?

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 Four


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





August 13, 2006
Location: Central Oklahoma


Heist sat on the edge of her bed... replaying and replaying and replaying...

Pandora had spoken softly, but not soft enough... like someone worried she'd be overheard. More like... someone trying to deny what was being said.

"That monster has been playing every card in the deck, just to mess with us. Obviously he'd say that just to twist the knife a little more!"

...

"Well I don't give a fuck! It's bullshit!"


Heist rubbed at her forehead. Reilly's voice had been adamant. Her mother hen instincts were at full capacity now that her chicks were in danger. To drag it out a little further, she'd never suspect one of them was a rotten egg. Heist couldn't even berate herself for the horrible euphemism. She couldn't even move from the bed. She had a sudden mental image of archaeologists, a thousand years from now, discovering her desiccated mummy still frozen on the mouldered remains of a hotel bed. She wondered if the cell phone in her hand would be considered a museum piece by then.

With the thumb of her right hand, she flipped the cover open and shut, open and shut... the heavy clup the only sound in the room. She wondered how much time she had left before anyone caught her out. Pandora and Al had only gone to the pop machine, Ducks was just outside, with his head in the doghouse, and Terminator was making a good attempt at using up all the hot water. She couldn't wait any longer. And she had to find out... how much of a patsy she'd really been.

Reaching to her side, she grabbed the small blade pilfered from Ducky's (now Al's) toolkit -- Hope no one misses this one -- off the coverlet...

It's just part of the phone.

But she knew it wasn't true. She recognized the parts that belonged there, the tiny speaker, the connective circuits, the small collection of metal points littered across the plastic motherboard. But this piece was different. And it knew it'd been found.

The tiny filament reared back, testing the air like an inchworm, waving back and forth. Horrified, Heist jerked to her feet, tossing the phone to the floor like it had burned her. Imagined images of Kitten's death ran through her head, and she heard her own voice whimper as she backed away numbly, hand fumbling for the door. But the device didn't explode.

Curling back down, it stiffened briefly, then dove, the pointed tip burying itself in the exposed circuits. There was a tiny hiss, and a curl of powerfully acrid smoke wisped up from the phone. When it dissipated, nothing remained of the device -- or the phone -- but a dusting of metallic powder.

She rubbed her hands up her arms, still clutching the exact-o knife in a tight fist. Now what?! She could just hear herself trying to explain this to Reilly, 'Yeah, funny thing happened! I was ordering a pizza when this crazy robot worm showed up and pulverized my phone. It's okay though, I managed to place my order first... but if we stop at a mall, I need to hit one of those cellular bodegas...' Oh yeah, totally plausible.

She was still staring at the pile of metallic ash. Sid... Bond... he had to know, now. He had to realize his little toy had been discovered. Given prior experience, she knew he wouldn't be letting this slide either. In all actuality, she'd expected the small device to detonate and take off half her face. The fact that he'd designed it to simply destroy her phone was frighteningly telling.

He was still playing with her.

What was worse was that he knew her very well. Even as she stooped to begin hiding the evidence of her discovery, she tried to tell herself that he couldn't predict everything she'd do. She was a unique individual... she had her own mind, her own motives... and damned if she'd let him win! The last bits of powder disappeared into the fibers of the carpet. Standing, Heist examined her hands to see them coated in what looked almost like graphite. She wiped them on her pants with minimal success, and proceeded to the bathroom to wash up instead.

As hot water poured over her fingertips, she took a shaky breath and stared at her reflection in the dingy mirror. Stringy hair, still showing traces of odd color, hung over her forehead. Her skin looked pallid, her cheeks hollow and dark. And her eyes, half-hidden by thick glasses, were dead. She suddenly chuckled. Why bother hiding evidence, she already looked like a damn felon...

"What the fuck, Heist!" Ed shrieked at her.

She started and twisted around to find him blinking shampoo from his eyes and trying to look pissed. He failed miserably. Between the furious shade of red to his face, the wad of lather rolling down his forehead between his eyes, and the way he held the edge of the shower curtain up to his neck, he reminded her more of her old, sour-puss of a maiden aunt, whom, everyone swore, changed clothes in the dark and probably bathed with a swimsuit.

She'd totally forgotten he was in here. Thinking fast, she turned the tables and jabbed a finger at him "What the fuck, yourself, Term. I have to go, and I can't wait any longer." At that, she unsnapped the waist-band of her jeans.

It had the desired effect. Ed turned a deeper shade of red, and darted behind the shower curtain. "Dammit." An automail hand shot back out and waved at her. "Well... hurry the hell up, will ya?"

Heist faked a grin and returned to washing the smudge off her hands. The water only helped a little, but at least the stains had lightened somewhat. Shaking her fingertips, she turned off the faucet and grabbed a towel from the rack over the toilet. A quick scrub left a dingy film on the soft fabric, and she tossed the soiled towel to the floor. She returned to the room and dropped down heavily on the edge of the bed, letting her head sink to her hands. I'm so sorry... Reilly, Tom, Ducky... I let you guys down. Ed, Al... you'd be right not to trust me. You'd be better off if I just left the group right now. Except nobody, least of all Reilly, would ever let her disappear into the night. The only thing running away would serve would be to distract everyone even more, and give Bond a nice little opening. She couldn't do that... even though she deserved it. Maybe though... once everyone was safe...

Heist let her head fall back on the bed and she threw her arm over her eyes. She hardly noticed when Reilly and Al returned; didn't register Ducky coming back into the room.

It was all so fucked...

She heard the door open again, and Reilly's voice raise suddenly in perturbed alarm.

"Dammit Tom!! You look like shit! I thought you said you were okay..."

...So completely, totally, thoroughly, jacked-in-the-ass... fucked.

~`~`~`~


It took Ed at least fifteen minutes to stop cursing Heist, and get his heart and breathing back under control, then another ten minutes before he fell back into his previous meditative state...

...And the idea came to him just as he was rinsing his hair and at first Ed mistook his extreme stroke of genius to a loss of hot water, such was the sudden spine-tingling chill that coursed through him. Then he remembered that after at least half a dozen similar showers in the past however long they'd been at this particular run-down motel, the abundant hot water seemed to be the only thing going for it. No, this was his body's way of congratulating him, his understanding was now complete, everything had finally fallen into place -- everything made sense.

And with that feeling of accomplishment, Ed all but burst out of the bathroom, barely making himself decent with his towel before all eyes in the cramped room turned on him.

Unfortunately, they weren't the eyes he was expecting to see.

"Gah!" Ed exclaimed as he tightened his hold on the towel, feeling his face erupt into a flaming ball of heat even before he noticed his scarlet reflection in the dingy dresser mirror.

"Shouldn't that be eureka?" Hughes inquired somewhat innocently, trying -- and succeeding rather well, Ed thought offhandedly -- to keep from smirking.

Reilly, on the other hand, didn't bother hiding her amusement. "Everything all right, Ed?"

"Where's Al?" he blurted in response.

"With Ducky, Tom, and Heist on a food and caffeine fun," Reilly replied, plopping down next to Hughes on one of the small, rickety beds.

Ed looked between Hughes and Reilly and back to Hughes. "Tom, too? When did you and Tom get back?"

"Ten minutes ago," Hughes supplied, resuming his channel surfing on the ancient, slightly fuzzy TV.

"How long was I--"

"Over thirty minutes and counting," Reilly finished. "Heist still can't believe you take longer showers than she does."

Ed mulled that over briefly, wondering for one surreal moment why the heck Heist cared how long he showered. Then he remembered the embarrassing interruption earlier and in self-defense his brain backtracked to the proper point in time where it had registered Hughes sitting in the room. Half a second later, Ed had vaulted over to the older man's side, the hand not holding his towel fisting the front of Hughes' shirt. "What the hell happened?!"

Completely unaffected by the threat of possible violence, Hughes shrugged and said, “Oh, you know... Caught up with bad guy, he got the better of us, we retreated to figure out the next step. The typical, highly predictable action flick plot."

Ed blinked and let go of the other man's shirt. "You people and your movies," he grumbled a moment before understanding kicked in. "Wait... You're back. Does that mean...?”

Hughes nodded grimly. “Bond is still running loose.”

“That's fantastic!”

“What?!” both Hughes and Reilly sputtered in unison.

Ed shook his head and waved a hand. “No, I mean... It's not great that Bond is still out there, but it's great that you're back, because--” His over-excited mind caught up with his mouth and he stopped himself just in time. Hughes didn't need to know just yet, because if Ed was wrong he didn't think he could bear the shattering disappointment his friend would feel.

“Because what, Ed?” Hughes prompted.

“N-never mind.” Ed pointed at the bathroom and stammered, “I... think I'll finish my shower. Bang on the door when Al gets back.” Then he shook his finger at Hughes, “You? Don't go anywhere. Got me?”

Hughes snickered and sketched a sharp salute. “Yes, sir!"

Ed really didn't need to jump back in the shower, but he did anyways, turning the water up as high and as hot as he could stand.

Damnit, Al, I need to talk to you, he cursed silently, wishing his brother had chosen to stay behind while the others went out for supplies. No, he thought, there's no need to get upset with Al. If it were me, I wouldn't have wanted to stay and be the only one to interrupt... whatever the hell Hughes and Reilly have going on.

He dreaded going into the main part of the room, though not for fear of walking in on a reenactment of what happened in the Branch's secret garden. No, Ed was more concerned with the fact that every minute he spent out of the bathroom was one more minute he would have to spend in the company of the two people in this world who knew him better than anyone but Al. With Reilly and Hughes' ability to read him like a book, there was no way he was going to keep his secret.

But I have to. Al should to be the first to know -- I need him to be the first to know. Because if he doesn't agree that it'll work... no one else will know.

That thought sustained him as he finally left the security of the shower, toweled off, and dressed. He still hadn't heard the others return, but Ed had remained in the bathroom for as long as he thought he could get away with before anyone got suspicious and came in after him. He took a few deep breaths and attempted the most nonchalant expression that he could muster. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he opted for what was hopefully a more normal look of irritated confusion.

"You know, Hughes--" Reilly's voice startled him as he emerged from the bathroom and Ed's heart skipped a beat.

Fastest failed attempt at anything, ever.

He peered around the door; Reilly and Hughes were sitting together on one of the beds, watching a talk show with a lot of people yelling at each other. "--I'm not quite sure Ed's clean enough," Reilly continued, wrapping an arm around Hughes' shoulders amicably, still absorbed in the television and oblivious to Ed's distress, "Maybe he should spend another hour in there."

"At the very least," Hughes agreed, turning to wink at him.

Ed swallowed hard, and he was quite sure Hughes had caught the terrified glance he'd shot at Reilly. And there it was, the slight narrowing of green eyes, the faintest of frowns starting to tug at the corners of his mouth.

I am so busted.

Ed wracked his brain for a way out to keep Hughes from asking the question he knew he was moments away from asking. Come on, genius, think of something -- anything -- quick, Reilly's turning around, oh shi--

"Would you mind explaining exactly how you got here, Hughes?" Ed blurted.

Hughes' eyebrows shot up in surprise and Ed could almost see him weighing his options. Without missing a beat and tipping Reilly off, he cleared his throat and started from when he and Tom had parted ways with the rest of the group.

Ed was too busy pretending to be interested to pay attention to what Hughes actually said.

~`~`~`~


Al almost wished he had stayed behind and let the others get supplies. He and Ducky and Heist were on their way out when Hughes and Tom had returned. Before they'd even heard what happened, Tom said he'd tag along and all but ushered them into the Ninjavan by hand. In all his years in armor, traveling different worlds, and simply being Ed's brother, Al had never experienced a more awkward hour of his life. For the entire trip to the closest restaurant and coffee shop, he watched the other three engage in a verbal sparring match that would have put General Mustang to shame. Maybe even Teacher, too.

Al tried to figure out what they were really saying between the unspoken accusations and not-quite-retaliatory-insults, but by the time they arrived back at their motel, he was no closer to understanding than when they'd left. All he knew was that Tom and Heist had taken opposing sides, and Ducky was torn between agreeing with them both. And whatever it was, they were making a point not to let Al know any more than he had to. Which, he wanted to yell at them, they had done a fine job at doing.

Irritated, Al just wanted to eat his dinner and call it a day. So, of course, he walked into their room to find his brother rubbing absently at his right shoulder and making a half-assed attempt at not being distracted. In no mood to deal with another person's secrets, Al simply dumped his load of food on the dresser, grabbed the toolkit Ducky let them use for Ed's automail, and while the more vocal members of the group heralded their return, pulled Ed into the bathroom.

"You know," Al said without preamble, digging through the kit for the right tools, "if your arm was bothering you, you could have asked Hughes or even Reilly."

"Al it's--"

"I know they don't know as much as I do about it--"

"Al, the automia--"

"--but they could have at least followed your directions, better than you being in pain--"

"Al--"

"What is wrong with everyone today?" Al exclaimed, smacking the counter with his fist.

"My automail's not a problem!"

Al blinked, his previous irritation replaced with confusion and then a hesitant excitement. Ed was looking at him hopefully, expectantly, searching for some sign of understanding. Al knew that expression -- well, he had envisioned that expression -- had dreamed about what it would look like for years. Before his brother had even spoken the words, Al knew exactly what he was going to say.

They were going home.

~`~`~`~


Maes leaned back against the headboard and watched. Reilly was pacing back and forth in the narrow space between the beds, chewing her nails and shooting worried glances between the two men and occasionally at Heist and Ducky. She hadn't said anything ever since Tom had declared it best if he and Maes spoke to the group as a whole, rather than having to repeat themselves when Ed and Al finally emerged from the bathroom.

We're going to have our hands full when Ed finds out, he thought, as he shifted to sit on the side of the bed closest to the door.

And what in the hell are they doing in there? He didn't think it should take ten minutes for Al to make a few minor adjustments to Ed's automail, but that was how long they'd been hiding. And it was disturbingly quiet in there, too. There had been irritated words from Al at first, but then there was an excited exclamation, followed by a lot of indecipherable whispers. Then the shower came back on and he couldn't hear a thing.

Heist and Ducky continued to jabber manically over their dinner -- although, Maes noted, the girl wasn't actually eating so much as she was just pushing the food around in the styrofoam tray. She appeared to be trying to make herself as small as possible by putting her chair in the far corner, pulling her knees against her chest and wedging herself in as tightly as possible. She didn't even meet anyone's eyes, opting to focus on her meal or dart a nervous glance at the bathroom door.

Tom, who was leaning against the dresser with his arms crossed, gave Maes slight head-shake.

So she didn't tell him anything, he thought. But she acts like she knows something. Not good. From the way Ducky hovered -- the rigid and quick jabbing of his fork into his food belaying his seemingly casualness as he leaned against the wall close to her -- Maes had a sinking feeling that the young man knew more than he was letting on, as well. Even worse.

This wasn't going to end well.

We need to get this unpleasantness over with. Now, he decided as he pushed himself off the bed and went to pound on the bathroom door.

He'd just raised his hand to knock, when the door flew open and he was nearly bowled over by an excited Elric. He'd managed to catch Al and keep them both from tumbling, but didn't miss the face-splitting grins on both boys' that disappeared in an instant as they glanced around the room.

"What's going on?" Ed asked.

"We need to talk," Maes said...

...And Heist burst into hysterical sobs.

~`~`~`~


Ed didn't hear anything after Heist confessed to telling Bond where and when they were going to break Al out of the hospital. All he could recall was the sensation of a light-headed chill when he realized just how close he'd come to losing his little brother again... permanently. Voices all around him sounded like they were far away and being channeled through a long tunnel -- and none of the words spoken made any sense at that point. Then, like a fire had started beneath him, heat began at his feet and surged upward as a red haze filled his vision. He felt disconnected from his own body -- unable to control it, unable to think, watching himself from outside.

He had no idea what happened after she revealed herself for the back-stabbing traitor she was, but he suddenly found himself with his back bent over the dresser and his skull against the jagged remains of a shattered mirror while something heavy and sweaty pressed hard on his throat and Ducky, face grotesquely twisted in fury, hovered over him so close he could smell the Chernobyl Chicken on his breath and the metallic odor of fear from the hacker's sweating brow.

He couldn't breathe. He couldn't hear anything beyond the pounding thunder of blind rage. He could only see a swiftly narrowing tunnel in a sea of black. The only sound he made was a feral snarl and his only desire was to eliminate the most immediate threats to his brother's life, his own could be damned if it came to that.

"Brother, don't!" Al's voice cut through the roar of blood-lust in Ed's ears, bringing him back.

When he tore his gaze from the cold anger in Ducky's eyes and skated down past his chin, Ed was shocked to discover he was holding the tip of a dagger against the soft spot beneath the other man's jaw. Ed couldn't remember at what point he'd transmuted his automail.

Then the weight and pressure on his throat disappeared without a warning. Gasping and coughing as he stood, he rubbed his at his larynx and shook his head to clear it. He froze when he saw Hughes in front of him with one of his own spade-knives ready.

"Are you going to force me to kick your ass, Ed?" Hughes asked softly.

In answer to the question, Ed clapped and returned his automail hand to normal. Shame burned him as he gazed to the right of Hughes and saw the trepidation and sadness in Al's eyes, then he glanced to the left and watched Tom usher Ducky out of the room. Of Heist and Reilly, there was no sign. "Where--?"

With a relieved breath, Hughes glanced away and returned the knife to his belt. "They're outside. Reilly's trying to calm her down."

When Hughes met Ed's gaze again, the disappointment he saw there felt like the serrated edge of one of the man's knives had eviscerated him. He should have listened, but he lost his temper instead and Ed couldn't remember when he'd been so terrified and furious of what could have been. And he'd never been so damned pissed at himself, for not seeing it earlier. For almost three months, they'd traveled together, ate together, slept in the same room, and Ed never once suspected that Heist was feeding Bond information. He was just as responsible for endangering them all as that traitor was.

"I should have figured it out. I should have known."

"Nobody knew," Tom said as he leaned his hip against the table and pried open his own cellphone. "Except Ducky. And he didn't figure it out until recently."

"Brother," Al said as he joined Ed against the dresser. "She didn't know Bond was bad until that day in the parking garage."

Hughes held up a hand, halting any protest Ed might've had, and added, "And before you ask, she didn't say anything because she was scared." The older man's expression softened, silently begging for understanding. "In many ways, Heist and Ducky are younger than you. You have to remember, this isn't Amestris or Post-World War One Germany."

"But why didn't Ducky say anything?" Ed queried.

"He was protecting Heist," Tom said as he pried the back of Reilly's phone open.

Hughes smiled. "You would have done the same thing for Winry."

Ed thought of his childhood friend fondly. Hughes was right; Ed would do anything to protect her... even if it meant lying -- to her or others. Even... if it meant killing someone.

Like Ducky damn near did to me.

"I can accept that she was naive," Ed said. "But I won't trust her again."

"No one will," Tom said as he pried open the last phone in the pile. "She knows this. But we're not going to throw her to Bond, either." He tossed the cell onto the table and gave Hughes a grim look. "They're all clean."

Al glanced from one man to the other, and said, "That's good news, right?"

Tom shook his head. "'Fraid not, kiddo. It means that Bond will know for a fact that we found his little bug, and he'll be pissed."

"What about the computers?" Hughes asked.

"We need to make sure Ed and Reilly made back-ups, before we even touch them," Tom said. "I'm guessing that Bond will have any critters embedded into them react the same way Heist's cell did when she found it."

"We're not going to have much time to plan our next move," Hughes said.

"I have a suggestion," Al piped up and Ed grinned.

Tom and Hughes faced the younger Elric, brows raised in invitation and interest.

Ed's smile went devious, as he said, "We'll just give Stealthworks what he wants."

"Aren't we trying to avoid any more killing here?" Tom asked, wryly.

"And that bastard would see right through a lie," Hughes added.

"Disinformation," Al said. "It's not a lie, but what Bond believes is his own problem."

Hughes scratched at the back of his head and scowled. "You two are starting to sound a lot like Roy. It's rather disturbing, actually."

Ed waved at the bed and said, "Hughes, you might want to sit down for this."

Comprehension struck the boys' old friend with the force of a ten-ton wrecking ball. Hughes' knees gave out as he collapsed, missing the edge of the bed and dropping him with a muffled thud onto the floor. He went pale as he stammered, the words barely heard. "Y-you did it? We... we're--"

Al knelt next to Hughes, laying a gentle hand on the man's shoulder. "We're going home, Maes."

Hughes swallowed and his eyes misted, then he wrapped a hesitant arm around Al's waist, drawing him close. Burying his face into the boy's shoulder, he reached blindly out to Ed with his other hand.

Uncertain and awkward, Ed slowly let his fingers touch his palm, then found himself yanked down and crushed against Hughes' chest. The intensity of emotion was impossible to resist. Ed felt his own eyes begin to sting and found his own arms embrace his brother and dear friend as the words he'd never dared utter aloud, even as he'd worked tirelessly on the solution and finally found the key, were repeated over and over by Hughes. "Home. We're going home. We're going home."

No one heard the door softly close as Tom went outside to give them this time alone.

~`~`~`~


Later, after Maes and the boys had called everyone back in and made the announcement, Tom found Reilly -- along with his mysteriously disappearing pack of cigarettes -- at the far end of the promenade. She'd slipped away during the excitement of the boys describing how they were going to open the Gate and get home, and had taken up residence on the top step as far away from their room as possible. She had her arms wrapped around her legs and her chin on her knees, staring through the step under her feet; the cigarette burning away between her fingers -- unnoticed and unsmoked. What little he could see of her face was blank... neutral, her eyes were dry, but the tightness across her back and shoulders spoke eloquently of her distress.

She wasn't so far into her own head that she didn't hear him approach, because as soon as he came up behind her, she wordlessly scooted aside to give him room.

Well, that's a good sign, he thought as he squeezed himself into the space next to her.

She handed his cigarettes and lighter over to him, and he lit one... waiting. It wasn't going to do much good to go on the offensive here -- all he would be able to do for now, was play the silent audience while she beat herself up. Once the storm blew past, he might be able to say something wise and profound that would make her shattered world all shiny and new again... but he seriously doubted it.

How many more times can she take getting kicked in the head before she doesn't get back up again? he wondered, feeling a twinge of guilt. It wasn't anyone's fault, really, but it didn't make him ache any less for the woman who was like a daughter to him. Let's take a woman who has a huge heart and a giving soul, and dangle happiness in front of her, then yank it away over and over again, and see how long it takes to break her, he thought sourly. The Fates have a sick, twisted sense of humour. It's a good thing I don't believe in them... fucking pricks.

They sat in silence, long enough for him to finish his cigarette, before she finally spoke. “You may as well say it and get it over with.”

“I know we've been running all over Hell and Creation, lately,” he said, “but I think we're still in the U.S.”

She rolled her eyes his way and glared. “Your point?”

“Well, if I were to say 'I told you so', that would qualify as Double Jeopardy. You can't be convicted of the same crime twice, and I think you're doing a damned fine job of punishing yourself.”

Reilly sighed and curled in on herself. “I should be... for what I'm feeling.” She wrapped her arms tighter around her legs and laid her forehead on her knees, hiding her face behind her curls. “I'm... ashamed of myself.”

“Why?” Tom asked. Although he already knew the answer, he wanted to make her voice the reason and perhaps realize that she really didn't need to immolate herself after all. He knew if she kept up this cycle of blame, shame and damnation, she'd rip herself apart.

“Why?” she repeated with a short, bitter laugh. “Isn't it obvious?” She faced him and Tom saw the guilt etched in the lines around her eyes and mouth, stark and sickly in the yellow neon light that trimmed the motel roof. “They were so happy -- he was so happy. I-- I had to walk out, because if I didn't, I'd make an idiot of myself and--” She cut herself off, swallowing and turning away from him; hovering on the edge of losing the tenuous control she was desperately holding on to.

Tom wrapped an arm around her and gently rubbed a thumb along her shoulder. There really wasn't anything he could say. He was going to miss Ed and Al and Maes too, but he was a cynical old bastard and he'd developed an emotional suit of armor that protected him -- except he didn't really believe that was so much of a good thing. Reilly wore her heart on her sleeve, and as a result got punched in the arm over and over again. It hurt, he knew. It hurt a lot, but he couldn't help thinking that her capacity to feel... to love... made her the stronger and better of them.

“I wanted to scream at him,” she whispered finally, “to beg him to stay... t-to stay with me.” Reilly took a deep shuddering breath and a tremor shook her. “His wife and daughter... his best friend... they all think he's dead. Everyone who matters now, is here.” She sobbed once and covered her face with a hand while she struggled with her hurt and shame. “I should be happy for them. I should be smiling and nodding and wishing them the best of luck. Instead I'm sitting here feeling sorry for myself because they're leaving.” Reilly jammed her elbows into her knees and grasped two fists-full of hair, and hissed, “I'm despicable. Selfish, self-centered--”

“Grieving,” Tom said.

She stilled and slowly turned to peer at him from around her arm.

“To us, they're as good as dead the minute they cross that Gate, Reilly,” Tom said. “They're not moving across the country; they're going to another world, entirely. There is no possibility that you'll ever see any of them again.” He pulled her close and wrapped the other arm around her in a comforting embrace. “It's not selfish to feel that way, and it sure as hell ain't despicable. It's human and it sucks like a bitch.”

He'd warned her, but there was no weapon or word he could have used to get through to her heart... so he watched helplessly as she grew deeply fond of Edward, wrapped her heart around Alphonse and fell hopelessly in love with Maes. He went along with her as they all risked their lives for those three, as she lost everything that was her life for them. More than once, Tom had wished he'd convinced her to turn Ed over to the authorities that night -- it would have prevented a whole shitload of drama. It was logical; it would have been the 'right' thing to do -- back when he was in Intelligence. But the simple truth was, he would be no more able to do that to the kid than she could.

When she trembled again and he heard the soft sniffle against his shoulder, he knew the flood was coming. With a gentle kiss on her temple and a tightening of his arms around her, he silently gave her permission to grieve. He wasn't going to judge her -- not this time.

She took it. Burying her face into his neck and wrapping her arms around him, she shook with ragged sobs while her desires crumbled to dust along with her broken dreams.

~`~`~`~


A mute witness to Reilly's anguish, Ed silently spun on his heel to return to the cramped room -- and nearly crashed into his younger brother. They shared a look and then glanced back at the sobbing figure of their friend.

Moments after Reilly had slipped out, the joy at the possibility of returning home had faded, and Hughes' good mood had collapsed into depression. He'd quietly excused himself and disappeared into the bathroom, and while all anyone heard was the shower running, Ed knew there was more going on.

He tore his gaze from Reilly and Tom and softly asked, “Al, are... are we doing the right thing?”

The younger Elric watched the grieving woman a moment, empathy for her pain in the shining of his eyes, the trembling lip, the way he wrapped his arms around himself. “No matter what choice we make Brother, people are going to end up hurt."

Both of them remained where they were for a long moment, watching silently. Then Al laid a comforting hand on Ed's left shoulder, and said, "I think this is the best thing we can do, though.”

Ed hung his head and ground his teeth as he rhythmically clenched and unclenched his right fist. Why does it always have to be this way? How much longer are other people going to have to pay for our mistake? he railed silently.

__________


August 15, 1915 -- 1:10 pm
Central City, Amestris


Roy Mustang stretched his legs, looking up from his reading and surveying the city park around him. He shifted a little on the bench, angling his head back to loosen his stiff neck. He’d been bent over the anthropology book for almost an hour, propping it on one knee with a notepad on the other, jotting rough notes as he read. Although a tall tree shaded the bench, the sun was high overhead and he’d begun to grow warm. He undid the top button on his shirt and bent again to his notes, the sound of bird song providing musical accompaniment to his thoughts.

Normally he wouldn’t spend time reading a book discussing theories of religion; to say his own experiences had made him skeptical was an understatement. But this book presented the theories objectively yet inoffensively, without sinking into a swamp of untestable mysticism. And one theory had leapt out at him as soon as he’d seen a particular name on one of the pages: Risembool.

It had once been considered a sacred place, until about 400 years ago when the scientific world view had taken hold and religious interpretations of the world receded into history. The inhabitants of the area had not only believed Risembool a sacred place (it was why they’d founded the village), but had believed that one spot on a nearby hill was a particular site of power. A place, in fact, where one could access another plane of existence.

Alchemy had only been in its rudimentary beginnings, back then. And even modern alchemists, for the most part, had never had a concept of portals to another world, until recently. Roy himself would have dismissed this idea as outdated magical thinking before the events of the last three years.

And he wasn’t alone in this. A newspaper article had been stuck into the book; he’d assumed it was only a bookmark until he read it. It reported an academic conference, 50 years ago, just after the book’s publication. At that conference, the researcher had presented his theory and been ferociously ridiculed for it. The lynchpin holding it together was the ancient people’s belief that places like Risembool were somehow linked to another site of access to other planes -- a site that should have been located in the middle of Central itself. And no researcher had found a single shred of evidence that people in this area had ever believed in a portal to some other plane of existence.

They hadn’t known, then, about the dead underground city with the huge transmutation circle in the midst of its empty, tilted buildings.

Roy had pulled some maps from Central Records, heart pounding as he’d spread them on his kitchen table at home and begun to calculate. As far as he could ascertain, the location of the site of power at Risembool was the exact spot where Hohenheim had built the house in which he and Trisha Elric lived. Hohenheim, who had also been responsible for the array in the dead, buried city.

That house was where Edward and Alphonse had attempted their human transmutation, and encountered something vastly more powerful than they’d expected. It was where Ed’s limbs had been taken, and Al’s body.

It was also, more recently, the site of at least two earth tremors.

Again Roy shifted, shutting the book and the pad, and setting them beside him. As he laid his arms along the back of the bench, watching people sitting or walking in the park, he caught sight of two people he knew, strolling along the far edge of the grass: Gracia Hughes, walking her daughter Elysia back to school after her lunch hour. The girl had just begun second grade.

He hesitated, wondering if he should walk over and greet them. They’d gotten in touch again, this past year since his return to Central, and Gracia sometimes invited him over for dinner. This area of the city, a few blocks behind the military headquarters, had been spared for the most part, when the invasion had happened last year; that was one of the reasons Roy occasionally brought his lunch to this park, to enjoy the unspoiled scenery and escape the din of reconstruction. He'd made sure that the few cosmetic repairs (some cracked roads and toppled fences) were made almost immediately, privately determined to do it as a favour to Gracia and in memory of her husband. He'd been remiss in leaving his friend's family unsupervised for the last two years, and was determined to make that up to them. Although he’d still made sure to send birthday presents to Elysia, every year since...

No. Oh, Maes. A wave of fresh grief washed over him, and he wondered if the pain of their mutual loss would ever really lessen. Some days it was still too much for him. He didn't think he'd go over and catch up to them today. Maybe he’d call them tomorrow.

He tilted his head back, searching in the tree branches for the singing bird. The high, mournful tones of its call reminded him, for some reason, of flute music.

Roy grabbed the book and pad, and stood up, striding out of the park. He didn’t think he’d call Gracia tomorrow, after all. He was going to do something else instead.

He was taking a train to Risembool.
 
 
 
 
 
 
aGLKAJGLKSJDD *FLAILS RETARDEDLY*
Thank you! :D

*I assume this was a good flail* ^_^
oh it is, indeed.
Awesome. Thank you for FINALLY getting a clue, Roy-boy!
*giggles* Ah, well! You know how it is, Roy wanted to make sure he had all the 'facts' first. ;)
And when you think about it, he's got some pretty bizarre "facts" to put together to come up with a really unlikely conclusion. So I'd say he's doing pretty well, to have figured things out as far as he has so far.
I'm so pleased with all this, even though I had to flake out for much of the month! (I've just finished the NaNo, so I'll do MUCH BETTER NOW.)

Well done, everyone. Excellent!
*giggles evilly*

That's okay, Dear. You'll be making up for it soon ;)
Man, this was an awesome installment. I have to tell you that I printed out all seventy-plus pages and carried it around like a book for two days, reading it on the bus etc, it was so much fun. If you guys vanity pressed and bound this into a real fanbook I would so buy it, by the way. That is how much I love it.

This was all great and I know I always give this comment but I love the OC's just as much as I love Ed, Al and Hughes, that's how awesome they all are.

Such great work. Can't wait for more. But I will!!
Oh, mercy! O.o;;

I hope your ink doesn't run dry too quickly! We still have a few more chapters to go (although, we'll -try- not to make them as treacherously long as this one was -- no guarantees, though).

And thank you! It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside when we hear that someone loves this story as much as we do. ^_^
I'm a relative latecomer to reading/writing this story, and I love it too! I felt so bad for Heist, and I adore Ducky, and I'm intrigued by Llyn, and... well, anyway, I love the OCs too.

And I'm so happy that Hughes isn't dead!
It is difficult to express in words how much I love the Archimedes reference. Your geekiness is beautiful!

The BlindRage!Ed part made me sad. Poor Heist! D:

And I went "OMG!" and flailed when I read the part about Roy's research and the significance of the place where Hohenheim built his house.

One question that keeps coming to my mind, though:

Where the hell are Tom and Reilly getting all their money? Haven't they run out yet? It's amazing!
Very careful budgeting. If you recall waaaaaaaaay back in an early chapter, just before all Hell broke loose, Reilly was telling Hughes that she managed to withdraw a rather large sum of money.

One can safely assume that Tom, Ducky and (maybe) Hughes had squirreled away some cash as well, when they saw which way the wind was blowing.

And don't worry, their funds are starting to get tight... you'll see ;)
Oh my god I love the idea up there...you should totally make this into a fan-book I'd buy it instantly no doubt!