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“We Can Make This Thing Into A Party”
Arc One: Chapter Twenty-One, Part 1
Balance of Power


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


Ed silently called himself a bastard in every language he could remember.

A/N: Since we are currently running "The Ducky List" contest here, here are the Cracked Bunnies Top 5 Reasons Why Chapter Twenty-One Is So Late:

5. Ed touched the computer and destroyed the motherboard.
4. We let Ducky try to write it.
3. Bond kept threatening to blow us up if he didn't get tea soon.
2. The Shadows kept deleting the file.
1. We all had lots of RL stuff happen at once.


Please forgive us!!!!!



June 3, 2006 – 7:58 am
Wichita, Kansas


Even after blinking several times, Al still couldn't tell what the cafeteria workers had put on his plate. His eyes refused to focus properly --he just wanted to shove the tray away and lay his head on the table, like Ed used to do when he’d pulled an all-nighter.

It had taken almost all night to fall asleep, fatigue finally overriding his worry to shut his eyes in the wee hours of the morning. The little sleep he did get had been filled with nightmares he didn’t care to contemplate in the bright light of day. For that matter, he didn't want to think about anything. He couldn't, even if he tried. The food in front of him was a fuzzy, amorphous blob, his eyelids felt like they were lined with sandpaper and there was a low buzzing in his head that did a fine imitation of cicadas on a summer afternoon. Against all efforts to the contrary, his chin came to rest on the edge of the table, and his eyelashes drifted shut again.

Just five more minutes, Brother…

The sound of something being set in front of him surprised Al enough to wrench his eyes open again, and his startled gaze came to rest on a clear plastic cup with a yellow bubbly liquid in it. “Huh?”

“Wake up and drink that, kiddo. Doctor’s orders.”

Al yawned and sat up straight again. “Oh. Hi, Heather,” he managed, stretching to get himself marginally more functional. “Drink what?”

“That pop sitting in front of you, sleepyhead. Wow, you really aren’t awake, are you?”

“Not really.” Going on automatic, Al grabbed the plastic cup and put it to his mouth, condensation cooling on his hand as he poured a mouthful down his throat.

The first thing he noticed was that the drink burned. It wasn’t hot; on the contrary, the yellow liquid was almost ice cold. But it fizzed, and the bubbles made the back of his tongue tingle as they tried to migrate up his nose.

The taste caught him off-guard as well; hidden in the mouthful of burn was the slightest hint of oranges, almost like the juice sitting next to his plate of breakfast that morning. And as he swallowed the liquid, burn and oranges slid down his throat where it bubbled and trickled down the sides of his stomach. It was sweet; he felt the thick mucous collect in the back of his throat, and he coughed to remove the searing feeling. “What is this?” he choked, looking at the remaining yellow liquid still fizzing in its plastic cup.

“Aww, lucky! I want a Mountain Dew!” Gene rolled up next to him, eying the cup with a bit of longing in his tired eyes. “Maybe then I’d be able to stay awake. I’m exhausted!”

“The sugar would be enough to kick anyone awake.”

"Don’t worry, Gene. You get some, too.” Heather handed another cup to Al’s friend and confidante. Gene chugged it in three gulps.

Al took another sip of his own drink and choked again. “How can you just down this stuff?” he coughed out. “It burns!”

Gene belched. “Acquired taste, I guess.” He giggled at Al, who frowned deeply when Gene decided to tap his cup. “Let it sit for a few minutes; the carbonation wears off if it sits out.”

Al looked at his cup again. He understood carbonation; it occurred naturally in ales and champagne as a part of the fermentation process, but he'd never seen --let alone tasted-- something non-alcoholic that had this kind of effervescence. He also wondered what caused the burn. "How...?"

“They mix CO2 and water with the syrup," Gene said, anticipating the question. "Heather, you sure it was a smart idea to give him a Dew?” He dug into his pancakes, and Al caught a hint of a grin out of the corner of his eye as he stared at the sparkling drink. “You can tell he’s never had pop before.”

Al decided to follow Gene’s advice and let the pop set for now. Instead he got to work on his breakfast, munching on a sausage link as he listened to Gene and Heather talk.

Heather patted Al on the head, scratching his hair with long fingernails. The gesture made him want to close his eyes and purr like a cat. “How much sleep did you get, Tiger?”

Tiger. Al tensed a little. Even though he knew intellectually he couldn’t go by his real name, he wanted to hear them call him Al, or Alphonse, or even Elric the way some of Mustang’s men used to call Ed. Shaking off the melancholy and Heather’s hand, he returned to his sausage. “I think I fell asleep around five.”

“And you woke up at seven-thirty.” Heather gave Gene an amused look. “He can handle it." She pitched her voice so only the two of them could hear in the semi-crowded cafeteria. "He needs the caffeine if he’s going to be running around this evening.”

“Okay.” Gene looked doubtful, then dived into his breakfast. “Just don’t come crying to me when he can’t sit still for longer than three seconds at a time.”

Al stuck his tongue out at his friend when he wasn’t looking but Heather was, making the nurse have to stifle a giggle. “I drank coffee in Germany,” he sulked, defiantly taking a gulp of the Mountain Dew. He swallowed in surprise; Gene had been right. The carbonation had faded enough that sugar and oranges were what went down his throat instead of the burn of CO2. “Surely this stuff isn’t that bad, right?”

Gene snorted and polished off a pancake. “Post-World War I Germany? Dude, their coffee couldn’t wake up an infant. It was watered-down mud! Dew is gonna kick your ass.”

Heather came in between them, and Al blushed as she ran her hand through his hair again. “Settle down and finish your breakfast, boys. You’ve got therapy when you’re done.”

0o0o0


June 3, 2006 – 2:07 pm
Wichita, Kansas


It was okay as far as parks went, Ed decided. Nothing spectacular, but nice. Mature trees positioned about the entire area kept most of it in cool shade yet they were far enough apart to allow for running and playing.

As he followed Reilly into the heart of the greensward, they passed by a fenced-in duck pond surrounded by adults and children tossing popcorn and bread to the begging, motley-hued waterfowl. In the center though --perched on a pile of rock surrounded by a shallow pond-- sat a lone, pathetic peacock that was missing all but a single tail feather. It was staring out at the milling crowd imperiously, and even after being cruelly plucked, Ed marveled at the bird's regal bearing. An unexpected wave of nostalgia swept over him then, and he shook it off before he could pin down the cause.

Off to the other side, a brightly colored monstrosity had sprung out of a giant sand-pit, bristling with rope ladders, slides, suspension bridges and children. In a way, it was much like the places in Risembool's woods near the river where he and Al would spend hours in make-believe adventures when they were still young... before their mother died and they had to grow up far too soon.

“Hey! No girls allowed!”

Ed stopped and stared over at a watch tower positioned on the far end of the monstrosity. The child’s voice sounded so much like Al it was painful. Two boys were holding the tower back from a siege that came in the guise of two little girls in pigtails and brightly colored shorts.

He couldn’t help smiling. Those boys didn’t stand a chance against two determined little girls.

~`~`~`~


“Not fair!” Winry said as she glared up from the ground beneath the tree house he and Al had spent days building. “We let you play with us.”

Next to her, Nellie was quietly pouting and giving Al an icky moonie look but she didn’t say anything. Ed never understood why she always seemed to be looking at his younger brother the same way he remembered Winry’s parents looking at each other just before they kissed. It was really gross in his opinion, and he swore no girl was ever going to do that to him. “Like we’d want to play with your stupid dolls,” he taunted.

Winry’s eyes narrowed and she stomped her foot. “They are not stupid, Edward Elric!”

Ed leaned further over the side of the wall –ignoring the complaining creak of the rough, gray planks-- and gave her a very loud, wet raspberry. “Are too! It’s not like they’re real babies, ya know!”

He knew he’d lost the battle –again— when Winry’s expression changed from annoyed to something more devious, and he steeled himself for it.

“Yeah? Well it’s not like that is a real fort either,” she said as she pointed up. Then she proceeded to point out every flaw in the Elric brother’s carefully designed and crafted (with a lot of sweat and bad words their mother would surely wash their mouths out with soap over) fort.

As far as Ed was concerned, it was perfect. It was high enough in the tree that they could see for kilometers. It was defensible and next to impossible to breach, even if Al would forget to pull the rope ladder up after him sometimes. Okay, so some of the nails didn’t get pounded all the way in and snagged their clothes, some of the wood was warped and cracked, and it squeaked and swayed dangerously whenever a gentle breeze hit it. But it wasn't as bad as Winry tried to make it sound.

Besides, it was theirs. They built it. And if they didn’t want any girls up there with them, they’d earned that right.

“She’s got us there, Brother,” Al said soft enough that Winry and Nellie couldn’t hear.

“So what?” Ed shot back, as he snapped straight and crossed his arms over his chest. He wasn’t about to wave any white flags just yet.

Before he could say anything else, the fort protested the sudden movement with a crack and a loud groan. He saw his little brother’s eyes grow wide just before the floor beneath them gave out and both boys tumbled to the ground in a tangle of rotted wood and scraped and bloody limbs.

“Al! Ed!” Winry cried out…

~`~`~`~


“…Earth to Ed?”

Ed started at the sudden passing of something in front of his eyes, then blinked and focused on the woman standing before him with amusement twitching her lips.

“You okay there?” Reilly asked.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

Reilly glanced back over her shoulder and watched along with Ed as the two boys gave in and surrendered to the little girls, then she faced him again and jerked her head in the direction they’d been heading. “C’mon. The sooner we catch up with everyone else, the sooner we can get your brother.”

He took one last look back as one of the girls squealed gleefully from the watch tower, then trotted after Reilly.

He caught up with her near a pavilion in the center that held several buildings of varying sizes –not all of them permanent. The smells of different foods --from fried to spicy to sweet-- reached him on the gentle breezes and made his stomach growl, reminding him that he’d skipped breakfast this morning. A cacophony of sound rolled over him, from music to vendors hawking, to children playing. Ed wondered if there was some sort of festival going on at the sight of all the brightly colored flags and banners, but Reilly hadn’t mentioned any holiday. Then again, he reminded himself, the maul wasn’t much different than this.

Then the breeze shifted and the mélange of scents grew stronger, causing his stomach to instantly –and noisily—complain. “Uh, Reilly?”

She stopped and faced him with her arms crossed over her chest. “Let me guess,” she snapped. “Hungry? I offered to get you some breakfast before we left, you know.”

He pulled his brows as high as possible, tilted his head down just a tiny bit so that he’d have to look up at her, and smiled as sweetly as he could. It was a game that had developed between them ever since he'd received Al's first email, and while she would feign annoyance, it never failed to light a spark of humor in her and put her in a better mood. Ed didn't expect her to fall down in a fit of giggles, but he'd hoped it would at least take some of the edge off her irritability.

It wasn't that he was oblivious to why she was in a foul mood --he'd been there. Hell, he was responsible for it. But Edward Elric was never comfortable around emotional pain in others, and often felt helpless to know what to do. So he resorted to what he knew best; glossing over it, covering it up, pretending it wasn't there.

“Can you wait a little longer?” Reilly asked, only marginally less sharp. “We’ll all go out to eat after we nail the plans for tonight.”

“Just something to hold me over for a little while?” Ed’s stomach decided to growl again and he hugged it as though he were about to waste away to nothing. “Please?”

Reilly just glowered at him through narrowed eyes and hissed, “Stoppit.”

When he feigned the most pathetic look he could –the expression Reilly always called ‘the puppy-eyes of doom’-- pain flicked so quickly across her face he thought it might have been just the play of shadows from the trees. A tense silence fell between them and Ed knew he’d crossed a line. He felt a heavy stone settle in the pit of his stomach and he tried to find his voice, but it fled at the shine in her eyes and the twitching of her face as she tried to regain control. What had been a game between them had turned into a painful reminder of Reilly’s friend. He’d forgotten that Kitten also used to give her the ‘puppy-eyes’ whenever she was trying to wheedle something out of her.

She turned and headed straight for the vendors on the pavilion without a word, and Ed silently called himself a bastard in every language he could remember. Then he jogged after her and grabbed her arm. The speed in which she spun on him and the ferocity that flashed across her face caused him to flinch back. “F-forget it,” he said softly. “I can wait.”

The fierce anger was gone, but she softened a little more and shook her head. “No. No, you’re right. We need something to eat. Both of us.” Before he had a chance to protest, she'd resumed her trek to the pavilion and the food vendors.

Ed trudged slowly behind her, still cursing himself, cursing Bond, and cursing the whole situation in general. He counted all the reasons why things shouldn’t be happening the way they were and they all came back to him. If he had left when he had the chance, if he hadn’t fallen through the Gate in the first place, if he hadn’t wasted time wrestling with Wermier, if he hadn’t spent that extra time trashing the lab… if, if, if.

And if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass when he hopped, Tom had said not long ago. At the time, all Ed could do was imagine the alchemy involved to create that chimera --it would have been ridiculously easy, in fact-- but now he understood. There was no point in worrying and wishing for what cannot be. In this world, at least.

Reilly had passed by several trailers before she’d stopped at one that had pink and yellow lemons painted all over it and huge red letters advertising something called a ‘funnel-cake’. The badly rendered picture below the words (which he assumed was of a ‘funnel-cake’) looked like something he wouldn’t poke with a stick, let alone eat. The scent coming from the direction of the trailer certainly didn’t smell like lemonade, although there was a hint of it in the mix. Instead it had a sweet, fried essence to it that only served to make him swallow to keep from drooling.

He saw the vendor lean out of the window to take Reilly’s order –a short, blocky man with deep-set eyes that looked like they would be more at home on a pig than a human. With the crowd and the music, he didn’t catch what was being said, but he didn’t miss the lecherous stare the vendor aimed at Reilly’s chest and Ed’s hackles instantly went up. By the way Reilly was acting, he didn’t think she’d noticed, but that wasn’t the point.

“--dogs, please. With the works,” he heard her say as he came up to her.

All thoughts of the slow torture he could wreak on the middle-aged pervert fled when he caught the tail end of the order. The incongruous image of Black Hayate served up on a platter and surrounded by garnishes dashed through his mind, making his stomach flip. He gave Reilly a look of disgust as the vendor mock-saluted and turned to the innards of the trailer. “You’re feeding me dog?”

“Just shut up and wait, Ed. You’ll like it.”

The light tone was a little too forced and Ed felt that stone shift in his stomach again. They’d been fine earlier… if ‘fine’ could be defined by awkwardly avoiding anything that might even hint at the previous night’s events and the fact that neither of them had any sleep. This meant that the usual bantering had been replaced by short comments punctuated by long periods of uncomfortable silence. Ed could see the rift growing between them… not that he could blame her any. Kitten’s death was on his head, even if indirectly, and he knew he’d never be able to make amends for that.

And now he had to try and fix a new screw-up.

As Reilly handed him a long, paper tray cradling an equally long bun with some sort of brownish red sauce smothering it, he caught the leer of the vendor again, and couldn’t believe how blatant he was being. Even Mustang --an incurable flirt and notorious skirt-chaser-- had more class than this creep.

Ed took the tray and poked at the slop suspiciously. His finger felt something underneath, and he pushed it around to reveal a long sausage-like tube of what he assumed was meat, even if it didn't look like any he was familiar with. “So what breed of dog do you people use for this… stuff?” he asked –just a little louder than necessary.

“Hey!” the pig-eyed vendor protested.

Reilly sighed. “No dog, Ed. That's just what it's called.”

“Jeeze, kid,” Piggy said as he handed a second tray and a fist full of napkins to Reilly. “What kind of an American are you, if you’ve never had a chili dog before?”

Reilly shoved the napkins into her jeans pocket while she precariously balanced the dangerously sagging tray with one hand, and said, “He’s not—“

Ed’s irritation was quickly replaced with confusion when the vendor shot him a guarded look that made his vacuous little eyes gleam maliciously.

“—He’s German.”

Piggy’s expression quickly changed to one of curiosity, and he said. “Exchange student, huh?” Then he shook his head and said to Reilly, “They’re packin’ them up and sending ‘em to us younger and younger, aren’t they?”

Reilly gave a warning look to the diminutive blonde with a barely perceptible shake of her head and putting a damper on any possible verbal retaliation.

To Ed, he added, “Well, I give you credit, son. You can hardly hear the accent.”

The younger man smiled politely, then said in as pleasant a voice as he could muster at the moment, “Wichser*.

The vendor grinned, nodded and said, “You’re welcome. Hope you enjoy your stay here.” He waved, gave Reilly’s chest one last hungry look, then turned to serve the next person in line.

As Reilly dragged Ed away from the trailer, she asked, “What did you say to that guy?”

Ed chortled softly, then licked the chili off his fingertip. It wasn’t bad, but it was rather tasteless compared to the highly spiced foods Reilly loved and he’d grown used to. He was about to ask her just how he was supposed to get around the sloppy mess and eat it without wearing it, when he watched her carefully fold the paper tray down and begin to sink her teeth into one end. “I just called him a wanker,” he said with a shrug.

Perhaps his timing wasn’t so great, as Reilly clamped down suddenly, causing her to snort chili and start choking. Before she could drop her food, Ed took it and tried to figure out just how he was going to juggle both of the laden chili dogs and help her, and realized it was impossible. He watched helplessly as she leaned against another trailer while she pulled the napkins from her pocket, coughed and wiped at her nose, tears streaming down her reddening face.

When she caught her breath and started laughing, Ed relaxed --and not just because she was no longer choking. As she reached out for her food, she said, “One of these days, that man is going to have a chance to use that word and he’s going to wonder why he gets punched for it.”

“Damn, too bad I won’t be there to see it,” Ed said blandly as he followed Reilly’s earlier example with the chili dog.

Just before he got his mouth open wide enough to take a bite, he heard Piggy bellow, “Where is that sawed-off little runt? I’m gonna kick his foreign ass up around his goddamn ears!”

Ed froze, then he felt Reilly grab the front of his shirt and yank him through the milling crowd. The sudden force caused him to lose his tenuous grip on the chili dog, and it dumped down the front of his shirt. “Dammit!”

“Careful what you wish for, Ed,” she said as she flung her own food in the general direction of a trashcan.

They dashed and weaved through the mass of people to the other side of the pavilion, then Reilly hauled him around a trailer to hide between it and one of the permanent buildings. She fell back against the stone-covered wall of what was probably a gardener’s shed and caught her breath as she looked around.

Ed leaned against the trailer and gazed down the front of his shirt to assess the damage left in the wake of his abandoned snack.

“Damn,” Reilly said. “That’s your favorite shirt, too.”

Ed ran a finger through the mess covering most of Icarus and nodded. “Not that big of a deal, though.”

“That chili’s gonna stain.”

Ed glanced up and smiled slightly. “Not if it doesn’t have time to set.” He leaned over and peeked around the edge of the trailer. When he was certain that they hadn’t attracted any attention and had eluded the vendor, he gestured for Reilly to come closer. Then he pulled the hem of the shirt away from his body and said, “Hold that for me.”

As Reilly held the shirt out, Ed etched an array through the chili with a finger. Then with a touch and a flash, the sloppy mess dried up and flaked off, leaving the shirt looking as good as new.

“Nifty,” Reilly said. “I thought you needed chalk or something to do that.”

Before Ed had a chance to say anything more on the subject, there was a shout from the end of the trailer. “There you are you little faggot!”

Ed spun and gaped down at Piggy, who certainly did not appear to be quite that short when he was leaning out of the window handing Reilly their food earlier. The man’s belligerent attitude –especially in light of his earlier lecherousness-- would have been enough on a normal day to set him off, but the tug on his arm and a reminder from Reilly prevented it. “We need to get Al.”

He turned and started to follow her. She was right after all. Al was more important than some mouthy pervert.

“You stay right there shrimp,” the vendor snarled. “I want a word with you.”

Shrimp?! This day was already bad enough without his height being mocked by someone shorter than he was, and as much as he’d tried to keep a lid on his already foul mood, the pressure surged to a dangerous level. He’d been willing to let it slide when the creep leered at Reilly; he had even been willing to ignore him when he chased them down. But this? It was the last straw and all the frustration and guilt and lack of sleep fizzed out from under the cap in an explosive burst. Ed’s entire world went deep red and he twisted out of Reilly’s grip. He barely heard her mutter, “Oh, shit.”

Like a bristling cat, he loomed over the vendor as he shouted down at him, “WHO’RE YOU CALLING SHRIMP, YOU MICROSCOPIC GNOME?”

“Ed—“

“I FOUND OUT WHAT YOU CALLED ME,” Piggy screamed back, with fists balled tightly down at his sides as he lurched up on his toes to meet Ed head-on. “ANDYOUR MOUTH IS THE BIGGEST THING ON YOU, YA PRE-SHRUNK MUNCHKIN!”

“AT LEAST I DON’T NEED A STEP-LADDER TO CLIMB A CURB!”

“Now is not a really good time for this, Ed…”

“THAT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO BUSY FIGHTING THE FLEAS FOR SPACE ON A RAT’S ASS!”

“LOOK YOU AMOEBA-FUCKING-- OW!!!” Ed felt his head tugged back violently as his pony-tail was yanked and he spun on his new attacker…

…to slam into a wall of tan fabric that had an identical pair of creases running precisely down the center of the spaces between the perfectly aligned buttons and the side-seams –so sharp they could cut glass-- and decorated with a highly polished brass badge and a name-tag that read simply Officer C. Crabtree.

He took a hasty step back in order to look up… and up… and up… to meet hard blue eyes set inside a face etched out of weathered granite and shaded by a starched-perfect hat with the dark brown brim shined to a painful gloss. “Uh...”

“Is there a problem here?” the cop drawled, never taking his eyes off of the younger man.

The vendor shoved Ed aside and said, “Yeah, this pint-sized pansy is starting trouble.”

Ed stiffened but clamped his mouth shut with a snap when he felt Reilly jerk on his pony-tail again. He reached up to rub at his tender scalp and glared at her.

“Is he now?”

Reilly gave Ed a warning look, then turned her attention on the cop. “Officer… Crabtree, is it? It was an innocent misunderstanding. Cultural differences, you know?”

Cultural? Ed caught something in the quick look she shot in his direction, but wasn’t sure exactly what it was all about. He considered the situation and decided that now might be a good time to keep quiet. At least until he could figure out what Reilly was up to.

“Do tell,” Crabtree said.

Ed looked back to see the man’s arms crossed over his chest and a gimlet stare boring into him.

“Bullshit,” Piggy squealed. “He ain’t what he claims. I think he’s one of them terrorists. You know they look just like everyone else. They ain’t all sand ni-"

Crabtree cleared his throat warningly as he snapped an intimidating look at the vendor.

The short man cowed. “—er… well, you know what I mean.”

Reilly made a disgusted noise then said, “Really. He’s just an exchange student. English isn’t his first language—“

Ed gave her a what-the-fuck look. Amestrian wasn’t that different from English, after all. He was about to protest, but then he puzzled out the looks she’d been giving him. A silent command to play along.

“—He had no idea that what he said could be considered an insult here.”

Now that Ed caught onto the game, he decided to have a little fun with it. He carefully schooled his own expression to the most innocent he could manage and looked up at the officer…

…Then he started yammering in rapid German as he gestured wildly at Piggy.

“See?” the vendor accused. “And he’s probably calling you a mother-humpin’ pig-fucker right now!”

Crabtree ignored him, keeping all his attention on Ed, but remaining so stoic that Ed couldn’t tell if the cop understood him or was confused at the foreign language and just hiding it very well.

“Oh, he is not!” Reilly said. “He’s just saying how sorry he is for insulting this fine, upstanding vendor who is only trying to make a living.”

Ed stuttered in the middle of his diatribe, since what he was actually spouting off was far more sarcastic, extremely vulgar and had more to do with the Miniaturized Moron’s sexual tastes and his mother, than anything resembling an apology.

Crabtree calmly held up a hand and said, “I think I’ve heard enough.” To the vendor, he said, “Don’t you have customers waiting, Herc? I can take it from here.”

The vendor –Herc—grinned triumphantly. “You’re a good American, Crabby. Just don’t let that girly look fool you.” Then he sauntered off.

Ed’s fists clenched at his sides, but Reilly poked him painfully in the ribs before he had a chance to react.

For a long moment, Crabtree and Ed regarded each other silently. The cop’s arms were still crossed over his chest and his face remained etched in stone –unreadable and intimidating. Then he said, “You know, Herc might have more mouth than brains, but I seriously doubt he’d ever sleep with his mother.”

Ohshit. Ed felt the blood drain from his face in a rapid gush to pool hotly at his feet. His brain fled for parts unknown, dragging his voice right along with it. All he could manage was a choking gulp as visions of being hauled off in handcuffs to some dark, dank jail cell galloped through what was left of any rational thought which consisted mostly of a looped Al’s gonna kill me, Al’s gonna kill me, Al’s gonna kill me.

“You were also speaking pretty damn good English during your shouting match, so I don’t buy the story that you ain’t from around here.” Crabtree leaned into Ed’s personal space just the slightest bit, but it was enough to make the smaller man take a nervous step back. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, boy, but I suggest you find something less disruptive to occupy your time today. I don’t want to have to deal with another complaint that you’ve let your alligator mouth overrun your hummingbird ass. Are we clear?”

Ed could only manage a weak nod.

Crabtree straightened back up, then the granite shattered with a broad grin and an amused sparkle in his eyes. “Off the record? Those were some impressive insults. Even the German ones. Ol’ Don Rickles could pick up a few pointers from you.” He pulled off his hat and ran his fingers through the thick mass of short salt-and-pepper hair. “Just… leave a guy’s mother out of it next time. Them’s fightin’ words in these parts, and I can’t promise you I’ll be there in time to keep you from getting your ass stomped.”

Reilly gripped Ed’s arm to pull him away. “No problem. I’ll make sure he behaves Officer.”

She dragged him quickly through the crowd and back out into the park in silence, then stopped so suddenly once they reached a clearing that he almost bowled her over.

He never saw it coming, but there was an instant of pain in his cheek and he staggered back as stars swam through his vision. When it cleared, he almost wished it hadn’t, because the sight of Reilly stiff and trembling in rage was far more disturbing. “You. Fucking. Moron!”

“Now wait a minute! That perv—“

“I don’t give a tinker’s damn if he was staring at my tits,” she snapped, emphasizing each word with a hard poke to his chest and slowly backing him into a huge old oak. “Your short fuse almost got your ass thrown in jail, and mine right along with you. What the hell good is that going to do your brother, if that happens, huh?”

Ed breathed out and sagged against the tree. “You’re right,” he said as he stared down at the ground. “I-I’m sorry.”

She was silent for so long that he wondered for a moment if she’d walked away, but when he looked up, she was still standing there, still stiff. Her lips trembled and tears welled at the edge of her lashes, and Ed felt like a vice had clamped over his chest. Then when she said, “I neither need, nor want your apology, Edward,” he felt like that vice had yanked his heart out and crushed it. The disappointment in her voice was more painful than the right hook she gave him.

She turned and strode to the center of the park, where he could see Ducky and Tom and Hughes sitting at a picnic table with some girl with blue hair.

“Real brilliant, Elric,” he muttered as he pushed off from the tree to follow. “Alienate the one person who can protect your temperamental ass and help get Al out of that hospital.”

As he caught up, he saw her back snap straight and the worried look in Hughes’ eyes while he came slowly to his feet. Ed was puzzling over the unusual choice of attire on the man and didn’t notice that one sleeve of the deep purple scrubs was empty until he turned just right. Ed felt a sickening horror zing through him until he realized there was a bulge under the shirt where his –still intact—arm was apparently braced. He couldn’t make himself look over at Reilly, so he had no idea what her reaction to the man’s condition was, but by her silence Ed figured she had to be at least as shocked as he was. Hughes had given him no indication whatsoever that he’d been injured over the phone last night.

“Hughes? What the hell happened?” he asked.

He gave Ed a tired half-smile and gingerly touched the empty sleeve. “It looks worse than it is, really. Just a dislocated shoulder.”

“And about a gazillion stitches all over his back,” Ducky added.

Ed started at the anguished choking sound right next to him and twisted around to see Reilly collapse into tears.

“Hey, hey,” Hughes said softly as he pulled her close with his free hand. He wrapped his arm around her and stroked her back as he mumbled soothing words into her hair.

From that moment, Ed could see, the world consisted only of Reilly to the older man. The people at the table, the crowd in the park, and even Ed were no longer an urgent priority. His presence would only interfere, so Ed shuffled to the other end of the table to fall onto the bench with his back to everyone else.

“Damn, Hughes, I thought I was the only guy who made women cry,” Ducky laughed.

Ed didn’t have the energy to deck him, although he sorely wanted to. Instead he just gave him a short glare over his shoulder and said, “Shut the fuck up, Ducky.”

He stared out at the milling crowd without really seeing anything and every sob he heard from Reilly cut right through him. After a long while, he had a feeling he was being watched closely and rolled his eyes to see the woman with blue hair watching him. “What?” he snapped.

She didn’t even show the good grace to look chagrined at being caught staring. Instead she offered out a hand and grinned. “So you’re the Terminator?”

Ed ignored the greeting and said, “Who wants to know?”

She pulled her hand back, but didn’t look any worse for the snub. “Most people call me Heist. Those that call me anything else usually find their life spans drastically shorter.”

Well, that explains the rudeness, Ed thought. This was the friend Ducky was always talking about. He had the nasty suspicion that she was too much like the annoying hacker for his comfort. Great, there’re two of them.

“You know, from the way Tuckandroll was going on about you, I thought you’d be much—“

“You’re taking your life into your own hands there, Heist,” Tom interrupted.

“—younger.”

Ed gave her a disgusted sigh and returned to staring out at the crowd, more than willing to shut all of them out at the moment. Except the one thing he really wanted to shut out, he couldn’t --but at least Reilly’s sobs had been reduced to a soft hiccuping as the storm blew over.

He sensed more than heard something being set down near his elbow and cast a glance over to see a brown cup with a white lid.

“Whoa, Heist?” Ducky said with an almost breathless awe. “You’re parting with your triple-shot espresso?”

Ed heard the hacker shuffling around next to him and caught him peeking under the table out of the corner of his eye.

“Where’s the pod?” Ducky asked when he came back up.

Heist shrugged and said, “Hey, he looks like he needs it more than I do.” To Ed, she added, “That stuff is guaranteed to keep your grandchildren awake, Term.”

“No. Thank you,” he said.

He watched as Ducky opened up his lap-top, and then Tom asked, “Ducks, what the hell are you doing?”

He was growing irritated at the casual atmosphere among the group. They were all ignoring Reilly, and worse, acting like someone they called a friend wasn’t even there. It seemed like the only person who cared was Hughes… and himself, but right now what little comfort he could offer would hardly be welcome.

“Checking the weather in Michigan,” Ducky said. “I think Hell just might’ve frozen over.”

That was more than Ed could tolerate. With a growl he shot to his feet and stomped off. He heard Hughes say behind him, “Let him go, Tom. He needs to be alone.”

He heard Reilly’s voice before it was lost in the distance and the crowd, but not what she said. He wondered if it was appropriately bitter. The Void knew he deserved it right now.

0o0o0


Hughes kept his arm around Reilly as he watched Ed's retreating back. The sloped shoulders and downcast head somehow making the young man look even smaller. He wasn't angry, that much was obvious; he looked...defeated. The last time Hughes could recall Ed like this was after the Lab Five incident, when he'd been fighting with Al. He'd never learned what had come between the two brothers, but it was serious enough to make Al disappear and Ed damn near panic as he and Winry went searching for him.

Hughes didn't need to be a trained observer to notice the growing bruise on Ed's cheek and the scraped knuckles on Reilly's right hand. He didn't know for certain what had happened, but he could take an educated guess. Tension was running high right now, and both of them had similar enough temperaments that this level of frustration was bound to explode out of them in a dramatic way.

He suppressed a chuckle at a memory from the previous time. When all was said and done, Ed had sported a new knot on his head, and Al had a few fresh dents in his armor. With a soft sigh, Hughes thought, What I wouldn't give for Winry and her wrench right now.

He shoved the thought away with vehemence. His shoulder twinged in sympathy and Hughes straightened his posture. He’d thought he was finished with such thoughts, but it was hard to avoid every little reminder of home. A child’s laughter, homemade apple pie, fading photographs… It was the simple things that brought everything painfully back, but it was the less pleasant memories that weighed on his mind.

Bond was still out there. And he wasn’t going to stop at just civilian casualties. The man was a sadist without any sense of limits, and given time and enough loathing for his victims there was no level of depravity he wouldn’t descend to. If Bond found them, what happened to Kitten would seem merciful in comparison.

Hughes was going to have to find a way to stop him, but what that would involve…

“Nickel for your thoughts?”

Hughes craned his neck to look down at the woman nestled into his side. “I thought the going rate was a penny.”

Reilly shrugged gently under his arm. “They seemed pretty heavy, so that’s double the usual fare, and there’s inflation to take into account.”

He cracked a smile and shook his head. He was going to miss her talent for bringing light to dark situations after all this was over. “I'll return that nickel and add a dime if you’ll tell me what happened with Ed.”

Reilly stiffened. “I… hit him. He was drawing too much attention and I was frustrated and I hit him.”

Hughes paused. It was one thing to guess what had happened, but it was entirely another to hear it out loud. “Someone said something about his height, didn’t they?” he sighed. “Ed always goes overboard. Usually Al’s the only one that can bring him back down.”

“I didn’t have to clock him like that. I just lost it. He was out of line but he didn’t deserve that.” Reilly pulled away, and Hughes realized she was fighting back tears. “He probably hates me.”

“Reilly. Ed doesn’t hate you.” Hughes reached out with his good arm to rub her back. “If anything, he needed someone to knock some sense into that thick skull of his. He’s a good kid, and there isn’t any hate in him. He’ll be fine.”

“How do you know?” Reilly asked, and swiped at her eyes with the heel of her palm. Hughes took her hand and smiled crookedly.

“I know Ed. And besides, he’s taken worse dozens of times. One little tap like that should barely faze him.”

Reilly slumped further into herself and took a long breath. “That’s not exactly comforting, Hughes.”

“No. I suppose it’s not.” Hughes watched an ant train crawl along a groove in the picnic table and remembered the first time he’d ever met Ed. Only eleven years old and already as scarred as many veterans of the war in Ishbal. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t comforting to know that Ed had taken infinitely more abuse since then.

He shook it off. There was no point in dwelling on the past when the future loomed unpleasantly in front of them. Ed couldn’t see anything past saving Al and Reilly had no choice but to march grimly on. Bond had burned all their bridges for them, and sooner or later he was going to catch up with them. And then…

“Whatever you’re planning, Maes Hughes, stop it right now.”

Hughes looked up to see Reilly frown in concentration. “Reilly?”

She shook her head and turned a speculative look on him. “I get the feeling you’re either going to do something very stupid or very brave, possibly both, and there’s no way in hell you’re going to do it alone.”

“But I wasn’t—”

“Yes you were, and if you so much as try anything, I’ll find you and deck you so hard you see stars indoors on a cloudy day.”

Hughes chuckled, vague plans forgotten. He had no doubt that Reilly was good for her word, and after that Ed would serve up another ration of fist to the face when she was done with him.

Assuming she and Ed ever talked to each other again. He knew Ed would take all the blame on himself and try to solve all their problems, and he was beginning to suspect Reilly would attempt to do the same. If they’d just talk to each other, it would be so much easier to move past the grief and the guilt, but Hughes wasn’t sure they would unless forced to.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he said gently. “I won’t do anything stupid,” and he amended that at Reilly’s disbelieving glance, “alone, if you’ll talk to Ed. If we’re all in this harebrained scheme to rescue Al together, we need to work together, and we need to be communicating to do it.”

“What if he won’t speak to me?” Reilly asked. “What if he won’t listen to a thing I say?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Hughes assured her. “Try to knock a little sense into that hard head of his. If nothing else, he’ll listen. I promise.”

Reilly moved back to his side and rested her head on his shoulder. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” he answered lightly, and tried not to think about how much he didn’t mind being Reilly’s comfort. How easily it came to him. And how much it felt like a betrayal of the fading photograph in his wallet. “No problem at all.”

0o0o0


Ed wandered the park for a long while, trying to marshal his churning emotions. He paid little attention to where his feet were taking him until he noticed the increasing volume of high-pitched shrieks and stampeding footsteps. Something small and bony slammed into his side and Ed flailed momentarily, arms pinwheeling, before he regained his balance. He looked around, eyes coming to rest on a young boy who was picking himself off the ground beside him. Not the least bit dazed, the kid grinned and brushed his hands against cutoff shorts already sporting an impressive amount of grass and dirt stains.

"Sorry, mister!" the kid chirped before rejoining a nearby horde of kids caught up in a chaotic game of tag.

Ed watched them play for a few minutes, thinking about all the times he and Al used to wish they had closer neighbors than just Winry and Nellie. Their games of tag usually ended prematurely with the girls complaining that the brothers had been ganging up on them. Then they would go off and do whatever it was that girls did together, and he and Al would be left to entertain themselves.

He had walked the rest of the way around the duck pond, back to the large mess of brightly colored playground equipment that, despite the considerable number of tag-players, swarmed with even more kids than when they'd first arrived at the park. If it hadn't been so crowded, Ed might have considered taking up a swing, but it was more than jam-packed and he hadn't sulked on a swing since he was eight.

Instead he picked his way through the labyrinth of constantly moving bodies, careful to watch out for any other loose cannons veering towards his general direction. The cries of the kids diminished to a dull roar as Ed wandered into a patch of ancient-looking trees. They were too close together, the roots too gnarled and overgrown above the ground for navigating at anything faster than a leisurely stroll. Not the best choice for playing tag, especially with the reckless abandon of the kids by the playground. It did, however, make an ideal place to lose himself in. Concentrating on not tripping over all the nature took more effort than Ed had expected, but it kept him moving and --more importantly-- kept his thoughts away from the earlier chili dog catastrophe.

He continued weaving through the trees, occasionally picking up on a strange high-pitched noise that didn't quite blend in with the game of tag. After circling the same tree half a dozen times trying to pinpoint the source of the sound, Ed caught a glimpse of pink dart behind a nearby tree. He held his breath and froze in his spot. A few moments later, a head full of tiny braids slowly inched its way into view. It was followed by a pair of large, chocolate brown eyes that widened even more when they realized they'd been caught. The head disappeared, and Ed heard the noise again. A child's giggle. He waited briefly for the owner of the giggle to make another appearance, then resumed his walk.

The kid kept following him, hiding when he paused, laughing when he glanced over his shoulder. After a while he even found himself smiling at their little game. They continued that way until an older voice in the distance called a name, breaking their companionable silence. At this, the kid --a little girl in a pink shirt and faded overalls-- broke her gaze away. She began trotting back towards the playground, but not without giving Ed a dazzling smile and a friendly wave goodbye.

Without the distraction of the little girl and the cacophony of the crowded park muffled by the trees, Ed was left alone to do what he came out here for in the first place. He leaned back and slid down the trunk of the nearest tree. Squatting down in the dirt, he rested his arms on his knees and tried to figure out just how he was going to fix things --hopefully without screwing them up worse.




*From Insultmonger.com (the authors take no responsibility if the translation is incorrect)
 
 
 
 
 
 
She turned and strode to the center of the park, where he could see Ducky and Tom and Hughes sitting at a picnic table with some girl with blue hair.

I think this needs to come after Ed's reaction to his dust-up with Reilly, because he (and we) need to look more thoroughly at this group as we approach them. This is a good place to establish changes in individuals and in the group dynamic since the horrible events of yesterday. As Ed approaches the group, do they look initially normal and then more tired/manic/nervous/snappish? I can see Ducky responding to the stress, frex, by running hyper while Tom would probably close down a bit, the two of them maybe striking more sparks off each other than usual. Hughes has to look drawn and maybe more unshaven than usual or something. And this is our first glimpse of Heist from a stranger's POV, too. This is one place where a little fleshing out of things would be to your advantage.

[Ed's response to Hughes's injured arm]

Excellently thought. I like that you just show the reaction, too, and leave us to remember that Ed lost his arm -- of course he'd be horrified to think of it happening to someone else.

"Damn, Hughes, I thought I was the only guy who made women cry," Ducky laughed.

This is a great reaction from Ducky, but again, I'd like to see it in the context of the whole table's reactions (probably beginning further up, when Reilly first bursts into tears). Ed's response, or nonresponse, is important here, as is Hughes's, but so is everyone else's: grieving is what they've all been attempting not to do today, more likely than not, as they focus on planning, but here's Reilly, who's lost her home, her job, her friend -- her life -- putting grief back in the center of the table. They can't tell her not to do so, but it's got to be uncomfortable on several levels. And then it's Hughes, one of the outsiders, who's both cause and cure of her immediate grief. That's got to put an eyebrow up on Tom, given his sage advice to her back a few chapters. Maybe Heist is the only one not to react awkwardly, making her stand out even more. Think about this.

After a long while, he had a feeling he was being watched closely and rolled his eyes to see the woman with blue hair watching him.

Repetition of "watch".

She didn't even show the good grace to look chagrined at being caught staring. Instead, she offered out a hand and grinned.

Some odd locutions here: I'd expect "have the grace" for "show the good grace" and "offered" for "offered out". Also repetition of "stare" with two sentences previously.

"Most people call me Heist. Those that call me anything else usually find their life spans drastically shorter."

Great line here; also the "expecting someone ... younger" line below. The espresso hand-off is a sweet gesture, characteristically handled by everyone present (as I said above, Ducky going manic with the jokes strikes me as absolutely in character for him; Heist doesn't overplay her own kindness; and Ed stomps off, unable to cope). Nicely done.

Hughes kept his arm around Reilly as he watched Ed's retreating back. The sloped shoulders and downcast head somehow making the younger man look even smaller.

Grammar hitch: second sentence is a fragment; hitch into preceding sentence or emend "making" to "made".

He wasn't angry; that much was obvious.

Except Ed is angry -- mostly at himself, of course. I think it makes more sense, given how you've described him stomping off, to have Hughes recognize Ed as "defeated" in addition to his anger.

... it was serious enough to make Al disappear ...

Tense consistency: "had been".

Continuing ...