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Balance of Power
April 30, 2006 - 2:33am
It was nearly 2:30 in the morning when Ed walked Hughes to his car. Neither of them had really noticed when late in the evening Ducky and Tom left; and Ed wasn't really sure where Reilly had wandered off to.
He knew it was probably too early for her to head to bed, and he didn't find her in the garage with her hydroponics. That left one other possibility. He wandered out the back door and to her little walled garden.
He leaned on the low gate, saw a few torches lit and Reilly on the bench, shadowed by the willow. "It doesn't do a lot of good to hide if you light a beacon, you know," he said mildly.
As he entered the garden, he heard her chuckle softly. "I had a choice of hiding in the darkness and being eaten alive; or risking discovery and keeping all my blood." She reached up and slapped at her shoulder. "Keeping my blood won out."
Ed hesitated, suddenly unsure if he was welcome at the moment. "Do you want me to leave you alone, Reilly?"
She scooted over to one side of the bench, and patted the empty seat. "Nah, you're fine, Ed."
He settled next to her, and stared out at the flickering torches a long moment. "I'm sorry."
"I... was gunna tell you about all that. Soon. Things just got a little crazy today."
"That has to be the understatement of the year," Reilly said with a slightly bitter laugh.
Reilly sighed and ran her hands through her wild curls. "Sorry, Ed. Now that things have quieted down, I've been trying to digest all this."
He slapped at the back of his neck, then leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. Looking down at the ground, he said, "I can still go stay with Hughes."
Reilly shook her head. "It's not that. It's just-" She sighed again. "Hell, I don't know what it is. I just know it's bizarre."
Ed chuckled softly. "Bet you wish you'd taken the blue pill, huh, Reilly?"
There was a moment of silence, then Reilly burst out with a surprised and delighted laugh. Ed relaxed.
"So you get the reference, finally?"
Ed smiled and nodded. "Got bored the other day and caught The Matrix on HBO."
"So how long did you question your reality after watching that?"
Ed snorted. "I question my own reality all the time anyway."
"TouchÃ©," she said, punctuated by a slap to her thigh.
Ed leaned back on the bench, and pulled his knees up. "You know, the first time I came through the gate... When all of me came through... I believed it when my father told me I couldn't use alchemy in this world. One, because it never developed past mysticism and myth. The other reason was that supposedly every time we used it on the other side, we were taking lives from here."
"You don't believe that now?"
Ed shook his head and slapped his forearm. "I know better. The Thule Organization tried to use alchemy to open the gate so they could invade my world. But they couldn't get it open without my help, or Al's." He hesitated, took a deep breath and plunged on. "They also used the life of my father, and Al said Wrath and Gluttony were transmuted on his side."
"Wrath and Gluttony?"
"Homunculi," Ed said staring off into the darkness. "Created whenever there's a failed human transmutation."
There was a long moment of stunned silence, and Ed knew she was mulling that little bit over in her mind.
"I won't ask," she said softly; and brushed at the bridge of her nose.
He looked her in the eyes, and nodded once. Grateful. Then he looked off in the distance once more and slapped himself in the face. "Thing is, alchemy worked to open the gate. It took life, but it worked. Al and I started experimenting. Little things. Nothing that would really require a sacrifice. Well, life anyway. There's always a sacrifice. Anyhow, we found out we could still use alchemy here. We just need an array."
He brought his hands up and together without the clap. "Where we came from, because he and I had both been through that Gate, because we saw 'The Truth', we didn't need the array. Our bodies provided it." He lowered his hands, and wrapped them around his knees. "I could, anyway. Al had no memory of the Truth inside the gate when he was dragged in there that time. But the theory was he would be able to do it without an array too, if he could've remembered." He sighed and combed his fingers through his bangs. "He remembers now, but we can't test the theory here."
He faced Reilly. "What you said this morning. About faith? You're right. I didn't use alchemy for almost two years because I'd lost my faith in it. I believed my father about the energy that powered our alchemy coming from the lives lost on this side of the gate. But when I got that faith back, I was able to use it again. Just... not like before."
"It sounds like your father was partially right." /Slap; /right under her throat. Reilly glanced down that the palm of her hand, grimaced and shook the dead mosquito off. "I don't agree with his theory about where the energy comes from, though."
Ed smirked, then nodded. "Opening the gate involved taking life. The gate Al and I came through this time... I know it was a different kind of gate. It felt different. But I think... it still required lives. Dr Wermier... the men he had with him... I don't think they got away before the bomb went off."
"Maybe," Reilly said. "And maybe the lives used to open those gates was a coincidence. Perhaps there was something else that tapped into that energy at the same time the lives were spent."
Reilly looked hard at him for a long moment, then focused on the flickering of a torch. "This isn't about faith, is it, Ed?"
"You want to figure out how to open the gate, don't you?" he asked as he vigorously waved a hand in front of his eyes, and blew up into his bangs.
"The thought had crossed my mind, yes."
Ed felt a lead ball settle in the pit of his stomach. He looked down at his hands; one metal, one flesh, and thought about the sacrifices involved in alchemy. "The Gates. Human transmutation. The Philosopher's Stone. They're all connected. There is no reward for discovering them; for figuring them out. Just pain... and death."
SMACK! Reilly slapped him across the face. Ed lurched back and blinked in shock. Then he scowled at her. "What the hell was that for?!"
"Mosquito," Reilly said.
When he glared at her disbelieving, she held up her hand, showing her palm and the rather large smear across it. "A really big, mutant mosquito."
He wiped at his cheek and saw blood on his fingertips.
"Let's get inside before we're sucked dry," Reilly said and got to her feet.
Al felt strangely peaceful in the morning, despite the ache in his head and abdomen. Sitting upright, he rubbed at his eyes, barely noticing the flute that fell from his arms.
"Oh good, you're awake."
Al blinked in surprise. "Oh... hey, Heather," he yawned as a greeting to his night nurse, frowning at the hoarseness of his voice. "What's up?"
Heather stood and coaxed Al to lean back onto the bed, pressing the button to let him sit mostly upright. "I have a question for you, Tiger."
"Okay," he said hesitantly. "What is it?"
"When do you feel most nauseated?"
Al blinked. "That's an odd question."
Heather smiled and pulled up a seat. "Yeah, I know, but could you answer it? I don't think all your vomiting is just from this," she stated, tapping him lightly on the head.
"Oh." Al thought back over the past few days. "Mostly about half an hour or so after meals, I think. And when I'm worried."
"Thought so." Heather smiled and stood up. "I'm going to go get the doctor, all right?"
"'Kay." Al laid back and snuggled into his pillow. "Why? What's causing it?"
Heather smiled once and tapped the cup of meds in front of Al. "I think you're allergic to the meds, kid." Moving the chair back, she grabbed Al's chart. "I'll be back in a few, okay?"
Al nodded once, closing his eyes again. "Okay."
As he started to relax, his hand landed on something hard and cylindrical; and he frowned with his eyes closed as his fingers traced along the warm smooth wood. He grasped the object and brought it up as he opened his eyes again. His puzzled scowl didn't leave his face, but a hint of recognition flicked in his eyes.
A reed flute?
Al thought he'd been dreaming of the gentle music that seemed to come just when he needed it most. One of the nurses? He wondered. He looked it over, impressed with the elegant simplicity of the instrument. It was clearly hand-made, with a stylized wolf carved from an aromatic wood on the end. It was lying down, but looking up at a butterfly that was perched on its nose. The wolf's tail was up too, and Al could almost imagine it wagging. For such a small thing, the carving was surprisingly detailed; he could even see the wolf smiling... at the butterfly.
He gave the flute an experimental blow, and his brows shot up when a rich note was made. He carefully placed his fingers over the holes, pleased to discover that they were spaced just right for his smallish hands and tried to make more notes.
It was surprisingly easy to play and even though Al had no formal training, had no idea how to play any instrument for that matter; he was making random melodies in short order. He soon became immersed in just the /sounds /and lost any self-consciousness about skills; making the music just for the sheer joy and soothing sounds.
Hughes looked up from his paperwork and gave a huge grin to his manager, barely noticing the slight ache in his jaw. "Hi, Susan! Great morning, isn't it?"
Susan gave Hughes a very knowing look, then laughed quietly to herself. "Well I'll be damned, the rumors were true."
Hughes blinked in confusion, but the half-manic grin that had been on his face all morning remained. "Rumors? What rumors?"
"You haven't noticed? You must be on cloud nine." Susan leaned on the partition separating the photography studio from the main section of Wal-Mart and smirked. "We've just got some coworkers of yours contemplating how you got that lovely bruise on your chin, Marc. The consensus seems to be that you got laid last night, and seeing the giddy schoolboy look, I'm inclined to agree with 'em."
Hughes snorted, the grin still there as he went back to his paperwork. "Nope, didn't get laid, Susan. I just ran into an old friend."
Susan gave him a look that spoke volumes. "Uh-huh. Suuuure. A friend who saw fit to punch you as soon as you showed up?"
He thought back for a moment, idly touching the bruise on his jawline before smiling widely. "Oddly enough, yeah."
Susan snorted in a most unwomanly way. "Suit yourself. Be sure to invite me to the wedding, though."
The sudden thought of Ed in a dress nearly made Hughes choke.
May 5, 2006 - 10:21am
This was the fifth time in two weeks that Reilly stopped by the bank on her way to work to make a withdrawal; each time was for rather large sums of money. She pulled into the parking slot of the bank and shut off the ignition. The old truck rattled and wheezed in protest, then quieted.
Reilly took a deep breath, and rested her head on the steering wheel a moment. This wasn't what she'd intended to do with her inheritance. Nowhere near. But necessity was a bitch and she had a sour feeling in the pit of her stomach that she was going to need this money... soon.
She knew she was taking a big risk with these large withdrawals. Eventually, she was going to run out of plausible excuses; then a suspicious eye would look in her direction and the account would be frozen. On the other hand, if she just left it until she needed it, her account was very likely still going to get frozen and she wouldn't be able to touch any of the money. She hadn't had to field any probing questions about her sudden interest in her modest wealth yet. But she knew they would be coming soon.
She hoped that she wasn't being too terribly obvious. Withdrawing too much at once would get attention from people who don't need to know what's going on or who her guest was; so she tried to take as much as possible, without taking too much, or too often. The problem was that there was this sense of urgency screaming at her every day, and getting louder as each day passed.
She growled low in frustration, and yanked the keys from the ignition. It couldn't be helped now. She just hoped that she could get her hands on the biggest portion of that money before the account was frozen.
Ed was washing up the last of the dishes when he heard Reilly come in. The fact that she was home about three hours early set off little alarm bells in his head; the fact that she didn't say hello, or even poke her head in the kitchen worried him even more.
He found her kneeling down just in the doorway of her closet, unlocking a small metal box. Next to her was a duffle bag with some of the contents spilled out. Mostly rolled up maps and a few small items he wasn't terribly familiar with, but could guess at what they were used for. The compass, he recognized immediately.
She's preparing to run, he realized with a sinking feeling.
"Reilly?" he said softly, unable to keep the concern out of his voice.
She opened the box up, and Ed saw it nearly filled with money. She looked up at him calmly. "I hope this is enough to get us somewhere safe. I don't think I'm going to be able to get any more money from my account after today."
"Did something happen?"
She shook her head, and fished an envelope out of her purse. She pulled the bills out of it and added them to the rest in the box. "The teller started asking a lot of questions today. If they check, they'll know I haven't been to the home improvement store, the lumberyard, or even hired a contractor."
Ed wasn't sure he understood what she was getting at. "Isn't that money yours?"
"Yeah, but when someone starts withdrawing large amounts of cash all of a sudden, it tends to get the attention of the wrong people. Like the Feds."
"That doesn't make sense."
Reilly sighed and sat back on her heels. "Ed, people tend to follow regular patterns of behavior. At least that's the theory anyone connected to the Federal Government follows. If someone suddenly changes that pattern, they come under suspicion." She started angrily shoving things back into the duffle, along with the cash box.
She had her head down, and her face was covered by her unruly curls, but Ed heard her sniffle. He knelt down near her and cautiously reached out to her. His hand rested on her forearm, stopping her from jamming anything else in the bag.
"I'm far from the quiet type," she whispered. "I vote; I defend this country's Constitution. I've been an activist. I... I believed in what this country stood for. And I've never been afraid to voice my opinions about the government. It was a guaranteed right. Supposedly it still is." When she looked up, her face was wet. "But because of the noise I've made in the past, and because I'm suddenly taking out large sums of money from my own account, I'm likely to be branded a terrorist supporter."
"What?" Ed whispered. He didn't want to think of the implications of what she was saying.
"If I disappear, take this money and run for your goddamned life, Ed."
Ed shook his head. "Reilly, I can't just-"
She fisted the front of his shirt and yanked him roughly down to her level, putting herself nose to nose with him. "Don't be a moron, Ed! If you're captured too, who's gunna save your brother?"
He wanted to argue the point, tell her she was wrong, that they would be able to find Al, and everything would be just fine. He wanted to, but he knew he couldn't. He'd been following the news, and he was smart enough to read between the lines. He knew she was right. He reluctantly nodded, and she let him go.
He sat back, and looked away. Suddenly, he couldn't meet her eyes. "Why?" he asked. He forced himself to look at her. "Why risk your own life for someone you don't even know? You knew this was a possibility, didn't you?"
She nodded and a sad smile tugged at the corner of her lips. "I'd rather die having done what was right, than to live doing what was safe."
She looked down, and scowled. She grasped at his left hand and turned it over, palm up. "Ed, why is your hand all pruney?"
"I was washing the dishes when you came home," he said, puzzled.
"They were dirty?"
She gave him a look somewhere between comical confusion and bemused patience reserved for only the slowest minds. "No, I mean why are you washing them? Why aren't you just putting them in the dishwasher?"
"The dishwasher? You know, that big black thing under the counter next to the kitchen sink?"
Ed lurched to his feet and tried to cover up his embarrassment with a tone of offense. "Don't you people ever do anything for yourselves anymore?"
She covered her mouth, but Ed didn't miss the snicker that escaped. "You didn't know it was a dishwasher."
He crossed his arms and scowled. "Of course I did. What do you think I am? Stupid?" He turned and stormed out of the room before Reilly could see him blush. He didn't realize it was a dishwasher, but damned if he was going to let her know.
He heard her giggles trail after him as he headed down the hall and back to the kitchen. Now if he could just figure out how it worked...
May 6, 2006 - 7:21am
"Edward Elric!" he heard Reilly yell from the living room. He flinched and slouched down in the kitchen chair in an effort to disappear.
He had no idea just what he did. And it was an accident, anyway. But that wasn't going to make much difference to a not-yet-caffeinated Reilly.
It was a little thing, really. He'd stumbled half-awake into the living room, and went right to the front door to get the morning paper. This had become routine and he could follow the path with his eyes closed. Especially now that he'd cleared a path.
Except that he forgot he'd left those spiked boots by the door... until he stumbled over them, and shoved a spike into the sole of his bare right foot. His reaction was instinctive and instantaneous; and he did what any normal, intelligent person would do. He yelled, jumped back, and started hopping about...
...Right into the small table near the door that held a lamp and a vase.
He was able to save the lamp from toppling over, but the vase got away from him and shattered on the wood floor. He blinked at it blearily a moment, then remembered... he could use alchemy now with no worries about getting caught.
So he did. The logic was simple enough; he broke it, the least he could do was fix it. And he could to that easily. It wasn't like chalk wouldn't wipe right up, either.
However, owing to the arrangement of the living room, the desk that held Reilly's big computer was close by; the tower sitting on the floor, under the desk...
...Right next to the shattered vase.
He drew the array and touched the edges of it. Sparks from the alchemic reaction lit his face up in the dim morning light, illuminating the hell-bent grin that came instantaneously at the energy that surged through him. It felt wonderful to do something he'd mostly denied himself for so long. The crackling almost masked the strange sounds that came from the computer.
When it was all over and the vase was back in its place on the small table, he heard a chirp and glanced over at the monitor. The screen was black and a tiny little white dash blinked accusingly in the upper left-hand corner. Ed had the sneaking suspicion that this was not good.
When Reilly got up a few minutes later, her aghast tone confirmed his suspicions. He briefly wondered if he could transmute himself into a cockroach and go hide under the refrigerator until the storm blew over.
Block. Punch. Block. Punch. Punch-punch.
Al tried to focus his breathing as he ran through the forms of his self-defense, the twinges in his muscles telling him he'd really let himself rest for too long without doing any sort of exercise. But it was becoming a good sort of pain.
Kick. Punch-kick. Punch-punch-kick.
The scars he'd picked up pulled slightly, but it was just the new tissue that would loosen up once Al could move about without someone watching his every move.
Al stopped his forms and looked over his shoulder to the door; and had to stifle a groan of annoyance at the woman watching him. The Social Worker was back; much to Al's dismay. Schooling his face into neutrality, he turned and made a polite bowing motion. "Hello, Ms. Goodson."
Ms. Goodson gave Al a broad grin. "Are you remembering some, John? I don't remember you bowing last time."
Al just shrugged, taking the towel Ray had left him and dabbing at his face to get rid of the sweat. "Felt like the right thing to do. May I ask why the visit?"
"I suppose you may, since it involves you." Ms. Goodson smiled again; the fake kind that made Al very nervous. "Shall we go somewhere to eat? You must be hungry, after that workout."
"Kinda, but Ray is supposed to come get me soon." Al didn't feel like going with the woman. At all.
"We'll leave a message with the receptionist, no worries." That smile reminded Al of a very relaxed cat; the kind that would scratch your hand at the slightest provocation. "I suppose I should tell you about this visit, anyway. The doctors have decided that you should be ready for discharge in a few days."
Al didn't know what to make of that. "Okay, but what about my memories?"
Goodson waved a neatly-manicured hand, as though the thought of memories wasn't important. "There's really nothing they can do about that, so they feel the best thing for us to do is to get you into foster care as soon as you're discharged. Just a moment, John," she said, turning to the receptionist. "Tell Nurse Purdue that his charge is with me in the cafeteria, would you, Sheila?"
Al gulped. /Oh crap, this isn't good/. "Can you tell me where I'd be sent?" he asked, trying to keep the nerves from his voice.
"We aren't sure yet, but somewhere within the Midwest. Can't have you get too far away from your memories, can we?"
Al actually wanted to punch the woman. That light tone of voice was really starting to grate on his nerves.
"Anyway, the paperwork should be done in a few days. Then we'll get you discharged and settled in a new home, all right, Jo--"
The muffled sound of a boom was heard through the walls of the hospital, followed very quickly by the alarms going off. "What was that??" Al asked after a few nervous moments, panic starting to form in the bottom of his gut as sirens wailed through the hospital.
"I have no idea," Goodson answered, for the first time looking at least marginally worried. "We'd better head for the ex--"
"THERE you are!" Al heard Ray's voice proclaim, the wheels of the chair he'd chosen squeaking in pain as the large nurse came to a stop. "Ms. Goodson, Tiger, we need to get out of here. Tiger, get in the wheelchair, c'mon."
Al gulped and did as asked as Goodson nervously eyed the alarm. "Do you know what's going on, Mr. Purdue?"
"No idea." Making sure Al was secure in the wheelchair, he started for the exits at a quick pace. "This isn't a drill, so come on. Heather thought the boom came from the parking ramp, though."
Al's eyes snapped wide open, and all color drained from his face as he remembered, barely registering as Ray skillfully negotiated the crowded hallway.
"You know, it's not a wise idea to lie to people like me. People are bound to get hurt. People who have nothing to do with this."
The mass exodus from the hospital was chaotic, but Ray had somehow navigated through it and landed them both a front-row seat to what had happened.
There had been quite a bit of speculation going around as Al was wheeled into the open, assumptions ranging from a fire breaking out in the boiler room, to a terrorist attack. The mention of terrorism made Al's heart feel like it was going to pound right out of his chest. Getting out of the hospital and heading for the safe area, he could catch a glimpse of what had happened.
It was a bombing. A stealth-bombing of some sort; the snips of conversation he caught from the police nearby told him that no one could figure out how it was done, but three cars had been bombed and destroyed. Thankfully, there seemed to be no casualties.
"People are bound to get hurt."
An image flashed in his mind; the ruins of Central, and the crushed hand of a child under a pile of rubble that seconds ago had been a house.
Al knew what he had to do. He had lucked out this time, but next time would be different. Someone would die. So he had to get away, before anyone was actually hurt.
I can't be indifferent to what happens to these people. I have to protect them.
Without a second thought, he jumped up from his wheelchair and took off.
He barely heard Ray's "TIGER!" as he darted away, dodging between hordes of people to get away. He heard people following him, and ran faster. It was only when he felt strong arms tackle him amidships and pull him to the ground that he stopped, kicking and thrashing with all his might.
"LET ME GO! YOU CAN'T DO THIS!" They don't understand! I can't stay here anymore! They're in danger! "You're not safe here! Let me go!"
Al heard a muffled grunt from Ray as his foot connected with a shin. Still thrashing, Al struggled to get out of Ray's hold as the large nurse called for something from his colleagues. It wasn't too soon after that a "Sorry, Tiger," left his lips, and Al felt a sharp pain in his shoulder.
Then he knew nothing else.
Reilly leaned against the counter guarding the coffee pot with a vigilance usually reserved for places like Fort Knox. Silently, she glared at the diminutive blonde sitting at the table who had his arms crossed, and was scowling down at the empty cup in front of him.
"How the hell was I supposed to know that would happen?" he snapped, finally.
Reilly just growled, and sipped at her coffee.
The front door opened, and Tom called from the living room. "Hey! Anyone up yet?" He stumbled into the kitchen, and glanced back to see what had tripped him. "Reilly, I thought you were working on these floors."
She growled again, and waved a hand in Ed's direction. "Blame Leadfoot."
Ed gritted his teeth, and pointed at his foot. "It's steel, damnit!
Tom looked from one to the other and grinned. "Well, I'm glad to see the two of you woke up in your usual cheery moods." He instinctively flinched when they both glared daggers at him.
"Actually, Ducky called," Tom said as soon as he realized that he wasn't going to die a horrible death just yet. "He's on his way over. Said he found something."
"Ducky always 'finds something'," Reilly said. "The question is did he find something useful?"
"Probably. Said he found it on the net though, so it's hard to say how reliable it is."
Reilly set her cup down on the counter. "Let's hope he brought his laptop, then."
Tom gave her a puzzled look. "Doesn't he always?"
She cast a glare at Ed, who slunk down further in his seat, then stalked out of the kitchen and into the living room. "This would be the one time he wouldn't."
Tom followed her. "Uh-oh, the old 'Reilly luck'? What happened?"
She stomped up to the desk, and spun the monitor around so Tom could see it. The screen was black, except for a lone little cursor awaiting a prompt.
"This is not good, no," Tom said. "So reinstall everything. You've got back-ups." He waited for a response, and when one wasn't forthcoming, he winced. "You don't have back-ups."
"Oh, I have back-ups. For most of it." Reilly glared as Ed crept into the living room. "I'm just waiting to get over my mad to do it."
"You know, that wouldn't've happened if that stupid thing had some kind of protection around it," Ed snapped.
"It's not like we have shrimps with metal limbs running around doing alchemy on a daily basis here, you know!"
Tom took several steps back to get out of the line of fire.
"And it's not like static electricity is rare around here, either!"
"Not everyone is a walking, talking/ Van De Graff, /Edward!"
Ducky poked his head in the door, took in the scene playing out before him, and snickered. He came the rest of the way in and stood next to Tom. "Looks like I'm just in time for the main act."
"Months of research! Gone!"
"It's not my fault you left the damn floppy whatchamacallit in the slot!"
"What the hell are you doing still using floppies, Reilly?" Ducky asked with a laugh.
Both she and Ed spun on him and shouted in unison, "Stay out of this!"
Ducky threw up his hands and took a step back, but his jocular mood didn't dim any.
Reilly glared at Ed and pointed at him. "Don't yell at him! I'm the only one who can do that."
"Hey, wait a minute!" Ed snapped with a scowl. "Did you just call me a shrimp, old woman?"
Tom grabbed Ducky by the arm and spun him around. "Out, now," he said as he pushed him toward the door.
Thirty minutes later, the two men were still outside calmly leaning against the side of Ducky's minivan, waiting for the storm inside to blow over. Something crashed, and the young hacker winced. "That sounded expensive."
Tom lit a cigarette, and said, "So, you said you found something?"
"A lead anyway."
"You brought the laptop?"
"Don't I always?"
"Well, we are talking about Reilly's luck, here."
Ducky snorted. "Good point." He walked around to the back of the van, and opened the doors. He pulled a case out of the ton of computer parts and diagnostic tools, opened it up, and turned it on. "I even saved the whole page to the hard drive."
"Resourceful," Tom said.
Ducky laughed. "I'm a geek. That means I'm socially awkward, not an idiot."
Tom looked over Ducky's shoulder at the laptop, and snorted. "You're also a psycho, but that's a good thing. Hmmm. John Doe?" he said as he stared at the picture on the screen. "Well, there does seem to be a resemblance, anyway. So my contact's info was good."
"Looks that way."
The front door banged open and Reilly stormed out. Right on her heels was Ed. Neither of them looked happy.
"Looks like we have a cease-fire, at least," Tom said, as he peeked around the van doors.
Ducky stepped out, and grinned, "Hey Terminator, I got something you might wanna see."
Ed stopped dead in his tracks, and gave Ducky a look that was a cross between confusion and annoyance. "What's with the nickname?"
"Show you later," Ducky said, and waved at the back of his van. "Look! John Doe, approximate age, 14."
Ed trotted past Reilly, to the back of the van and peered over the hacker's shoulder. His eyes went wide, and his face was nearly split by a huge grin. "It's Al!"
"Damn," Ducky mumbled. "And I was hoping for a Terminator look-alike."
Ed gave Ducky a dirty look, and then leaned in closer. Ducky held him back and shook his head. "Uh-uh. You wipe out my hard drive and I'll break off that metal arm and beat you to death with it."
Ed scowled and stepped back. "Fine. So what's it say? Where is he?"
"Looks like he was a victim of a hit and run," Ducky said, peering at the screen. "He's at an undisclosed hospital in Wichita, Kansas."
Reilly joined the group and leaned against Tom. Ed looked back at her, expectantly. "Is that far?"
She shook her head. "A couple of hours."
Ed looked from one to the other. He wanted to do something /right now. /So badly he was practically vibrating. "So? What are we waiting for? Let's go get him."
Tom held up a hand, the center of calm in a growing storm. "Not so fast, kid. Your brother is at a hospital. My guess is it's a private one, too. Unlike your namesake, you can't just go charging in there, tear the place up, and expect to get out with your brother. At least, not until we know which hospital."
Ed blinked. "Hosp-? Why the fuck is Al in a hospital?! And what the hell is a hit and run?!"
"And why a private one?" Ducky asked.
"Easy," Tom said. "Sometimes private hospitals will take the state's overflow."
"You don't have any clue which hospital it is?" Reilly asked.
Ducky shook his head. "The story didn't say." He gave them a wicked grin. "But that doesn't mean I can't find out."
"Excuse me?!" Ed shouted. "What the hell is a hit and run?"
The other three looked at each other nervously. Reilly bit her lip and looked down at the ground. "Ed, it means he was hit by a car, and the driver didn't stop to see if he was hurt."
Tom grabbed both of the boy's arms from behind before he could launch himself at Reilly. "Settle down, Ed. He's in the hospital, but his injuries aren't listed as serious."
About that time Hughes pulled up and stepped out of his car. He leaned on the top of the open driver's door and just watched the scene with a bemused smile. As soon as Ed calmed down, he shut the door and strode toward the group. "Reilly, are you tormenting him again?"
She snorted and waved. "Every chance I get, Maes. But not this time."
Ed jerked free of Tom's grip and spun on Hughes. His eyes were alight with excitement, impatience, and deeply etched worry. "They found Al!"
"Correction," Tom said. "We've narrowed the location down to one city."
Hughes's brows shot up. "That's quite a lot."
"We need to make plans," Reilly said.
Ducky closed the laptop and faced Hughes with a wolfish grin. "Good morning, Mr. Phelps. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to rescue Terminator Junior from an undisclosed location, where he is being kept under heavy guard--"
Hughes chuckled and the group headed into the house. Except for Ed, who just stared at the backs of everyone with a very befuddled and slightly frightened look. "I'm surrounded by nut cases."
"--As always, should you, or any member of your I.M. force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds," Ducky finished.
Hughes laid an arm over Ducky's shoulder and said, "You watch way too much television, son."
"Yeah," Ducky said, as they stepped through the door. "But I retained all my brain cells."
Ed had caught up, and muttered from behind them, "And warped the hell out of them."
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