?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Recent Entries Friends Archive Profile Tags "A Short Obsession"
 
 
 
 
 
 
"Move 'em on, Head 'em Up... Rawhide!"
Arc One: Chapter 25
Balance of Power


Part Two


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





****
Re: don't bother tracking this, it already doesn't exist

Gene,

Heist here. I'm flattered, really. I can't say I've ever been someone's muse before. Sorry, I was reading over Al's shoulder (you know how it is, keeping an eye on the newbs). There's some instructions enclosed for how to cover your ass and encrypt your steps when messaging us; use it for the next year at least, or unless I tell you otherwise. Al and Ducky might endorse you, but it's not just their lives --and yours-- at stake, it's mine too. Nothing personal.

****

July 7, 2006
Location: Northeastern Minnesota


“No, thanks,” Maes said patiently for the third time. “I’m not really in the mood for a burger.”

“You sure?” Ed wheedled. “We’ll be driving for a while. Don’t you want something to keep you going?”

Maes snorted. “Unlike you and Al, I’m fully capable of lasting more than an hour after breakfast before I need to eat again.” He peered into the window of the fast food joint, and sighed. “But I see I’m in the minority on that. Look at that lineup. You’d better get in there so we don’t take even longer to get going.”

Al hesitated, glancing from the long lineup to the man’s resigned face. “Maybe we could wait a bit longer...,” he ventured, wincing as he awaited his brother’s reaction.

At the sight of Ed’s horrified expression, Maes laughed. “And I’d never hear the end of it till we could stop somewhere else. No, go on in, you two. We’ve got a few minutes while Reilly’s at the drug store, anyway. I’ll hang out next door and wait for you.”

Ed stepped out of the way of a pedestrian on the sidewalk and craned his neck to look into the store next to the burger place. “In a ladies’ shoe store, Hughes?” He grinned, giving the older man a sharp elbow in the ribs. “You started with the skirt, and now you want the heels to match, is that it?”

Maes leaned back to survey the row of store fronts along the downtown street. “All right, all right -- the pawn shop next door to that. And Ed?” He flashed a deadly grin. “You’d better get going. Right now. You can’t eat a burger with two broken arms, now, can you?”

Ed’s laughter followed him as he turned his back and headed for the pawn shop. Once he stepped inside, though, the outer world was effectively shut out. Places like this tended to be dim, quiet, and rather dingy, as he’d had reason to discover himself a time or two, his first year in this world. Maes paused to let his eyes adjust, and ran a finger along the back of an old wooden chair near the front of the store.

His finger came back coated in old, greasy dust. A hard shell guitar case laid open and empty on a dusty, chrome-framed table beside the chair, overlooked by a couple of brass table lamps. The overhead light was muted enough that he wished the lamps were plugged in. He stuck his hands into his jacket pockets, nodded silently to the pale young man at the cash counter, and walked further into the store, hoping he didn’t bump into anything.

He decided later that it was almost like a divine visitation. The shop remained dim and shadowed, its dark shelving units and low wooden ceiling beams serving to block most illumination from the streaked windows and the few light fixtures. Yet as he came to the center aisle and faced the back of the shop, a distant glow caught his attention and drew him irresistibly down the aisle toward it. A glass case, he realized, lit from inside, with two bright lamps hanging above, bathing it in radiance.

There’s the light at the end of the tunnel, he chuckled to himself. Or the glow of divinity in the centre of a labyrinth. Or, he thought, maybe the white light those people talk about after a near death experience, when they come to terms with their life and become reconciled to their eventual death--

He stopped short, two feet away, the blood in his veins transforming to ice, and the hands in his pockets suddenly frozen and clammy. He couldn’t seem to remember how to breathe.

His own death stared him in the face, cool and pure, almost serene in its self-assurance.

Glittering on a black velvet mat in the centre of the case, a set of throwing knives gleamed at him, light sparking like diamonds from their deadly sharp edges. So like his own knives were they, so like the ones he’d carried back in Amestris, that his own weapons could almost have followed him through the Gate and waited for him to discover them and seal his own fate.

Because that’s what they were for, wasn’t it? Maes yanked his hands from his pockets and lurched forward, palms meeting the top edge of the case, clawed fingers unconsciously seeking to gouge an opening into the glass. The knives were for him; he knew it as certainly as he knew his own name. Whatever doubts he might have entertained before, they had now vanished utterly. He would take Bond on, alone, and with these knives he might actually succeed. He would succeed. These weapons -- his own familiar, personal weapons that had served him so well in so many dangerous situations -- would solve the problem of getting close enough to kill Bond before the man’s damnable bombs exploded. He wouldn’t have to get so close, now.

He couldn’t possibly survive -- that was a given, considering the nature of his foe. But now he knew he’d be able to take Bond with him. The knives were a gift.

The photograph in his shirt pocket pressed against his heart like a lead weight: Gracia and Elysia almost five years ago now, waving at the camera, eyes sparkling at him. He still couldn’t breathe. The photo had been a comfort and a torment to him, every moment of his life since he’d fallen through the Gate. If there were any chance, any chance at all that he might still find them again -- but no. Ed tried to hide what he was up to, but it was becoming pretty clear that the young man was trying to find a way to open another Gate. Knowing Ed, he'd obviously continue to try, and would probably pursue the obsession for his whole life but it wasn’t going to happen, was it? Maes had to face the facts, even if Ed never entirely accepted them. There was a price to pay, to open a Gate, and none of them could get around that. And none of them would ever choose that route -- choose to murder someone for their own selfish reasons -- so they could get home. So whatever Ed tried, they would always run into that rock solid wall. They would never return home. Maes had to face reality. And even if it could happen, what sort of man would he be if he left Bond here to terrorize this world? Alden and Amber and Llyn, who had been dragged into this mess simply by accident, but were now in danger because of it? Tom and Ducky and Heist, who had taken on the rescue of Al as a challenge to their abilities, but had begun to lose so much as a result? Reilly, whose entire life had been shattered, and whom he had failed so miserably in so many ways? How could he leave them to lose their lives to this monster from his own world while he returned happily to his loved ones without a backward glance?

Maes took off his glasses and ran the back of a hand across misted eyes. He couldn’t do it, of course. He just couldn’t leave them all to keep dealing with that horror themselves. Gracia and Elysia would never know. His girls already thought he was dead, and now they’d finally be right. Ed would rage when he found out what happened, but at least he and Al would understand, in the end.

And Roy. Roy would have understood, if he knew, probably better than anyone in either world.

The thought straightened Maes’ back, and helped him blink the tears away and put his glasses back on. Time to do this, then, before Reilly or anyone else came to look for him. The lineup in the fast food joint hadn’t been that long.

He turned toward the front of the shop, and called for the pale young man to come and open the case for him. He pointed out what he wanted to buy, and was very pleased at the unwavering calm in his voice.

__________


July 11, 2006
Location: Southern Nebraska


“Al, c’mon, give me the remote.”

Al remained where he was, standing on the bed, remote held high above his head as Ed leaned against him, reaching for it. It was just out of reach of his stretching fingers, so he jumped a little. The bed creaked ominously from the extra impact of the automail.

“Careful, Ed, you’re going to break it,” Hughes remarked from his stretched-out position on the other bed in the room, hands behind his head.

Reilly, nose buried in a magazine as she sprawled beside him, added from behind its pages, “Break the bed and we leave you behind to wash dishes and pay off the debt, Elric.”

“You can’t have the remote,” Al laughed. “I want to watch the new episode--"

“But why?” Ed whined. “It’s such a stupid show. The story’s not plausible, and the characters don’t even look like real people.”

“Of course they don’t,” Al told him patiently. “They’re not real, so they don’t have to.”

Ed stretched a couple more times, but each time, his brother managed to keep the remote away from him. At last he dropped down on the bed and folded his arms across his chest, leaning against the propped up pillows. “All right, all right, have it your way,” he grumbled.

Al plopped down beside him, leaning against his shoulder. “Thanks, Brother. This is an episode I haven’t seen before, so I really wanted to watch it.”

“Go ahead, then. I just don’t understand it. Those implausible plots, all those kids with huge eyes -- why anyone would be interested in that anime stuff is a mystery to me.”

__________


****
From: lquennel
Re: You didn’t think you’d get away that easy, did you?

Honestly, Hellene, you entrance me half the night and leave without even telling me your name? I’m wounded, deeply wounded. Had to ask my darling Mam if she knew anything else about you, and I must say that I can’t decide what impresses me more: your juvenile record or that fetching color you cover up under the blue. You try so hard with that secret identity, but you’re interesting enough on your own.

I just thought to check up on you. It’s morning here, whatever time zone you’re in now, and I hope you had a lovely morning too. Send Ed my regards and make sure he takes care of the automail, and pass on the doctor’s orders to Mr. Hughes as well. And take care yourself, with that madman about. It would be nice to see you again sometime, preferably in one piece and sparkling to see me.

Yours,
Llyn

****

July 13th, 2006
Location: Northeast Kansas


"Well,” Tom sighed, picking up the remote, “I guess it’s time to get the bad news again.”

“Do you have to?” Heist blurted. “Can’t we have just one night without watching?”

“Sorry,” he answered gently. “But we have to know how close behind us he is. We don’t dare skip even one night--"

“I can’t stand it -- I can’t stand any of this!” the young woman burst out. “We run and run and never get a break, and he always knows! I can’t stand hearing about it if we can’t do anything. I am so, so done! With everything!” She turned on her heel and rushed out the balcony door, slamming it behind her.

Tom, Reilly, and Hughes shared a look, and Reilly got up from the arm chair, sighing in resignation. “I guess I’d better try to talk to her down,” she began, heading for the door.

But Ducky was there first and barred her way with his arm. “Not this time,” he said soberly. “This one’s mine, I think.”

“You sure?”

“Oh yeah.” He said nothing else, but opened the balcony door and stepped through, making sure it was shut firmly behind him. He didn’t want any witnesses to this.

He stepped to her side and placed his hands on the thin railing. Gulping nervously, he took a surreptitious deep breath, and then, not daring to look at her, made the plunge.

“So, Hellspawn,” he began, trying to sound casual but inwardly cursing himself for how his voice squeaked, “don’t you think it’s time you told me what you need to tell me?”

Instead of looking at him like he was out of his mind, as he’d thought -- hoped! -- she would, Heist stiffened at his side with a little gasp, her fists clenching the rail till her knuckles went white.

Oh shit oh shit! he thought in despair. I’m right. Shit, I’m right! What am I gonna do now??

“I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, Tuckandroll,” she answered at last, about three beats too late to be convincing.

He wiped clammy hands on his pants. “Would it help,” he asked softly, “if I told you I’ve already pretty much figured it out?”

“Would it make you stop babbling riddles,” she retorted, “if I told you to go to hell?”

This was so bad. How had life gotten so screwed up?

“He was the dude on the other line that time, right?” Ducky forged on. “I actually talked to him -- the guy himself, and I didn’t even know. And then in the car park, when you saw him -- I saw how you looked at him--"

“I did not ‘look at him’!” she hissed. “It was nothing like that!” Then stood with her mouth open as she realized how badly she’d given herself away.

“I didn’t mean that,” Ducky protested defensively. “I mean, you knew the guy. I saw your face. You weren’t surprised that he was there, H. You were surprised because he had a gun on Reilly.”

“You’re crazy, Ducks.” Heist turned away from him, hugging her arms around her chest. “It’s getting cold out here, I’m going back--"

“Do you want me asking you about this inside, then?” he demanded.

He saw her go completely still. Then, “Would you really?” she asked in a tiny voice that was nothing like her.

He turned around and sagged back against the rail, then flailed a little as it jiggled against his backside. Straightening up, he grimaced and shook his head at her back. “Sorry, Heist,” he muttered. “No I wouldn’t, not really. But you have to tell me sometime, you know.”

“Why?” she muttered, hunching over. “You’re just going to hate me.”

“No I’m not.”

“You are. Because all those people are dead. Kitten is dead. And it’s all my fault that we’re in this mess.”

“He was after Al already, and Hughes too--"

“I told Sid -- Bond -- about the rescue attempt,” Heist said in that small, frightened voice.

For a moment, he couldn’t speak. Then -- “Fuck!” -- he bit off the word as though it had cut his tongue.

“Told you,” she whispered. “It is absolutely all my fault. And now you hate me.” Her shoulders shook, and Ducky realized she was crying.

“H, it’s not -- it’s not,” he insisted. “You didn’t know what he was -- did you? I’ll bet he never let on, not once. You didn’t know what he was going to do.”

“But I should have!” she cried, whirling around and almost shouting the words at his face. “I should have figured it out! I mean -- I’m Gene’s muse and everything. I’m supposed to know things. How could I have been so -- so stupid??

Ducky pulled her close and hugged her hard, while she wept against his shoulder. “Crap, Hellspawn,” he said. “You know better than that. We can hack up a storm, but people? Even a genius can’t figure out people.”

__________


****
Re: Unbelievable Animated Teddy Bears -- Stonehenge is in Caledonia :P

Australia? Kangaroos, right? No thanks, I've had my fill of kangaroos for a while. Their kicks hurt.

We're leaving again tomorrow, and we're packing for a longer trip than usual. Don't know when we'll hit another wi-fi hotspot (see? I'm learning). Take care, Gene. Oh, my brother wants to say something, too.

- Al

Hi Gene. I just wanted to thank you for looking after my brother in the hospital. I'm glad he had someone he could trust when I wasn't there.

- Ed

****

July 15, 2006
Location: Eastern Colorado


They'd been driving for over twelve hours. Their last encounter with Bond had been far too close for comfort. Ed had long since tuned out the soft sounds of Hughes' snores, Heist's headphones, and Ducky's conversation with Tom and Reilly. Outside the van, the world didn't seem to exist. Only the occasional roughness of the road shuddering the seats beneath him gave any indication that the vehicle was still in motion. Ed rubbed his face wearily. He was too hot again. The coolant system in the van only worked intermittently, and the combination of outside temperature and the heat rising from the floorboards was becoming unbearable. Leaning forward, he slid open the small window midway down the side of the van. The air wasn't much cooler, but at least it was moving.

"Are you okay?"

Ed glanced at his brother with raised brows. "I was just a little warm, why?"

"You're doing it again."

Ed realized what he meant, and quickly took his hand away from his right shoulder. "It's nothing."

Al's eyes seemed to bore into him; Ed turned his face back to the window. "Reminds me of Risembool. Remember how we'd stay out so late that we could barely see to get home again?"

He felt Al shift, and looked back to see his younger brother staring down at his clasped hands. Al's voice was soft when he spoke, likely to keep the rest of the group from overhearing. "It's getting worse, isn't it."

Ed sighed, digging a hand through his bangs. In the seat in front of him, Heist's playlist started another song; it sounded tinny coming from the small speakers in her ears. He cast about for a way to assuage Al's concerns. Looking at his brother again, he sighed. Al deserved at least a portion of truth.

Reaching down to massage his left thigh, Ed leaned his forehead on the seat in front of him. "It's the automail, it's been twinging again. It started about a month before we left for Germany. It only really bothered me when the weather changed. But this last month, it started getting worse." Leaning back, he looked over at Al again. "Don't worry, I just need to be more careful. I should be cleaning it every night. Winry keeps telling me..." He stopped, swallowing heavily. He knew his bluster wouldn't fool Al for a second. With any luck, though, it would be enough to keep the harder truth at bay for at least a little while longer.

Al looked up, but before he even opened his mouth, the van hit a rough patch on the road, making everything vibrate.

Hughes inhaled through his nose, sitting up with a yawn. "Huuuummmmeverything okay?" he asked, yawning again.

Ducky turned his head slightly without taking his eyes off the road. "According to Miss Navigator, there's a nice, seedy motel about four miles down this creepy dirt path."

Ed glanced to the front in time to see Ducky receive a whap in the back of the head. Too tired to grin, he none-the-less appreciated the punishment Ducky received. He's right though, mused Ed as he looked out the window. There was a sort of eeriness about driving down a dirt road at night. The trees on either side had grown right up to the banks, and it was easy to imagine any number of eyes peering at them through the dense foliage.

Almost as soon as he thought this, Ducky swerved sharply, earning him a round of exclamations and curses as everyone was tossed about. Rubbing his head where it had connected with the window, Ed looked out in time to see something fat, grey, and fast dart into the underbrush.

"Sorry, raccoon," said Ducky. "I swear that thing gave me the finger."

Reilly bent over to gather up the maps she'd dropped. "He's not the only one, dear."

The rest of the drive was uneventful. By the time they disembarked from the van, Ed was ready to sleep anywhere so long as it wasn't in motion.

Tom and Reilly went in to get rooms while everyone else grabbed their belongings. Reilly returned a few minutes later with two sets of keys. "Tom is getting us some dinner from across the street. Their idea of food here is half a pack of cigarettes and a stale donut."

Splitting up into two groups, Ed found himself sharing a room with Ducky, Al, and Heist. The room itself was small, with two medium sized beds and a tiny bathroom off the main area. Ed claimed the bed closest to the door for Al and himself.

Dropping down on the other one, Ducky flipped on the TeeVee while Heist made her way to the bathroom. After scanning through the stations, Ducky finally settled on one showing the news, albeit fuzzily. The words 'BREAKING NEWS' flashed across the bottom of the screen. "...o report as of yet about what caused the damage?"

The view shifted from a petite brunette behind the newsdesk to a man in a blue jacket standing in front of what might have been a small building at one point. "Amy, the police aren't saying anything concretely at this time. I have been able to gather, both from the firefighters working the scene, as well as some of the rescue volunteers, that whatever took place happened very quickly."

The screen split in two to show both reporters at the same time. "Do they think it may have been caused by a gas leak?"

There was a pause while the view shifted again, showing more of the damage. Various people, many in uniforms of some kind or other, worked relentlessly to move the twisted heaps of still smoking wreckage. The scene changed again to show the male reporter as he started speaking once more. "There's been no official word on that yet. For now, both police and firefighters are keeping pretty tight-lipped about the incident."

"Thank you Tom." Returning the view to the newsroom, the brunette turned to face the camera. "For those of you just joining us, there has been an explosion at the Riverside Hotel off Lake Drive and 3rd in downtown Topeka. So far, there are reports of up to six casualties..." Ed switched off the set, his right hand clenched tightly. The other two in the room sat nearby, silent and shaking. There was a noise to the side, and Ed looked up in time to see Heist, her face stricken, whirl back into the bathroom whence she'd recently emerged.

"Brother..."

Ed turned to his sibling. Al's face was tight, and tears were forming as he stared at the blank set. "We were... we were just there..."

Ed looked back at the silent screen. In the dark reflection, he could see Ducky pull his legs up tightly to his chest. "I know Al."

From the bathroom came the sound of tortured weeping.

~`~`~`~


In the next room over, Tom reached out and silently turned off the television. From the bathroom, he could hear Reilly retching, but no sound came from the man sitting on the other bed. Tom didn't want to look in Maes' direction, because he knew what he'd see if he did; he'd been watching it grow and fester for weeks, becoming ever more apparent with each newscast.

The bed squeaked as Maes slid off. “I need some air,” he said, and a moment later, the outside door opened and closed.

Tom waited until he knew Reilly was all right. When she'd stopped gagging and he heard the water in the sink begin to run, he followed the other man outside. He'd noticed the copse of trees in the vacant lot next to the motel when they'd checked in and that was where he headed -- he knew Maes would be there.

As he approached, he could just make out the broad-shouldered form that nearly blended in with the heavy shadows of the trees in the rising sun. Maes' back and right shoulder lurched forward, and an instant later the hollow thunk of a metal blade embedding itself in wood reached Tom's ears. It was followed by three more in rapid succession and then stopped as Maes strode toward the tree.

The other man was yanking the last knife from the trunk by the time Tom reached him and from the looks of it, it had wedged itself in tightly.

Maes turned with a grimace and rubbed at his shoulder, then started and brought the fist full of throwing knives up when he saw Tom. He sagged in relief when he realized the older man wasn't a threat, and said, “You really shouldn't sneak up on a guy like that.”

“I didn't think I was sneaking,” Tom said, mildly. He nodded at the wounds in the tree trunk and said, “Your aim's getting better.”

Maes glanced at the target, his lips pulling down. “Not good enough, though.”

“For what?” Tom asked.

Maes gave him a you-know-damn-good-and-well-what glare as he strode past and faced the tree once more. As he raised one blade, he said, “You might want to move.” When Tom stayed put, Maes brought his arm down. “I have to do this. You know how it is, the best candidate for the job and all that.”

Tom crossed his arms, and refused to move. “You won't survive it, Maes. Chances are pretty damned good that he'll kill you before you kill him. Then what? Nothing changes, except that you'll be dead.”

Maes huffed out a short, bitter laugh. “I'm already dead, remember?”

“You're alive here.”

Maes stared at him for a long moment, then, with a tiny shake of his head, he said, “Not really. I don't belong here. I just can't seem--” he broke off and held his hands out in a helpless gesture. “Ed and Al can adjust to almost anything. They've taken to this world like fish in a pond. Once Bond is dead, they can stop running and make a life for themselves.” He smiled sadly. “They've got good friends here who'll support them, after all.”

“So do you.”

Maes swallowed hard and glanced back at the motel. “Bond won't stop until he gets his hands on those boys, Tom. And he won't hesitate to kill the rest of you to get at them.” He faced the older man again, determination settling over his face. “And Ed and Al? They'll become the damned sacrifice, because they'll die before they let someone else be killed.”

“So that's it? You've made up your mind?”

“I can't go back. I can't stay here. And Bond needs to die. End of story.”

Tom nodded and moved out of the line of fire. He joined Maes and gestured at the tree. “Then I guess you need to practice.”

Maes gaped at him, but didn't make any move to resume his knife-throwing. “That's it? You're not going to toss out more words of wisdom to try and talk me out of this?”

Tom pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket and shook one out. He took his time in lighting it and pulling the first smoke deep into his lungs. After he held it a moment, he leisurely blew it back out, then said, “You're preachin' to the choir here, Maes.”

“You're planning to go with me to hunt him down.”

Tom smiled and nodded. “You bet your ass. It's personal.”

"It's suicide."

"So I hear."

Tom could practically see the gears turning in the man's head as Maes studied him with narrowed eyes. He was a brilliant agent, able to put difficult puzzles together. Tom knew Maes would figure it all out shortly. He waited patiently, enjoying his cigarette, and was soon rewarded when Maes jerked ramrod straight and his lips parted as everything fell into place.

Maes glanced at the spent cigarette as Tom dropped it and ground it out with the toe of his boot. “How long?”

A cold, grim smile spread across Tom's face, and he said, “About as long as it'll take to hunt down and kill Bond.”

__________


July 26, 2006 -- 10:57 am
Wichita, Kansas


Amber Branch loved the park near her office. Right in the middle of old-town; there had once been a warehouse in its place, but twenty years ago the building had been demolished and the lot cleaned. Now it sported a fountain, a gazebo, rose bushes and one large pin-oak in the far corner.

It was late morning -- not quite time for the lunch crowd -- and there was only the Italian Ice vendor setting up his cart near the only opening in the Victorian-style iron fence that surrounded the patch of green.

She gave the vendor, a 30ish man with glasses and sandy hair that had been tucked up under the cap, a nod as she passed him. Already it was beginning to get too warm, and she felt for the guy -- that ugly red and white striped jacket couldn't be comfortable.

Her favorite spot was the polished wood bench under the pin-oak. It was in the far corner, and the one place that seemed to always have a slight breeze. Another advantage was that it was always in the shade -- whether from the tree itself, or from the building nearby.

The bench also had the added bonus, oddly enough, to be low enough that her feet touched the ground when she sat in it. She wasn't certain if it was just a mistake on the part of the planners, or it had been a deliberate attempt to attract children to the park (which was ridiculous, since it was in the heart of the business district -- but Amber had given up trying to comprehend the logic of local politicians long ago), but the lowness of the seat in a tall world kept it empty most times.

She had just settled down and opened the cheesy romance novel she'd picked up at the check-out counter the day before, when the vendor strolled her way with a cup in his hand filled with a mound of shaved, red ice.

She smiled up at him when he reached her, and he said, “It's beginning to heat up around here, isn't it?” He offered the cup of ice and added, “This one's on me.”

Amber took it with thanks and slipped a spoonful of the sweet, fruit-flavored concoction into her mouth with relish, then she gestured to the bench with her spoon and said, “Care to enjoy the shade before the lunch crowd hits?”

He glanced from the bench, then back at her and grinned. “It's not exactly built for normal people, is it? I might not be able to get back up.”

Amber's eyes narrowed. “Ha. Ha. What's next? Asking where my mommy is?”

“It had crossed my mind,” he said as he flopped down next to her, the grin never leaving his face. “Except that I don't think I could out-run a bullet.” He pulled off the cap, and a cascade of long, wavy hair fell out. He shook his head and scratched at his scalp.

“You're a smart-ass, Singer. It's a good thing I need you, else I might just use you for target practice.”

“I fear for my knee-caps.”

“I love you, too. Shit-head.”

The bantering died for a moment, as they watched the people in business suits hurrying along the outside sidewalk. Finally Amber said, “They're taking me off the case.”

“What about Bond?”

“They're still after him, but now they're after those boys, too.”

Singer pulled a foot up onto the bench and propped his arm on his knee. He didn't look at her -- preferring to watch the traffic outside the park, instead -- the constant grin on his face disappearing. “They're not criminals,” he said. “So I assume that the suits figured out what they can do.”

Amber nodded. “I'm not certain how, but I have my suspicions.”

“Does this mean I can take him out, now?” Singer asked excitedly.

She would have laughed, if the situation weren't so dire. Singer looked for all the world like an over-eager puppy. She half expected him to start bouncing around the bench and rapidly saying 'Pleasepleaseplease, pretty please' like Lucy would do when she wanted something very badly.

With a sigh, Amber stared down at the ground, the ice in her hands, resting on her knees. “Say it, Singer. You know you want to.”

He leaned over, wrapped an arm around her shoulder and planted a gentle kiss on her temple. “Nah,” he said when he sat back. “I never did like rubbing someone's nose in their screw-ups.”

“Liar.”

“Okay, okay... 'I told you so'.”

She chuckled. “I feel better now.” She gazed back up at him, and asked, “Do you really think they can do it? Do they have the smarts to figure out how to get back home?”

Singer leaned back on the bench, his arms spread wide on the seat-back and his legs stretched straight out. He stared up into the branches of the tree and said, “The younger one has the patience and the talent. The older one?” He shrugged. “To be honest? Only if he can cool his jets a little. He has too little patience and too much temper.”

“Not unlike a certain Special Forces Op I know once was.”

“Former.”

“Whatever.” She tilted her head curiously. “One of these days you'll have to try and explain all this weirdness to me.”

“You'd never get it,” he responded with a low laugh. “You're too comfortable dealing with things you can see and feel and smell and taste. You like the tangible and you can't wrap your brain around the intangible.” He nodded at his cart and the couple that was nearby, looking around. “I guess I should take care of my customers.”

When he got to his feet, Amber reached out and grasped his arm. “Keep them safe, Singer. Whatever you do, keep them safe. And... please... be careful.”

The man grinned warmly and patted her on the top of the head before he turned to head back to his cart.

__________


July 30, 2006
Location: The Oklahoma Panhandle


"We're overheating," Reilly said.

The car lurched and coughed and snapped Ed back into the here-and-now. Rubbing the feeling back into the left side of his face, he felt slippery dampness on his cheek and at the edge of his mouth, and realized that he'd dozed off.

"There was a sign a little ways back indicating a rest stop ahead," Hughes said. "It shouldn't be much further; think you can limp the Fiasco to it?"

Reilly shook her head and pulled the sputtering, jerking, pinging Ford to the shoulder.

With a barely suppressed groan, Ed straightened and unsnapped his seat-belt. He knew what was next. A glance out the front made him wince, though. The car might be small, but it was loaded down, and there was a hill up ahead. "Please tell me it's less than a mile away?"

Hughes shot a sympathetic glance over his shoulder as he popped his door open. "I certainly hope so."

"Okay Al, you get to steer," Reilly said.

"Hey," Ed grumbled, "Why does Al always get to steer?"

"He's lighter," Hughes said, as he gave Ed a hand out of the tight backseat.

"Besides," Reilly said, "You're too A.D.D."

"Add?" Ed asked as he rolled the passenger window down.

"It means you're easily distracted by shiny objects," Al teased as he hopped up front, and found the lever between his legs to pull the driver's seat forward.

Ed's response was to close the passenger door, lean into the open window and give his brother a one-fingered, latex-covered, automail salute. As he found a comfortable grip on the door-post, he mumbled, "Drive a little bit off the road one time..."

"I wouldn't call putting the car into a ditch 'a little bit off the road', Ed," Hughes said as he placed his hands on the back of the car. To Al he shouted, "Okay, let off the brake."

With Reilly at the driver's window, Hughes at the back and Ed at the passenger side, the pushing began. "Why does it always have to die at the foot of a hill?" he groaned, as he put his shoulder into it and the car slowly, stubbornly, rolled forward. Of all the places to get stranded in this part of the country -- the flattest, most boring area he'd ever seen -- it figured that the car would die on the only hill within a hundred miles.

“I think it's the Reilly luck,” Al quipped, and Ed heard a raspberry from the woman in response.

“We're gonna need to have a talk about that.” Hughes groaned as the car tried to roll back, and Ed caught a glimpse of him flipping around to put his back against the hatch in an attempt to get better leverage. When the Fiasco gave in and reluctantly resumed creeping forward, he added, “After we find a room and get a nap.”

“And a shower,” Reilly said.

“A cold shower,” Ed emphasized. He blew at a drop of sweat that was threatening to fall into his eyes. They'd spent money on the second vehicle a week ago because -- according to Tom's and Hughes' reasoning -- Bond and whomever he was getting his information from were keeping a watch for a van loaded down with seven easily identified individuals. Ed knew that excuse was bullshit. The real reason for the second car that Reilly had not-so-affectionately dubbed the 'Fiasco' had little to do with making it harder for them to be tracked. It was because Tom and Hughes were going to go after the assassin themselves. Soon.

They'd tried to keep it a secret from the rest of the group, but there was no such thing when seven people were packed together like sardines for weeks on end. Ed had cornered Hughes when they had a rare moment alone, furious at being left out of the plans. He thought the two of them were treating he and Al like little kids who couldn't fight their own battles. Hughes, of all people, should have known better, too. Ed had just as much reason to kick Bond's ass as the rest of them did. More, because that bastard had gone after Al, and that made it personal.

Except they had no intention of just kicking his ass and making sure he was locked away for good. They planned to kill him and end it permanently. With Bond dead, there was no possibility that he could escape again and come after them. Besides, Hughes had reasoned, someone with skills needed to stay behind in case Bond made an end-run around them. There was no way in hell that Reilly or Ducky, or Heist could defend themselves against an alchemist of Stealthwork's caliber.

Much as he wanted to, Ed couldn't argue against that. He just wondered if he could handle the backlash if Hughes and Tom didn't return.

What he'd really wanted to do, was tell them not to risk it. If the simulation worked and Ed's research panned out, they could deal with Bond on more familiar territory, but he dared not whisper even a hint, because if he was wrong...

He shot a quick glance back over his shoulder at Hughes, remembering that night at the Branch's; how he couldn't hide his heartache when he'd danced with Lucy. And no one spoke about what happened later that night, but Ed had his suspicions. He would catch Hughes gaze at Reilly when she was concentrating on something else, and see regret. Sometimes, Ed would notice the older man staring into nothing but fiddling with a wedding ring that was no longer on his finger, and it was like he wasn't even there.

He couldn't take the chance of getting Hughes' hopes up, only to watch the man shatter if he failed. No, he had to be absolutely certain he could do it, there was no other choice.

Ed knew something of what Hughes was feeling, but he recognized that he couldn't empathize completely. Would I be this lost if I'd been married and had a kid? he wondered, and an image of Winry flashed through his mind. She was wearing her coveralls open, revealing that tiny black top and her hair was pulled back in a bandanna. He felt himself flush, and was, for once, grateful for the ghastly heat. He'd always thought she looked best that way. It was... Winry.

Sudden regret stabbed at him and Ed decided that maybe he could empathize with Hughes more than he thought.

Someone on the highway honked and sped past a little too close, grinning and waving. Reilly, being closest to the traffic, instinctively winced, then shouted a string of creative obscenities at them. The now standard argument between her and Hughes started right on cue, and Ed ignored it. They weren't arguing about who should be pushing at the driver's window anyway.

Tempers are getting short all the way around, he thought bitterly. Everyone is getting on everyone else's nerves and no one's sleeping worth a shit. He stifled a yawn and blinked back the bleariness fogging his vision. Especially me. It was his own fault, he admitted. Writing code was a lot easier when no one was awake to look over his shoulder and ask questions he wasn't ready to answer. Least of all, from his brother.

Ed cast a quick glance at Al, who was concentrating on the road ahead and wrestling with the steering. He still hadn't told him about the Shadows. And what would I say? 'Hey Al, there's this thing that's following us around that's not human and if it touches you, it'll suck the life right out of you'? Ed blew a clump of sweaty bangs from his face and counted himself lucky that the Shadows hadn't actually done anything lately. They seemed to only show up when he was working on the simulation code, but they merely hovered in a dark corner by the ceiling. Like they're waiting for something.

“We've got company,” Hughes warned and everyone let the car come to a stop. Ed saw Al set the emergency brake and crank the wheel as he turned around to deal with whichever local authority wanted to pester them this time.

Instead of the expected black and white police car, an ancient pick-up rolled to a stop behind them, and someone jumped from the passenger seat. Ed couldn't see his face under the shade of the bill of a black mesh baseball cap, but the sandy hair pulled back into a pony-tail and that graffiti-covered duffel he hefted from the back would have been enough.

Ed groaned as Singer slapped at the door of the truck and sent the driver on his way. “You look like you could use another back,” he said as he approached.

“Thanks,” Hughes said, rubbing at his shoulder. “Will your friend be back to get you?”

Singer grinned as he lifted the hatch and wedged his duffel into the back. “He was going the other way.” He pushed the hatch back down, then leaned harder when it didn't click closed. “Besides, I have no idea who the guy was.”

“Don't think you're gonna con a ride out of us, asshole,” Ed snapped.

“Edward,” Reilly hissed.

Hughes glanced from Singer to Ed and darted a look at Al, who gasped in delighted surprise as he came out of the car. “Easy, Reilly,” Hughes said. “Ed, do you know this guy?” he asked, with a suspicious glare at the newcomer. Singer, for his part, allowed the scrutiny with patience.

“Yeah, and he's a pain in my ass.”

“He's helped us, Brother,” Al said. He patted at the pocket with the flute poking out of it, and said to Hughes, “He gave this to me, too.”

Singer offered a hand in greeting to Hughes and said, “The Iron Butterfly and Steppin' Wolf--” Reilly snorted “--know me as Singer.”

“He's okay, Maes,” Al said. “Brother just doesn't like him because he can't hit him.”

Singer nodded ahead of them and said, “The rest stop is just over the hill. We'll get there sooner if we stop bumping our gums.” With that, he braced himself at one side of the hatch and Hughes took the other. Al took that as his cue and bounced back into the driver's seat and shouted that he was ready.

“I wouldn't call his lunatic ravings helpful,” Ed grumbled, and returned to gripping the door-post.

“Iron Butterfly,” Reilly giggled as the car started to creep up the hill. “Cute.”

Ed winced and knew, without a doubt, that he'd never hear the end of that and vowed to get even with Singer for it.

As they gradually made progress, Ed could hear Singer and Hughes talking softly to each other and he tried to listen in, but all he could pick up were random words that offered no clues. He thought perhaps he heard Amber's name mentioned once, but he couldn't be certain and thought it was unlikely anyhow. It would be just far too strange if Singer knew her, he thought.

Ed concentrated on pushing the car and placing one foot in front of the other. He stopped watching ahead of them and counting the inches they gained and decided to let his mind wander where it wanted... and it wanted to take a tour around the strangeness of the last few months.

Synchronicity, Reilly had called it, he thought. 'The coincidental occurrence of events that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality'. Everything that's happened seems to be linked together somehow. How weird is it that Hughes was in the same small town, in the same time period, that I ended up in? And what about Al already meeting Amber and Alden? Or Hughes and Llyn? And just how much of a coincidence is it that I fell through the Gate on the one person's land who would actually believe my story?

The only conclusion -- as illogical as it was -- was that none of it was a coincidence and that only led to more questions that he didn't have the answers to... yet.

Ed felt the door-post rudely yanked from his hands and snapped back to the present in time to hear Al whoop in delight as he aimed the Fiasco downhill and toward the rest stop that wasn't very far ahead anymore. “Hey, wait for me!” he shouted as he tried to chase after his brother. Logic and the sweltering heat rapidly changed his plans and he slowed down with a wave at the quickly receding back of the small car. “Never mind.” A chuckle blended in with his gasps as he stopped and bent over with his hands on his knees.

He felt a slap on his back and sprung up, spinning and ready to take Singer down. He stopped himself in time to keep from punching Hughes, who arched back with his hands up. “Whoa.”

Chagrined, Ed pasted on a sheepish smile and said, “Sorry about that.”

Singer strolled by and arched a brow. “A little tense, Iron Butterfly?”

“Stop calling me that!”

Reilly giggled from ahead of them, and then started singing a tune. Ed wasn't sure, but it sounded like she was saying, 'In-da-gadda-da-vida, Baby... don'cha know that I lo-ove you-oo'

“What the hell was that?” Ed asked as he and Hughes fell into step with each other.

The older man shrugged and said, “I have no bloody clue. None of the music she listens to makes a lot of sense to me.”

They strolled the rest of the way in companionable quiet, but as they reached the entrance of the rest stop, Ed clasped Hughes on the arm and held him back. He kept an eye on Singer, who'd perched himself on the hood of the Fiasco next to Al and the pair of them were playing their flutes. The reedy sounds drifted on the limp breeze, harmonious and serene. Reilly was leaning against the passenger side of the car, arms crossed, listening.

"Hughes, what did he say to you?"

The other man studied Ed for a long moment, then glanced at Singer. "Do you really think he can't be trusted?"

"I don't know. Al seems to like the guy, but he just pisses me off." Ed shrugged. "He always talks in stupid riddles."

Hughes chuckled. "Well, no wonder." He turned his full attention to Ed. "He knows things he shouldn't. Stuff discussed between me and Amber, only."

"So he does know Amber?" Ed asked, incredulous.

"It would seem so." Hughes rubbed at the back of his neck and scowled. "We may not have a choice but to trust him, Ed. Amber's been taken off our case. Her colleagues are watching her closely and chances are, her phones are all bugged."

"So we're going to have to communicate with her... through him?!"

"Pretty much," Hughes said.

"Great. Lovely. We're all fucking doomed," Ed groaned.

Hughes laughed again and threw his arm over Ed's shoulder. As he pulled the younger man along to join the rest of the group, he said, "Glad to see you looking at this in such a positive light, Ed."

__________
 
 
 
 
 
 
:( Poor Heist. I feel bad for her.

And Hughes found his knives. Wheeee! :D ...although, it really wasn't a "wheee" moment for him, was it? >_>
That was one of my bits. No, it really wasn't a "wheee" moment. I could feel him going all cold as he stood there, knowing all the implications. It felt like a really eerie moment as he stared at them, like they'd been sent to him specifically. I got goosebumps. :-)
Singer is a person! That obvious bit of truth has me pretty astonished because, before, I had considered him more of an entity. Nice, nice developments...
Thank you!

Yes, Singer is a bit of an odd-ball, but he's a person.

You should meet the man he's based off of ^^;;
He's BASED off someone?!
Ah! Yes! The original person must be quite interesting.
*giggles* Just an example: My voice mail intro says to 'leave a brief message...'. His idea of a brief message is "G-string!"

The strangeness of Singer is mild compared to the real version ^^;;