Arc One: Chapter Twenty-Two, Part 1
Balance of Power
“Calm down, cowboy,” Heist murmured as she swung open the final door with ease after her little ‘Sherlock’ had unlocked it. “Let’s go get the booty before someone realizes we’re pirates.”
A/N: Hello everyone! This is the Roaming Fool, temporarily taking over for Heathenesque. We apologize for the lateness of the chapter; in two months we've had two of our writers depart the project on a semi-permanant basis and one leave completely. New writers, like myself, are coming into the project. Our lives have also gotten a lot more complicated.
Therefore, it would behoove all of you who follow Balace of Power to take note, as we begin to come to the end of this story (that's right, the ending is closer than you think!) that updates will become less frequent, although the chapters will be longer in and of themselves and packed with content. It takes time to put this together for you and we want to write to the best of our ability.
Please be patient with us and enjoy Chapter 22!
This is Part One.
June 3, 2006 – 9:37 p.m.
Sidney pulled a dark, older-model compact around the last cordon of bright orange cones and down the ramp to the next level, smirking at his handiwork. It was petty of him to mess with the composition of the supports the construction workers kept erecting to fix the damage he'd done to the parking garage, but he would keep it up as long as the hospital continued to withhold information from him.
The hospital system for this whole state would feel his wrath, he promised himself, as soon as he'd finished with the Elrics. And Hughes. Sidney's grip on the steering wheel tightened.
He had wasted three hours pacing the emergency waiting room floor just to have some candy striper nit-wit earnestly inform him that no-such-person-had-been-admitted-sir. By the time she'd favored him with that response, he'd lost his chance to interrogate the accomplices from the café: "Gretchen" had been discharged and the kid with the fangs had disappeared as completely as if he'd been a real vampire. Sidney had been left to watch the sun rise through a fingerprint-spotted window, holding a styrofoam cup filled with something that only vaguely resembled tea.
He had barely refrained from throwing the piss-colored liquid into the face of the simpering drone at the information desk before stalking out of the hospital, relishing the way staff and patients scattered before him. His brain had seethed with plans for revenge as he'd tossed and turned on his squeaking motel mattress -- alchemical ambuscades and grotesque deathtraps for Maes Hughes, the Fullmetal Bastard and his mealy-mouthed brother. He had dreamed of Hughes, especially, paying in blood and lymph for every frustrating, stultifying second of the previous night, screaming until their throats gave out.
He had awakened refreshed, reviewing his fantasies over a half-decent mug of Earl Grey from the nearest Starbucks before reluctantly dismissing them. Plans made in anger weren't true plans -- merely inspirations. He was the Stealthworks Alchemist: his reputation had been built on discipline, calculation and discretion. He'd have all the time in the world to neutralize his enemies once they were properly confined in Amestris. But first he needed to find Fullmetal and persuade him to open a Gate, which even the gentlest of the previous night's torments would have rendered him incapable of doing. Revenge, like a good cup of tea, was best if left to steep a while.
As he'd laid his plans for the next few days, however, Sidney had paused occasionally to consider the future, a brighter future than he'd never dared contemplate since arriving in this oubliette of a universe. Hughes's wife and daughter still lived, surely; what a lovely riot of reactions he could coax from them.
Sidney shook himself free of he distracting images, but a smile lingered on his lips as he returned to the business at hand. Such a tearful reunion shouldn't be delayed, should it? Time to move.
Twenty-one hundred thirty-seven hours.
Ray had been at work for an hour and a half already, and aside from a quick voicemail before coming in (“No cape explosions; the operation is a go!”), he had absolutely no idea what his part in this insane scheme was.
"This has to be one of the craziest extraction missions that I've ever had the displeasure of participating in," he muttered to the empty breakroom.
"That would make two of us, Ray."
He looked up to see Heather standing next to him -- where'd she come from? -- and mentally flipped himself the bird. Great SA, Purdue; when Fed-Boy comes tap-dancing down the hall to invite Tiger to join the Rockettes, you'll be all over it. "You've never been on an extraction mission, Heather," he said grumpily. "Not unless you're lying about what you've been doing the past five years." Taking a sip of his coffee, he flipped his phone open and watched the military time stare back at him. "Twenty-three minutes until operation, and I still don't know my orders." He slapped the phone closed again, the small device nearly disappearing within his large hand, and shoved a chair toward Heather with his left foot.
"Is that why you haven't gone down to be with the boys?" Heather asked, taking the seat he'd offered and swiping his coffee. "They're playing cards in Tiger's room again."
"Good to know," Ray said, glumly watching her drink. If the only casualty of the night was his coffee, he'd drop to his knees and thank the good Lord for His mercies with all the fervor of a Pentecostal granny. "I'll join them once I get a call."
Heather smiled and handed his cup back after lowering the liquid by at least half an inch. "Well, don't wait too long. Tiger probably wants to say--"
Ray felt a vibration in his hand and lost interest in what Heather was saying as he glanced at the numbers popping up on the display. He held up a finger for her to wait, flipped the phone open and brought it up to his ear. "Purdue here."
"I am the terror that flaps in the night! And I will be patiently waiting for that lovely package of mine to be delivered on the first floor, at the end of the eastern hallway, if it isn't too much trouble."
Eastern hallway. X-ray, then. "Can do, DW. Have a nice flight, okay?"
"Nice flight, nothing. I just hope I don't have to stare at Terminator's ass the whole way. Your line's being rewired; call for orderlies. Comrades H and H will be waiting."
"Let's get dangerous."
Ray closed the phone and pocketed it. He hoped Heather wouldn't notice the nervousness he was starting to feel, but he couldn't shake the suspicion that this was all going to blow up in their faces. To hell with that: I will conquer my fears and succeed; I will not fail those with whom I serve. "Time to move."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Ducky announced, snapping his phone shut and tossing it over to Tom in the passenger seat, "Thunderbirds are go!" He ignored a warning growl from behind him and turned right into the drive that led to the hospital's parking garage. "Your captain requests that you please remain seated until the van has arrived at the gate, at which time --"
A tug on his headrest and a menacing whisper of "Ducky!" in his left ear interrupted this incipient monologue; he glanced in the rearview mirror to see Reilly settling back in her seat, giving him a Jedi-quality fisheye. This isn't the parking garage I'm looking for -- oh, wait: yes, it is. He braked the Ninjavan at the entrance, rolled down the window and snatched a ticket from the machine with the tips of his fingers. Tucking the slip of paper into his sunvisor, Ducky gently gunned the Ninjavan up the ramp, resisting the temptation to test the vehicle's cornering ability. With the infamous Reilly luck, I'll probably get a chance to test it on the way out.
Ducky looked up at the mirror again and tried out a grim smile before letting it spread into a manic grin. Me for Darkwing Duck, not Double-Oh-Seven. Gravity didn't suit his expression any better than Ed's attempt to appear calm. Hughes did a pretty good imitation of insouciance as long as nothing was tweaking his shoulder; Tom could out-Zen Reilly any day of the week.
Only Heist, scribbling something into her PDA, seemed honestly relaxed, even excited. Ducky's fingers drummed on the steering wheel; he caught himself just before he hit the gas on the straightaway and leaned back with an effort. Later. We need someone with a clear head on this jaunt. Or, at least, as clear as Heist's head gets.
The rattle and hum of construction announced the problem before it came into view. "You have got to be kidding me," Ducky muttered, jerking the steering wheel none-too-gently to bring the Ninjavan around the last ramp and up to the roof. "Do not be telling me they're still cleaning up this mess ... "
They were. Several floodlights positioned around the area conveniently illuminated a gaping hole in the floor with a larger perimeter cordoned off with garish yellow tape. A few men were wielding some pretty hefty-looking machinery and creating quite a ruckus, despite the late hour. Ducky had wondered about the structural integrity of the building, but the damage couldn't have been nearly as devastating as it appeared if they were still allowing people to park in the garage.
Ducky remembered some of the hospital staff talking about the explosion. Construction had already been underway by the time he'd started working but, from the looks of things, they hadn't made much progress. It seemed odd that the computers had been affected the way they were. It was more like an EM burst had taken them out or something, because where the explosion was located shouldn’t have damaged the systems. That should only happen if they had the main banks under the garage, he thought. It was just one more bizarre, X-Filesesque tidbit that Ducky filed away to examine later.
He consulted his roughly sketched map of the parking garage, trying not to lean on the horn as he smoothed the flimsy paper over the steering wheel. "So much for getting in and out unnoticed," he said, and whipped the van around. "I'll take Plan B for a thousand, Alex."
Five minutes later, Ducky carefully backed the van into the only available parking spot he could find. Their location, about halfway between two different stairwell doors along the outer garage wall, was about as good as it was going to get. With a sigh of defeat, Ducky switched off the ignition. He and Ed were just going to have to lug all their gear along a different route to the service elevator... and pray they didn't get caught.
Tom unlocked the passenger seat and swiveled around. Shaking out another map and clearing his throat, he faced the rest of the van's occupants. "All right, people, listen up."
With an annoyed grunt, Ducky unlocked his own Captain’s seat and spun far enough to throw his feet up on the doghouse console. “We’ve already gone over the plans a million times, Tom.”
Heist and Ed both moved forward. Heist settled on the floor cross-legged, with a huge backpack, in front of Reilly. Ed knelt down between Reilly and Hughes and dropped his own heavy backpack between his feet. He looked ready to spring at any moment but was –amazingly—quiet.
“Then we’ll go over them a million and one times, Ducks,” Tom said. “Let’s take it from the top. Heist?”
She unzipped her backpack and said, “Get in, get to the basement, hack into the security bus and tap the line to the Wall’s phone so it’ll reroute the call for an orderly to us. Gank some scrubs, do a little recon and Two-Step back here. Kid stuff."
Tom nodded, then glanced at Ducky. The hacker rolled his eyes and said, “At which point, I call the Wall’s cell and tell him to set up a fake injury for Term Jr. Then Ed and I take the service elevator—Which reminds me… we’re not coming in from the roof now. How much of a pain is it going to be to get to the elevator?”
Heist smirked a little at him. "I thought you'd gone over this a million times, Ducky. What gives?"
He opened his mouth to shoot a smart-mouthed comment back, but Tom held up his hands. "Enough. Heist?"
“The security schematic and the floor plan didn’t indicate any difference in the route,” Heist said. “But I’ll look it all over as I head through.”
“Gotcha. Anyway, Ed and I take the service elevator down, stop it between the first and second floor, climb out through the top and through the ducts to X-ray. Then we wait for H and H and Term Jr. Second verse, same as the first… in reverse.” He paused and grinned at his rhyme. “Except we go all the way to the roof, skip down the fire escape, and tra-la-la across the street where we wait for Reilly and the rest of you to pick us up.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Ducky saw Hughes gently rub his injured shoulder and wince ever so slightly before the man straightened his shoulders, any expression that he wasn't one hundred percent ready. When Tom's gaze fell on Hughes, he was the picture of a calm soldier.
"As soon as the Wall calls for an orderly, Heist and I head for the third floor to pick up Al for an escort to x-ray.” Hughes scratched the back of his head and smiled down his partner. "We'll use a skeleton key to get through the secured door to the psych ward and present ourselves at the main desk."
Heist made a derisive noise. "'Skeleton key.' God, what an anachronism." She reached deep into her back back and shuffled its contents around; then, with a grunt and hard yank, she pulled out a small keypad with a magnetic-stripped card dangling from the top of it by a ribbon of colored wire. “Apologize to Sherlock, Hughes, or he won't help you.”
Ed leaned forward and peered suspiciously at the electronic device. “What is that thing?”
“Magnetic code seeker,” she said. “Just trust me when I tell you it’ll open damn near anything requiring a card-key.”
Hughes shook his head. "Sounds like a skeleton key to me."
Ed ignored him, training his bright gaze on Heist. “’Damn near’? Then it might not open the door?”
Heist shrugged and tucked Sherlock away again. “It’s a hospital, Term. Not Fort Knox. It’ll work.”
Ed's threat might as well have remained unspoken for all the notice Heist took of it. Ducky shook his head. He don't know her very well, do he? Picking locks and phreaking phones was elementary school stuff for her, as simple as tying her shoes. "We pick up your brother," she said, "whisk him down to x-ray, and wait for your arrival in graceful seclusion. Only one security camera to avoid and no traffic down there this time of night, unless the ER gets victims from a bus accident or something."
Everyone except Heist. . . twitched. Ducky inhaled, four different inane comments fighting for access to his tongue, but Tom got in first, asking calmly, "You still sure we shouldn't try to disable the cameras along your route?"
Heist shook her head. “The less we mess with security, the better. If I start mucking about with the alarms and surveillance it increases the chances of something going wrong.”
Tom nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer.
Reilly shook her finger at Ducky and Ed. “Which means you two had better not attract any attention.”
Ducky smirked. “We can always use Ed as a distraction if some rent-a-cop gets too nosy. You know they’re all hard-up, and…” he dropped into his bad hick accent and lecherously waggled his brows at Reilly, “…the boy shore does have a purdy mouth.”
He noticed a flicker out of the corner of his eye from Ed's direction and reached up to pluck the strange object flying at his head out of the air before it beaned him. Turning the object in his fingers, he realized it was a switch he'd misplaced about a month ago. "Hey! I've been looking for that! Thanks, Ed!"
He chose to interpret the younger man's growl as, 'You're welcome.'
Hughes chuckled, then said, “After we pass Al up to Ed and Ducky, Heist returns to the basement, removes the tap, and we just walk on out.”
Ed shrugged, still glowering slightly in Ducky's direction. “Piece of cake.”
Everyone but Hughes and Tom groaned loudly, and the blonde looked around in confusion. “What?”
“Remind me to sit you down and show you Labyrinth after this is all over,” Reilly said.
Ducky couldn’t help but laugh. “Dude, you just jinxed us.”
Ed rolled his eyes. “You people watch too many movies.”
“In the meantime,” Tom said with enough emphasis to kill Ducky's next smart-assed response before it had the chance to spill past his lips, “Reilly and I will hold down the fort here and monitor your activity.” He reached down and pulled a bright pink plastic backpack from under his seat, unzipped it, and started passing out small walkie-talkies to everyone. “The lines will be left open and they’re voice-activated. We’ll all be able to hear each other.” He favored Ducky with a hard-nosed stare. “Everything, Ducks. So keep the bad jokes to a minimum. We need to be able to hear the others, too.”
“Well, hell. You mean I can’t entertain all of you with my sparkling personality and bubbling wit?”
“Can you be serious for once?” Ed growled.
“What about the signal?” Heist asked as she grimaced down at the device in her hands as if someone had spit in them instead of handing her a two-way radio.
“Scrambled,” Tom answered as he distributed a handful of small ear pieces to everyone but himself and Reilly. “We’ll only hear each other, and no one else is going to hear us.”
“So what’s Plan B?” Hughes asked. “Just in case.”
“Ed?” Reilly and the rest of the car scrutinized the two men.
Ed and Ducky eyeballed each other. Ducky sighed and fiddled with a strap on his bag while Ed impatiently recited, "If it goes to hell in a handbasket, we're supposed to get out of the hospital as soon as possible."
"Make a break for the Ninjavan."
Hughes looked from Reilly to Ed and back to Reilly. “How do you do that?”
She smiled sweetly, but didn’t say a word. Heist's lips twitched; she shot Ducky a look from under half-lowered lids that managed to convey admiration for Reilly and amusement at him and Ed with remarkable economy. Ducky pursed his lips at her in a silent Bronx cheer. C'mon, Heist, give us a little credit. We're not exactly hacking the electronic scoreboard for homecoming, here ...
Except she didn't know that. Heist had no idea how much they'd paid to come this far. It had been left to him to tell her about Kitten and Spike, and he'd decided to wait. Ducky clasped his hands together and scratched his left thumb with his right. She'll dive into a hole and pull the hole in after her, just like she always does. And I can't be in two places at once: we need her to handle security at the Wall's end. Under the rasp of his nail, the skin of his thumb turned white, then red. Once we're out of here, then there'll be time ...
No matter how he excused it, though, he knew he was betraying a friendship that had sustained both of them since childhood. But he couldn't do a one-eighty now, not with the clock ticking down the final minutes to zero hour; he would keep cracking lame jokes and let Heist think this was another one of their excellent adventures. Whatever punishment she chose to dish out when it was all over -- even if she turned her back on him and walked away without a word -- he would take.
And that possibility, more than any obstacle they might encounter tonight, scared him shitless.
Heist pulled her hair back into a neat bun before popping a piece of gum in her mouth. “Don’t worry, Term. If your brother’s half as cute as you are, he’ll be easy to spot and we’ll have him out in no time.” She rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a massive purse and a dark wig, jamming Sherlock inside before zipping it closed. “This should only take fifteen in and out,” she explained as she arranged the wig over her hair. “Don’t call unless I’m late, no search and rescue, yadda yadda. Does my hair look okay?”
“You’re good, H,” Ducky assured her. “Don’t get caught.”
She stuck her tounge out at him before sliding the van door open. “I haven’t yet, and that one time doesn’t count. ‘Sides, it’s only recon. No biggie.” She jumped out of the van and turned a beatific grin on Hughes. “You know the plan. Be ready to go when I get back.” He nodded in response and her smile widened.
“See you in fifteen!” The door slid shut again and Ducky let his head roll back against the headrest. Then his gaze slipped over Tom and Hughes before landing on Ed. All three of them, he knew, had been forced to make the best of bad choices in the past. Compared to them, this should have been nothing - but he still wondered how they'd gotten through it.
He didn't notice it at first, being too caught up in his own thoughts, but he suddenly realized that Ed was watching him. The determination in those eyes answered Ducky's question. You keep moving forward.
“Does she know what she’s doing?” Ed asked.
Ducky shrugged. “Probably.” He noticed Reilly watching him with an expression of disquiet and Ducky mouthed, "What?"
“Did you tell her?” she mouthed back.
He shrugged and focused his attention on pulling the duffel from underneath his seat. He could feel Reilly's gaze on the back of his neck and he ignored it, trying not to think of the inevitable confession he would have to make.
"HA, got it!"
Startled by Al's yelp, Ray opened the door and frowned at the two boys sitting on the bed. "And just what," he drawled, wondering if he really wanted to know, "are you two up to now?"
"Egyptian Rat Fuck," Gene said calmly, as if that explained everything, and gathered a pile of cards from the center of the bedspread to add them to his large collection. "Al kind of sucks at it."
"You didn't tell me you'd be smacking me while we played it!" Al protested. "And I forgot about the single jacks." He massaged his hand, then hunched into a posture that would have screamed to any card shark, Bring it on, baby! "Let's go again."
Thankful that Al seemed a bit calmer this time, Ray put a hand on the boy's head. "Hold on there, partner. I got the call from the Duckman."
Both boys froze in place, turning wide eyes toward Ray. "And?" Gene asked. "What's the word?"
Ray pulled up the one chair in the room and had a seat. "Okay, boys. Here's the plan..."
June 3. 2006 -- 9:52 p.m.
Ed’s teeth ground together in barely suppressed agitation. Already his right shoulder was aching from the extra weight of his automail, and he yearned for another massage from Reilly. Annoyed, he clamped down on that thought and focused on the task ahead. Lifting his chin a little, he glared at the crouched form of Ducky just a few feet away. “I still say you should let me lead. I happen to have a little experience crawling through ducts. That and it would save me the view of your ass.”
Ducky paused in mid-crawl to glance over his shoulder. He scanned Ed before smirking. “I’m sure you do... Considering your size...”
Ed’s face flamed, but before he could launch into a well-practiced tirade a crackly voice broke over the receiver. “Ed, shut up! Ducky, I told you- don’t set him off, you asshole! We want to actually start this rescue attempt before alerting the hospital!”
Ducky pouted his lip slightly, an expression Ed was certain he didn't realize he was making. Reilly had a gift for exotic language, and she plied it with artistic flourish when she was particularly angry. This was far more entertaining than TeeVee, and Ed leaned against the wall behind him to see how it played out.
Ducky swallowed with apparent nervousness. His grin seemed too tight as he shifted the coil of rope on his shoulder. “Sorry, darling! My accursed quick wit likes to take charge, and there’s never a bad time for comedic relief!” It was a complete sham, Ed was sure. Apparently Reilly thought so too as she grated a response.
“There is when the audience is armed, idiot.”
Ed started to grin at the dressing down Ducky was receiving when the voice suddenly turned on him. “And Ed, you had better get your head out of your ass if you plan on reuniting with your little brother! So help me, I’ll gut you myself if you give us away because you can’t keep your temper!”
In the silence that followed Reilly's irritated sign-off, Ed and Ducky simply rested for a moment, avoiding one another's eyes. Ed stared at the ceiling and found his breathing automatically falling into the rhythm of an old exercise, one of the first Izumi had taught him. She and Reilly were nothing alike, physically, but they had the same talent for cutting through bullshit. Maybe all teachers have it? Ed knew exactly how important what he and Ducky were doing was to the overall plan, knew they needed to cooperate -- No. I know I need his help. Dammit. Ducky was native to this place and time; that gave him insights Ed couldn't duplicate and skills he couldn't match. In light of that, the clowning was a minor irritant (or at least a provocation to be answered later). I'm here to rescue Al. I can put up with anything for that.
Steadied by his reflections, Ed turned to Ducky. The other man was muttering darkly about voice-activated walkie-talkies as he spun a pair of smoke bombs on his left palm. Ed calmly reached out and closed his automail fingers around Ducky's wrist, then caught the bombs as they dropped from the hacker's startled grip. Ducky grimaced, but -- mindful, perhaps, of Ed's grasp on his arm -- said nothing. Cheered by this small victory, Ed stuffed the smoke bombs back into the duffel and zipped it closed. "Let's have a look at the map," he said.
Ducky smiled, rapping his head with his index finger. "No need; it's all right here!"
Ed unzipped his pack anyway and sorted through the various objects inside until he located the map. It was creased oddly; he'd been too impatient to refold it properly the last time he'd consulted it. Shaking out the pleats, he scanned the diagram. "Okay.... it looks like the next intersection is about six yards up," he said as he traced their line of ductwork with a flesh finger. "Hughes has us making a left, then following it for about ten yards till it branches off to the right. We keep going straight for another twenty yards until we get to the first vent."
Ducky pulled the map a little closer, pointing at a cutout in the shaft they were currently crawling through. "What's this?"
Ed squinted. The map's major features were clear, but small details blurred into wavering squiggles and dots in the flashlight's low-wattage beam. "It almost looks like another shaft, but it's a lot smaller than the rest of the duct."
Ducky bent lower over the map, his own eyes narrowing in concentration and excitement. "We should check it out!"
Ed twitched the map out of his hands before Ducky could pinpoint the distraction's location. "We're not here to sightsee," he said evenly.
"But it could be a shortcut!" Ducky protested. "It might save us some time. The longer we're here, the more likely it is someone'll notice."
Ed forced himself to breathe slowly -- in through the nose, hold, out through the mouth. He's got no experience. I do. I just have to explain it to him in words of one syllable. "We don't know where it goes, Ducky. It won't help us if we get lost in it."
Ducky tapped his fingers against the duffle. "You got a point there," he said finally.
Ed blinked, then nodded. He pushed the map back into his pack and began crawling forward, Ducky following behind him, docile. Maybe this will work after all. He wouldn't count on it, though; he'd been out in the field enough to know that nothing ever happened the way you planned it beforehand. And this plan had enough complexities and trust-me-it'll-works in it to make him sweat if he thought about it too hard. It was a hell of a lot more complicated than anything he'd have invented on his own. Al had often chided him for the lack of forward planning in their escapades, but they'd never had time for it. Well, almost never. Seven times out of ten ...
Oh, screw it: Ed preferred to dive in headfirst and improvise.
And you've got the scars to prove it, a voice in his head that might have been his brother's reminded him.
Al fidgeted in the wheelchair as Ray brought him to a stop by the nurse's station. The sling and icepack that were wrapped around and immobilized his not-really reinjured arm were irritating to the point of near pain and he rolled his shoulder to alleviate the discomfort. He started to get up so he could see clearly over the counter and through the locked door, but a large hand on his shoulder held him down. He twisted and glared up at Ray, then said, "I still don't understand why I have to sit in this thing. My legs are fine."
"Insurance purposes" was all the answer he got as Ray added a little more pressure to his shoulder.
There was no negotiating this, Al knew, but that didn't make it any easier. Where Ray had parked him blocked his view around the corner of the the station to the door, which meant Al couldn't see his brother coming down the corridor. His head just barely poked over the false horizon of white shelf, and he craned his neck in an effort to at least get an advance peek. It wasn't a two year separation this time, but it felt just as miserable because they were in the same world and divided by mere circumstance. Anticipation had grown over the past few weeks --ever since Ed had finally contacted him by email-- and only managed to make time drag slower. It was enough to try even Al's patience and he was beginning to feel like he was at the end of whatever reserves he had left. Of course, last night's crushing disappointment and the worry that followed to keep him awake all night didn't help matters.
At least Gene's diabolical card game had managed to pump a little adrenaline into him, because he could feel exhaustion creeping up on him again. He rubbed his knuckles and scowled as Gene rolled up next to him. "Remind me to start wearing gloves when I play cards with anyone from now on," Al said.
Gene just smirked at him.
"How you holding up there, Tiger?" Ray asked.
Al turned his attention to the nurse, who was watching him with an upraised eyebrow. "Fine. I'm looking forward to seeing Brother again."
Ray chuckled. "What's with the 'Brother' thing? Does he not like his name or something?"
"You keep calling him 'Brother.' Why don't you use his real name?"
Al had never really thought of why he called his brother 'Brother' instead of Ed. "Well... he's my brother. And I don't want to forget it, I guess."
Gene piped up. "I like Ed better."
"Edward Elric, the... " Al trailed off, smiling and shaking his head slightly as he realized he was about to introduce Ed as a State Alchemist, something he hadn't been for a long time and a title that would hold no meaning for Ray or Gene. Old habits die hard.
Ray's eyebrows were just about at his hairline and Gene prompted, "The. . .?"
"Never mind. It's not important anymore. Still, I can't wait for you guys to meet him!" Al started to bounce again.
"'Ed' and 'Al,' that's kind of cute." Ray smiled and ruffled Al's hair. "But unless the name 'Ed' starts with an 'h,' I don't think I'm gonna meet him tonight, kiddo."
Al stopped bouncing and felt disappointment settle in his stomach. "But. . . he said he was coming to get me! Where - ?"
"Whoa there, Tiger!" Ray put his hands on Al's shoulders. "Settle down. He's coming, but he can't be the one to meet you here tonight. The Duckman said that 'H and H' would be here first."
"H and H? Who's that?" Al asked, his nose creasing in concentration.
Ray shook his head. "You're asking the wrong man. Think, Al. Who do you know that your bro would trust you with, whose name begins with an 'h?'"
Time seemed to stop for a moment as the pieces fell into place. "Hughes," Al breathed.
This wasn't an off-hand comment in an email; black and white text that carried all the impact of discussing the weather. This was reality. He's here. Not a homunculus masquerading as Hughes and not a doppleganger either, but the real thing. Al felt the blood drain from his face and was suddenly grateful that Ray had insisted on the wheelchair, because he didn't think he could stand now if he tried.
Gene looked worried and nudged Al. "You okay, man? You look like a ghost."
"Or like he saw one." Ray gave the lightest of squeezes from his huge hands on Al's shoulders. "What's so scary about this Hughes guy, Tiger?"
Al swallowed and looked at them both before shrugging Ray's hands away. "He was dead."
Maes felt surprisingly nervous when they finally reached the locked doors of the psych ward.
It had been a quiet trek to the psychiatric wing of the hospital; neither he nor Heist wanted to risk anything seeming out of the ordinary, so they’d stayed relatively quiet on the walk. The silence had given his guts the chance to twirl into a very tight Gordian knot.
“Calm down, cowboy,” Heist murmured as she swung open the final door with ease after her little ‘Sherlock’ had unlocked it. “Let’s go get the booty before someone realizes we’re pirates.”
Maes blinked at the pirate reference, but followed her inside, green eyes looking all around for any sign of Al. He looked for silver metal, a purple loincloth… maybe the hair-decoration coming from his helmet. But the memory that Al was in the flesh – he’s real now, he’s alive – kicked him in the gut and almost made him nauseated all over again.
He spotted a large nurse and a boy in a wheelchair by the nurse’s desk and started to head over, a small tuft of dark blonde hair peeking out from behind the desk. But he stopped short as the boy behind the help desk finally came into his line of sight, and he swore his heart skidded to a halt for several moments.
Gone was the hulking armor that was all he remembered of Al. In its place sat a scrawny young man with a quivery smile on his face and a subtle but unmistakable resemblance to Edward Elric.
He’s so damned small, Maes found himself thinking as he stared at the boy, tears coming to his eyes. He looks like he’d break if I breathed on him hard enough. The tears settled on the edge of his eyelids, giving his sight a bit of a dazzled quality as he beamed at Al.
The large nurse beside Al was saying something, but Al’s eyes never left Maes’. "These two are going to take you up to get your arm looked at, kiddo. Behave for them, okay?"
Maes had to restrain the urge to go over and give Al an Armstrong-worthy hug as the kid pulled his gaze away long enough to look at his large nurse and gave him a solemn salute. It was Ed’s salute, though it had the respect and gratitude that Fullmetal’s sloppy gestures had never contained. Maes had to stifle a laugh when the kid sitting next to Al made a face, and Al just punched him with a giggle. Still throws a better punch than Ed, too.
Heist started walking towards the handles of Al’s wheelchair, but even with his shoulder in so much pain, Maes just couldn’t let her do it. He had to feel Al. Had to make sure he wasn’t seeing a ghost still, the way Al had seen him for so long. “I’ve got him,” he said, his voice thick with the emotion of the moment.
He grabbed Al’s shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze before he began pushing the boy away, and he finally felt sure of himself again. As they walked towards the door, he leaned over to whisper into Al’s ear.
“I am so glad to see you alive and whole, Al.” He straightened up and swallowed to clear his throat, then smiled as Al looked up at him. “C’mon. Let’s get you back to where you belong.”
The salute he got in return made even the pain in his shoulder melt away.
Gene had never felt so alone as when the first person who had ever actually given a shit about him was taken away by people he had never met. A block of ice collected in the pit of his stomach, and he felt like he wanted to cry. Even if tough guys like him didn't cry. He wanted to.
And there goes my only friend. Taking off for some awesome adventure with his brother, while I get left behind by everyone. Again. And then he thought back to his e-mail, where he and Al had first bonded. And felt at least a little better.
But as Gene watched his best friend be wheeled away by the two 'orderlies', something triggered a thought in his mind, and he dug around in his pocket. "Uh, Ray?"
"If these guys are so intent on getting out without being caught, then why didn't they disable the alarms?"
"I'm sure they took that into account, Gene."
The boy pointed up at a small red box nestled near the ceiling with a pin-point of red light staring steadily back at them. "Guess again. That light says the alarm's still active."
Gene almost laughed as Ray opened his mouth to speak, then stopped and closed it, only to open it again with the words "How the hell do you know this shit?"
Gene smiled, and pulled out two slender little devices: his jumpdrives. "It's what I do, Ray. Get me to a computer."