, then flinched when another gunshot rang out.
“Trust me,” Ed said as he wriggled his way to the back seat.
He cautiously came up on his knees and held tight to the back of the seat with his left hand as he balled the right one up into a tight fist. He absently noted that the seat was loose and hoped it didn’t break at the wrong moment, but he had more important things to consider… like the best spot to hit that would get rid of the back glass.
“What are you doing?!” Reilly shouted, and they both ducked when another shot was fired.
Ed came back up and readied to shatter the window once more. “I gotta get rid of this.”
“Idiot,” Reilly said, and Ed stared as the back window slid down with a soft electric whine.
“Thanks,” he said as he crouched down. He pulled the rosin bag from his pocket and held the drawstrings in his teeth as he unscrewed the cap on the water bottle. Fighting to keep his balance, stay low, and finessing the bag open took all his concentration. He tilted the bottle carefully –he only needed enough to turn the chalk powder in the bag into paste—and cussed when Reilly’s driving caused him to spill a good portion of the water into his lap. Enough of the water made it into the bag and he pulled the strings to close it. Then he kneaded the bag until it felt like clay and a white film covered his hands. Dipping his finger into the sticky chalk, Ed kept low as he reached up to sketch an array onto the box. After several false starts due to rough terrain, he managed to get it the way he needed, then he disentangled the rope, grabbed the ring of pitons, and laid them in the middle of the circle. “Hey, Reilly. Slow down.”
“Just trust me, okay?”
“You keep saying that, but I’m not feeling the comfort here, Ed,” she said, but Ed felt the tank slow down enough that he wasn’t worried about the material falling out of the array.
He chanced getting all the way up on his knees again. It was a risk and made him an easy target, but he only needed a moment to line everything up. Both hands slammed down on the edge of the array and the air around the yellow monster started to sizzle with concentrated alchemic energy that grew and then snapped tight at the nexus over the array. A whirlwind of static popped and crackled as excited particles were pulled from their original forms and were reshaped. The pitons, the rope, and the bed of the tank shivered, then buckled, and began to reform under Ed’s hands.
Through the blinding blue-white light of the transmutation, Ed could see the panicked skidding and swerving of the black sedan and took some enjoyment at the terrified looks he imagined the agents probably had on their faces at this moment.
As the box with the array melted and became a part of the transmutation, he felt something pull at him from his left side. Like a sudden gust of wind that slammed into him, he was knocked nearly off-balance and his hair whipped around his face, blinding him. The light of the transmutation started to shift to a deeper hue and he looked on with horror at the form coalescing off to the side that was leeching energy from the array.
The harpoon launcher that had nearly completed forming was now dissolving before his eyes and the particles were being drawn into the amorphous form beside them.
“Ohshit,” he whispered. “Reilly—“
“It’s the Gate!” she shouted over the growing roar.
The energy swirled in a sideways vortex as it was sucked into the growing Gate, pulling the material from the tank into the dark, malevolent center.
“It’s a rebound!” Ed shouted.
“Can you stop it?”
Suddenly the Gate collapsed into a tight circle no bigger than a fist, and all around it the earth bucked and rolled and began to shred as dust and stones and grass were reduced to their component parts and sucked into the event horizon of the black hole. The Gate became smaller and smaller, and the pull became more and more intense.
“Too late!” Ed held on tight as Reilly struggled and fought to keep the tank upright and moving forward. The motor whined and strained but it continued to beat back the powerful gravity of the concentrated Gate. The black sedan wasn’t having as much luck and Ed could see it skidding inexorably forward.
The tank suddenly rocked back as if it had been released, and threw Ed against the door. The abrupt ending of the rebound and the silence that followed was more disturbing to him than the inadvertent black hole that was formed. “Reilly?”
“Gnng?” she mumbled.
“We might wanna get the hell out of here.”
Ed was slammed back as she hit the gas and tried to put some distance between them and the collapsed Gate. He cast a look out the back and saw the sedan still just sitting there, then he scrambled into the front seat. He got settled in time to see Reilly break through a barbed-wire fence like it was thread and instinctively threw an arm up over his face. An instant later, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and caught a flash from behind as a concussion slammed into them and shoved the yellow monster forward with a lurch.
Reilly hit the brakes and the tank spun in a 180. When the dust settled, they stared at the sedan as it sparked with fading static. The windows were frosted and the tires were melted. There was steam tumbling out from under the hood.
“I t-think it’s safe to say they’re not going to be following us,” Ed stammered.
“Damn, Ed. Remind me never to piss you off, okay?” Reilly faced Ed, eyes slightly dilated from adrenaline. “How did we avoid that damn thing?”
“Distance and angle would be my guess,” he said distractedly. “Let’s just… get away from here.”
Thirty minutes later, Reilly was navigating a rutted path through thick woods that was hardly wide enough for the Hummer. Ed was dozing fitfully in the seat next to her, and she worried about the dark smudges under his eyes and the tightness around his mouth. That transmutation has drained him, and she wondered just what the effects were of that rebound. He needed rest, but she was going to need his help shortly.
She reached a clearing and the end to the path, put the Hummer into park, and killed the engine. She wasn’t surprised this place hadn’t changed at all, and it brought back a few pleasant memories. The old, burnt-out trailer was still sitting on blocks that looked like they would crumble to dust at the slightest breeze and the corrugated metal porch cover still leaned precariously to the right as it was held up only by four spindly supports and defiance. Through the trees and heavy undergrowth, she could see the blinking sparkle of sunlight bouncing off the river that ran behind the abandoned trailer.
She heard Ed yawn and sit up. “What’re we doing here?” he asked.
Reilly didn’t answer right off, lost in the memories of a place and time that was happier. Before her mother grew sick and weak and her father grew distant.
She pulled herself out of her musing and glanced over to the young man next to her. She felt a knot of guilt curl in the pit of her stomach when she saw just how worn out he was. “How’re you feeling?”
He rubbed his eyes and yawned again. “Fine. Tired, but fine.”
“I hate to ask this,” she said. “But are you up to another transmutation… or three?”
Reilly stood back and watched as Ed squirmed and shifted on the floor behind the driver’s seat, and heard the rip as he peeled back carpeting under the seat. The Hummer was once again whole, thanks to the porch cover that sacrificed its life to the replacement of the bed. It also sported shiny, new black paint, altered tags and counterfeit VIN. Both Ed and Reilly knew that if someone looked close, they’d be found out, but they hoped that the alterations would keep someone from looking for a little while, at least. There was just one last thing they needed to do…
“Okay, explain to me again why I’m wedging myself under the seat?” Ed said.
“We need to kill the accident-alert.”
He twisted and sat up, shaking carpet fibers out of his hair. “I got that, but how does killing the brain to the crash-whatsit keep us from being found?”
“It’s part of the GPS tracking.”
“Think you could use actual words, instead of alphabet soup?”
She chuckled softly. “Global Positioning Satellite.”
Ed scowled. “Okay, pretend I’m not from this era… which –amazingly enough—I’m not.”
“Jeeze, Ed, I thought you were supposed to be some sorta genius.” When his eyes narrowed dangerously, Reilly held up a hand. “Okay, okay.” She pointed toward the sky. “The planet is surrounded by satellites that can pinpoint the position of anything, just about.” She nodded at the Hummer. “The brain will send a signal if there’s a wreck through a cellular signal.”
“Like those little phones I see everyone yakking into all the time?”
“Bingo. We might be in a dead zone right now, and I can turn the signal off, but the GPS would still be able to track us, because the anti-theft system is tied into the accident-alert. It’ll just be delayed for a little bit, and wouldn’t be quite as accurate. But I can guarantee that Manny reported his little toy stolen as soon as he came to. If the brain is dead, the GPS can’t track us. Well, they could, if they knew what they were looking for, but it would be damned difficult.”
Ed rubbed the back of his neck and sighed tiredly. “And I have to make sure that the static doesn’t spread beyond the brain box.”
“Right, because then we’re not going anywhere.”
“Do you have any idea how tough that’s gonna be? We’re not talking about just stopping at the second stage here, but containing the resultant static that comes with a transmutation. It might be easier to just take the damn thing out.”
A slow smile crossed his face.
Al couldn't help but smile in spite of his worry as he played his flute, to comfort the newest infant in the neonatal unit. The nursery staff had run out of ideas to help the newborn, who just would not stop crying, so they had sent for Al early. It had taken only a few moments of the small alchemist's playing before the baby had calmed enough to doze, and Al relaxed, soothing the little boy and his own nerves as he continued to play.
The nursing staff had been leery of letting him bring his flute with him at first, but after the first time Al had played for the children, the nurses had insisted he do it every time he came to visit. For some reason, the infants responded well to the deep, rich tones of the music, and some had even gotten better not half an hour after Al had left, while those who were not expected to get better didn't cry and slept the night.
Al wasn't sure why, but his music helped the children. So he played.
And despite his anticipation at finally being reunited with his brother that night, Al was soothed as well.
After he got tired of playing, he set his flute aside, scooping up the small, sleeping infant and cuddling him, stifling a yawn. The baby, meanwhile, slept deeper, his warm body snuggling against Al's. Al suppressed his smile, and peered at the child's wrist to find the name imprinted on the ID tag. "Hey there, Eric," he whispered as soon as he'd read the tag. "It's too bad your parents aren't here. They're missing out on something beautiful."
He studied Eric, smiling at the delicate hands that wrapped around his finger when he touched the child's palm. I'm going to miss doing this when Ed gets here…
"May I join you?"
The baby wouldn’t stop smiling, even after he reduced the photograph into slow-burning ash. There were simply too many pictures of the same person over and over again on the walls. From all the photographic evidence, this Mary Reilly had been a happy child. The state records said something else entirely; her mother had been terminal and her father had been chronically absent. A real fucking heartbreaker of a story.
Sidney loved stories like that.
But somehow, he reflected as he sent another piece of nostalgic crap to a fiery demise, she had grown up to be a real survivor. Sidney was a real survivor too, and he generally respected anyone that could transcend a difficult environment. She’d outwitted his agents, which was no mean feat, and she’d somehow managed to vanish without a trace afterwards. It was something to be respected, so he’d made a point to ensure that she die a much more painful death than his less worthy opponents. When he finally caught up to her, what had happened to his agents would be a pleasantly quick affair in comparison.
He set another of the smiling photos ablaze. It really was so hard to find good help.
Al lifted his head at the question, surprised that someone else was in the room. "Huh?"
A very short woman in a nice suit smiled at him from the door, an infant cradled in her arms. "I was wondering if I could have a seat in here. This kiddo's getting heavy."
Instead of answering the implied question, Al studied the small child cuddled in the woman's arms. "They let you hold Cayleigh?"
"Yeah." The woman seemed to take the inquiry as an invitation and sat down in one of the other armchairs in the room, gently cooing at the cradled bundle in her arms. "She reminds me of my daughter, honestly."
Al blinked. "You have a daughter?"
The woman smiled, kissing the infant on the nose. "Yup. Little blonde toddler, but she's small for her age." She gave a wry grin. "Kind of like her mother."
Al took in the woman's height again, and giggled. She's got a point. I didn't think I'd ever meet an adult shorter than Ed. Eric squirmed softly in his arms, and Al was distracted by the sick child, cooing and humming to soothe whatever was bothering him.
"You know, it's hard to believe you could possibly be a terrorist."
Sidney liked explosions. They were satisfying. Cathartic, even. He’d never gotten tired of them in Ishbal. He’d been newly commissioned as the Stealthworks Alchemist just in time to be sent in with the damage dealers, and he had developed an artist’s appreciation for the work done there. He still remembered the Immolation fondly, the way entire cities collapsed one after another in fiery succession.
And the sky… it was like Hell had come to Ishbal in a beautiful Armageddon. He’d once read an old account of the end of the world, and the Four Horsemen had appealed to him in a way that few things did. War was his favorite, Death a close second. Famine and Plague were nice too, but they simply took too long. In Ishbal, all four had worked in close concert at the hands of the State’s finest, and it had been as a perfect symphony of destruction in Sidney’s eyes.
Even now the smell of burning things, the distortion of the air over flames, and the pathetic flailing of those that could not possibly escape the inferno struck a chord in him.
For a very long time, he’d worshipped Flame from afar as an idol of dispassionate death, but meeting the man had forever soured his appreciation for his work. Roy Mustang was a waste of a magnificent talent, repentant for the gifts he had been given and did not use. And for what? Some misguided sense of right and wrong? If Sidney had possessed such a skill, he would’ve used it in grand fashion. His mistake had been to say as much to the man, and now… Well. Mustang would suffer profoundly for what he had done.
Once Sid got back to Amestris.
It was another reason to hate the Reilly woman. She had the power of the Gates sitting at her fingertips, and one of the only people that had ever successfully crossed over and had any idea of the scientific implications. The Fullmetal Bastard would somehow find a way to get back, and Sidney refused to be left behind in this strange hell.
He tapped a finger on one of the most recent pictures on the wall and set a time-release transmutation on it. He loved explosions, but sometimes it was better to do things slowly. It would take extra care, because there was always a risk that the target would bleed out, pass out or die too quickly, and he wanted her to see every last spark. It wouldn’t hurt if he could kill a few of the people in the photograph in front of her too, destroy her soul in the process. It added to the agony, and Sidney smirked at the thought.
“Mary Reilly,” he addressed the picture, “I will burn your life and everything in it.”
The simple statement caused Al to jerk his head up, eyes growing wide as he stared at the suit-clad woman, his heart beating faster. "What... did you say?" he asked, trying not to disturb his charge.
The woman smiled quite calmly, adjusting Cayleigh and leaning back in her chair. "How you act. The way you hold yourself. Hell, how much care you're taking with that little boy there. You couldn't possibly be a terrorist."
Al's eyes widened more, then he looked back at Eric. "It's about time someone noticed," he grumbled in relief. "Was that why you came? To see for yourself?"
"One of the reasons."
Why else would she be here? His eyes narrowed as he thought, and he was glad Eric was asleep and couldn't see his face. Hmm... She's obviously investigating the bombing, but why would she have me as a suspect?
He decided to listen more, and got more comfortable with Eric, letting the child hold tightly onto his finger. "Can I ask why I was a suspect? Or is that confidential?"
She laughed quietly, and Cayleigh made soft noises of happiness in her arms. "In my book you never were. Just had to cross the I's and dot the T's, yanno?"
The woman giggled in a most un-adult-like way, and laid Cayleigh on her thighs, running her fingers up the child's instep to make the infant giggle and her toes curl. "Never mind, kid."
He frowned and watched the woman play with Cayleigh, and made a split-second decision.
"It was an inside job."
That caught the woman's attention. Instantly she was paying attention, all of her joking mannerisms forgotten. "The bombing?"
Al continued, looking her straight in the eye. "The Agent who was here before. He threatened to do things, hurt other people, because he thought I was hiding something." He gave a sigh, and looked down at Eric. "The problem is, I don't remember anything, so what could I tell him?"
He heard her relax back into the armchair with a dull thud. "A catch-22. Damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Al was unfamiliar with the term but nodded anyway, sure he'd gotten the jist of it. "That's why I ran." He stroked Eric's cheek, and the babe smacked his lips in his sleep. "I didn't want anyone to get hurt on my account."
Sidney took his time walking out to where he’d left his agents. A glance at his watch confirmed that it would take another twenty minutes for all the slow-fuse transmutations to go, and he had time for quite a leisurely stroll. It wasn’t like the agents would be going anywhere soon. He scoped out the perimeter of the property, and made a face when he found the remnants of the Gate. He could feel it, humming on the edge of his conscious mind, but he couldn’t quite touch it.
He left the yard in a foul mood and strode back out to the still-smoking remains of the once black sedan. He was having a bit of a rough day, and he rather wished he hadn’t killed the agents so quickly. He’d arrived to find them trapped inside their car with no way out. The cause of death of the unfortunate vehicle was, of all inventive things, an unfocused alchemic rebound that had fused the motor as well as half the metal in the car’s body. Even the clasps in the seatbelts had been welded together, and the glass was an amorphous mess that spread and clung to the frame. From what little he could decipher from their panicked explanations, they’d rolled up their windows when all hell broke loose. As if that could protect them from the amount of alchemic energy they’d been caught in. Idiots.
It was an incredibly embarrassing situation, and Sidney didn’t suffer fools to live.
Their only saving grace was how quickly the car had gone up in flames. It had been a spur of the moment decision, and the initial explosion had almost made up for their failure. But coming out of that house was a reminder of how inefficient they’d been in capturing the woman, and Sidney was in the mood for some good old fashioned torture.
The state of the car made him feel somewhat better. The glass of the windows had exploded outward, the tires had melted, and the interior was a singed wreck. It even smelled appropriately awful, like freeway wreck and over-burnt barbeque. It was an explosion well done, but it was all over too quickly. He glanced down at his watch --only twelve minutes to go-- and was turning to leave when he caught a hint of movement from the corner of his eye.
One of the agents was still alive.
The woman hesitated for a moment or two, then nodded resolutely, giving Al a firm grin as she stood. "Thanks, kid. I'll look into it." She ruffled Al's hair as she passed, and walked out the door, Cayleigh giggling in her arms.
Even as she left, Al felt a burden lift from his shoulders. He cuddled with Eric, deciding to catch a nap while he still could.
Sidney had barely gone fifty yards down the road when he heard the first charge go off. He caught a glance in the rearview mirror, and slid a CD into the player. If this world had gotten anything right, it was the ability to create a perfect soundtrack for destruction. Sidney rolled the windows down, and cranked up the volume as the next transmutation blew out the front windows.
He had perhaps timed the transmutations too perfectly, as the third explosion fired off a few seconds later. He stopped the car, fast-forwarded through to the soaring arias, and stepped out for the grand finale. He had no idea what the titles meant, but the words set off in parentheses to the side explained it all.
Sidney leaned against the side of the car as Götterdämmerung: Fliegt heim, ihr Raben, The Immolation Scene played gloriously on to the accompaniment of shrieking flames and bone-thrumming, drum-deep booms. They reached a perfect crescendo together as the final charge went off and Reilly’s roof became a vertically-soaring wall of flame.
He watched for a few more minutes as the house twisted in upon itself in a firestorm of smoke and debris, and then got back into his car. It didn’t exactly do to be present at the scene of the crime when the local authorities arrived. They always got the strangest ideas on culpability, and though Sidney loved to watch things burn he doubted he’d see much of that in a prison. Though, he thought, that did present some interesting opportunities…
Sidney left the windows down as he drove away, all the better to smell the hell on the air. The rest of the Immolation Scene wound down, and he listened in to the police bands as someone from the area reported the explosions. It was almost funny how pathetic they were, and he cracked a deadly grin. Now that he’d taken away the woman’s safe haven, she and the automailed alchemist were on the run, and he had a fair idea of where they were headed. But first…
He reached over for a folder in the passenger seat, and pulled out a glossy photograph so freshly developed it still smelled like darkroom chemicals. He studied the image of a very familiar man in wire-frame glasses as he greeted a rather short young man, before he tapped a hastily drawn array in the corner. The photograph dissolved in his hand, and he let the dust blow out the open windows.
It was time to find Maes Hughes.