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


Part Three


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




A/N: meirelle opens this part with her contest winning entry! Congrats! (and *coughs* sorry about the insanity!)

August 5, 2006
Location: Central Texas


Edward stood on the old, crumbling curb at the end of the parking lot, looked at his watch and tried to stifle a yawn. It was around 2:00 in the morning, and it was disgustingly humid out. He hadn’t noticed it in the car because Hughes had cranked up the air conditioning, but now it was getting uncomfortable. He glared at the ugly, pothole-riddled road. Scrawny weeds grew out of the cracks in the pavement, and most of the rest of it was covered in dried mud. The orange streetlight a few yards away was giving off an obnoxious buzzing noise, and it, as well as every other light in the vicinity, was surrounded by a halo of moths. Yet, despite being away from the lights and dressed in long pants and a hoodie, he still managed to get bitten by mosquitoes.

Surely, the world was mocking him. Hours of riding in that twice damned Ford Fiesta earned him a nasty cramp in his neck and an even nastier mood. Of course, being confined in a small space with the same three people for extended periods of time tended to reproduce the effect of regressing several years in age. Oh, he was being an asshat (as Heist liked to call him), he knew it -- but he wanted to pump gas, damn it!

When he’d offered, Reilly had mumbled an excuse, and Hughes had flat out told him no. What was with them? It wasn’t like destruction was caused everywhere he went.

The rational side of him knew that he had absolutely no idea how to work the gas pump, and said pump weirded the crap out of him. But still. If he was stuck here, he might as well learn. Ed looked back towards the small, cramped car and growled. Al was pumping gas -- Al! Tch. Stupid jerks. Stupid car. Stupid bumpy road.

Stupid simulation.

And we are stuck here, he thought as his eyes burned. The simulation he wrote had failed time and again to give him the results he so desperately sought. Because there's only one way, and I can't do that. He'd been so secretive about the program because he didn't want to disappoint anyone if he couldn't make it work. Now that he'd come to realize that the answer he wanted didn't exist, and there was no one to share the crushing pain, he'd never felt so isolated and alone in his life.

Suck it up, Elric, he told himself. Time to deal with what is instead of what you can't have.

At least he was out of the car. He didn’t know how much longer he could take it. He was tired of always ending up stuck in the back behind Hughes with his long legs, tired of the miserable heat and a shitty cooling system during the day (and the damn thing freezing him out after the sun went down), tired of crappy motel rooms, tired of Ducky's insanity, Heist's pouting, Reilly's crankiness, Hughes' stupid jokes and Tom's imperious calm. He was especially tired of phone calls in the middle of the night and jumping at every damned shadow -- or Shadow, even.

He was just tired.

He yawned and stared up at the dark sky.

And paused.

The stars in the sky were the exact same ones he’d seen a million times in Amestris -- the same constellations in the same positions in the sky, and the same Milky Way he’d see cutting the sky above Risembool in half on warm summer nights.

Funny, he thought. Of all the differences between Amestris and here, I never imagined that the stars would be the same. But they were. He recognized the constellations. Hell if he knew what they were called -- here or in Amestris -- but they were the same. It was strange. He’d seen the night sky countless times in this world, and only now did he notice the familiarity of it.

“Are you done now?” came a voice from behind him.

Ed started and slowly turned to face the intruder. Reilly stood a few feet away, arms crossed over her chest and an amused smile on her face. He scowled at her. “I wasn’t sulking,” he blurted out.

Reilly’s smile grew. “You said it, not I.”

At a loss for any real comeback, he let out a wordless grumble and shoved his hands into his pockets. Oh, great. Make a fool of yourself.

Reilly sighed but didn't say anything.

Ed ignored her and instead focused on the obnoxious cacophony of chirping crickets.

“You know,” Reilly said hesitantly, “if you hadn’t pitched a fit, we would’ve probably let you pump gas.”

Ed glared at her. “I pitched no such fit.”

“Ed,” Reilly groaned, bringing her right hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose. “You took the pump right out of Hughes’ hands.”

He shrugged it off. “So.”

Reilly raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “And then,” she continued, “you got angry at it because it didn’t work -- you have to pay before it’ll let you pump, by the way.”

“But--"

“And then you proceeded to throw it on the ground and snarl at it.” She frowned slightly, her features set in mock contemplation. “I think that’s pitching a fit,” she decided.

Ed’s mouth hung open. “I--I didn’t snarl at it!”

“No, of course not.” Reilly let a ghost of a smile grace her features. “What are you doing way out here anyway?” she asked, waving a hand half-heartedly at the darkness around them. “Besides sulking.”

Ed narrowed his eyes, but he let the jab slide. “Looking at the stars.” They were both silent a moment before he added, “They’re the same in Amestris.”

“Really?” Reilly asked.

He watched her look out at the horizon, dark and unpolluted by city lights.

“Same constellations?”

“Uh-huh,” he said, nodding, and then pointed to the east. “There’s that weird-looking ‘w.’” He pointed north. “And the spoon thing.” He then pointed straight up. “And the arrow.”

“Ah,” Reilly said with amusement, “so that’s what they’re called in your world.”

“No!” Ed quickly defended. “I just never bothered to learn the names.”

Reilly studied the sky for a moment. “Those are Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, and Cygnus.”

Ed stared at her, utterly perplexed. “What the hell kind of names are those?”

“Mythological names, Ed.”

“I know that. But, I mean, that--" he pointed to the ‘w’ "--does not look like Cassiopeia.”

“Well, it looked like Cassiopeia to somebody,” Reilly said mildly.

Ed let out a short, disapproving growl.

They watched the sky in silence for a bit, then Reilly said, "I'm sorry, Ed."

He darted a shocked glance at her and was heartened by the warmth and sadness on her face. "For what?"

She shrugged. "I don't know what set you off, but you've been acting like you lost your last friend, and you don't want to admit it hurts."

Ed felt a jab of pain in his stomach, like a twisting knife. He grit his teeth, turned his face back up to the sky, and glared at the offending constellation. He narrowed his eyes. Then, after a long moment of silence, he said, “I like ‘giant w’ much better.”

“I know you do.” Reilly said gently, and he faced her once more. Her dark eyes were bright with laughter, and he could see the corners of her lips curl up in a smile. “But you’re obviously not a very creative person.”

“Oh, really?” Ed smirked. “You haven’t even experienced the tip of the Fullmetal creativity iceberg yet. Just you wait.”

Reilly snorted. “Oh, I’ll wait.”

Ed chuckled and then craned his neck to look back up at the sky. “I wonder if anyone at home is looking at the stars right now.”

He wasn’t looking at her, but he felt Reilly’s smile disappear. She put her hand on his left shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. “There are a lot of stars in the sky, and there are a lot of people on the ground to look at them. So I think--"

“Al!” A voice filtered over from the vicinity of the gas pump, sounding both irritated and amused, a combination only Maes Hughes could pull off. “It’s spilling over. You made it overflow!”

“Ah, sorry,” Al replied. “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” The look on Al's face was classic Alphonse Panic Attack material. It was priceless -- Ed wished he had a camera.

Reilly groaned. “I’m needed back at the car.”

“Yeah.” Ed watched her run over to Al. Then he let a slow, lazy grin creep onto his face. He contemplated the words Reilly had told him. Her opinion was left unfinished, but he thought he knew what she was getting at. Billions of stars in the sky, and billions of people beneath them. He gazed back at the cosmos and felt his lazy grin broaden into a genuine smile. “Someone’s bound to be watching.”

__________


****
Re: Found you anyway

Heist,

I'm not sure if you've heard, but I thought someone should know. I just saw on the news that Ray, the nurse who worked in the psych ward and helped get Al out, was murdered about a month and a half ago. I want to think it had nothing to do with why you guys are hiding, but somehow I doubt it. For what it's worth, I don't think Al should know (if he doesn't already), but if you decide to tell him... just make sure his brother is around when you do. He really looked up to Ray.

Gene

****

August 12, 2006
Location: Central Arkansas


Maes took off his glasses and rubbed his burning eyes, then leaned forward and swiped the condensation off the windshield. It had been raining hard all night, but it looked like it had finally let up enough that he wouldn't get drenched if he opened the driver's side window a bit.

The clean, cool air hovered at the edge of the entrance, bringing with it the aroma of bacon, eggs and pancakes from the 24-hour diner across the two-lane highway from them. There hadn't been much activity most of the night -- even now there were only two cars in the lot. He had an unobstructed view of the inside of the restaurant through the wall of glass lining the front, and he could see the three waitresses leaning on the counter looking bored. The motel next door to the diner was even quieter, as all but three of its twelve rooms were unoccupied and all the windows were dark.

He grimaced as his stomach rolled; unable to decide if it was due to all the caffeine, or to the sickly-sweet citrus concoction he drank when the coffee ran out. The aroma of fried foods from across the highway should have made him hungry, but the Mountain Dew had taken care of that.

Maes tilted his head and inhaled the fresh air deeply, and it settled his stomach somewhat. The air inside the car remained stale and slightly smoke-tinged and he was tempted to reach across the softly snoring Tom to crack his window and get a cross-breeze going, but he didn't want to risk waking him. Soon enough, it would be the older man's turn to take the watch and let Maes nap -- not that he would be able to sleep, as keyed up as he was.

Early that day they'd left this same motel with the rest of the group and followed for about two hours. Then after taking an exit and finding an untraveled road, had Ed change the color of the car to a flat black primer. Amidst protests from the rest -- the loudest being Reilly's and Ed's -- Tom and Maes doubled back, taking side roads and making random turns to make certain they weren't being tailed, and returned. They parked on the dark side of a honky-tonk across from the motel and waited. Both men considered themselves fortunate that it was Sunday and the bar was closed. No one would accidentally stumble on them while they watched for any unusual activity.

He leaned back in the seat, pulling his arms over his head in an attempt to get some blood circulating through the upper half of his body. There was no hope for his legs though, not in the cramped space of the Fiasco. He'd moved the seat back as far as it would go, and still every time he'd tried to stretch them in the past six hours, he'd only managed to get a foot caught in the clutch or brake.

Of all the things about Maes Hughes' job when he was in the military that he missed, the one thing he didn't, was surveillance. The hours upon hours of just sitting in the dark and waiting with nothing to occupy his mind were agonizing.

On the other hand, he no longer felt powerless. All the running they've done -- trying to keep one step ahead of Bond -- all the newscasts they've caught showing the aftermath of his taunting, had left Maes feeling impotent. Amber was doing her best to keep them safe and to get her people to hunt him down, but Stealthworks continuously eluded her. Maes had no idea if he and Tom would succeed where Amber couldn't, but it was a damn sight better than playing the victim.

And they were forced to make the attempt any way.

And no one in the group was naïve enough to think that they weren't suspects for the crimes being committed at every single place they had stayed. What Amber didn't say, but both Tom and Maes had little doubt of, was that her superiors had other ideas in mind. They wanted Bond, all right. They also wanted Ed and Al. Not because they were dangerous, but because of their abilities. If they were captured, they'd be tested and ordered to become weapons. They would be nothing but lab rats with no life or freedom. That was if they cooperated -- which Maes doubted -- otherwise, they'd be vivisected. He wouldn't allow that -- and as ill as it made him to contemplate, he knew that if it came down to it, he'd kill the boys himself to keep them from that fate.

And if they were caught, Maes held no illusions that he'd be anything but dead, because even though he was an alien in this world like the other three, he was useless to these people.

Dead at the hands of some anonymous agent, or dead at the hands of Stealthworks, he thought. Either way, I'm dead, but at least this way, I'll go down fighting and maybe those boys will get a chance at a life.

Tom snorted next to him and rubbed his eyes. “What time is it?” he murmured.

“About thirty minutes later than the last time you asked.”

“And what time was it then?”

“Thirty minutes later than the time before that.”

“Smart-ass,” Tom said. “You've been letting Ducks influence you.”

Maes chuckled, then pulled on the door-handle. “I need to piss,” he said as he stepped out. “Try to stay awake until I get back, Old Man.”

Tom yawned lustily, then slouched down in his seat with his arms crossed over his chest. “Yeah. Sure. I'm wide awake now,” he said through another yawn.

Maes gently closed the door, danced his way around the mucky potholes that made up the parking lot of the bar, and headed around to the back of the building. He listened carefully in the darkness, but the only sounds were the tree-frogs that had come out in the aftermath of the rain, and his own relief. What little traffic there was on the highway this time of night was muffled by the water on the surface of the road, the growing mist in the air, and the building. A quiet night -- unfortunately.

He was actually beginning to wonder if Bond would even show this time.

He started and nearly wet his shoes when a semi layed on the air-horn as it rolled past, then laughed at himself over it. It would be my luck that bastard would do me in while I had my dick in my hand.

At first it was a darkly amusing thought, but a cold chill quickly snaked down his spine, and he darted a nervous glance around. The weight of the knives he'd hidden in various places on his body gave little comfort as he peered into the darkness. Maes shivered -- not from the relief on his bladder, but from the feeling that he was being watched, and he suddenly felt extremely vulnerable.

He chided himself as he zipped his pants and started back to the car, but he couldn't shake the sense of foreboding that had suddenly come over him. He kept close to the building and cautiously poked his head around the corner, then immediately pulled a knife from his belt.

In the watery, reflected light from across the street, he could see Tom outside the car with his gun in his hand, held non-threateningly down at his side -- but his thumb was resting against the hammer, ready to pull it in an instant. The older man was talking to a whip-thin woman in a waitress' uniform, but Maes couldn't hear what was being said. From his position, if the woman were a threat, there would be no chance that he'd be able to hit her; Tom was in the way. The best he could hope for would be to wing her... and that could be a death-sentence for his partner.

He cursed silently and attempted to slink along the wall of the bar without being seen. He never took his eyes off of her and something about her demeanor tugged at his over-caffeinated brain. She was standing stock-still, but her head would keep tilting slightly to the side, as though she were listening to someone whispering over her left shoulder.

As he drew closer, he caught a glimpse of a tiny red light blinking in her ear, and the horror of what he was seeing made his already upset stomach lurch. Keeping to the shadows, he peered around and spied Bond arrogantly sitting in a window booth in the diner -- sipping from a steaming cup. Across the table from him was another waitress -- a plump, older woman -- sitting stiffly upright with her hands flat on the table top. The assassin set the cup down, then grasped his hostage's wrist. She made to yank her hand away, but something he said made her stop.

The girl with Tom then glanced Maes' way and stammered, “Y-you may as well s-stop cowering in the dark, Hughes. He-- I know you're there.”

Maes swallowed, palmed the blade, and strode out of the shadows to Tom's side. “Bond,” he spat.

“Yup,” Tom said. “And according to the young lady here, he has a message for us.”

Now that he was closer, he could see the girl was only about 18 years old –- Barely an adult... like Kitten was -- Her eyes were so wide that her pupils were little more than pinpricks in a sea of white, her face was damp with sweat and tears and her lips were bloodless. She was shivering and sniffling, absolutely terrified.

Maes laid a finger to his lips and she nodded, understanding. Then he reached out, hesitating when she flinched. When he knew she wasn't going to bolt, he touched her chin and turned her head to the right.

He knew it would be too much to hope that the sadistic bastard had simply used a cheap, store-bought transmitter. The thing had Stealthwork's signature all over it. It looked like a tiny mechanical spider with a dozen red pin-points around the body that blinked in a cascading succession. Thin, dark threads trickled down her neck from the eight legs which had embedded themselves into the flesh and cartilage of her ear.

She whimpered and then said, “He said, 'You're not stupid enough to try and take my little pet off of her, are you?' Oh God, what does he mean?!

The words were no sooner out of her mouth, when the spider trembled and one of the legs tore itself from her ear. It dislodged itself from the main body, sprouted hair-thin legs of its own, and then started to snake around the girl's neck. The filament it pulled in its wake was nearly invisible, except for the crease that had begun to appear in the pale flesh of her throat. When she squeaked in disgust and attempted to brush it away, a spark popped and she jumped, yanking her hand back.

She was just about to start going into a complete, blind panic when Tom grasped her shoulders and said with amazing calm, “You need to stay still. Do you hear me?”

His words had the desired effect, because she froze, stared uncomprehending a beat, then blinked and nodded. She didn't relax -- it would be impossible for anyone under the circumstances -- but at least she wasn't flailing about.

The spider's leg had made its trip all the way around the girl's neck at this point and had reattached itself to its body with a whiff of singed flesh and terrified sobbing. Maes knew with cold certainty that the tiny, fragile-looking filament would be a very effective garrote that could take the waitress' head completely off, if Bond ordered it to.

He shot a quick glance at Tom, who looked back with the same grim expression he was positive reflected on his own face. The girl was walking dead; she just didn't realize it yet.

“What do you want, Bond?” Maes asked, glaring at the assassin across the highway.

“Th-the same thing you want,” the girl relayed.

“That's impossible,” Maes said. “You know that.”

The waitress' face crumbled and she sniffled. “He... he's laughing. Why is he laughing?” She suddenly flinched as though dodging an invisible blow, and stammered, “Okay, okay! I'm sorry! Oh God, please don't kill me! I'll tell them.” She listened a moment and Maes didn't think it could be possible for her to become any paler, but what little color remained in her face drained out and it looked like she was just about to faint. “He said, 'It is possible, if you have the stomach to use one of your friends.'” A choked whine escaped her lips, then she said in a shaky whisper, “He said, 'Do you need a good reason to sacrifice one of them to get us all home?'”

“There isn't enough motivation in any world that would make those boys kill someone, Bond,” Maes ground out.

“'Really?'” the girl relayed. She listened a second, then focused on Maes again. “He said there's a traitor among you.”

“Bullshit,” Tom hissed.

“Divide and conquer, Stealthworks?” Maes sneered. “That's hardly your style.”

Maes watched in growing anger as Bond tightened his grip on the other woman's wrist and yanked it up. She jerked and he could almost hear her frightened and pained gasp.

A tinny shout burst from the transmitter making the waitress wince and jerk. “Don't piss him off!” she cried. She grasped at the front of Maes' sweatshirt in desperation. “He promised me he'd let my friend go and take this thing off me if you gave your word to get him home.”

Maes gently cupped her cheek and stared down into her terrified, hopeful face. Bond was lying, but he didn't have the heart to tell her that. So young and innocent of all this; caught up in a sadistic game of cat and mouse without knowing why. Just like Spike and Kitten, he thought. Like so many others. He had to do something and quickly. Bond had made his demand and he wasn't going to wait long.

“Please,” she whimpered. “Just give him what he wants. H-he said th-the killing won't stop until you do.” Then, barely above a whisper, “I have a little girl at home. I'm all she's got.”

“Bastard,” Tom whispered.

No more. Maes was trembling as he gripped her chin firmly with one hand and spun the spade-knife in the palm of the other. He only had a fraction of a second to do it before Bond would catch on. All it would take would be a little twitch of his wrist and the leg holding the filament taut would break loose. Then he could aim the point of the blade at her ear and dig the spider out. She might lose part of her ear -- probably her hearing on that side -- but at least she'd live.

If he didn't hesitate...

Praying he moved fast enough, he quickly slipped the blade under the garrote close to her ear. “This'll only hurt for a little bit,” he said softly.

“What the fuck are you doing, Maes?” Tom hissed.

The reek of scorching flesh hit his nose just as the girl screamed and wrenched herself free. She fell to her knees in the slimy muck and cried as she dug with her fingernails at the garrote and the spider. Then there was an instant when she looked up at Maes, horrified comprehension and utter betrayal further distorting a face that might have been pretty...

Maes barely had time to step away from her and choke out, "I'm so sorry."

Her face twisted in agony with a silken whip-twang of the tightening garrote. There was a brief eternity when nothing happened, then her head fell from her neck into the mud. What remained of her body wobbled a moment as a fountain of dark red spewed into the air, then it collapsed with a splash into a puddle, her life pumping out of her in a flood that stained the brown muck into black. The spider trembled and hissed, then her disconnected head exploded in a gruesome rain of blood and hair and grey-matter and bone shards.

He could hear Tom gagging behind him, but all Maes could do was stare at the girl as cold fury seeped into his veins. Gazing across the highway, he saw the other waitress slumped back in her seat, looking as though she'd merely dozed off, but Maes knew better. He hardly noted the small clump of people beginning to form outside of the cafe. All he saw was the impeccably dressed bald man sitting at a table by the window, staring smugly back at him as he calmly closed his cellphone.

Maes' grip on the knife tightened spasmodically and he took a step toward the street, but a vice-like hand on his arm stopped him. “We don't have time,” Tom's voice broke through the haze of rage and stopped Maes and it was only then he heard sirens in the distance. With a sharp nod he turned back to the car and followed the older man.

Tom yanked the driver's door open and started pocketing anything he could find that might identify them, “We'll be better off if we stay on foot.” Straightening, he pinned Maes with a steady gaze, and asked, “Do you understand me, Hughes? We need to fall back and regroup.”

Maes slipped his knife back into his belt, and said, “I'm not some green recruit, Tom. I understood you perfectly.”

With a relieved gust, Tom relaxed and said, “You had me worried for a minute there.” Then he reached back in and pulled the keys from the ignition and trotted around to the back of the small car. He popped the hatch open, shoved the styrofoam cooler to the side, flipped the carpet and fished a metal box from the spare tire well. Throwing the lid of the box up and grabbing two road flares, he ignited one, leaned into the car and tossed it into the front seat, then started the second and dropped it onto the carpeting in the hatch. Then he took one step back and glanced at Maes. “You might want to run now.”

Maes smirked skeptically and said, “You know, that only works in the movies.”

“Ya think?” Tom said as smoke rolled out of the Fiasco. He jerked his head toward the back of the bar, and the trees beyond, then started jogging in that direction with Maes matching his pace. “I'm just hoping for a good diversion so we can high-tail it out of here. With any luck, the local yokels will be more interested in dousing our little camp-fire than running after us for a bit.”

The front seat of the compact car suddenly burst into flames with a whoosh, making both men skid to a stop and instinctively duck, then glance back. “Good idea,” Maes said.

With the Ford alight, they could see well enough to make a mad dash toward the woods and disappear in the thick underbrush a moment before the sound of sirens were cut off and a lone patrol barreled into the muddy parking lot.

~`~`~`~


Location: Central Oklahoma

Ed felt the short hairs on the back of his neck rise as he finished what he hoped was the final revision to the codes for the simulation program he'd been fighting with. He'd tracked down the problem with the file application over a month ago and he was beginning to run out of excuses and lies for why he was obsessing so much -- especially to himself. He'd all but convinced himself that it was a waste of time, but no matter how many times he'd walk away from the computer in frustration, he kept coming back.

He really didn't want anyone else but Al to know what he was attempting to do, although Ducky and Heist had an idea since they'd been poking about into the program whenever he came up against a problem. He had no choice but to trust they'd keep quiet, and while it galled him to give up that much control over the situation, he had to admit they'd been true to their words. And although some of the rather bizarre stories Ducky came up with were boggling, the fact that the rest of the group had bought them baffled Ed even more. Hughes and Reilly and Tom were getting suspicious, though -- he was certain of it. Though none of them had come right out and said anything yet, he knew it would only be a matter of time before one of them hit on what he was trying to do.

A sense of desperation made a little flip in his stomach as he saved and backed out of DOS, which turned into a quiver of anticipation as he set the application to run the test. It rapidly collapsed into into dark frustration as the simulation -- once again -- ended disastrously. With a low moan, Ed closed his eyes and thumped his head against the rickety table he was using as a desk.

With a sigh, Ed wondered for the thousandth time, if he should just give up. As it was, the entire effort was proving to be a waste, anyhow. Hughes and Tom had taken off to confront Bond, and chances were, neither of them would return, and while going back home sounded good to him and Al, they could live here... once everything had settled down, anyway.

A tingling, prickling feeling snaked down his spine, and his head shot up. Suddenly every sense went into overdrive as he felt like he was being watched. He darted a glance around the room checking his soundly sleeping bunkmates. Ducky was, as usual, comatose on the floor, stretched out at the feet of both beds and a hazard for anyone who might need to get up in the dark. Heist and Reilly were little more than curled up balls under a pile of covers on the bed furthest from him, and in the bed closest...

Not seeing a form in the bed and the blankets thrown back, Ed spun toward the bathroom, his heart beginning to race. Panic rose when he realized there was no light peeking from beneath the door and he desperately scanned the room again -- all the while, feeling as though he were being watched from behind.

Reilly moaned softly and stirred in her sleep, and in so doing, revealed another, smallish lump next to her. Apparently Al had decided he didn't want to wait until Ed was ready to sleep, so the younger brother sought comfort and a warm body from Reilly, who was just as much of a cuddle-freak. He stifled a chuckle at the sight -- it had become a source of gentle humour and frequent betting pool on who would wake up in the morning with Al snuggled up to them.

Gazing warmly at the two of them, Ed breathed a sigh of relief, saved his work and tip-toed to the single window in the room; peeling the curtain back just far enough to peek out with one eye. He searched the lot and peered into the shadows outside in an effort to locate the watcher, but the area was clear and the feeling of eyes on him wasn't coming from outside at any rate.

It's just paranoia, he thought and shook his head. We've been running away from Bond for too long.

Yawning hugely and rubbing his hand down his face, he settled down into bed and returned to puzzling out the mysteries of programming code. There was so much he didn't know yet, and he was getting frustrated because he couldn't shake the feeling that time was running out. He'd refined his arrays, changed the order of the symbols, even figured in the weather and locations of possible Gates, but there was always some element that was off, or...

Ed rolled to his side and glared at the stubbornly recalcitrant laptop, rolls of maps and notebooks filled with coded scribbling. Is there a missing element? If there is, what?

Eyelids growing leaden and a warm numbness falling over him like a blanket, Ed surrendered and drifted off to the sound of Al's flute playing in his head. He'd recorded his brother's music whenever he had a chance, and listened to it frequently whenever he was buried deep in coding. It was soothing and helped him think. He'd captured about six different pieces over the past couple months and had listened to them on a constant loop to the point he had each one memorized, but this sounded different somehow.

The last remaining conscious part of his mind rationalized the difference by telling him it was probably just a combination of all the songs his brother had played... or perhaps one he hadn't recorded, but was remembering now...

...but something nagged at him. Something he should be comprehending right now, except he was too damned tired.

Ed's eyes snapped open and he struggled to roll onto his back, but his body felt like it was being held down. Putting everything he had into it, he forced himself over and fought with unconsciousness to search the dark corners of the ceiling.

Dammit, he chastised himself when he saw the blacker-than-black tendrils of the Shadows slithering down from the ceiling toward him. I should have known.

For weeks he'd been catching quick glimpses of those... things, just as he was feeling an irresistible need to sleep. They had been keeping themselves near the ceiling, though, and Ed had just ignored them -- refusing to give them any credence or power over him. They were a harbinger, according to Reilly, of bad things about to happen.

Well, Ed thought, we end up bolting right after I see the damned things, don't we? Bond is always on our asses, though. It's not like we're not expecting him anymore.

He weakly clenched his fist and tried to muster the energy to get angry, but the numbness brought on by the Shadows presence was damping it down. He wasn't just tired, he was tired of this. Don't I have enough bullshit to deal with already? He tried to speak, but his mouth wouldn't work, so he resigned himself to a blistering glare at the intruders and thought, If you're not here in the name of Light, then in the name of Light begone.

The tendrils hesitated a moment, then withdrew. As they pulled back from hovering over him, Ed felt his energy beginning to return. Able to sit up and think more clearly, he watched the rolling, whirling patch of black with curiosity. Something else about the Shadows floated through his mind... something he'd dismissed as the ravings of a madman. Are they trying to communicate? he wondered. Why? What do they want with me, anyway?

Singer had also hinted at the Shadows' connection to the Gate, and Ed was sorely tempted to see what he could find out, but the memory of the last time he's actually had contact with them made him shudder. He sure as hell didn't want to endanger the rest of the remaining group because he wasn't able to move in a hurry.

But what if they're the missing piece of the puzzle? They travel through the Gates, right? No. It's too risky--

Ed's waffling came to an abrupt halt when he heard Al moan and saw him writhe uncomfortably in his sleep, then saw a thin tendril snaking downward toward him.

Ed lurched, ready to spring from the bed, but a force hit him in the chest and slammed him back into the mattress. He wriggled and grasped at the invisible hand holding him down, but there was nothing solid to hold on to. Panting from the effort and fear for his younger brother, Ed could only watch as the tendril came ever closer and Al struggled against an invasion he couldn't understand in his sleep.

Screwing up as much anger as he could and using it as a gestalt, Ed tried to shout, but the only sound he made was a tiny squeak. The inside of his head, however, was a thunderous Leave him be!

It still had the desired effect – the Shadows hesitated, and Ed could almost sense that they were thinking.

You can hear me, can't you? he thought.

As though in answer, the tendril drew up and Ed saw his brother calm back into restful sleep. It paused near the ceiling, rolling lazily... waiting.

A thrill of excitement surged through him and he made a decision. Talk to me, he thought at the Shadows.

The entity snapped into a tight sphere and Ed tensed. Before he had a chance to change his mind, a rope of black shot at him, and embraced his skull. He briefly fought for control and consciousness, then he was blanketed by a feeling of being anesthetized.

Images, soft and fuzzy at first, swam through his thoughts, but as he fell deeper into his altered state, they became sharper. Not that they helped him any -- they flashed by rapidly and were a confusing jumble that was a combination of nightmare symbolism and vision. A memory wove its way through the confusion and Ed thought it all felt frighteningly familiar. He knew where he'd experienced this sensation before, but the concrete knowledge of when eluded him.

He waded through the morass of imagery and information in pursuit of the key. Without knowing how, he realized that the elusive memory and the missing element to opening the Gate were one and the same. He came close... reached out to capture the answers he'd desperately been searching for... fingertips just brushing at the memory... tentatively wrapping around it--

--Then he was violently yanked backwards and blinded by a bright, white light.

“Come back! Dammit!” he shouted as he bolted upright in the bed.

“B-brother?” a tiny, frightened and painfully familiar voice stammered from a great distance.

Ed shivered and grimaced, still within the thrall of the memory he'd brought back with him, and instinctively gripped his right shoulder. Hard metal, rather than exposed bone and blood and gristle shocked him to alertness. Almost afraid of what he'd see, he slowly turned toward the voice.

He saw Reilly kneeling on the bed next to him, face pale and eyes wide. “Ed? Say something.”

He swallowed and shook and whispered, “Al? Wh-where's Al?”

“I'm here, Ed,” Al said softly.

Ed squeezed his eyes closed, then slowly opened them and let them slide past Reilly. Al was still in the other bed, squirming free of Heist's clinging arms... and blessedly whole. Relief washed over him in an overwhelming wave of black spots, and the last thing he heard was Reilly saying, “Oh shit! He's passed out.”

~`~`~`~


Location: Northeast Oklahoma

As the sun peeked over the horizon, Maes and Tom were hiking along a pot-hole riddled, barely traveled two-lane highway, into the sunrise. They hadn't stopped the entire night, determined to put as many miles between themselves and the gruesome scene as they could. They hadn't seen anything that sported an internal combustion engine and wheels for over an hour -- with the exception of a farmer that looked to be as ancient as his tractor.

Neither man spoke much unless necessary. While part of the reason was to conserve their wind, they were each lost in their own thoughts, as well.

A traitor, Maes thought. Who would willingly cooperate with that monster? He considered everything he knew about the people he'd been running for his life with for the past three months, and immediately ruled out Ed and Al. So who's left? Who would be the most likely suspect? Reilly? Doubtful. She's as stubborn and ethical as the boys are.

Then he remembered the Lab Five incident. Ed had come dangerously close to transmuting those prisoners to return Al to his body that day. Everybody has a price, he reminded himself. It wasn't cynicism, but reality. Maes Hughes had seen enough through his years in Intelligence to know that even the best man could be convinced to sell his soul for the right offer.

But in the end, Ed didn't do it. He couldn't, he argued. And Reilly wouldn't cooperate with Bond, unless he had some way of holding any one of us over her head. At the moment, that didn't appear to be a likely prospect. That leaves Tom -- highly improbable -- Ducky and Heist. The weakest link being Heist.

Maes went through everything he knew about the two kids, over and over again, and kept coming to the same conclusion. They were both naive and too trusting, but Ducky had one advantage over Heist -- he'd worked with Tom for a couple of years. Surely some of that old soldier's canniness had rubbed off. Heist, on the other hand, was terribly innocent. Maes knew that she was a year or two older than Ed, but in so many ways, she was far younger.

But Heist isn't as spoiled as some of the kids I've seen over the past four years, he thought. And she's a good kid, even if she's a bit odd. Thinking about the things he's heard, whether through conversations between she and Ducky, or things told to Maes, or just what he'd observed, Heist might've bent and broken a few laws -- out of curiosity, for the challenge, or for a good cause, but never with malicious intent. But she would be the one Bond could find a way to use. The question is... how?

"Tom, I've been thinking--" Maes said as he glanced at the older man strolling next to him -- and stopped. As Tom faced him, the morning sun caught the greyish cast to his lips, the beads of clammy sweat clinging to his pale forehead and the vivid, almost purple band that crossed his nose from cheek to cheek.

"Dear gods," Maes blurted as he reached out to grasp the other man by the arm. "You need to sit down."

Tom shook his head and fingered his collar, reaching for a thin, silver chain hanging from his neck and kept hidden under his tshirt. "That would be a real bad idea," he ground out through clenched teeth.

"But--"

Tom pulled the necklace out, revealing a tiny, bright red thermos dangling at the end. "If I stop right now, I'll drop dead on the spot. I don't think you want to take that back to Reilly -- she'd be one to kill the messenger." He slowed his pace as he unscrewed the top and shook out a few small, white, pillow-shaped pills. Keeping one and scooping the rest back into the container, he cast a wry glance at Maes and said, "This is going to be fun."

"What is that?"

"Nitro."

"Glycerine?!"

Tom just nodded and brought his hand up to toss the pill into his mouth. Then he paused. "Uh... do me a favor? Make sure I don't eat asphalt, okay? I'm about to get the mother of all headaches."

Perplexed, but willing to go along with the older man, Maes jumped a pace ahead and turned to walk backwards. "Whatever you say, but you look like hell, Tom."

Tom looked like he was about to pop off with some of his normal dry sarcasm, but winced and slipped the pill under his tongue instead. An instant later, he growled, staggering, and clutched at the back of his head with both hands.

Maes opened his mouth to protest once again and order Tom to sit down before he fell down. But the old man anticipated him and waved him away as he continued stumbling and shuffling ever forward.

"Stubborn bastard," Maes muttered as he kept close, ready to catch him if he fell. "Now I know where Reilly gets it."

Panting and groaning through the pain, still holding onto the base of his scalp, Tom managed to say, "--'m n-ot st... ubborn."

"Right. And Ed's passive, Ducky's sane, and Reilly wouldn't say shit if she had a mouthful."

A choked sound came from the other man that alarmed Maes... until he realized that Tom was chuckling and hurting because of it.

"Asshole," Tom groaned. His voice was weak, but he was gradually getting stronger and moving easier. A few minutes later, he was able to hold his head up and give Maes a squinting, bloodshot glare. His color was leagues better, but the band across his face was now a bright red, giving him an embarrassed flush.

"You look like you just pictured some woman naked," Maes quipped, relieved that Tom was apparently past his crisis.

"That would be you," Tom said. "It would be more like I'd pictured y--" he stopped, cocked his head to the side and grinned lecherously. "Nope, already did that and didn't blush. Ah!" He suddenly veered off toward the tree-line. Sagging down onto a stump in the shade, he said, "Now I can sit down."

Maes followed, shaking his head and chuckling. Damn that bastard sure knew how to throw a curve when anyone would least expect it.

Tom fished his cellphone from his pocket as Maes collapsed into the grass next to him. Flipping it open, then powering it up, the older man visibly cheered. "We have a signal finally." The phone blipped and chirped as he found the number he wanted. As he brought it up to his ear, he said, "Not a word to anyone about tha-- Reilly! Yes, yes, we're both alive and unharmed, but the Fiasco gave it's life to save ours, Dear."

__________
 
 
 
 
 
 
Oh, Jesus fucking Christ! That whole scene with Hughes, Tom and the waitress had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. Jesus Christ. Bond. What a bastard. Fuck.

Oh, BTW... *cough*youforgottocreditme*cough*
*cough*youforgottocreditme*cough*

*facepalms*

I -did- list it in the header page that was posted in fm_alchemist (and will be used in all the LJ communities).

I forgetted to list it at the head of the part, though.

Sowwy! ^^f
Is okies. :D

I figured with cross posting everywhere, it's easy to forget to post it somewhere.

Don't take it the wrong way. I'm not offended or anything. I was mostly teasing. :P

I'm more pissed off at Bond. HOW COULD YOU MAKE HIM SUCH A RUTHLESS FUCKING BASTARD!? OPWRHGAWRVNP9AWGBW *EXAGGERATED KEYBOARD RAGE* GAH! I HOPE HUGHES RIPS HIS STILL-BEATING HEART OUT OF HIS CHEST AND EATS IT! AOIGAW9PGHUWG *MORE RAGE*

*coughcough* Okay. I'm done now. >_>
*gigglesnorts*

Well, you know, if he wasn't such a nasty bastard, he wouldn't be the bad guy ^^;;
This part had narration that was a little difficult to follow. Particularly: What Hughes did to the machine on the girl and what was going on with Tom and the nitroglycerin.
Hughes was attempting to pry the spider off the waitress, but the failsafe triggered before he could, and blew her up.

As for the nitro, Tom has a heart condition. ;)
Funny thing. The day after I posted that comment, I went textbook shopping for the next quarter. I wandered around looking at textbooks for classes I might take in the future.

I opened up a physiology & neurobiology textbook and, by chance, found a part that talked about nitroglycerin's role in increasing blood flow.

It was fate, I say!
^^;;

I got my information from my roommate, who -does- have a heart condition, and has had one for many years. I didn't want the scene to end up a stereotype, so there's stuff in there that the average person (who hasn't lived with the condition, or lived with someone who has the condition), wouldn't necessarily consider. ;)

Ya gotta love getting your info from the source! :D:D:D
DAMN YOU BOND!!!
...the waitress scene reminded me of elfen lied so I had a ridiculously perfect image of it happening, so I'm pissed!!!

I hope his face gets ripped off by Ed.