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"Move 'em on, Head 'em Up... Rawhide!"
Arc One: Chapter 25
Balance of Power


Part One



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





It's going to be really quiet around here, Ray thought as he started his morning routine, the first part involving downing a cup of coffee before he even thought about going into his tiny bathroom. He would be back on his usual 12-hour day shifts in the ER area of the hospital as of today, and he wasn't exactly looking forward to it.

Tiger (Al... his name is Al, Ray reminded himself) made his escape only a couple of days before and had successfully reunited with his brother -- even though things got a little hairy for a bit there. And now Gene was going home later today. It was going to be... boring. Never thought a couple of kids would've made things so damned exciting, he thought with a soft laugh. Funny how someone can change your life without even trying.

With Al's help in boosting Gene's self-worth, he'd become a bit more confident in standing up to his mother and father in general, even managing to convince his parents that he was not an invalid. Yesterday, when Ray had happened by the physical therapy rooms, he'd seen Gene working out, a normal wheelchair waiting instead of his usual battery-operated tank. Now he was leaving and Ray was looking forward to seeing the kid off, but he already missed both boys.

I'm glad the kid's finally doing something he wants to do, Ray thought as he lathered his face for shaving. Maybe by the time he sees Al again, he'll be using crutches. If it is possible for him to use crutches or anything.

His daily routine didn't take too long. Patting his cheeks as he finished shaving, Ray bent his head to wash away the extra shaving foam, making sure to get that little bit that always seemed to sneak into his ear.

Then he looked up.

He'd barely had a chance to register the second image reflecting in the mirror, before he felt something cold, hard and deadly press against the back of his skull. "A pity I have to do this, Mr. Purdue. But I'm afraid you're a loose end." Click. "And I do despise loose ends."

~`~`~`~


Sidney was very meticulous as he removed his gloves and peeled off the the plastic rain poncho that had covered his suit. There was a slight residue of hair and brain matter on the cuffs of his sleeves, but the rest of the flotsam from that interfering nurse was disposed of in the kitchen trash.

He was almost saddened that he didn't have more time to spend with dear Mr. Purdue, but unfortunately he was on a schedule. Vendettas against meddling medical professionals aside, he had to get to Missouri.

He had other unfinished business, after all.

_________


****
From: heistgoeskerouac
Re: Why you haven't seen me lately

Hi Mom, it's your one and only daughter. Notice the new email addy. Yes, another one. No, I'm not in any trouble with the law again... though I am in a bit of a... situation... Ducky and I both are. And no, not that kind of situation. You're going to have to get your grandchildren from another one of your offspring, thank you very much. Hasn't Roman married our adorable little neighbor yet?

Actually, if you see Mama T any time soon, tell her the Duckster and I both send our love. We're not in a great position for easy communicating, and D has his hands full with another project right now. But we're both safe and healthy and we've still got all our limbs and two eyes each and our brain pans are relatively intact -- for the moment anyways. Ducky and I are keeping each other out of trouble, as always.

I love you, tell the boys their sister says hey.

~ Lena

****

June 7, 2006
Location: Western Missouri


They'd left Amber's and drove northeast. Ducky first, then Tom, Reilly, and back to Ducky. The few stops they dared take lasted just as long as it took to fill up with gas or swing through a drive-thru. Whether everyone was still stunned at this most recent turn of events or the general air of anxiety coursing through the van kept them from speaking, very little was said beyond the occasional low murmur concerning their destination between driver and whoever was riding shotgun.

Passing the hours spent cooped up in the Ninjavan idly watching the scenery go by held Heist's attention for all of ten minutes. While she was tired enough to sleep, her naps rarely lasted longer than the distance between potholes. It was like the few attempts at family road trips she'd been on as a kid, only without the forced fun -- without any fun. And less coffee. Definitely not enough coffee.

From her spot in the back of the van, Heist had an unobstructed view of the rest of their little group. She knew Ducky knew them well enough to continue going along with them, the ones from this world, anyway. Hughes, she thought, had been nothing but genuine and most particularly empathetic towards what his and the Elrics' presence was costing the others. He'd even sought her out at the bonfire before they'd roasted marshmallows and apologized for what had happened to Kitten. Alphonse, too, had thanked her for helping get him out of the hospital -- he didn't mean to be so much trouble, really. Considering he was wearing that kilt getup and looking absolutely squishable when he turned those enormous, penitent puppy eyes on her, Heist had forgiven the kid and promised no hard feelings in the space of about five seconds. Even Ed, the most guarded around her, was at least cordial when they crossed paths. Heist supposed if she was going to be running for her life from a sadistic, two-faced, impeccably dressed time-traveling murderer, there were worse people she could have been stuck with.

Mandar came to mind.

~`~`~`~


Heist made a beeline for the bathroom as soon as she followed Reilly into their room, sidestepping Ducky as he unrolled the sleeping bag he kept in his van and narrowly missing the pillow Tom had snagged from one of the beds and tossed in his direction. Entering the bathroom with a sigh, she tried not to think about when the last time was that it had seen a bottle of bleach. Their overnight accommodations were less than ideal, but staying off Bond's radar meant that options were going to be limited for a while. She changed into her pajamas and finished getting ready for bed as fast as she could. Opening the door, she found Reilly and Tom each lounged out on one of the two beds, the evening news turned on low. They alternated between munching on the last of a bag of pretzels and throwing the broken pieces at Ducky's immobile form.

"It's amazing," Reilly said, moving over to make room for Heist, her eyes never leaving Ducky. "Tom went to ask if the TV would bother him, but he was already dead to the world. We even tested the alarm clock -- twice. He didn't flinch."

Heist quirked a grin and slid under the sheets. "That's Ducks for you. He could sleep through the Apocalypse and all he'd do is ask where everyone went."

"Funny," Tom sighed, "I thought the past few days was the Apocalypse."

Reilly stifled a laugh as she grabbed her bag and headed for the bathroom. No sooner had the door closed then the mother of all godawful noises cut through the relative quiet in the room. Heist's blood ran cold as a thousand different worst-case scenarios sped through her mind. In the next bed over, Tom jumped up and fumbled with something on the nightstand. Reilly poked her head out of the bathroom, alarm etched on her face. A heartbeat later, Tom had snatched something up, and the assault on their ears ceased.

"Hello?" Tom inquired into the room's phone receiver.

"Good gods, that was the phone ringer?!" Reilly exclaimed.

"Apparently so," Heist replied, heart still thumping wildly somewhere in the vicinity of her throat.

Tom nodded a couple of times, answered in the affirmative, and hung up. "Well," he said, laying back down on his bed, "Maes, Ed and Al are settled in next door."

"They could have pounded on the wall, it would have been quieter," Reilly mused, disappearing into the bathroom again.

Tom gave Heist a lopsided grin. "At least we know the phone works."

"Right," she agreed. And then, almost as one, they both leaned over to check on the other occupant in their room, the only one who hadn't spoken a word since the first minute he'd entered. Lying on his stomach, pretzel bits strewn around his head, the Duck Lord slept on.

With that note, Heist said her good nights and rolled over, facing the wall. She was exhausted, and rightfully so; she had only slept a few hours the previous night. She'd stayed up longer than she'd intended talking with Llyn on the Branch's second floor balcony. Having been woken up at an ungodly time to go joyriding around the country hadn't helped, either. As tired as she was, though, she remained awake. Heist kept her eyes closed and feigned sleep as Reilly eased into bed and Tom took over the bathroom. When he finished, she heard him move around, checking the door and clicking off lights, whispering a final good night. A little while after that, she heard him switch off the TV. The sounds of deep, even breathing soon filled the room.

Some time later, Ducky rolled over and with half a snort, woke up. Heist heard him fumble his way through the dark room to his bag, then to the bathroom. He retraced his steps and, amazingly, Heist heard a few careful crunches as Ducks found a late-night snack in one of the pretzel pieces that had landed in his sleeping bag. At least she hoped it had been one that had landed in the bag.

The crunching finally stopped, but Heist didn't think Ducky had fallen back asleep and she made her move. Sliding out of bed, she crept silently along until she was standing at the foot of his sleeping bag, the tips of her toes just barely brushing its edge. She waited until she heard a slight sigh, and he unzipped the bag to make room for her.

"Come on," he whispered and she stretched out next to him on the floor. "What are we, ten?"

"I couldn't sleep," Heist whispered back.

"Obviously." Ducky retorted quietly. A few moments later, "I can't sleep now, either."

"You thinking about anything?"

"Oh, nothing in particular... mostly about how completely screwed my life has become in the past couple of months."

"Yeah," Heist breathed out in agreement.

Ducky rolled over to face her, even though they couldn't really see much of anything. "I'm sorry I dragged you into all this."

Heist didn't answer right away, her thoughts instead wandering to Sidney and her own involvement in this mess without Ducky's help.

"Hey, Heist?" Ducky inquired softly. "Are we... are we okay?"

She drew in a deep breath and smiled blindly into the black. "Does a traveling carnival have freaks?"

Suppressing a giggle, the two rearranged themselves as best they could in a more comfortable position. "You know, Hellspawn," Ducky whispered, poking Heist's side, "the least you could have done was brought your pillow and blanket to this shindig."

"Shut it, Tuckandroll. What are we, ten?"

~`~`~`~


Sidney watched as the array he'd etched into the bare ground burst to life at the edges, ignoring the scent of rain-soaked garbage as he monitored his work on the one dry section of pavement available to him. The bright blue fire of the alchemic reaction tightened and collapsed upon itself as it moved through each concentric circle, igniting the glyphs and symbols inside each section briefly. As the transmutation moved inward, the pair of objects in the center that had once been plain scrap metal shifted and twisted in on themselves, taking a new shape entirely.

As he monitored his work carefully, he recalled another alchemist who'd had arrays tattooed on his palms. The idea had its merits, but Sidney had never needed to keep his array on him in so... crudely permanent of a manner before. There was a time when no one could touch the Stealthworks Alchemist, after all. His fist clenched as he recalled the incident of a mere few days past, and how easily the Fullmetal bastard had managed to disarm him in the confusion.

It was shameful. James Sidney Bond had practiced his trade as much as he dared, but he'd become damnably soft. The brat had stolen a march on him, but the weak and ragged Elric wouldn't be able to do it again. He was making sure of that.

He could have made a visit to a tattoo artist; he certainly had the money for it. He wasn't as naively stupid as Reilly and her cohorts, putting all his funds in one place that could be blocked at the whim of the government he'd briefly worked for. The money he'd squirreled, smuggled, and hidden away was as accessible as the marker in his pocket, and it would be child's play to get the funds he needed for the simple geometric patterns that made his trademark alchemy work.

But people talked. And if the Elric brats had run to Branch, as he suspected, the bitch would be hot on his trail the instant he risked going to the loose-lipped morons who wielded the tattoo needles in this area. Besides, he had no desire to deal with the lackluster attitudes of people in this foul world. It would be far too easy for the mouth-breathing slug that he would inevitably encounter to make a fatal mistake.

Fatal for the tattoo artist, anyway. Just exceptionally bothersome for Sidney.

The idea of cutting the arrays into his palms had crossed his mind, but the fact of the matter was, blood was slick and he dared not risk a knife slipping in his red-saturated fingers. A mistake wouldn't do; the arrays had to be perfect. That left one choice. No questions would be asked, because Sidney could do it all himself. No witnesses to eliminate, and the Fullmetal brat, his weakling brother, and Hughes, that whoreson of an investigative officer, would not be able to disarm him the next time he confronted them.

He gazed through the mouth of the alley and across the street at the motel with the gaudy western theme: split-rail fence surrounding the lot, sickly orange and eye-searing green neon lights trimming the roof, fake cactus in pots along the walkway, and a sign with a bilious yellow horse. All but one window was dark as the blissfully ignorant slumbered, blanketed in a false sense of security. The single insomniac in room 132 wasn't Sidney's concern -- not unless he became exceptionally nosy. Chances were, though, he was oblivious and would remain so even as his life slipped away from him tomorrow.

He was far more interested in rooms 133 and 134. The windows were dark like most of the others, but he held no illusions that the occupants were sleeping soundly.

Good.

He'd been led to this place by someone still within the organization, but he knew that source of information could dry up without warning and planned accordingly. Bugs and tracking devices were remarkably easy to acquire, and contrary to the impression he'd given Heist, Sidney was quite adept at this world's technology. He'd bide his time and keep them under observation. Mr. Insomniac would merely be the first in a series of warnings that will only come to an end when Fullmetal and his precious little brother agreed to his demands.

The array had faded to a dull glow, and the pair of metal disks in the middle were now the right shape and white-hot. Sidney leaned forward with his palms down and flat. Even from a distance of two feet, he could feel the intense heat and his flesh was already beginning to blister.

The pain would only last for a little while. And the taste of sweet victory would dim it all to a vague, unpleasant memory.

~`~`~`~


June 8, 2006

Sidney slipped into room 133 and shut the door behind him. Giving himself a moment to let his eyes adjust to the gloom and to force the throbbing in his palms to quiet, he listened for the maid. She'd only been two rooms away when Fullmetal and his cohorts finally roused themselves from bed and out into the sunlight, and it had taken him as long as it took for her to finish that room and leave to move on to the next to pick the lock. His fingers had kept fumbling the picks and he silently cursed whoever chose a motel that still used old-fashioned hardware locks. Counterfeiting a card-key would have been a slow, time-consuming process, but it would have been easier and quicker than the clumsy manipulating of thin metal rods with swollen, burnt and bandaged hands.

No matter. It just meant he had less time than he'd like to do what he needed.

His gaze landed on an open lap-top that was running lines of white code on a black background, and he stepped over to take a look. What he saw made no sense to him, but the name of the file that was compiling was enough to make him smile coldly.

The genius brat isn't very imaginative after all, he thought. He didn't take long to get started on this, either. Won't it be lovely to see his face when he finally reaches for the Holy Grail and comes away with blood on his hands.

Sidney heard the vacuum start up in the room next door and decided he'd wasted enough time. Laying the laptop carefully on its side, he popped the door that held the battery open and placed the tracker inside. He would love to add a remote key-logger to the computer, just so he could track Fullmetal's progress, but there wasn't enough time to install it and cover his tracks. He had one last thing to do before he could slip out.

Predictable, he thought when he spied a cellphone on the nightstand between the beds. There was no mistaking who should have been carrying it -- he'd counted on it being left behind, in fact. The thing was a garish shade of metallic green and covered in stickers, and when he powered it up, it chirped a most obnoxious tune. So very, very predictable.

__________


June 10, 2006
Location: Southern Illinois


“Brother, can you scoot over a little?”

“I'm not even touching you.”

“But it's hot and you're sprawled all over the seat.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

Reilly ground her teeth from the center seat in the Ninjavan. The boys had been sniping at each other for almost half an hour and there was no sign of abatement. It didn't help that they were trapped in the middle of traffic jam on an elevated highway on what must have been the hottest day of summer. The A/C couldn't handle the strain and crapped out an hour ago, and now any available window that could be opened, was -- not that it helped any. Heist had thought to unlatch the back doors and Hughes had slid the side door open... then promptly fell asleep.

“All right, boys,” Ducky tried to tease from the front, but even he had an edge of irritation to his voice. “Behave or I'll turn this car right around."

“I'd like to see that,” Tom muttered. Somewhere among the detritus and computer components littering the van, he'd found an old flier and was using it as a fan in an attempt to keep cool, but all he was doing was moving the scorching air in through the passenger window and circulating it around the metal box.

“Ed, please,” Al whined as he shoved at the older Elric, “move over.”

“Hey!” Heist protested, and shoved Ed back the other way.

“Knock it off!” Ed shouted.

Reilly sighed and buried her face in her hand. “Ducky, please tell me we're about to reach the end of this gridlock?”

“I could, but I'd be lying.”

She whimpered. Nightmare images of spending eternity cooped up in the Ninjavan -- in this exact spot -- viciously tore at her over-heated brain. She needed some sort of escape, and soon. Glancing over at Hughes softly snoring in the seat next to her, she envied the personality traits that kept him and Tom so mellow. Valium, she thought. Valium would be good. Her vision slid past the relaxed posture of the sleeping man, to the outside world. Down the embankment and just beyond reach (or at least beyond the ability to maneuver to an exit), was civilization. Life as she knew it hadn't ended out there.

She spied an electronics super-store and sighed. In there would be all sorts of lovely toys that would keep several hot and cranky people occupied and she could enjoy blissful silence. Too bad it's way over there, she thought, then almost smacked herself in the forehead a moment later. Instead, she mentally cursed herself for stupidity. The store was probably about a quarter of a mile away... if that. Leaning over in her seat to glance ahead, she noted that an exit wasn't too far away, either. This gridlock couldn't last forever...

She lightly punched Hughes in the arm, startling him awake, and said, “You're coming with me.” Then she stepped over him and hopped out of the van.

He shot a confused glance from Ducky to Tom, neither of whom offered anything other than shrugs, then silently followed.

Tom leaned out of the window and said, “Reilly? What in the blue blazes are you doing?”

“Sanity control,” she said, then poked her head back into the van and glared at the boys, who stared back owlishly, but at least silently -- for the moment. “You two? Not another word until I get back.” Then she pointed at Tom and said, “He has a gun and standing orders to shoot if either of you so much as blink, got it?” To Ducky, she added, “You. Meet us at Best Buy as soon as you can get off here.” With a final warning glance at the boys, she spun and headed down the embankment, expecting Hughes to follow.

By the time she felt the air conditioning of the store, her temper had cooled somewhat. She made a bee-line for the video games, and came to a stop at the locked glass cabinet holding the Gameboys. Hughes had kept up with her, although he'd been so quiet the entire trip, she'd almost forgotten he was there until he nearly slammed into her.

“Okay, Reilly,” he said mildly, “have you calmed down enough to tell me what we're doing?”

“Ed and Al don't like being cooped up, do they?”

“They never did,” he chuckled. “So... what now?”

“What do you think about a pair of these?” She glanced back at him and pointed at the display. “Think you can help me pick out a couple of games that would keep the two of them happy for awhile?”

Hughes perused the selection and then pointed out a cartridge with figures wielding comically large weapons and splattered with brilliant colors... mostly red. “Violence and mayhem,” he said. “Perfect.”

Reilly found the info on the game and scanned through it quickly. “It's rated 'mature', though. Al's a bit young.”

Hughes snorted, then quickly tried to cover it up by clearing his throat and pasting on a more serious expression that didn't fool Reilly in the least. “You're forgetting that technically, he's eighteen.” He leaned close, and added softly, “And this stuff would be mild compared to what they've actually seen.”

Reilly felt herself suddenly get colder and shivered as she recalled some of the horror stories Ed had told her of their lives in their own world. “G-good point... I guess. Al seems so innocent most of the time.” She patted him on the back and said, “You get to pick the games then. I need to find something else.” She strolled off as Hughes grinned and waved down a young man in a blue shirt with the store's logo on it.

She'd originally intended to see about a pair of MP3 players -- at least one for Ed, who had become rather addicted to the little bit of blues and gospel Reilly was able to escape with -- but found herself looking at computers, instead.

It was something else Ed had become rather obsessed with -- writing some sort of program. Although he was tight-lipped as hell about just what it was supposed to be -- beyond general grousing about her illogical filing system, anyway -- she suspected he was attempting to create a simulated Gate. Why was a question she doubted Ed would answer -- or perhaps couldn't, considering the passage fee -- but it meant that he glommed onto her laptop for long hours at a time, and she had to threaten him with bodily harm just to check her email.

She was reading the specs on a likely prospect when Hughes caught up with her, carrying a hand-basket loaded down with video games and accessories... and a rather amused Ducky in tow.

“Look what I found,” Hughes said, jerking a thumb back at the younger man.

“Figures this is what you went after,” Ducky said. “Traffic started moving about twenty minutes ago, and right now the rest of the gang are at Starbucks, cooling down and behaving.” He gazed over the laptop display and immediately pointed at one with a titanium case. “That's the one you want.”

“What makes you think I plan to buy one?”

Ducky and Hughes both gave her identical don't-bullshit-me looks, and Ducky said, “C'mon, Reilly. You've been bitching that Ed keeps bogarting your computer.”

“He's right,” Hughes interjected.

“Hush, you,” Reilly said, not completely serious. Then she turned to look over the laptop and nodded. “Looks like it's made to withstand some abuse. But what about static?”

“Shielded,” Ducky said. “Somewhat. I doubt it'll survive any better than your desktop did, if Ed decides he has to transmute something nearby.”

“Let's pray he never does, then,” Reilly said and found the boxed and sealed version of the display model.

Half an hour later, and quite a bit lighter financially, the three of them strolled across the parking lot and into the Starbucks with their booty. Dumping the bags in Ed and Al's laps, Reilly said, “Merry Christmas. Now stop driving me nuts.”

"Christmas?" Al asked absently -- far more intrigued with what was in the bags.

"Just smile and nod, Al," Ed said in a stage whisper. "And don't make eye contact, she'll think it's a threat and bite."

At that, Al's head shot up, and he stared at Reilly as if he wasn't certain his brother was joking.

Reilly reached over him and aimed an open palm at the back of Ed's head. "Behave."

Ed dodged the slap and cast a sideways glance up at her. His eyes were alight and he was smiling warmly. "Thanks, Reilly," he said holding a still-sealed game up. Then he flushed and added, "And... I'm sorry. About earlier."

Al slid from his seat, and wrapped his arms around her in a enthusiastic embrace. "Me too."

Blinking and stunned, she stiffened a moment, then relaxed as a warm-fuzzy feeling washed over her. She hugged Al back, burying her nose in a head full of bronze hair that smelled of sunshine and innocence.

__________


****
From: armoredalchemist
Re: Get out of Jail Free

Hey Gene!

I got your email! So you're home now? That's awesome! Look, I've been told by some of our friends that I should switch emails for security purposes or something like that. Long story. Heist said to keep an eye on your junk folder if you're using filters which, she said, as a fellow hacker you're probably already doing. Don't worry, you'll recognize my message.

- Al

****

June 12, 2006
Location: Central Indiana


Al scanned the display in front of him. Most of the items were things he'd never heard of -- and looked positively nauseating. He poked the slick package labeled 'Gummi Worms Extra Sour!', and curled his lip. At his side, Ed was rapidly filling his arms with a vast array of snacks. Long used to his brother's slightly unnatural appetite, Al was still amazed at the sheer volume of food Ed was managing to balance.

At the back of the gas station, Reilly was pondering the drink aisle. "Al, do you want me to grab you something?" she queried.

He smiled. "A Mountain Dew please."

Ed paused in his exploration to examine Al quizzically. "What's a Mountain Do?"

Al grinned widely. "Reilly, Ed wants one too!"

Reilly looked back at him over the shelves, wrinkling her brow uncertainly. "Are you sure?"

Al nodded vigorously.

Turning back, Reilly grabbed a couple of acid green bottles. "Well, at least it isn't Red Bull."

Ed and Al both stopped to look at her. "Red Bull?" they asked simultaneously.

At the far end of the station, next to the bottles of oil and packages of windshield wipers, Tom looked up sharply. "Reilly, don't you dare!"

Al saw her smile as she turned to regard the older man. "Trust me, I'd never do that." As Tom turned back to grab a few bottles of oil, Reilly started for the counter. "I have no reason to, Ducky already bought a box."

Al and Ed regarded each other as Tom groaned aloud. "Red Bull?" Al asked again.

Ed merely shook his head in confusion. "Everybody from this era is nuts," he muttered, grabbing a bag of chips and heading for the counter.

As Al turned to follow him, another package caught his eye, and he grinned wickedly. "Hey Brother, are you sure you don't want one more thing?" When Ed turned, Al held up a clear package containing a couple of yellow cakes.

Ed glared darkly, his eyes promising retribution, and Al chuckled as he prepared to put the package back. Then he paused. "Actually, these look kinda good..." Following the rest of the group as they converged on the counter, Al laid his single purchase next to Ed's massive pile.

Reilly glanced at him as they started to check out. "Al sweetheart, did you find something?"

Al nodded as he showed her his solitary purchase. "Yeah, Twinkies."

__________


****
From: pokerninja
Re: Unbelievable Animated Teddy Bears

Hey Gene,

It's Al again. Sorry for the email switch, but we're trying to be careful not to tip anyone off as to where we are. At first Heist wasn't even sure I should respond to your message, but Ducky said you were ok. Ducky, that computer guy who was working at the hospital for a while -- did you ever see him? He liked really bright Hawaiian shirts. Still does actually.

Anyway, he found some program of yours when he was fixing the hospital system. Said it was pretty good, too, so he left it alone. Well, he didn't know it was yours until I mentioned you later, all he said was that it originated from our ward, and there weren't that many people who could have written it. He vouched for your coding coolness or something like that, so I guess that means it's ok to email each other. Oh, Heist says to take the proper precautions in erasing these messages though. She says you should know what that means.

Seriously, though, I probably won't be writing you too often. We've fallen into some pretty dangerous stuff, and the last thing I want is to get you involved, too. More involved, at least.

So, you're aiming for an unmotorized chair? How's the therapy going?

- Al

****

June 19th, 2006
Location: Southwestern Ohio


It was late and the rest of his roomies were sound asleep –- the perfect time for Ed to lose himself in the endless lines of code he was modifying. The surface of the small desk in the motel room was impossible to see beneath the piles of books, rolls of maps, scattered sheafs of notes filled with unintelligible scribbles that only Ed could decipher, and the laptop. A female voice singing about getting a little 'r-e-s-p-e-c-t' was the only thing that reached his ears through the headphones, blocking the soft snores and mumbled words of the people sleeping nearby, and drowning out the bantering and laughing of the card game in the room next door.

It had taken only a couple of weeks for Ed to disentangle all the data Reilly had collected over the years about ley-lines and Gates, a little longer than that to garner enough understanding of programing to even begin to create a simple filing system for all of the information. Now he was refining it all, setting up cross-references, filling in extra notes, and trying to make it easily accessible. Unfortunately, writing a simple program wasn't so simple and Ed kept slamming into walls that took days to track down and correct in order to get around. Glitches, Ducky had called them.

He rubbed his eyes and then took a sip of the Mountain Dew that had gone warm. The problem he was facing right now was deceptively small. One file -- that's all it was, but an important one -- wasn't showing up in the program. Ed could find it manually, but it steadfastly refused to appear whenever he tried to call it up via his filing system. If someone else were to access the data, they could get the information they needed perhaps, since that particular file had little to do with Reilly's research, but it was the lynch pin for something else entirely... something vital to Ed.

He'd been at it for hours and it was beginning to wear on him. Even with all the caffeine and sugar in the soda, his eyes were starting to droop. It didn't help that the next song he heard was soft and soothing. I need to do something about this playlist, he thought, just before he rested his head on his arms and closed his eyes.

Warmth and a sense of being anesthetized blanketed him as he was peripherally aware the music had changed suddenly. The rich, woody tones of a flute wove through jumbled, rapidly moving images filled with ravens, alchemic symbols and bizarre chimera-like creatures that could only exist in dreams.

Wind whipped at him and he could see the landscape fly past beneath in a gold and green blur. The terrain quickly went from flat plains, ripe with wheat, to lush, forested mountains before he found himself standing at the edge of a cliff that overlooked a hidden, rocky canyon. On the floor of the small area was a circle of stones, the formation of which tugged at his memory. He knew this place! But there was something different about it. He thought there would be more trees, and not scrub pines and cedars, either. They should be taller, with wide, leathery leaves, or fan-like, fibrous fronds.

He needed to take a closer look, and he'd no more let the thought form when he stepped off the edge of the cliff and started to plummet--

“Brother!”

Ed snapped awake to the worried face of Al hovering over him. “What's wrong?” Ed asked as he rubbed his eyes and started to sit up. The horrible, green shag carpet felt sticky under his hand and it was only then he realized that he wasn't in his chair anymore. “How'd I get here?” he said, scowling.

Relief smoothed his younger brother's features as Al sat back and helped Ed up. “You fell out of the chair,” he said, attempting to suppress a snicker and failing.

Ed darted an embarrassed glance around -- Heist was little more than a curled up lump under the blankets in the bed at the far side of the room, and Ducky was dead to the world on the floor at the foot. Neither of them looked like they'd stirred the slightest at the disturbance. Dignity still intact, Ed let out his breath in a gust and then smiled. “I guess I'm tireder than I thought.” He came to his feet and stretched. “Let me shut everything down and I'll come to be--”

He'd only caught a glimpse before it was gone, but it sent a chill through him... a spot in the darkest corner of the room near the ceiling. Blacker than black, roiling and writhing like spilled ink as it receded into the night.

Ed's alarm must have shown on his face, because Al spun, slipping into a defensive stance instinctively and glancing around him, “What is it, Brother?” he whispered.

Ed took a deep breath, forcing his heart to slow down, and ruffled his younger sibling's hair. “Nothing, Al,” he said, forcing his tone to sound light. “It was nothing. I'm just really wiped.”

Al studied him for a moment, skeptical, but didn't voice any concerns. “Yeah. You should come to bed.”

“On my way,” Ed said as he shut the laptop down.

As Al crawled back under the covers and cocooned himself to the point all that stuck out was a tuft of brown hair and a pair of big, grey eyes, Ed glared at the corner once more. What do you want? he wondered.

__________


Re: Unbelievable Animated Teddy Bears -- Stonehenge-is-in-Caledonia my ass

Are you kidding me, Al?!? One of these days you're going to tell me how you make friends.

Heist? You know Heist? As in, THE Heist? Hacker God Extraordinaire? Or, rather, if I'm reading your message right, Hacker Goddess? Dude, put in a good word for me, Heist is my programming muse. I kiss the code she compiles.

Just, uh, don't show her this message.

Yeah, therapy's coming along. My dad said he'd take me anywhere in the world I want to go when I'm ready. After he gets back from... wherever he is right now, I can't remember. So who knows, maybe next year I'll be taking a trip down under. You'd like Australia, they've got a ton of really cute native animals.

Gene

****

July 3, 2006
Location: Northern Michigan


Hughes closed the cell and gave it a befuddled, unblinking stare long enough for Reilly to become concerned. She set her open book face down on her lap -- the book that only a moment ago had her so engrossed that she had barely even noticed when Tom, Ed and Al had wandered past with fishing poles, a bucket of bait and other accouterments they'd acquired from Goddess-only-knows-where.

When the man sitting in the chair across from her remained in that dumbstruck state for longer than Reilly thought was healthy, she leaned forward and peered at him, letting the book fall from her lap and lose her place. She was aware enough to know he’d been talking to Heist on the phone and that always elicited a specific range of reactions -- usually anywhere from annoyance to frustration -- but never silent bewilderment. “Hughes?”

He jerked out of his stunned musing and blinked at her. “That was Heist,” he said. “Apparently she and Ducky got hung up at the pizza place. Dinner’ll be a little late.”

“Ducky’s probably making some poor arcade game scream for mercy on a single quarter,” she sighed as she leaned forward and bent to pick up her book. At Hughes’ apprehensive look she paused in mid-reach and felt alarm growing somewhere in the vicinity of her chest. “Please tell me they haven’t gotten themselves into trouble.”

“It depends on how you define ‘trouble’,” he said neutrally, but the slight twitch in one cheek told her that he was struggling with a strong emotional reaction.

Just what that emotion was, Reilly couldn’t decipher yet. “What now?”

He rubbed at the back of his neck. “You know, as long as I’m in this world, I’ll never understand how those two keep running into people they know…” He waved a hand about the small cabin the Geek Squad was currently sharing. “...even out in the middle of nowhere.”

Reilly scowled. “Just spill it, already.”

He sighed and sagged, then gave her a confused smile. “Apparently Heist is acquainted with the manager at the pizza place. Or rather, he knows her… by reputation, at least. Anyhow, the store’s computer went down and he drafted her into tracking down the problem.” He shrugged and went from perplexed to pleased. “Dinner’s on him.”

Reilly wasn’t buying it. Her eyes narrowed and she leaned forward again. In response, the much larger man -- who could stare down an assassin, risk life and limb against pissed-off, diminutive, automail wielding alchemists, even wear a kilt without an ounce of trepidation -- pressed himself back into the chair.

“Hughes,” Reilly said, a dangerous tone tingeing her voice.

He swallowed and gave her an edgy laugh. “Um, well? Seems that while Ducky was waiting for Heist to work her magic, the restaurant’s ‘entertainment’ found themselves one short and there was… a party scheduled.”

Reilly still couldn’t understand what Hughes was so worried about. Ducky could at least carry a passable tune; just don’t ask him to play any instruments. Therefore, she concluded, there was something else and Hughes wasn’t telling. But what could be so terrible that the man would be afraid to just spit it out? What kind of trouble could Ducky get into entertaining a bunch of--

She suddenly felt like someone had taken her stomach and tied it into a pretzel knot. “Just what exactly is this ‘entertainment’?” she asked carefully, then cringing because she had a nasty feeling that she already knew the answer.

“It seems that the person in question is known only as ‘Kangaroo Bob’.”

Reilly wasn’t certain if she should be horrified or laugh her ass off. She covered her face and tried in vain to suppress the giggles threatening to bubble up. “Oh God. Or maybe I should say, ‘Crikey’. Ducky in ‘Croc-hunter’ mode? That’s just… disturbing.” She managed to get the giggles under control before they spewed out and looked back up at Hughes. “We’re going to have to suffer through weeks of a very bad Australian accent.”

“That’s not the half of it.”

Reilly felt herself pale. “It gets worse? How can it possibly get worse?”

Hughes cleared his throat and it was then she saw the tremble of his chin and the twitch of his lips as he struggled valiantly to keep from laughing. “Kangaroo Bob is… a kangaroo. Literally.” He hesitated, fighting the overwhelming urge to collapse into guffaws. “And yes, it gets even worse. There was some trouble while he was playing to the kids.”

Reilly’s humor fled. “Aw, shit. Are we going to have to bail him out for drop-kicking some demon spawn?”

The chin-quiver became more pronounced and Hughes’ lips looked like they’d developed a mind of their own as he shook his head, unable to speak at the moment. Eventually he dropped his face into his hands and Reilly watched as his shoulders shook in silence.

“I shouldn’t laugh,” he mumbled finally. “It’s tragic, really. And humiliating as all hell, but…” He looked up and rubbed the tears from his eyes. “Seems that while he was in the suit, someone stole his clothes.”

Reilly stared. Her mouth flapped open and closed as she tried to form words, but her brain had locked up and was now mulishly refusing to operate in any coherent manner as the absurdity of the situation pressed against the mental dam she'd erected in self-defense.

“Anyhow, they should be back any minute,” Hughes stammered through burbling sounds she assumed were brought on by his own attempts at control. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than they heard the Ninjavan pull up.

Reilly opened her book back up and settled herself deep into the couch. “Well, we can’t laugh at him.”

“We can’t?”

Reilly gave him a mock glower and pitched the paperback at him.

It missed him by a foot and he cocked a brow. “You’d never make it in Intelligence with aim like that.”

She only had enough time to stick her tongue out at him before Heist danced in with a stack of pizzas. “Greetings, fellow Geekites! I bring the true banquet of the Gods… free food!”

As the blue-haired woman dropped them on the counter and started throwing up lids, Reilly counted at least eight large pizzas. “Well, there’s enough to feed Ed and Al, at least.”

Hughes was up and peering over Heist’s shoulder at the contents of each box with mild disappointment. “What? No anchovies?”

Heist glanced back at him and grimaced. “Dude! Those are the nastiness! You'd be the only one eating. Ick!” This last was emphasized by a full-body shudder that bordered on a palsy.

Hughes feigned a wounded pout and said, “But I like anchovies!”

Reilly ignored the exchange to stare expectantly at the door. “No Ducky?”

“He’s still in the van,” Heist said. “Said something about never coming out again.”

There was a muffled thump at the door and as Reilly went to get it, Heist added, “Or maybe it was that he needed help out. I don’t remember.”

Reilly cast an annoyed glance back then opened the door.

She had prepared herself for the sight. She really had. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough and she had to draw from somewhere in the ancient past and racial memory for the stoicism born of aeons of hunter/gatherer tribes, ice ages, semi-nomadic lifestyles, and childbirth without anesthetic. And yet, even that wasn’t enough to stop the fit of shocked laughter that exploded from deep within her solar plexus at the sight of a very disgruntled hacker in a plush kangaroo suit.

And it wasn’t any normal kangaroo suit (if such a thing was possible), but a deep, royal purple with a bright, horrendously... blindingly pink chest, and incredibly long, thick feminine lashes over enormous, shiny black eyes. The incongruity of the stormy expression on Ducky’s face embedded in the throat of the costume created a surreal image that was made all the more so by the fact that he was leaning back on the tail with the enormous feet of the costume propped on the heels and his plushy, purple arms crossed somewhere in the vicinity of his chest.

“Took you long enough,” Ducky grumbled as he rocked back then flipped onto his ‘feet’. There was no walking in that suit either, and Reilly snorted and coughed when she stepped aside to let the hacker hop in.

She didn’t dare look back at what was making the terrible choking noise that came from the general area of the kitchen, either. She knew that if she did and saw the look on Hughes’ face she would lose it entirely.

Once Ducky was inside she tried to shut the door, but it bounced back and she had to fight his tail out of the way to get it closed. “So… Um… Do they know who stole your clothes?” she stammered.

Ducky bounced further into the living room, one huge, fuzzy thigh brushing against the newspapers on the coffee table and sweeping them onto the floor. When he tried to shift out of the way in the tight space, his tail swung around and Reilly barely had enough time to jump over it and stumble out of the way before it toppled the spindly end table next to the chair, spilling a glass of soda all over her book.

"I'm going to have nightmares for weeks,” Hughes said dryly. “Seriously. I think I've been permanently traumatized.”

“I can recommend a therapist,” Heist said around a mouthful of pepperoni pizza. She remained calm, having had more time and warning to reconcile herself to the shock, but there was still a glimmer of amusement in her smirk.

“Hughes,” Reilly sputtered, giving him a dirty look. At least she tried. Instead she was pretty sure it was hardly as intimidating as she was attempting.

“Yes ma’am?” He hung his head, but Reilly was in no way fooled into thinking he was anywhere near chagrined at this point. In fact she was fairly certain she heard him sniffling as he choked off a fresh case of the giggles.

She finally gave up and spread her arms out in a helpless gesture. “Please… just… shut up for now?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, then he sagged against the counter and started shaking in silent mirth, which was followed closely by not-so silent mirth, then became a full-blown belly laugh that made his knees weak.

“Oh sure,” Ducky grumbled. “You can laugh. It's not you in this thing.” Then he huffed and started to hop toward toward the bedroom...

...Past the open back door, where Ed, Al and Tom were returning from their fishing expedition.

The three of them froze for a brief instant as their brains tried in vain to wrap around the image in front of them, then Ed busted out with a high-pitched cackle that might've made Ducky proud -- had he not been the subject of amusement. Al skipped past the giggles and went straight to a severe case of hiccups and Tom, while not quite as robust, nonetheless was shaking and wiping his eyes.

Ducky glowered and leaned back on the tail; once again his fuzzy purple arms crossed over his chest and the huge feet propped up on his heels. It appeared, at first, that the hacker was simply resigning himself to wait out the storm... until he rocked back, using the tail for balance...

Tom was the only one of the three who had the presence of mind to get out of the way and he wisely took the quickest means of escape available... darting through the door and ducking out of the line of fire.

Ed and Al weren't so fortunate.

Ed went sailing through the door first, ripping out the screen, splintering the frame and never touching the stoop or the two steps leading up to it. He landed with a thud on the ground, bounced twice, then rolled to a stop a few feet away in a cloud of dry grass and dust.

Al turned his amusement onto his brother, pointing and coughing and sputtering through his hiccups as Ed weakly got to his knees.

“Ohshit!” Ed blurted suddenly, and Al spun around...

...in time to meet a pair of long, fuzzy feet slamming into his chest.

The doorway, having been cleared by Ed just a moment before, offered no resistance to the small, brown-haired projectile being shot through, and so he managed to stay aloft for a fraction of a second longer and a few feet further. He came back to Earth on top of his older brother, knocking the wind out of Ed and tumbling both of them ass-over-tea-kettle in a tangle of limbs.

When the boys finally figured out which extremities belonged to whom, they staggered to their feet, glanced at 'Kangaroo Ducky' and immediately collapsed back into the dirt in a gale of laughter.

Amidst the gaiety, Reilly heard the distinctive midi tone of Tom's cell playing 'Secret Agent Man' and everyone went still as they listened to his end of the conversation. There was only one person who belonged to that ringtone and she never had good news.

Tom stepped inside as he closed the phone, a grim expression settling on his craggy face. “Party's over folks,” he said softly.

__________
 
 
 
 
 
 
Yeah, so I pretty much died laughing at the yellowcake joke. XD
Yay!!!! That makes me giddy cause I wrote that part! :D
YOU KILLED RAY. AUGH. D: Dammit. I liked him.
And at the end... that entire exchange made me die. XD Ohmygod.
I was horrified that Ray got killed too. *sob*
BASTARD KILLED RAY!!!
I don't get the twinkies joke?? Sorry XD
Oh by the way I love balance of power! You are amazing and 'Kangaroo Ducky' had me laughing for at least an hour!