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“We Can Make This Thing Into A Party”
Arc One: Chapter Twenty-One, Part 2
Balance of Power


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


"Well, I miss him. He's hard to ignore, even if he is kind of short." He pictured what his brother would do if he'd heard that comment, then caught onto what Gene was trying to do; it was a trick Ed sometimes pulled. "And stop trying to change the subject."

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!!!!!


This is Part Two. To view Part One, go here!



June 3, 3:15 pm
Wichita, Kansas


Even after a full morning of playing on the computer, therapy, and going to say goodbye to the babies in neonatal one last time, the after-effects of caffeine had Al twitching. Gene wasn’t kidding when he said I wouldn’t be able to handle it, he thought, making his way back to B-Mod and trying not to tremble from the chemical. Holding the infants was relaxing, but he was just too keyed up for it to last long in the enforced quiet that neonatal required.

Wandering the halls, he wondered where Gene was. He never joined in with the neo-natal visits, citing no desire to be spat up on by podlings. He was always back before Al had finished his visit, too, either reading or trying to con Rick into letting him use the computer again.

He was also always a little more tired after Al got back, as though he’d been working hard. So, in a fit of impulse, Al turned and headed for the therapy wing. With Gene’s limitations, it made sense that the guy would work on therapy more than one kid with a mostly-healed broken arm.

Al flexed his arm as he walked, surprised at how much muscle mass he’d regained already. He’d been diligently retraining it, and while his left arm was still significantly thinner than his right, it no longer looked weak. It could probably hold up to a lot now. He relaxed the arm, letting his hand dangle, and massaged the muscle. It should be fine for this evening…if Ed doesn’t decide he needs to trash the hospital. The thought made his stomach churn, and he sighed. I’ll stop him if he tries. They helped me a lot, so there’s no reason to destroy the place. Besides; Gene still has to stay here.

With that thought in his mind, Al turned a corner and spotted Gene in the therapy room, an assistant holding his legs in place. He paused to watch, and almost wanted to look away as Gene struggled to sit upright, his progress slow and clumsy. There was very little muscle that bulged as he worked, and half of his leg didn’t flex at all.

He looks so…awkward.

Watching as Gene struggled to sit upright it was easy for him to remember how his brother had looked, missing two limbs and still healing before surgery. He’d tried to do everything by himself, and the handicap of not only being sans an arm and a leg but completely off-balance often conspired against him.

~`~`~`~


“Brother! You shouldn’t be trying to move on your own,” Al said as he clanked over to Ed, sprawled on the floor in a tangle of sheets and bandages. “Here, let me help you.

“I can do it, Al.” Completely ignoring the offer to help, Ed hauled himself one-handed into the wheelchair he’d become completely dependent on. “But… could you take me to the shower? I smell awful.”

He didn’t need to ask. It didn’t take long for Al to push him out back, where he could help his brother keep his balance while the shower ran. And as Ed washed his hair one-handed, Al was shocked at how hard even the simplest tasks had become. Something menial and private, like Edward cleaning himself, had suddenly morphed into an ordeal involving an outside person.

Al didn’t mind that he had to take care of his brother. That was what they’d done ever since their mother had died. What they would do even in metallic bodies. Even with missing limbs. But it hurt, seeing how much it grated on Ed’s nerves to have to ask for the help.

“Al, could you hand me the soap?”

~`~`~`~


"I CAN'T DO THIS!"

Al dragged himself out of the memory as he heard Gene yelling at the top of his lungs, and ran for the therapy room. He stumbled through the door and onto the view of Gene trying to get the therapy assistant away from him, as much as legs and skinny arms would let him.

"Get away! I can't do this anymore! What's the fucking point to it??"

He didn't stop to think. Shoving the assistant out of the way he wrapped his arms around his friend. "Hey, Gene! Calm down! It's just me!" The flailing stopped, so Al took advantage of it and hugged his friend tight. "What's going on, Gene? What's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" As Al expected, his friend shoved him away and rolled, trying to get to a place where he could face him. The therapy assistant hovered above both of them, but Al ignored him. "What isn't wrong? My legs don't work because I fucking fell down a hole, I can't even do twenty damned sit-ups, my parents hardly care that I even exist, and you have the fucking nerve to ask me what's wrong???"

Al waved at the assistant to get him to go away, and settled down.

The therapist gave him an uncertain look, but something in Al's demeanor must have convinced him that it was all right, because he nodded and got to his feet. "I'll wait over there," he said as he gestured to the far end of the gym. "Any problems and I'll be right on both of you like a coat of paint. Got it?"

Al smiled and nodded, and waited until the man was out of earshot before he faced Gene again. "Wanna tell me about it?"

"What, so you can psycho-analyze me the way the quacks in this hospital do?" Gene pulled himself into a sitting position, maneuvering his legs with his hands. "I don't need any shit like that."

"Psycho-analyze?" Al shrugged at the term, and decided it wasn't important. "I'm not trying to do anything. I just want to hear what you have to say, okay?"

There was silence for a long time as Gene just sat there, rubbing at the thigh muscles that had failed him so many times. Long enough that Al half-expected Gene to just maneuver himself back to his chair and go away. He hardly expected him to speak.

"My parents aren't the shiniest pennies in the bank, for one. Neither are the people who work for them."

The resentment was thick enough that Al almost thought Gene was smothering under it. "Howso?" Realizing just how that sounded, Al coughed and hedged a bit. "I'm sorry, it's really rude of me to ask, and I don't want to do something like my brother would and insult you by badgering you about it..."

Gene let loose a laugh that sounded real enough, which made Al feel slightly better. "Your brother must really be something. When it's just us, you mention him almost every two minutes."

"Well, I miss him. He's hard to ignore, even if he is kind of short." He pictured what his brother would do if he'd heard that comment, then caught onto what Gene was trying to do; it was a trick Ed sometimes pulled. "And stop trying to change the subject."

The depression was back on Gene's face, but Al didn't dare retract his statement. His friend needed to talk about this. Just looking at him, Al could tell he'd held it in for too long and that there was too much resentment and anger for it to have been something simple.

"My parents didn't really try to raise me, when I was younger," he started. He didn't look at Al, but played with his shoelaces. "Instead, they hired out my care to a nanny service. Some woman came and watched me all day, until I was about four. That was when I got a really spacey nanny, who watched soap operas more than me."

Al couldn't believe a mother would do something like that. Remembering his own childhood, he was suddenly even more grateful than normal to how his own mother had raised him and his brother. "Soap operas?"

There was a smile again. An actual amused one. "Really bad TV shows."

Al smiled back. "All TV shows are bad."

"Touché. Anyway..." Gene rubbed at his leg again. Al figured he probably needed some time to think, so he kept quiet. "I fell, when I was four," he said eventually, in a very quiet voice. "There was a big hole in the backyard, because my parents were putting in a pool. I wandered away from my nanny, and fell in."

Al remembered one time when he and Brother had fallen out of a fort they had built. The girls, Winry and Nellie, had panicked and run around the remains of the fort he and his brother had slaved over, crying out for both of them. But the only injuries they'd had were a couple of bruises, splinters, and one very large shiner for Ed. Is it something other than just a fall, I wonder? "Was it a really steep fall?"

"Not really." Gene's voice had taken on that flat sound, the type of tone that Al had sometimes heard in Germany, when veterans from the War spoke of their injuries. A coping mechanism, one that distanced the injured from the event. "Apparently, when the nanny panicked and picked me up, the damage that was already done became a lot worse. I probably would've been fine, had she just admitted to losing track of me and called an ambulance instead of taking me inside and pretending I'd been playing in the nursery all afternoon." Looking up, Al could swear he saw tears in his friend's eyes. "But instead, I'm stuck in that fucking monstrosity, and I can't even do a few simple sit-ups. Because some moron my parents hired to raise me didn't want someone to know she hadn't been paying any attention." He flopped onto the ground and stared at the ceiling. "What do you have to say to that?"

His friend laying there, vulnerable, reminded Al too much of seeing his brother helpless, and him unable to touch or comfort his brother. "You're alive, though. Right?"

"You call this living?" Gene gestured wildly at his legs. "I'm nose-to-crotch with most of the world, stuck in a freaking remote control chair that no one can see past. My parents view me as either a commodity or a burden they have to 'make better'. I can't run, can't walk on my own, and no one wants anything to do with me. Fuck, I can't even roughhouse with the one guy that's even been somewhat nice to me." His eyes dared Al to say anything. "Do you really call that a life?"

"Yes, actually." Before Gene could get a word in edgewise, Al continued, sprawling on the ground next to his friend. "It's not an ideal one, true. Not even a really favorable one." He rested a hand on Gene's knee and squeezed. "But you're alive, and you're breathing. You can reason, a lot better than most of the people in this ward. You can feel, even if it's not in the way you really want to." He squeezed harder, and smiled as Gene reacted to the sensation this time. "You have a soul, Gene. You're still alive, still breathing. The flow of life hasn't stopped for you, yet. Don't let it before you're ready." He paused. "...though why do you want to roughhouse with me?"

Gene sighed and stared at the ceiling. "It has to do with my dad."

"Your dad?"

"Yeah." Working hard, Gene turned on his stomach, and propped his chin on his hands. "My dad wrestled in high school. Went to the state competition, too. He has all these trophies on the wall from things he placed in." The depressive air around him grew worse, and Al almost saw his friend deflate from it. "I wanted to do something like that. But I can't now."

"Who says you can't?"

"My legs." He sighed. "Wrestling takes a lot of leg strength. A lot of lower body strength, and a lot of upper body strength. Mine's just not up to it."

Al smiled. Here was a way he could help his friend. "Wanna bet?"

Before Gene knew what hit him, Al had pounced. A lock that Al had once used on Ed as a kid was quickly thwarted by some fast maneuvering on Gene's part, and soon Al found himself pinned by the arms. He unbent his elbows and slid out of the lock, wincing as Gene accidentally clocked him going for his waist to pin him. He was laughing, and struggling, and his movements were jerky. But they wrestled for a good few minutes, until the assistant came over.

"Hey, boys, boys! There's no need for this!"

"Yeah there was." Neither one was really sure who had won, but Al was certainly feeling less twitchy. And Gene looked about ready to burst his seams with smiling. "We both needed it."

The assistant frowned. "Well, next time? Warn a man before you do something like that. Okay?"

Al and Gene both blushed, then laughed at each other. "Okay." Al's stomach rumbled in irritation as the therapy assistant cleaned up the room, and he made a face. "You know something, Gene? I now understand why Brother always complained about hospital food.”

"It's either bland and tasteless, or so chock-full of vitamins that the taste of zinc and iron overwhelms your poor tastebuds?" Gene refused help and made it to a position where he could get back into his chair. "Be grateful you've only been having it for a few weeks."

"That, and I'm hungry again." Al smiled tiredly. "Maybe your mom'll cook you something when you get home."

Gene thought about that for a few minutes, and smiled back. "Maybe." He maneuvered himself into his remote wheelchair, and laughed. "Though I'm not sure I'll want to eat it."

0o0o0


Ed was certain this was where the group had been sitting. He looked around for familiar landmarks, and mentally kicked himself for not paying closer attention earlier… but it looked like the right place. Except instead of Hughes or Reilly --or anyone else even slightly familiar-- there was a large, dark-skinned family setting out an even larger spread of food that was literally painful to look at. Among them, he spotted the little girl who had followed him earlier, carrying a bowl to the table that was nearly as big as she was and making a valiant effort to see around it.

Panic welled up as he scanned the area nearby, and still he saw no sign of anyone familiar. They left? Had he really messed up so badly this time that even Hughes would abandon him? Ed shook his head to clear it. Not possible. And even if Reilly was furious with him, she wasn’t vindictive.

A handsome woman with a quiet dignity about her that reminded Ed so much of Hawkeye it hurt approached him from the laden table and asked, “Are you looking for your friends?”

“Uh, yeah… I think they were at this table earlier.”

She smiled warmly, took him lightly by the shoulder and turned him. “You walked right past them, hon.”

Ed instantly relaxed. They were no more than 30 meters away, scattered around a large blanket that was dominated by a reclining Hughes. Ducky and Heist were intent on their lap-tops and Reilly was leaning against Tom, who held a comforting arm around her shoulder. The stone in the pit of his stomach grew into a boulder and decided that now was a good time to learn how to roll over when she dabbed at her eyes. Hughes reached out without actually looking, and offered his hand to her. She squeezed it with a sad smile and Ed was amazed once more at how the man always seemed to know just the right thing to do or say to make someone feel better.

He faced the dark-skinned woman and said, “Thanks.” Without meaning to, his eyes darted to the food that was miraculously multiplying on the table, and with effort he forced them back to the woman. “Thanks,” he said again and started to move to the group on the blanket when he felt her hand on his shoulder once more.

Her smile was, if possible, even warmer than before, as she said, “Why don’t you and your friends join us. We have more than enough.”

It took a moment for Ed to process just what she was saying and he felt his jaw drop. “Join you? F-for the food?”

“Of course.”

Ed gulped, half from shock, half from the feeling that his stomach had suddenly decided to start eating itself from the inside. He felt completely out of his element at that moment. Had this been Resembool, or even Central, he wouldn’t have hesitated. An invitation like this wasn’t given unless sincere, but here he’d seen people say a lot of things they didn’t really mean. Sometimes out of anger or ignorance, sometimes out of politeness. He weighed the options then shook his head. “Thank you, but no. We couldn’t impose.”

She chuckled, a deep, rich sound that was naturally soothing. “On the contrary, we were the ones who imposed, and your friends were kind enough to let us have the table. Besides, wasting good food is a sin. I insist.”

His stomach chose that moment to loudly voice its own opinion and he made a mental note to have a long talk with it about its rather manic-depressive behavior today. It wouldn’t do to have it flop yet again and he lose his lunch. After all, as the woman said, wasting good food was a sin. “Thank you. I’ll go tell them.”

He stared to dash off when she said, “Do you have a name?”

Chagrined he nodded and said, “Sorry. I’m Ed.”

She held out her left hand and he took it. Her grip was as warm as her voice and strong without being crushing. “Hello, Ed. I’m Johnna. And I’ll introduce you to the rest of the family when you get back with your friends.”

“All right. Be back in a minute.”

As he approached the group, he caught part of Tom’s comment to Ducky, and wondered just what the hell they were planning for tonight.

“—you can’t crawl through the ducts, you idiot. They only do that in the movies.”

“Aw c’mon, me and Ed are small enough to pull it off, and we’d avoid the security cameras.”

“I don’t give a shit how small you two are, if –and that’s a very big if—you could even squeeze your skinny asses up in there, they wouldn’t support your weight.”

Heist looked up from her lap-top and said, “Actually, they could do it.”

“You’re not helping here, woman.”

She twirled the computer around in her lap to show Tom a schematic that Ed could see over his shoulder as he approached. “The building is late 19th century. The ductwork came in about early 20th century and was huge. From the looks of things, it’s all still in use. Big enough that you could damn near drive a golf-cart through, anyway.”

“Ugh,” Tom groaned. “Let’s not mention golf-carts right now.”

“You have to admit that was sheer brilliance on my part,” Ducky said, then looked up and grinned at Ed. “Hey, Terminator. Feel up to crawling through some air ducts tonight?”

“Will it get Al out of there?”

“Does a bear shit in the woods?”

Ed didn’t bother to try to puzzle that one out, and said to the group at large, “We’ve been invited to lunch.”

Hughes opened one eye. “By who?”

Ed pointed back at the family that had taken over the table and made the mistake of glancing over his shoulder at the same time. The amount of food had multiplied even more than just a moment ago. No wonder they were invited to join them. “Damn,” he muttered in disbelief.

“I think they were just being polite, Ed,” Tom said without taking his eyes off the computer screen.

Hughes sat up and stared openly at the table. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”

Tom looked back and did a double-take. “Damn.”

Hughes stiffly got to his feet, and smoothed out his scrubs. “Well, you can sit here and starve. I’m accepting the invitation.”

0o0o0


Ed could have sworn he saw the table bending under the weight of all the food. A tangy-spicy-sweet smell wafted around the offerings from the grill, there were heaping platters of neatly cut vegetables, and several bags of those crispy potato things they used to dip in Hughes' guacamole. Incredibly, Ed even spotted a small bowl of some familiar-looking green spread. He counted no less than six different noodle dishes and --are those cookies?

He felt a warm grip on his left shoulder and he instinctively grabbed the paper plate that was pressed into his hands.

"You can blink, dear, the food's not going anywhere," their culinary benefactor said with a laugh. Johnna then handed him a set of plastic utensils wrapped in a napkin and picked up another plate. "Any ideas about what your friend might like?"

Ed followed her nod over to Hughes, sitting stiffly in a canvas folding chair. Away from the others, his everything-is-fine demeanor had degraded to one filled with pain and exhaustion. A grimace flicked across his face and his hand reached up to gently probe his injured shoulder. Ed turned back to the food table guiltily; he still hadn't heard how Hughes had gotten hurt. Johnna peered at him, holding the empty plate expectantly. Ed cleared his throat, "Umm, I'm not really sure what he'd like... but he'll be fine with anything." Because that's just how Hughes is...

"A little bit of everything, then," she said. "We can always get him seconds of the things he likes best."

Ed mirrored Johnna's actions, taking a small portion of most of the dishes. By the time they reached the other end of the table, his plate was very nearly overflowing, especially after she balanced two golden squares of some yummy-looking dessert on top of his hamburger bun. "You don't want to miss out on those, hon. They're always the first to go."

Johnna made her way over to Hughes, materializing a small folding tray for his plate somewhere along the way, but Ed hung back with the food. He glanced around; Ducky and Heist were filling their own plates, Tom was talking amiably with a middle-aged man by the grill, and farther away Ed could see Reilly just now leaving the temporary security of the group's picnic blanket. Arms wrapped around herself and head bowed low, she looked more defeated than Ed had felt since he'd arrived, being without his brother. She joined Tom and his new friend and surveyed the area. When she pointedly skipped over him, Ed's appetite completely disappeared.

He glanced down at the feeling of a light tug on the hem of his shirt. Peeking out from under his plate was the little girl from the trees. She gave him another wave.

"Come sit with me!" she exclaimed. With his shirt fisted in her tiny grip, Ed had no choice but to follow as she walked away. She led him to a quilt that had been neatly laid out next to Hughes' chair and in a gravity-defying move that only a small child could accomplish, she jumped, crossed her legs in mid-air, and landed with a rattle of beaded braids --all without letting go of Ed's shirt. He almost ended up wearing his lunch for the second time that day and scrambled to keep the plate level as he dropped down onto the quilt with a muffled thud. She waited until he had settled his plate more securely on his lap before picking up a half-eaten dog that looked much cleaner to eat than the one Reilly had ordered for him earlier.

Johnna bustled back to them and handed Hughes a cup. "There ya are, darling. Now you just concentrate on eating and try to relax a bit." She rounded on Ed, studying him close. "And how are you doing? Did Tessa get you a drink? She didn't, did she?"

The little girl jumped up with a squeak, dropped her hot dog and ran towards a smaller table covered in an assortment of pitchers and jugs. The hot dog bounced off her plate and landed mustard-side down on the quilt. Johnna sighed, returned it to its appropriate place, pulled an extra napkin out of thin air and in less than ten seconds had the yellow spot cleaned enough that Ed could barely see it.

Ed felt a rush of guilt at just helping himself to all this wonderful food and not offering anything in return, and said, "Can I give you a hand with anything?"

Johnna stopped her straightening of the quilt and gave him a measuring look. "Yes," she said after a moment. "You can eat up." She nodded back at the enormous spread and the brood that had gathered. "My kids won't take much home with them, and they all seem to think that Henry and I will starve to death if they don't pile all the leftovers on us. Unfortunately, even with the boys, too much of it will spoil before it's all eaten."

Ed gaped. He'd counted eleven adults, not including Johnna and her husband; he kept losing track of the number of teens and children. "They're... all your kids?"

She laughed. "Well, six of them I gave birth to, but yes." She pointed out the small cluster of five teen boys. "When my youngest went off to college, Henry and I decided the house was too big for just the two of us, so we fostered the boys. The rest are my grandchildren."

Ed could only stare. The woman hardly looked old enough to be the mother of the teens, let alone six adults.

"The holidays must be a lot of fun at your house," Hughes said.

"So is every other day, Maes. The house is always full with the neighborhood kids. My children's childhood friends and their kids are always coming to visit, same with members of the parish. Henry and I have been blessed with a lot of love and a very large family." She gave Ed a pat on the arm as she got to her feet. "Family is not always defined by blood, after all."

A sudden shout from the general direction of the teens caught Johnna's attention. With a shake of her head and a soft sigh, she gave Hughes and Ed a slight bow. "If you'll excuse me. One thing about a large family? There's never a dull moment." Then she buzzed off to break up the impending fight.

She patted Tessa on the head as the little girl skipped by with a clear plastic cup full of a red liquid, and the little girl instantly changed her gait to one less likely to slosh the drink all over the place. When she reached Ed, she thrust the cup at him, and said, "Here! I brought you my favorite."

"Thanks." Ed took a sip of the overly sweet, semi-fruity concoction as Tessa returned to her spot next to him and tore into her dog voraciously. "What is it?" he asked.

She giggled and said around a mouthful of food, "Cherry, silly!"

"Ah. Of course," he said. "I don't know what I was thinking, not to realize that this was cherry." Ed took another sip and tilted his head curiously. "In fact, I think this is probably the best cherry I have ever tasted."

Tessa seemed to find Ed's comments uproariously funny as she fell back on the blanket in a gale of belly laughs. They were contagious, and Ed felt himself cheering. Then he glanced up, and saw something that flit quickly across Hughes' face --a look of pain that wasn't physical-- then he glanced at Ed and smiled.

A moment later, Tessa was back up and dashing off for reasons only known to her. Hughes watched her, and Ed saw the longing in the man's eyes. He stared down at his plate, once more unable to find something to offer as comfort. Of all the people to be trapped somewhere they didn't belong, Hughes deserved it the least... yet he made the best of it.

Shame wrapped around Ed, then. He and Al had made their choices and he should accept the consequences. Good, bad, or something between, it didn't matter. Instead for the past few months, all he could seem to do was to sulk over the whole situation. Worse, out of all of them, Ed had lost the least. He was separated from Al, but that was only temporary. Hughes lost his family; Ducky, Tom and Reilly lost a friend, and more. And now their lives were in danger.

It was all spiraling out of control, and Ed considered once more taking Al and just disappearing. Maybe the trouble that always seemed to show up whenever he was around would follow him and leave the rest of them in peace.

"She thinks you're mad at her," Hughes said.

Ed's head shot up. "Huh?"

Hughes wasn't looking at him though, and he followed the man's gaze to see Reilly and Tom sitting on their blanket together -separated from the rest of the party-- their heads bowed and touching. He could see Tom rubbing the back of her neck as he talked to her and his other hand holding one of hers. An occasional nod came from Reilly, but she didn't meet the older man's look.

"For losing her temper like she did," Hughes explained.

Ed's hand instinctively came up and he rubbed at the tender spot on his cheek. "I deserved it," he said.

Hughes chuffed. "That's what I told her."

"Thanks... I think."

He continued watching the two of them, and noticed that Reilly seemed to be in at least a better mood than earlier. Ducky chose that moment to flop down on the blanket next to her and he said something that Ed couldn't hear, but the result was that Reilly gave him a good shove that tipped him over and his insane cackle carried on the breeze.

"Can't that asshole ever be serious for a minute?"

"Ducky's like me," Hughes said. "We'd rather put on a happy face than let people see how much we're hurting. And Tom? He's hardly said more than five words at a time since last night. Reilly's... overwhelmed... And you're more irritable than usual. We're all upset about what happened and we're all dealing with it in our own ways." He pushed his glasses further up on his nose, "But we still have to move forward, right?"

"Yeah," Ed said as he looked down at his plate without really seeing it. "Yeah," he repeated.

Tessa returned and plopped back down in her favorite spot next to Ed. Without a word, she started chomping away at a yellow square like Johnna had given him earlier.

"I think I've been adopted," Ed said as he watched the little girl devour her dessert with a low trill of happy noises.

"Providence only knows why," Hughes said with mock disgust. "Come on. Eat up. Then you can fill Al in on the great stuff he's been missing."

"Like decent food?" Ed bit into one of the yellow squares from his plate, and grinned at the taste of sugar and some sort of puffy, crunchy substance that looked kind of like grain. "We should keep one of these for him. I'm sure even here, hospital food sucks."

Silence fell between the two of them once more, but this time it was comfortable. As Ed watched the family interact with each other and their new found friends, he noticed that the motley group he was a part of had grown relaxed. Johnna had spent quite a bit of time --between herding children, pushing food and general buzzing about to make sure everyone was taken care of-- talking to Reilly. Occasionally she would glance back Ed's way, and always there was a look of compassion and acceptance. He wondered just what Reilly had said to her.

He suddenly felt a small body fall against his side and glanced down to see that Tessa was heavy-lidded and sucking her thumb. Without a thought, Ed draped his arm around her and an instant later she was asleep. He was officially stuffed and he needed to toss his plate into the trash before it attracted bugs or blew off in the breeze, but he just didn't have the heart to disturb the little girl who had latched on to him from the moment they'd met.

Johnna returned and looked down at her granddaughter with a shake of her head. Then she knelt and picked the sleeping child up without Tessa even stirring. As she shifted the girl into a more comfortable position she said, "We're about to give thanks. I hope you'll join us."

"Don't you generally do that before diving into the food?" Hughes asked.

Johnna stood and cradled Tessa. "Normally, yes. But we all got a late start and the little ones don't exactly feel thankful when their tummies are growling. God can accept a compromise in this case."

"We'll be right there," Hughes said. With that, Johnna smiled, nodded and carried Tessa off.

Ed got to his feet, then went to give Hughes a hand up. He was far from thrilled at the prospect of being forced to listen to some religious bilge, but resigned himself to it. Equivalent Exchange, he thought. They fed us; the least I can do is be polite.

His cynicism must have been plain on his face, because Hughes scowled and said, "It's not going to kill you, Ed."

The younger man felt some of the tension in his body ease and he nodded.
With that, Hughes threw his arm around Ed's shoulder and they strolled to the rest of the group.

When they reached the circle of people around the table, Ed put himself to the right of Hughes and far enough away to keep from jostling the man's injured shoulder. He gazed around at the different faces, pale and dark and shades in between. He hadn't really noticed until then the variety of races within Johnna's family. There were genetic markers every stripe--even the boy who took the spot on Ed's other side showed traces of Xingese heritage.

However, the one person that Ed was most concerned about --the one who had taken it upon herself to protect him and rally the others to help-- was not among the large gathering. He scanned the circle again, thinking he missed her, but he saw no sign of Reilly.

Worry lanced through him, and he was just about to leave to find her, when the Preacher cleared his throat loud enough to be heard over the murmuring group.

"Let's all join hands," Henry said.

Ed suddenly felt an instant of panic, and snapped around when he felt a tug at his right shoulder. Now was not the time to have to explain the automail to an overly curious adolescent. Instead, he met sad hazel eyes and looked down to see that Reilly had rescued him once again by taking his right hand. He gave her a gentle squeeze in silent thanks and some of that sadness left her face.

Henry cleared his throat again and even louder to get the remainder of his brood to settle down and they finally went quiet. "Bow your heads, everyone." The atmosphere went taut with anticipation and even the sounds of children playing and people milling about the park seemed to develop a distant quality to it, as though a canopy of privacy had settled about the circle. The pastor threw his head back, and began in an overly-dramatic tone, "Gracious Lord, who saved us from our sins and delivered us from fire and brimstone--"

One of the teenagers right next to Henry made a gagging sound. "Aw, c'mon, Dad! Save the sermon for Sunday!"

Making a good-natured face at his fosterling, Henry sighed and looked around. "Well, if you insist. We'll do a round-robin, then." He looked straight at Ed and his friends, then smiled. "Just tell us what you're thankful for, folks. Can be anything, we ain't particular."

The boy next to Henry started it off, with good health, and around the circle it went. Some said they were grateful for friends, others said family. There were cries of "Awesome food!" and laughing "Video games!" Heist let out thanks for caffeine when it was her turn, and Ed was surprised at the casual nature of appreciation in this family; it was as if they took nothing for granted.

When his turn came, Ed thought a moment. "I'm... not from around here," he started softly. "When I arrived, I didn't know anyone and everything seemed so strange. But someone took me in, and she accepted me without question." He looked around at Tom and Ducky, then settled on Reilly. "She's helped me in ways I... I can't even count. Even when I'm acting like an idiot, she seems to take it mostly in stride, and she doesn't ask for anything in return." He smiled a little. "There are a lot of things I'm grateful for right now. I'll be reunited with my brother tonight." He glanced over at Hughes. "I've found an old friend I thought I would never see again." Then he looked around the circle again and spotted Tessa. He smiled at her, which elicited a short burst of giggles and caused her to clamp her hand over her mouth to smother them. "Made some new ones." He nodded at Johnna. "And realized that family really isn't defined by blood." He looked down, took a deep breath, then said, "That's what I'm really thankful for. As puzzling as they can be. Sometimes aggravating. But they're willing to put up with me, so I guess that makes them family." He rolled his eyes nervously to his right, then his head shot up the rest of the way when he saw tears stream down Reilly's face. He was certain he'd screwed up again, even if he didn't know what he'd done this time, and was about to apologize when she smiled warmly.

The moment was broken when one of the men in the group chuckled and said, "Man, he's as long-winded as you are, Dad."

"Hey, a little respect for your elders there, boy," Henry teased and everyone else joined in the good humor.

Hughes chortled softly and said, "You have no idea."

Ed shot him a look of mock offense. "Gee, thanks, Hughes."

The giving of thanks continued around the rest of the circle, but Ed hardly heard a word of it. He felt the tension he hadn't realized was in his shoulders ease, and while he didn't fool himself into thinking that everything was all right, he was able to console himself with the knowledge that Reilly had at least forgiven him for his earlier stupidity, and she didn't blame him for the horrors of the night before.

0o0o0


Ed buckled himself in at the back of the Ninjavan as the whole crew settled in. They'd all agreed that it would be better to go to the hospital in one vehicle, rather than two, so earlier, Reilly had moved the Hummer to a place less likely to attract the wrong kind of attention and would be fairly easy to get back to afterwards.

Hughes sunk into the seat next to him with a pained groan, and then proceeded to get into a one-handed wrestling match with the seat belt. Without a word, Ed leaned over and snapped the buckle into place.

"Thanks."

Ed stared contemplatively at the lightweight cooler between the older man's feet. Before they'd left, Johnna had managed to pack up as much of the leftovers as she could, filling the cooler nearly to bursting, and there was still a ton of food that she complained was going to go to waste.

"Nice family," Hughes said. "And it's kind of comforting to know that people here aren't that much different than anywhere else."

"Yeah."

"Hey, Tuckandroll, can we hit a Starbucks on the way? I need a transfusion," Heist said as she bounced into one of the middle seats.

"Sure," Ducky said as he snapped his seatbelt into place. "Goddess forbid we let actual blood infiltrate your caffeine system."

Reilly yawned hugely from the seat next to Heist. "I think we could all use a little boost." She yawned again. "Gods, what is it about a big meal that makes you want to go to sleep after?"

"It's the tryptophan in all that smoked turkey you were putting away," Tom said. "And all that pasta and cheese."

"Thank you, Cliff Claven," Ducky said as he shoved the key into the ignition and started the van.

"Just shut up and put it in gear, Ducks."

"Well," Hughes amended with a chuckle, "most of them, anyway."

"I heard that," Reilly said.

"You gotta admit, some of the things you people consider insulting are pretty weird," Ed said.

Reilly twisted in her seat and arched a brow at him. "Oh, please, Ed. Calling someone a wanker has got to be rude no matter where you're from."

Ed shrugged, but didn't look the least bit contrite. "I was talking about that moronic midget calling me a bundle of sticks. How is that an insult?"

Reilly just made a confused noise, and everyone else looked at him as if he'd grown a second head.

Hughes coughed nervously and asked, "Ed, did he call you a bundle of sticks? Or did he call you a faggot?"

"Same thing."

Hughes rubbed at the back of his neck and looked as though he was about to be forced to swallow something bitter. Ducky exploded with a short cackle, Tom groaned and mumbled and Heist just looked lost.

Hughes glanced up as a spectacular battle of emotions laid seige to Reilly's face. "A little help here?"

She just shook her head with a snicker, turned in her seat and sunk as low as she could. "You're on your own, Hughes."

"I'll remember that," he grumbled, then faced Ed. "Well, see... it's like this..."

0o0o0


Johnna sighed happily as the last of the picnic had been packed away and hauled off. She really had no intention of dragging that odd little family into their party. But when she saw the look in Ed's eyes, she saw a hunger there that wouldn't be satisfied with just food. There was a palpable tension and overwhelming grief that had blanketed the entire group, and if they didn't have a pressure valve they were all going to explode.

She never pressed for details --it wasn't her place-- but she did pick up enough to know that they had lost a friend in a violent accident, and that Reilly had lost her home the night before. And no one had to tell her that what ever was going on right now with their lives was far from over. Inviting them to join her family may not have been much, but sometimes the little things made the biggest difference.

She felt a familiar and comforting arm snake around her waist as she watched the black van start up, then Henry kissed her lightly on the temple. "You never could resist a stray, Dear Heart," he said.

"You don't mind, do you?"

Henry hugged her closer. "I learned a long time ago that it was a waste of energy to try and talk you out of doing anything you set your mind to. Besides, I trust your judgment." He chortled and shook his head. "Although, that short one? You can tell he has a temper."

"Perhaps, but he has a big heart. Did you see how Tessa latched onto him?"

"She's got your talent for reading people. Uh-oh. What's this?"

Johnna perked up as the black van suddenly rocked violently, and then a shouted epithet burst from inside.

"LET ME GO! I'M GONNA TRANSMUTE THAT PINT-SIZED PINHEAD INTO A--" The rest of the diatribe was lost in a screech of tires as the van took off.
 
 
 
 
 
 
*keels over laughing*
*DIES at the last bit* Oh my, Ed, but you realy don't like your sexuality insulted~

And aww, poor Gene. ;_;
Worth waiting for! I love this story so much, so glad to see it's back.
"bundle of sticks"! still has me chuckling.

How much do I love Reilly? You rule for writing a real grown-up (and rockin') Mary Sue for grown-up fangirls (like me). She gets to mommy Ed and flirt with Hughes, heaven I tell you.

And your Al is total love. I am going crazy in anticipation for the Ed/Al reunion.
I agree 100% about Reilly...there was a lot that drew me into this Cracked Bunny Universe, but the strongest one was Reilly. Plus I'm the original MaesxReilly shipper. *winks*

btw, I LOVE your icon!
*raises hand in sympathy* Still present and accounted for, although RLTM has had its way with me this summer and school year, too, so commenting fell by the wayside. D:

Anywho…overall? Yes, I'd say the extra-long chapter was definitely worth the wait. It may not have had much by the way of plot movement, but it's carried so well by the strength of the character interactions/growth here that it's hardly an issue. Besides which, I've been enjoying the more leisurely pace of the past few chapters after all the action; God knows these guys deserve something resembling a break right now.

Various specific/rambly obversations ahoy!

Part 1

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.

Possible continuity error: I don't remember Heather being filled in on Al's actual backstory (only that she's aware of it, as well as some bits and pieces thereof), so the fact that Al openly refers to his time spent in Germany in front of her strikes me as odd. Entirely possible I'm missing something here, although some skimming through prevous chapters still leaves me slightly confused on this one. This whole section is fun, though; you guys have always done a believable—and usually quite amusing—job of introducing the Elrics to various things that would be alien to them in our own time period, and it's no different here. (BTW, nice job of having Gene's warning pay off in Part 2 while keeping it as only a minor element. Though perhaps on my part, some of that is trauma from exposure to too many "SUGARHIGH!!!one!" fics speaking there…>.>)

The goings-on at the park come across nicely—a good mix of leavity and drama as usual, with those fun, well-characterized one-shot(?) characters thrown in for good measure. The build up to both Ed and Reilly's loss of their respective tempers stuck out to me the most, though: the tension between them was palpable beforehand, which made the payoff feel very natural for the most part. On a more general note, I think this chapter deals with the lasting effects of emotional trauma better than Chapter 14. There are still unresolved issues here, and it takes some time and effort for all parties involved to see to the most pressing ones. Seeing things like this pan out more realistically—and keeping well in mind each character's unique way of dealing with such distress—makes me very happy (although Chapter 14 wasn't a slacker, either; I just thought things got wrapped up too neatly/too quickly there in the emotional impact aspect, is all :) ).

And, apparently, longer chapters = longer comments. Yikes. Don’t mind the gap…
Part 2

About the flashbacks: I like the link they establish between the brothers, as well as how they reflect Ed and Al's respective circumstances/mindsets at the moment. For some reason, though, Al's comes across stronger to me; not sure why, except that it may have do to with the killer transition there ("Al, could you hand me the soap?" // "I CAN'T DO THIS!" Nice contrast!). Also, it seems Al's flashback better suits both his concerns right then and what immediately follows afterward, whereas Ed is trying to escape the present tension through nostalgia. OTOH, I loved Winry pointing out the structural flaws in the brothers' fort (points for amusing ICness!), and how Al makes note of the same memory while talking with Gene.

Speaking of that conversation…personally, I've always enjoyed Gene and Al's interactions, as they played off each other so well from the start. (Actually, that goes for Ray and Al too, but I digress…) I also like how Gene's personality is reminiscent enough of Ed to get Al's attention at almost all the right moments, but not so much that what makes Gene uniquely himself isn't lost in the process. The same goes here—more good exposition without that overwhelming sense of "info dump!", along with more of that nice chemistry those two share. I found it interesting that, even with the previous night's revelation regarding Al, Gene remains as bitter as ever. He strikes me as rather self-involved, however, so even though he's shown that he's capable of sympathizing with Al, his still remaining firmly stuck in second gear, so to speak, makes sense. And because Al is too others-centric to just throw his own experiences back in Gene's face, he instead gently alludes to them to put things in proper perspective for his friend. (Oh, yes, that speech of his? Near perfection, and so Al it hurts <3 ) The tussle at the end ties up the scene and its loose threads nicely (we see that Gene's outlook may be slightly less pessimistic from now on, and Al's spirits have lifted some, too). Everything balances out so well here, which makes it one of my favorite parts from this chapter. Great stuff!

Similarly, Ed and co.'s meal with Johnna's family serves its purpose well. It's a nice way to relieve those earlier tensions and give everyone an opportunity to mentally refuel, and you guys did a good job of making it feel natural despite a family that may have otherwise come across as "too good to be true". Tessa and her mannerisms were one of the highlights for me—such fitting (and fun!) characterization. Also, I found Ed's observation that he's relatively well-off compared to his friends striking, yet fitting all the same (there's truth in his line of thinking, although it stills smacks of that self-punishment complex Ed has such a tendency to inflict upon himself—which makes it perfectly IC, of course ;) ).

And the humor, as usual, is distinctly BoP. No more need be said. *grin*

Phew! Good stuff all around, and looking forward to more! :)
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"Bundle of sticks" is now my favored insult.

You all are GODS who win at life and so very many intranets.
Part two comments, much delayed. My apologies! I have more to say in this part about large-scale matters, so you won't be getting any "tense consistency" notes (possibly to your relief :-). No sense whacking the prose when it may mutate on its own due to changes in scene structure. Onward!

[Gene's physical therapy and general physical situation]

I took Gene's medical details to a physician friend of mine and he's not sure they add up to a coherent picture. I badgered him for a good forty minutes on this point; here's what I learned.

For obvious reasons, the spine is very well protected by the musculature that surrounds it; you need either significant shear or significant impact to cause a paralyzing injury. My consultant didn't think that Gene's story of falling and being moved was particularly persuasive: the pool hole seemed insufficiently deep to cause an injury of that seriousness, unless the fall involved a heavy impact to Gene's lower spine from a sharp edge of some sort (tough to do if you're only falling a relatively short distance). He also thought that an injury sufficient to land Gene in his current state would be very difficult for the nanny to even consider pretending didn't happen -- it would be screamingly obvious that something was wrong. You can posit a really, really stupid nanny, but it might be better to reevaluate that part of the story. My consultant was insistent that he didn't think it would fly.

The most plausible scenarios for a traumatic spinal injury my consultant could suggest involved lateral deceleration or "more edges". In the first category we have side-impact car crashes or (less likely but still just possible) a front or rear impact that slams the injured person's knees into the dash; non-vehicular impact injuries, such as being caught underneath a falling tree or by a bad tackle; or (in the least likely scenario) an unlucky lucky fall from a great height (~20 feet) -- lucky to the extent that it doesn't actually kill you but unlucky to the extent that it leaves you paralyzed. In the second category, we have falls onto sharp edges (down stairs or onto prominently sharp rocks) or very lucky heavy projectile injuries (again, the ones that are going fast enough to hurt your spine badly enough to paralyze you are likely to do a lot more damage than that).

Continued ...
Continuing ...

My consultant also found the physical therapy shown and Gene's reaction to it to be out of key with his medical history. To deal with the first point first, the depiction of sit-ups as an exercise suggests that he has the use of his hip flexors as well as his abdominal muscles, which would point toward a lumbar injury. But people who have the use of their hips tend to prefer braces and crutches to wheelchairs -- it's that much easier to navigate through the world when you can walk or limp along, not to mention the psychological lift from being able to stand on your own two feet. In addition to that, if Gene's injury happened ten years ago, his physical therapy would not be directed toward gain of function, but toward limiting the damage to other muscles (e.g. contractures, which are the very devil). That usually involves more passive exercise -- range-of-motion stuff -- so sit-ups would be an odd choice. Gene's lack of upper body strength also seems out of keeping with the rest of his depiction as the victim of a lumbar injury. Absent a specific cause to the contrary, paraplegics will not be deficient in that area (they usually learn, frex, to transfer themselves from a wheelchair into bed or onto the toilet in quest of their own independence). For upper body strength to be affected, the patient requires one of two problems. The first is a high spinal injury, which brings with it other difficulties: not only the torso, but also the arms would be affected (and the bowels and bladder). The second is a medical neuropathy such as polio, Guillain-Barré syndrome or CDIP. I'm informed that these neuropathies can occur as isolated episodes after which the symptoms don't continue to progressively worsen; they also affect the extremities out of proportion to the torso. My consultant leaned toward this latter idea as the more likely cause of Gene's problems as depicted, though he admitted that it didn't include the idea of a neglectful home situation.

On the second point, my consultant happens to be in pediatrics and says that, in his experience, adolescents don't tend to explode in anger during chronic PT sessions because they usually aren't being asked to do things that would trigger frustration (more like terminal boredom). If Gene's injury were more recent, so that he was undergoing acute, rehabilitative PT, an angry response to his failure to improve would be far more likely, because that kind of PT expects progression toward a positive outcome. Maintenance PT assumes that the function you have is the function you've got; you're not being asked to get better, just not to get worse. We argued this point quite a bit and in the end he persuaded me that maintenance PT alone just isn't a likely venue for an explosion of the sort we get from Gene here.

I'm not sure where this leaves you, except with the necessity of revisiting Gene's backstory. I understand you're talking with another person who's working on the characterization of a paraplegic, so this all may be old news to you by now. If so, my apologies for simply reiterating the obvious ...

Continued ...
[Al's flashback]

This is well-done. The comparison of Gene to Ed is very apt; you might want to come back to it again elsewhere in this scene to further contrast the frustration and anger Ed might have exhibited in rehab (which would be directed inward, since he blames himself for what happened) to Gene's (directed outward, because he blames other people for his situation). On a larger note, I like the fact (as I may have said) that references to Amestris become more vivid now that we know there will be an Amestris arm to this story. It's excellent symmetry and good prep for what's to come.

"Psycho-analyze?" Al shrugged at the term and decided it wasn't important.

Now, this is tricky. Freud invents psychoanalysis at the turn of the twentieth century; the earliest citation of the verb in the OED is 1911 and psychoanalysis as a method of treatment and as a way of conceiving the human mind explodes in popularity in the '20s. So, theoretically, Al might be acquainted with the verb and the ideas behind it. It's a character thing: Ed's relentlessly focused on his goals, but Al, who's pretty other-directed to begin with, might have a broader range of interests (I can see him being the one who reads newspapers from cover to cover on long train rides, occasionally popping up to mention something interesting, frex). Your call, but I'm inclined to think this is one locution Al wouldn't be confused by.

My parents view me as a commodity or a burden they have to "make better."

You may already be working on this in revisions of previous chapters, but we need to see more of how Gene interacts with his parents for this accusation to carry weight (or fail to carry it, Gene perhaps misinterpreting his parents' reactions toward him).

"You call this living? ... "Yes, actually."

This is excellent conceptual follow-up to Al's recitation of his own history a couple chapters back -- he's one of the few people who can make this absolutely necessary point to Gene and not be dismissed out of hand. Which is why I'd love to see a bit more reaction from Gene here. This is a tipping point in his character arc; if nothing else, he's going to walk away from knowing Al a different (healthier, less self-absorbed) person. (That is, if he survives the hospital's path-crossing with Bond. Eek!) Show us that change-in-progress here before you move on to the falling action -- this is what the scene builds to, after all.

Continued ...
Continuing ...

[Roughhousing]

This part of the scene was actually what made me sit up, say, "Hmm ... " and decide to talk to a doctor about spinal injuries. It comes across a little awkward for three reasons. First, the vagueness of the action: since the emphasis here is on Gene's physical condition as a driver of his psychological state, you can't fake your way through the moves the way you could back in, say, Ed's fight with Singer (which was more about Ed's internal disposition than his physical prowess). If you keep this as the cap to this scene, you're probably going to have to go talk to a wrestling coach or someone about the technical aspects of this encounter. Second, Gene is in no way up to Al's weight in any martial-arts-related physical sport; the only way he could hold his own here is if Al holds back (which is not a useful move psychologically) or teaches him something (in which case we're back to the need for greater technical detail). Third, the mention of Gene's difficulties with his father related to wrestling introduces a nuance to his character that really wants more space to develop than it gets here (as well as a bit more build-up from Gene's previous encounters with his parents). I'm not sure it's useful to bring this up in what's essentially the falling action for this scene (although it may well be very useful to have it as part of Gene's backstory) because I can't quite see what the relevance is. It doesn't really explain anything (e.g. if Gene had been consistently betraying signs of envy of Al's martial arts ability or we had seen some odd byplay between Gene and his father that makes sense on learning this). Not knowing the end of Gene's character arc, I can't say whether it points forward to something to come and will be useful in retrospect, though. You do, so you may want to think about this.

[Ed's stomach]

This is a useful ongoing metaphor, though I might delete the central occurrence of "suddenly decid[ing] to eat itself from the inside" as repetitive with the stronger "voicing its own opinion" usage that follows. The "stone rolling over" justifies the cliche of rock-in-the-stomach by giving it an interesting twist; the organ's "manic depression" gives us a neat synechdoche for the emotional whiplash this afternoon has been putting Ed through. Language geek note: as with "psychoanalyze", "manic-depressive" is a locution which first wanders into English in the first decades of the twentieth century, hits its stride in the '20s and is firmly established in popular culture by the '30s. It's your call whether you think Ed would have been paying enough attention to have it in his vocabulary.

As he approached the group, he caught part of Tom's comment to Ducky, and wondered what the hell they were planning for tonight.

This transition topic-sentences the exchanges that follow a little too thoroughly; we haven't heard the comment yet, so we can't wonder with Ed until we do. I might suggest showing that there's some kind of argument going on, in which Ducky's enthusiasm is contrasting with Tom's dubiety; then have Ed reach earshot and pick up the half-a-comment; and finally have him wonder what the hell they're planning now (since he's got to have some idea of what the pre-planning has looked like).

"Will it get Al out of there?" / "Does a bear shit in the woods?"

Ed's subsequent puzzlement reads oddly to me; I'd think the meaning of Ducky's remark would be obvious and Ed would be more likely either to not react to it and move on (e.g. "Then count me in. We've been invited to lunch.") or to object to it as another one of Ducky's can't-just-give-a-straight-answer-when-he-can-make-a-joke-isms (which would foreshadow his later irritation with Ducky joking around with Reilly). (Tom might also make some argumentative noises in the background, since he is as yet unpersuaded that duct-crawling is a good idea.) Think about this.

Continued ...
Continuing ...

Hughes stiffly got to his feet and smoothed out his scrubs. / ... / Ed followed her nod over to Hughes, sitting stiffly in a canvas folding chair.

My point here is not to note the repetition of "stiffly" (although you might want to fix that :-), but to say that this transition is awkward -- two sharply different emotional states are required of Hughes here, with no sign of how or why he shifts from the one to the other. My suspicion is that it's actually someone else who gives the party the push to join Johnna and company -- Ducky or Heist, as previous speakers in the conversation and less inhibited than most of the rest of the group, seems a logical suspect. That way Hughes can trail along in their wake (as Reilly does, implicitly) and his subsequent appearance requires no other explanation than what is given.

Are those cookies?

[grin] Life goes on and Ed's always distractible by food. On a more English-majory note, the metaphorical contrast between this picnic and the fraught attempt to purchase hot dogs earlier is quite nice. Here we have a meal which is not an uneasy transaction but a free and cheerful sharing of abundance. It's an excellent setting for various characters to "feed" one another comfort as well as Rice Krispies treats. In that vein, having Reilly talk to her close friends in the background while Ed converses with Johnna and Hughes in the foreground is a good thing: we're aware that she's getting the psychological sustenance she needs from multiple sources so that she and Ed can make their peace by the end of the physical meal.

[Cute little Tessa]

Here's where you all decide to hate me. This chapter is going to be huge regardless, but I think Tessa's substantial presence may be contractible. She's very cute -- really! and I have nothing against cuteness, I swear! -- but I'm not sure, with all the other important encounters taking place in the park, that her extensive back-and-forth with Ed adds anything necessary to the scene. I really want to put the focus on Ed and Hughes's conversation here, anyway, because I think that deserves all the space it can grab (see below). Consider cutting or compressing her appearance. And now I will go hide ...

Continued (sorry for the multiple postings, but trying to keep relevant things together has become a real problem this round, for some reason) ...
Continuing ...

[Conversation between Hughes and Ed]

I'm unsatisfied with this encounter because I think it could bear much more weight than it does. This is the first time these two Amestrians have to speak to each other at leisure since Bond crashed through their lives. As fellow outsiders, fellow targets and companions in guilt (of different sorts), they must have things to say to each other that they can't say to anyone else in the group -- if not verbally, then gesturally or through studied silence. It's psychologically plausible that Ed would still be internally perseverating on his situation here, but it's narratively uninteresting. I'd suggest taking some of that internal monologue and turning it into dialogue -- what if Ed mentioned to Hughes that he was considering taking Al and doing a runner after the raid? How would Hughes respond to that and what would it reveal about his own mental state and plans? I also think it might be useful to have this conversation show the beginning of a lift in Ed's attitude, a recovery of shared purpose (or forward momentum) that is completed by his reconciliation with Reilly in the thanksgiving circle. [struggles briefly for control of keyboard and loses it to automail fingers, unsurprisingly]. I did have a bit of a creative inspiration here, which may or may not be helpful:

--- begin insert ---

"Can't that asshole ever be serious for a minute?" he complained.

"Not right now, he can't," Hughes said, with a snap in his voice that brought Ed's head right around, mouth slightly agape. What the -- ? Hughes sighed and lifted his uninjured shoulder in an apologetic shrug. "Stress and grief," he went on, more evenly. "Ducky laughs, you sulk, Reilly ... cries." His glance skipped over to the blanket, then back to Ed. "Everybody copes as they can."

I sulk? Gee, thanks. "Yeah? And what do you do?" Ed asked.

Hughes didn't move, didn't even blink, but his face was suddenly filled with deadly purpose. "Plot revenge," he said.

Ed's breath caught and then, as the other man's expression relaxed again into pain, ran out in a sigh. "Hughes," he began, but found he had no words to offer. Instead, he reached out and awkwardly touched his friend's knee. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

He was surprised again when Hughes's left hand came down on his, strong and warm. This is crazy. How can any of us help each other when we all feel like shit? Ed looked up. He wasn't sure what Hughes saw in his face, but the green eyes behind their square spectacles were steady despite the shifting glimmer of unshed tears. "Whatever it takes, Ed," he said, "we keep moving forward."

He laid the faintest of stresses on the word we and one side of Ed's mouth lifted. You never give up, do you? But Al had never given up either, and Ed was almost grateful enough to thank whatever powers organized the universe that he had not been left to bear his sins alone -- not in Amestris, not in Germany, nor yet in the United States. He turned his hand palm upward to grasp Hughes's, his smile broadening into symmetry. "In that case," he said, "I guess I can put up with the stupid jokes and the -- the socks to the jaw." And I can even apologize for making an ass of myself.

The gleam in Hughes's eyes went fierce. "Good," he said. "Because if we don't all hang together, Bond will make sure we all hang separately." He clasped Ed's hand firmly, then let go to fork up a random selection of food from his plate.

--- end insert ---

I sort of discovered in the writing of this that Hughes was angry, as well as dismayed and guilt-ridden, which wasn't really a prominent element in his characterization in this chapter, so this may not be in key. Something to consider, though.

Continued ...
[struggles briefly for control of keyboard and loses it to automail fingers, unsurprisingly]

First Hughes, and now Ed? You poor thing... being overpowered by Amestrian Males (albeit rather attractive ones). Wait until we get to A:2... You may have to fight off Roy, next! (and them we get into the strong Amestrian FEmales... Winry, Pinako, Hawkeye... Come to think of it, you may as well plan to write on the story by then. You may not have a choice).

Don'cha love it when the characters actually take over? ^^;;
Continuing and ending ...

"Let's all join hands," Henry said.

Ed's panic is well-thought and Reilly's silent intervention apt, reopening a line of communication between them that Ed can pick up in his response to the circle.

When his turn came, Ed thought a moment.

Ed's speech pins my Sentiment-O-Meter and seems too wordy for him, anyway. What about something like this:

"When his turn came, Ed bent his head and thought a moment. 'Friends,' he said softly. He looked up to see Johnna nodding at him, then glanced shyly, sidelong, at Reilly. 'A family ... that isn't defined by blood.'"

Which could lead to Reilly giving her thing-to-be-thankful-for in such a way as to indicate that things have cleared up between them. I think she does need to respond verbally to Ed here (or, rather, to the circle and implicitly to Ed) in order to complete the relational push-pull between them in this chapter. The circle itself is, btw, an excellent device -- in character for those who suggest it and sufficiently formalized to allow for an exchange between Ed and Reilly that doesn't put them on the spot by having them face each other directly.

Ed buckled himself in the back of the Ninjavan ...

Would you consider doing this scene from Hughes's POV instead? We've got Ed back to equilibrium with Reilly (and by extension with the rest of the group), but Hughes, despite his lower level of expressed angstiness, is still balancing between past and future, not quite committed to leaping in either direction. I think his opinion on what's just past and what's upcoming would make for a useful contrast with what we've just seen (e.g. Hughes can be the voice of wisdom for Ed, but for himself ... ? and he's got to be feeling like a liability and perhaps worrying a little about not being able to play whatever role had been initially planned for him in the raid. Anybody looking at Ducky's enthusiasm for crawling through ducts has to have a twinge of anxiety, despite saner heads keeping the brakes on for now).

Johnna sighed happily as the last of the picnic had been packed away and hauled off. She really had no intention of dragging that odd little family into her party.

Just a side note here: I like the way this story takes belief persuasions seriously as a part of character and notes the range of behaviors that can spring from such persuasions (cf. Johnna and Henry's social engagement with Mrs. Butterworth's). To my eye, this lends another note of reality to the proceedings. Applause, applause!

"LET ME GO! I'M GONNA TRANSMUTE THAT PINT-SIZE PINHEAD INTO A -- "

[chortle] It's a sign of how far we've come, and how effectively, that this chapter can end quite naturally with an Ed-rant, priming us for the shift from introspection to action ahead. Good work.

Thus me. I also have some follow-up comments to your follow-up comments to my comments on part one, just to show that I'm listening. Hopefully it won't ever take me this long again to weigh in.

Peace!
Just a side note here: I like the way this story takes belief persuasions seriously as a part of character and notes the range of behaviors that can spring from such persuasions (cf. Johnna and Henry's social engagement with Mrs. Butterworth's). To my eye, this lends another note of reality to the proceedings. Applause, applause!

Danke! :D

Seriously, considering the range of spiritual beliefs just among the group, we could hardly do any less. That was the -first- thing we all insisted upon... that even though there are those who give a particular religion a bad name *coughMrsButterworthcough*, there are at least as many that actually -follow- their teachings. So... we agreed that if we showed a bad side, we would, eventually, show the good side as well.

That, and Ed's POV about beliefs aren't entirely accurate ;)

My -personal- opinion is, there is a big difference between religion and faith. Mrs Butterworth is -religious- (she follows the dogma to what she considers the letter without really thinking about what it all means). Johnna and Henry are -faithful- (They delved deep into their faith, and use the braind God gave them to -understand- what it all means to the best of their abilities).

[chortle] It's a sign of how far we've come, and how effectively, that this chapter can end quite naturally with an Ed-rant, priming us for the shift from introspection to action ahead. Good work.

Man, if no one saw that coming, they're horribly dense! XD

After all... Ed didn't react like he -should- have when he was called that.
*pokes everyone* IS YOU BREATHING?!
Yeah, we is.... barely.

Between finals, holidays and the CHAPTER FROM HELL, we've been ... delayed.

Soon, though. Soon.